30 October 2011

Butter crescents - “Butterhörnchen”

Once again I was unsure about how best to translate the name of these rolls. Literally, a Hörnchen is a small horn or ‘hornlet’, but this just doesn’t sound right. I considered calling them ‘German croissants’, too, but I did not want to risk breaking the European Union's Protected Geographical Status laws and they are also considerably easier to make. I love a good croissant and I am also partial to spending an entire day or even weekend testing complicated and time-consuming recipes. However, the time required to make real croissants is simply incompatible with a full-time job. Whilst these butter crescents are not quite as flaky and light as croissants they are the next best thing. They, too, take a while to make, but most of this time is required for the dough to rise and simply to sit in a warm place until it is ready to bake. They freeze very well and can just be defrosted and reheated in a warm oven for 10-15 minutes – they taste as good as fresh! 

There are a lot of different variants of the butter crescent available throughout Germany and this recipe with simple and buttery yeast dough is a popular version. I like the crescents plain so they can be teamed up with different toppings, but lots of variations are possible. They can be filled with jam, marzipan or with a piece of chocolate. For a savoury version I recommend sprinkling them with coarse sea salt or even with grated cheese. If you are in possession of food-grade caustic soda  for baking Pretzels you can use this to produce ‘Pretzel Crescents’ or ‘Laugenhörnchen’, which have become increasingly popular in Germany in recent years.

The recipe makes 12 crescents:

15 g fresh yeast (or one sachet dried)
1 tsp salt
300 ml warm milk
500 g plain flour
1 tbsp sugar
60g butter

Some melted butter (optional)
Some milk for brushing the crescents before baking

If you are using fresh yeast (recommended), add the yeast and salt to the warm milk, stir until dissolved, and leave to stand for about half an hour. If you use dry yeast just dissolve in the warm milk and salt – no waiting time required.

Mix the milk-yeast mixture with the flour and sugar. Leave to stand for 1-2 hours. Add the butter and knead the dough patiently (about 7 minutes in a food processor, longer by hand) until you have a smooth ball of dough that is not too sticky. Leave to rise for an hour. Stretch and fold the dough and leave to relax for about another hour.

Roll out the dough into a circle about ½ cm thick and leave to relax for a few minutes. Cut the circle into 12 slices like a pie and brush with the melted butter or top with topping, if using. Roll up into crescent shapes. Leave to rise for another 20 minutes or so then brush with some milk and bake at 220 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until they are as brown as you would like them to be.

20 October 2011

Hazelnut cake - 'Nusskuchen'

This is a very simple sponge cake and I can’t really think of any interesting facts or anecdotes to go with it. It is just a classic and very popular recipe that I have already liked as a child and I still love now. The combination of roasted hazelnuts and a dash of brandy is a winner and absolutely delicious. This is another one of those things that I like for breakfast (yes, I like my breakfasts and no, I see nothing wrong with eating cake first thing in the morning). For this reason I tend to leave the cake plain as in the picture and I do not cover it with a nice milk-chocolate icing, which also makes a very good match. The cake is light and moist and keeps fresh for about a week in a tin. All ingredients should be at room temperature before the baking commences. I like baking this in a large loaf tin, but two smaller tins and other shapes also work.

 250g butter
200g sugar
Seeds from one vanilla pod
4 eggs
1 large dash of brandy
350g plain flour
2 heaped teaspoons baking powder
200g roasted hazelnuts, ground
150 ml milk

Whisk the butter, sugar and vanilla for several minutes until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one and continue whisking. Add the brandy. Mix the flour, baking powder and hazelnuts. Alternate adding portions of the flour and the milk to the whisked butter and eggs. Combine well, but do not overwork the batter. Pour into a greased tin and bake at 180 degrees for about an hour.

16 October 2011

Sweet plaited bread - 'Hefezopf'

The Hefezopf (literally translated this means yeast plait) is another one of those bakery staples typical of south-west Germany, and of the region of Swabia – or Schwaben – in particular. To even call this a recipe seems kind of odd to me as it is just so basic. Every person growing up within an 80 km radius of Stuttgart can throw this together in their sleep from the age of three. I prefer having this slightly sweet and very good looking bread for breakfast, topped with butter and homemade jam or honey. I tend to make it for weekends or bank holidays, especially when friends or family are staying over and we have time to indulge in an extensive ‘continental’ breakfast. There are two basic variants of the Hefezopf: one with raisins and the other without. I am not a big fan of dried fruit, so I prefer the latter, but it is a matter of preference. Lately, I have given my Hefezopf a ‘British twist’, spicing it with some of the tasty ingredients used for hot cross buns. This is not traditional and therefore not suitable for purists, but I think it tastes great.

One slight drawback of baking a Hefezopf in the UK is the scarce availability of fresh yeast in regular supermarkets. Of course, this can also be baked with dried yeast, which I have tried. However, the fresh yeast taste is an important feature of this bread. I have been told that some British supermarkets sell fresh yeast and it can also be bought in some organic shops, especially in London. Unfortunately, I have never managed to find fresh yeast in shops that are in my vicinity. One way around this for me has been to buy yeast in bulk from a baker selling it on ebay (the price is very reasonable) and to freeze it in individual portions. Apparently, some traditional baking shops (if you can find one) are also willing to sell some fresh yeast if you ask nicely.

