When I am standing at the Good Souls stall at farmers’ markets I notice that people smile as they approach the stall. Their eyes scan the globally inspired cakes, pastries, breads and biscuits and mostly nod approvingly. They might not be in the market for them on that day but they still like to look and homemade bakes generally make people happy. I watch them pan across the table, their gaze continues around the display until they come across the schnecken. They stop smiling. They come closer. They peer into the bowl filled with this particular baked good and ask “What is this?”. My answer of schnecken doesn’t mean much, unless the customer speaks German and knows it translates as snail. It’s clearly not a snail. “Is it like some kind of Yorkshire pudding with walnuts?” They ask.
If you haven’t encountered the schnecken it’s a strange beast. Like a cinnamon bun, made with a sweet, rich dough filled with cinnamon and sugar, rolled into a swiss roll shape, cut into slices which are each placed into individual sections of a muffin tin to prove. These sections are filled with golden syrup, maple syrup and walnuts so as the schnecken dough proves it soaks up all the syrup and the walnuts are still clinging to the schnecken's underside when they are turned out after baking.
I first encountered the schnecken in Nigella Lawson’s How To be A Domestic Goddess many years ago and discovered schnecken originated in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. They were a traditional Saturday treat in Germans and German Jewish households in the 19th century. Emigrants took the schnecken over to America and they are a popular bake in the States today, particularly in Philadelphia and Baltimore. There are many different kinds of schnecken, including a traditional version made with sour cream dough, which I plan to make
Once a schnecken has been sampled I have to say the consumer is usually hooked. The nutty sticky substantial sweetness just wins people over. No matter the age. One young customer told me she thought schnecken were the exact opposite to cakes sold in a popular coffee shop. “Their cakes look pretty but they don’t taste nice. The schnecken are delicious but they look..” She is a far too well-mannered child to say they look ugly but she wouldn’t be wrong, as the schnecken could make a convincingly scary Dr Who monster. At the other end of the age scale, a charming elderly gentleman approached my stall, surveyed what was on offer and promptly asked for two schnecken. I started to explain that they were German sticky cinnamon buns and he stopped me. “I know.” He said politely. “My mother kept a kosher kitchen and she was a terrible cook. But she was a brilliant baker and every weekend we had schnecken for breakfast.” As we chatted about his mother’s amazing bakes; rugelach, babka and hamentashen, to my dismay he pulled one of my schnecken out of the brown paper bag and started to eat it in front of me. I was so nervous. This was a man who had grown up on schnecken, made by his own mother. How could mine compare? I couldn’t watch him eat it so I busily concentrated on rearranging the biscotti on a plate in front of me. Then he cleared his throat. I slowly looked up. “Just as I remember them.” He smiled with a twinkle in his eye. My relief was immense.
Now I find when I’m manning a stall, all those who have tried the schnecken at previous farmers’ markets come back each time for another and they quickly sell out. When the schnecken beckons there is very little you can do to resist.