13 Oct 2010

An intro on German food and my first cooking class


I did it, I finally started! No, not a diet but giving cooking lessons.
My first attempt at it took place the past weekend with a group of fellow Couch Surfers and we concentrated on German food. Being living in Bonn since more than 5 years now, I think I owe this country some gastronomic interest. I haven't been eating traditional German food very often in these years, mostly because there aren't many restaurants around here that serve this kind of food. German food is mostly a homey kind of food, mostly had for dinner with free flowing bier; the kind of food that Gordon Ramsay will push on a nearly failing restaurant in one of his rescue missions. The food around here is instead mostly Italianised, or Turkish at times; naturally we got our Japanese, Chinese, Thai and now also Tibetan joints but you know these places, they all end up having a shared menu across Europe.
Germany is mostly known for 3 ingredients that make up a typical meal: potatoes, pork and sauerkraut. If French cuisine is a majestic ode to eggs, I believe the German one is to potatoes. Mastering them means mastering two of the main ingredients in our pantry (wheat is mostly exploited in Italian cuisine I believe).

Cutting the long story short, to decide what we could prepare for the class, I had a breathing with a friend of mine. I didn't start though as a total blank blackboard since I had already in mind two dishes, one more typically German than the other I must admit, and those were a Rheinischer Sauerbraten and some Goulash. My friend went on and on and on the various Knödel available and that she enjoyed. I started seeing them more as a gastronome power tool rather than an easy dinner fix bought in sealed bags in a grocery store. So it was set, Knödel would be in the menu.
Two are the main varieties of Knödel you will find around Germany: Semmelknödel or Knödel tout-court. The first category spans all the dumplings done using stale bread rolls the second are instead based on potatoes. This said the various ramification of each category is quite wide. Semmelknödel can contain a certain percentage of potatoes, crispy speck dices or even beef liver. The potato ones instead, well contain potatoes (doh!) mind you though, not always only cooked potatoes! Potato Knödel can also be enriched with crispy croutons, fruits, naturally speck and various form of cheese.
With the same basic trio of potatoes, eggs and flour you can then create a wide span of textures and Knödel for every purpose.

Potato dumplings in fieri

In my class I decided to do potato Knödel since I was feeling more confident with them and also because they display techniques and procedures that can be exploited in various situations and in different cuisines. In the specific case we were meant to explore the wonders of Schupfnudeln and of Zwetschgenknödel. The first are a specialty of Bavarian cuisine and are simply long and thin fluffy potato dumplings tapered on both ends that get crispy fried in butter after being boiled and chilled. Spiced up with nutmeg, Schupfnudeln were a revelation! Rich in textural contrast, elegant in flavours and satisfying.
Zwetschgenknödel are typical spheroidal shaped potato Knödel that contain a filling of fresh plums and marzipan (did I ever mention that marzipan is a big hit here in Germany? and it isn't even as sweet as you would imagine). These goofy babies make for a perfect substantial dessert when, after having been boiled and chilled, they get rolled in toasted breadcrumbs, sugar and cinnamon before being caramelised in sizzling butter.
We used basically the same dough to make both potato dumplings though we added a bit more flour for the Zwetschgenknödel.
Hups! I skipped on the Rheinischer Sauerbraten back up, let me fill up the hunger for extra infos that I am sure by now is driving you insane.

