26 March 2012

Chocolate Pretzels – ‘Mürbe Brezeln’

These sweet pretzels are a fairly typical sight in German bakeries (or at least in bakeries located in the south-west of the country). I love the flavour and interesting consistency. They are a combination of flaky puff pastry and buttery chocolate-flavoured shortcrust pastry. These are twisted together into a pretzel shape, baked and then decorated with icing and slivers of almonds. I have to admit that these are a bit fiddly and time-intensive (even if shop bought puff pastry is used), but they are certainly worth spending some time on. All it takes is a bit of patience. From my own experience, it helps to try and keep calm and to resist the urge to just throw everything into the bin and to stomp upstairs if the first couple of pretzels don't work out. The trick is to get the dough to the right temperature – cold enough for the puff pastry not to get too sticky and warm enough for the short crust pastry not to be too brittle. 

This recipe makes about 20 pretzels:

250 g flour
75 g icing sugar
150 g cold butter
25 g cocoa powder
1 egg

One pack of ready rolled all-butter puff pastry (if you really have a lot of time on your hands and you want to make the puff pastry yourself: about 400 g should be enough)

1 egg white
100g icing sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
Sliced almonds, lightly toasted in a dry pan

Combine the flour, icing sugar, butter (cut into little cubes), cocoa powder and egg and quickly knead into a ball of pastry. It should be quite firm and not sticky. Wrap in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for about 45 minutes.

Unroll the puff pastry. Roll out the chocolate pastry with a rolling pin to match the shape and size of the puff pastry sheet. It’s best to do this on a relatively non-stick surface, such as a silicone mat or some heavy duty cling film (I used a plastic place mat in the picture below). The chocolate pastry should be about ½ cm thick or maybe a bit less. Brush the egg white onto the chocolate pastry and top it with the puff pastry sheet. Carefully press the two layers together. If there is a bit of overlap, straighten the edges with a sharp knife. Now it all depends on the consistency and temperature of the pastry. If it feels sticky (especially the puff pastry) it can help to let the whole thing firm up in the fridge for about 20 minutes.

To shape the first pretzel, use a sharp knife to cut a thin strip of double pastry (about 1 ½ cm) along the long edge of the pastry sheet. Carefully twist the strip of pastry and then shape into a pretzel. The chocolate pastry is more brittle than the puff pastry and it will crack a bit or even break in some places. Don’t let this deter you and carry on. Carefully lift the pretzel onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Repeat about 20 times until all the pastry is used up...

Bake in the preheated oven at 200 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the puff pastry starts turning golden.

In the meantime, mix the icing sugar with the lemon juice. Add a bit of water if required – the icing should not be too thick. Brush the warm pretzels with the icing and then sprinkle with a few almond slices. Leave to set and cool and then store in a tin.

25 March 2012

Nutty triangles - 'Nussecken'

Inspired by my crumbly pastries last week, I continued with the Süsse Stückle theme this weekend. The first recipe I baked was these nutty triangles, or Nussecken. Nussecken have a bit of a reputation for being old fashioned and a lot of people associate them with the 1970s. I am not sure why and they are certainly still very popular today. Actually, the first time I had these very delicious cakes was when my aunt Klara baked them for us sometime at the beginning of the 1990s. I liked them a lot and I have baked them many times since. So here it is: my aunt’s Nussecken recipe – thank you, Klara! These triangles are great, because they not only taste really good, but they also keep fresh for quite a while in a tin. They consist of a buttery hazelnut topping baked on top of buttery pastry and finished off with some dark chocolate. 

I baked this in a rectangular tin of 20 x 30 cm (which cut into 18 triangles) and there was enough left over to bake an additional 20 cm round tin of the stuff.

For the pastry base:

300 g flour
1 tsp baking powder
130 g butter
130 g sugar
2 eggs

For the hazelnut topping:

200 g butter
150 g sugar
Some vanilla seeds or vanilla extract
400 g ground hazelnuts (roasted hazelnuts are even better)
4 tbsp water

A few tbsp apricot jam
200 g dark chocolate

Make the pastry, roll out until about ½ cm thick and press this into a well-greased tin. Spread the apricot jam on top of the pastry and refrigerate.

