Romancing the Ruins: Heidelberg on the Neckar River

When Prince-Elector Friedrich V married Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James I in 1613, it was–like the majority of royal marriages—based on political alliances and gains. Love had nothing to do with it.

Photo by Jane Simon Ammeson

But sometimes it worked out differently and so it was between Friedrich and Elizabeth who fell in love.  Heidelberg Castle, where they lived, was already old, dating back to 1200s and the Prince-Elector wanting Elizabeth to love her new home added an English Palace and an elaborate Baroque garden.

But theirs was to be a tragic love story. There were battles, a throne lost, regained, and then lost forever. During all that, Elizabeth bore 13 children before Fredrich died and she sought life in exile.

Heidelberger Schloss

The castle, a romantic ruin of seemingly endless staircases and corridors taking you here, there, and sometimes nowhere, stands 330-feet above the Alstadt, Heidelberg’s wonderful old town. Towers and battlements protect stone facades, their decorative features still intact though the rooms behind them are gone. Views into the multitude of windows reveals not an interior but woods and the Neckar River below.

“Deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful,” is how Mark Twain described the Gothic-Renaissance castle. He was one of many poets and writers who spent time in what they considered the most romantic city in the world.

Photo Jane Simon Ammeson

The castle is also home to the Heidelberg Tun, a 58, 124 gallon wine barrel said to be the largest in the world.  It was built in 1751 on orders from Prince Elector Karl Theodor to store the wine paid in taxes by the region’s wine growers. We should all be so lucky to have too much wine.

Brews and Pork Knuckles

Taking the funicular down to the old town, I meet friends at Vetter’s Alt Heidelberger Brauhaus on Steingasse, Europe’s longest carless street. It’s one of those baronial style Germanic places with high ceilings, large wood beams, long tables and a lot of dark highly polished wood.

Famed for their Vetter’s 33, which they say is the strongest beer in the world, its alcohol content is—you guessed it—33%. But it isn’t all beer her, they’re famed for their  traditional German food and so I decide to go full German, ordering the pork knuckle, sauerkraut and dumpling with gravy. Skipping the 33, I opt for the Hubier—a mix of the lager and elderberry syrup.

History, Luxury and a Family Touch

Courtesy of Hotel Europaischer Hof Heidelberg.

My love affair with the city began several years before when I checked into the five-star Hotel Europäischer Hof Heidelberg. The hotel, one of the few five-star family run hotels in Europe, opened in 1865 and has been owned by von Kretschmann family since around the turn of the last century.

Courtesy of Hotel Europaischer Hof Heidelberg.

I’d heard that Sylvia von Kretschmann, who with her husband Ernst-Friedrich, ran the hotel for a half-century before their daughter Dr. Caroline von Kretschmann took over, regularly did the hotel’s large floral arrangements. So it was no surprise when I ran into this very elegant woman doing just that in Die Kurfürstenstube, the hotel’s opulent dining room that opened in 1866.  Such a romantic place and romantic tradition—how could I not fall in love?  

Courtesy of Hotel Europaischer Hof Heidelberg

Chocolate Kisses

My romance continued at Chocolaterie Knosel where owner Liselotte Knosel talked about studentenkussor or student kiss, a chocolate covered nougat created by her great grandfather Fridolin Knosel in 1863. His Café Knosel was frequented by male university students who admired women from a local finishing school who were, alas, chaperoned by their governesses. A gift of student kisses was a sly way to start a flirtation.

We don’t know how well it turned out for the students but these confections, still hand crafted, remain best sellers more than 150 years later. Café Knosel—the city’s oldest café—is my go to spot for coffee and a pastry at one of their outdoor tables overlooking the church on Marktplatz.

At dusk, on my last night, I boarded Patria, a 1930s ship for dining and a cruise along the Neckar River. Watching the city lights sparkle in the calm water, I knew that though my visit was ending, the romance was just beginning. I would be back.

