Maria Springer puts old-country taste into modern desserts

Culinary People

October 28, 1992|By Ginger Mudd Galvez | Ginger Mudd Galvez,Contributing Writer

Legend has it that every time her husband brings one of Maria Springer's freshly-baked plum cakes into the office, the building tilts from the stampede to get a taste.

Perhaps it's her soft-spoken European accent, her cache of family recipes, even her training in chemistry that's responsible for Maria Springer's reputation as a formidable cook. She's especially known for her desserts, those fruit and nut-studded, liquor-enhanced, delicately flaked, filled-with-whipped-cream and dusted-with-powdered-sugar creations that one associates with the coffee houses of Vienna.

Her growing reputation, coupled with friends begging for recipes they could not find elsewhere, prompted her to begin teaching her culinary heritage. A graduate of many cooking classes herself, including a program of the La Varenne program at the Greenbriar resort and many courses in both Maryland and California, Ms. Springer has studied cooking for over 20 years and knows what makes for a successful class. She offers her "Austro-Hungarian Kitchen" classes five times a month, fall and spring, in her north Baltimore County kitchen. In addition, she will teach a one-day course for St. Paul's School for Girls on Saturday, November 14.

"I love sharing my heritage with my students, and they especially seem to love the sweet yeast breads and baked goods, the kinds of pastries which are just perfect with a cup of coffee," she says.

Born in a tiny town in the former nation of Yugoslavia, Ms. Springer and her family immigrated to northern California when she was an adolescent. Trained as a medical researcher, she found her interest in cooking fueled by both her chemistry training and her family background. While her Austrian mother, recognized as an outstanding cook by her food-conscious peers, taught her the basics, it didn't hurt that one great-grandfather was a respected pastry maker and the other ran an inn.

So many students ask her how to get the "real" Austro-Hungarian flavor in their baking that she's had to think about and research recipes that are so familiar she can do them from memory. The apple tart recipe given here is "a dessert you do out of your head," she says. "It varies from household to household, like strudel. Every cook does a slight variation on the combination of ingredients."

One key to her philosophy about ingredients is their link to the natural cycle. "We're so confused in the United States by the blurring of the seasons," she says. "At home we would have nuts, apples and pears in the fall; dried fruits in winter;fresh berries of all kinds in spring; and peaches and plums in summer."

Seasonal fruits typically are combined with generous amounts of liquor, the exact flavoring dependent upon the fruit. "In Yugoslavia, we would always add a tablespoon of alcohol to the pastry crust to make it light," Ms. Springer says. "The rum, in combination with the egg, acts like a baking powder in the apple tart, for example."

Her other baking tips are simple: Use sweet or unsalted butter for pastries, give dough minimal handling, and give cooled desserts the Austrian touch of a sprinkling of powdered sugar and a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.

"And watch what you are doing," she adds. "You can't leave the apples to saute by themselves while you clean up the dishes in the sink. My recipes aren't hard, but you must pay attention."

Ms. Springer may work to present authentic and, in many cases, very old recipes from Europe, but she doesn't consider herself a purist. "My philosophy is that people who are interested in creating a nice meal shouldn't have to work all day. Any kind of help to make the job easier should be used. For instance, I use an appliance called a Presto Salad Shooter to grate the apples for the apple tart. It used to take me two hours to make this dessert when I grated the apples by hand; now it takes half an hour, if I hurry, to get it into the oven, and you still have a wonderful creation."

As for criticism that Austro-Hungarian cooking is fattening, Ms. Springer counsels moderation in all things. "I had a student once who followed the Diet Workshop program, and she attended my twice-monthly class," she recalls. "We started the class with coffee and an Austrian pastry right out of the oven and finished the morning with a full-course meal from the recipes demonstrated. This student ate a little of everything, then she went home and got right back onto her program. She still lost 20 pounds."

For information about Maria Springer's half-day cooking classes in Austro-Hungarian cuisine, call (410) 561-1157.

+ Apfel pita (apple tart) Serves 12.

CRUST:

2 cups all-purpose flour (unsifted)

3/4 cup sweet butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

-- of salt

zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon rum

FILLING:

8-10 medium apples (use a mix of types, such as Gala, Granny Smith or Yellow Delicious)

juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup bread crumbs

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup chopped almonds

1/2 cup golden raisins, soaked in rum for 30 minutes

powdered sugar

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