“The difference between me and [Ernst Lubitsch] is that he shows you the king on the throne and then he shows you the king in his bedroom. I show you the king in his bedroom first. Then when you see him on the throne you have no illusions about him.”
Erich von Stroheim
Credited as one of the first directors to portray his heroes and heroines as realistic, flawed characters who often succumb to desire, von Stroheim rejected stars and sentiment. The lights and darks in his cynical view of humanity were always shaded tones, highlighted with symbolic artistry and black humor. Offsetting a richly textured elegance with banality, filth and deviance, von Stroheim exposed aristocrats in their pajamas and mustache bands. He focused on aberrations, idiosyncrasies, and deformities, inserting debauched orgies and sexual fetishes wherever he could while masterfully conveying believable, intricate emotions in the face of the often-overwrought theatrics of silent cinema. The result is a kind of enchanted realism where sincerity, love and goodness are always under threat by greater forces – societal, carnal and spiritual.
Writing elaborate scripts and unfilmed backstories, von Stroheim became known for an exacting, at times totalitarian, directorship with long, rigorous shoots and obsessive attention to detail – down to the type of wristwatch an actor wore. Nevertheless, he accrued a legion of loyal cast and crew who followed him from picture to picture. Not so generous, however, were the Hollywood executives whom he exasperated with his unhappy, complicated and often, peculiar visions which took longer and longer form.
Do you know what I love about him? Besides that he portrayed Max the butler in Sunset Blvd. to Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond—long after she got him fired from the project that ended his directing career.
He had a flair for creating dessert. Which makes sense because creating good pastry is all about unerring attention to detail, and sensational taste is about blending simple yet fine ingredients into ambrosial fantasy.
The couple of recipes I found of his are more like a series of notes jotted down to a friend who already had a good grasp of baking so I will embellish a bit and add oven temperatures, etc. And, we will concentrate on things like Kuchen (cinnamon rolls w/ pecans for Xmas breakfast) and a kind of lemon cake that is half custard, half tender cake, and shy away from the more elaborate Charlotte Glaces and Strudels.
Caramel Cinnamon Pecan Rolls à la Von S ( and we’re going to bake them in an iron skillet to gooey deliciousness)
Start with a kuchen dough:
2 packages dry yeast, 2 cups scalded milk (cooled), 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 eggs (slightly beaten), grated zest from one lemon, and here’s the tricky part—the dough is softer than a bread dough, but has to be stiff enough to handle and shape—so you’ll need 7 and a half to 8 cups of flour.
Proof the yeast in warm/tepid water (about a 1/4 cup). Cream the butter and add the sugar and salt. Stir in the slightly beaten eggs, the lemon zest, and about 2 cups of flour, all the milk, and the proofed yeast. Keep incorporating the flour until you have a soft malleable dough that holds together and isn’t too sticky. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in lightly buttered bowl, cover, and let rise over night until doubled in size.
It’s Christmas morning. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and enter the sanctuary of the kitchen.
Take your risen dough and roll it out on a floured surface into a rectangle 9 to 10 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick. Brush with melted butter (2-3 tbsp.), and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon until it looks just right. At this point you can also sprinkle on 1/2 cup of dried cranberries, currants, candied orange peel, or diced dried apricots, whatever strikes your fancy. Roll up the dough like a jelly roll and slice 1 inch thick.
In a cold skillet place 3 tbsp. melted butter, cover with a layer of brown sugar (Von Stroheim wrote “grated maple sugar” — but then he had Imperial silk underwear made for actors portraying Prussian Guards so they could “feel” authentic in their roles) — where were we? Oh, yes. Sugar. Add 2 tbsp. of water to the layer of sugar and heat for one minute. Add a layer of broken pecans to the sugar glaze in the skillet. Brush the sides of the rolls with melted butter and place in the skillet. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise until double in size (about an hour). Bake at 350º for 1/2 or a little more until the rolls are a deep golden brown. Turn the pan upside down on a platter (caramel side up) and serve nice and warm.
Looking for something a little quicker and easier? Look no further.
Erich von Stroheim’s Celestial Citrus Custard Cakes
2 cups sugar, 6 tbsp. flour, 1/4 tsp. salt, 4 tbsp. melted butter, 2/3 cup lemon juice, zest from one lemon, 6 eggs (separated), 3 cups milk.
Mix sugar, flour, salt, butter, lemon juice and rind. Beat yolks a lot, until pale yellow. Add the milk to the beaten yolks and blend. Combine these two mixtures, adding the flour mixture to the yolk mixture a bit at a time until well blended. In a separate bowl beat the eggs whites until they hold a stiff peak. Fold the egg whites into the cake batter. Pour into buttered 4 oz. ramekins. Place a roasting pan of hot water in the bottom of a 350º oven. Set your ramekins on a cookie sheet above the pan and bake 45 minutes. Chill the custard cakes before serving and top with whipped cream.