I am grateful to a friend of mine for hosting another of our recipe testing sessions on Good Friday this year. The focus this time was one “peasant food”. It probably needs saying that this is not what most peasants ate most days, but what the writers and readers of cookbooks probably imagined they would eat. It is an interesting kind of cuisine, though, heavier and heartier than the standard upper-class fare, with a certain rib-sticking quality.
The first recipe we tried was a kraut tart from Johannes Coler’s Oeconomia ruralis et domestica:
To make a good baked dish (Gebackens)
(marginalia: To make Gebackens)
If you would make a good baked dish of cake, make a good white dough of wheat flour and lukewarm salt water. Then take melted butter and make the dough nicely smooth (gelinde) so that it becomes all pliable (zehe) and always stays warm. Break it into pieces like (the size of) breadrolls (Semmeln), according to how large you would have your cake. Draw out the dough with your hands nicely thin and lay it on a concave (keulichte) wooden bowl on which bakers usually slide bread into the oven, and strew flour under it so that it does not stick. Then take leafy vegetables (kraut), white or green, cut it shaggy and blanch (brüh) it in hot salt water. Press it out with your hands so that no water stays in it and strew the kraut on the drawn-out dough. If you wish, you may also strew in finely cut cheese, and drizzle it with melted butter and lay another sheet of dough atop it. Strew the same matter on that sheet again and add as many sheets as thick you would have it. Press it well together at the edges, slide it into an oven and let it bake. When it has baked, serve it. You may also make such cakes of apples, pears, raisins, and all manner of fruit and herbs.
This is a fascinating recipe that caught my eye the first time I read Coler. He gets creative with garden vegetables on occasion, and especially with kraut. That term could refer to all kinds of leafy greens but usually means cabbage, so that is how I interpreted it here. Two small heads of Wirsing (Savoy cabbage) from the Turkish grocer served as its base.
The dough is clearly an upper-class preparation, with white flour and butter. The reference to kuchen suggests it was leavened, as kuchen recipes always were, and the description as zehe, the quality of being both pliable and elastic, makes it sound like an enriched bread dough. That is what we started with.
The cake we made, with blanched shredded cabbage, grated mature cheese, and fat (not butter due to the dairy intolerance of one attendant), had only two layers, but I am convinced the original envisioned more. We closed it carefully and baked it slowly for two hours to make sure the dough inside would be fully done. It came out soft and fluffy, basically a steamed bread, and I wonder whether that was part of the original intent or a side effect of following our modern instincts.
The crust was quite hard and tough, especially at the top, and though we managed to cut it into sections the way a modern cake is served, it would probably have been better to first remove it. The inside, a combination of rich, creamy melted cheese, soft, fluffy bread, and savoury cabbage, was definitely a winner. I can imagine this working very well with more refined greens like spinach and aromatic herbs, too, but cabbage was fine. Doing it again, I would
- add more butter to the dough
- roll out the layers thinner
- salt and season the cabbage more
- use a less intense , younger cheese, maybe a Gouda
I also wonder how this would perform with an unleavened pie crust, but I do not think it would work very well at all with a modern cold crust. Hot water crust might be worth trying out. It is certainly a dish I want to serve again.