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Monday
Jan092006

The Best of Resolutions, Going Up in Flames

241591961_e65dcbad7e.jpg
Flammekueche (Alsatian Onion Tart)


January, if I may be so bold to declare, is a month that should have never been invented. It's the first month of 'real' winter, and though technically the days are starting to lengthen, you'd never know it by the weak, anemic rays given off by a sun that collapses back into bed a few short hours after rising. There is not much solace to be found on the home front either, as the new year dawns not with plans for enjoying life more but with the promise of penance for all our holiday sins. Gone are the cups of spiked eggnog and the plates of crumbly cookies, the roasts and gratins and copious amounts of good wine - they've all been replaced by resolutions to put that gym membership to use and to ingest considerably less of everything. In my case, there's yet another contender for most unpleasant addition to the resolutions list, a particularly sharp thorn in my side that refuses to be ignored: my long-neglected, fast-approaching-deadline doctoral dissertation. I've resigned myself to the fact that it just needs to get done, no matter how painful the process. The problem is that in order to muster up the strength to do it - and no matter what the January health police are telling us - a girl just needs some edible comfort.

I'd bet that for the majority of us, our comfort food lists share some remarkable similarities: cheese, potatoes, bread, chocolate. High-fat, high-carb foods comfort us at a biological level - in times when we couldn't run down to the supermarket for a loin of venison but instead had to find a deer and kill it, foods that promoted fat storage often meant the difference between surviving and not. Unfortunately biology is a little slow to catch up with the overfed realities of the modern world, and since calories are not a precious commodity anymore I certainly would rather be craving a head of broccoli than a plate of fettuccine. Then again, the fact that I don't could be down to more than just biology - after all, since we don't always allow ourselves that plate of fettuccine, psychologically it takes on increased allure. You know how we always seem to want what we can't have? Well, perhaps these foods are just so darn appealing because of their rarity in our lives. If that's the case, I'm more than happy to hold back most of the time in order to keep my comfort foods firmly on their lofty pedestal.

Among all my comfort foods, Flammekueche ranks pretty near the top. It's a specialty of Alsace, the region straddling France and Germany geographically, historically and culturally that without a doubt has perfected the comfort-food formula better than any in Europe, in my opinion. Think German heartiness and bold flavors tempered with French finesse and dedication to quality, and you have Alsatian cooking. Flammekueche, whose name means 'flame cake' in the Alsatian dialect of German (and is known as Tarte Flambée in French) feeds my primal need for cream, meat and starch. It appears in many permutations, sometimes built on puff pastry, sometimes on delicate shortcrust, sometimes with the emphasis on onions and eggs instead of bacon. They're all delicious, but the version I prefer is what I believe is most true to its roots as hearty peasant fare baked over an open fire. It starts with a bread-dough crust, not dissimilar to pizza, which had been stretched paper-thin and topped with a perfect trinity of wintertime staples: a smear of creamy fromage blanc (or crème fraîche, if you prefer), nests of molassey caramelized onions, and as many crispy batons of smoked bacon as you can fit. You slide it into a ferociously hot oven and watch it transform before your eyes, bubbling and blistering and sizzling into something beautiful - rustic, hearty, delicious, soul-satisfying.

And believe me, there's simply nothing better for a frigid January evening, whether you're chained to the computer like me, fresh in from making good on your gym membership, or sitting by the fireside polishing off the last of those holiday cookies.

 
Alsatian Flammekueche

Serves: 10-12 as an appetizer, 4-6 as a meal
Notes: Feel free to use your own favorite pizza crust for this, whether homemade or store-bought. The crust recipe I've given comes from master baker Peter Reinhart and his homage to pizza, American Pie. It's one of the easiest doughs to work with and gains incredible flavor from its long, slow rise - however, if you're strapped for time, a rise at room temperature will work just as well.

For crust:
5 cups all purpose flour
1 Tablespoon sugar or honey
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon instant (fast-acting) yeast
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 3/4 to 2 cups room-temperature water

For topping:
2 cups fromage blanc or crème fraîche
salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 jumbo yellow onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
5 oz slab bacon, cut into strips (or any high-quality bacon, sliced crosswise into 1/2-inch strips)

For the crust, combine all of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon or mix in a stand mixer. After everything has come together, set the dough aside to rest for 5 minutes. Stir again for 3 to 5 minutes, adding more water or flour if necessary. Generally speaking, you want the dough to be wetter and stickier than your typical bread dough. It should be dry enough that it holds together and pulls away from the side of the bowl when you mix it, but it doesn't need to be dry enough to knead by hand.

