24 September 2011

Poppy seed plait - 'Mohnzopf'

Sweetened and plaited breads are popular in Germany – for breakfast at the weekend (or on any other morning of the week if I get the chance), but also with coffee or tea in the afternoon. A favourite variation of mine is this plait filled with a sweet poppy seed mixture. It tastes and looks quite special (even if I say so myself), but it is actually quite easy to make. The poppy seed in the mix can be replaced with ground nuts - hazelnuts and/or almonds are best. Many different variations in flavour are possible with the addition of, for example, grated lemon zest, cinnamon, cocoa powder or even grated marzipan.

Poppy seeds are widely used in cakes and other sweet dishes in Central and Eastern Europe. It is not a problem to buy packets of poppy seed in the UK – I usually get mine from the organic supermarket. Unfortunately, I have never found ground poppy seed as needed for this plait and also for other cakes (such as my poppy seed cake). However, poppy seed can be ground (or at least bruised) in a decent food processor or even with a mortar and pestle). I don’t recommend using whole poppy seed, as this has quite an unpleasant, sandy texture.

I usually bake this plait in a large cake tin (about 30 cm long) to give it an even shape. It can be baked without a tin, but this will result in a flatter shaped loaf.

For the bread:

20 g fresh yeast (or 1 sachet dry)
130 ml milk
400 g plain flour
40 g sugar
70 g butter
1 egg

For the filling:

100 g ground poppy seeds
25 g semolina
60 g sugar
175 ml milk
Seeds of one vanilla pod
A good swig of rum (optional)

Dissolve the fresh yeast in the warm milk, add to the rest of the bread ingredients and knead to get a fairly firm ball of dough. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place for about 45 minutes.

In the meantime make the filling. Boil the milk with the sugar and vanilla, and then add the poppy seeds and semolina. Bring back to the boil briefly and set aside to allow the poppy seed and semolina to swell up and the mixture to cool down. Add the rum and mix well.

When the dough has risen roll it into a rectangle of about 20 by 30 cm. Evenly distribute the topping on the dough and roll up so you end up with a sausage about 30 cm long. Carefully cut this sausage down the middle with a serrated knife. Then twist the two halves into a braid and place in a greased cake tin. Cover and leave to rise again for about 30 minutes.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees for about 45 minutes.

22 September 2011

Tarte flambée – Flammkuchen

Flammkuchen is a cross-border specialty that can typically be found in the French Alsace region as well as in the Baden and Pfalz regions of Germany. Although it is not entirely typical of my own home region, I wanted to include it in this blog because a) it is incredibly tasty and b) it is a somewhat more elegant version of my last recipe, the Zwiebelkuchen. Flammkuchen literally translates as ‘flame cake’. This is because, traditionally, they were baked in wood-fired stone ovens while the flames were still too hot for baking bread. Villagers thus made most of the firewood; and the time it took to bake a Flammkuchen allowed them to gauge when the oven was ready for the bread. 

I remember going to a traditional restaurant serving Flammkuchen in the city I grew up in. The waitress kept bringing out large Flammkuchen on wooden boards to be shared by everyone around the table until we asked her to stop. The meal was usually finished with a sweet variation of the tart, topped not with onions and bacon, but with cream and fruit. We didn’t get to go there often and it always was a really special treat.

If only I had known back then how quick and easy those Flammkuchen are to make. Only very recently, having just returned from a cycling holiday through the vineyards of Alsace and Baden, I decided to give it a go and I was amazed how easy it is to recreate an authentic looking and tasting Flammkuchen. (I am also now, with hindsight, amazed at the prices they get away with in Alsace). This crispy and savoury tart can be served with a salad as a main meal, but it is also excellent as a snack with a nice glass of wine.

The following recipe is for two pizza-sized Flammkuchen (they are very thin so two people will easily eat this with a salad as a main meal).

For the dough:

200g flour (I used a mixture of type 00 and plain white)
120 ml water
A few pinches of salt
2 tbsp oil

For the topping:

150 g crème fraîche or sour cream
1 large onion, halved and cut into thin slices
80 g bacon lardons or bacon cut into thin strips
Salt and pepper

Mix the flour with water, salt and oil and knead until you have a smooth and elastic ball of dough that is not sticky (add more flour or water if required). Cover in cling film and leave to relax for a while.

