24 September 2009

tasty pizza without cheese

Within the confusingly meandering (yet hopefully charming) confines of my mind, there is a place where Sophia Loren, Alsace and the North-Hessian infatuation with smetana meet.

And whatever you might be thinking right now, it is entirely safe for work.

See, one of the deeply formative movie experiences of my childhood involves an early scene of 'Houseboat', that incredibly saccharine movie with Cary Grant and, you guessed it, Sophia Loren.
Sophia's character, Cincia Zaccardi, had just run away from her gilded-cage life as a rich man's daughter without a penny on her name, and drifts along some kind of fair, aimless and very hungry. She spots a little boy struggling hard to eat his slice of pizza, and, being the expert on Italian food that she is, decides to help him.

"See, Roberrrto," she said, her 'r's rolling with an Italian accent so strong it makes me giggle even today, "'dis is how you eat rrreal Italian pizza!"

Needless to say, her demonstration of 'fold first, then bite' consumed the better part of the young man's dinner.

For several reasons, this scene stuck with me, and there are two lessons I have learned:
1) When eating (thin-crusted) pizza, fold first, then bite, ignore the cutlery.
2) When a stunningly beautiful lady chats you up on a fair, offering to teach you something, she's after your food only. (As I said, I was really pretty young when I saw that movie.)

The first of these lessons came to my mind during my office's annual outing a few weeks ago. The lovely place we were having lunch at offered 'Flammkuchen', an Alsatian specialty very closely related to pizza. But as this is 2009, they added a local twist, using the regionally beloved smetana instead of the traditional crème fraîche.

And, boy, it was great!

Smetana is significantly richer than crème fraîche, and a little sourer as well. But with only onions, bacon and some flatleaf parsley as topping, that made all the difference. The smetana didn't curdle like crème fraîche would have done, and it added that kind of moreish creaminess that usually you can only get by using cheese.

Actually, in retrospective, this was the first time ever I ate any kind of 'pizza' without cheese that tasted great.

Eating these very flat 'pizzas' can be a little tricky, and using knife and fork on something with the rough proportions of a tea towel very swiftly bordered on comical. So me and those of my colleagues who had ordered the Flammkuchen as well abandoned all pretense of good manners and followed Sophia's (or rather Cinzia's) advice - cut roughly, then fold, then bite.

As you can imagine, we had a great time.

Of course, I had to try and replicate the recipe at home, and when the last time I refreshed our stock of chiabattini, I set aside some of the dough for dinner. It turned out just as great as I had hoped, despite me over-cooking the bacon just a tad and only having curly parsley which was a little too harsh for my taste.

Smetana might be difficult to come by west of Germany, but if you get some, you've got to try this at home. Even if it sounds hard to believe, there IS tasty pizza without cheese in this universe.

Flammkuchen, Hessian style
(generously serves four)

half a batch chiabatta dough

800g onions
250g bacon
400g smetana

half a bundle flatleaf parsley
salt & pepper

Prepare the dough as described, but set aside after the last fold.

Well in advance, heat up the oven as high as it goes.
Mine tops out at about 250°C, which is just barely enough. Simply make sure the oven is thoroughly heated up, not merely the air inside that'll go off as soon as you open the door.

Peel the onions and cut into fine rings. Bring a large pot of water to a roiling boil and blanch the onions for just about 30 seconds. Douse with cold water and drain thoroughly, then cover and set aside.
As the Flammkuchen will be done in a very hot oven, the onions will hardly have time to cook. Blanching them takes out just enough of that 'grassy' feeling, leaving them tender and sweet yet still with a little bite.

Cut the bacon into small strips or matches (lardons). Fry in a non-stick pan at low temperature until barely even golden, then cover and set aside.
As above, the bacon should be pre-cooked before going into the oven. But I fried it in a heavy, cast-iron pan and completely forgot that the bacon would be further browned by the residual heat of the pan alone. In consequence, the bacon bits on the Flammkuchen on the picture above were a little bit on the dark side.

Pour the smetana into a bowl and add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix until smooth.
If you decide to use more bacon than I mentioned above, you won't need this additional salt.

Sort the (biggest) stalks out of the parsly and roughly chop the leaves.

When you're about to sit down for dinner, take out the dough and deflate. Quarter the dough and form firm balls as you would for rolls. Then take the first portion, flatten and roll out until it is only a few milimeters thick.
Basically, roll out the dough as thinly as you can handle comfortably.

Take a quarter of the smetana and spread (as) evenly (as possible) across the dough, leaving a border of about a centimeter uncovered.

Evenly distribute a quarter of the blanched onions on top of the smetana. Sprinkle with a quarter of the lardons.