Melt the butter, mix in the sugar and vanilla and stir until the sugar has resolved. Add the hazelnuts and water. Combine well and leave to cool. Spread the hazelnut topping on the pastry and smooth the surface. Bake at 175 degrees for about 25 minutes (or until the edges start turning brown). Leave to cool in the tin, then carefully cut into triangles with a sharp knife. 

Melt the chocolate and use this to decorate two corners of the triangles. Leave the chocolate to set, then store in a tin.

18 March 2012

Crumbly pastries – ‘Streuselküchle’

Streuselküchle are only one type of that great institution in the Swabian region of south-west Germany: Süsse Stückle, translated as ‘sweet pieces’. Süsse Stückle come in a large variety of shapes and flavours and they are sold in every bakery. Other typical examples of Süsse Stückle are the Swabian twirls and custard twirls I wrote about previously. The custom in most households in south-west Germany, I think, is to purchase Süsse Stückle in a bakery for afternoon coffee if there isn’t any time to bake a cake at home. At least this is what happened when I was a child. For some reason, I really felt like eating a Streuselküchle, or crumbly pastry, last night, but as I do not have access to a German bakery I had no choice but to make them myself. The Streuselküchle is an extremely popular example of the Süsse Stückle, consisting of a yeast-dough base and topped with buttery pastry crumble (it is also a rather unkind name for calling a spotty teenager). The recipe might sound a bit dry, but these pastries are delicious (especially fresh) with a cup of coffee. The trick is to cram as much crumble on each piece as you possibly can. Commercial bakeries these days all tend to cover the Streuselküchle (and indeed most other Süsse Stückle) with a thick layer of icing. For my liking this is too sweet and really not necessary. My father’s theory is that this is done only so the Streuselküchle can be sold for longer with ascorbic acid added to the icing as a preservative. He is probably right, so I tend to stick with the traditional version without the icing.

Variation and improvisation on the Streuselküchle, however, is very possible. The picture above shows the most basic version, consisting only of yeast dough and crumble. The picture below includes a thin layer of vanilla custard under the crumble (the same used in the custard twirl recipe) and I also added a few frozen raspberries. In summer, other soft fruit (especially apricots, red currants or blueberries) tastes excellent in these pastries, or a spoonful of jam can also be added.

This recipe makes about 16 Streuselküchle, about 10 cm each in diameter.

For the yeast-dough base:

200 ml warm milk
100g melted butter
20 g fresh yeast (or one sachet dry)
500 g plain flour
80 g sugar
1 egg

For the crumble topping:

170 g butter
150 g sugar
250 g plain flour
Seeds from one vanilla pod, or some vanilla extract:

Optional: vanilla custard (half the recipe of the ones used for the custard twirls is enough); berries or other soft fruit (frozen or tinned is fine).

Mix the warm milk with the melted butter and dissolve the yeast in this mixture. In a bowl, combine the flour with the sugar. Pour the milk mixture on top of the flour and leave the yeast to activate for about 30 minutes. Then add the egg and knead patiently until you have a soft ball of dough. If it is sticky after kneading for several minutes, add a bit more flour. Cover and leave to rise for about 1 hour. After one hour, stretch and fold the dough and leave to rest for another 30 minutes.

In the meantime, make the crumble. Combine all dry ingredients, add the soft butter (or melted butter) and mix until you have coarse crumbs.

Divide the yeast dough into about 16 pieces. Leave the pieces to rest for a couple of minutes, then roll out into round shapes. If you are making the plain Streuselküchle press a generous amount of crumble on top of the dough. Leave to rise for about 10 minutes then bake in the preheated oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about 20 minutes (the yeast dough should be nice and golden, the crumble topping still light). If you are using fruit or a custard filling add this before you put on the crumble. A spoonful of custard spread thinly on the dough is enough. Bake as above.

If you like it really sweet you can cover the Streuselküchle with icing (icing sugar mixed with a few spoons of water or lemon juice) when they have cooled down. The Streuselküchle should be eaten within a day or two, but they can also be frozen.

11 March 2012

Cherry cake with semolina – 'Kirsch-Grieß Kuchen'

This is a very simple and traditional southern German recipe. Semolina, cherries and cinnamon are a classic combination and most German children will have grown up eating semolina pudding with cherries and a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon on a regular basis. The flavours of this typical ‘comfort food’ are replicated in this cake. As discussed in my Donauwellen recipe a few months ago, morello cherries (called sour-cherries in Germany) can be bought in large jars in Lidl or Aldi in the UK. Of course, in summer the cake should be made with fresh cherries instead! This recipe is enough for a smallish (24 cm max) round baking tin. I baked it in a 20 cm x 30 cm rectangular tin.

