Baking, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Ein prosit der gemütlichkeit.

Those who did not have the good fortune to grow up in Wisconsin tend to play down its gastronomic charms as minimal, limited to cheap beer and government surplus cheese. That’s because they have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re probably envious as well. You see, dining in Wisconsin isn’t just about the food; it’s also about a certain sense of comfort and happiness based in relaxing with, and feeling close to, your people – what we would call gemütlichkeit. You don’t have to be ethnically German to understand gemütlichkeit; just being from, or in, southeastern Wisconsin will get you there. Gemütlichkeit is the reason Summerfest happens in Milwaukee and not, say, Seattle, and why the University of Wisconsin has the greatest student union in America. It’s why no one minds waiting in line for sausages at Usinger’s, and random strangers will invite you to crash a party – and really mean it. It’s not really a Midwestern thing, either. Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, is so much more gemütlich than other Midwestern locales that I found Minnesotans closed-off and positively chilly when I moved there.

Possibly the archetypical, most gemütlich, Wisconsin food is bratwurst, which translates in German either to “pan fried sausage” or “finely chopped meat sausage.” This description obviously doesn’t distinguish bratwurst from most other sausages, but if you’ve ever had a good brat, you know exactly what to expect – the snap of the casing, the cascade of juice, the aroma of mace and marjoram spicing up the pork and veal. It’s usually fairly coarse in texture, sometimes finer, but you always should be able to discern the texture of the meat; if it’s emulsified like a hot dog, it’s not a brat. And while we’re on the subject, it’s pronounced “braht,” like “father,” not “brat” like “apple,” or like “beat on the brat with a baseball bat.

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Brats are social food, the sort of thing you eat in the company of others, not like a sad box of Fruit Loops you eat by the handful in the car, alone. They can be pan-fried, of course, but the other standard Milwaukee preparation is to poach the sausages in beer enriched with onions and maybe butter until cooked through, and then grill over charcoal just long enough for the skins to brown, just shy of blistered. This ritual typically takes place in backyard Weber kettles, on the never-cleaned picnic area grills in the Milwaukee County Parks, or in the parking lot of County Stadium* both before and after the game. The centrality of bratwurst, and basically all sausages, to Milwaukee culture is reflected in the Sausage Race at the top of the sixth in every Brewers home game. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the Sausage Race pits people dressed as the culturally significant sausages of Milwaukee – a brat, a Polish sausage, an Italian sausage, a hot dog, and a chorizo (the last two having joined the race in the last decade) – in a footrace around the stadium. The Sausage Race is highly gemütlich, providing Brewers fans a rallying point during games and uniting them around a common love of multiethnic tube meats, even while providing a source of friendly competition.**

Sausages on their marks.
***

I recently recounted to my husband a 2013 incident involving the heist of Guido, the Italian racing sausage. If you don’t recall Weenie Gate, you never heard the story in the first place, because it’s not the sort of thing one forgets. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, “The 7-foot-long weenie was lying unused in a backroom at the Milwaukee Curling Club. …[A] witness saw the sausage walk out of the south door about 7:45 p.m.” In the subsequent week, the giant foam sausage made its unauthorized rounds about Cedarburg, drinking PBRs, jamming at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill, and signing autographs, before being returned by an unidentified hood-wearing man who entered TJ Ryan’s, deposited Guido on a barstool, said “You did not see anything” to the bartender, and strolled out. My husband, who has as keen an insight into Milwaukee’s essence as any non-native, immediately identified the parallels with another famous episode of gemütlichkeit gone bad: the ill-conceived “Martinifest” at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In characteristic Milwaukee fashion, revelers drank so excessively that they soon engaged in such completely debauched group behavior as mounting and riding the Gaston Lachaise bronze of a standing woman. One might question why, especially in a city as soaked in alcohol and fun-loving criminality as Milwaukee, anyone thought unlimited martinis for $30 was a good idea. Perhaps the Texas-based corporate sponsor lacked the necessary cultural awareness.****

Bratwurst

The most famed bratwurst in Wisconsin come not from Milwaukee but from Sheboygan, about an hour north on Lake Michigan. The other thing that happens in Sheboygan is chartered fishing expeditions for brown trout and Chinook salmon, but that’s another story. It’s a cute town. One time, my parents went up on an impromptu day trip without telling me and, when I came home from university for the weekend, I had to break into my own house. It’s pretty uncool when the neighbors call the cops because they see someone’s legs hanging out your kitchen window and those legs happen to belong to you.

