I’ve never really fancied Kaiserschmarrn until I tried this specific recipe. The more I learned about the dish, the more I came to appreciate everything about it.
Kaiserschmarrn is the epitome of Vienneseness—and there’s nothing like this thick fluffy scrambled crêpe whispering golden imperial Vienna in your ears!
From Vienna’s pre-Holocaust Jewish restaurant Tonello to its kosher competitor restaurant Neugröschel, and from present day Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky in New York to Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills, all have featured Kaiserschmarrn on their menus.
Indeed, this is one of the rare dishes equally as popular with the coffeehouse and pub crowds as it is with fine diners. Kaiserschmarrn has remained a delight of Viennese Jews and their descendants all over the world.
This is a dish often found in Jewish cookbooks, especially those hand-written recipe scrapbooks carefully scripted by our Viennese and German mothers or omis (grandmothers). The Leo Beck Institute devoted to the study of the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry has quite a few of these manuscripts with Kaiserschmarrn in their collection.
Celebrity cookbook author Joan Nathan features a German Schmarrn in her Jewish Cooking in America, and WIZO Austria certainly has one in their Jewish Tradition, Modern Cuisine 1993 booklet, to name just two vastly different examples.
And every non-Jewish Viennese cookbook has an entree for Kaiserschmarrn.
What is Schmarrn anyway?
Eastern Jews have their blintzes, the French have crêpes, the Americans have pancakes, Central Europe (including Vienna) has Palatschinken, and the southern German-speaking regions including Austria have their various Schmarrn.
Schmarrn translates to something like mess, folly, crumbs, mish-mash, rubbish, or even nonsense.
With the prefix Kaiser, meaning “emperor,” Kaiserschmarrn translates to “emperor’s mess”—in other words, a refined sort of mess, and (possibly) a dish of noble descent.
But some etymologists and historians claim that Kaiser instead stems from a similar sounding local name for a mountain peasant, thus eluding to its rather lowly extraction.
One can only wonder about the linguistic proximity of these two designations for two men at the opposite ends of social hierarchy. But as the legend—or propaganda— goes, Austrian Emperor Francis-Joseph I (1830–1916), of the house of Habsburg-Lothringen, had a predilection for all things simple, humble and frugal and thus for this straight-up mess of a dessert.
(This was probably a family tradition; his great-great-aunt Marie Antoinette also staged a peasant-like life in the gardens of Versailles until she was guillotined.)
Schmarrn Goes Bourgeois
Schmarrn originated as a peasant dish substantial but inexpensive ingredients like milk and flour were used to make food that was both filling and nourishing. These simple concoctions evolved to become Bourgois city cuisine—creations made up of fluffy foams, creams, and mousses.
The Bourgeois version also included loads of sugar, which was expensive at the time, and fancy aromatics, like vanilla. Many Austrian cooks still use Kaiserschmarrn recipes without sugar in the batter, and this ends up tasting very similar to the peasant version.
But the emperor’s Kaiserschmarrn and those served at the city’s Bourgeois tables, at Freud’s for example, were likely a refined version of the peasant dish containing regular sugar, vanilla and the like.
Cosmopolitan, Bourgeois Viennese cuisine was elegant and refined until the rupture of civilization, which represents the Holocaust. With the extermination of Europe’s Jews in World War II peasant tendencies overtook large parts of Viennese cuisine and presented themselves as the original, pure, and sole stages of Viennese cuisine. After the war there was not a lot of change to this vision of things. The role of the Jews was further minimized and forgotten. But these ideologic claims by the Nazis and their—conscious and unconscious—sympathizers are unmistakably wrong, as they ignore the historical facts that a refind metropolitan culture existed in pre-Holocaust Vienna. The murder and expulsion of Vienna’s Jews and the resulting loss of Jewish culture changed the nature of Viennese cuisine forever.
So how does one end up with such a refined mess?
We could describe this addictive sweet comfort food as nothing more than scrambled pancakes. But they are so much more!
These are light and airy, fluffy, fashionable and Instagram-worthy souffle pancakes, caramelized and torn into bite-size pieces, served sprinkled with powdered sugar and accompanied by (or on) a bed of fruity preserves, fruit stews, or other compotes.
Traditionalists only use Zwetschken-röster, a local variety of plum stew, as the fruity accompaniment. This consists of “roasted” damson plums lightly stewed in its juices, a little shot of Slivovitz (or other high-quality fruit brandy in the same flavor of the fruit), and a minimal amount of sugar. (On the important question whether such a fruit stew is technically a compote, see my translation of Jewish Viennese author Friedrich Torberg’s anecdote at the end of this text.)
Other compotes can vary according to the season: From apple sauce over strawberry or rhubarb and peach compote to apricot, damson plum, or even cherry röster.