100g semolina
100 g sugar
375 ml milk
80 g butter
3 egg yolks and 3 egg whites
80 g ground almonds
1 tsp cinnamon (or more, if you like)
1 jar morello cherries or a few hands full of fresh, pitted cherries

Put the semolina, sugar and milk in a pan, bring to the boil and cook for a few minutes until the semolina has absorbed all the liquid (the mixture should have the consistency of thick porridge). Add the butter, which will melt in the hot mixture. Once the butter has melted, stir in the three egg yolks and combine well. Leave the mixture to cool down.

Add the ground almonds and cinnamon and combine well, then mix in the cherries. If you are using a jar of cherries make sure you drain them well to stop the cake from going soggy (I dry them off on a few pieces of kitchen towel before adding them to the mixture). Finally, whisk the egg whites and carefully fold them in. Pour the batter into a well greased baking tin, smooth the surface and bake at 200 degrees for about 60 minutes. 

4 March 2012

Rustic rye bread - 'Rustikales Roggenmischbrot'


Unfortunately, I don’t manage to bake sourdough loaves nearly as often as I would like to. Admittedly, these breads are a labour of love and require some planning. The making and baking process itself is not too bad, but just getting the dough ready requires a few fairly lengthy periods of rest and proofing in between the individual steps. Over the past few months the day job just didn’t allow me to engage in this more time-intensive kind of baking very often. Having said this, though, the effort is absolutely worth it. This weekend I managed to reinvigorate my sourdough starter that was waiting patiently in the fridge and then baked another variation of rye bread with sourdough. This bread is made of three components, as described below: the sourdough, a pre-dough involving a very small amount of fresh yeast, and also a ‘soaker’, making the bread particularly moist. As most of the flour used for the bread is left to absorb liquid (water) overnight, the bread is not in danger of becoming dry, as all the moisture is ‘locked’ in the flour and seeds. The addition of a few spoons of walnut oil, as well as a small amount of coriander and caraway seed spicing, underlines the bread’s rustic flavour and appearance.

For the sourdough (my PREVIOUS POST describes how to make your own sourdough starter)

140 g wholemeal rye flour
140 ml lukewarm water
30 g sourdough starter

Mix these three ingredients in a bowl, cover with cling film, and leave to rest in a warm place (28 – 30 degrees are ideal) overnight or for about 12-15 hours.

For the pre-dough:

100 g wholemeal wheat flour
100 ml lukewarm water
2-3 g of fresh yeast

Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water, mix in the flour, cover with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature (the room does not need to be heated) overnight or for about 12-15 hours.

For the ‘soaker’:

150 g wholemeal rye flour or coarsely milled rye grain
100 g sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds, or walnuts (or a mixture), dry-roasted in a pan
230 ml lukewarm water
15 g salt

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature or for 12-15 hours as the pre-dough above.

When all three components are ready to go (the sourdough and the pre-dough should have increased in size and should look bubbly and light) put them all in a bowl. Don't forget to keep a couple of spoons of the sourdough as your starter for the next bread! Then add the following:

250 g plain flour
2 tbsp walnut oil (can be replaced with any other oil)
½ - 1 level teaspoon each of finely ground coriander seeds and caraway seeds (I use a pestle and mortar)

If you have one, leave your food processor to knead the dough for at least 7 minutes. You can also knead the dough by hand (it’s a bit sticky) and a friend told me that he gets his bread maker to knead his sourdough, which also works. Leave to rest for about 20 minutes in a warm place.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and, with wet hands, quickly knead and fold into the desired shape. This dough is fairly sticky, so I usually bake it in a tin, which is easiest. If you are brave, you can leave it to rise in a floured bread proofing basket instead and turn it out onto a baking sheet before baking. 

This is the dough after 60 minutes of rising. It roughly doubled in size.

Leave to rise in a warm place for about 60-90 minutes. Preheat the oven to the highest temperature possible. 250 degrees are ideal. When the bread has visibly increased in size, score the top with a sharp knife or razor blade. Spray some water into the oven (this improves the bread’s crust) and enter the loaf. Bake at the highest temperature for 20 minutes then gradually decrease the temperature to about 190 degrees to finish off. The overall baking time is about 60 minutes. 