Sheboyganites get kind of tense if you talk of poaching their brats in beer before grilling, they way we do in Milwaukee. They consider it an amateur move. I don’t know about that, but beer-poaching tends to make for plumper sausages, and soften the skins a little so they burst less readily during grilling. Anyway, don’t overcomplicate your sausage-making – no need for special modernist twists, just straightforward grinding and stuffing. There is a time and place for esoteric ingredients and complex technique in cooking, but making bratwurst is not that time. Let it be about good quality meat with a decent amount of fat, and a liberal quantity of both sweet and hot spices. Making sausage with at least one other person – who can turn the crank on the stuffer or even just hang out and work the bottle opener – is more fun than doing it alone.

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950g veal shoulder
1350g pork shoulder (including a generous fat cap comprising about 1/4 the total weight of the meat)
30g salt
7g each black pepper and white pepper
5g crushed red pepper flakes
3 tbsp chopped marjoram
1 1/2 tsp smoked granulated garlic
1 1/4 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
natural casings

Dice the meats and spread on a sheet pan. Incidentally, meat proportions here are not really crucial (I set out a 3:2 ratio of fatty pork to veal, but if veal is too expensive or unavailable, you could decrease the amount of veal, or go with all pork, for example). If your pork shoulder is mostly lean, substitute some fresh belly or fatback. Freeze until firm, but not hard. Meanwhile, combine all the dry ingredients.

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Toss with the frozen cubed meat and grind through a medium die. Add about 175g (2/3 c) ice water and mix lightly by hand just to distribute evenly. This is not an emulsified sausage so don’t beat in the water.

Stuff the casings. Pinch off at about 15 cm (6″) intervals and twist every other link in an opposite direction (for example, twist link 2 toward you, link 4 away, and so on). Cook within the next 3 days. If you don’t intend to use all your brats within that time, freeze on a silpat-lined sheet pan until solid and then vacuum pack in bags.

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Note: If you have access to really small-diameter natural casings (18-20 mm), such as one uses to make breakfast links, you can make something very similar to the famous Nuremberger Bratwurst (Nürnberger Bratwürste). Change the ratio of veal and pork to 1:2 (about 33% veal to 67% pork), and omit the black pepper, garlic, and red chile flake. Pinch off at 8 mm intervals and, after grilling, serve three to a roll.

For beer bratwurst:

Per 6 bratwurst:

2 bottles German-style pilsner or some similar beer
1 large onion, sliced thinly pole-to-pole
2 bay leaves
about a dozen black peppercorns and a few whole allspice
2-3 tbsp butter

Combine all the ingredients in a pan with a lid and add the bratwurst. Bring to just short of a simmer (about 82C/180F) and cover. Don’t let the liquid boil or even simmer visibly or the casings will burst. Turn over, using tongs or even just a spoon, after about 8 minutes. Cook another 8 minutes or so until completely cooked through. Handle carefully to avoid piercing or otherwise damaging the sausage casings.

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Remove to a plate and rest for about 5 minutes to dry out the casings. Finish over medium heat in an oiled pan, or on a well-oiled grill over indirect heat. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat or your brats will burst. They may take longer to cook than you like, but just have another beer and don’t worry about it.

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Serve in a split crusty roll brushed with melted butter, thinly sliced onion (rinsed in cold water and drained), and dill pickle slices, and lots of mustard, or with German fried potatoes (bratkartoffeln) and some kind of cabbage product. If you go the sandwich route, know that eating brats two aside in a roll is considered normal Wisconsin behavior and not degenerate or unduly gluttonous.

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Extra: Hard rolls

Wisconsinites are an easygoing people and not doctrinaire in most matters. Except when it comes to bratwurst. Opinions vary whether yellow mustard and ketchup are ever appropriate (certain hardass types say no, but reasonable people can disagree), and as noted above, there exists a beer/no beer parcooking divide. The one universal point of agreement is a categorical ban on the use of hot dog buns. You need a sturdy roll, crusty on the outside and airy within, to soak up the brat juices and still retain its integrity. If you do it wrong, you will be shunned.

Unless you live in Wisconsin, your supermarket bakery is unlikely to carry the right kind of roll. These hard rolls are a basic bread you can make at home in under three hours, most of which is rising time.

350g bread flour
6g barley malt powder
4g yeast
175g warm water
40g olive oil
4g salt

Combine all ingredients but the salt and knead (by hand or in stand mixer with dough hook) until smooth and not sticky to touch. Knead in the salt and place in a deep bowl or lidded container. Cover the bowl tightly and rise an hour or until doubled. Heat oven to 400F.

