It was United States President John F Kennedy who proclaimed on June 26, 1963, to be “ein Berliner”. He did so to show that the United States was in support of what then was the city of West Berlin under the control of the West-German Government almost two years after the Berlin Wall was build to separate the city into two opposing ideological blocks. It was the time of the Cold War, of East vs. West, of capitalism vs. communism, and democracy vs. one-party rule. On our own continent several anti-colonial wars of liberation (including our own) had just started.
I have always loved the city of Berlin, and although I never had the opportunity to visit it during the Cold War, I have always found that part of world history extremely fascinating.
It must have been the spy-thing. As a little boy, who would not want to be a spy? All the cloak and dagger stuff and cool toys like umbrellas that shoot real bullets. A career where everything is secret, and you can pretty much do want you want as long as you do it on behalf of the “good guys”. And when you get caught, all you had to do was dislodge the cyanide capsule embedded in one of your teeth, and you’d succumb in seconds and spared a life of torture and agony. Because spies knew how to torture, they devoted many hours to perfecting acts of inflicting pain.
By the time I first arrived in Berlin in 1992, the Cold War was over, and Germany unified. Or at least: they did start to erase pretty much most of what had been Communist in former East Berlin. Large Communist government buildings that looked like impersonal, communal outhouses was covered in plastic wrap with new architectural profiles painted on them in an attempt to entice people to get used to the fact that sometime soon a new building will arise in the place of the Communist one. And to drive the point home, they changed all street names in the Eastern part and replaced them with names from the West. Off course no one cared to update the maps and getting around in the city as a visitor was an unconcealed nightmare. It was the time before smart phone and Google Maps.
Of the infamous Wall only a small section remained; preserved as an open-air gallery of graffiti art. It is on this Wall that someone remarked: “Life as a hitchhiker is like a pubic hair on a public toilet brim; one time or another you get pissed off”.
Wise words, if you were ever a hitchhiker for a prolonged spell anywhere in the world, I assure you. I felt just like that many times since: fed-up enough to pack it all in and go home.
I went to all the usual and unusual historic sites and took it all in. Checkpoint Charlie was a highlight off course and I went there three times, because I did not want to miss anything. I quickly realized that being a spy was nasty business and not something young boys should be romanticizing. But that is part of growing up, I guess. Nothing is ever what it seems to be, and dreams of doing good in a world filled with evil, disappears faster than lonely clown on a motorized unicycle.
I also visited beer halls and pretensions, avant-garde art clubs. They had kicked all the jazz clubs out from Oranienburger Straße and replaced them with Industrial Actors performing Conceptual Nonsense.
But the one thing I could not find in Berlin, was the Berliner; the yeast-proved enriched dough-based, deep-fried pastry filled with sweet jam and covered in castor sugar or sugar glaze; much like a doughnut but without the hole in the middle.
I then learned that being called a “Berliner” does not necessarily mean that you are from Berlin; instead it could mean that you are a deep-fried, yeast-proven doughnut filled with jam and covered in sugar.
Standing around with a head filled with strawberry jam, maybe this what Kennedy meant when he said: Ich bin ein Berliner”
Maybe, just before his speech, he visited one of those famous city bakeries, feeling a little peckish and asking for “Ein Berliner, bitte”.
And maybe the hot-blooded, fiery baker upended a bowl of strawberry jam onto his head whilst shouting: “Da ist kein Berliner, in Berlin! Are you stupid or something?”
And with no time to go back to the hotel to wash or change, he decided to make most of the jam on his head, and proof the baker wrong. For that day, and that day only, there was “ein Berliner” in Berlin. It was JFK.
What we know as the Berliner, is simply called Pfannkuchen in the city of Berlin. Two halves of dough are filled with filling (usually plum butter or strawberry or, raspberry jam) then stuck together to be deep-fried before they are covered with a layer of castor sugar. These days, the dough balls are fried then filled using a piping bag or decorating pen. Allowing a little of the filling to show allows the customer to identify the jam that makes the filling.
The Berliner is different from most other doughnuts in that it makes use of yeast as proofing agent. So it takes a little more time to make. But it is so worth it. And if you want to poke a hole in the middle, do so; or if you want to cut it in half and fill it with pastry cream, do so.
I am including the basic Berliner recipe here. It is only a sound starting point, you can be creative and be the best “Berliner” you can be. And the nicest thing… you do not have to be from Berlin.
Berliner/Kreppel (Jam Donut)
500 grams Plain all-purpose flour
1 packet Dried yeast
100 grams Butter
30 grams Sugar
3 drops Vanilla essence
1 teaspoon Salt
2 medium sized Eggs
125 milliliters Milk
Icing sugar to cover the Berliner
300 grams Strawberry raspberry or plum jam, raspberry or plum jam
1. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl, add the dried yeast and mix well. Melt the butter in warm milk, but don’t cook the milk. Add the milk-butter mixture, sugar, salt, eggs, and vanilla essence to the flour. Stir with a mixer at low level until ingredients are combined, then mix at high level for about 5 minutes until the dough is smooth
2. Cover the dough and let it rise in a warm place until it has doubled in volume (about 30 to 60 minutes). Remove the dough from the bowl, sprinkle with flour, knead it briefly. Form 16 balls of about the same size. Put the balls onto a floured tea towel, cover with another towel and let the balls rise for 15 to 30 minutes, they must visibly increase in size.
3. Meanwhile heat the frying oil to 180°C. Put the balls in the hot oil (they shouldn’t touch each other) and fry from both sides until they are golden brown. Remove the cooked Berliner with a spoon and drain on paper towels. Mix the jam until smooth, fill into a piping bag or decorating pen with a long tip, pipe the jam into the Berliner