As a girl growing up in Pirmasens, Germany, near the French border, Inge Horder dreamed about a career in engineering. And for a number of years, she made good on that goal, working as a mechanical drafter after emigrating to the U.S. at age 18 in 1965, marrying and moving to Dayton, Ohio.
Yet food -- especially the hearty German dishes her mother, Gretel, taught her to make as a child -- always played in the background.
Hers was a cooking family and a pretty talented one at that, she recalls. Her father's mother raised 12 children on her own after her husband died of a heart attack -- can you imagine feeding three squares a day to that crowd?-- while her maternal grandmother, who spent a year at a French finishing school before marrying at 18, had training in the sophisticated cuisines of Western Europe. Her mother, Gretel, a nurse, also demonstrated flair in the kitchen, especially when it came to the traditional German favorites such as dumpling-like spaetzle and kartoffelpuffer, pan-fried potato pancakes, that she taught her daughter to make.
"They were all good cooks in one capacity or another," she says.
The same could be said of Ms. Horder. Last May, the Lawrenceville resident became chef at the historic Teutonia Mannerchor, a 150-year-old German social club on the North Side, and already her potato pancakes are legendary.
How good are these crispy little cakes which, depending on how sweet you like your side dishes, are served with apple sauce and/or sour cream?
"When people come to eat and we don't have them, they get really upset," says Marie Schmitt, a longtime waitress in the club's Rathskeller restaurant. "It's one of the reasons they come to German club."
Unfortunately for many Pittsburghers, enjoying one of Ms. Horder's pancakes is something you only can dream about unless you have German connections; the restaurant, which serves lunch three days a week and dinner during special occasions like this weekend's fourth Schlachtfest (the celebration of the pig slaughter), is only open to members and their guests. This Saturday is the exception.
On March 8, Ms. Horder and her son Christopher, who runs the kitchen at Teutonia, will be demonstrating how to make authentic kartoffelpuffer and handing out golden-brown samples at the 33rd annual Duquense Light Home & Garden Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. They'll be there from noon to 2 p.m. in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Showcase Stage on the second level, which this year has a German theme and vacation giveaway.
(I'll be there at the show, too, this weekend, demonstrating and serving pan-fried spaetzle with German sausages from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, and apfelpfannkuchen (apple pancakes) from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 9.)
Like most chefs, Ms. Horder, who formally trained at Le Cordon Bleu Pittsburgh (previously known as the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute) in the early '90s, is skilled in a variety of international cuisines, including the regional dishes of Alsace-Lorraine, which is not quite French but not fully German, either.
"I like mussels in white wine as much as the next person," she readily admits.
Yet "with this accent," she's quick to add, referring to a voice in which umlauts roll off the tongue with ease, "German (food) comes quite naturally."
Ms. Horder's cooking pleased many a palate before she went to culinary school; after getting divorced, she stayed home to raise her four sons and "because of that, so many people came into my kitchen. I cooked for everyone."
One day, a neighbor offered to pay her for homemade spaghetti sauce. That led to another job, and then another. Before she knew it, she was in the catering business. At one point, she also owned and ran a coffee shop in Blawnox.
Ms. Horder insists there's no real skill to making awesome potato pancakes other than to know what they're supposed to taste like -- crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside -- and to be sure to cook the batter in a hot pan so the pancakes don't stick. But you do have to work with the right ingredients.
She always starts with a starchy, low-moisture potato, such as russet or Idaho. Less water means a crispier pancake, and the starch in a high-starch tater will act like glue, helping to hold the pancakes together. In addition, the batter shouldn't look like batter so much as uncooked oatmeal (i.e. wet and lumpy), so you'll want to add the flour a little bit at a time so it doesn't get too thick.
"And you have to grate both the potatoes and the onions," she adds. You can use a food processor with a cheese grater disc, but a hand-held box grater also will get the job done fast. That's the way Grossmutter and Urgrossmutter before her did it.
She usually keeps her pancakes simple. But if you want to get fancy, you can add chopped parsley or other fresh herbs and maybe a handful of chopped chives. Some Germans also like to sprinkle a little ground cinnamon on the finished dish, especially when it's served with applesauce.
Her potato pancakes are so popular, it's not unusual for her and her staff to go through a five-gallon bucket of batter over the course of a week or during a special event such as Schlachtfest or Oktoberfest.
She thinks she knows why: "There's a portion of homesickness in them" that makes the dish taste just like it does in her hometown.
You can buy tickets to the Duquense Light Home & Garden Show, which runs through March 16, at pghhome.com or on site at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
Inge's Potato Pancakes
The key to perfect potato pancakes -- golden and crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside -- is to always start with hot oil in a hot frying pan, says Inge Horder, chef of Teutonia Mannerchor on the North Side.
10 big starchy potatoes (such as russett or Idaho), washed, peeled and finely grated
4 onions of the same size, finely grated
4 to 6 eggs
1 cup flour
Salt and white or black pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
Applesauce and/or sour cream, for serving
In a large bowl, stir together potatoes, onion and eggs. Add flour, a few tablespoons at a time, until the mixture has the consistency of wet oatmeal. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
In a large skillet or griddle, heat oil to sizzle over medium- high heat. Drop large spoonfuls of the potato batter into the skillet and flatten slightly with a spatula. Fry until the pancakes get lacy around the edges, about 4 minutes. Flip and continue cooking another 3 to 4 minutes. The pancakes should be nice and golden brown. Serve immediately.
Serves a crowd.
-- Chef Inge Horder, Teutonia Mannerchor
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.