If having a pop song written about you makes you an icon, the German food critic and food writer Wolfram Siebeck certainly is one. In 1982 the pop band Foyer des Arts released a song called “Wolfram Siebeck hat recht.” (“Wolfram Siebeck is right”). Songs aside, Siebeck earned his iconic status among German food writers and critics through the breadth, depth and incisiveness of his writing from his pinnacle at the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
Siebeck died in July at the age of eighty-seven. Whether you adore him as Germany’s greatest food critic and writer of our time who taught Germans how to eat well, or whether you view him as arrogant, a food snob because he preached using only top-quality ingredients and polemicized against fast food, there is no question that he had a huge influence on German culinary culture.
When I was a student in the 1980s, I could afford the weekly newspaper Die Zeit with Siebeck’s famous food column, but many of the ingredients his recipes called for were beyond my budget, such as French Bresse chickens and freshwater crabs. One exception was crème fraîche, which in Germany, unlike in the US, is a widely available and affordable dairy product. Siebeck’s name is so closely linked to crème fraîche, which he generously used in many of his recipes, that Foyer des Arts’ song about him includes the refrain, “and everything with crème fraîche”.
I still have some of the Siebeck newspaper clippings from my university days. It was from Siebeck’s recipe that I cooked my first Coq au vin (not with a rooster, but with an ordinary chicken), my first pumpkin soup with ginger (winter squash or pumpkin in those days in Germany was not something that you associated with tasty soup, it was only the stuff for pumpkin-growing contests among home gardeners), and my first lentil salad that made me realize that lentils can actually be something other than mushy.
In his 1981 Christmas menu for Die Zeit Siebeck included Lentil Salad with Quail Breast, and he specified Du Puy lentils. Siebeck suggested readers look for the lentils at their local Reformhaus, a German type of health food store. The recipe emptied the shelves triggering such a demand for the lentils that Reformhaus owners asked Siebeck to let them know next time he planned to send so many customers their way so they could stock their shelves accordingly.
In a 2003 article the The New York Times called Siebeck “a German version of Martha Stewart”. Not really. If anyone, Siebeck’s incredible depth and breadth puts him more in league with Julia Child. He also introduced Germans to French cuisine. In addition to crème fraîche and Du Puy lentils, his writing also catapulted shallots into the produce section of German supermarkets in the 1970s.
Siebeck was a slow food advocate before the term was coined. He believed that it does matter what you eat, that good ingredients cannot be cheap because producing them is costly, and that cooking an excellent meal is usually not easy and quick.
French cuisine was Siebeck’s great love but that did not deter him from dissecting with his sharp pen the work of legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, complaining about “huge portions, towers of puff pastry, puddles of sauce and calorific bombshells” Siebeck found at Bocuse’s restaurant near Lyons, France. Bocuse was reportedly so angry that he attacked Siebeck with his fists.
Bocuse was not the only chef that Siebeck subjected to acidic criticism. When British newspapers named Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck in Berkshire the world’s best restaurant in 2005, Siebeck went to see for himself. After his meal at The Fat Duck, he declared, “If Blumenthal is the best chef in the world, I am a bratwurst.”
Siebeck did not have a high opinion of bratwurst, obviously. Only at the age of eighty Siebeck is said to have eaten his first Currywurst, the popular German street food doused with curry ketchup. Afterwards he announced that was enough Currywurst for the rest of his life.
Siebeck called German cooking “Plumpsküche”, a derogatory take on the German word for outhouse, “Plumpsklo”. Sure, that was hugely insulting to many people. What he riled against was the average meat-loaded, overcooked, fatty, unrefined heavy fare that a lot of German cooking was, and unfortunately often still is. Siebeck advocated that German cuisine can be fabulous if it is done right, and with the right ingredients.
He wrote about “common” food, too, and devoted a long column to cooking Bratkartoffeln (Pan-fried Potatoes) in a way that they live up to their legendary German comfort food status. His series on German classics in Die Zeit, and several books about German cuisine furnish proof that he did not shun German food per se, just the way it was made.
Of Siebeck’s many books, the one that is the most special and insightful to me is a collection of recipes for Sunday meals entitled Sonntag in deutschen Töpfen (Sunday in German cooking pots). The book, published in 1992, is an early example of a crowd-sourced cookbook, for which Siebeck had called upon readers of Die Zeit to send it in their favorite Sunday recipes. It contains the five winning menus, and 300 additional recipe submissions selected by Siebeck.
In honor of Wolfram Siebeck I made two dishes this week: his Beet Flan, and Bread Crumb Parfait, a reader recipe from the above book.
