If you want to expand your baking horizons, you might try mastering Europe's international sweet bread -- an adaptable thing that freezes well, looks spectacular, toasts nicely and can run the gamut of meals, from breakfast to dinner desserts.
That's the kugelhopf. Fresh from a baking mold and dusted with powdered sugar, it's an irresistible and original treat. Most of the ingredients are "standards," but there are a few requirements before you can get started.
One is a warm spot in the kitchen, free from drafts. Another is yeast, fresh preferred, with powdered a reliable second choice. A third is a deep metal or ceramic baking pan. A crown mold (often called a bundt or kugelhopf mold) is best, a sort of decorative topless pot with a hollow center that comes in both metal and china configurations. The recipe will also work in one of those tube pans or deep ring molds with a hollow center used for angel food and other baked cakes.
The good news last: There's nothing wrong with mixing the rather difficult dough in a mixer equipped with a dough fork, though some diehards say you must work the dough with your fingers for optimum results. Some of the simpler kugelhopfs can, in fact, be done in ordinary kitchen mixer bowls.
The kugelhopf appears to have been born long ago in Eastern Europe (see an old Polish Eastertime yeast cake formula below) and it is one of the few Germanic food titles ever admitted into the lofty canon of French cuisine.
In France it is treated as a sort of first cousin of the famed brioche, the indescribably light and buttery breakfast roll of Gallic tables. The fact is, many French chefs use brioche dough interchangeably with the kugelhopf preparation. Other chefs use less buttery formula for the kugelhopf dough and say it is more serviceable and easier to work.
The French province of Alsace is one of the kugelhopf heavens and even holds a kugelhopf fest in honor of the cake. Fragrant, swirling-shaped kugelhopfs, hollow at the center and fruity with raisin and almond additions, are commonplace offerings in Europe with breakfast coffee or hot chocolate. The bread also forms a traditional evening appetizer for wedding receptions and cocktail parties. It is baked with bacon and onion flakes and served sandwich style with walnuts, sour cream, garlic cheese, herbs and proscuitto.
Traditionally, the kugelhopf came from Austria, but there is evidence that it also was prepared centuries ago in other sections of "mittel-Europa." All but universal ingredients for kugelhopf are raisins and almonds in the batter. At our house we distribute skinned, blanched whole almonds up and down the sides of the mold before adding the batter. These serve as decoration when the cake is unmolded. We also have used ordinary holiday-season chopped fruit in the loaves for a colorful effect.
Less universal ingredients in kugelhopfs, added when they are out of the oven but warm, are brandy or rum. The Alsatians sometimes drench their baked kugelhopfs in rum (like the French baba au rhum) and serve slices with whipped cream.
But the kugelhopf can also be treated as a bread rather than a dessert. See below, the kugelhopf au lard, a snack-type pastry ideal for wine tastings or with soups or cheese. Generally, fresh rather than powdered yeast makes for the more authentic and fresh kugelhopf. A note of warning: Do not place your dough in direct sunlight to warm it. But do cover the rising dough, once it is in its pan, with a dry towel. Generally speaking, the kugelhopf is more successfully made in cool to cold weather than in hot, humid seasons.
Here is a simple kugelhopf formula for making the cake with conventional kitchen supplies. It's from "A Taste of Alsace," by Sue Style (Hearst Books, 1990, $25).
3 1/3 cups plain, all-purpose white flour
5 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons instant-blending, rapid rise dry yeast or 1/2 ounce fresh yeast
10 tablespoons soft butter or margarine
2 eggs, lightly mixed
1 scant cup (7 ounces) warm milk
2/3 cup raisins
2 tablespoons kirsch or hot water
8 to 10 skinned almonds
confectioners' sugar in a shaker
In an electric mixer bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. Add the butter a little bit at a time, working it into the flour. Mix together the eggs and milk and add to dough bowl. Beat hard for at least 5 minutes until the dough starts to come away from the sides of the bowl. Add sprinkles of flour, if necessary, to achieve this result.
Allow to rise in the bowl for as long as it takes to double in bulk (1 1/2 to 2 hours). Soak the raisins in the kirsch or water.
When the dough has risen, punch it down and fold in the raisins. Butter a kugelhopf mold thoroughly and put an almond in each runnel (the vertical creases in the sides of the mold). Press in the dough, cover with a cloth and leave to rise again until doubled.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees and bake the loaf for about 45 minutes, or until it is golden brown on top and sounds hollow when tapped. Turn it out; if it is still a bit pale inside, return it unmolded to the oven for 5 to 10 minutes more. Leave to cool on a rack, then sprinkle with sugar just before serving.
@Kugelhopf au lard
Serves eight to 10.
This snack-type kugelhopf is Sue Style's contribution from her study of Alsatian ways in the kitchen. It can be made in ordinary bread loaf pans if the real thing isn't handy.
