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spiked eggnog and the plates of crumbly cookies, the roasts and gratins and copious amounts of good wine - they've all been replaced by resolutions to put that gym membership to use and to ingest considerably less of everything.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.
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.
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
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.