I promise you that I had no intention of buying this book. I love Weiss’ blog and enjoyed her MWR (‘memoir with recipes,’ so hip in the 2010s) but did I need a whole book about a single baking tradition that I hadn’t previously considered? I don’t even like to bake sweets. (Bread is a different story.) But then I went to her event and I remembered that I love throwing myself into seemingly insular cultural practices, and she had these really good little cookies out and I do like bringing cookies to holiday parties…I bought the book as if in a trance. And then the United States fell apart and I’ve been stress-baking German cookies and cakes ever since. It doesn’t help, but it does make me feel accomplished which is better than moping in bed and bingeing on twitter.
Back to the book, though. I’ve learned a lot about German baking this month. The intro notes are well written and often provide context or historical information, which is very useful for someone with no background in this subject matter. Less helpful were the ones about what her family likes to eat, although I saw those as the writer’s way of merging her two written traditions, blogging and formal cookbook, into one. Weiss’s background (born in Germany, grew up in America and worked as a cookbook editor, wrote the book while living in Berlin) gave her much insight into how Americans would actually cook with this book, and I loved that she provided recipes and workarounds for certain common German ingredients that are harder to find in the U.S. – a level of thoughtfulness that writers from abroad don’t always provide. The DIY almond paste saved me; it’s harder to find in Brooklyn than I expected. The heavy reliance on nuts makes gluten-free recipes prevalent, another thing that warmed my Brooklyn-bound cockles (I can’t give away floury baked goods for love or money around here). People with nut allergies should tread carefully, though. The savory recipes really stand out, and the emphasis on fresh yeast brought something new to my baking – and for some reason was more widely available than the almond paste. I look forward to working more with it, and to cooking more from that chapter, over the next few months as the days get colder and all we want to do is stay inside and eat hearty meals with our fake-tv-fireplace.
Overall, I think this book made me a better baker. I had a lot of leaks and cracks (see the picture above, that’s chocolate coming out of the bottom seam of my schokoladen-gugelhupf) but no one seemed to mind. I do wish there had been more pictures of finished goods – for someone who isn’t too familiar with German baking I felt like I was flying blind at times. But I guess flying blind is something we’ll soon be used to in America…
Will baking a lot of cookies save democracy? Even if we arrange them in a bunter teller? No, and we shouldn’t expect it to. We have to do that work ourselves, and frankly I now realize it’s work that I’d been avoiding. But we’ll need sustenance and cheer over the next few years, and if you overlook the ironic overtones that I am so strenuously ignoring here, Classic German Baking can help.
make this one thing:
Zwiebelkuchen (Savory Onion Cake)
1 2/3 cups, scooped and leveled, minus 1 tablespoon (200g) AP flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon instant yeast (I used 4.5 tsp fresh)
pinch of granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120ml) water
1 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil, plus more for the bowl
1 pound 2 ounces (500g) yellow onions, about 5 medium
4 tablespoons (70ml) vegetable oil
2 1/4 ounces (65g) speck or slab bacon, diced
1/2 to 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
Freshly ground black pepper
1. To make the dough: Place the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Put the yeast in the well, and add the sugar. Slowly pour in the water, stirring gently with a fork. Keep stirring, adding the salt and two tablespoons of the oil. As soon as you have a shaggy dough, dump it out on a lightly floured work surface and knead vigorously until the dough is smooth and silky, 4 to 5 minutes. Resist adding too much flour as you knead; you want the dough to remain as soft as possible. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a clean dishcloth. Place in a warm, draft-free spot and let rise for 1 hour.
2. Line a 10-inch (25cm) cake pan with a piece of parchment paper, letting the sides hang over the edge of the pan to function as a sling after baking,
3. After the dough has risen, place it in the pan. Gently push the dough down and out to cover the bottom of the pan and make only a very small rim, about 1/4 inch, taking care not to stretch the dough so much as simply spread it out with your fingertips. The sough should be even and slightly dimpled. Cover with the dishcloth and set aside for an additional 30 minutes.
4. While the dough is resting, heat the oven to 400F/200C and prepare the topping: Thinly slice the onions into rings. Heat the oil in a medium skillet and then add the diced speck. Let the speck render for a few minutes, and then add the onion rings, and caraway seeds, and season with pepper. Saute over medium heat until the onions are softened, translucent, and taking on some color, 10 to 15 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and let cool slightly.
5. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and then add them to the onions, mixing well. When the 30-minute resting time is up for the dough, scrape the onion mixture evenly on top of the dough. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, rotating halfway through. You may find that you need to cover the onions with a piece of aluminum foil if they brown too quickly.
6. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool on a rack for a few minutes. Using the edges of the parchment paper as a sling, remove the cake from the pan. Cut into wedges and serve hot or warm. The cake is best eaten the day it is made but can be kept for 1 additional day at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap (YMMV on this - mine was fine 48+hours later). To reheat, place in a 350F/180C oven for 5 minutes to crisp up again.