The New Convivialist

Month: November, 2012

A recipe to give (me) thanks for

Last year Thanksgiving in Berlin came and went. I didn’t celebrate it. This year I am thankful for many things, but among them to have made some spirited American friends who invited me to a heartfelt, football-inclusive, early Thanksgiving dinner last weekend. I don’t want to say it was authentic, because that paints it as a mere staging, a going through the motions, of tradition. Because it was more than that. It was the real thing. More than one of us voiced a palpable excitement and anticipation for the day, equating it with the way Christmas Eve felt as a child. I think that we all in some small way re-discovered what the holiday was about. Ok, now cue the cheesy music.

I like to think I am a fairly modest person. But when the topic of apple pie comes around, I have absolutely no problem climbing up to the highest possible pedestal, placing a wreath of laurel on my head and proclaiming to lands far and near that I have, incontestably, the best recipe known to man.

The problem is that I honestly have no idea where this recipe came from. You see, it has been in the “family” for years. Well, eight years, to be exact. It was the fall of our senior year of college and Kate, my good friend and partner-in-culinary-crime, and I got ourselves into a somewhat disturbing pattern of apple pie baking. In retrospect, it surely had a lot to do with scholarly stress and even more to do with procrastination. We relished the fact that we could cast all responsibilities, studying and studio hours aside and just… bake pie. It could all be so simple! We even had a special accent that we would use when baking the pies– somewhere between Georgia hillbilly and that mid-Atlantic drawl popular with actors from the 50s. But somehow, that little apple pie recipe of unknown origin was utter perfection and became legendary.

I have divulged our apple pie recipe to a few friends since that baking frenzy eight years ago. And now I will pass it along to you. Try it out (for Thanksgiving, if you like) while the apples are still at their peak. And give thanks to me.

apple pie recipe for thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Recipe – apple pie


3 cups (375 grams) flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 cup (two American sticks / one European package) cold butter cut into small pieces

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4-6 tablespoons cold milk


1 cup (200 grams) plus 1 tablespoon sugar

4 tablespoons cornstarch (or flour)

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

dash of salt

1 tablespoon water

splash of lemon juice

around 6 medium apples (mix of sweet and sour varieties is best)


1. Make the dough for the crust:  Sift dry ingredients.  Cut all the butter, minus one tablespoon, into dry ingredients. Sprinkle in vegetable oil, then milk, one tablespoon at a time, and mix after each addition. You will know the dough is the right consistency when it comes together in a ball but is not too sticky to handle. When combined, form a ball with the dough and cut in half. Wrap each half with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about one hour.

2. Preheat the oven.

3. Peel and dice apples about 1/3-inch (almost one centimeter) thick. Toss in a bowl with a splash of lemon juice to keep them from browning.

4. Remove dough from the refrigerator and roll out one half for the bottom crust on a floured surface. Using the rolling pin, fold gently in half and transfer into a lightly buttered pie dish. The edges of the dough should hang over the sides of the dish a bit. Then roll out the top.

5. Mix filling: Sift dry ingredients. Mix well with chopped apples and water. Turn mixture into the dough-lined pan. Dot with little pieces of the remaining butter.

6. Cover the apples with the top round of dough and seal the edges by pinching them together.  Make tiny holes or slits in the top to allow steam to escape. Brush a bit of milk on the top of the pie and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of sugar (and a bit more cinnamon, if you like).

Bake at 450° for 10 minutes, then at 350° for 40-50 minutes. (If you see the top is browning too quickly, make a little “tent” over the top of the pie with aluminum foil, covering lightly but continuing to bake.)




Steamed Custard from Hong Kong

hong kong dessert

It was months ago that I asked my colleague Kloud, who hails from Hong Kong, to teach me to make a dish from his native land. I suppose I thought he would prepare something Chinese (or Cantonese), probably a rice- or fish-based dish. What I did not expect was the delicate custard that I can only describe as a like a steamed flan. Which is actually a terrible description. Trust me, if you make it yourself, you will see that it eludes characterization in terms of European traditions. Things and experiences that defy my expectations usually also delight me, as was the case with this smooth, not-too-sweet dessert custard.

Kloud explained that the kinds of food now popular in Hong Kong actually come from very diverse culinary traditions, Eastern and Western. From the direct region, not only Chinese but also Thai and Japanese cuisines are ubiquitous. Even ‘tea time’, seemingly a hangover from British colonial times is a must in Hong Kongers daily schedule.

May I suggest, then, the following steamed ginger custard with a cup of white tea at around four in the afternoon?

For those of you out there like me, who are not expert in the art of steaming, this dessert might take some practicing to achieve the correct consistency. But luckily, the ingredients are very simple and usually ones you have sitting around anyway, so a couple of wasted batches will not break the bank. Set in a ramekin with a leafy garnish, or even in teacups, steamed custard can be uniquely and beautifully presented as little individual desserts to end a dinner, as well. (Note that I wouldn’t necessarily call the version that I present here beautiful… On the contrary, the containers that I used were a bit too tall for steaming and thus needed more time than they should have.) If you are cooking for a larger group, you can also just use one big bowl, as Kloud did.

steamed pudding ingredients

Recipe: Steamed Custard


approximately 3 servings

1 ¼ cups (300 mL) milk

3 Tablespoons granulated sugar

2 egg whites

1 1/2 teaspoons of ginger juice* (optional)

1. Whisk milk and sugar together in a small saucepan and heat on medium until just before it begins to boil. (Don’t let it boil, as it will not become solid later!) You will see a lot of steam coming from the mixture when it’s the right time.