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German Sweets for the Holidays and Beyond

          Though right now I can’t even travel to Chicago to do some holiday shopping because of the pandemic, I did manage a trip to Southwest German to visit several of their beautiful Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Markets) and take a holiday cookie making class.

          Well, kind of. The trip was a virtual cooking class and I’ve been doing a lot of those lately. It is, of course, nowhere close to being there but still when you get to the point where going to the grocery store becomes a big adventure, it’s really a great way to explore—and plan for the time when we might be able to journey again.

          And even though the holiday is long past, making the cookies and thinking of the beauty of the Christkindlesmarkts is a fine thing to do in gloomy February when all the excitement leading up to Christmas is long past and winter seems forever.

          Southwest Germany is comprised for the most part of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg and is bordered on the west by France, Switzerland to the south, Bavaria to the east and Hesse to the north. It encompasses the Black Forest, large cities like Heidelberg, Baden-Baden and Stuttgart and a plethora of towns and villages that are so neatly kept and so very beautiful like Schwetzingen where there’s the Schwetzingen Palace & Gardens and Wiblingen, the home to an 11th century abbey. One thing you quickly realize about Germany is that almost every village no matter how small has a castle. And abbeys and monasteries dating back a millennium are common. New to them is anything built less than 400 years ago.

          Before COVID-19, late November and December is the time for the fantastic Christmas markets that have been part of the German holiday season since the 1300s. But of course, this is the age of COVID-19, so not only is my cooking class virtual but so are my visits to the Christmas markets. One plus, I save a lot of money by not being able to actually shop.

          Wendy Jo Peterson who, between military moves and following her husband’s career around the world, racked up a lot of miles working with children and adults across the spectrum from populations with special needs to elite athletes. Culinary nutrition and reaching optimal wellness through the foods we eat is one of her main drivers and she’s clocked in a lot of hours teaching, at hospital, working a computer and presenting the latest in nutritional science. When she lived in Stuttgart, Peterson immersed herself in cooking traditions and techniques and is bringing all that to our virtual classroom.

          We can either cook along with Peterson or just watch and I’ve decided I want to cook along with.

          To save time, Peterson has prepared her dough ahead of the class and so did those of us who are going to be cooking with her. Our first cookie is a yeast dough shaped into the form of the little tan man, known  In North Baden and the Electoral Palatinate, as Dambedei, in South Baden as Grätti or Baselmann and in other regions as Weck or Klausenmann. I hope I’m not going to be quizzed on the names of the cookies because I just won’t be able to do it.

But no matter the name, Dambedei’s instantly recognizable to children—and adults—because of his characteristic appearances. All little tan men have a pointed head, raisin eyes, almond mouth and a button jacket made of nuts.

Dambedei’s origins go back to when people were excluded for whatever reason from worshipping in the church on Bishop Nikolaus von Myra’s remembrance day. Instead the blessed bread is served to them in the shape of a man.

“The other cookies we’ll be making are Spitzbuben, also known as Hildabrötchen which are named after the Grand Duchess Hilda von Nassau, the last Grand Duchess of Baden,” says Peterson. “Supposedly, the popular Grand Duchess enjoyed eating Hilda rolls and often baked them herself. She was buried at the side of her husband, Grand Duke Friedrich II in the grand ducal grave chapel in Karlsruhe. Her ornate coffin can be viewed there.”

We’re also will make Hutzelbrot. If we were in Germany, we’d use dried Hutzel pears but alas I’ll be using  the dried pears sold in the grocery store. The term hutzelig in Swabia translates into wrinkled and that also describes the fruit. As for Swabia, it’s a historic region in southwest Germany. Someone a long time ago told me a Swabian joke. It isn’t very funny but it’s the only one I’ve ever heard. I tell it to the class, but they don’t think it’s funny at all.


We also have recipes for Springerle and Lebkuchen so if I do all the cooking, I’ll have a great assortment of German cookies.