Simple & Fresh Ingredients
Viennese Nouvelle Cuisine, for example at Peter Grunauer’s legendary Vienna 79—rated four stars in the 1980s by New York Times‘ Mimi Sheraton— couldn’t pass such an opportunity to play with very simple and fresh ingredients.
This dish needs few ingredients, but they must be high in quality and flavor, so you’ll want to pick the best eggs, vanilla beans (not vanilla extract), and in-season fruit.
Wolfgang Puck’s delicious and eye-catching version, for instance, follows a popular contemporary Austrian trend to lighten up the dish even further and to make it a bit like Salzburger-Nockerl, a classic soufflé dish from Salzburg. Again, old-school Kaiserschmarrn was often a hefty fare based on a very thick mixture halfway between a heavy roux and a sort of pâte-à-choux.
Freud’s gift to his wife, the 1894 cookbook Deutsche Kochschule in Prag, appeared to have been used extensively by the Freud family until Freud’s daughter Anna’s death in 1982. As mentioned above, the main difference between the two versions of Kaiserschmarrn in this book is that one recipe uses beaten egg whites to make it fluffier.
We see that this contemporary trend isn’t so recent after all. Today it is hard to find a recipe that doesn’t resort to the use of beaten egg whites to give it more volume and airiness, not unlike a soufflé. Interestingly, social imagery is inundated via Instagram with very familiar-looking Japanese soufflé pancakes, except that those are not destined to be shredded.
A Symbol of Loyalty and Integrity
Kaiserschmarrn is such a popular dessert—in Vienna even served as the main course after a vegetable soup—that we can guess Freud ate it often especially later in his life, as its softness must have suited his difficulties to eat, swallow and chew due to oral cancer.
Also, just like Tafelspitz (see my previous post), another dish strongly associated with Freud and with emperor Francis-Joseph I who both supposedly loved it, the consumption of such fare by every self-respecting assimilated Jew was understood as a sign of loyalty to the head of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Why this allegiance? Because the emperor, even though a very conservative and autocratic ruler, was seen as a person who treated Jews well throughout his long reign. Symbolically, to mention just one such instance, the Emperor rejected the investiture of a virulent anti-Semite, Karl Lueger, as mayor of Vienna on more than one occasion. (He eventually became mayor after all, and has a statue in his honor on the Ringstrasse boulevard till this day.)
This is also the story of the glorious past of the Habsburg empire when the Jews were perceived by the emperor to be the cement that kept all the different nations making up the Austro-Hungarian empire—all those languages and cultures—together.
In all of these nations, Jews were a common denominator in a state that was otherwise drifting apart as nations continued to quarrel. As a result, Jews were allowed to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army and could even gain high ranking positions. A merit that was, as was everything else, disregarded by the anti-Semites of that period and later by the Nazis.
Having fought in World War I in the Austrian army didn’t count for much a couple of decades later. During the murder of the Jews of Europe, more than one had wrongly thought they were safe had they obtained medals of honor in the Austro-Hungarian army.
Legends of Emperor Francis-Joseph I
Let’s come back to the many legends around the history of Kaiserschmarrn. They all have Emperor Francis-Joseph I of Austria at the center. This dessert is named after him for sure.
One variation on the legend features a poor cook that had nothing else to offer to his majesty than this mess… but by some miracle, the emperor liked it!
My favorite stories involve his wife Sisi (aka Elisabeth) of Austria (1837-1898). (The cheesy but very popular movies from the 1950s spell her name “Sissi“.) In one such tale, the cook prepared the dish for her majesty, thus it was a pile of Empress’ Mess instead. But the monarch misheard and thought they were talking about a plate dedicated to him, a pile of Emperor’s Mess. Obviously, nobody dared to contradict him.
In another anecdote, the dish was again prepared for the Emperor’s wife, but she disliked it, probably because of the presence of rum-soaked raisins, the addition of which remains a matter of contention (for children, soak them in apple juice).
Although the empress was known to be anorexic and had one of the smallest waists ever heard of, she could at times eat mighty calorie bombs, a common thing for people suffering from this kind of eating disorder. We have proof in the form of pastry shop bills from Demel’s, Vienna’s leading establishment, to be seen at the Sisi Museum in Vienna, that Sisi indulged in palatable pleasures.
Upon the Empress’s surprising refusal to eat the dish, the Emperor supposedly uttered: “Hand me that mess!” Implying that food shouldn’t be let to go to waste. Hence Kaiserschmarrn, Emperor’s Mess.
This story is seemingly the only way that popular minds could justifiably make what they were told to see as a modest and frugal ruler eat such a lush and extravagant dessert. We can understand why Peter Grunauer translated Kaiserschmarrn as “Emperor’s Whim” in his restaurants and his cookbook Viennese Cuisine—A New Approach.
