Grandmother inspires German cake cookbook

by Angela Jeffs

There are a lot of changes in Tania Kadokura’s life right now. But that’s OK, she says. “I’m used to change.”

The greatest change is that earlier this year her Japanese husband quit his job in New York and the couple returned to Japan ahead of time.

Recently back from two weeks in Laos (“pure relaxation”) they are now off to Berlin for three months. Which is interesting timing, because she just became an author. Her book — a compilation of German cake recipes in Japanese, under the title “Kuchen Torten,” was published this week.

“The usual first printing for a cookery book is 8,000 copies. Publishers Bunka Shuppan have taken a big risk by running off 11,500. But they seem to have great faith in it.”

Kadokura always wanted to do a cookbook. Yet it was only two years ago that she began collaborating with friend and photographer Miki Ishikawa. “Every time I cooked, I’d call and she’d come over and record what I was doing.” When she began touting the idea around, however, the feedback (no pun intended) was negative. “Publishers said there was no interest in German food. Even NHK said no.”

There was more interest when she narrowed her perspective to sweet things Bunka Shuppan editor Minako Ozawa, with whom Kadokura had worked twice before — on the magazine Mrs, for example — then helped her come up with an approach.

Recipes are grouped under types of basic mixture: dough, sponge, pastry, basic pound cake. Kadokura then offers four or five different cakes that can be made from the one basic recipe.

For example, from the pound cake mix: sour cherry, marzipan cream, apple and marble cakes. “Oh yes, and sandcake, in which corn starch is substituted for flour; it has a ‘fall in your mouth’ kind of texture.”

Kadokura lays her passion for cooking at the feet of her German grandmother, Martha. “She loved to cook, but basic food. Piles of fresh-picked vegetables, potatoes and meat.

One of my earliest memories is sitting with her, top and tailing green beans, chatting as we worked. I enjoyed that, it was a lot of fun. Also she made cakes, with lots of cream.”

Another memory: going to the bakery every morning to collect fresh-baked bread. “It was my job. Oh the smell as I turned the corner, so good.”

Kadokura survived a challenging childhood, because her Japanese father was continually being moved around the world by his company, and her German mother insisted that the family do its best not to be left behind.

But when her parents moved to New York, with a newborn baby Kadokura and her younger brother were sent to live with Granma in Duisberg, near Dusseldorf.

Back in New York aged 7, Kadokura experimented in the kitchen while her mother was out. “I burned her best pan, the one she’d got as a wedding gift.” Luckily there was support at hand.

“My mother’s friend next door (was) a Jewish woman, who gave me the “Storybook Cookbook” by Carol MacGregor, with recipes like Queen of Hearts Strawberry Tarts and Captain Hook’s Poison Cake. It’s still a favorite.”

There is a photo of the cookbook, open at The Secret Recipe . . . in the introduction to “Kuchen Torten.” Designed by Akihara Shuzo, a famed designer of Martha Stewart-type lifestyle books in Japan, it seems he fell in love with Miki’s photographs. The result is very different compared to regular cookery books in this country, which are usually very clean and decorative.

“Take our cover, for example,” Kadokura indicates. The cup, sans saucer is to the left of the plate, which in itself is heading off the page. Also there is a smudge on the cake of icing sugar or cream. “Normally this would be removed.”

As for the table top, this bears all the markings of Kadokura’s efforts over the years. “Again, normally this would be cleaned up, but I said no. This in my table, my cooking life. This how friends would find tea and cake if they called by informally.”

Did she every study cooking? Yes. In London.

After school in Kobe, she was in Germany for a year before going to Tokyo. New York, London, she was all over the place — often crossing paths with Hidehiro Kadokura, whom she eventually married.

“I went to Hong Kong to be with him. When he wanted to go to business school, I remembered where I was happiest. I said London again please . . . London, London, London. Basically I brainwashed him.”

While he went to school, she did too; to gain Cordon Bleu accreditation. “I began teaching cooking when we came back to Tokyo again. I meant to go back into finance but hated it really. When a girlfriend came and asked me to teach her and some other women, I breathed a sigh of relief.”

She was offered a catering job and an intro to a cooking magazine. Other magazines began to call, wanting her to show Japanese women how to have home parties, how German women clean their kitchens with diluted vigear. She began organizing cooking tours abroad. “Things just snowballed.”

Students come to her classes convinced they cannot make cakes — they have to be perfect, need so many decorations. “I teach them the tricks of the trade, but always remembering how Grandma used to cook, never measuring, just following her instinct. Here everyone is taught by the rulebook. It’s hard to make the break.”

So why is she heading for Europe now when she is about to become even more of a household name?

“With a German-related series in the magazine ‘Utsukushii Heya,’ I need to know what I’m talking about. What I know about Germany is very old-fashioned. I want to experience the New Germany . . . and Hide wants to learn how to make Leberwurst.”

She will return in October, in time for Hide to go to his native Kagoshima and buy the piece of land he has an eye on, and she to participate in a one-week TV special on potatoes for NHK’s daily program Kyo no Ryori. No doubt her grandmother’s earthy no-nonsense recipes will be a big influence.