Preheat the oven as hot as it will go – 270 degrees are ideal.

Divide the dough into two pieces and roll these out on a floured surface as thinly as you possibly can – they should be almost paper thin. This takes a bit of patience, because the dough is reluctant at first to keep its shape. Top the dough with the crème fraîche or sour cream – two heaped tablespoons per pizza-sized Flammkuchen are enough. Traditionally the onions and bacon are added raw, but I find that cooking them first results in a better flavour (this is probably because it is difficult to recreate the extremely hot temperatures of a bread oven in a conventional kitchen). Melt some of the fat off the bacon in a hot frying pan, then remove the bacon and soften the onions in the same pan for a couple of minutes. Top each round of dough with half of the onions and bacon and season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper.

For the crispiest results (unless you have a proper pizza oven) the Flammkuchen are best baked on a pizza stone – a large and thick ceramic tile that is preheated in the oven for at least 45 minutes. However, it is also fine to bake the Flammkuchen on a preheated baking sheet. It is easiest to transfer the raw Flammkuchen into the oven if you place the rolled dough on a chopping board covered with baking paper before you add the toppings. You can then pull the Flammkuchen with the paper directly from the board onto the hot stone or baking sheet.

Bake for about 10 minutes or until the edges are crispy and brown and the toppings are bubbling. Cut into pieces and eat straight away.

20 September 2011

Swabian onion tart - 'Zwiebelkuchen'

Zwiebelkuchen is a seasonal dish that can typically be found in the wine-growing regions of south-west Germany in early autumn. It is the perfect accompaniment to new wine, which is unfiltered grape juice in an early stage of fermentation with an alcohol content ranging from four to 11 percent. New wine, also known as Federweisser (white) or Federroter (red), is only available directly from wine producers and for a few weeks in September and October. This drink is traditionally served and consumed in the popular ‘Besenwirtschaften’, or ‘broom taverns’. These taverns are set up in the barns, garages or even living rooms of wine growers in the autumn, when they are allowed by law to serve their produce without a license for a short period of time. Traditionally, a broom is placed outside the building in order to signal that a tavern is open for business. In addition to wine simple savoury snacks are also served and the Zwiebelkuchen is a firm favourite. I have not been able to source new wine in the UK so far, but the tart also goes very well with a glass of chilled Riesling or a light red, such as a young Pinot Noir. It would probably also team up nicely with a good vintage cider!

The recipe below can be baked in a round form or in a rectangular tin. Choose the size of your tin depending on how deep you would like the onion filling to be. I have used a 32 cm tart form in the photo. The tart is best served warm but it also tastes good reheated on the next day.

For the dough:

20g fresh yeast (or 1 sachet dried)
250 g plain flour (you can also use whole wheat or spelt)
1 pinch sugar
1 tsp salt
50 g butter
150 ml warm water

For the filling:

600 g onions
40 g butter
1 tbsp plain flour
2 eggs
100 ml single cream or crème fraiche
Caraway seeds
80 g bacon lardons

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and combine with all the other dough ingredients. Knead for a few minutes until you have a smooth and elastic ball. Leave the dough to rise in a covered bowl until it has doubled in size. Line your greased tin with the dough (not too thick, but not as thin as for pizza).

For the filling chop the onions into small squares. Cook slowly in the butter over a medium heat. The onions should become translucent, but they should not turn brown. It is important to take your time with this – make sure the onions are nice and soft.

When the onions are cooked, stir in the flour and leave to cool slightly. Add the cream and eggs and mix well. Season with salt and with some caraway seeds – make sure you taste the mixture as the onions require quite a lot of salt. Pour the filling into the tin and sprinkle with more caraway seeds and the bacon lardons. Dot with some extra butter, if you like. Bake at 200 degrees for 40-50 minutes.

