Spoonfuls of Germany

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Folding German roots into California cuisine

Rye Bread shaping

“Whenever I go out to eat at a place with great bread,” writes German-born, Los-Angeles-based chef Hans Röckenwanger about his Sourdough Roggen Brot, I always stash a little nub by my napkin so it’s safe from the servers dutifully cleaning up the table. No matter what I’ve had for dinner or dessert, I must end my meal with one last bite of bread.”

I don’t do exactly that but I am equally obsessed with real, good bread. All of my German expat friends are too. The love for good bread must be in our genes, no matter how far away from Germany we live, or how long we’ve been away.

Sourdough Rye Bread

Hans Röckenwagner has lived in the United States since the late 1970s. He switched from cooking in his own restaurants to owning and running the wholesale bakery Röckenwagner Bakery. The Sourdough Roggen Brot is one of the recipes I tested from Hans’ new book, Das Cookbook – German Cooking… California Style.

The book is populated with German references, from chapter headings such as Guten Morgen, Stammtisch, Mittagessen Hour, and Sprechen Sie Supper; to photos such as a group photo of garden gnomes and Mainzelmännchen figures, the iconic 1960s cartoon goblins of public TV channel ZDF.

However with the exception of several German baking recipes, and a few German classics such as Jägerschnitzel, the book mainly contains Hans’ s own unique creations. I asked him whether baking is where he feels the most rooted in authentic German traditions, and his reply was, “Yes, that is where it comes out the most. That and the fact that holiday baking has such deep roots in German food.”

Citrus-Date Stollen

Das Cookbook also includes Hans’ recipes for classics from Germany’s neighbors France, Switzerland, and Austria, such as Brioche, Pain Perdu, Bircher Muesli, Rösti, Wiener Schnitzel, and Kaiserschmarrn. Does Hans see himself as a European as much as a German when it comes to food traditions? “Not to sound elitist or conceited but I consider myself a citizen of the world with strong middle European roots. This may also come from the fact that I grew up at walking distance from France and at biking distance from Switzerland. I love to travel and, with my wife working in New York, I lead a bi-coastal life.”

In Hans’ kitchen, Sauerbraten, the classic German beef pot roast, is transformed into a creation with monkfish because, he writes in his book, he “never really loved classic sauerbraten, as “it can get a little dry and heavy.” And, “With so many fresh ingredients available literally at our doorsteps, we can play around in the kitchen so much more today than people could in our grandparents’ day.” So does he think that some of the German classics like sauerbraten have somewhat outlived themselves because with the ingredients available today we can eat so much better than letting a roast sit in a spiced red wine marinade for several days? “No,” he says, “I don’t consider any of these outdated. The preparation of Sauerbraten was a way of preserving food just like smoking and pickling foods.”

As a chef, does he have observations about the food scene in Germany? “Food trends that you now see in the US such as “hoof to snout” and “farm to table” have been practiced in Germany for decades. Chefs in Germany have been rediscovering their own roots and have been lightening up German staples with new techniques and ingredient selections. A perfect example of this would be Tim Raue who opened a very good German restaurant in Berlin called La Soupe Populaire.”

I often get puzzled looks when I tell friends and family in Germany that in the United States there is a hype about kale (Grünkohl), yet the way it is prepared is much different from Germany where kale is usually cooked for a long time with lots of meat and sausages. Hans’ Warm Brussels Sprouts and Kale Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing reflects the very different American use of the vegetable. Has he received any feedback from Germany to his Californian take on traditional “German” ingredients like kale? “On rare occasions,” Hans says, “I cook at my sister’s restaurant in Germany. I find the clientele to be very open-minded and susceptive of different interpretations on their classics. Once some 15 years ago I made a Sushi-grade Tuna Macadamia Schnitzel with Mango Salsa. The fish was breaded in coarsely chopped macadamia nuts and seared rare. The Schnitzel was then sliced exposing the rareness of the meat and topped with a vibrant mango salsa. They are still asking me to make it again and again.”

Warm Brussels Sprouts & Kale Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing

For Hans’ Sourdough Roggen Brot I used my own sourdough starter simply because I always have it ready. The bread is excellent but it is not a recipe that as a self-taught home baker I would have been able to pull off at the beginning of my bread-baking “career” – in other words, not suitable for beginners.

Hans’ twist on the classic German Christmas Stollen is the addition of dates, which add sweetness. Since otherwise the dough contains only a small amount of sugar, the final result is well balanced. He also does away with the traditional rule of letting Stollen age several weeks and lets you cut it after 48 hours. I find Stollen tastes great either way, and my theory is that most Stollen recipes make two loaves for that very reason: one for eating after a couple of days (because who wants to wait that long?), the other one for ageing.

