A couple of weeks ago, my cousin, the host of this year’s family Easter gathering, sent out the dinner menu with a request for us to choose the items we wished to contribute. No problem there. The problem was this: there was no plumemooss on the menu.
When I saw this, I paused, pursed my lips in disapproval, and kept quiet.
Though the chilled fruit soup of my heritage had been on every Christmas and Easter menu since familial prehistoric times, I knew that had I objected, I would have been on the hook for making and transporting the sloppy dessert.
And I thought I didn’t really want the plumemooss that desperately.
But as the day approaches, I find myself growing wistful.
Plumemooss is not, by any means, the star of an Easter dinner. Oh, no. There’s no denying that the leading role in a Russian Mennonite Easter dessert must always go to Paska. Paska dominates the Easter sweet table like the alpha dessert that it is. Being sweet but not too sweet, it is unthreatened by the brass sugary chocolates and jelly beans and it presides over Easter with all the confidence of a mediocre white dude without being even remotely mediocre.
Yet if paska takes the prize for the best lead in an Easter dessert, plumemooss is a strong contender for best supporting dessert item. While paska is rich and substantial and chocolate is mildly intoxicating, mooss is silky smooth, cool and comforting. It is the dessert that stands by and nods while you wax on about your infatuation with paska and is still there to ease your digestion when the paska has done its damage. Cause that’s just what mooss is like.
And mooss isn’t just a complement for paska. Our humble little fruit soup has remarkable versatility. It is the perfect companion for whatever Christmas concoction is gracing a midwinter table and it also wouldn’t be amiss on a summer sweet table. According to Norma Jost Voth, who always has the last word on Mennonite food history trivia, there wasn’t a Mennonite wedding, funeral or pig butchering day in Russia that lacked a big bowl of mooss on the table.*
It wasn’t always plumemooss in particular at these tables — plumemooss is but one of many variations of obstmooss. Obst means fruit in German and Mooss means, well, it just means mooss. It likely comes from the High German mus meaning mush but Mooss isn’t really a fruit mush like applesauce. It’s a bit more like a thin, lightly cooked compote that comes in as many variations as there are fruits. My grandmother used to make a number of kinds of mooss for everyday consumption but for special occasions like Christmas and Easter, it always had to be plumemooss made with tart purple damson plums and a variety of other fruits.
Traditionally, my ancestors ate mooss made with fresh fruit in the summer and fall, when it was available, and mooss made with dried fruit in the winter and early spring before the first strawberries and rhubarb popped out of the thawing soil. The mooss recipes that Voth shares in Mennonite Food and Folkways mostly restricted themselves to one type of fruit at a time – so aepelmooss was only apples and kjoaschemooss only cherries – plus some seasoning, sugar, starch and milk or cream.
My family mooss is a little different from those that Voth reports. For one thing, at some point in the twentieth century, we happily started using frozen and canned fruit so that we could make mooss that approximated fresh fruit mooss all year round. Or at least for Christmas and Easter. For another, though we call it plumemooss because of the damson plums, we always mix in cherries, peaches and pears and raisins. And also – we’re not big on adding milk or cream to our plumemooss.
We start with the raisins – the only nod to the traditional dried fruit that remains in our mooss – and boil them up with a couple cups of water and some lemon. Then we add the plums that have been tucked away in the freezer since the previous harvest. These are often left with their pits, forcing the diners to remove the pits as they spoon the liquid into their mouths (no, this doesn’t seem odd to us). We use canned fruit for the rest and thicken the mooss with a bit of cornstarch and sugar. We don’t cook it long – just long enough to cook the starch – and then thoroughly chill it before serving. Some of my family like to eat it with a dollop of cream of wheat. Some of us don’t.
Mooss isn’t an everyday dessert for us anymore. I have never seen it at either weddings or funerals (or pig butchering parties either for that matter). I don’t, like my grandmother, see a leftover apple or pear and think to myself, “I should whip up a mooss with that to have with lunch.” Some of my generation and the next are downright disparaging of the simple fruit pudding of our past and I have to admit that there are some versions of it that I am happy enough to avoid.
But I will miss it this Easter. I could, of course, pull some damson plums out of my freezer, pick up some canned fruit and make it myself for Easter. It’s not like it’s hard to make. But I have only a few damsons left from last summer. And I’m going to need them for this cocktail.
The Pluma Mimosa
Like a traditional mimosa, this cocktail is juice and champagne, replacing the orange juice with the tart purple wonderfulness that comes from a couple of slightly cooked damson plums. Because they are so tart, I’ve also added a bit of simple syrup.
- 2 oz juice from slightly cooked damson plums
- 1/4 oz simple syrup
- 4 oz sparkling white wine
Pour the plum juice and simple syrup into the bottom of a champagne flute. Stir. Top with sparkling wine. Raise a glass to your ancestors and enjoy.
* I also used Norma Jost Voth’s spelling of mooss, though many a Mennonite drops the second s. As Low German is not really a written language, no one can claim too much authority on spelling our food names. But as she has more authority in the matter than I do, I concede her that second s. See Norma Jost Voth, Mennonite Foods and Folkways. Good Books: 1990, esp. 142-160.