Divide the dough into 2 pieces. Place each one into an oiled freezer bag. At this point the dough can be frozen for up to a month. If you intend to bake them later that day, place the bagged dough balls in the refrigerator and let rise slowly for several hours (five to six is a good estimate, longer is fine too). Remove them from the fridge and let them warm to room temperature an hour or two before you intend to bake them.

For the topping, stir together the fromage blanc or crème fraîche with some salt, pepper and nutmeg (be careful not to oversalt, though, as the bacon will be quite salty). Melt the butter in a heavy pan or skillet over medium-low heat and toss in the onions. Cook slowly, uncovered, until the onions are uniformly deep golden in color, adding a spoonful of water if they ever look like they're starting to stick and burn. This should take at least half an hour. Near the end of the cooking time, sprinkle in a couple pinches of salt and the tablespoon of sugar. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl. Wipe out the skillet and return to medium-high heat. Toss in the bacon pieces and fry, stirring occasionally, until they are crispy and browned in places. Remove to a plate.

Preheat your oven to its maximum temperature (and use the convection function, if you have it). Prepare two baking sheets by dusting them with coarse cornmeal or flour. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough with a heavy rolling pin to form a large rectangle. If the dough is too elastic, let it sit for 3 or 4 minutes until the gluten loosens up. Transfer the first rolled-out portion of the dough to a baking sheet and stretch it with your fingertips to cover the entire surface. Be careful not to tear the dough. Repeat this process with the second portion of the dough, again carefully stretching it to fit the other pan. Cover each portion of dough with a thin layer of the fromage blanc (about 1/4-inch thick - you may have some left over), half the caramelized onions, and half the crispy bacon. Immediately transfer to the oven and bake for about 15 minutes, or until browned and sizzling. Cut into rectangles and serve hot.

 

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Reader Comments (26)

You're so right - it's ridiculous how ascetic January is after the decadence of December. But resolutions be damned - this is one fine-looking recipe. The bread dough, in particular, looks like something to save. Thanks for the inspiration!
January 9, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa
Melissa,

While the tart may not be good for the hips, it looks like it's pure bliss for the heart and stomach ... the two most important parts of the human body!

Enjoy!
January 9, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne
Flames they may be, but what fragrant flames!

Bon appetit!
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRaspberry Sour
Can't you explain to your professor that you have a blog? And that's why you don't have time for your doctoral dissertation..
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDavid
If its got bacon, I'll never say no! Lovely recipe Melissa. And now that I've got my new oven this will definitely be on my list to try.. mmmm. bacon.. Oh, and I hope that's a glass of beer in the background. Resolutions be damned for sure! ;)
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermichele
Hi Melissa - thank god I only discovered the foodblogs after I had got my PhD - it was enough of a struggle without this extra distraction, so I totally understand you:)
Your Alsatian onion tart looks delicious - I've had a pleasure of eating it in Alsace a few years ago, so you've just brought back some lovely memories.
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPille
Dear Melissa

You can't imagine just how much I identify with this post. I am embarassed to admit that my doctoral thesis is a year overdue. I'm desperately looking for a thesis buddy. Do drop me an email if you have the time :)
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterS
Hiya,

You can't imagine just how much I grumble at S when she's procrastinating on finishing her PHD thesis. She's promised to finish it this month but I think it will be at least June before that happens. I have promised to take her to one of our fanciest restaurants here when she does finish, so hopefully that will motivate her a tad ;-)

Gorgeous photo as always. I love Alsatian onion tarts.

January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterChubby Hubby
I'm sure glad I finished my thesis before I even discovered that food blogs existed!