18 September 2011

Rye bread with yoghurt

This was my first attempt at baking a 100% wholegrain rye bread and I am quite happy with the result. Rye dough has a reputation for being difficult to handle as it is so sticky. However, this bread is baked in a tin, which allowed me to circumvent the challenge of shaping a sticky mess into a loaf. Sticky it was, but the baked bread turned out beautifully moist and surprisingly light. This is a variation of a recipe I found on a German internet forum for sourdough enthusiasts, der-sauerteig.com. In addition to a vast collection of tried-and-tested recipes this forum provides the answer even to the most left-field sourdough-related question or problem. Most of the forum is in German, but contributions in English are welcome and there are a few English-speaking users. If you are into baking sourdough bread then this really is an invaluable resource. 

The addition of a ‘soaker’ – wholemeal flour soaked in water before baking – makes this bread particularly moist and it will easily keep fresh for a week. Pure sourdough rye, especially if baked with wholemeal flour, does not rise to the heady heights of wheat and yeast bread and is less spectacular visually. However, this loaf’s flavour demonstrates that there is some truth in this old platitude: looks don’t count for everything.

For the sourdough (I explain how to make your own sourdough starter HERE)

20 g sourdough starter
180 g wholemeal rye flour
190 g warm water
Leave in a warm place (26 degrees are ideal) for 16 hours

For the soaker:

155 g wholemeal rye flour or bruised rye grains
155 g water
12 g salt
Leave to stand at room temperature for at least 4 hours

For the bread dough:

Sourdough from the recipe above
Soaker from above
290 g wholegrain rye flour
10 g honey
160 g natural yoghurt at room temperature
5 g fresh yeast (optional)

Mix all ingredients for the bread dough and knead/mix for about 5 minutes. The dough should be wet and sticky and have the consistency of porridge. Leave the dough to rest for 50 minutes in a warm place then knead/mix again briefly. Pour the dough into a large, greased bread tin (it should not be more than half full) and smooth the top with wet hands. Cover the tin with a cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for up to an hour or until doubled in size. Bake in the preheated oven for about 60 minutes, starting with 240 degrees and slowly decreasing the temperature to about 180. If you like your bread crusty you can bake it without the tin for the last 20 minutes in the oven. Rye bread should mature for about a day before it is cut.

17 September 2011

Fruity crumble cake - 'Streuselkuchen'

Streuselkuchen – cakes with a crumbly topping – are a great favourite in Germany and they come in many shapes and forms. A tasty and traditional variation is a sweet yeast-based cake topped with rich, buttery crumble. In bakeries this type of Streuselkuchen is often sold in big slabs or as individual round pastries that are plain or filled with a custard cream, poppy seeds and/or fruit. 

My favourite Streuselkuchen is a quick version without yeast that can be thrown together in only a few minutes. The recipe and the ingredients are simple, but its combination of flavour and texture has made this one of my favourite cakes. The cake can be baked in a round spring form (24-26 cm) or in a rectangular tin (30 by 20 cm). The basic mix can be combined with different fillings depending on what you like best and what is available. For the cake in the picture I used a tin of apricots (drained) and a tub of quark mixed with an egg, some sugar and vanilla.

For the base and crumble topping:

250g butter softened
200g sugar (or more if you like)
450 g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 pinch of salt
1 egg
Seeds of one vanilla pod

For the filling:

100g flaked almonds
Fruit of your choice (for example, apricots fresh or tinned; cherries fresh or tinned; raspberries fresh or frozen; sliced apples or pears or even a few tablespoons of fruit jam)
Optional: one tub of quark or curd cheese or mascarpone (suitable especially if you could do with putting on a few pounds), mixed with an egg and flavoured with sugar, vanilla or grated lemon zest.

Combine all ingredients for the base and crumble topping until well combined. The mixture should be in coarse crumbs. Press half of the mix into your greased cake tin. Top the base with half of the flaked almonds. This prevents the base from becoming soggy from the fruit. If using, spread the quark or mascarpone mixture on top of the almonds and/or top with your choice of fruit. Add the rest of the flaked almonds and crumble mix to cover the fruit. Bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees for about 35-45 minutes.