Spitzbuben or Hildabrötchen

1 cup sugar

2/3 cup of cold butter, cut into small pieces

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg

1 1/3 cups of flour

½ cup of raspberry jam for the center

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

Cream together sugar and butter. Add vanilla extract and egg until combined. Add flour to form a dough. Shape the dough into a ball and wrap or cover well and put in the fridge for about an hour. Preheat the oven to 325° F.

Roll out the dough very thinly and cut into circles. Then cut out the shape you like in every other cookie. Place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and bake for about 15 minutes or until golden. Cool. Heat the jam, spread over the cookies without  cutouts, then place the cutout half on top of the cookie with the jam. Dust with powdered sugar.


4 eggs

2 ¼ cups powdered sugar

2 ¼ cup white wheat flour

1 tablespoon of whole anise seed or, if you want, substitute with gingerbread, cardamom, or ginger

Lightly toast the anise beforehand in a pan and then mix it into the batter. This treatment dissolves the essential oils and unfolds its full taste.

All ingredients are placed in a warm room for several hours before starting.

Beat the eggs until frothy, then add the sifted powdered sugar and the tablespoon of anise seed.

Stir this mixture in the food processor for at least 10 minutes.

Then stir in the sifted flour, one tablespoon at a time.

The dough is now a bit soft and needs to rest to have time to shape.

Put the dough in a bowl with a tightly fitting lid and covered with cling wrap, leave to rest in the refrigerator for at least 12-24 hours.

When you are ready to make the cookies, you cut off a small portion of the dough and immediately cover the rest of the dough again, otherwise it will dry out.

Roll out the dough on the floured baking board 8-10 mm thick. Press the Springerle mold into the lightly powdered dough and cut out the springerle with a dough scraper, pastry wheel or a cookie cutter.

Place the springerle on a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil and leave to dry for 24 hours in a warm place.

Preheat the oven to 285 degrees Fahrenheit and bake the Springerle for approx. 15-18 minutes.

After baking, let the springerle cool, remove from the aluminum foil and store in a cardboard box in a damp place.


2/3 cup each of dried pears plums and figs

¼ cup dried apricots

½ cup raisins

1 1/3 cup chopped hazelnuts or chopped almonds

1 tablespoons anise seeds

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 1/2 cups rye flour

1 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

5 teaspoons baking powder

6 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

2 to 4 teaspoons of vanilla

Soak the dried plums, pears, and figs in water overnight or 8 to12 hours. Drain the fruit and roughly chop it. Finely dice the dried apricots. Put all the fruit with raisins, hazelnuts and almonds in a bowl, season with aniseed, cinnamon and cloves, drizzle with lemon juice and mix well.

Mix the flours with baking powder. Beat the eggs with the sugar until frothy. Add the vanilla extract and the fruit and nut mixture. Finally, gradually knead in the flour mixture and knead the mixture well.

Shape the dough into two loaves of bread. Place on a greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 70-80 minutes. After baking, let cool on a wire rack.


1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

Ground lemon peel

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons honey

1 packet (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tbsp canola oil

1 egg yolk


Mix wheat flour with lemon zest in a bowl. Warm the milk slightly, add honey and fresh yeast and stir. Add vanilla to the milk and add, along with the canola oil to the flour and mix to form a soft dough, about 5 minutes. Let the dough rise to double its volume in a warm place, knead again by hand and roll out to1/3 of an inch thick.

Cut out 4 Dambedeis each eight inches long, place on two baking sheets lined with baking paper and brush with the egg yolk. Press the golden raisins into the dough as eyes and jacket buttons. Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 12 minutes at 395° Fahrenheit.


If I get the chance I want to follow the Lebkuchen trail that runs through the Black Forest. Until then, I’ll have to settle for making them at home.  