Had Flammekueche when we were in Strasbourg just a few weeks ago for the first time - YUM. Thanks for sharing the recipe. My husband is going to be over the moon when I surprise him with it!
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCin
Sister, I hear you on the graduate school woes! For the first year of Orangette's existence, I struggled through the same thing, although mine was only a Master's degree. Something tells me, though, that with the proper fuel - i.e. plenty of bacon, butter, fromage blanc, and good, melty onions - you'll be finished before you know it. Cheers to that, and many thanks for reminding me of my love for these Alsation beauties.
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMolly
It seems we're all going through a post-holiday culinary revolt - turning to our comfort foods for shelter from the eeevil January. What a great combination of flavors, truly warming and cheery against that grey excuse for sunshine!
January 11, 2006 | Unregistered Commentertara
All I can say is, your lovely site makes me want to learn to cook, very inspiring.
January 11, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermslatte
I recently began reading your blog, and am enjoying it very much...the recipes, writing, and design are wonderfully appealing-I can see why you were nominated in so many categories!
I like the idea of this tart with a bread/pizza dough. I think I will try the topping with my favorite thin crust, hot oven pizza dough. I usually make it with thinly sliced potatoes, onions, and rosemary-it's from maggie glezar's Artisan Baking.
January 11, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlindy
As usual, this is a recipe, from you, to put on my list to make! Good luck completing your dissertation. You can do it!

Paz ;-)
January 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPaz
Me too - this is a recipe that I'm going to try soon. I just wonder...how do you do all of this and work on your dissertation? I'm very impressed!
January 12, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermari
Hey Melissa!..

Gewd luck with the your dissertation. Don't burn off your eyes from too much PC though. Hehe..

Oreo has always been my comfort food but since I'm supposed to be going for something healthy, I'll just say it's salmon. Salmon. And yeah, fireside eating is always sweet.

Now, I'm going to whip up myself a nice batch of resolutions. :) Nice post!!
January 13, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjoanna
Melissa,

I've tagged you to tell 10 weird or random things about yourself.

http://seriouslygood.kdweeks.com/2006/01/yam.html
January 13, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterkevin
Hi Melissa,

That is very appealing to me. Yum!!!

It is all the nicer that this is a specialty from my area in France. I am curious about the dough. The one I know for this tart is very thin and crispy. How does this one feel?

Also, worth adding, in Alsace and Lorraine, people actually eat the tarte flambée with their hands. They roll the tart as if it were a cigaret and eat it. Like we edo with crêpes.

Béa
January 13, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterbea
Hello - I stumbled upon your blog today. While I was living in the Alsace region this was my absolute favorite food. I have vowed to make it since I've moved back to north america but I just haven't gotten around to it.

I had better print out this receipe and get on it soon. Thanks for motivating me to do just that. :) - Jen
January 14, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterexpatraveler
Melissa: Ah, the hell with New Year's resolutions and ideas of eating nothing but green vegetables. It's January. Here in Seattle, it is raining for the 27th day in a row. And not just drizzly rain, the way we normally have, but hard, cold rain that falls on the head and hurts.
Baking is the answer.
I'm working on a gluten-free gingerbread as I write, and I made up some gluten-free fig newtons earlier this week, which I posted on Monday. I'm all for the baked goods right now. We deserve them.
By the way, what flour did you use for this? You wouldn't have used wheat, right? Which of the gluten-free ones best work for this pizza crust? That's another one I've been working on lately....
January 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commentershauna
although I'm not Melissa... I think spelt might work, texture-wise. (is it gluten-free?)
January 16, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermalka lev adom
Oooh I do love an onion tart. Yours looks so delicious (as always!).

And funny, I always think of January as the real month of summer! lol
January 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAugustusGloop
hi melissa, that looks divine, dreary weather or not, although it's been miserably rainy here in singapore, and i can imagine how something like this would be bracingly comforting! btw, american pie is a terrific little volume, isn't it? his various pizza crust recipes are wonderful ( i especially love how he goes into great detail so the process is virtually goof-proof)
January 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJ
Hi Luisa - It is crazy, isn't it? What I hate most is the feeling that I'm some kind of weak-willed glutton doomed to a life of increasing pants size if I can't force myself to survive on Special K for three weeks straight, as a certain omnipresent TV commercial is trying to make me believe.

Ivonne, with a mindset like that, you are truly a woman after my own heart!

Hi Raspberry Sour - Fragrant, bacony and sizzling with butter!

David, as a matter of fact, my supervisor does know about my blog! What I haven't yet figured out is whether the revelation was an enlightened move on my part or not...

Michele, I know that all I have to do is send psychic bacon signals your way and you'll come running! ;) And OF COURSE that's beer in the background! Would you expect anything less?