For one large plait:

20g fresh yeast (or 1 sachet dried)
500 g plain flour
250 ml lukewarm milk
1 egg
60 g butter
80 g sugar
1 tsp of salt
Finely grated zest of ½ organic lemon
A handful of raisins (optional) 

For a spiced version try a few of the following: infuse the milk with a pinch of saffron, a cinnamon stick, a cracked cardamom pod and/or a vanilla pod. Add a pinch of ground ginger, nutmeg and/or ground cloves.

Egg wash (one egg yolk mixed with a bit of milk to glaze the bread before baking)

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, add to all the other ingredients (apart from the egg wash) and knead until you have soft dough that is not too sticky. Cover in a bowl and leave in a warm place to rise until it has doubled in size. Divide the dough into three parts and roll each part into a string about 40 cm long and plait. Place on a baking sheet covered in baking paper and leave to rise again for about 20-30 minutes.  Mix an egg yolk with a dash of milk and brush this onto the bread (this will give it a nice shine). Bake at 200 degrees for about 40 minutes, or until the bread is a nice golden colour and sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped.

2 October 2011

Marble cake - Marmorkuchen

Marble cake is an absolute classic in Germany, and for good reason. I must have baked this for the first time when I was about 10 years old and I have made it hundreds of times since. One memorable occasion was my 18th birthday when I started baking this cake not long before my guests arrived. I somehow managed to get my hair tangled up in the electric whisk, which destroyed my carefully styled hair. My mother, inexplicably, found this very funny and struggled to help me detach the whisk from my head for she was laughing so hard.  In my family opinions on the marble cake are divided. For me, and also for my dad, marble cake has been a firm and constant favourite and we would pick this over elaborate cream cakes or fruit tarts any day. We particularly like eating large slices of this for breakfast. Some people, including my mother, think that marble cake is a bit basic – boring, even. I can assure you that they are mistaken.

In Germany marble cakes tend to be baked in a ring-shaped tin as shown on the photo. However, they can also be baked in a regular square or rectangular cake tin. The recipe makes one large cake.

250g butter
280g sugar
4 eggs
Seeds from one vanilla pod
500g plain flour
2 heaped tsp baking powder
170 ml milk
4 tbsp cocoa powder
A good swig of dark rum or amaretto (or extra milk)

Whisk the butter with the sugar for about 10 minutes until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one and keep whisking. Mix in the vanilla.

In a separate bowl mix the flour with the baking powder. Alternate adding flour and milk to the egg mixture, whisking slowly. Once all the flour and milk have been added pour two thirds of the batter into a greased cake tin. Add the cocoa powder and rum (or other liquid) to the remaining batter and mix well. Pour the chocolate batter on top of the white batter and swirl carefully with a fork for a marble effect.

Bake in the preheated oven at 180 degrees for about 45 minutes. Prick the cake with a match or toothpick – if it comes out clean the cake is done.

Leave to cool for a few minutes then turn out of the tin. It can be served as it is, dusted with icing sugar, or covered with chocolate icing. It keeps fresh in a tin for several days and also freezes very well.

1 October 2011

Swabian Poor Souls – ‘Schwäbische Seelen’

There are several theories regarding the origin of this bread’s strange name: Seelen, translated as poor souls. It appears to be of a religious nature and linked to All Souls’ Day, a commemoration day met on 2nd November in the Catholic Church calendar. In the region of Swabia food, including Seelen bread, was given as a symbolic offering tothe  poor souls in purgatory, because congregations believed that this would bring them a rich harvest in the following year.

However, to be honest it is not the religious connection that interests me, but the taste and specific texture of this lovely bread. Seelen are large, savoury bread rolls sprinkled with caraway seeds and coarse sea salt.  On the inside they are particularly fluffy and moist owing to the use of very soft dough and spelt flour instead of wheat. In the Stuttgart region Seelen are often eaten for breakfast fresh from the bakery. Another popular variation is to eat them as hot sandwiches filled with ham and cheese. Personally, I would describe this bread as the Swabian equivalent to the baguette or ciabatta. I like serving Seelen with vegetable stew or soup especially in the autumn and winter.

This recipe makes about 6 large Seelen

500g white spelt flour
20g fresh yeast (or one sachet dry)
300 ml warm water
2 tsp salt

For sprinkling: caraway seeds and coarse sea salt

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and knead all ingredients for about 10 minutes to get soft and fairly sticky dough. Leave to rise in a warm place for about 60 minutes. After 20 minutes and 40 minutes of rising knead the dough again briefly with wet hands. 

When the dough has risen turn it out onto a lightly floured wooden board. With wet hands shape it into a square of about 20 cm. Use a wet knife to cut the dough into six strips. Wet the hands again and transfer the strips onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Don’t worry if the Seelen at this point look like a sticky mess, this is quite intentional and they will look rustic once baked.  The sticky dough gives the Seelen their distinctive, chewy texture and open crumb. Cover with a clean dish towel and leave to rise for another 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to about 240 degrees and place a bowl of water on the bottom shelf. 

When the Seelen are ready to go into the oven wet them again with your hands and sprinkle with caraway seeds and coarse sea salt. Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.