¾ cup honey

2 cups cane sugar

1 cup orange candied peel

¾ cup lemon candied peel

2/3 cup raisins

1 cup + 2 tablespoons chopped hazelnuts

5 cups whole meal rye flour

2 ½ cups whole meal spelt flour (can substitute whole wheat flour

2 teaspoons of baking soda

4 to 5 teaspoons gingerbread spice

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves (ground)

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

4 large eggs

6 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon butter

Juice and zest of an organic lemon

For painting: 2 egg yolks,  3 tbsp milk

For decorating and cutting: whole peeled almonds and cookie cutters

The day before, heat the honey and cane sugar in a saucepan while stirring. Finely chop the orange peel, lemon peel, raisins, and hazelnuts.

Mix rye and whole meal spelt flour, baking soda, gingerbread spice, cinnamon, ground cloves, cocoa powder and the finely chopped orange peel, lemon peel, raisins, and finely chopped hazelnuts in a bowl. Knead the heated honey with cane sugar, softened butter, lemon zest, juice, and eggs with the flour mixture until it is a very firm, brown dough.

Shape the dough into an elongated roll and let rest in a cold room overnight, in an airtight container.

Preheat the oven to 320° F and line a baking sheet with baking paper.

Knead the dough well, roll it out on a floured work surface to approximately ¼-inch thick, cut out the gingerbread and place on the prepared baking sheet.

Mix the egg yolk and milk, brush the gingerbread cookies with the egg yolk and milk mixture, decorate with an almond and bake in the oven for about 15 minutes.

 Place the baked gingerbread cookies on a wire rack to cool, then store in a tin or container. The longer they are stored, for approximately one to two weeks, the better they are.

Searching for Schweinshaxe: From Heidelberg to Michigan


P1010817 (1)         My search for started back in 2012 when Frank Buesing of Stevensville, after returning from a trip to Bavaria, wrote asking if I knew where he could find pork knuckles (schweinshaxe in German) in Southwest Michigan. On his trip, his guide had recommended he try some and, liking the dish  so much, he’d ordered it again at another restaurant in another city. Buesing sent me several photos of schweinshaxe showing what looked like a weapon size piece of meat on a bone. Buesing had already visited several grocery stores and a butcher shop in our area looking for pork knuckles but to no avail. One butcher even consulted a chart of pork cuts and couldn’t find it. I also made some phone calls and got the same response, no pork knuckles around here as I wrote in my July 25, 2012 column in the Herald Palladium titled “Searching for the Elusive Pork Knuckle.”.

Fast forward to a month or so ago when my friend Victoria Larson took me to Vetter’s Alt Heidelberger Brauhaus. Alt Heidelberg is the term for this southwestern German city’s historic district. Vetter’s is on Steingasse, Europe’s longest carless street, which leads down to the Karl-Theodor-Brücke (bridge) spanning the Neckar River. To give you an idea of the how old this city is, the bridge is considered relatively new, having been built in 1788. The building housing Vetter’s dates back even further and is one of those baronial style Germanic places with high ceilings, large wood beams, long tables and a lot of dark highly polished wood. Famed for their Vetter’s 33, at one time the strongest beer in the world with an alcohol content of—you guessed it—33%– it is also known for its traditional German food including a variety of pork knuckles dishes. Though it was hot outside and I wasn’t that hungry, I felt compelled to order the pork knuckle which came with sauerkraut and dumpling and gravy. After all, it was my job to research pork knuckles, wasn’t it? Afraid I wouldn’t like it (after all—pork knuckles?) Victoria wisely said give it a try and if you don’t like it, don’t eat it.P1010826

Unfortunately, as far as calories are concerned, I liked it and what I didn’t share with everyone else sitting with us, I ate. And like Buesing, in the next city I visited, I ordered it again. I wanted to tell Buesing, only I couldn’t remember how to spell his name and being far from home didn’t have access to my files. Luckily, Valerie Kowerduck of Stevensville saw my Facebook photo of the schweinshaxe at Vetter’s s and posted a link to my column. Six years after we first talked about pork knuckles, Buesing still hadn’t found any around here. So I called around again getting a more positive response. Bob’s Meat in South Haven told me they carried them while Roger’s Foodland and Zick’s Specialty Meats said they could be ordered if people called ahead. Voila! Pork knuckles.


