With bacon and onions piled on top, the German flatbread zwiebelkuchen is the perfect food for celebrating fall.
IT OFTEN COMES as a shock to fellow Northwesterners that fall is my favorite time of year. “You prefer this to summer?” they ask incredulously, gesturing at the dripping sky and staring at me with the same look that I reserve for people who, say, claim to like jogging.
It usually takes several minutes to convince them I’m neither a masochist nor allergic to sun, I just love to cook and eat. And for that, you couldn’t ask for better conditions: the markets are bursting with the final harvest, the cool weather makes standing in a hot kitchen pleasure rather than torture, and people (including me) are hungrier than they’ve been in months.
Then there’s zwiebelkuchen, a fall tradition in our house I look forward to so much that it alone would make the season worth celebrating.
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My German husband introduced me to zwiebelkuchen shortly after we met, and it’s still one of the few tastes of his homeland he actively craves. Literally meaning “onion cake,” it’s probably best described as an onion-and-bacon-laden cross between a pizza and a quiche (or savory pie), though which of the two it resembles more is up to the individual cook. In Germany, zwiebelkuchen is almost always a festive affair, whose eating season, so to speak, begins in late September with the release of its traditional accompaniment, the young white wine called federweisser. The two are perfect partners — the crisp, fizzy wine balancing the pie’s rich pungency.
Much like pizza in Italy, zwiebelkuchen has been adopted as a kind of national dish around Germany, but for the genuine article you have to look to the onion-growing, wine-producing southwest of the country. This is the cultural and linguistic region called Swabia, which historically extended all the way from western Bavaria to Alsace. The fact that Alsace is part of present-day France creates some cross-border tension, though, because the French have eagerly adopted the dish as their own. It doesn’t help matters that the French version (tarte flambée) gets far more international press than the German one, much to the consternation of my husband. “How do the French manage to get all the credit for our dish?” I’ve heard him grumble.
And if disagreement over who can claim ownership weren’t enough, getting down to the nitty-gritty of a recipe opens a whole new set of questions. In fact, pinning down a definitive zwiebelkuchen is just about impossible; everyone and their uncle has his own take on things. Some make it thin and crisp, others thick and moist; most cook the onions, but a few insist they should be raw; some add ham while others prefer bacon.
However they’re put together, though, the essential components are nonnegotiable: onions, cream and smoked meat spread on a yeasted dough, baked into a golden slab and eaten against a backdrop of falling leaves.
I’d like to add another nonnegotiable element: Zwiebelkuchen should never be eaten alone. Not only would that contradict its nature as a celebratory dish, it would deprive you of the perfect opportunity to invite over all the fall-phobic people you know and show them what this season’s really all about.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food photographer and writer. Check out her other work at www.melissakronenthal.com.
Serves 6 to 8
For the dough
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup lukewarm water
For the topping
8 ounces bacon, sliced crosswise into ¼-inch pieces
2 pounds yellow onions (about 4 medium-large), peeled and cut in ½-inch dice
Pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 1/2 cups sour cream
Freshly ground nutmeg and black pepper, to taste
To make the dough. In a large mixing bowl combine the flour, yeast and salt. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the oil and warm water. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and dust with some of the remaining flour. Knead for about 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Wash and dry the bowl, then lightly grease with oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
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. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of fat from the skillet, then 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.
In a medium bowl stir together the sour cream, eggs and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Add freshly ground nutmeg and black pepper to taste.
Line an approximately 12-by-17-inch baking sheet or jellyroll pan with parchment paper. With floured hands, stretch and pat the dough out to cover the entire sheet, pressing it up to form a ridge around the edge. 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 you preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
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. Enjoy with a glass of federweisser or your favorite crisp white wine.
Note: Federweisser is available each fall from Steppe Cellars in Sunnyside, Yakima County (www.steppecellars.com).