In the end, there’s one dilemma left for any staunch anti-monarchist, which every contemporary Austrian democrat should be: how can he possibly eat Kaiserschmarrn, a sign of allegiance to the Kaiser? Well, as they say in Vienna in democratic circles, where there is “emperor” and “mess,” or even “rubbish,” together in one word, one is allowed to partake in the food.
Is it compote or not?
Let me finish as promised with an anecdote by Friedrich Torberg insisting on the seriousness with which in pre-Holocaust Jewish Vienna one could discuss the question whether Zwetschkenröster, the above-mentioned fruit stew, Kaiseschmarrn‘s garnish, is a kind of compote or a different category of food.
The scene takes place at the famous kosher restaurant Neugröschel, which, together with restaurant Tonello, was the leading Jewish establishment on Mazzesinsel, “matzo island,” Vienna’s Jewish neighborhood in the 2nd district.
This anecdote features Mr. Neugröschl, the owner of the eponymous restaurant. With him, the guest was always wrong.
The closing sentences of the scene have become proverbial in Vienna:
(The following is my translation, as I do not have the English edition handy.)
The story begins one hot summer day with a guest who orders a Kaiserschmarrn.
“Which garnish?” asks the waiter under the influence of the heat, which means he’s even grumpier than usual.
“What kind of compote?”
“All the same.”
After a reasonable period of time, the waiter serves the Kaiserschmarrn with a portion of Zwetschgenröster as a garnish; He wants to remove himself, but is held back by the guest:
“Mr. Waiter, I have ordered a compote as a garnish.”
The waiter says with the corresponding movement of the hand:
“Here it is.”
“What is here?”
“This is Zwetschgenröster.”
“What do you mean precisely? If I order a compote, I don’t want Zwetschgenröster. ”
“Because Zwetschgenröster is not a compote!”
“Zwetschgenröster is not a compote?” Asks the waiter with provoking arrogance.
“No!” shouts the guest.
“Zwetschgenröster is a compote.” Now even the waiter elevates his voice.
“Zwetschgenröster is not a compote! Let me speak with a manager!”
This proves to be superfluous. Mr. Neugröschl, attracted by the increasing volume of the dispute, which has already been noticed by the many patrons, comes to the table and asks about the cause of all this noise. Of course, he asks the waiter and not the guest, to whom he is signaling with a sharp gesture by the hand to remain silent.
“The man ordered Kaiserschmarren with compote,” reports the waiter, “and I brought him Zwetschgenröster. ”
“Well, then.” With raised eyebrows, Mr. Neugröschl scrutinizes the unruly guest. “So, what do you want?”
“He says Zwetschgenröster is not a compote.”
“What does he say?” Mr. Neugröschl steps close to the accused. “Did you really say that?”
“Of course,” replies the guest.
“Say it again.”
“Zwetschgenröster is not a compote.”
He must have understood right from the start that he would never get his way with Mr. Neugröschel. But he certainly did not expect what came next: Mr. Neugröschl, who because of the heat was in shirt sleeves, rolls up the latter, with one hand grabbs him by the neck, with the other at the waist and carries him to the door while shouting: “You don’t need to pay, be my guest!”
Then—and this is the true essence of the story—Mr. Neugröschl plants himself in the middle of the room, staring at his guests who have sincle fell silent, and who fearfully duck over their plates. His voice sounds ominous, and as he’s clearly riled up:
“There are still a few left who say that Zwetschgenröster is not compote!” And threatening he shakes his raised fist: “But I know them all!!”
Quoted from Friedrich Torberg’s Tante Jolesch, or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes, (Munich: DTV, 1975 / Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 2008), pages 77 to 79 in the German edition.
So, here is my Kaiserschmarrn recipe. I honestly didn’t care much for Kaiserschmarrn before I developed this version of the recipe. But in my humble opinion, and in the esteemed opinion of my beloved test crowd—thank you Nechami, Shloimi, and Michaela—this Kaiserschmarrn recipe beats all the others we sampled.
Follow it to a tee and you’ll see—or taste—for yourself!
(I hope this was controversial enough to spurn some conversation, and look forward to your feedback and comments about this Kaiserschmarrn!)
Recipes: “Kaiserschmarrn,” Imperial Messy Soufflé Pancake with a “Röster,” a “Roasted” Fruit Stew
I started with a recipe out of chef Kurt Gutenbrunner book Neue Cuisine. The Elegant Tastes of Vienna. I made a couple of significant changes, like the use of sour cream, and a few tweaks I saw called for to suit my style and taste. I’m sure you’ll like it!
Add Raisins (or Don’t)
This is a never-ending discussion. So just use them if you like them and leave them out if you don’t—though leaving them out you will miss out on some very crucial contrasting flavor experience.
Sour Cream vs Beaten Egg Whites
Another controversial topic. My recipe uses both, the airiness of the beaten egg whites and the delicately tart flavor of sour cream.