Buying schweinshaxe in Southwestern Michigan, which has a large percentage of Germans and German-Americans, wasn’t always so difficult.

Robin Christopher, a Journeyman Meat Cutter at United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, who worked as a butcher for decades at such area stores as Family Foods and Eagles, says back then he sold many pig knuckles—later called pork knuckles (“to soften the image to customers”).

“We sold pig knuckles to a variety of people,” he says, noting they’re often used in Mexican dishes such as tacos, Asian dishes served with rice and, of course German foods. “They came in two ways—fresh, meaning raw or uncooked and smoked which are generally called smoked pork ham hocks and are used for seasoning and meat in beans or greens and are great for flavor. The fresh ones are a little more versatile. They can be baked in the oven or they can be par boiled and then finished by braising, pan frying, grilling, deep frying or grilling. They can be eaten whole or they can be cut up or de-boned and the meat used in other recipes.”



At Vetter’s they came with a variety of sides—sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, spätzle (tiny little dumplings cooked by dropping batter into boiling water), big dumplings, noodles, gravy, mustard and bread, depending on what your ordered.

I like to research and when Christopher told me that pig knuckles were big sellers in Southwestern Michigan years ago, I decided to look them up on, an online archive of old newspapers. Sure enough, going back to the late 1800s up to 1960, there were a lot of groceries, butchers and even restaurants advertising them. In the December 17, 1920 issue of the News Palladium, you could buy pig knuckles as well as something called nut-oleo at during Banyon’s Saturday Cash Specials. Kelm’s Market at 222 State Street sold two pounds of pig knuckles and two pounds of sauerkraut all for 19 centers according the January 12, 1934 Herald Press. Kelm’s also sold something called leaf lard (lard must have been big back then because there’s all sorts of types for sale). For15 cents, according to an ad in the February 2, 1937 edition of the News Palladium, you could get pork knuckles and sauerkraut and listen to the music of the 6-piece Old Heidelberg Band at the Higman Park Villa, a beach place in Benton Harbor.P1010842

Deutschamerikaner or people of German heritage (including me as my maternal grandfather was from Germany) constitute the largest ancestry group according to the US Census Bureau in its American Community Survey with an estimated number of 44 million German Americans living this country as of 2016 which is one third of the total ethnic German population in the world.

I talked to Sheila Schultz and Betty Timmreck, both members of  Napier Parkview Baptist Church on Napier Avenue in Fairplain. More than a century ago it was the First German Baptist Church.

Timmreck and her husband, Dave, are both of German descent and their last name

“My mom was going to the church when it was all German preaching,” she says. “Preaching in German ended a little after 1947 when William Hoover became the pastor.”

But that wasn’t quite the end of the German language at Napier Parkview. Schultz says that up until a few years ago there was a German Sunday School class as well.

Timmreck shared recipes from “The Ladies Missionary Society Cookbook” which was published by her church. The missionary society is now called the more modern sounding W2W (Women to Women).

“I learned to make German food from growing up German,” says Schultz who is German-American and married Armin Schultz, who immigrated as a child from Germany.

“That makes me ever more ‘Germany’,” she says with a laugh.

Schultz likes to take the old recipes, many of them she originally learned to make from her aunts, Maria Schultz and Getrud (there’s no e at the end of her name) Schultz, such as the family’s pork and sauerkraut and tweak them, creating her own signature dishes. She typically makes roulade, a type of meat roll for the holidays and three-to-five days before Christmas  begins marinating the ingredients for rotkohl—a seasoned red cabbage dish with apples, red wine and brown sugar. Also on the list of German dishes she occasionally makes our tortes and kuchens or cakes.

“A lot of these dishes my aunts would make when we came over,” she recalls.