Siebeck’s recipes are not straightforward, the ingredients not neatly presented in a list and the preparation steps not numbered or broken up into paragraphs. For cooking, this is not the most convenient. You need to extrapolate the recipe by reading the whole thing several times, with all of Siebeck’s ironic, satirical, often provocative and humorous remarks, in order to sort out the recipe.
The first sentence of the beet recipe reminded me again why I have always liked Siebeck’s writing. It makes me chuckle every time I read it. A flan, he writes, “is a soufflé without a baccalaureate degree (Abitur). Less finicky and easier to make.”
Beet Flan (Rote-Bete-Flan)
Adapted from Wolfram Siebeck’s Sommerseminar in Die Zeit, July 1997
Siebeck uses “cooked beets from the market” for this recipe. Well, the vacuum-sealed beets I have seen at grocery stores would most likely not meet his standards, nor do they meet mine. And cooking a couple of beets is not a big deal so I recommend you start with raw beets.
The flan in the original recipe is served with mustard-sherry vinaigrette and “lots of finely chopped shallots” (of course, this is Siebeck!). I do not like raw onions or shallots and thought the robust flavor of red onions would complement the flan well so I caramelized the red onion with Balsamic vinegar and made a small amount of plain vinaigrette just for drizzling.
The crème fraîche takes several hours to thicken so it is best to make it the day before. It will considerably firm up in the fridge overnight.
1 cup (240 ml) heavy cream, at room temperature
2 tablespoons buttermilk, at room temperature
Lemon juice, as needed
2 medium-size beets
4 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (150 g) crème fraîche
A generous pinch of saffron threads
A pinch of cayenne
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Topping and dressing:
Cooking oil for the pan
1 large red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1. For the crème fraîche, mix the heavy cream and buttermilk in a glass jar or plastic container. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours, until thickened. If it does not thicken, or to speed up the process, add a few drops of lemon juice. Refrigerate until using.
2. For the flan, scrub the beets under running water. Place them in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook until the beets can be easily pierced with a knife, 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size. Drain and cool until they are cold enough to handle. Remove the skins and cool completely.
3. Cut the beats into large chunks and puree them in a food processor or with an immersion blender in a tall bowl to a desired consistency. Siebeck prefers them still a bit chunky, I like them smooth.
4. Beat the eggs in a large bowl until foamy. Ad the crème fraîche, saffron, 1 teaspoon salt and cayenne. Add the beet puree and stir well to combine until no white traces remain. Add salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste.
5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Butter 4 to 6 ramequins depending on size and fill them to about two-thirds. Place them in a large baking dish.
6. Fill a kettle with water and bring to the boil. Place the baking dish on the medium rack of the preheated oven and carefully pour boiling water into the roasting pan so it comes about three-thirds up the sides of the ramekins.
7. Bake in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, or until the flan is set.
8. Carefully remove the baking dish from the oven and take the ramekins out of the hot water using an oven glove. Pass a knife along the edge of each flan. Unmold each flan immediately onto a dinner plate using an oven glove.
9. While the flan is in the oven, lightly spray a non-stick pan with cooking oil and fry the onion until is starts to soften, stirring often, 5 to 7 minutes. Increase the heat. Add the Balsamic vinegar and let it cook off and caramelize for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
10. In a small bowl whisk all the ingredients for the vinaigrette until smooth. Garnish each flan with onion rings and drizzle some vinaigrette over it. Serve lukewarm or at room temperature.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Bread Crumb Parfait (Brotkrumen-Eis)
Adapted from the book Sonntag in deutschen Töpfen by Wolfram Siebeck, 1992
The original recipe uses any kind of dark whole-wheat bread. I think real pumpernickel is best here. Since pumpernickel bread is small, you might need two slices. You should have about ¼ cup bread crumbs.
1 to 2 slices dark whole-wheat bread, preferably real pumpernickel (for my recipe click here)
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
1¼ cups (300 g) heavy cream
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon golden rum
1. Crumble the bread and place in a small non-stick ungreased skillet. Toast over low to medium heat until dry and crunchy, stirring often so it does not burn.
2. In a small saucepan combine the sugar with the water and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add it to the bread and stir over medium heat until caramelized.
3. Transfer the crumbs to a plate lined with greased aluminum foil. Let them cool slightly then crush them into bits in a large mortar and pestle or food processor.
4. Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Add the confectioners’ sugar and whip until stiff. Stir in the rum.
5. Put the whipped cream in a freezer container with a tight-fitting lid. Freeze for 1 hour, then stir in the bread crumbs. Put it back in the freezer and let freeze for several hours until firmly frozen.
Makes 4 servings