Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Sbrisolona Mantovana - One Big Crumbly Torta

Sbrisolona Mantovana, a crunchy, crumbly, nutty tart is a typical sweet treat from the city of Mantova (in English 'Mantua') in Northern Italy. The Sbrisolona is locally also known as Sbrisolina, Sbrisulusa or Sbrisulada.

'Sbriciolarsi' means 'to crumble' or 'to fall into pieces'. In the recipe below, the crumbs are made of cornmeal and almond meal, sugar, roughly chopped almonds, butter and just enough egg yolk to keep the sandy and coarse bricioli (crumbs) bound together while baking. When baked the Sbrisolona is like a really huge cookie whose texture is a cross between buttery shortbread and the most delicious crumb topping you ever made.

It's commonly thought that this shortbread like, crumbly sweet treat that can in found in most Mantua's bakeries, has its origins in the surrounding Lombard countryside. The origin of Sbrisolona Montovana is from the cucina povera ('cuisine of the poor') and contained modest ingredients. Peasants made a hard and crumbly dessert of sorts by mixing crushed grains such as millet and cornmeal, hazelnuts and lard. This modest treat was then enrichened by the cooks serving the city's ruling Gonzaga family in the 1600's with the additions of almonds, butter, sugar and spices (expensive ingredients at the time). Though it would be several centuries before these ingredients were readily available (and affordable) to much of the city and surrounding countryside's population, it was a Torta that many local, less well-off families worked hard to save up for and make on special occasions.

Sbrisolona is meant to be enjoyed in large chunks or shards rather than slices.

Sbrisolona Mantovana

  • 200g fine cornmeal, plus some for dusting the pan
  • 150g almond meal (almond meal not almond flour - as the almond meal still contains the skins and has a coarser grind than the almond flour)
  • 200 g superfine (baking) sugar
  • 8 g pure vanilla sugar
  • ¼ fine sea salt
  • 200 g unsalted butter, chilled, cubed (or go with 100g chilled lard and 100g chilled butter)
  • 2 egg yolks (M), room temperature, preferably free range or organic
  • 50g whole almonds with skin 
  • powdered sugar (optional)

  1. Butter a 26 cm (9in) baking pan (I like to use a pie dish here but feel feel to use a regular cake pan), line the bottom with baking parchment, flour the pan, shaking off any excess.
  2. Pre-heat your oven to 180° C ( 365°F).
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal and the almond meal, the sugar, vanilla sugar and salt.
  4. To the bowl, add the cubed butter, the egg yolks and mix everything together with your hands (alternatively go with a food processor here), making sure the dough is squeezed into streusel-like pieces.
  5. Transfer the dough into the prepared baking pan and pat it down gently. NOTE: it is traditional to add the whole almonds on top of the dough before baking BUT my personal prefence is to chop the whole almonds coarsely and add them to the dough 
  6. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 45 minutes or up to an hour.
  7. Transfer the baked Sbrisolona Mantovana to a wire rack to cool – dust with powdered sugar (optional) just before serving and serve whole OR break into large chuncks or shards and place on a serving platter OR display in a large glass jar, maybe on your kitchen counter (if you have room for it).

The above version of Sbrisolona Mantovana is more of a traditional recipe from the city of Mantova, it contains nowhite flour‘ but a mixture both of fine cornmeal and almond meal, many other recipes for ‚Torta Sbrisolona‘ or simply ‚Sbrisolona‘ call for a mix of wheat flour (Italian '00' flour which is available at Italian stores or online) as well as cornmeal in addition to the almond meal. Also, it is noteworthy that traditional recipes were made with all lard or a mix of lard and butter, I went with all butter here but feel free to go the lard route.

Feel free to add to the traditional recipe, some cinnamon is nice here or go with the grated zest of an untreated or organic lemon or orange.

If you prefer a more decadent version of the original, you can always add large chunks of dark chocolate in addition to the almonds. When I add chocolate, I go with about 100 g (that's 3.5 ounces) 75% chocolate and a bit of cinnamon too.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Visiting Maria Laach Abbey (Benediktinerabtei Maria Laach) & Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel)

Maria Laach Abbey (Benediktinerabtei Maria Laach) is a Benedictine abbey situated on the shore of Lake Laach (Laacher See) in the Eifel region of the Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz) in western Germany.

Founded in 1093 as a priory by the first Count Palatine of the Rhine, Heinrich II von Laach and his wife Adelheid von Orlamünde-Weimar.