Hanns Heil (now there is a serious German name) of Coloma says the beauty of a good recipe is you can add other things to it. And for her and his wife, Sara, an adaptation of brats and sauerkraut, a German dish if there ever was one, can be made in a crockpot with such additions as using jalapeno brats instead of regular ones or even substituting Polish sausage. They add a light beer to the meat and kraut mixture such as a lemon shandy.

“We also use a package of French onion soup like the kind you use to make dip,” he says. “It takes the punch out of the sauerkraut.”

Sheila Schultz’s Rotkohl

(Red Cabbage)

½ pound bacon, I prefer thick sliced

I large onion, peeled and thinly sliced

About 3 pounds red cabbage thinly sliced, not shredded

2 or 3 tart apples, peeled and thinly sliced

¼ cup packed brown sugar

1 or 1 ½ cups chicken broth or stock

¼ cup red wine

¼ cup white vinegar

1 to 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt

pepper to taste


In a large pot/Dutch oven sauté bacon, add onion, cabbage, and apples.  Simmer until cabbage starts to collapse, stir gently and add broth, wine, vinegar, brown sugar, salt, and pepper.

*To do ahead I like to let the cabbage mix cool and refrigerate overnight, then complete the final cooking step.

Cook over medium/low heat for about 1 hour, till cabbage is tender. Serve warm.

Hanns and Sara Heil’s Crockpot Sauerkraut and Sausage

1 bag sauerkraut

3 to 4 sausage links such as bratwurst, Polish or jalapeno brats

1 package French onion soup

1 bottle of light beer

Place all ingredients into a crockpot and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.

The following recipes are from “The Ladies Missionary Society Cookbook.”

Potato Pancakes

6 large potatoes, shredded

1medium onion, grated

4 eggs

¼ cup flour

Salt and pepper

Blend all ingredients together and fry in a hot frying pan with vegetable oil until nice and brown and crispy.


4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

Four eggs

1 cup milk

Mix all together. Bring 2 quarts of water and one half teaspoon salt to a boil. Suck a large colander with large holes over pot. With a spoon, Press Tell a few tablespoons at a time to cut the colander directly into the boiling water. Stir gently to keep dumplings from sticking. Boil briskly for five days minutes or until tender.

Kraut and Ribs

2 pounds or two glass jars kraut

2 cups fresh shredded cabbage

One medium onion, cut

One or two fresh garlic cloves

1 tart apple

1 bay leaf

2 to 3 pounds country ribs, browned

One package bratwurst cut and browned

½ cup brown sugar

8 to 9 peppercorns

Rinse canned kraut and drain; add fresh cabbage, what in heavy pan or slow cooker. Fried onions, apples and garlic. Brown ribs and add to kraut. Add bay leaves, peppercorns and brown sugar to taste. Let’s cook for 2 ½ hours. Drain if there’s too much liquid. Put in large casserole; add brown bratwurst and bake for about one hour at 350° in covered casserole.

Schweinshaxe or Pork Knuckle

2 to 3 pounds  schweinshaxe or pork knuckle



garlic clove

1 bottle Beer, preferably a dark beer

1 garlic clove, finely minced

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Because crispy skin is one of the hallmarks of a good pork knuckle, place the schweinshaxe, unwrapped, in the refrigerator overnight so that the skin dries out.

The next day, place in a roasting pan with just a little of the beer. Sprinkle skin with salt and pepper and rub the minced garlic into the skin. If you’d rather not use beer, rub with a light oil. This keeps it from sticking to the pan and also produces good pan drippings if making gravy.

Roast in an oven for about 4 hours, adding a little more about an hour into the roasting to keep te bottom of the knuckle moist. After the skin has started to crisp, baste with beer about every 45 minutes or so. When the pork reaches an internal temperature of approximately 200 degrees, turn the oven up to 450 degrees, pour beer over the knuckle and cook for about 10 -15 minutes. Serve with potato pancakes, spätzle and/or rotkohl.