Susanna's zwiebach

I was recently perusing the internet and discovered an appalling number of errors in Mennonite bread making.

I know there were errors in the past – the historical record is replete with disputes over baking. Not, it is true, in the “mainstream” historical literature, but they’re there if you know how to look. They were never enough to actually cause congregations to schism or even to cause formal shunning of errant bakers. But there was judgement cast and shade thrown.

With good cause.

The bread in question belongs to that tiny slice of the Mennoworld that began in Friesland in the 17th century, and then spanned out through Northern Europe steering clear of Switzerland and the Americas until at least the 19th century. I know that there are a lot of other Mennonites. And it’s possible that some of them never fought over a single bread product. Good for them. I hope they’re happy in their leavened consensus.

But zwieback (or tweebakje in Low German) is a bread worth fighting for.

I am talking here about a soft little double bun with a cute little dimple on top. It’s a dainty wheat carbohydrate ranging from 2 to 4 inches in diameter and coming to about 3 inches in height. The two halves stick together like they are newly in love, remaining nestled into each other until gently prised apart. Which we do with the thumb and index finger for the purpose of sharing the tiny bread with another, or simply to reveal and plop a dollop of jam in the bottom’s little indent. And also just because.

Zwieback’s origins are a matter of legend, some saying it goes all the way back to the Dutch diaspora. Others think it developed in the pastures of the Danzig delta. In either case, it has been our little double bread for centuries. With minor and not-so-minor variations.

We don’t waste a lot time fighting about the name of the bun. Any number of sources will confirm that, though the “zwie” of “zwieback” is derived from “two,” that does not refer to the two buns that are pinned together. Counter-intuitively, the name refers to the practice of baking the buns twice. Which makes sense for that other zwieback that you can find in European food shops – a rusk something like a Melba toast. It doesn’t make so much sense for us since we mostly eat our zwieback once-baked. And have another name for them when double-baked.

Still, though we are not referring to a double-baked bread when we talk about zwieback, we don’t care much that the name is misleading. If it bothers you, go ahead and call them the “Double-the-Fun-Buns.” But most of us think there are so many more important matters upon which to dwell.

How to make a zwieback: pure and controversial ingredients

I’m going to just start by saying that all true zwieback are made with butter. We know this because all our grandmother’s told us not to put butter on the zwieback “because there’s butter in it.” Not that we listened.

We also know this because our ancestors who came up with the little breads were dairy farmers and had an abundance of milk and butter. I know that over the years some bakers switched over to shortening, margarine, lard or even chicken fat out of frugality but I still hold that true zwieback have butter and the absence of a family cow is no excuse.

The basic zwieback recipe has flour, yeast, butter, milk, and salt. And a half cup of water with a pinch of sugar to proof the yeast. Our ancestors probably used sourdough for yeast back in the day but in the twentieth century, we all started using dry, packaged yeast. So that’s become canonical and we’d all turn our backs on anyone suggesting making sourdough zwieback today.

Once potatoes started working their way into our diet in Prussia and Russia, some bakers started upping the starch in the zwieback by cutting the milk with potato water. That’s a bit more controversial. I’ve seen some recipes online that actually call for potato flakes. And while I can understand the frugality of using up leftover water from the day’s potatoes, actually going out and buying potato flakes for this unnecessary addition to the recipe seems to me not only superfluous but downright decadent.

An unMennonite adjective if there ever was one.

Zwieback prowess: the techniques that tell

Sometimes, a batch of zwieback just doesn’t work out and it’s nobody’s fault. Maybe the air was too humid that day or the oven thermostat suddenly failed for no apparent reason. That happens to all of us and it is perfectly acceptable to shake one’s head and declare in puzzled resignation, “my zwieback just didn’t turn out this time.” Like it’s just one of the ways that God tests our humility.

But most of the time, it’s a matter of technique.

Some of the recipes out there call for scalding the milk and/or melting the butter. Others skip this step. While I generally opt for lazy choices, skipping the scalding will result in less fluffy zwieback. Get that milk hot and then cool it down to room temperature or risk producing shameworthy zwieback. On the other hand, the butter should not be melted. The zwieback should be soft and tender on the inside and any food scientist will tell you that melted butter will toughen the dough. A tough dough will also be more difficult to form into the shape of double bread perfection.

Back in the olden days in Russia, Mennonite women would sometimes gather before weddings and mix and bake their zwieback together. On such occasions, they could police each other’s dough techniques and thwart any errant techniques from sliding into practice. This probably prevented some of the problems we see today, where we learn only from youtube videos and from our previous experience with other breads.

Without proper guidance, we often now either fail to work the dough enough or work it too much. In the first case, the dough is too sticky when forming the buns and they merge into each other on baking (or don’t rise enough because the dough was underkneaded). In the second case, the top bun perches on top of the other without sinking gently into the bottom. Those are like zwieback with intimacy issues. They started tough (from too much flour possibly combined with the use of melted butter) and couldn’t soften. They are a sad sight to behold.

Those wedding gatherings also brought to light a very real division among the zwieback bakers of old. There, they would see who among them pinched the dough into perfect little balls and those among them who rolled. The youtube consensus suggests that the pinchers have gained ascendancy in this long-standing dispute but there may still be an underground community of zwieback rollers who have as yet simply stayed clear of internet videography.

