I have Marlene Dietrich’s husky voice in my ear singing the German version of “Where have all the flowers gone?” when I walk through a familiar neighborhood in Germany and notice that yet another bakery isn’t there any longer.
There were 55,000 bakeries in the former West Germany. Today the number of bakeries in all of Germany has dropped to less than a quarter, and the average headcount at a bakery is about 22.
So where have all the small bakeries gone? They have succumbed to an ailment called Bäckereiensterben in German, the dying out of traditional bakeries, on average one bakery a day. They are pushed out by automatic baking machines in supermarkets and by discount bakery chains where par-baked stuff is popped into the oven, where everything smells the same and looks the same, whether you are in Hamburg, Frankfurt or Berlin, and where you can get a roll for half the price of what a traditional bakery charges. Often there is no successor for the mostly small family-owned businesses because baking bread according to the rules of the craftsmanship is hard work starting at 2 a.m. every day.
What the disappearance of traditional bakeries means only fully sank in when my cousin living in Berlin at the time visited us in the United States. He kept praising my homemade bread and I said to him, “Come on, you cannot be serious, you are right at the source for the real stuff.” To which he replied that it is more and more difficult to find a good bakery.
In 2014 the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, with the help of its readers, created an interactive map of recommended bakeries. If you want to buy real bread in Germany, it’s the traditional bakeries where you need to go. Their bread still lives up to the high standards of German Bread Culture, which was included in the UNESCO list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” just two years ago.
Or, you can take things into your own hands. Back in the days when German cities and villages were dotted with traditional bakeries, baking your own bread at home would have been like running the sprinkler when it’s raining. Not any more.
The number of home bread bakers in Germany is small but growing. At the forefront of this trend is Lutz Geißler. A geologist by training, Lutz started his bread-baking blog Ploetzblog in 2009. Seven years later, baking bread, or better, teaching others how to do it, has become his full-time occupation, with two books published, two more to be released this fall, and workshops all over Germany and in other European countries. 80% of the people who attend Lutz’s baking workshops want to learn bread baking because they cannot find really good bread any longer.
I first had the idea to interview Lutz for Spoonfuls of Germany more than a year ago. It took me forever to get my act together because it involved a serious case of procrastination on my end. I’ll explain.
When I moved to the United States, like most German expats, real wholesome bread was the food I missed the most. More than ten years ago I started baking our own bread on a regular basis, with varying results. With rare exceptions, it was almost always edible, sometimes even good. At least I thought so.
Then, last July, I bought Lutz’s second book, Brotbackbuch Nr. 2. I opened it and was outright overwhelmed. This was German engineering applied to bread baking, and lots of totally unfamiliar bread-baking lingo for which German has a special word, “Bäckerlatein“. It can have a frightful sound on its own if you hated Latin in school just as much as I did.
I put the book on my nightstand, thinking I might tackle it during a snowstorm during the winter. However every time I made an attempt, I was more intimidated. So eventually, in early spring, the book moved to a top shelf in the library where I would not see it every day.
In the meantime, I continued baking bread my usual way, mostly whole-grain yeasted breads, sometimes using a sourdough starter. Then, last December I had my eureka experience baking my first pumpernickel, without any yeast and only sourdough. It was the lengthiest bread I had ever made yet well worth it. The pumpernickel tasted like the real thing, and it turned out great every time. Eventually wrote a piece about it for 196 flavors (it includes the pumpernickel recipe), and somehow that broke the ice. I was encouraged to pick up Lutz’s book again and give his recipes a try.
The first recipe I made was an easy one from his blog, Schwarzbeergetzen, a blueberry sourdough cake that is great for using up extra sourdough starter (find the recipe below). In some other bread-baking books, the generous use of flour to replenish and then discard sourdough starter has always made me cringe, it’s like my grandmother looking over my shoulder shaking her head. I felt an immediate German frugality kinship with Lutz’s minimalist approach to materials.
I made a few other recipes from his book, and marveled each time that you can actually bake these wonderful breads without or with only a tiny amount of yeast.
This type of real bread tastes not only good when fresh but also after a few days, even plain white buns like the classic DDR Milchbrötchen. I found a leftover bun in a container in the back of the fridge and it was still very good toasted with jam.
With each new recipe I tackle I have to constantly flip back and forth in Lutz’s book to look up terms and methods. And, living in America, I always have to improvise because the flours are different, or simply not available. However, I am cautiously optimistic that I can slowly move up the bread chain.
Just like baking good bread, it takes time.
Interview with Lutz Geißler
You say on your blog that quick bread baking is not possible – a good bread requires at least 20 to 30 hours. While the active hands-on time is only 30 to 60 minutes, you must be able to time those minutes accordingly and be at home and indeed available. What if you work all day, which basically leaves you only the weekend for bread baking?