12 September 2011

Sourdough loaf with rye and walnuts

I am a fan of traditional British cuisine and I love cooking flavoursome stews, savoury pies and especially these wonderful hot desserts, such as bread and butter pudding and fruit crumbles in all varieties. Every Christmas I treat my family in Germany to a slap up British Christmas dinner and everybody loves it (at least that’s what they say). What I never managed to get used to, though, is British bread. I am talking about those sliced loaves sold in plastic bags in supermarkets all over the country. Of course, some traditional bakeries remain and you can find excellent farmhouse loaves and other speciality breads if you are prepared to look a bit more closely. However, earlier this year I really started missing rustic sourdough bread baked with rye flour, which turned out to be really hard to come by in my East Midlands town. Bread baked with sourdough is the rule rather than the exception in Germany, and bread that includes at least a proportion of rye is also common.  Rye bread is darker than wheat, it tends to be less fluffy and it has a distinctive, aromatic flavour. Because of the specific makeup of its gluten (so I have been told) rye flour needs to be ‘acidified’ in order to be used for baking. This is achieved with sourdough, which probably explains the relatively rare use of rye flour in the UK, where yeast is most commonly used as a raising agent for bread.

Rye bread tends to be associated with savoury toppings, but I think it is as versatile as any other bread. It tastes excellent with butter and jam and especially with a good chocolate spread for breakfast. A real advantage of sourdough bread is that it keeps fresh for a lot longer than bread baked only with yeast. If stored correctly a loaf can be eaten for at least a week without getting hard or losing too much of its flavour.

Making sourdough is a science in itself and I spent a lot of time reading and researching the topic on the internet. Of course I am still not an expert and there is a lot more to learn. Making the first batch of sourdough was quite time intensive, but I have now mastered a small repertoire of sourdough breads that are almost as quick to make as regular wheat and yeast loaves in a bread maker. I ‘grew’ my own sourdough from only organic rye flour and water, which took about five days. But I have seen that readymade sourdough culture can be purchased online, which would considerably accelerate the process (but it would also take away a lot of the fun). Whether you grow your own sourdough culture or buy it online – give it a go! It is definitely worth it! For a description of how to make your own sourdough starter click HERE

Recipe for one large loaf:

To make the sourdough:
2 tbsp sourdough starter
140 g wholegrain rye flour
140 ml lukewarm water

For the bread:
280 g sourdough from the ingredients above (keep 2 tbsp in the fridge as a starter for the next loaf)
350g strong white bread flour (or spelt flour)
210 g wholegrain rye flour
300 ml lukewarm water
10 g salt
5 g fresh yeast (optional)
150 g walnut pieces, dry roasted in a pan
1 tbsp walnut oil
For the sourdough combine the starter with the rye flour and lukewarm water. Leave in a warm place (26 degrees are ideal) for about 12-15 hours. When the sourdough is ready it will be bubbly and at least have doubled in size.

For the bread dough combine the sourdough with all other ingredients and knead for about 10-15 minutes (I use the dough hook of my old Kenwood Chef, but you can also do this by hand). Add a bit more wheat flour or warm water if required so the dough can be handled without being too dry or too sticky. Cover with a cloth and leave to relax for about 15 minutes. Briefly knead the dough again on a surface floured with rye flour. Then place in a greased loaf tin or in a floured banneton (proofing basket) to bake a round and crusty loaf. I bought a banneton for very little money on ebay. But you can also use a round bowl or colander lined with a floured tea towel. The purpose of the banneton is to prevent the dough from spreading so you don’t end up with bread as flat as a pancake. 

Leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in size. Depending on the prowess of your sourdough this can take 1-5 hours (the potency of a sourdough tends to improve with age). If you use a small amount of yeast (purists sneer at this, but I usually add a few morsels so I don’t have to take a day off work and/or actually can get some sleep) about 50-60 minutes are sufficient.
Preheat the oven to about 240 degrees. Before you are ready to bake spray some water into the oven – this will give the bread a good crust. If baking without a tin carefully turn the bread from the banneton or bowl onto a baking sheet covered in baking paper. Bake for about 60 minutes, decreasing the temperature gradually from 240 to about 180 degrees. The bread is ready when the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.