Laach became an independent house in 1127, under its first abbot, Gilbert. The abbey developed as a center of study during the 12th century. The 13th-century abbots Albert (1199–1217) and Theoderich II (1256–1295) added significantly to the buildings and architectural decoration, including the monumental tomb of the founder.

Laach Abbey was dissolved in the secularisation of 1802. The premises became the property, first of the occupying French, and then in 1815 of the Prussian State.

In 1820 the buildings were acquired by the Society of Jesus, who established a place of study and scholarship here.

The Benedictines of the Beuronese Congregation moved into the monastery in 1892, and it was raised into an abbey the following year. The restoration of the church, at that time still the property of Prussia, was inaugurated by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1897.

The abbey structure dates from between 1093 and 1177, with a paradisium added around 1225 and is considered a prime example of Romanesque architecture of the Staufen period. Despite its long construction time the well-preserved basilica with its six towers is considered to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque buildings in Germany.

Following are a few impressions from my most recent visit there.

We are well into lent these days. A good time to think about traditional and new lenten foods. Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). It symbolizes Jesus of Nazareth’s 40-day time of fasting in the desert. Many Christians commemorate this with various acts of abstention and austerity – traditionally abstaining from eating meat, but there are many variants.

The range of rituals that are observed during Lent is enormous, and I will barely scratch the surface here, but I think it’s worth contemplating, whether you consider yourself part of an organized faith community or not, the deeper symbolic meaning and the potential value of Lent.

There are also a few interesting facts about Lenten traditions around the world: Danes’ traditional festivity before Lent is called ‚Fastelavn‘, much like the German Carnival (Karneval) celebrations,  and consists of the eating of multitudes of deep-fried and jam and custard-filled pastries and children beating a bucket full of candy. The kids who successfully break it open are declared ‚Cat Kin‘ and ‚Cat Queen‘

In Oaxaca, Mexico, Good Friday, the final Friday of Lent, is observed by people making aguas frescas and ice cream and giving them out to passersby, in honor of the Samaritan woman who gave Jesus water on his way back to Galilee.

In Germany, Holy Thursday is known as Green Thursday (Gründonnerstag) and traditionally green foods like a spring herb soup, fried eggs with spinach, quiches and other dishes with green vegetables are eaten on that day.

Swedish children dress as witches on Holy Thursday and are given Easter Eggs and candy ahead of Easter Sunday.

A hot cross bun is a spiced sweet bun made with currants or raisins, marked with a cross on the top, and traditionally eaten on Good Friday in Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and some parts of the Americas. The bun marks the end of Lent and different parts of the hot cross bun have a certain meaning, including the cross representing the crucifixion of Jesus, and the spices inside signifying the spices used to embalm him at his burial

We need to be shaken out of our habits now and then, when we act out Lent symbolically it can simply be about reminding ourselves that we have more than we need, that we are stronger than we believe we are, and that we can do more with less. Whether you observe it in a highly literal and deeply Christian manner or whether you take a pagan or irreligious look at Lent, the Lenten season is worthy of your attention because it helps to remind you that you live a better life when you make mindful choices.

So, without further ado, here is a recipe, or just take it as an inspiration, for some Lenten food that we enjoy on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent – no meat for us on those days but a delicious, veggie based bowl of Lenten Soup (Fastensuppe) accompanied by traditional Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) – a traditional recipe that hails from Austria (the oldest one dates back to January 3, 1890) and is said to be a close relative of today’s world famous Bagel. Both, the Beugel and the Bagel, have a chewy crust and slightly dense interior, they are round, and, most importantly, have to be boiled before they get baked. For bagels it's baking soda and water (unless you want to go with lye), for Lenten Beugels it's salted water.

According to folklore, the round shape of the Beugel is said to represent the sun, the light, that in Christian interpretation means the resurrection of Christ at the end of lent. Be that as it may, the round shape of the Lenten Beugel is certainly different from the Pretzel (Brezel), also a lenten food, that is said to have been conceived by a monk to represent arms crossed in prayer.

Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel)

  • 400g wheat flour (strong baking flour or bread flour; around here ‚Type ‚550‘)
  • 100g rye flour (around here ‚Type 960‘)
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 1 tsp ground caraway seeds
  • 250ml lukewarm water
  • 100ml lukewarm milk
  • 1 tbsp sugar beet molasses OR use runny honey (I like to use local "Rübenkraut")
  • 21g fresh yeast
  • boiling water
  • coarse salt
  • caraway seeds, whole 

  1. To make the dough whisk together the flours, salt and the ground caraway.
  2. In another bowl, mix together the water with the milk and the molasses, add the crumbled yeast and dissolve the fresh yeast in the water.
  3. Add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture and mix by hand or with a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment until flour mixture comes together to form a homogenous, elastic dough.
  4. Proof in a warm spot for about  15 minutes (the dough will be slightly puffed and soft).
  5. While the dough is proofing, put a large pot of water and salt generously.
  6. Place baking parchment on a baking sheet.
  7. Divide the proofed dough into 14 to 15 pieces, each weighing about 60g.
  8. To shape the Beugel, roll each piece to a ball, then form a ropes about 25cm long. Shape the ropes into round, making sure to pinch together the ends.
  9. Once the water has come to a rolling boil, dip each for 30 seconds in the salted boiling water. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on greased or parchment-paper-lined baking sheet.
  10. Sprinkle each Beugel with coarse salt and caraway seeds. 
  11. Heat oven to 200°C.
  12. Bake Beugel for 20 to 25 minutes or until deep golden brown.

A last remark with respect to the soup bowl (Laacher Refektoriumschüssel) it was crafted in the pottery studio (Keramikmanufaktur) of the Maria Laach Abbey that was given new life in 2007 but that actually dates back to the early 20th century when Father Theodor Bogler who had learned his craft at the famous Bauhaus, worked there as an artist. The bowls are all handmade, crafted with ceramic from the Westerwald region of Germany, glazed with a transparent glaze and adorned with a blue line. The blue used for the decor is called ‚Laacher blue‘ (Laacher blau) picking up on the color of and meant as an hommage to the Lake Laacher (Laacher See) where the Abbey is located. Today, the soup is oftentimes served in these bowls in the Refectory.

For more information on the Maria Laach Abbey, pls go here.
For more information about the Abbey's pottery studio, pls go here.

Please note that my recipe for Lenten Beugel is part of my series for a 'local' (meaning across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia) radio station, where, throughout the year, I talk about different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a listen (in German) HERE.

The various recipes of my series can be found here:

  • in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE)
  • for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE)
  • for Good Friday (Karfreitag) the delicious Hot Cross Buns (HERE)
  • for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE)
  • for the beginning of the summer vacation, the lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE)
  • for St Christopher's Day (St Christophorus), the energy-packed Müsli Power Bars (Müsli Energieriegel) (HERE)
  • for Mary's Assumption Day (Mariä Himmelfahrt) my Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) (HERE)
  • for Mary’s Birthday (Mariä Geburt) some very pretty Mary’s Sweet Rolls (Süße Marienküchlein) (HERE)
  • for Thanksgiving (Erntedankfest) a delicious and seasonal Thanksgiving Apple Tart with Frangipane (Erntedank Apfeltarte mit Mandelcreme) (HERE)
  • for Halloween a Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake (Kürbis-Gewürzkuchen)
  • for St Martin's Day (Martinsfest) the cheerful Sweet Dough Men (Weckmänner) (HERE)
  • for St Andrew's Day (Andreastag) a classic Petticoat Tails Shortbread (HERE)
  • for Christmas Day (Weihnachten) these Traditional German Gingerbread (Elisenlebkuchen) (HERE
  • for New Year's Eve New Year's Eve Pretzel (Neujahrsbretzel)
  • for Candelmas Day (Mariä Lichtmess) some delightful Navettes de Saint Victor (HERE)
  • for Carnival Season (Karneval) these lovely Carnival Doughnuts (Karnevals-Krapfen) (HERE
  • for St Patrick's Day a traditional Irish Brown Soda Bread (Irisches Sodabrot)(HERE
  • for St Joseph's Day a long-forgotten but thankfully re-discovered Sweet Cotton Bread (Baumwollbrot)(HERE
  • for Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag) these very pretty Palm Pretzels (Palmbrezel) (HERE)
  • for Easter Sunday (Ostersonntag) an Easter Brunch at Home with Tarte Flambée (Flammkuchen) (HERE)
  • for the Month of May (Marienmonat Mai) these elegant Visitandines de Nancy (HERE
  • for Pentecost/Whitsun these festive Beignets (Heiliggeistkrapfen) (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Spiced Carnival Doughnuts - Gewürzkrapfen

This year’s Carnival pastries are like a spiced version of traditional doughnuts paired with a freshly made Apple Compote. I like to serve a little bit of pleasantly tart winter fruit compote alongside these sweet treats, as these two, the doughnuts and the compote, complement each other in a delicious way - the tartness of the fruit balances out the sweetness of the doughnuts. If you do make a fruit compote make an easy Apple Compote or go with pears or quince or other seasonal fruits - as the pastries are made with lots of warm spices, I would recommend a simple fruit compote, flavored only with some lemon juice and a wee bit of sugar.