There can be little doubt that the bakers who pinched the dough to form their zwieback – ones who grabbed a hunk of dough and shaped it by forcing it through the space between their thumb and index finger and then pinching it off – always thought their method to be the only legitimate one and mocked those who rolled their zwieback instead. And it might be true that those who rolled – who grabbed or cut off a chunk of dough and then rolled it between their palms – adopted the method because they couldn’t get the knack of pinching. Norma Jost Voth recounted a claim that women in Molotschna Colony pinched and Chortitza colony women rolled, but my own Chortitza grandmother taught me the art of pinching dough and so I suspect Voth’s authority on this point.

Zwieback insults

These days, zwieback are more a form of nostalgia food than anything else and we are all far too polite to insult a baker’s zwieback. At least not to their face.

Not so, in the days of yore.

The story goes that the Mennonite women of the Molotschna colony came as visitors to the Chortitza colony and commented on how big the Chortitza bakers made their zwieback. Now, we all know that zwieback are meant to be dainty buns, no bigger than than the palm of the hand. And for weddings and funerals, the bakers worked hard to keep their zwieback respectably tiny. But for everyday occasions, a baker might get a little lazy and make fewer, bigger zwieback instead of more ideal two-bite tweebajke.

You have to understand that, while the Chortitza Mennonites had the status of being the first Mennonites to settle in Russia, the Molotschna Mennonites who came later quickly became wealthier.  This means that when the Molotschna women insulted the larger zwieback of the Chortitza Mennonites, they were responding in part to their perceived status as underdogs since the Chortitza Mennonites had the claim of primacy.

For their part, the Chortitza Mennonites felt the insult keenly, thinking that these newcomers with all their wealth imagined themselves better than the poorer Mennonites who had settled earlier. And it was probably the case that the Chortitza Mennonites were happy enough to shorten the time spent baking by making larger and fewer zwieback.

Not that they admitted to that.

Instead, the story goes that they responded to their Molotschna critics by claiming that they had only just started making their zwieback bigger. Apparently, they had noticed that their visitors from the Molotschna Colony had a habit of ferreting away their zwieback in the pockets of their coats. And so the Chortitza bakers increased the size of their zwieback so they wouldn’t fit in their visitors’ pockets.

That’s a Mennonite burn.

Zwieback etiquette schisms

There are, of course, social rules about zwieback. Zwieback are all about sociability. They were for faspa – the light meals that accompanied both everyday meals and any of our people’s social gatherings: weddings, funerals or just weekend afternoons when company came to call. Which means that zwieback was instrumental in the binding and loosening of social ties.

For one thing, they mark the outsiders.  When englanders – or Swiss Mennonites – first encounter zwiebach, they are bound to be confused and wonder as to the etiquette for consuming the bun. It is only ever complete outsiders who wonder whether to bite into the double bun without separating them (no – you need to split them first). Such outsiders at also sometimes shock us by making a “sandwich” of the two parts, something we all know not to do without ever having been taught.  You eat the two parts sequentially, not together.

And yet, even within our families and freundschaft, there were always some who pushed against our own rules of zwiebach etiquette.  My generation successfully repudiated the traditional “no butter on zwieback” rule simply by persistently wearing our elders down. This is something we can be proud of.

I don’t know if the divide persists between those who dunk their zwieback and those who find the practice uncouth. Dunking may well have been justifiable for those eating the so-called Reesche Tweeback (roasted zwieback) that really were twice-baked, usually a few days after the first baking. These were dry and crumbly like crackers saved from complete inedibility only by their buttery goodness. And so dunking helped to rehydrate these rusks.

Few people now roast up their zwieback on the second day to preserve them, preferring to freeze them to maintain their soft freshness. We might still roast some up, I guess, if we were planning a long journey and couldn’t count on food along the way. Like we did in the twentieth-century migrations. Or if we knew to plan for some sort of Menno-apocolyptic scenario.

But despite the divisions that zwieback display among us, the rules actually crisscross the battle lines caused by Church schism. Which means that zwieback draw us together even as they pull us apart. I know from experience that the Mennonite Brethren zwieback is indistinguishable from the zwieback of my own heritage. And as far as I can tell, the Old Colony and Kleine Gemeinde break their zwieback and enjoy the same jams on them as the Bergthaler and the Sommerfelder Mennonites.

And, really, we’re usually happy to share with people from other ethnicities and religious traditions as well.


The Faspa

I have often been asked what cocktails go best with faspa. Ok, maybe twice.

Faspa is a traditional light afternoon meal that coincidentally occurs close to what I consider Cocktail Hour. It typically consists of zwieback, cheese, jam and pickles. This is often supplemented with cold meats, salads and/or boiled eggs. There might also be sweets served at the same time as the savory.

There already exists a cocktail called The Vesper, which I assumed came from the same origin as the word faspa, referring to Vespers, the old Christian early evening time for prayers. In fact, the Vesper cocktail was named for a James Bond character, not the hour of the day.
faspa cocktail
Oh, well. This still works well with faspa as it is just dry enough to cut the sweetness of the jam or jelly that is almost always included with faspa. I have played with the Vesper formula to showcase the Lillet flavour a bit more and have replaced the gin with a pear brandy.

  • 2 oz vodka
  • 1.5 oz Lillet Blanc
  • .75 oz pear brandy
  • garnish with a long twist of lemon

Shake the vodka, Lillet and brandy in a shaker with ice until chilled. Strain into glass and garnish with lemon rind. Serve with zwieback and your favorite kind of jam.


If you missed the earlier link, you can find my zwieback recipe here.