Monday, March 27, 2006

Strong Beer for a Stressed Fest

Here in Socal, spring is a fairly quite time. No significant holidays, nothing much to break up the routine.

But this time of year always reminds me of the frenzy going on in right about now.

I never knew what stress was until I had lived in Munich for some years. We lived about 100 yards from the Oktoberfest grounds. Right in the thick of everything. So of course, whether we wanted to or not, we were living the Oktoberfest – day and night – for two weeks every year. Hard to believe as it may seem, towards the end, we began planning vacations around that time – just to escape the crush. A million visitors in your backyard every year kind of wears you down.

But that is just the tip of the festival iceberg there. There are the Christmas Markets – where we stand outside in December, freezing to death, drinking heated spiked wine (Gluehwein), or the Faschings festival – i.e. the Carnival – before lent – where everyone drinks Weissbier till early morning, then eats doughnuts (Krapfen) and Weisswurst at about 3 AM (then actually goes to work the next day – amazing!). And of course there were additional festivals in the spring, summer, and fall, packed around the Oktoberfest.

These festivals crowd each other on the Munich calendar. As soon as one has ended, the next one seems to be in full swing. Fest Stress big time. It takes a strong liver to make it through the year.

After drinking heated wine for a month in December, celebrating New Year’s in January, and then drinking till morning for a month in February, you’re kind of stressed when March rolls around. Despite not being particularly religious, some abstinence begins to sound kind of nice.

But, it’s not to be. Not in Munich, anyways.

Right now, for example, is Starkbierzeit – or Strong Beer Time. This is a special time that the people in Bavaria organized for themselves to help bridge the traditional fasting period during Lent. Since you were not supposed to eat meat, drink alcohol (note that in Bavaria beer is not considered alcohol), etc., the Bavarians got special permission from the powers that be to brew a particularly strong beer to help them through this trying time. And naturally they invented a festival to ensure it could be enjoyed to the max. This party rages on every night for the four weeks from Fat Tuesday till Good Friday.

And the fuel for this party – Starkbier – is like 100 proof pumpernickel. Thick, dark, malty, and very high in alcohol content. Served 1 liter at a time.

I remember sitting in the beer cellar / restaurant – the epicenter of the Starkbier festival in Munich, watching the waitresses dealing with the increasingly boisterous crowd. Hundreds of increasingly drunk people – singing, chanting, falling down frequently. Generally having a great time.

Most of these waitresses were not just serving the huge 1 liter glasses of beer they pour there, but also very carefully putting the eye glasses (i.e. spectacles) back on the noses of the passed out guests who had either set them aside, or lost them when their heads hit the tables upon passing out.

It turns out that lost glasses were a significant logistic problem, as guests eventually remembered, through the haze, where they must have lost their glasses. And with so many heads hitting the table per night, there were a lot of glasses to sort through.

Because the Starkbierfest was still mainly a Bavarian / Munich tradition, as opposed to the Oktoberfest (which has turned into a giant international drunk fest), it was always fun to join in. It’s amazing how much my Bavarian dialect improved after a few liters of Starkbier! Or at least that’s how I remember it! Although my head did hit the table a few times over those 10 years – I’ve still got a few bumps to prove it!

So just for fun – some Munich-style pretzels, or Brezen. They are always baked extra large there. One pretzel can be enough for several people.

Along with the pretzels, a couple of other Munich treats for dinner: Cheese ‘Spaetzle’ (recipe follows), with sausages and a salad. Of course I can’t find authentic Bavarian sausages here, but I did find some nice hot ‘Sicilian-style’ chicken sausages at Trader Joe’s, so that will have to do!

Bavarian Pretzels (Brezen)

1 lb all purspose flour
1 packet dry active yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt
rock salt to sprinkle on top
8 oz baking soda

Put the flour in a bowl. Make a depression in the flour, and pour in the yeast, sugar, and a little luke warm milk. Let the yeast proof for 10-20 minutes, covered with a towel. Add the rest of the milk and the salt, combine well, and knead the dough until smooth.

Take small portions of the dough and roll to pencil-thick, 1 foot long strands (you can make them larger if you want – just roll them a bit thicker and longer – but they are harder to handle). Form them in the traditional pretzel shape on a floured backing sheet. Let them rise for 15-30 minutes, covered with a cloth, in a warm place.

Heat the baking soda in 8 cups of water to a boil. With a slotted spoon, gently place each pretzel into the water. As soon as the pretzel comes to the surface, remove it to a floured baking pan. Sprinkle the pretzel with rock salt. Cook the remaining pretzels in the same manner.

Bake the pretzels at 425ºF for 15 to 20 minutes, until deep golden brown.

Kaesespaetzle (Cheese Spaetzle)
(This is from the book – Bavarian Cookbook – 53rd edition! – which is like the Bavarian cooking bible. Translated by me)

1 lb flour
1 to 1 ¼ cup water
4 eggs
½ lb cheese, grated – I used Fontana, but traditional is Emmentaler
Parsley for garnish, chopped fine

Make the dough: Mix all ingredients – except the cheese – together in a bowl. Continue to mix (you can se an electic mixer with dough hooks if desired) until the dough gives off blisters while mixing. The dough should be fairly firm.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Spread the dough out in a layer (maybe ½ inch thick) on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut off a thin strip of dough, and push it into the water. If it holds (i.e. does not dissolve) continue, otherwise beat in a bit more flour until the dough blisters and try again. Continue cutting off thin strips of the dough and push them, one by one, into the boiling water.

When the Spaetzle come to the surface, about 4-5 minutes, remove them with a slotted spoon to a baking dish. Sprinkle them with about ½ of the cheese, and set them in a 350ºF oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the Spaetzle are cooked through. Remove from oven, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese, and the parsley. Serve. Enjoy!

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Blogger Genevieve said...

hi. just stumbled upon your site. you make a really great variety of foods. cool. keep it up!

5:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:59 PM  
Blogger surfindaave said...

genevieve - thanks for the comment! I'll keep cookin', thats for sure!

11:44 PM  

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