Put into the oven and bake until the rim of the dough looks almost burned. Ideally, this will take exactly as long as it will take you to roll out and top the next Flammkuchen. My oven took a little longer, but still only a few minutes, really.

Sprinkle with some parsley and serve immediately.

Goes best with a fresh, dry white wine or a similarly crisp, cold beer.
Lots of it.

Keeps surprisingly well in the fridge and reheats nicely, but really is best fresh out of the oven.

20 September 2009

my heartfelt thanks

Since I am now making a reasonably nice chiabatta and a mean bunch of raisin buns, the only thing we would need to be wholly independent from our (formerly) favourite bakery would be a way to replicate their whole grain bread.
Whole grain in this case not merely as in 'whole grain flour', but as in 'entire grains'. It is a rather heavy, somewhat brick-like loaf, dark and delightfully hearty. If we need some bread to put underneath a couple of fried eggs, that's the one.

You can well imagine my excitement as I found a recipe that's remarkably close to that bread by dear Bäcker Süpke, a German baker and creator of the famous 'Black Hamster' bread.

Of course I had to try it, and it isn't only all we had hoped for, it actually is much better. It is a 100% whole-grain spelt bread that delivers perfect slices, tastes great, has a lovely crust and even that slight sticky crumb that I love so much. Here, have look:

Just ignore the vein of dry rolled spelt that's running across the bread, that's entirely my own fault as I am a clumsy chaot and can't handle a wet dough. But that's the bread when I cut the first loaf about three hours after baking, and its already giving slices as neat as any white bread despite the relatively open crumb. So lovely.

It is Bäcker Süpke's 'whole-grain spelt bread whith whole grains' and you can find the original recipe here, even though it's in German. If anyone needs a translation, please drop me a line, I'll gladly help out.

The only variation I made (apart from the involuntary inclusion of rolled spelt) was that I didn't include the cooked spelt grains until the last five minutes of kneading, as I feared the grains would be reduced to mush if I did. But I don't think I should have worried, as the dough was moist enough to give them room.

So once again, the internet made my day and made us finally independent from that bakery. My heartfelt thanks to Bäker Süpke!

13 September 2009

so German it almost hurts

Close your eyes and think 'Germany'.

Think autumn. Think Oktoberfest.
(Which never fails to irritate me as it is being held in September.)

You see beer? Lederhosen? Spit-roasted suckling pig? Cool.

But I wasn't aiming that high with my projects, at least not yet. No, rather simple but still so German it almost hurts: Brezeln.

Emboldened by my recent successes in baking, I have lately been trying my luck with 'Brezeln', or pretzels, and generally all kinds of baked goods dipped in lye.

Actually, is there any other way to translate 'Laugengebäck' other than 'lye pastry'? That really sounds too weird to my ears, like apple pockets and lye.

Dipping dough in lye before it is baked is a tradition in Germany and surrounding countries that is far wider than just pretzels. Though 'Brezn' are by far the most common version in many shapes, you can theoretically use any dough. A short bath in lye adds a very specific, savoury taste and a lovely deep colour. And at least in my area, lye croissants are giving the classic pretzels a real competition.

Curious as I am, I have been experimenting a lot, and together with this post on 'Hefe und Mehr' which I found via Yeast Spotting, I stumbled upon a real treat - kaiser lye rolls.

Very pretty, assertively savoury rolls with a glossy crust and a fine crumb and a nice but not overly obvious part of whole grain flours. And dead simple to make. What more could I ask for?

kaiser lye rolls
(makes eight rolls)

for the rolls:
350g bread baking flour
100g whole wheat flour (German type 1050)
50g coarse rye meal
250ml lukewarm water
50g butter
1 sachet active dry yeast (about 12g)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt

for the lye:
1l water
30g sodium hydroxide pellets

On the day before baking, mix all the ingredients for the dough in a large bowl. Knead until smooth (first gluten developement).

Store the dough in a cool place (cellar or upper area of fridge) for twelve hours.

On the day of baking, degas the dough and cut into eight pieces. Roll each into a string of about 60cm (four to six hands wide).

Make a knot (see here for instructions) and leave to rest for about 45 minutes, until the rolls have gained about one-and-a-half time their original volume.
Do not cover the rolls during this time. Just let them dry out a little, it'll make them easier to handle and they'll take up the lye all the better.

Meanwhile, prepare the lye. Pour the cool(!) water into a metal or glass bowl. Add the pellets and occasionally stir until the lye is clear again and the pellets are completely dissolved.
Two words on lye - while the final lye is relatively harmless, the pellets are not. Never touch them with your bare hands, never pour water onto them or use a wet towel to wipe them up if spilled. Just keep them dry until you put them into a lot of water, and all will be fine. Do not boil the lye.
Also, while the final lye IS caustic, it'll not eat away any of your equipment or digits if spilled. You can simply wipe it off, just use some clear water to wipe after.
But - if you have wooden countertops that are merely oiled, it
will stain them a lovely dark brown, just like the rolls. My freckled countertop is living proof to that, sadly so.