Hi Pille - And for this reason I'm envious of you! Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that something that was going to prove very distracting was about to enter my life, so hurry up and get that thing done! Oh well. At least I'm bringing back some nice memories for you!

Hi S - What do you think it's going to take for us to get these things done? There's just too much distraction out here. I'm tempted to rent a cabin in Finland with no internet connection and lock myself inside until it's done. Wanna join? ;)

Hi Chubby Hubby - Hmm, from my perspective, I don't know if the promises of fine dining will help. I have plenty of plans to treat myself once this thing is finished, but the only thing that seems to happen is that I get frustrated I can't have them now! Ultimately, I think it is only achieving the right combination of fear, panic and masochism that will eventually get the work done. And unfortunately, no one can conjure that up but the thesis-writer herself!

Hi Cin - I would love to shift all the blame for not having finished it yet to food blogs, but I don't know if I can - I mean, I didn't have to start one myself! Ah well, water under the bridge. If you make this, I would love to know how it compares to what you ate in Strasbourg!

Molly, I don't know how you did it. I mean, the bacon and onions are helping a bit, but what seems to result more often than increased time spent on the thesis is more time spent in the kitchen making Flammekueche! If you have a secret manual of wisdom entitled 'How to Manage a Thesis and a Food Blog and Succeed at Both', please, please send it my way. I'll send you some Flammekueche in return!

Hi Tara, I'm so glad to see that you share my disdain for the deprivations of January. Of course you have good reason too - congratulations once again on the new addition to your little family! I hope he brightens up those gray January skies for you :)

Hi Ms Latte - Thank you, I'm very glad to hear it! :)

Hi Lindy - Thank you, and that pizza of yours sounds wonderful. I've always scratched my head at the mention of a potato-topped pizza, but so many people love it that I really have to get on the ball and try one myself!

Hi Paz - Thanks for the vote of confidence. I need all I can get!

Hi Mari - Well, it seems to all be a matter of selective neglect. Unfortunately, one of the two (I'll let you guess which one) seems to get more than its fair share of neglect - which means that maybe my system doesn't work as well as it seems to...

Hi Joanna - Thanks :) And you shouldn't have mentioned Oreos, now I'm fantasizing about more than just bacon and onions!

Hi Kevin - Oh dear, I have quite a list of memes rotting away in a corner somewhere. This should be one of my New Year's resolutions as well - stop killing off memes! I'll see what I can do about this one ;)

Hi Béa - Thanks for this information! The crust for this can be as thin as you want it - the picture above shows one of my first attempts, but I did get it thinner the more I practiced. You've made me curious about the traditional crust, though, so I'll have to find an authentic recipe and see if it's much different. And next time I make this I'll have to use the 'rollability' criteria as my guide!

Hi expatraveler - Thanks for stopping by, and be sure to let me know if this version lives up to your memories!

Hi Shauna - Ah, that good old Seattle rain. We're getting comparatively little rain this winter in Edinburgh, but then again it's the wind that kills me. I'd probably take take all that rain in exchange! As for the crust, I'm sorry to say that the one in the picture is in fact made with wheat flour. I used to have a few gf pizza crust recipes that I thought were reasonably good, but when I moved to the UK I found a commercial gluten-free naan bread which makes a better pizza crust than any I ever made myself. Let me know if you'd like to try a sample!

Hi Malka - Spelt does have gluten, unfortunately. It's a good substitute for people with wheat allergies, but not for the gluten-intolerant :(

Hi AG - I was just waiting for a comment from an antipodean! Sometimes it is easy to overlook the fact that there are people on the other side of the world basking in sunshine at this time of the year. Maybe if I were there too I would find it a bit easier to stick to the post-Christmas diet regime!

Hi J - Somehow it's hard to imagine Singapore as being dreary any time of the year! But yes, whether it's warm rain or cold, it's hard to refuse the seductions of Flammekueche. And tell me truthfully - are there any cookbooks you don't have? :)
January 16, 2006 | Registered Commentermelissa
Thanks for clearing that up for me Melissa! A chef was presenting this dish on tv recently and I thought he called it "Pflaumenkuechen". I was only half listening, but I sat up straight as that didn't look like any plumcake I'd ever seen! Now I know that he got it right and I was wrong!
January 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterplum
What a delicious recipe and mouthwatering photo!
April 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

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