2.  Whisk the egg whites with a fork until light and frothy, about one minute. Temper the egg whites with 1/4 of the hot milk mixture, whisking quickly. Then add the rest of the milk mixture and whisk again.

3. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve and skim any bubbles off the top. Ladle or pour mixture into ramekins or heat safe bowls (with ginger juice already inside, if using). Cover the ramekins with foil and steam for 10-15 minutes, or until the custard has set but is still jiggly. Note: I don’t have a real Chinese-style steamer, so I just used a deep pan with a cover. I filled the pan with water a few centimeters in height, brought to a medium boil, placed the foil-covered ramekins inside and then covered for the duration of the steaming time.

Serve immediately or let cool and chill in the refrigerator for an hour.

*Peel skin off a small knob of ginger and run it through a grater. Put the grated ginger in a fine mesh sieve and press ginger with the back of a spoon to release the juice. Put ½ tsp in the bottom of each ramekin before pouring the milk mixture inside.

preparing steamed custard

steamed custard milk

steaming custard

recipe steamed pudding








Zwiebelkuchen and Federweisser


For the past couple of months I have been lamenting the lack of Fall Things here in Germany. Why aren’t people running off to the countryside to pick apples every weekend? Why are the pumpkins only for eating and not for carving? And don’t even get me started on Halloween… I know. These are all American Fall Things. But wonderful things. Things that should be emulated in all countries lucky enough to have seasons. Traditions, however, are subtle things and even though nothing can ever replace a good apple pie in October, there might –just might– be some German Autumn traditions worth writing home about.

Take Zwiebelkuchen and Federweisser, for instance. This culinary tradition, though admittedly more popular in wine-producing regions of Germany than in Berlin, is based upon the seasonal early grape harvest. Though it is bottled to look like wine, Federweisser is actually must, the result of partially fermented white grape juice. The taste is somewhere between sparkling white wine and sweet, refreshing grape juice. In order to be Federweisser, it must contain 4% alcohol by volume, but depending on how long it’s been sitting around, it can reach up to 10% alcohol. Which is also the fun of Federweisser: you simply never know exactly how tipsy one glass (or bottle…) will get you. In fact I’m drinking it as I write, so if my grammar is a bit off the mark, you know I’ve been blessed with a 10%-er.

In fact, though, I have been fortunate simply to have found Federweisser this late in the season, according to my local wine shop, as it is typically available only from early September to late October. I first had the delicately balanced meal of Federweisser and Zwiebelkuchen (a savory onion tart) at my friend Eva’s house somewhere around mid-September. She, as an excellent cook of all things German and traditional, inspired me that night; I vowed to try to make the dish myself as soon as possible. Now, nearly two months later, after having bought every possible mini-sized candy from the supermarket in preparation for the costumed children who would never even come close to knocking on my door on Halloween, in a near fit of American Autumn Nostalgia, I needed to do reconcile this. I gave myself a pep-talk: German traditions can be good, too. Just try it.

So, I tried it. I already knew from Eva’s that it would be a nice meal. With cooler weather, you crave fatty, heavier foods, naturally. Add a couple of glasses of a beverage of ambiguous alcohol content and you really crave fatty, heavier foods. Zwiebelkuchen, enter stage left.

Quite aside from the food and drink themselves, in spite of myself I discovered I suddenly had that Fall Feeling I had been craving. Perhaps the solution was never to flee the city to pick my own apples or to buy a bunch of mini-Snickers for little ghosts and goblins. It was just to pick up a bottle of sweet ‘feather-white’, fry up some onions and let Autumn in Berlin take hold.

Zwiebelkuchen recipe

Zwiebelkuchen – Onion Tart – Recipe

For the dough:

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

180 grams (about 1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoons melted butter or olive oil

½ cup (120 mL) lukewarm water

For the topping:

Approx. 100 grams bacon, cubed in thick lardons

½ kilo yellow onions (around 2 medium/large) peeled and sliced

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 Tablespoon butter

Pinch of sugar

1 teaspoon salt, divided

¾ cup (175 grams) sour cream

1 egg

Freshly ground nutmeg and black pepper, to taste


1. For the dough: In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Stir in 1/4 cup flour and let the mixture get bubbly, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the kosher salt, butter or oil and remaining flour and mix to form a rough ball. Knead the dough (with hands or stand mixer) for about 5 minutes. Let rise, covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap, until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

2. To make the topping. While the dough is rising, in a large skillet over medium heat cook the bacon, stirring frequently, until the fat is rendered out and the bacon is crisp around the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Add to the skillet the olive oil and butter. When butter is melted and beginning to bubble, add the onions, sugar and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Sauté over medium heat for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the onions are completely soft and just beginning to caramelize around the edges. Remove from the heat and cool completely.

3. In a medium bowl stir together the sour cream, egg and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Add freshly ground nutmeg and black pepper to taste.

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. With floured hands, stretch and pat the dough out to cover the entire sheet. Let rest for about 15 minutes. Spread the cooled onions over the dough. Sprinkle with the cooked bacon. Pour the sour cream mixture over the top and spread to distribute evenly. Let stand in a warm place while preheating the oven to 425°F (approx. 220° C).

5. When the oven is hot, carefully slide the pan onto the center rack and bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until the topping is firm and the dough is golden. Let cool slightly, then cut into squares. Yield is only 3-4 servings, so feel free to double this recipe for a larger dinner.

Enjoy with a glass of Federweisser or a crisp white wine, ideally a German one. Enjoy the cosy feeling of Fall Things.

zwiebelkuchen dough

Federweisser and Zwiebelkuchen