Rheinischer Sauerbraten with Schupfnudeln and Apple sauce

A Sauerbraten is a braise usually done with a unique piece of meat that has been marinated in a sour marinade. In the Rhineland where I live, people are used to season the final sauce with a rather sweet touch of raisins, toasted almonds and Lebkuchen. The dish itself is rather easy and foolproof, just get yourself a big enough piece of meat (beef, pork or horse will do the trick) make yourself a sour marinade with vinegar, wine, spices and veggies and you are ready to go. Oh right, the spices; for this dish mostly juniper berries, cloves and black peppercorns are used.
Rheinischer Sauerbraten seems to be as good as a Medieval relic as the spear of destiny is (yeah I know that it is actually a collatio of pieces from different epochs, whateva...); anyhow the long marination (up to 10 days), the use of root vegetables, the earthy spices used, the sweet touch at the end and the addition of almonds make it for me a real jump back in time.
And what about the Goulash? I admit that as dish it isn't a German invention, thought to be born in Hungary this aromatic soup or main course made of beef braised in a paprika spiced broth is often served with slices of a boiled bread dumpling (Serviettenknödel in German) or with some egg Spätzle. In our case I wanted to serve the goulash as the appetizer soup to the meal. What does make it German then? In here goulash is often spiced up using caraway seeds. A really forgotten spice in the most of the southern Europe, caraway seeds are usually used in German cuisine to spice up breads, sauerkraut or soups as in our case; its earthy, spicy, anise aroma goes perfectly well also with dark chocolate (check my Ultimate Cheesecake recipe for instance)
Few days before the class, I thought of adding an extra course to the menu that now resembled more a real German feast rather than just a cooking class: Pumpernickel canapé with Sauerkraut.
How could I have forgotten the Pumpernickel bread! Such a widely renowned product of German cuisine, this really dark, almost black, bread is a product of the Westphalia region. Based on rye, Pumpernickel is a sourdough bread that gets baked as a French pain de mie in a rectangular mould with a lid at low temperature for 16 to 24 hours. How bakers came up on baking bread dough for such a long amount of time is a mystery, history will always remember what this produced: a dark dense sweet-sour bread loaf with overtones of chocolate and caramel; it is indeed a delicacy on its own. I must admit that I had already tasted it in the past but the brand I had purchased was a bit too sour for my taste so I ended up never buying it again also because I cannot really eat as much bread as I would like to sigh. This time we got lucky and the new brand turned out to be a perfect balance of all the aforementioned great qualities.
Time for a bit of science and lore about this iconic bread. Its denomination, Pumpernickel, is of unsure origins the mostly believed tales translate the word as "Devil's Fart", yeah you got it right I am not being cheeky here; Pumpen in old German refers to farting while Nickeln is most probably the genitive form of Nick, the old Nick, an archaic way to refer to the devil. Now for the science, the reason why this loaf of bread doesn't end up a pile of mush lies mostly on the acidity of the starting dough. An acid environment helps in effect the starches to retain their structure and slows down the Maillard reactions that for the long baking time occur between the amino acids and sugar from the rye grain producing the complex flavour profile of this simple loaf of bread.
I thought that paring it with some Sauerkraut that have been soaked in wine and then sautéed with some onions and speck would be just perfect and judging from the voracity with which they run out I would guess that also my students enjoyed it (ok, they were also starving I suppose).
So, to summarise the menu I was proposing for the German evening, we had:

  • Pumpernickel canapés topped with sautéed sauerkraut
  • German Goulash soup
  • Rheinischer Sauerbraten served with crispy Schupfnudeln and homemade apple sauce
  • Zwetschgenknödeln in a caramel kirsch sauce.
How long did it take us to prepare such a feast? Almost 5h! By the end of the day the guys were quite exhausted and famished.
I still have a lot to learn on how to convey information and mostly on how to organize a class, next time I should spend more time demonstrating what should be done and provide also my students with a rudimentary recipe so to have a guideline of what is going to happen and increase this way their confidence with the process. What do you think?
This time they ended up being my prep chefs, cutting all the vegetables but they surely loved getting dirty with the Knödel dough!


I so much love to teach!! Must be in my family blood, I got two professor in my family you know. Might it be that this is what I really want to do?
Who will join us for the next class? Check my Facebook fan page to keep updated on the schedule. And now to the lot of recipes!

Sauerkraut with Speck on Pumpernickel bread

  • 1 medium onions, chopped finely;
  • 50g smocked speck in dices;
  • 500g sauerkraut packed in wine, drained;
  • Salt and pepper;
  • Pumpernickel bread.

In a little olive oil, cook the onions until they will become translucent; add now the diced speck and cook stirring every now and then, until the speck will be crispy. Add now the drained sauerkraut and mix them properly with the onion base. Let the sauerkraut cook for 5 minutes or until they will get some color. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.
Serve the warm Sauerkraut on lightly buttered Pumpernickel bread.

German Goulash


Ingredients (serves 6 as appetizer):
  • 700g beef, pork or mixed cut in small dices;
  • 2tsp caraway seeds, lightly crushed;
  • 1 medium onion;
  • 1 medium clove of garlic finely minced (optional);
  • 500g peppers, cut in small dices;
  • 2 tbsp spicy paprika;
  • 2 tbsp sweet paprika;
  • 250g tomato puree;
  • Cayenne pepper (optional);
  • salt.

In a soup pot, warm up some oil on medium high heat and brown the meat a little at a time, transferring it to a plate when it will get a nice brown colour on the surface.
When all the meat will be browned, add the caraway seeds to the oil and let them toast for 1 minute or so. Add now the onions and let them cook until translucent, add then the garlic and stir for few seconds. Add the peppers to the pot and stir it with the onion base, add then the meat, the two paprikas, the tomato puree and enough water to cover the whole. Put on the lid slight ajar and cook the goulash over medium fire until the meat will easily fall apart when bitten into; if the soup should dry out too much during the cooking add extra water.
At the end of the cooking process taste the soup and season with some cayenne pepper, if needed, and salt.

