Dreaming up these stories, there is often an audio version that plays in my head. For this one on schmarren, an Austrian comfort dish of fork-shredded pancakes rich with rum-soaked raisins, butter, eggs and sugar, I hear humorist David Sedaris’ voice, telling us that discovering as a child that the word schmarren means “little, or nothing,” he would casually drop the word on the playground, as in, “Oh you little schmarren!” I said to him coyly, with a clever, dismissive, but tolerant wave.” But as much as I like the imagined audio, I don’t think vintage-food esoteric-a is among Sedaris interests.
Schmarren does, however, fit with the real childhood memories of a lot of Austrian and European folk. A request for schmarren was one of the first queries I received at LRF. A grade-school chum, Chris Patterson Duebner, tells me she has long enjoyed schmarren as a sweet Holiday brunch treat. And Chicagoan Gladys Druger, told me of a savory version passed down from her Austrian great-great-grandmother Eichberger that is served like scrambled eggs, with a little salt and pepper.
That version fits the history of the dish which started as a rib-sticking, savory, Austrian peasant breakfast. It wasn’t until whipped egg whites, rum raisins, sugar and butter were added to sweeten the deal that schmarren topped tonier tables in the 1820s.
But schmarren versions have spread beyond Austria. Slovenians and Hungarians know it as “shmorn” or “schmorn.” It pops up in Jewish/American cookbooks. And the multiple renditions I found in very old German cookbooks such as 1902’s “Die suddeutsche Kuche fur Anfangerinnen und praktische Kochinnen,” call for different grains—semolina, farina, and even rice—rather than the standard flour.
But the most popular variety by far is Kaiserschmarren, which comes with its own food legend. As related in Austrian Desserts and Pastries, by Dietmar Fercher, Andrea Karrer, and Konrad Limbeck, the story goes that an imperial chef named Leopold created the dish to impress young emperor Franz Josef and his empress. But the empress would have none of it, so the Kaiser said, “Well, pass down that rubbish.” (The word schmarren is still used as German-language slang for things that don’t amount to much) The Kaiser liked the dish so much, it took on his name.
Legend or not, this is a very tasty little dish. Because it’s not truly a dessert, and, it’s too sweet for everyday eating, I like Chris’ tradition of serving it as a Holiday dish.
Makes Makes 5 skillet-sized pancakes; half of each one is a serving
Rum raisins Ingredients
- 1/2 cup raisins
- dark rum to cover raisins
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup sugar, divided
- 1 1/4 cup flour
- 1 tsp each baking soda and baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 15 Tbsp butter ( two sticks plus 1 Tbsp)
- Make the rum raisins: The night before you want to serve the kaiserschmarren, put raisins and rum in a microwaveable jar. Heat for 30 seconds. Let sit overnight. In the morning, heat again for 30 seconds and let cool. Drain raisins, saving the rum to drink as a digestif later!
- Make the kaiserschmarren: Separate yolks and whites of four large eggs. Whisk yolks together with milk, cream and 1/4 cup of the sugar, saving the rest of the sugar for later. Sift flour, soda, baking powder and salt together and whisk into batter. Add vanilla. With an electric mixer, beat egg whites until firm peaks form. Carefully fold whites into the batter, using an over-under folding motion, rather than a stirring motion.
- Preheat oven to 400F. In a very large skillet, heat 2 Tbsp of butter over medium heat. When foamy, scoop 3/4 of a cup of the batter into the skillet to make a 10-inch pancake. Fry for 3 minutes at medium heat. Cut pancake into two half-moons and carefully flip each over. Turn heat to low, cover skillet and cook for 5 minutes. Lift lid. Using two forks, tear pancake into small pieces. Add 1 Tbsp of butter and 1 Tbsp of rum raisins. Toss. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp of sugar over all. Slide skillet into hot oven and let schmarren crisp for scant 1 1/2 minutes. (Raisins will puff up.) Sugar should still be a little grainy to add crunch. Serve immediately. Note: You may wish to have two skillets going at once, if you are serving more than two people.