When the rolls are ready, individually dip them into the lye for about 15 to 30 seconds each.

Transfer onto a baking sheet, making sure there is no (or only a little) lye pooling in the centre of the crown.
One tiny disclaimer - I have no idea of the effect of lye on silicon baking sheets. Don't blame me if things go boom.

Bake for about 20 minutes at 190°C, no steam necessary, until well browned.

These rolls are best eaten fresh, but can be quite well frozen and crisped up again.
Cold & old, they're plain vile.

The lye rolls hold up especially well against strong toppings. I had some smoked trout and horseradish on them for breakfast, and the combination was a perfect match. On the other hand,  my wife prefers them with plain cream cheese, so what do I know.

P.S.: Again, I will submit this post to the YeastSpotting section of Susan's formidable blog Wild Yeast. As already mentioned above, it is a constant source of inspiration for me.

12 September 2009

this morning's bread basket

Recently, I have started experimenting with lye rolls an pretzels, which are a lovely addition to our bread basket each morning. I tried kaiser lye rolls with 20% to 40% wholegrain wheat and rye today, and they turned out nice enough I'll make a post out of them. Until then, have a look at this morning's bread basket:

After that, I cleaned up and made the cake for this afternoon, making one of the more memorable messes in the last months - while glazing, I made sure all stayed clean, at least that is what I thought. But then I turned the cake around and found this:

Lake chocolate. And it was already flowing underneath the cake platter... Well, I managed to get the cake clean enough to go into the fridge, and the mess on the table is still there, waiting to get hard enough so I can scrape it off.

But we're going to have 'flammkueche' tonight, so that'll make up for a lot of kitchen mishaps today. Really looking forward to them.

06 September 2009

born with a third hand

Now that I have been talking about home-made pasta not once, but twice, I think maybe it's time I add the recipe here for sake of completeness.

Making pasta yourself is terribly simple, it doesn't call for any special skill nor ingredients. What it does call for, though, is a bit of effort, some equipment and ideally a helping hand. Making pasta on your own isn't only a bore, it's also quite impossible unless you're one of the very few people born with a third hand.

But it makes quite a difference to store-bought pasta, and most of the times helps turning a good dish into a great one. And that's definitely worth the little extra effort, in my eyes at least.

simple pasta with eggs
(recipe given per person, scale accordingly)

100g bread baking flour
1 medium egg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil (optional)

In a small bowl, mix the salt with the eggs until dissolved.
If you mix it all together like that, you'll end up with grains of salt in the rather dry dough, which will draw water during the rest, making the dough harder to get smooth.

Mix all ingredients and knead until all flour has been absorbed.
The oil is optional, but will make the dough less sticky and helps against the dough drying out. Definitely recommended when you do not plan to dry and keep your pasta on stock.
If the dough is sticky despite everything, add some more flour.

Wrap in clingwrap and chill for about half an hour.
The dough will dry out rather quickly, so if you insist on a box for the dough instead of some plastic, find one that fits with as little air around the dough as possible.

Cut the dough into pieces about the size of a small fist. Cover your kitchen table with tea towels or your proofing linnen and get a broomstick handy.

Using a pasta mill like the one you can see in the picture below, run the dough though on the largest setting. Fold in half and repeat until the dough comes out as a smooth sheet.

Set the sheet aside onto the towels and repeat with the remaining dough.

Depening on the size of the pasta you want to cut, roll out the sheets in increasingly thinner settings, this time without folding them in half.
Latest here you'll need a third hand, as cranking the handle, feeding the dough into the mill and getting it out again will be just one simultaneous task too many for one person alone.

Once the individual sheet is as thin as you want it, cut into the pasta of your choice.
I almost invariably make tagliatelle, as they are still fine enough to catch a lot of sauce and yet sturdy enough to hide any mistakes or sloppy handling.

Once cut, hang the pasta over the broomstick as shown - this way they will start drying and will be less prone to sticking to each other.

To cook, set up a big pot with salted water, and use more salt than you think you need. Boil for four to five minutes only, depending on the thickness of your pasta.

Serve with a little bit of butter and / or anything you can come up with.

Instead of making tagliatelle, I sometimes make ravioli - filling the sheets in idividual parcels is pretty straight forward, and ricotta and store-bought creamed spinach in equal proportions make a great, easy filling.

03 September 2009

a long way to go together

Happy aniversary, Nom-Nomnom! (or is it a blogiversary, rather?)