Rheinischer Sauerbraten

Rheinischer Sauerbraten with Schupfnudeln and Apple sauce

Ingredients (serve 6 people):

  • 600ml red wine (Dornfelder) (use the rest of the bottle to cook the meat);
  • 200ml vinegar;
  • 200ml water;
  • 10 juniper berries, lightly crushed;
  • 1tsp black peppercorns;
  • 2 cloves;
  • 3 branches + leaves from celery root, chopped;
  • 1 carrot, chopped;
  • 1 onion, chopped;
  • 1tsp salt;
  • 3 bay leaves;
  • 1kg braising meat (pork, beef or even horse).

Cooking vegetables:

  • 1 small celery root, peeled and chopped;
  • 1 parsnip, peeled and chopped coarsely;
  • 2 carrots, chopped coarsely;
  • 1 medium onion chopped coarsely;
  • rest of the wine from the marinade;
  • 10 juniper berries, lightly crushed;
  • 3 cloves;
  • 2-3 parsley stalks, chopped coarsely.

For the sauce:
  • 1 handful (60-70g) of dried raisins;
  • 1 Lebkuchen cookie (35-40g);
  • 2 tsp starch or as much as needed;
  • 1-2 squares of dark chocolate (optional);
  • salt and pepper.

  • 1-2 tbsp of slivered almonds, toasted.

Combine all the marinade ingredients in a pot not made of pure iron, aluminium or copper that could react with the acid marinade; an enamelled one would fit perfectly also for the marination process. Bring the marinade slowly to a boil over a medium flame and with the lid on let it boil for 5 minutes. At this point turn off the heat and let the marinade come to room temperature.
When the marinade will have cooled down, insert the meat into the pot. The meat should be covered with the marinade, if it isn't, try choosing a narrower pot if available. Let the meat marinade for at least 3 whole days and up to 10 days in the fridge turning it once a day.
When ready to cook your Sauerbraten, take the meat out of the marinade and pat it dry with some paper towel. Heat 1-2 tbsp of oil in the pot you want to use and when the surface will be shimmering, start browning the meat from all side being careful not to splash yourself. In the meantime strain the marinade through a sieve to eliminate all the vegetables and spices, be sure to press onto them so to extract as much liquid as possible. When the meat will be nicely browned on all sides add to the pot the vegetables and let them get some colour. Poor now the marinade over the meat with the rest of the red wine, the spices and the parsley; cover with the lid, lower the flame to medium and let the meat cook until it will fall apart easily (2-3 hours).
When the meat will be cooked transfer it over a plate covering with some aluminium paper and let it rest in a warm oven (50-100 C) while you prepare the sauce.
For the sauce, using a fine mesh sieve strain all the vegetables out of the cooking liquid pressing them down; transfer the liquid in a small saucepan and add the raisins and the crumbled Lebkuchen, bring to a boil. Let the sauce reduce of 1/3 to a half of its volume tasting it every now and then to check for its flavor. If the sauce taste nice but it isn't thick enough, dilute the starch in some cold water and drizzle it in the sauce a little at a time while you whisk. The sauce will thicken when it will reach boiling point, if by then it is still to thin for your purpose add more diluted starch. If using, add now the chocolate square and let them melt whisking the sauce. Now you can season your sauce with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

To serve your Sauerbraten, slice the meat across the grain, that is across the direction of the muscles, lay it on each serving plate covering with 1-2 tablespoons of sauce and some of the roasted almonds.
Serve your Sauerbraten with some home made tart apple sauce spiced with a little cinnamon and few crispy Schupfnudeln.



Ingredients (serve 10 people as side dish):
  • 1.2kg floury potato;
  • 5 eggs;
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg;
  • salt;
  • 250g flour;
  • Butter and/or oil for frying them.

