On a summer day in Vienna with the heat soaring above 90 degrees, cooking instructor Maschi Mermelstein-Stössel changes her original plan to bake challah with a group of American journalists to a lighter, more seasonably appropriate menu, including a salmon salad as well as pierogi with two fillings: potato and a grain- and mushroom-based concoction.
“I made my dough with gluten-free flour for the first time,” she says with a satisfied smile.
A self-taught cook and culinary enthusiast who has lived across Europe and in Canada, Mermelstein-Stössel returned to her Viennese roots and her childhood apartment in 2007 with her husband, Asher, after two decades in Antwerp and Montreal, to take care of her ailing father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She also switched careers from the medical industry to her new culinary business — Maschis Delishkes.
Mermelstein-Stössel’s home in Vienna’s central first district is steeped in Old World elegance. The building’s distinguished position on the Ringstrasse stands among edifices constructed in a range of styles in the wake of the urban planning proclamation Emperor Franz Joseph I issued in 1857. Mermelstein-Stössel’s building dates back to 1908. The interior’s geometrically patterned concrete tiles and moldings reflect the city’s turn-of-the-century influential tastes in art, architecture and design of the Vienna Secession movement.
The high-ceilinged rooms are filled with art and antiques, including an Art Nouveau style display case in the living room stocked with silver pieces and Judaica.
Mermelstein-Stössel’s parents met in Vienna and moved into the building in the 1950s after her father, who grew up near the Romania-Hungary border, made his way to the city after being liberated from a labor camp. All his immediate family was killed in Auschwitz. Mermelstein-Stössel’s mother, a convert to Judaism, came from Czernowitz, Romania. Mermelstein-Stössel said her mother even socialized with Hitler Youth. “I have both sides in me,” she acknowledges.
The impact of the Holocaust remains a constant presence in her life. Mermelstein-Stössel explains how the apartment was taken over by the Gestapo to house families awaiting deportation during the war. “Sometimes when I think about it, it makes me a little bit. … It’s a harsh memory. But on the other hand, I’m happy to stay here.”
Her current upstairs neighbors are Jewish, and she proudly keeps a kosher home, noting that her father’s relationship with Judaism was complicated after the war. “He was putting on tefillin in the morning and saying his prayers, but then he’d go to the sauna and eat out in any non-kosher restaurant,” she says.
By harnessing the power of food and education, Mermelstein-Stössel is a conduit between past and present Vienna. The city’s pre-1938 Jewish population is estimated at 185,000. Today, more than 8,000 Jews are affiliated with the Jewish community centered around the Stadttempel, Vienna’s main synagogue, with approximately another 2,000 to 4,000 unaffiliated Jews in the city.
“The community is not so big, but it’s growing,” Mermelstein-Stössel says, citing increased kosher food options. Her own kitchen counters are lined with oils and vinegars from Israel and other spices from the Middle East along with well-worn cookbooks and local produce she procured for the class.
Her business, Maschis Delishkes, is associated with the online Eat With network, and she also speaks at educational institutions around the city. And like any savvy lifestyle entrepreneur, Mermelstein-Stössel diligently updates her social media feeds.
After serving an original welcome cocktail with Prosecco, jasmine syrup, basil and lychee, we spread smoked trout on endive leaves and flake fish fillets for the salmon salad, layered on a bed of organic goat yogurt topped with generous heaps of fresh herbs, chopped dried cranberries and peanuts, inspired by a dish at Café Puaa, a Mediterranean restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa neighborhood.
After glasses of refreshing borscht, we return to the kitchen to craft the pierogi, first boiling them and then giving the rich dumplings a quick finish in sizzling butter.
Every place at the table is properly set, and each course is individually plated. (Mermelstein-Stössel is not a fan of family-style dining.) Kosher wine is served. The dinner extends from early evening into the night and concludes with artisanal gelato and fresh fruit.
Many of Mermelstein-Stössel’s clients are interested in Jewish traditions and history. Some might have had “a grandparent in the SS, or the father was on the right politically,” she says. “The curiosity remains and they want to do something to change it. It’s always motivated from a good place.”
While the multilingual Mermelstein-Stössel excels at all forms of communication and educating audiences about Jewish traditions, she‘s always eager to get back into the kitchen.
“We cook together after. It’s very cheerful and it opens them up,” she says. “Discussion is much better when cooking than in the classroom.”
MASCHIS DELISHKES TAKE ON CAFÉ PUAA SALMON SALAD
For the salad:
1 pound cold, pulled, freshly baked salmon filet
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Olive oil, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste
1 cup each of fresh parsley, dill and basil, rinsed, dried and chopped
1/2 cup of fresh cilantro, rinsed, dried and chopped
1 cup goat yogurt
1 small red onion, diced
1 cup of dried cranberries, chopped
1 cup of low-sodium peanuts, crushed into small pieces and slightly roasted
For the vinaigrette:
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon mild mustard
1 tablespoon liquid honey
Season salmon with salt, pepper, olive oil and a little lemon juice. Cover and bake at 320 degrees for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare all the other ingredients. Mix the vinaigrette. Flake the salmon into bite-sized pieces after the cooked fish has cooled. Mix together all the herbs.
Assemble each serving starting with the yogurt, then salmon, then herbs, red onion, cranberries and peanuts on top. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the fish and serve immediately.
Plating suggestion: Use decorative plates or transparent bowls to showcase the layers.
Serves 4 as an appetizer.
Jessica Ritz is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, C Magazine, Sunset, Coastal Living, Tablet and ArchitecturalDigest.com
CORRECTION: This story has been updated with information regarding the year Mermelstein-Stössel arrived in Vienna and where her mother was from.