Warm Brussels Sprouts & Kale Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing

From Das Cookbook, ©2014 Hans Röckenwagner, published by Prospect Park Books

Kale and Brussels sprouts are both popular winter vegetables in Germany, however they are never incorporated into the same dish. Here they are combined, with great results. I will make that salad again for Christmas, and not just for the color!

Instead of pine nuts, I used toasted walnuts, my standard substitute when I do not have top-quality European pine nuts.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1½ pounds Brussels sprouts, cut in half if small, quartered if large

6 ounces mild, creamy blue cheese, or 4 ounces goat cheese and 2 ounces strong, crumbly blue cheese

1 small bunch kale, stemmed and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, more to taste

Coarse sea or kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds, optional

1. In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add Brussels sprouts and sauté until beginning to brown, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add 1 cup water, bring to a simmer, and cook until Brussels sprouts are crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes if sprouts are very small, up to 6 to 8 minutes if larger. Add cheese, stir to melt, and then add kale. Continue to cook until kale has just wilted, about 30 seconds. Stir in lemon juice.

2. Remove pan from heat and season with salt, pepper, and additional lemon juice to taste. Sprinkle with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds, if desired, and serve immediately.

 Makes 6 side servings


The truth about Hänsel and Gretel

Gingerbread house

We had several inches of snow at Thanksgiving. Our house with its lit windows created a winter wonderland look – like the gingerbread house in Hänsel and Gretel. It put me in the mood to make a gingerbread house.

As I looked through recipes and assembled ingredients and patterns, it hit me that I do not know much about the origin of the gingerbread house tradition. I vaguely recalled a witch’s gingerbread house as the crime scene in Hänsel and Gretel, a fairytale by the Grimm Brothers.

When I looked into it, I came across an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel from July 1964. That article says, in the summer of 1962, the German high-school teacher Georg Ossegg, an amateur archeologist, found the remains of a woman in the remote woods of the Spessart mountains. Ossegg determined the woman had been killed, and then burned in an oven. Not far from the site, he found an iron box with baking utensils and a handwritten gingerbread recipe.

Ossegg claimed the woman was Katharina Schrader, a gingerbread baker in the mid-17th century. According to what he pieced together from archives and forensic studies, Katharina had learned the trade in a monastery from where she also obtained her “secret” gingerbread recipe.

Katharina sold her gingerbread at the Nuremberg market, and with such success that it drew not only lots of customers, but also the envy of another baker, Hans Metzler. In 1647 he denounced Katharina as a witch. Thanks to her prominent connections she was let go. Katharina relocated to a remote area in the Spessart where Metzler, accompanied by his younger sister Grete, hunted her down. They killed her and burned her in one of Katharina’s own ovens. However, the Metzler siblings did not find the gingerbread recipe they had come for.

Gingerbread house

Based on Georg Ossegg’s findings, a book entitled The Truth about Hänsel and Gretel – The Documentation of the Fairytale by the Grimm Brothers (Die Wahrheit über Hänsel und Gretel – Die Dokumentation des Märchens der Brüder Grimm) was published by Hans Traxler – just in time for the Grimm Brothers’ centennial in 1963. The book included photos, maps, and drawings of the site. It created quite a sensation that the Grimm Brothers, who were the German storytellers of the 19th century, allegedly based one of their most popular stories on a heinous crime.

Georg Ossegg did not get a chance to enjoy his new fame because he simply did not exist. Like the whole story about the murder out of gingerbread greed, Ossegg was an invention of Hans Traxler, a German caricaturist and satirical writer. Traxler wanted to parody the fashionable pseudo-archeological books of the time. Der Spiegel reported that Traxler admitted he had scavenged the baking utensils from his daughter’s dollhouse kitchen, and had hand-copied the gingerbread recipe from the classic Dr. Oetker cookbook!

This story behind the story kept me chuckling while I made my gingerbread house.

For full disclosure: I wanted the gingerbread house to look as natural as possible without any artificially colored candy. As decoration I used only icing made of confectioners’ sugar and egg whites, chocolate-covered and yogurt-covered raisins, chopped dried kiwis for the trees, and unsweetened organic coconut flakes for the snow.

My husband, who took the photos as always, snuck a bottlecap into the picture. I objected first but he insisted, saying it shows the scale of the gingerbread house. This technique goes back to the days when he started out as an archeological photographer. I could tell how big that gingerbread house is from the soreness of my hand after piping all that icing but now I also have a visual proof of it.

Gingerbread house




East German nostalgia in a jar


One of my favorite scenes in the great German movie Good Bye Lenin is when the main character Alex, a young man who in the last days of the crumbling GDR takes care of his gravely ill mother, fills West German pickled cucumbers into old East German jars to keep the illusion of the GDR alive, because any further upset could be a fatal blow to his mother, a staunch supporter of the ruling regime.

25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, the longing for the lost goodies, edibles and others, of the former East Germany is not that far from reality. It even has its own name: “Ostalgie”, the nostalgia for the East. Continue reading