Kristy Wenz is a writer, entrepreneur, wine lover, experimental home cook and avid traveler. She blogs regularly at Eat Play Love, where she and her family explore cuisines and cultures around the globe.
TIME TO GET FRANK
Whether celebrating May Day or Mother’s Day, or simply dusting off the patio furniture for the warm weather to come, we have a delicious recipe to share this month.
Last month we fused the cuisines of Germany and New Zealand. This month we’re narrowing in on a lesser-known but equally remarkable wine producing region in central Germany -- Franconia.
FRANCONIA THEN AND NOW
While much of modern day Franconia lies in what is more commonly known as Bavaria, Franconia has an extensive history dating back to a Germanic tribe called the Franks. In the sixth century, the Franks conquered much of Western Europe including areas of Germany and France. Eventually the term Frankish transitioned to define a geographical region more than an ethnicity, and Franconia entered what would be a long history of political trade, rule and division. In 1803, resulting from a deal with Napoleon, the majority of Franconia became part of Bavaria, where it remains today.
Despite the newly defined region, Franconians continued to retain their culture, traditions and pride, particularly as it pertained to food, beer and wine. This is understandable when you consider Franconia’s winemaking history goes back more than a 1,000 years! Divided into three regions, Upper, Middle and Lower Franconia, the majority of grapes are grown in the Lower region where the Main River provides steep hills, a more moderate climate and mineral-rich soils. As for the food, Franconia is known for its pork dishes, potato dumplings, Franconian Bratwurst and fish from the Main.
Wine culture is intricately woven throughout the region’s small towns and villages. In fact, a majority of the Franconian wine produced is drunk within the region and shared at a number of weinfests held throughout the year. And, like Austria, the Franconia region of Germany is home to many seasonal wine taverns, here known as Heckenwirtschaften. These small but popular taverns run by individual wineries are scattered throughout Franconia offering “Neuer Wein” (new wine), as well as the owner’s locally produced wines at various times throughout the year. It’s a tradition dating back to the 16th century in Franconia. At the Heckenwirtschaften, winemakers open their doors and welcome the community to experience the wine, the tradition and the friendship of fellow wine lovers.
Now, if there’s one thing we’ve learned at the World Platter, it’s that where there’s wine and fellowship, there’s always food. While the majority of Heckenwirtschaften are not full-service restaurants, many will offer seasonal plates and snacks with their wine. One of the more popular dishes commonly associated with Franconia’s wine region is the Zwiebelkuchen. Typically served in the fall during harvest, the Zwiebelkuchen is an efficient use of summer onions and pairs wonderfully with a Federweiβer, or grape must juice served this time of year. The two are often served together. Fortunately for those of us not able to experience the Federweiβer first-hand, it also pairs beautifully with a crisp Franconian white wine any time of year.
CAKE, PIE OR TART?
The Zwiebelkuchen is literally translated as an onion cake, but more closely resembles a tart, deep-dish savory pie or even a quiche. A simple and frugal meal, it’s essentially a pie crust topped with caramelized onions, bacon and a mixture of sour cream and eggs. Like any traditional recipe, variations abound, but for our purposes, we’re sharing the most common version found in Franconia, which will use a yeast-based crust and caraway seeds. If time is an issue, a store-bought pie crust or puff pastry can be used in its place, but I have to say the use of yeast in the dough livens up the texture of the crust and adds a subtle sweetness integral to the dish. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not much of a bread baker, so you can trust this is a simple recipe. In fact, I even went old-school and mixed the dough entirely by hand.
Simply proof the yeast in warm milk with a pinch of sugar, blend the butter into the sifted dry ingredients, and then add the milk-yeast mixture and one egg. It comes together quickly and easily, and will double in size while you prepare the filling, which is equally simple. Cook the chopped bacon in one skillet and set aside to cool. In another skillet caramelize two pounds of onions cut into rings – yes two pounds (at least!). At first the onions will fill the entire skillet, possibly even making a small mound depending on the size of the pan used, but don’t worry, they quickly begin to soften and cook down. The onions sauté until golden at which point you can mix them with the bacon and caraway seeds to cool. As for the liquid filling, quickly whisk together the eggs and sour cream. Now you’re ready for assembly!
Once the dough has doubled in size it can be rolled out or shaped to fit your pan. (Make sure to grease or lightly dust your pan with flour first.) You can use a rectangular baking dish, a round deep-dish pie pan or even a springform pan; but whatever the case, make sure it’s a container with higher sides to support your filling. Once the dough is shaped into the pan, add the onion and bacon mixture over the crust, and then pour the sour cream and eggs over the top. The Zwiebelkuchen then bakes for 50-60 minutes at 375F. Once cooked through, serve the Zwiebelkuchen hot or warm as a side dish or light meal. It can even be served as a main course with a side salad. Arugula would be a beautiful complement!
As discussed, the Zwiebelkuchen is a perfect accompaniment to a glass of a crisp Franconian white wine. The tartness and minerality of the wine harmonizes with the sweetness of the crust and caramelized onions. It also refreshes the palate after a bite of the rich, cream-based tart and salty bacon. While it may not be autumn harvest in the U.S. or Germany, this meal would be delightful served any time of year. So perhaps you can sample a taste of this picturesque wine region this spring, while contemplating a trip to Würzburg for the harvest season. Or invite a few friends over and create the atmosphere of a welcoming Heckenwirschaften on your deck or patio as you serve a warm, freshly baked Zwiebelkuchen and crack open a variety of Franconian wines. Either way, this is a German dish not to be missed. Guten appetit and prost!
For the Dough
1 packet quick action yeast (25g)
1 c milk, warmed to room temperature
1/8 t sugar
2 c flour
1/4 t salt
4 T butter
For the Filling
2 pounds onions, peeled and sliced into rings
1-1/2 T butter
2 T olive oil
1/2 pound bacon, chopped
1-1/2 c sour cream
2 t caraway seeds
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375F.
Dissolve the yeast and 1/8 t of sugar in the milk. Cover and set aside for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, sift together 1-1/2 cups flour and salt. Then incorporate the butter into the flour using a mixer, a pastry blender, or two knives in a scissor-like fashion, until coarse crumbs are formed.
Make a well in the center of the flour and add the egg and the milk/yeast. If using a mixer, blend with the dough hook until combined and dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If mixing by hand stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until blended and dough pulls away from the sides.
Using some of the remaining flour, dust a hard surface and turn the dough out onto the flour. Sprinkle with additional flour and begin kneading gently until a smooth, moist and only slightly sticky dough is formed, adding more flour as-needed tiny amounts at a time. Shape the dough into a ball and place in a flour-dusted bowl or baking dish. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size.
In the meantime, cook the bacon in a skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. In a separate large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion runs and toss to coat. Season with salt and stir occasionally while onions begin to caramelize and cook-down. Cook the onions over medium heat until golden in color. Add the caraway seeds and cook a few minutes longer. Finally, combine the bacon and onions and set aside to cool.
In a separate bowl, combine the four eggs and sour cream. Whisk until smooth.
After the dough has doubled in size, shape it into your desired baking dish (must have higher sides). Add the onion/bacon mixture over the top and smooth until even. Lastly pour the egg and sour cream mix over the tap, again smoothing until even. Bake the cake at 375F for 50-60 minutes.
Serve hot as a side dish or as a main with a side salad.