Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Griessbrei (German semolina pudding) and recipe for pomegranate syrup

You are never ready when a loved one leaves you. Even though you know it is going to happen sooner rather than later because of age or health conditions, even though you think you are  prepared, you really never are.

This past week end my grandmother passed away. We called her Mutti, Mommy in German, because that is what she was for all of us, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren alike, in one way or another.

Mutti, unlike my Nana, was a maternal, traditional grandmother.

...a heap of love...
We spent time with her every summer in Austria, where she lived when we were growing up. I remember watching her  darn socks by the kitchen window with a red and white sock mushroom, the flavor of her roast chicken with peas and freshly picked mushrooms and my sister's favorite, her Paprikaschoten, meat-stuffed peppers. I remember how she always soaked envelopes in water to peel off the stamps for my uncle's collection; how she came into our room in the morning, pulling the curtains and opening the windows, so the chilly morning mountain air and the chiming of the village church bells would abruptly wake us. I remember running errands with her: the smell of freshly cut wood curls at the wood carver's who made our Christmas crib; the pungent tang of fresh milk and cow dung at the barn where the farmer filled her milk can. I remember running my fingers along the smooth surface of the tailor's chalk while they chatted. We often walked to the neighboring town on small paths along cornfields and on a few occasions she pulled us into them to give us a scolding or a very rare spanking when we had really misbehaved.

Austria is where I learned to ride a bike and it is where I learned about my family. When Mutti took her afternoon nap, my sister and I spent hours going through a basket of family photos she kept in the living room. We giggled at haircuts, gazed at our mother's beauty and fought over our baby pictures. When she awoke we filled her with questions about strangers we didn't recognize, places we had never been, black and white images of a time in German history many are still trying to erase.

She told us fascinating stories about her childhood and the war, which she remembered clearly  because despite the horror of those times it was when she fell in love with, married and lost the father of her first child, my mother. She told us about life as a young widow with her little girl at Oma and Opa's  house (her parents), about how the Russians shot her dog because he barked at them, about how my mother despised (and still does to this day) the extremely expensive and hard-to-find bottle of Coca Cola Mutti surprised her with on her birthday because it tasted like the concoctions Opa stored on the shelves of his pharmacy. She told us about how Opa secretly helped people in need in those years in his Apotheke and about fleeing East Germany with her daughter to start a new life with a second husband in the West.

Mutti always spread butter on her bread in thick slabs and when I made faces and asked her why she told me it was because butter was what she missed most when food was rationed. She ate butter with everything, "only not with jam and honey" she would say and tell me the story of the time she went to a classmate's house and was forced to eat a whole roll with jam and butter. I would then exclaim, like every other time, "honey and jam are the only things I like having with butter!" and she would make a face back at me. It was our little thing, a game I hadn't thought about in many, many years until Sunday.

She never forgot to bring or send us an Advent Kalendar every year before Christmas, well into our teens, long before you could get them here. When they reached us they were usually crushed and most of the chocolate had fallen to the bottom of the box but to this day, when I watch my children open their windows, I always think of her and the joy of opening mine every December.

When she visited us, Advent Kalendars weren't all she brought: she always came with a bag full of our favorite German treats: gummy bears, Marzipan Kartoffeln (and here I can't help but remember her story of how during that same war she and Oma made these with real potatoes for my mother because Marzipan was of course unavailable), chocolate and German sausages. We ate the Leberwurst, Extrawurst and Mettwurst on our bread for dinner but the candy she saved for our nightly Mensch Aergere dich Nicht tournaments (the German version of Parcheesi). That is also where she taught us funny expressions to vent our frustrations like the saying Es ist, um auf die Akazien zu klettern (it is enough to drive you up the wall!) and Ich arme, junge Lilofee (me, poor, young lilofee), the words to the refrain of a North Bohemain folk song.

My grandmother had a long and full life and in the course of it she watched her country and her world change several times. She had four children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren (I never cease feeling in awe when I think so many of us exist merely because of her) and travelled more than most women of her generation thanks to them. That is how I want to remember her, surrounded by those she loved and who loved her, the beautiful eyes some of us were lucky enough to get from her in different shades, smiling.

I thought long and hard what to make in her honor and finally decided on the ultimate German comfort food: Griessbrei, what German children have been eating in nurseries for centuries. Warm, simple and - yes! - comforting , just like she was.

It can be eaten warm with a pat of butter and/or cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on it, or any other topping for that matter. It can be poured into bowls and served cold as pudding, with a traditional red fruit compote or anything else you fancy. You can also flavor the semolina as you are cooking it (vanilla, cocoa, apple sauce anyone?) or make a savory version, to be eaten with stews or other meat dishes, by omitting the sugar and adding a pinch of salt.