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Divide into 6 balls and form into ovals. Press to flatten slightly and mark vertically through the center with the handle of a wooden spoon. Place on a lined sheet pan sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover and rise until puffy.

Spray with a fine water mist, place in the oven, and spray the walls of the oven with water. Bake for about 20-22 minutes until deep golden. About five minutes after putting in the rolls, mist the walls of the oven again.

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* I’m aware it’s supposedly called Miller Park now. I’m not used to that name, much like the city airport in Washington DC is and always will be National Airport.

** As the fame of the racing sausages spread, other major league ballparks adopted the use of comically oversized foam racing icons. The Pirates were first to emulate Milwaukee, with the racing pierogies, and the Nationals of course have the Presidents’ Race. This is not the first time Milwaukee set a trend rooted in gemütlichkeit. In the late Seventies, a local songwriter penned a promotional tune for Milwaukee’s ABC affiliate (WISN) extolling the virtues of the city, especially its “thousand yesterdays,” “magic ways,” and how “we’re all good neighbors passing by.” I remember all the words as every third grader in the WISN viewing area ultimately was forced to sing it at spring concerts for the next three years. In any case, the song, “Hello Milwaukee,” was co-opted by 167 cities around the United States and Canada in the ensuing years. I’m sure the residents of each of these cities thought the song was their own, but it isn’t. It’s ours. You’re welcome.

*** Published pursuant to Wikimedia Commons License.

**** In any case, Scientific American used Martinifest as a case study for how not to conduct a fundraiser in any proximity to valuable works of art. Milwaukee is pleased to contribute to these advances in scientific research.

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Baking, Breakfast, Confectionery, Dessert

Nuts for potatoes.

I take a lot of guff from friends for not having a sweet tooth. It’s true. I’d rather have a cheese plate than pudding any day, and on my birthday, when my husband takes me out to dinner, he always requests that the restaurant bring me a platter of french fries instead of cake. Evidently people find this strange.

Birthday frites (courtesy Woodberry Kitchen).

Sugar has always been easy to resist. After dinner at a restaurant? Espresso, please. Leftover Halloween candy at work? No, thank you. Cookies on the plane? My seatmate may have my share. This holds true for all sweets, at nearly all times. The exception is doughnuts. As a kid, I ate a lot of doughnuts, since my parents were fond of breakfast pastry, and I’ve always enjoyed the bready puff of a raised doughnut and the lardy-cool cakiness of a golden brown cruller.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Mobile, Alabama to give a speech, and, after consulting a map, realized that I was a mere two and a half hours from New Orleans. I emailed a friend from southern Mississippi who, thrilled to hear that I would be passing through his hometown of Ocean Springs enroute to Louisiana the next day, immediately responded:

If you’re there tomorrow morning you MUST go to my friend’s donut shop because he makes the BEST hand-made donuts in the world.

…the not-to-be-missed donut shop is the TatoNut Shop in Ocean Springs. Ocean Springs is the cutest town on the Coast (and not just because that’s my home town). A visit to the Walter Anderson art museum is very much worth it. Plus the shops and live oaks on Washington Ave downtown, and the cute harbor (where we always kept our boat), etc.

At 10 the following morning, after leaving the podium, I drove out US-90 to New Orleans via Ocean Springs and stopped for doughnuts. Tato-Nut is a small, square building on Ocean Springs’ main street, tucked between an outdoor equipment shop and the evocatively named Palmetto Place. Its owners, David and Teresa Mohler, produce the finest doughnuts in the world.

As its name suggests, Tato-Nut specializes in potato-based doughnuts. Potato doughnuts aren’t unknown – since the early part of the 20th century, potato doughnut recipes were published as a novel means to use leftover mashed potatoes. Their popularity was so great that, after the Second World War, a chain of potato doughnut shops, called Spudnut, popped up around the country, plying a particularly tender doughnut supposedly inspired by a traditional German yeasted sweet bread. Few Spudnut shops remain, the parent company having been bankrupted in the last days of disco by a fraud scheme involving tax free bonds and the Sacramento River Delta.

Tato-Nut

The hallmark of the potato doughnut is its tender, meltaway bite. This makes sense, as potato flour, being gluten-free, does not provide the elasticity and chew of wheat flour. Some wheat flour is essential or the doughnuts cannot be shaped – in fact, potato doughnuts still are primarily wheat flour – but the addition of potato flour not only reduces the protein-firmness of the doughnut, but somewhat inhibits gluten development.

