Monday, October 29, 2007

Edible Cemetery

Ok, the title sounds disgusting, but it's really not. It's just a cake, people!

Here's the deal. My wife's birthday was yesterday. Because it's so close to Halloween, she tends to get more spooky themed birthdays than anything else. This year was no exception. I found a fun recipe for a "cemetery cake" over at the web site of the American chocolate god, 'Hershey' (does that make me a polytheist?) and made it for her.

It's more of a decoration idea than a recipe, but I had fun. Of course, I modified it to the local cookies and candies (more store brand, less brand name), but it was quite it hit with everyone. For example, I just used a regular cake mix, not the "brownie mix." I also used square iced-oatmeal cookies for the fence and stairs. In a fit of creativity (or maybe just so it would fit better on my cake platter) I cut out a section of the cake to put the stairs into, rather than leave them on the outside. I'm also lazy. I used milk-chocolate icing instead of combining the cocoa with vanilla icing.

I learned a few things too, and not about baking. Three-year-olds are a lot sneakier than they seem. Don't buy the innocent looks they give you. No, way. When it comes to candy and cake they'll sell you out to the first bidder. My three year old decided she should taste the cake before anyone else. She pulled most of the frosting and a bit of the cake, off the right hand side of it before I could even get a picture taken. She knew she shouldn't do it, either, or she would have gone for something a little more obvious, like the head stones.

Now you know why I had to photograph it at the angle I did.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How to Make Pretzels (Salzbrezeln)

When I think of German food I think of three things, sausages, sauerkraut, and pretzels. Not those small crunchy ones you find near the potato chips in the grocery store. Oh, no. I think of those yummy soft and salty creations that taste great with a bit of mustard.

Oh, yeah, baby. That's some gooood eatin'.

Especially around Oktoberfest.

To help celebrate Oktoberfest this year, I made up a batch or two of soft pretzels. I added a bit of whole wheat flour to increase the fiber content and flavor (it makes it a bit nuttier), but you can stick to just plain unbleached white flour if you prefer.

This recipe doesn't dip them in the traditional sodium solution prior to baking, but it does include a sprinkling of course salt. You don't have to sprinkle them with salt, by the way. Sesame seeds or poppy seeds make great substitutions, or you can just enjoy them plain.

Soft pretzels don't keep well, so you'll want to plan on eating them the day you make them.

Soft Pretzels

2 tsp dry yeast
1 1/4 cups water
2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
egg glaze (made by mixing the yolk of one egg with 1 tbsp water)
sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or course kosher salt for topping

This recipe uses the "sponge" method of activating the yeast. Using a regularly sized bowl, sprinkle the yeast into 1/2 cup of the water, and let it sit for 5 minutes. Stir to dissolve. Add a bit of the white flour (1/4 to 1/2 cup) and mix to form a thin paste. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and let it sit for about 20 minutes, until it's nice and frothy.

Pour the yeast "spong" into a large mixing bowl, and add most of the flour (about 2 1/2 cups) and the remaining water. Mix with a wooden spoon, hand mixer (if you've got dough hooks). Add the remaining flour, bit by bit, until it becomes a stiff, slightly sticky, dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. You can use a stand mixer for this, if you've got one.

Continue to mix the dough, or knead it by hand, until smooth and elastic. This will take about four to ten minutes. I like to knead my bread by turning, folding, and punching it in the same bowl I mixed it in, but you can transfer it to a floured work surface if you prefer.

Lightly grease a clean bowl with butter or oil (or just clean the one you used to mixed it in) and turn the dough once, to cover the dough with the oil. Cover with a dish towel and let it rise until doubled in size. This can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, so be patient. You can check that it's fully risen by poking it with your finger. If the indentation immediately springs back, leave it alone. If it doesn't spring back after few moments, it's ready. Punch the dough down and let it rest for about ten minutes.

Divide the dough into eight pieces. Shape each piece into an oval and then roll each oval back and forth with your palms, moving from the center out, to form long round strips, about 16 to 18 inches. Leave the center thicker than the ends. (They should be about 1 inch thick in the middle, and about 1/4 thick on the ends.)

To shape them into pretzels, pick up both ends of the strip and make an upside down “u” shape on your counter. Twist the ends over twice and then press them down over either side of the loop. The pretzel will be “upside down.” Repeat with each dough strip.

Place the pretzels on a lightly floured baking sheet, and cover with a dish towel. Let them rise until double in size again, about 45 minutes to an hour or so. (FYI, the second rise is called "proofing.")

Once fully risen, brush the pretzels with egg wash, and sprinkle with the topping of your choice. If you use course salt, be careful not to use too much, or no one will want to eat them when you're done.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F, and bake on the center rack for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

I like tearing them apart and dipping them in a bit of good horseradish mustard. My wife and kids like slathering cream cheese on them. I've even heard of cutting them in half lengthwise and making sandwiches with them.

What’s your favorite pretzel variation?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Oktoberfest in Utah means Apple Beer and Pretzels

It's Oktoberfest, and, contrary to popular belief, Utahans like to celebrate just like everyone else. Only about half the population is Mormon, and even some of them don't follow the Word of Wisdom. They still partake of the fruit of the grain.

I think they're named "Jack."

Actually, there's an old joke about Mormons and beer. If you ever take a Mormon fishing, make sure you take two of them. If you only take one, he'll drink all your beer.

Most of us try and live our faith and don't drink, myself included. I still like Oktoberfest, though. I just stick to Apple Beer, instead of the regular kind.

I've always thought of Oktoberfest in much the same way I think about Saint Patrick's Day. It's a great excuse for people to have a party. For those who drink beer, it's a great excuse to drink even more.

The official Oktoberfest takes place in Munich and is that city's largest fair. Beer plays a central role in the fair, with every festival beginning with a keg of beer tapped by the Mayor. He shouts "O'zapft is!" which is Bavarian for "It’s tapped!" A special Oktoberfest beer is brewed, darker and stronger in both taste and alcohol, and everyone drinks and eats to their heart's content.

What I found interesting is that, in Munich, children aren't allowed in the beer tents after 8:00 PM. Even if their parents are with them. With the German reputation for beer drinking, they still worry about their young family members. To me, that's cool.

It's not just large quantities of beer that are drunk, either. Large quantities of food, are to be eaten. Most of it is traditional dishes such as sausage, chicken, and sauerkraut. Ox tail can be found, as well. Let's not forget my favorite German snack food - pretzels!

What's really odd for me this year is that Oktoberfest coincides with the autumn sessions of the biannual LDS Church General Conference. This is a time when we get together as members and listen to sermons given by the top leaders of the LDS Church, including the man we consider to be God's prophet on earth, President Gordan B. Hinckley.

General Conference is a two day affair that gets broadcast to various LDS church buildings throughout the world. In Utah we have the luxury of having most of the sessions broadcast by a local TV station, so I'll be home with my family watching it.

But I still want to celebrate Oktoberfest. How can I put the two together? Call it "Party with the Prophet?" I'm not sure that's gonna go over well with my Bishop. Then again, I've never known President Hinckley to be a curmudgeon, so I don't think he (or the Lord), will mind if my family noshes on apple beer and home made pretzels while we watch the Saturday sessions.

Apple beer and pretzels, anyone?