After I made this yesterday afternoon, I sat down, spread one of my grandmother's trousseau napkins* with her initials embroidered on it onto my lap, and ate it. Every creamy spoonful was a little good bye to my Mutti and to a part of my childhood.

*All embroidered fabrics used as props in this post were sewn by my grandmother or great-grandmother.

Ingredients (2-3 servings)
Recipe (ready to smile?) adapted from Frag Mutti (ask Mutti)

For Griessbrei
1/2 liter milk (full fat or other)
2tbsp sugar (or vanilla sugar)
4tbsp semolina
1 egg, beaten (optional)

For syrup
1 cup pomegranate juice
about 1 tbsp sugar
a squeeze of lemon

Some recipes call for eggs or even just egg whites, while others don't. I tried making it with an egg, but think it is just as good and lighter without. The egg obviously makes it more custardy and yellow, but without the semolina it will still be very creamy.
Heat the milk in a heavy-based sauce pan until almost boiling. In the meantime beat an egg in a separate bowl. When the milk starts simmering, lower the flame and pour in sugar and semolina and cook until it thickens, constantly mixing with a whisk to avoid lumps and sticking. If you decide to add an egg, take the sauce pan momentarily off the heat and pour a tablespoon of the semolina into the beaten egg to temper it, then add another. Mix and then pour the egg mixture into the semolina and cook a few minutes longer. Take off heat and serve warm with some cinnamon or let cool and set. Pour the syrup over the top before serving.

To make the syrup, bring the pomegranate juice (I juiced a pomegranate a colleague brought me from her garden by putting the seeds into a food processor and straining it) to a boil, add sugar and lemon juice and stir to dissolve. Let simmer on a low flame until it reaches a syrupy consistency. If you let it cook longer you will get pomegranate molasses.




  1. This recipe sounds absolutely delicious. I've never tried to juice a pomegranate but I definitely want to try now.

    Really enjoyed reading about your grandmother. I'm sorry to hear that she's passed away but it does sound like she had an incredible life.

  2. Thank you Fionalein!

  3. So sorry to hear about your grandmother. But what a solace to have her recipes to enjoy and share. (It's exactly what my blog is about!) --Frank

  4. What a gift grandparents are, and I'm so sorry to hear of your grandmother's loss. You celebrate her memory well.

  5. One of your best posts ever! I always remember when your mother used to take us to the Germantown restaurants on 86th Street and offer us marzipan - I only started to like it in my thirties! xx

  6. I love semolina! I usually bake it into a sweet cake, but this pudding sounds wonderful, especially when served up with this wonderful story of your grandmother. Loved this post for its sad but touching sweetness.

  7. I'm so sorry for you loss Fiona. I know how it feels to lose people you love and it's not easy.

    I love this recipe. Us Greeks make sweets with semolina all the time so this is quite familiar to me. And now I see how you've been playing with fruit :) Love that pomegranate syrup!
    Take good care!

  8. What a sensitive and heartfelt tribute! My grandmother was the one member of the family I was close to and I still think of her decades later. Yours sounds like a true classical grand-mother with stories and food and homemade things to remember her by. Love that semolina pudding you picked, we also make it here the same way it is such a timeless dish, full of nostalgia.

  9. What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. I am sorry for your loss.

    Great recipe. I love how you made your own pomegranate syrup.

  10. This is so beautiful- the stories, the recipe and most of all, the linens. Gosh, what amazing women have come before us.

  11. Just lovely! I too had an amazing grandmother. When she was with us she would send all of her children and grandchildren cookies every Christmas! She used to say that her spiritual gift was baking. Haha!

  12. Hi Lusays, I think that really is a spiritual gift.

  13. Oh Fiona, I'm so sorry for your loss :( She sounds like a wonderful woman and you wrote about her beautifully *hugs*

  14. This looks delicious, I will try it out. Thanks for the recipe.

  15. I just randomly found your blog because I searched for Griessbrei and got sucked into reading the post. I grew up in Germany and my Omi sounds just like your Mutti! Down to the Bohemian expressions and war stories. This made me so sad and so happy - I've lost my Omi a couple of years ago and it was really hard. Thank you for bringing back lots of memories!

    1. I am so glad that my words brought back memories of your Omi, I always hope this little place of mine is more than just a list of recipes. I miss my grandmother too and find myself thinking of her even more often now than when she was still with us. Thank you for dropping by.


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