3 1/3 cups plain, all-purpose white flour
1/2 ounce fresh yeast or 2 teaspoons instant blending rapid-rise dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 scant cup (7 ounces) of milk
4 1/2 ounces finely diced, smoked bacon
1 small onion, finely chopped, or 2 tablespoons freeze-dried onion flakes
12 walnut halves
In a large mixing bowl (use an electric mixer if you have one) combine the flour, yeast and salt. Bash the butter about a bit if necessary to soften it, then drop it bit by bit into the flour. Mix the eggs with a fork and add them, together with enough milk to give a rather soft and sticky dough.
Beat very thoroughly for at least 10 minutes. The dough should start to come away from the sides of the bowl; if not, add sprinkles of flour as necessary until it does. Cover and leave to rise in the bowl for about 1 1/2 hours; it should double in bulk.
Meanwhile, sweat the bacon bits gently in a heavy pan without extra fat. Do not allow them to brown. Lift them out with a slotted spoon; if using fresh onions, fry briefly in the residual bacon fat. Grease an 8-inch (top diameter) kugelhopf mold really well, especially around the central stalk. Place a walnut half in each of the runnels at the bottom of the mold, finely chop the rest. Knock down the risen dough and work in the bacon, onion and remaining walnuts. Turn the dough into the prepared mold, cover with a cloth and allow it to climb to above the rim of the mold, which takes about an hour.
Bake in a 400-degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Turn out to cool on a rack. Serve in slices to accompany a glass of Alsatian wine or with soup or cheese for supper.
Kugelhopf dough Diat Louis Diat, one of the great chefs of the early 20th centurylearned this kugelhopf formula at the turn of the century while an apprentice cook, age 14. It's from Gourmet magazine's "Basic French Cookbook," by Louis Diat, 1961. It is baked in a traditional round, fluted, tin mold with a center hole. Dissolve 1 cake of yeast or 1 envelope of active dry yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Add 1/2 cup flour and form the dough into a ball. Sift over this ball 1 1/2 cups flour and let the dough stand in a warm place until the ball rises up through the flour. Then work in, by hand, 2 eggs, 1/3 cup butter which has been kneaded by hand or with a wooden spoon to remove the water and to soften it, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon sugar and about 1 cup warm milk, or enough to make a soft dough. Work the dough until it is elastic. Add 1/4 pound seedless California or Malaga raisins. Butter an 8- or 9-inch kugelhopf mold -- a fluted, round cake tin with a tube in the center -- sprinkle the sides with chopped blanched almonds and decorate the bottom with almond halves. Put the dough in the mold (the mold should be only about half full) and leave it in a warm place to rise. When the dough rises almost to the top of the mold, bake the cake in a 400-degree oven for about 40 to 45 minutes, until it is nicely browned and tests done.
Makes two 7-inch cakes.
Henri Paul Pellipratt of the Cordon Bleu school, Paris, published this basic kugelhopf recipe in "The Great Book of French Cuisine" (Vendome Press-Viking, 1982, $37.50).
1 envelope active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups milk, scalded
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped blanched almonds (optional)
about 3 dozen whole blanched almonds
confectioner's sugar (optional)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Soften the yeast in the lukewarm water with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Combine the hot milk with the butter and cool to lukewarm. Add the remaining sugar, salt, vanilla extract, lemon rind and softened yeast. Stir in 2 cups of the flour and beat well. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Continue beating 5 minutes (the longer the batter is beaten the better the cake). Stir in the raisins and the chopped almonds, if used. (If the raisins are too dry, steam them in a sieve over boiling water for a few minutes.) Gradually add the remaining flour. Mix well. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place (80 to 85 degrees) until it has doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. Butter two 7-inch crown (kugelhopf) pans generously. If desired, place a circle of whole blanched almonds in the bottom of each. Divide the dough and place half the dough in each pan. Cover and let dough rise again in a warm place until it has doubled in bulk. (The dough should have risen enough to almost fill the pans.) Bake 40 to 45 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans 5 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling racks, crown side up.
@Polish yeast cake
Here is a traditional Polish yeast cake that may derive from eastern European kugelhopf-type traditions. It's from "The Encyclopedia of Creative Cookery," edited by Charlotte Turgeon Weathervane Books, 1982, $49.95).
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
2 eggs, beaten
2 1/2 cups all purpose white flour
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon milk
whole candied cherries.
Scald 1/2 cup milk. Stir in sugar, salt and butter. Cool to lukewarm. Pour lukewarm water into large bowl. Sprinkle yeast over water; stir until dissolved. Add milk mixture, eggs and flour; beat vigorously 5 minutes. Cover, let rise in warm place, free from draft, for 1 1/2 hours, or until double in bulk.
Stir down batter; beat in almonds, raisins and lemon peel. Pour batter into greased and floured 1 1/2 -quart charlotte mold or deep cake pan. Let rise 1 hour. Bake in 350-degree oven 50 minutes. Let cool in pan 20 minutes and remove. Beat together confectioners' sugar and 1 tablespoon milk to form glaze. To serve, place cake on serving platter; drizzle glaze on top. Garnish with cherries.