Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Weddings and the Kougelhopf

A most extraordinary radio show was on the air while I nibbled on the kougelhopf in the car on the way home from Alsace. A documentary that has great sound mixing, with samples of sound cuts from all kinds of sources, very evocative and stimulating, full of imagery. This time, they were talking about French weddings.

People from different generations were being interviewed about their weddings. The old people recounted small affairs that had been arranged for such and such reasons, ceremonies conducted in the presence of 4 witnesses and a dinner with immediate family around the table. Then they talked to people who were married in the 60s, still in rather simple ways, small affairs when compared to some of the weddings we see today, but amplified in the number of guests or amount of wine. Then came the coverage of the wedding industry and the pressure that young people have these days to orchestrate these enormous receptions with elaborate meals and fine wines that in the past would never have taken place.

An invited sociologist theorized that today's generation have a distorted concept of what wedding traditions are, because like a telescope, they are looking to the past for stories, of which only the most exceptional were recorded. Much wedding tradition lore is embellished or exaggerated or framed in glowing terms. Even descriptions of humble events turn into family legends, as we all know. In the end they seem more fanciful than they really were. This is retained by today's generation, and the perfect small low stress affairs that were the norm in the past are left behind for large, romantic celebrations that are like enactments of imagined history. Several generations later, the exceptional lore begins to take over as the expected norm. Elaborate receptions, princess gowns, long veils and trains, creative themes, fussy craftwork in the favors, towering pieces montees, flowers costing thousands, etcetera.

A couple of years ago, at a vide grenier, I picked up a kougelhopf mould for a buck. I bought it because of that kougelhopf I had in Paris when I had just begun this blog. I was truly inspired by the experience. I got the mould home and began digging out recipes, and doing research. But every time I picked up the recipe for one, I just could not envision getting the same result. I kept putting it off, and putting it off, searching for the perfect recipe.

Some cousins par alliance from Alsace came to Aude's wedding with some kougelhopfs prepared by some aunt or another that had been sent along in the train. They had spent some time in a suitcase, and shifted from one place to another. Kougelhopf was originally prepared as wedding cake in Alsace. These special cakes were a symbolic home made gift. Everyone oohed and ahhed over these simple humble cakes and they were put out on the bare kitchen table during the family gathering the day after the wedding. I looked forward to tasting it, thinking about my initial experience. I was sorry not to have been able to appreciate it, because I really did want to like it. But it seemed unremarkable and plain to me, after that great Paris kougelhopf. I quietly reflected on this, as well as the recipes I had seen, and tucked it away for another day.

In Alsace, I tasted the kougelhopf fresh from a good bakery. Just to be sure, I also tasted another. And they were falling short of this original idea in my mind based on my first grand experience. They were more along the lines of the Aunt's kougelhopf. Not very sweet, subtle in their crumb, with just a whisper of flavor, you might even say ethereal once you start to understand it, whereas this kougelhopf I had in Paris was rich and dense and buttery above all else, with a strong heady dose of liquor of some kind. It wasn't until I was thinking about weddings that I realized it. My mind had been calibrated by a strange kind of legendary exception and not the rule. And I think, in retrospect, that maybe the Alsacian kougelhopf, with its particular aspect and flavor, may have somehow been telescoped into something completely different by the time it reached Paris. I now have a better appreciation for the one sent along by the Alsacian aunt, and also these days I have a very precious tender memory of that moment I tied the bit of tulle ribbon in my hair in Los Angeles, when we got married secretly, before the vortex of the big fat wedding party 6 months later began to suck me in. I hope one day to try her recipe. Maybe I'll coat it with sugar and butter, Paris style. Then again, maybe I'll just serve it plain.



Blogger Eileen said...

The only kougelhopf I've ever eaten was from P.Hermé's. Why not start at the top, right? Would like to compare with the Alsace version. Loved your post!

4:28 PM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your way of thinking about the kougelhof!

4:43 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks for the comments, Eileen and janie.

6:14 PM, September 02, 2008  

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