German gastronomy is pretty a mystery to most of us, I have been living in Germany for the last 5 years and still eludes me. Walking around the streets of Bonn or Cologne, you rarely see restaurants specialized on German food. Mostly they are brewery offering rich creamy meat dishes, stews or schnitzel to have with their beers.
Many national cuisines are brought together and fed by nationalism and pride.
Till few years ago, to be German and proud of that so to show this pride by means of their national flag, was considered a big social no-no. Despite almost 60 years have passed, the weight of WWII consequences are felt as a heavy burden by German society, hence the taboo of nationalism.
But something is changing.
The second last World Soccer Championship, the 2006 World Cup, was hosted by Germany and then showing the national flag in your windows, cars or just on you, started to become acceptable.
Does this mean that more efforts will be made to point more on local gastronomy? Let's hope so.
I had the chance to experiment a bit with German traditional food for one of my cooking classes and preparing for it I found lovely books with yummy recipes all worth adding to our repertoire. The love for potatoes in every form, especially when made into a doughnut of some sort, boiled, steamed of pan fried, is incredible! For this month Velveteers challenge I was the one in charge to choose the land of the battle an so I chose another German delicacy: soft Pretzel (Brezeln in German).
I am sure we all know those brown knots of crunchy dough? Or those long, thin sticks all shiny with crystals of salt all over them? They are also pretzels, dried one. We do not get them so much around here, traditionally that is, naturally we got supermarkets too; what we call Brezeln are the big doughy shiny dark brown knots still with the ubiquitous bright white crystal salts on them.
I got into fresh Brezeln during the last Christmas when in the local seasonal market we had a lovely vendor of freshly baked big chunky Brezeln! They went perfectly with the mulled wine. Naturally you don’t have them only pure but with melted crunchy cheese, with butter, garlic butter, herbs or seeds on top (obviously in that cold the butter turned into a sort of ice cream).
As bread, Brezeln are very versatile though most of the time served as savoury snack.
At this point I have to come clear of a little shortcut I took so far. Brown shiny Brezeln are actually called Laugenbrezeln. Why such a long name? Well, it is German what did you expect an acronym? The first part of the name “Laugen” refers to its cooking method using lye, Laugen indeed.
The origin of this form of bread is not clear, what it is know is that it is a very old creation;
it appears in an illustration of the Hortus Deliciarum a sort of 12th century illuminated encyclopaedia. The why for the characteristic knots or even how they came to be dipped in caustic lye is a matter of legends and stories (crossing arms? bracelets?).
But what does lye do to the dough? The strong alkaline solution in which the dough is dipped or boiled in, denaturate the surface proteins and gelatinise the starches so that when it is baked, the Pretzel get its shiny and cracking surface. The dark colour and characteristic flavour comes from the enhanced Maillard reactions that darkens the surface faster than usual (due to a higher pH and the free amino-acids from the denatured proteins).
For my rendition of Pretzel I didn’t choose to use either lye or baking soda so I will propose you another version of Brezeln as German as the Laugenbrezeln, that is Bierbrezeln.
The recipe is quite traditional and you can find it here but I decided to use dark beer for clear one. Dark beer has naturally a deeper more complex flavour and sometimes Laugenbrezeln are made using malt extract in them; furthermore, beer enhances the yeast activity for a faster proofing time. Since they don’t get the dipping in the alkali solution, these Bierbrezeln are glazed with an egg wash like normal pastries, naturally the more the hands of “paint” you give them, the shinier and darker they will be.
- 250g all purpose flour
- 21g fresh brewer’s yeast (1/2 cube)
- 1-2tsp Sugar
- 130ml Dark Bier
- 1tsp salt
- 10g butter, room temperature
- 1 yolk
- 1 tbsp dark beer
- Toasted sesame seeds
- Caraway seeds
- Nigella seeds
Crumble the yeast into the beer, add the sugar and some of the flour; mix well and let the mixture proof for around 20 minutes. After this time has elapsed, add the remaining flour, the salt and the butter to the yeast mixture and knead into a smooth and elastic dough. Transfer the dough in a bowl, cover with a wet cloth and let proof for 30 minutes; in the meantime preheat the oven to 220C.
After this time, punch down the dough, knead it for a while and cut the dough into 8 portions. Roll the pieces in long sausages with thin extremities and form them into Brezeln. Brush the glaze over the Brezeln, if you want to give them more hands of glaze let the previous one dry out a bit.
Sprinkle some of the seeds mixture over the Brezeln, pat them into the dough with your hand. Slide a shallow container with boiling water into the oven followed by the Brezeln. Bake them for 25minutes or until nice and dark and sounding hollow when lightly tapped.
Let them cool down for 5 minutes or until safe to the touch, enjoy while still warm!
Wondering how to form your Brezeln with the typical knot? Take a look at these different techniques.
The 4 Velveteers was started by Alessio, Aparna, Asha and Pamela, who are passionate about different cuisines and food in general. Each month, we will attempt a new dish and share our experiences and the recipes we used. If you're interested in joining the Velveteers, please feel free to drop by our Facebook group.
Check out what the other Velveteers have come up with this month: