WELL, HELLO! Here we are, another October all over again. Can you believe it? It’s been a busy couple of seasons around here–some TV and video projects, contributing for The Splendid Table (hi, dream job), and developing book #4. Oh, and that not-so-small detail of mothering a a third-grader (!) and a finally potty-trained (!!!) 3 1/2-year-old whose personality is basically Male Sybil on Steroids. There’s a lot to take in. I’m sure a lot of you feel me. In fact, can we all just go somewhere? Like a retreat in Big Sur where we all have our own private, sparkling clean bedrooms and bathrooms and we just breathe deep all day, and then convene in the evening over a case of wine and our favorite new cookbooks? Excellent. I’m bringing that one, up top, and seeing if the author wants to come with us.
Because Luisa Weiss feels us, too. She’s a smart, gorgeous woman who juggles motherhood and work and an insatiable creative streak, the kind that makes her take in everything around her and create a story from it, often through food. Her blog, The Wednesday Chef, was one of the first I read way back in the day, and one that finally tipped me over into starting my own in 2007. Ever since, she’s churned out wonderful writing, and vetted recipes that have become part of my personal rotation (Melissa Clark’s Roasted Shrimp and Broccoli became a go-to after drooling over it on Luisa’s site).
Luisa’s first book was My Berlin Kitchen, a food memoir, and her new book combines her personal ties to German culture with her love of baking to create a beautiful recipe collection that speaks to me on all levels. In between the releases of her two books, she and I became friends via the magic of the Internet. And like many of you who follow Luisa on Instagram and have kept up with her visual diary of the development of her first cookbook, I have been impatiently awaiting the release of Classic German Baking.
This is the kind of book that transports you through its design and photography, recipes and headnotes. Both the lovely shots of German scenery and the food images have a sort of rainy-day cast to them, which feels fabulously cozy as you flip through the crave-worthy recipes. There’s everything from cookies to cakes (both baking powder-leavened and yeast-risen), tortes and strudels, savory breads. The Christmas chapter will knock your socks off, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually typed that phrase before. And if you’re me, you’ll page through the whole thing in one sitting, bookmarking recipes with post-its while trying to pronounce their names, failing miserably and making a mental note to consult Google Translate.
But this slight air of foreign mystery is what makes this book so special in a never-ending sea of cookbooks. I actually have a small lake of them sitting on my desk as I type this, and while many are beautiful, few offer recipes that I’ve not experienced before. Classic German Baking offers a window into another world of baking for me. And rather than just being exotic for novelty’s sake, these are recipes that are deeply connected to a culture that embraces home baking in a way that so few places do. These are recipes with story and soul. What’s even better is that there are a handful of baked goods in the book that I initially thought were new to me, but it simply turns out that I never knew them by their original names, or understood the way they’re classically made.
Take, for example, the Apfelkuchen you see here. The base of this yeasted cake is a formula that is endlessly riffable, and appears a number of times in the book (something I love in a cookbook, by the way–one dough, lots of creative ideas!–we all could use a little more of this kind of empowerment when it comes to baking). It’s the kind of coffee cake you’d see in many an old-school American bakery case, usually in a round, topped with a simple layer of jam or fruit, and maybe with a streusel top. But here, the dough is a thinner, rectangular canvas for lots and lots of apple bits, and nothing more. It’s just so lovely and simple, especially if you live in my house and still have pounds of apples knocking around the fridge after a weeks-ago road trip to the orchard with some slightly overzealous apple pickers.
After you make this simple dough and let it rest, you pile it with what seems like an almost chaotic amount of apple chunks and a sprinkling of sugar. To be totally honest, for a moment, I feared that I might have over-apfel’d my kuchen. Luisa did mention in the recipe that it would seem like a lot of apples and to just push them down into the dough, but I was experiencing a rounded dome of apples that would simply NOT stand to be pushed into anything, and threatened to schlump and tumble onto the floor of the oven. So I pulled some off to create more of a generous double layer (1 1/2 layers?) of fruit. (I’m guessing that the six apples I used were probably too bloated and American compared to the six called for in the book. I’m willing to bet that German apples are much more modestly-sized, generally more trim and attractive, worldly and well-read. Typical.)
Self-deprecating apple humor aside, I love how unbashedly apple-y this cake is: no cinnamon, no nutmeg, no brown sugar overdose, or any of the baking-with-apples usual suspects. Still, the cake emerged from the oven insanely fragrant, albeit a bit paler than I’d hoped. But a quick run under the broiler gave the whole thing a little bit of pretty (remove the cake from the parchment to a separate sheet pan first, no house fires, please). I suppose you could also dust the finished cake with confectioners’ sugar, but I don’t think it’s necessary, as the sweetness level is pretty perfect here as is. Classic.
From Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking
I opted to make the cake with instant yeast instead of fresh yeast, but the recipe states it will work with both. It’s worth noting, though, that for whatever reason, I had a heck of a time getting the dough to give me any puff at all during rising the first two times I attempted it, with two different brands of instant yeast (and yes, I’m sure the yeast was indeed instant, not active dry, and was well within the use-by date). Normally, one should be able to just throw instant yeast into the dry ingredients without letting it bloom first just as the original recipe states and I’m including that instruction here, but I had much better results when I let the yeast dissolve in the warm milk for a few minutes before pouring it into the mixing bowl. No idea why. But I thought I would mention it as a heads up.
All of the recipes in the book use European-style butter, which is higher in fat and noticeably softer and silkier than American butter. In a recipe like this with only 3 tablespoons, I suppose regular butter won’t completely ruin the recipe. But! I urge you to try European-style butter. It’s easier to find than you might expect; it’s available in pretty much every big supermarket, next to the more common American brands. There’s Plugra, Kerrygold, and more, and even Land O’Lakes makes a European-style butter now. It makes for a wonderfully rich dough and is worth seeking out.
Makes 1 9×13-inch cake
3/4 ounce (20 grams) fresh yeast or 1 teaspoon instant yeast (see note)
2 cups (250 grams) flour, spooned and leveled, plus more for kneading
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar, plus 3 to 4 tablespoons (40 to 50 grams) for sprinkling
1/2 cup (140 mL) whole milk, lukewarm
1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons (40 grams) unsalted European-style butter, at room temperature
Grated zest and juice of 1/2 organic lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 small to medium apples
Line a 9×13-inch pan with parchment paper, long enough so it can be folded down over two opposite sides by a few inches.
If using fresh yeast: Place the flour in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Place the yeast in the well, add a pinch of sugar. Pour the milk into the well as you stir, to dissolve the yeast. Cover the bowl and let rest for 15 minutes. Add the remaining sugar, egg yolk, lemon zest, and salt. Stir until a shaggy dough forms.
If using instant yeast: whisk together the yeast, flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest. Pour into the milk and egg yolk. Start stirring, and once the dough begins to come together, add the butter in rough chunks. Continue to stir into a shaggy dough.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead for a few minutes by hand until a soft, smooth, floppy dough forms. You want to avoid adding too much flour as you knead, so a bench scraper is helpful for keeping the dough moving and not sticking to the work surface too much. Place the dough into the prepared pan, and cover with a clean dish cloth. Let rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour until slightly puffy (it won’t double the way bread dough does).
Using your fingers, press the dough out to completely fill the pan in a thin, even layer (the dough will be about 1/4 inch thick). Cover the pan again and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. Peel, core, and quarter the apples, and cut them into 1/2-inch chunks. Scatter the apples over the dough, and sprinkle with 3 to 4 tablespoons of sugar.
Bake until the cake is browned at the edges, slightly puffed, and the apples have begun to color, 50 to 55 minutes.
Let the cake cool in the pan set over a wire rack before using the parchment sling to remove the cake to a cutting board. Cut into squares or rectangles. This cake is best served the day it’s made, but leftovers can be kept at room temperature tightly wrapped in foil, for 1 additional day.
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