The other day I was having a fierce hanker for soft pretzels with spicy mustard. The ones you get in the freezer section of even nicer stores like New Seasons are just fucking abysmal – dry, salty cardboard carbohydrate, salvageable only with copious cheese sauce. Who needs that? Nicer stores also carry fresh pizza dough.
While I was toying with this hanker I was having, there came a flood of other jones: snappy bratwurst, browned onions, gooey fondue. A jones this lucid usually results in a text to Scott: “meet me at the Berlin Inn.” But now we have this sweet baby who is only consistently sweet because of strict adherence to a very early (6:30pm) bedtime. Spontaneous weeknight dinners out are a thing of the past.
I had to take matters in my own hands. I did have time for a quick run to the store for said pizza dough and a hunk of Gruyère, a couple bottles of Weißbock and a quick chat with non-husband grownups (I try not to verbally foist myself on strangers, but a girl gets hard-up for stimulating conversation after spending all day with an infant).
Minor tangent: Okay, so when I was a kid, my mom used to make a dish that never had a name. Not one that I ever knew, anyways. I thought it was just some weird poor-people concoction like everything else we ate – frozen, store-bought bread dough stuffed with cooked ground beef, shredded cabbage and onions. The cabbage and onions went all sweet with the savory beef, soft and dumpling-y dough on the inside and browned bread on the outside. Kinda like a German hum bao.
I just found out recently that this dish is actually called bierock, and is a dish specific to Volga Germans. Volga Germans – my people! It’s derived from the Russian pirog, (singular for pirogi) and was introduced to the Americas by German-Russian immigrants in the 1880s. How my mother learned this dish, I’ll never know. It’s possible that my dad’s mother or his aunt Wilma told her about it.
Coming full circle with this story, I swear. Back up to a few days ago, before I remembered that my mom made this dish that is real, and has a name. I’m home from the store, I’m starting dinner. I quartered my bread dough and let it rest for a moment or two while I prepared my fillings (oh, the story is that I decided I was going to stuff brats into a pretzel, but how?). I sliced up two bratwurst that I just pulled from the freezer and browned them nicely with a sliced spring onion. I deglazed the pan with my homemade aqvavit (confession: just vodka infused with caraway, bay, fennel and a single clove) and added a few spoonfuls of grainy mustard and a pinch of salt and pepper. A little dash of paprika, just a spark. I tossed in some diced, cooked potato to soften the blow.
I flattened each wad of dough and folded it around a good scoop of the brat-onion-potato mixture like a pasty or empanada. I dunked each darling little piebaby, one at a time, into simmering water to which baking soda had been added (at a ratio of one tablespoon baking soda to one cup water – this, instead of using the traditional lye-dip) for ten seconds or so, gently nuzzling them with a slotted spoon to move them around in their bath before retrieving them to a silpat on a cookie sheet. A little peensh of kosher salt, and into an oven (375°) for about 12 or 13 minutes until the proverbial golden, brown and delicious has been attained. I think this is going well.
Okay, but in those bated moments when my darling piebabies were in the oven, I was thinking of sauce. Remember that nutmeggy gravy from the other night? I had about a cup of it left in the fridge. And joy of joys, Béchamel reheats like a dream. I rewarmed it in a pan, added a little cream to soften it up, then whisked in a handful of grated Gruyère. Fond-who?
Unbelievable. It worked. The molecule-thin layer of pretzelly crispness (you know that perfect kind that yields tenderly to the merest touch of an incisor) with the gossamer, yeasty interior. Oh, and brats. With cheese sauce for dipping.
I guess I never finished that story after all. I suppose my point was that I thought I invented something, but all I did was make my own version of something that my ancestors already loved. Simpatico.