Since one year now, I've been typing, taking pictures and learning a lot about home baking and hypertext.

I've actually had a hard time deciding if I were to make an extra post out of this. Birthdays and such are not really something I like, at least as long as it is me being at the centre of attention. But I really like other people's birthdays, so in the end, I decided, this isn't about me, this is about this blog, this place, this little book it has become.

Indeed, more and more often I catch myself using the red folder where I keep a printout of this blog as a cooking book - even if it is just to look up some measurements. This blog has become a great place I can refer people to when I am asked for some recipe, and looking at the hits this place gets, other people seem to think so, too. So I figured I'd make a post about 'the other people' actively and passively involved in this blog, as a way to mark the day.

The idea about writing about food was on my mind for a long time already, but then I stumbled across Molly's adorable Orangette, and it was her lovely, evocative writing that finally made me pick up the pen (the keyboard) and get my own act sorted out a little. Meanwhile, Molly has opened a restaurant of her own with her husband, her focus understandably but sadly not on writing any longer.

Our (once) favourite bakery stopped making their chiabatta - so I learened to make my own. And baking bread made me stumble across a lot of lovely places and people - among them Susan of Wild Yeast, a treasure trove for bakers, or the amazing Shiao-Ping on The Fresh Loaf blog who, with her talent and unique point of view, is a real inspiration.

But this place would neither have been created nor kept a live for this long if it hadn't been for my lovely wife, who is both my greatest fan (sometimes irrationally so, imho) and my most honest critic. Nothing inspires to kitchen greatness as easily as a wife with a clearly voiced opinion. So, kudos to her.
And if there is one thing I wish for my blog - it's that my lovely wife just keeps on being the way she is, for that'll make sure this blog, me and her will still have a long way to go together.

01 September 2009

your new favorite Greek word

My knowledge of the Greek language is pretty rudimentary, even though I did have Ancient Greek at school for a few years.

But, there is one word I haven't forgotten since I was a little kid - 'lagos' means 'rabbit'.

Very tasty rabbit at that, for 'lagos' showed up at my parents' place usually in the form of 'lagos stifado', a Greek rabbit stew with almost as much onions in it as there was rabbit.

I vaguely remember the original recipe being somewhat complicated, with ketchup and tomato juice and lots of frying and braising involved. But this here is the 'family version', a user-friendly, stunningly simple recipe that has evolved (or been stripped to the core) over the years in both my mother's kitchen and mine.

Basically, it is just rabbit, onions and canned tomatoes in roughly the same proportions, cooked until all starts falling apart.

But it is so, so very good. Especially good, actually, on home-made pasta, as we had it this weekend. I intentionally overcooked the rabbit a little, ending up with an almost dissolved rabbit and a very thick sauce that went so smoothly with my papardelle it was a joy. It was one the very rare cases that I was entirely satisfied with something I had cooked.

Try it, you'll see, 'lagos' might just become your new favorite Greek word, too.

lagos stifado (greek rabbit stew with onions)
(serves six)

1,5 kg rabbit (with bones, preferrably thighs)
1 tablespoon olive oil
200ml dry red wine

1kg onions
3 cloves garlic, optional
1,5kg canned tomatoes (more or less)
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
a generous amount of black pepper (about a teaspoon)
some tabasco or similar
1 tablespoon butter

Clean and pare the meat, if necessary.

Peel and quarter the onions. Peel the garlic.
Don't forget to uncan the tomatoes.

In a large, cast-iron pot, brown the rabbit meat in the olive oil.
This is just for the meat to catch some colour and taste, not to cook.

Deglaze with the wine, then add all the other ingredients except the tabasco and the butter.

Bring to a gentle boil, then put into the oven at approximately 170°C and braise for 1,5 to two hours, depending on how loose you want the meat to be.
I cooked mine for about two hours, as I wanted to use it as sauce on my pasta, and didn't need any extra-large chunks of meat.

Occasionally check if there is still enough liquid in the pot.
Ideally, the sauce should be thick on the verge of dry, but not burned, once the meat is done. Either add a bit of water if too dry or braise with the lid askew if too wet for a while to correct.

Right before serving, take out of the oven and adjust the seasoning. A bit of tabasco works great here. Add the butter for some luxurious taste in a still very lean dish.
Also, a pinch of cinnamon and / or anisseed would be typical and very nice, but as this is the plainest version possible, I usually leave it as it is.

Goes great with pasta or potatoes, but crispy bread will do just as fine. Serve with a salad and more of the wine you used for cooking, or try a glas of pastis or similar, as it goes great with the onions in the sauce.

Keeps great for a few days in the fridge or almost indefinitely in the freezer, though it might look a little worse for the wear once heated up.