Potato doughnuts

Nearly all potato doughnut recipes – in fact, all I found – rely on cooked and mashed or riced potatoes; many used too much egg, and many were cake doughnuts leavened with baking powder rather than yeasted ones. I’ve baked cakes before using riced baked potatoes, and although they were tender enough, I wasn’t sure that riced potato was fine enough to maintain the airiness of a great raised doughnut. Indeed, when I met owner David Mohler during my first visit to Tato-Nut, it was clear that he achieves his supremely tender doughnuts using potato flour and not cooked potatoes. Accordingly, I decided to substitute about 25 percent of the AP flour in my typical raised doughnut recipe with potato flour. The resulting dough is very floppy and not necessarily easy to shape, so I recommend cutting into simple and easy to manage shapes like small circles, which fry into balls, or rectangles, which can be filled with jam or cream.

The potato flour I selected was labeled “potato powder” and came from H Mart. Confusingly, H Mart sells another product, labeled “potato starch,” which appears indistinguishable from the powder. Both are snow white and light like cornstarch, but I believe the powder is simply dehydrated and finely ground potato, not the extracted starch. Your best bet will be to consult the organic foods section in your supermarket and look for Bob’s Red Mill potato flour. Do not use dehydrated mashed potatoes.

400g AP flour
150g potato flour
50g granulated sugar (if you like a sweeter doughnut you may use up to 75g)
4g salt
7.5 g instant yeast
1 egg yolk (17g)
75g lard or shortening
275g water (up to 300g depending on humidity)
vegetable oil or lard

Sift together all the dry ingredients in a stand mixer. Combine all the wet ingredients and add to the dry while running the mixer on low. Incorporate until just combined; do not overmix.

Sifted dry ingredients: AP flour, potato flour, yeast, sugar, salt.

Water, lard, egg yolk.

Cover the bowl and set in a slightly warm place. Rise for 60 minutes. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface (50/50 AP and potato flour, or all potato flour), and shape into a large rectangle or circle, turning over once or twice to coat in the flour to prevent sticking. The dough will be very soft and fairly floppy and should only take a few turns and a light rolling with a pin. Cover with a clean cloth and proof for another 60 minutes.

Dough.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of oil about 4″ deep to 365F/185C. When the oil is hot, cut the dough into small shapes just as you are frying (I used a 1.5″ biscuit cutter) and lower into the oil. Do not cut all in advance because the soft dough will spread as it sits and you will lose the leavening when you try to lift it. The doughnuts should almost immediately form airy spheres that float to the surface. Turn constantly using a spider to ensure even cooking. When golden, remove with a spider and drain on a rack lined with paper towels. You can fry the scraps as a cook’s treat; I wouldn’t try to reshape them or they will fall, so expect some irregular shapes.

Roll in granulated or caster sugar, cinnamon sugar (12:1 sugar to cinnamon), or dip in chocolate glaze (recipe below). Cooled doughnuts also may be filled with jelly or pastry cream; use a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip.

Plain sugar, chocolate glazed, and cinnamon.

Feel the lightness.

Chocolate glaze:

1/3 c whole milk
1 tbsp corn syrup
3 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla paste
2 tbsp butter
1 c confectioner’s sugar

Bring all the ingredients except the chocolate, butter, and sugar to a simmer. Add the chocolate and stir well until satiny. Add the cold butter and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add the confectioner’s sugar and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. When completely dissolved, remove from heat. The mixture should thicken; if it seems too thin, bring it back to a simmer for about 5-10 minutes and cool again.

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Baking, Holidays, Pastry, Potatoes, Q&A, Random Thoughts, Southeast Asian, Squash, Vegetables

Halloween.

A reader asks for a vegetarian appetizer suitable for a Halloween-themed party. Learn why a jack o’ lantern isn’t your best pie pumpkin, and check out three vegetarian appetizers, on the Great Pumpkin page.

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Baking, East Asian, Pork Products, Vegetables

The pig stands alone.

I know, it’s been a while – I spent last week preparing Congressional testimony and finishing an article, not about food, for the day job. This followed a star-crossed business trip to Denver in which a) United Airlines lost my luggage on the way to Denver, forcing me to appear on my panel smelling of Airbus, wearing the same clothes I’d worn for the past 24 hours; b) I washed a contact lens down the drain and got to grope around town one-eyed until I could see an optometrist; and c) I poisoned myself on some funny water, I’m pretty sure. Anyway, hi. I’m back.