Wash the potato, cut them in chunks and cook them in salted water. When ready drain them and let them cool down before peeling them. If you have got a large enough oven, warm it up to 150C and dry the potatoes in it for 2-3 minutes. Using a potato ricer, process the peeled potatoes into a bowl; it they should still produce steam, let them cool down some more time once you have pressed them all.
Once properly cooled down break the eggs over the potatoes, add the seasonings leaving, for the moment, the flour out.
Using your hands or a sturdy spatula, start mixing the potato dough. Little at a time add now the flour mixing it in fast and uniformly. Let the dough rest, covered, for 15 minutes or so.
Put a big pot of water on the fire and wait for it to boil before starting the shaping process. When ready to shape your Schupfnudeln proceed as follows:
Flour a cutting board as well as you hand, spoon 1-2 tbsp of the dough over the board, flour its top and shape it in a rectangular log ca 5cm wide and 1cm thick. Using a knife cut the log along the major axis into strips wide roughly 1cm. Flour you hands and transfer une strip of dough in your palm, add extra flour if needed. Let the dough roll up and down your arched palm so to give it tapered ends on both sides and a full belly. When ready let them drop in a pot of boiling water being careful not to splash yourself. Proceed as described for the rest of the log.
Let the Schupfnudeln cook for 2 minutes or so from when they come to the surface to ensure that they are cooked through. Naturally the thicker your dumplings the longer they will need to cook; you can always check for their doneness by taking them out using a slotted spoon and poking them with your finger, they should feel springy and not too soft.
When cooked, transfer them in a bowl of iced water to cool down properly before the second cooking process.
The Schupfnudeln can be served either as sweet or as a savoury dish, though traditionally they are considered as savoury. In the latter case, just let the Schupfnudeln crisp in some butter and oil that you have previously warmed up in a pan. Serve them warm with some sautéed Sauerkraut or a Braten.
If you are planning on serving them as sweet, sprinkle on the pan some sugar and cinnamon while you are frying them. They are perfect served with a chunky home-made apple sauce or a warm fruits compote.

Zwetschgen Knödel

Ingredients (makes roughly 18 Knödel of 6cm in diameter):

  • 1.2kg floury potato;
  • 5 eggs;
  • 2-3 tbsp sugar;
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg;
  • pinch of salt;
  • 350g flour;
  • 2-3 plums per person;
  • Marzipan;
  • Butter and oil for frying them;
  • Breadcrumbs, if possible toasted;
  • Kirschwasser.

Wash the potato, cut them in chunks and cook them in salted water. When ready drain them and let them cool down before peeling them. If you have got a large enough oven, warm it up to 150C and dry the potatoes in it for 2-3 minutes. Using a potato ricer, process the peeled potatoes into a bowl; it they should still produce steam, let them cool down some more time once you have pressed them all.
Once cooled down properly break the eggs over the potatoes, add the seasonings leaving, for the moment, the flour out.
Using your hands or a sturdy spatula, start mixing the potato dough. Little at a time add now the flour mixing it in fast and uniformly. Let the dough rest, covered, for 15 minutes or so.
In the meantime prepare the stuffing. Take the pit out of the plums and cut half of them into little pieces and the other half in wedges and set aside. In a little bowl mix the diced plums with the crumbled marzipan until you get a uniform dough, do not worry the plums juices will be enough to slightly melt the marzipan.
Put a big pot of water on the fire and wait for it to boil before starting the shaping process. When ready to shape your Knödel, proceed as follows:
Flour well your hand and transfer 1-2 tbsp of dough in your palm, apply extra flour on top of the dough. Using your two hands shape it in a rough ball, if it should still stick use extra flour on your hands. Place now 1tsp of stuffing in your Knödel and close the dough over it using a little water if the dough shouldn't stick together. Roll some more the Knödel so to reform the sphere and drop it gently in boiling water, they should cook for 15-20 minutes. When ready transfer them into ice water to cool them down properly before the second cooking process.
When ready to serve your Knödel put some butter and a little oil in a wide pan, sprinkle over some brown sugar and let the butter start to foam. Roll the Knödel in the breadcrumbs and pass them in the hot pan. Delicately roll Knödel in the pan so to brown them on all sides, after 5 minutes or so add the plum wedges, let them warm up and then sprinkle over some kirsch. Serve the Knödel warm with some of the plums and the Kirsch-caramel sauce.


  1. What a wonderful class! The meal looks terrific! :-)

  2. OMG this makes me HUNGRY!
    I was raised on my Oma's cooking, and you are completely correct about Germans and their potatoes.
    My nightmare would be living in a world with no potatoes or fresh bread.

  3. wow looks great wish I could learn from u

  4. Oh, Alessio, this is fabulous! Congratulations and a huge hug! What a great menu and an even greater chef - everything looks so delicious! Oooh I wish I could spend 5 hours learning to cook with you! Magic!

  5. Love this post Ale - congrats on the first of many great classes. Looking forward to the next one. J*

  6. Fabulous, Alessio, and so timely too. My German-American grandmother used to make sauerbraten often, and I've been searching for a recipe for it. I just know yours will be delicious. Must try!

  7. This looks like so much fun. I had no idea about German food, this is a great intro. The food looks awesome, I'd love to be there too :(

    P.S - Which one's you in the picture?

  8. Wow what a phenomenal post Al! My daughter is in third year German in high school, and my niece was born and raised in Germany. So we've dabbled it in a bit ourselves. Yum!