As it has become tradition , I try to feature a different recipe for seasonal and traditional German carnival pastries every year.  In 2015 I blogged about Carnival Doughnuts (Karnevalskrapfen), a lovely round type of doughnut made with fresh cheese (Quark), a traditional pastry, fried in hot oil until deep golden-colored and served with a cinnamon-sugar coating. Also in 2015 I featured Fried Almond Cookies (Mutzemandeln), a typical recipe from the Rhineland region, almond shaped and with lots of ground almonds in the dough. And in 2014, I tried my hand at making Quark Doughnut Strips (Quarknudeln), also made with fresh cheese (Quark) and also with fresh yeast. Back in 2013, I baked a Doughnut Cake (Krapfenkuchen) using a sweet yeast dough.

Spiced Carnival Doughnuts - Gewürzkrapfen
(Inspired by a recipe from Johann Lafer)

  • 250ml lukewarm milk (I like to use 3.5%)
  • 42g (1.5 oz) fresh yeast, crumbled
  • 600g (21.2 oz) strong baking flour (around here it’s called 'Type 550')
  • 60g (2.1 oz) superfine baking (caster) sugar
  • 4 egg yolks (M), free range or organic
  • 1 tbsp rum
  • grated zest from each ½ organic lemon and ½ organic orange
  • 1/8 tsp gingerbread spice mix - Note: if you cannot find Gingerbread Spice Mix at the store or online, you can mix it yourself, link is at the bottom of this post
  • 1/8 tsp allspice
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon (from Ceylon if possible)
  • 1/8 tsp cardamom
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 100g (3.5 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • flour for the work surface
  • 1l vegetable oil for frying
  • 100g (3.5 oz) cinnamon sugar (sugar mixed with Cinnamon)

  1. Make the yeast mixture: in a medium bowl whisk together the milk with the yeast, 50g (1.7 oz) of the flour and the sugar. Cover and let stand 20 minutes in a warm spot.
  2. To the bowl of your stand mixer, add the remaining flour, the egg yolks, rum, lemon- and orange zest, gingerbread spice and all the other spices. Using the dough hook, beat at low speed, add the soft butter at the very end and beat until a sticky dough forms. 
  3. Transfer to a lightly greased bowl. Cover and let rest in a warm place until the dough has doubled in volume (about one hour).
  4. Roll and cut: turn the risen dough out onto a floured surface and roll to 1cm (0.40in) thickness.
  5. Using a pastry wheel, cut into (3cm x 5cm) (1.2in x 2in) diamond shapes. Mark the top of each dough piece with a cross.
  6. Cover and let rise another 15 minutes.
  7. Fry until golden: pour oil into a Dutch oven and heat to 180° C (360°F).
  8. Fry dough, in batches, 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until they puff up and are golden brown – make sure to slide dough slowly into the oil to avoid splattering.
  9. Carefully remove onto a rack with kitchen roll underneath and allow to cool until you can handle them. 
  10. Dust with cinnamon sugar.

Apple  Compote - Apfelkompott

  • 225g (8oz) cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped
  • ½ organic lemon, zest and juice
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1 tsp superfine (caster) sugar

  1. Put the apples in a saucepan with the lemon juice, zest and water. 
  2. Cover and cook over a low heat until they are soft and mushy.
  3. Take off the heat and stir in the sugar. 
  4. Cool and serve.

For more of my Carnival recipes, please go here:

  • Carnival Doughnuts (Karnevals-Krapfen) can be found here
  • Fried Almond Cookies (Mutzemandeln) are here
  • Quark Doughnut Strips (Quarknudeln) here
  • Doughnut Cake (Krapfenkuchen) is here
  • Gingerbread Spice Mix (Lebkuchengewürzmischung) can be found here