When the bread is finished, wrap it in a clean tea towel and leave to cool before eating (if you can, wait until the next day before cutting it). It keeps fresh for at least 5 days and also freezes well.

Making a sourdough starter

Making a sourdough starter is easy and cheap, but it takes a bit of time and patience. However, once your sourdough starter is ready it will keep going for years and the lengthy process does not need to be repeated. The starter will survive in the fridge for several weeks in between baking loaves of bread. Only when it goes black or mouldy it should be disposed of. Sourdough gets better with age – the more often you bake with it, the quicker and better your bread will rise. For the first few loaves a bit of yeast can be added (7 – 10 g) in order to support the sourdough’s strength. Bread made just with sourdough can take longer to rise (sometimes up to several hours). I therefore still add a bit of yeast most of the time (or use a pre-dough, as in my rustic rye bread), to safe time.

Below is a description of how I made my own rye flour sourdough starter, which has been alive now for almost a year and its ‘relatives’ are used by several friends to make their own bread. Sourdough can also be made with wheat or other flours, but rye is the most stable and easiest to make:

Day 1: Mix 100g wholemeal rye flour with 100 ml of lukewarm water in a fairly large bowl (more flour and water will be added in subsequent days). Cover the bowl (do not use cling film, but a plate or a loose-fitting lid) and leave in a warm place (25 degrees or higher are ideal) for 24 hours. It can be difficult to find a place in the house that is warm at all times. I rested the sourdough near the boiler when the heating was on. When the heating was off, I wrapped the bowl in a blanket with a hot water bottle filled with warm water, which did the trick! It is important not to let the sourdough get too hot. More than 40 degrees will kill it!

Day 2: add another handful of wholemeal rye flour and enough warm water to get the consistency of a sponge-cake batter. Stir well, cover and leave in a warm place as above for 24 hours.

Day 3: add a further 100 g of rye flour and 100 ml of water. Mix well and put back into a warm place to rest for 24 hours. By this point the sourdough should start smelling ‘sour’ and will be bubbly and light. If it hasn’t done so at this point, just keep going. The smell of sourdough is not always pleasant and can be quite strong, but this is normal. Only if the sourdough is turning black or has gone mouldy something has gone wrong.

Day 4: finally, feed the sourdough with a further 100g rye flour and 100 ml warm water. Mix well, cover and put back into a warm place for another 24 hours.

Now the sourdough is ready to be used for baking bread. Make sure you keep a few spoons full of the sourdough in a small jar in the fridge (before adding any more ingredients) each time you bake. This is your starter for the next bread. 

'Sunken' apple cake - 'Versunkener Apfelkuchen'

There is a ridiculous number of recipes for apple cakes in Germany. It’s a very popular type of cake and it is kind of odd, admittedly, that I have not yet posted a single one on my blog. As apples are one of the few local fruits available in the UK at the moment, I intend to make up for this. I am starting off with one of the quickest recipes for an apple cake – the famous sunken apple cake. This consists of a simple sponge base with apples, scored in a nice pattern and cut in half, making it moist and flavoursome. The cake does not take long to make and it usually doesn’t hang around the kitchen for long, because it goes down very well. Variations of the recipe below are possible. In particular, the flavour can be changed by replacing some of the flour with ground nuts. Hazelnuts, I find, are particularly tasty in this cake. 

This makes one large, round cake (I used a tin with a 28 cm diameter), but it can also be baked in a square tin.

250 g butter, soft at room temperature
130 g sugar
3 eggs
Some vanilla seeds or extract (optional)
200g plain flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
50 ml milk (or some milk and some rum)
4-5 eating apples, depending on their size

Cream the butter and the sugar and whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one and continue whisking. Add the vanilla, if using. Mix the flour and the baking powder and blend into the butter mixture. Add the milk as required – the batter should not be liquid, but it should not be too dry either (it needs to be firm enough for the apples not to sink before you put the cake in the oven).

Grease a baking tin, add the batter and smooth the surface. Peel the apples, cut them in half and remove the core. Slice the surface of the apples with a sharp knife without cutting through the apple (the photo of the baked cake above shows best how this should be done). Place the apple halves on top of the batter and bake in the preheated oven at 180 degrees for 40-50 minutes.