No, I wouldn’t say that, it all depends on the recipe. You can start your dough or sourdough in the morning and then bake it in the evening. Or, you start the dough on the first evening, let it rest at room temperature for 24 hours and bake it the next evening after work, which is the formula in my upcoming book for beginners. The good thing with my bread-baking approach is that if a dough rests for 24 hours, is doesn’t matter whether you continue processing it after 22 or 26 hours.
What if you simply cannot find the time to bake your own bread?
Then consider spending a few more cents and get your bread from a bakery that still deserves its name, where the baker understand the process from the grain to the finished bread, does not use any food additives or other enhancements. Bread from a real baker is worth every cent, and the bakers that are left in Germany nowadays work very hard for the money, it is an underpaid job. By supporting those bakeries you can contribute a tiny bit to preserving that dying craft.
I only own one sourdough starter, a one-fits-all for wheat, rye, and spelt bread. Also, the flours are different in the United States, and there is less much variety here. I always buy good quality and possibly organic flours, but it’s definitely not fresh from the mill like you suggest in your book. Can people like me still bake good bread?
Through my bread-baking classes I get around a lot, in Germany but also in Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Albania… and everywhere I bake my breads with other flours. You can bake my breads with other flowers as long as you adapt the recipe as needed, for example use less or more flour, knead longer or shorter. This is not something you can explain in theory or in a video. You have to do it hands-on. But for sure, these home-baked breads taste better than most of what you can buy here in Germany or in the United States.
I must say the technical terms and explanations in your book and blog can be a bit intimidating.
I have included the many technical terms, minute details and long descriptions in my books because when you are new to bread baking, those are needed to guide you all the way through the process and bake a bread with reproducible quality and not end up with a totally different end result each time.
With more experience, you can simply look at the dough and know how it’s doing, and what it might be missing but until you reach that stage, the parameters like temperatures and time are essential. When I bake I want to understand what is happening so I can eliminate mistakes next time. That’s why the theory in the background is so important. But that does not necessarily mean that the recipes themselves are all complicated. There are easy and more complex recipes and with both you can bake good bread.
You currently have 756 recipes on your blog, plus the recipes in your books. That is a humongous repertoire. Does it ever happen that you bake the same bread twice?
I only make a recipe until I am satisfied with it, then I need to move on to a new one to have an outlet for more ideas that are floating around in my head. By happenstance I sometimes develop a recipe that is similar to one I made a few years ago but I don’t even notice it. And it is highly unlikely the same thing, as I keep learning and this is reflected in my recipes. Look at the first recipes on my blog from 2009 – from today’s perspective, those are awful breads.
Blueberry Sourdough Cake/Scones (Schwarzbeergetzen)
Recipe adapted from Ploetzblog
Unlike most breads, this tastes best fresh, within a few hours or the same day. It is not very sweet so it is more of a brunch than a dessert or teatime cake.
I have made it a couple of times and played with different variations.
Lutz’s recipe calls for 3-day-old unfed sourdough starter straight from the fridge. I did not have enough confidence in my starter so I tried it once with unfed starter only and another time with half fed, half unfed starter, and both time the dough rose well.
The original recipe uses a special yellow wheat flour (Gelbweizenmehl), which I have never seen in the United States, or all-purpose flour, which I found a bit boring. Therefore the second time I used partly cornmeal and partly all-purpose flour, which gave the dough a yellow hue and a nice crunch, and the cornmeal also absorbed the extra liquid from the large juicy blueberries.
I prefer baking it in a scone pan so each piece gets a nice crust but it can be baked in a cake pan too.
5½ ounces (150 g) unfed sourdough starter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup + 1 tablespoon (50 g) cornmeal
2/3 cup + 1 tablespoon (3½ ounces/100 g) all-purpose flour
A pinch of salt
¾ cup + 1 tablespoon (200 ml) buttermilk
1 generous cup (150 g blueberries), fresh or frozen and thawed
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
1. Whisk the sourdough starter with the sugar in a large bowl. Add the eggs one after another and whisk until well combined. Set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F (225 degrees C). Grease a 10-inch (25 cm) cake pan or a scone pan. When using a scone pan, make sure to grease the corners very well.
3. Mix the cornmeal with the flour and salt in another bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and whisk until well combined.
4. Gradually stir in the buttermilk. The batter will be rather liquid. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and evenly scatter the blueberries over it.
5. Place the pan in the preheated oven and reduce the temperature to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown.
6. Cool slightly in the pan for 5 minutes, then gently loosen the edges with a knife and unmold onto a cake rack. Dust generously with confectioner’s sugar while still warm and serve warm or within a few hours.
Makes 8 servings/scones