Monday, October 13, 2014

Mixed Plate: Happy Brocktoberfest!

Oktoberfest is upon us... even though in Munich, it's typically celebrated in September. Confused yet? The first celebration in Bavaria was to mark the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig in 1810, on October 12th, and there was much prolonged merriment that followed. The creeping start time that eventually pushed this festival a month earlier was more out of choosing more favorable weather conditions than strict tradition. Either that or Bavarians are the ultimate Pre-Func drinkers.  Oktoberfest has also come to represent the end of summer, the harvest, and yes, there's beer, but it's typically made with ingredients gathered months earlier, since beer needs some time to ferment. We celebrate Oktoberfest in our own way, sort of a celebration within a celebration (Celebration Inception!), typically heralded by the harvesting of our own beer hops, lovingly fussed-over by the Mister, so I dedicate this post to Brock -- Happy Brocktoberfest!

It's Oktoberfest - let's eat and drink all our carbs! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Brock grows his own hops, the stuff that gives beer that signature bitter, vegetal flavor. Or I should say, he planted some rhizomes a few years ago, and every year, they sprout from the dirt and threaten to take over everything around it, smothering it in a beer-scented perfume. Not a terrible way to go. Over the last few years, the hop vines have managed to do well enough on tall towers made of PVC that Brock would set up every season. They were lightweight, strong, easy to assemble/disassemble. But hop vines only get bigger, and they just got too heavy for the PVC setup. This year was Hop Trellis 2.0 - The Empire Strikes Back.

Springtime hop trellis-installation (and sweet Indy), leading to a summer harvest - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Months ago, back in spring, Brock built his Almighty Hop Towers of Power, and our hearty, hale friends were kind enough to help raise them into position, like some alcohol-fueled Iwo Jima. And yes, sweet Indy was there to survey their efforts. I'm sad she wasn't still around for this year's harvest, but she's been there for previous year's hop-picking and I'm sure she was looking down at us, wishing us well and hoping someone dropped some food on the ground.

Ad hoc hop-harvest tools and making fresh hop beer - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Something to know about growing your own hops -- it's labor intensive when you're hand-picking all the little fluffy green cone flowers. There's just no easy way to do it. And while we have our annual Hop Picking Patio Party, aka, Labor for Your Supper, it's also called Spiderfest, because holy momma, the arachnids that take up residence in the hop vines are terrifying. Although this year was surprisingly low on Middle Earth-style giant spiders. I don't know if it was the season or the new trellis, but the afternoon was thankfully devoid of bloodcurdling shrieks.

Nice cones, baby - Photo by Wasabi Prime
The new, taller trellis did wonders for Brock's hop vines -- they happily grew and wrapped themselves many times around the top, making a giant nest of hop cone blooms, which got plenty of sun. A lack of a tall ladder and the stubbornly-tangled vines made for a MacGyver moment where Brock had to fashion his own harvest tool: long piece of PVC pipe with a wood saw duct-taped to the end. As much of a Poor Judgement Moment as that sounds, it worked just fine, no injuries, and faster than you can say: "Quick, what's the number for 911?!" the vines were down and friends were picking away.

Hop-picking grub and Milo's wishful thinking - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I avoid the hop picking/spider eviction duty by cooking, so I made a harvest feast with a nod to Oktoberfest. We always have kale, and by the end of summer, corn is everywhere, so a kale and corn salad was easy enough to make. I got it in my head to make (ke)Bob's Burgers, meatballs stuffed with cheese, skewered with bacon and cherry tomatoes and cooked on the grill. Like a burger, just minus the bun. It's an easy enough thing to make, just roll meatballs and put them on a skewer with some fast-cooking veggies like tomatoes. The bacon never crisped up the way I wanted, even grilling on a low heat -- that's always my Achilles Heel, trying to grill bacon to crispy goodness. But it was still delicious and something I'll definitely make again.

My Project Food was making pretzel buns for bratwurst. I love how restaurants are using pretzel bread for burger and hot dog buns, and I've seen people make it at home to impressive results, so I got it in my noggin to try it. More than anything else, I'm fascinated with the two-step process with the dough -- to get that caramel-brown color on the surface, you boil the dough in a baking soda bath for a few seconds before baking it. You can use lye, which probably yields richer results but I wasn't comfortable with messing with lye, so I stuck with the safer baking soda option. This recipe from AllRecipes was very easy, using ingredients you probably have in your pantry/fridge right now. The only thing I didn't do was the egg wash, I stuck with the baking soda boil and the results were just fine.

Getting inspired by the pretzel buns at Brave Horse Tavern and making my own - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Mixing a pretzel topping of sesame and poppy seeds and different salts gives the bread a lovely finish, plus you'll go through a lot of those dry spices you never think you'll use. Seeing the crust turn a lovely brown while cracking and splitting is what makes baking bread so gratifying. The advice a lot of recipes share, which I'll share again -- don't freak out when the dough gets all wrinkly from the baking soda bath. It's going to look like a hot mess. Like a 90 year old's saggy bottom. You'll want to throw the whole batch out and never make pretzels again. But have faith. The dough -- like Jesus -- shall rise. And the dough will be flavored with poppy seeds and tasty seasonings. Jesus isn't so flavorful. If you can get past the sacrilege of that analogy, I can attest to how buttery and savory pretzel bread is -- it smells wonderful and is addictive-delicious. I admit, I need to keep practicing and experimenting to get a lighter dough, as the pretzel bread is quite dense, so it can be a mouthful for sandwiches.

Oktoberfest snack - cheese from Chimay and pretzel crisps - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Right before our own yearly Oktoberfest trek to the faux Bavarian-themed city of Leavenworth, I got into the spirit by making the pretzel bread into twice-baked crisps, to hold wedges of lovely cheese by Chimay. I had a sampler pack of their Chimay Trappist cheese, made in the traditional style of semi-soft cow's milk cheeses -- not by monks anymore, of course -- but the result is an array of delicious selections. I sliced pieces of their Chimay Grand Cru and melted them on pretzel toasts; it's a creamy, relatively light-flavored cheese, similar to brie. The rest of the cheese was whisked off to Leavenworth to be enjoyed the way they should be -- with beer and drunk people.

Homemade pretzel chips - Photos by Wasabi Prime
 Making the pretzel bread into crisps was a nifty thing that I recommend. Since the dough can be somewhat dense, they're ideal for snack-sized wafers. My initial inspiration was the pretzel crisps from Brave Horse Tavern in South Lake Union -- they take their homemade pretzel buns, slice thin, and toast until crisp, making it a delicious companion to their onion dip. I couldn't slice my pretzel loaves as thin, but I liked putting the savory mix of seeds and salt inside, like a cinnamon bun, so that they could flavor each bite. Just seal those rolls as best as possible when you do the baking soda bath -- the rolls will want to unravel! Topping with cheese or just eating them on their own is one way to spend a lazy weekend.

Here's to pretzels and cheese! Hail Bavaria! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Happy Oktoberfest, or in my case, Brocktoberfest!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Commentary encouraged. Fresh baked cookies, super-encouraged. (hit the 'post comment' button twice, sometimes it's buggy)