The National Pork Board should fund some research into whether pork promotes the release of endorphins. I say this because, after a particularly stressful week, I find that some pork sets me right. The effect holds true for braised pork, roasted pork, stewed pork … it’s all the same. You’ve seen quite a bit of pork here – recently, I used the pressure cooker to tenderize a shank to great effect, and everyone should be familiar by now with the saga of the ham. I’ve braised pork belly, and I’ve ground up sausage for English bangers. Belly is my favorite, but it takes a long time.

Except…not necessarily. Say you find yourself with a slab of pork belly and a couple of hours. You can enjoy some delicious roasted pork belly. Enjoy it with bitter greens and a root vegetable purée if you’re short on time. If you’ve got time to spare, steam some buns and flash pickle some onions while your pork roasts, and enjoy this take on the Chinese steamed pork bun, char siu bao.

Roast pork belly, Korean pear, flash pickled red onion, pea sprout, steamed bun.

Roasted pork belly

2 lb slab of pork belly, sans skin and bones (if you buy it skin-on and bone-in, remove the skin and the bone before starting)
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp maltose (if unavailable, substitute 1 tbsp honey and 1 tsp brown sugar)
2 tbsp boiling water

450F/220C oven.

If it occurs to you the night before or the morning of cooking, combine the salt and sugar and coat the pork belly evenly. Place the belly in a pan and cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate until 1 hour before roasting time. If this is a game time pork decision, coat the pork with the seasoning while the oven heats and do not refrigerate.

Place the belly in the smallest possible roasting pan. Do not cover and do not place on a rack. Combine the maltose and the boiling water; stir well to dissolve. Brush the belly on all sides, including the skin, with the maltose solution.

Roast in the 450F oven for 45m. Reduce the heat to 225F and roast for another 1h 15 mins. Glaze with maltose solution every 45 minutes. The resulting belly will be nearly black in places. Don’t worry.

Remove the belly to a cutting board and rest for 15 minutes before slicing. Serve with flash pickled onion, julienned Korean pear, and bitter greens, such as watercress, arugula, or sprouts, with the steamed buns below if you can. You’ll want a dab of hoisin sauce with the buns, or – for a spicy twist – a bit of gochujang, the Korean hot chile bean paste.

Pork belly wreckage.

Steamed buns

I’m not a baker. This isn’t my recipe. David Chang’s terrific Momofuku cookbook provides this simple and delicious method for producing steamed, yeasty, mildly sweet white buns that complement any roasted meat. Take the bun and add slice of roasted, slightly fatty meat; a smear of sweet bean paste, a crisp tangy bite of pickle – the possible combinations are endless and delicious.

1 tbsp + 1 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 c water (98F-108F)
4 1/4 c bread flour (substitute all purpose)
6 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp nonfat dry milk
1 tbsp kosher salt
slightly more than 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/3 c rendered pork fat (substitute shortening or another rendered animal fat, such as duck fat)
Parchment paper

Whisk together the flour, sugar, milk powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and fat.

Combine the yeast and water in a stand mixer and allow to foam. Stir in the flour mixture and mix on the lowest speed, until the mixture forms a solid, slightly sticky ball – about 8-10 minutes.

Lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough ball in the bowl. Cover with a dry towel, place in a warm place, and rise for about 1h to 1h 30 mins until the dough doubles in size. Cut the parchment into fifty small (4″x4″) squares.

Punch down the dough and turn it onto a clean surface, like a cutting board. Divide the dough in half, and divide each half into five pieces. Roll each piece into a log and divide each into five pieces. You should have fifty small pieces. Roll each into a ball and place on a sheet pan. Cover lightly with plastic wrap. Rise again for 30 minutes. Alternatively, rest the dough balls overnight in the refrigerator, covered.

Roll each dough ball out, using a chopstick, into a 3 to 4 inch long oval. You may need to stretch the dough slightly. Place each on a parchment square, folded in half, and return to the sheet pan. Cover again with the plastic wrap and rise again for 30 minutes.

Steam the buns in batches in a metal or bamboo steamer. You can steam in batches. Serve immediately (sans paper) or cool completely, which does not take long, and place in a plastic freezer bag. The buns freeze well. Reheat by steaming from a frozen or thawed state for several minutes (1-3 minutes depending whether the buns were frozen or thawed).

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