As a small child, my favorite thing about Christmas was smelling the sweet smell of my grandmother’s Christmas morning treat. My kindergarten ears understood it to be semikuken.
I eventually realized the kuchen was the German word for cake, but I could not make sense out of the semi or any similar sounding English sounding word fragments. So, in my mind, it was semi-kuchen.
Every year I would eagerly await the sweet smell of the semi-kuchen. This was true even when I was in college and I would drive home for Christmas.
My grandfather passed away in late1981, at the age of 93. My grandmother missed her husband terribly–he died the day before their 70th wedding anniversary–and making things more difficult for her was that Christmas day was his birthday. So, it took a little bit of coaxing for my grandmother to make the semi-kuchen.
This was also the year my girlfriend came with me so she could meet my parents over Christmas break. For weeks, she had been listening to me talk about the semi-kuchen and was also wanting to try it out. So when my grandmother said she’d make it one last time, we both watched very carefully and made notes as she made it from memory and described what she was doing.
My grandmother said it wasn’t an easy recipe and she was right. The difficult part is to get the brown sugar and cinnamon mixture to melt without it scorching and also ensuring the cake part is properly cooked. On several Saturday and Sunday mornings, when she and I woke up (or, if any of our parents were in town, she showed up at the house–had to keep up appearances!) we would be in the kitchen figuring out the semi-kuchen recipe. It took several months to get it right, but we finally did and we decided to take over the Christmas tradition.
The tradition almost died when my by then fiancee died in 1983. It had been only 4 years instead of 70 years, but I felt I understood my grandmother’s reluctance to make the semi-kuchen. Christmas that year was at my house and my parents had coax me into making it. While making it, I had to make sure my tears didn’t get into the batter.
Fast forward to Christmas 2003. My wife and I have been married 15 years and our daughter is almost 5 years old. My parents and my wife’s parents are over and my mom mentions the semi-kuchen. I pulled out the old recipe and gave it a try. This time there were no tears, just fond memories of my grandfather, my grandmother and my fiancee. I lucked out and the semi-kuchen turned out perfectly.
Our daughter loved the cake. A sweet breakfast cake is easy for a 5 year old to love. 🙂
I’ve made it each of the eleven years since then and I’ve showed my daughter the recipe, as well as what to look for while the cake is baking. Our daughter loves the cake even more now, so I hope the tradition will outlive me.
And, now for the realization. This year, I finally realized that it wasn’t semi. My mom’s old German English dictionary that I recently discovered offered zimmet as the German word for cinnamon. Since zimmet sounds very similar to semi, I’ve decided I’ve figured things out.
- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup sugar (my grandmother mentioned that you can use 3/4 cup if sugar is being rationed by the government.)
- 6 tablespoons of lard or Crisco shortening
- 3/4 cup of milk
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon of cinnamon
- 1 “lump” of butter. My grandmother said to use real butter and not Oleo (her term for margarine)
Mix the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder. Then add the melted shortening and mix until the mixture is a uniform “sort of dry and slightly lumpy”. My grandmother used the term, “cut the shortening in like you were making a pie crust”.
Then mix in the milk until the mixture is uniform. We found we needed another tablespoon of milk above the 3/4 cup to get things to turn out.
Divide the dough into two equal parts, put into the cake pan and spread the dough out so it covers the bottom of the pan. I use a pair of 9 inch wide, 1-1/2 inch deep, aluminum round cake pans that I’ve *LIGHTLY* coated with olive oil. Amazingly enough, these are the same cake pans that my grandmother used when she was making this.
Poke your fingers into the dough to make some finger imprints into the dough and then pour the melted butter onto the dough and set aside while you mix up the brown sugar and cinnamon.
Once the brown sugar and cinnamon are mixed together, spread it evenly over the top of the cakes and place them into the oven at 400F degrees for about 20-25 minutes.
This is where you have to carefully watch things. Sometime around the 20 minute mark, the brown sugar should begin to melt. Wait about 1 more minute, pull the kuchen out and let them cool. As long as I didn’t put too much milk in the batter, it will be done.