Cover the bread with a clean tea towel. Do not be tempted to cut a slice while it is still warm even if it smells extremely good. It will taste best if left alone overnight. The loaf will keep fresh for up to a week if stored in a bread bin or tin. I have been told that the walnut bread tastes particularly good with a piece of brie. But I also recommend trying it with chocolate spread!

11 September 2011

Danube Waves - "Donauwellen"

This cake is an all-time favourite at German coffee afternoons and children’s birthday parties. For some reason unbeknown to me this cake was not part of my mum’s baking repertoire, so for me it has the air of being something ‘extra special’ that I only got to eat on rare occasions. Of course, now as an adult with my own stash of baking ingredients and kitchen I can eat anything I like and whenever I want to (unfortunately I have to tidy up after myself these days, too). So I made this Donauwelle on a random Saturday afternoon, just because I fancied it. This cake is a tasty combination of buttery vanilla and chocolate sponge laced with juicy morello cherries and topped with a light butter cream and glossy chocolate icing. Morello cherries, also called sour cherries (or Sauerkirschen) in Germany, can be purchased in glass jars in those German bargain basement supermarkets that have sprung up all over the UK in recent years (for all their sins). Fresh or regular tinned cherries are also fine. However, morello are best as their acidity makes for a nice contrast with the sweet sponge and toppings. Traditionally, this cake is baked in a large, square tin and cut it into rectangular servings (if you go for this option double the recipe below). I used a 28cm round spring form for a more ‘festive’ gateaux shape.

For the sponge:

125 g butter
125 g sugar
3 eggs
Seeds of one vanilla pod
180g flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp cocoa powder
A dash of brandy, rum or kirsch (or milk if you don’t want to use alcohol)
Half a jar of morello cherries, or one tin of cherries, or two good hands full of fresh cherries

For the buttercream:

125 g butter
250 ml milk
25g sugar
25g corn flour
1 vanilla pod
Finely grated zest of ½ organic lemon and a dash of the juice

For the chocolate icing:

150 g good quality dark chocolate
50 g single cream (double cream or whipping cream will also work)
1 tbsp honey
A knob of butter

Whisk the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one and also the vanilla. Mix the flour with the baking powder and thoroughly fold this into the egg and butter mixture – but do not over-mix. Smooth half of the batter into the greased and floured baking tin (it might seem like there isn’t enough, but it will rise). Add the cocoa powder and alcohol or milk to the rest of the batter, mix, and evenly smooth the dark batter on top of the vanilla layer. Swirl the mix with a fork for a marble effect. Top the batter with the cherries, slightly pushing them down. Bake for about 30 minutes at 175 degrees. Remove from the tin and allow to cool.

For the buttercream mix the sugar and corn flour in a small bowl with a few splashes of the milk. Whisk and make sure there aren’t any lumps. Bring the rest of the milk to the boil with the seeds from the vanilla pod and add pod to infuse, too. When the milk boils pour in the corn flour mix. Bring back to the boil and cook for about 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Discard the vanilla pod and allow this thick custard to cool. In order to avoid a skin from forming you can place a piece of cling film directly onto the surface of the custard. Whisk the butter until fluffy then gradually add the custard until everything is light and creamy. The butter and the custard should be at the same temperature to avoid curdling. Add the lemon zest and juice. Evenly smooth the buttercream on top of the cake and refrigerate.

For the chocolate icing carefully melt the chocolate in a bain-marie or in the microwave at low wattage and in short, 30 second bursts. Make sure the chocolate does not get too hot. Gradually add the cream, honey and butter and stir until glossy and smooth. Wait until the icing starts to firm up (if you refrigerate it this will happen faster), then poor on top of the buttercream and smooth all over the cake with a spatula. You can make a wave-like (Danube waves) pattern with a fork if you like.

The cake will keep for a few days, preferably well covered and in the fridge. I actually think it tastes best on the second day when all flavours have had the chance to mingle. However, it usually doesn’t last for very long...

