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 – 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
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.