Cut with Knives or Torn Apart with Two Forks
I’m not apologetic about this one. I simply can’t decide though I tend towards the clean-cut squares lately. Sometimes I prefer the orderly look of the mess then again the complete randomness of shapes.
Emperor’s Messy Soufflé Pancake Recipe
Yields 2-4 servings
35g / 1.2 oz (1/4 cup) golden raisins
Dark rum to soak the raisins in (or apple juice)
2 large eggs separated
265g / 9.3 oz (1 1/4 cup) שמנת / sour cream (or crème fraîche, fromage blanc or yogurt)
90g / 3.2 oz (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour
1 vanilla bean
5 ml / 0.17 oz (1 teaspoon) dark rum from the raisins’ soaking liquid
15g + 15g / 0.6oz + 0.6oz (1 tablespoon + 1 tablespoon) granulated sugar
Pinch of salt (iodine-free)
15g / 0.5 oz (1 tablespoon) unsalted butter
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Chilled “roasted” fruit stew (see recipe below), fruit compote, apple sauce or strawberry salad for serving
- A couple of hours ahead, chill the “roasted” fruit stew (see recipe below), apple sauce, fruit compote, or strawberry salad.
- Soak the raisins with enough rum (or apple juice) to cover them for a couple of hours (or put the soaking raisins covered into a microwave oven for 30 seconds on high).
- Preheat the oven to 390°F/200°C. Prepare a rack in the middle.
- In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sour cream (or crème fraîche, fromage blanc or yogurt).
- Sift the flour little by little directly into this mixture and mix well as you go.
- Cut the vanilla pod in half, lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds with a knife and add them immediately to the egg-yolk-sour-cream mixture. (Save the empty pod to infuse milk or cream with subtle vanilla flavor, or you can stick them in a jar of sugar to make vanilla-scented sugar which comes in very handy for Viennese baking.)
- Add 5 ml / 0.17 oz (1 teaspoon) of the raisins soaking liquid to this mixture.
- In another medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites at slow speed until frothy. (To succeed mounting egg whites all the utensils must be spotlessly clean and dry.)
- Add half of the granulated sugar (15g/0.6oz/1 tablespoon) and the salt and beat until the whites are thicker and whiter in color, about 2 minutes.
- Add the other half of the granulated sugar (15g/0.6oz/1 tablespoon) and beat until the whites hold a soft peak (When you turn your whisk upside down, the peaks should be starting to stand up on their own, but are still soft and melt back into themselves after a second.)
- Stir half the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, then carefully fold in the remaining egg whites. (Video: How to fold in egg whites.) Use this batter quickly before the egg whites collapse!
- In a 9-inch / 24cm ovenproof skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Swirl the butter around the skillet so it coats the bottom and sides.
- When the butter starts to sizzle, using a rubber spatula, scrape in the batter, and cook until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 2 minutes.
- Meanwhile, quickly drain the raisins and scatter them evenly over the top of the batter.
- Transfer the skillet to the middle of the preheated oven and bake (no fan!) until the pancake is golden brown and the center is set, about 20 minutes.
- Immediately invert the pancake onto a round platter or cutting board. Using two long serrated or very sharp knives, cut the pancake into 1-inch / 2.5 cm pieces. (Hold the knives parallel in opposite directions. They should cross and touch like two sabers. Now cut with both knives simultaneously one from left to right, and the other from right to left. See the picture in the text above. If you prefer, use two forks to tear the pancake into bite-size pieces.)
- Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve immediately!
- Pass the chilled “roasted” fruit stew, apple sauce, fruit compote, or strawberry salad separately.
“Röster,” A “Roasted” Fruit Stew Recipe
It has become fashionable in recent years to base the röster on a caramel, which really adds to the flavor profile.
If you prefer to skip that part, start with step three and add just a little bit of water to get the fruits releasing their juices.
1kg / 2.2 pounds ripe damson plums or apricots.
150g / 5.3oz granulated sugar depending on how ripe the fruit is
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
Pinch of salt (iodine-free)
Freshly ground black pepper
Shot of high-quality Slivovitz or Marillenschnaps fruit brandy (the same flavor as the fruit)
- Halve the fruit and remove the stone. Cut the bigger pieces into quarters.
- Sprinkle the sugar into a saucepan large enough to hold all the fruit twice and warm up over medium heat. (Use a largeish pot, as the roaster may drip when cooking.) After about 10 minutes, the sugar will melt and to change color to a golden brown. Don’t stir! Be extra careful not to burn the caramel.
- Once the caramel is golden brown, immediately add the fruit and the optional cinnamon stick. The sugar will solidify as it cools down but will melt again and combine with the juices from the fruit. Cook for about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent it from sticking to the pot. The fruit pieces should remain whole.
- Add the fruit brandy and mix well.
- Let cool completely. Chill well before serving with a Kaiserschmarrn (see recipe above).