10 September 2011

Pretzels - 'Laugenbrezel'

For those who know Germany (and its baking landscape) my first recipe clearly gives away where I grew up. The Laugenbrezel – a savoury shape baked from yeast dough and with a distinctive brown and chewy crust – can be found mainly in the south of Germany. The best brezels, even if I say so myself, come from the south-west, from Baden-Württemberg (and not from Bavaria!) and particularly from the Stuttgart region. Legend has it that the Laugenbrezel was invented by a baker from Bad Urach, a small town not too far from Stuttgart. Having committed a crime he was sentenced to death by hanging. However, as this was the baker’s first offence the local monarch agreed to give him a last chance: if he succeeded in baking a cake through which the sun could shine three times his life would be spared. The baker went to work and the brezel was the result of his labour.

I love brezels and (apart from my parents) they are what I miss most when I remember Germany. There is only one small complication, which has previously held me back from making my own and homemade version: the distinctive brown and chewy crust of a real brezel can only be achieved properly if it is dunked in a 4% caustic soda solution before baking. Some say that boiling some baking soda in water brings similar results... But this hasn’t made me happy. So finally, on my last trip to Germany, I acquired caustic soda solution in a pharmacy and successfully got the odd-looking bottle covered in hazard signs through Eurostar security... I have not tried to buy food-grade caustic soda in the UK. You might be able to get it from a friendly pharmacist, but I am fairly sure it can also be bought online. You only have to be persistent. It is definitely worth it.

Edit (4th March 2012). A few weeks ago I tried baking the Brezels with a baking soda solution, just because it is so difficult to get the 'proper' caustic soda outside of Swabia. The texture and flavour is not quite the same and they are not quite as shiny, but the result was not too bad. It is certainly better than no Brezels at all! Unlike the caustic soda solution, which is applied cold (indeed, it would be dangerous to heat this up), the baking soda is used with boiling water. Boil 3 tablespoons of baking soda in 2 litres of water for about 10 minutes. Then boil each raw Brezel in this solution for about 20 seconds and leave to drain. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and bake as below.

This recipe makes about 16-20 medium-sized brezels:

1 kg plain flour (you can also use spelt flour or a mix of both)
35g fresh yeast (or 2 sachets dry)
A pinch of sugar
500 ml lukewarm milk or water or a mix of both (I used half milk, half water)
75 g butter
2 teaspoons salt
coarse sea salt for sprinkling

4% caustic soda solution (about 300 ml)

Dissolve the yeast in the warm liquid and knead all ingredients until you have a firm and relatively dry dough. Leave this to rise in a covered bowl until it has doubled in size (30 minutes to 2 hours).

Divide the dough into 16-20 pieces and roll each piece into a strip around 50 cm long. The centre of the strip should be thicker and the ends should be thin. Form each strip into a brezel shape and leave to rise for a few minutes on a baking sheet covered in baking paper (other shapes, such as oblong rolls, plaits or knots are also possible and typical for this kind of bread. These are also quicker to make).

In order to make the brezels’ bath in the caustic soda solution easier it is best to freeze the unbaked brezels for a few minutes (this makes them easier to handle). Put the caustic soda solution into a large enough plastic food container with a tight-fitting lid. Bathe each brezel in this solution for about 30 seconds (turning once). Make sure to wear rubber gloves and maybe goggles, because ‘unbaked’ the solution should not get in contact with the skin or eyes. I also use metal spoons to dunk and turn the brezels and to retrieve them from the caustic soda. The rest of the solution can be kept with a firm lid on until the next time. Just make sure you label it well and keep it out of children’s reach.

Slit the thick part of the brezel (its ‘belly’) with a sharp knife or razor blade so it can rise and will not split randomly on the sides. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and bake in the oven at 200 degrees for about 20 minutes (or until the kitchen smells fantastic and the brezels have their typical, dark brown colour).

Enjoy them warm and with some cold, salted butter. They are great for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and as a snack :)

PS: They really should be eaten on the same day, because they go hard quickly. They can be frozen and reheated in the oven, but best results can be achieved if you freeze the brezels before baking and then dunk them in the soda solution whilst still frozen and bake them fresh.