If you want to expand your baking horizons, you might try mastering Europe's international sweet bread -- an adaptable thing that freezes well, looks spectacular, toasts nicely and can run the gamut of meals, from breakfast to dinner desserts.
That's the kugelhopf. Fresh from a baking mold and dusted with powdered sugar, it's an irresistible and original treat. Most of the ingredients are "standards," but there are a few requirements before you can get started.
One is a warm spot in the kitchen, free from drafts. Another is yeast, fresh preferred, with powdered a reliable second choice. A third is a deep metal or ceramic baking pan. A crown mold (often called a bundt or kugelhopf mold) is best, a sort of decorative topless pot with a hollow center that comes in both metal and china configurations. The recipe will also work in one of those tube pans or deep ring molds with a hollow center used for angel food and other baked cakes.
The good news last: There's nothing wrong with mixing the rather difficult dough in a mixer equipped with a dough fork, though some diehards say you must work the dough with your fingers for optimum results. Some of the simpler kugelhopfs can, in fact, be done in ordinary kitchen mixer bowls.
The kugelhopf appears to have been born long ago in Eastern Europe (see an old Polish Eastertime yeast cake formula below) and it is one of the few Germanic food titles ever admitted into the lofty canon of French cuisine.
In France it is treated as a sort of first cousin of the famed brioche, the indescribably light and buttery breakfast roll of Gallic tables. The fact is, many French chefs use brioche dough interchangeably with the kugelhopf preparation. Other chefs use less buttery formula for the kugelhopf dough and say it is more serviceable and easier to work.
The French province of Alsace is one of the kugelhopf heavens and even holds a kugelhopf fest in honor of the cake. Fragrant, swirling-shaped kugelhopfs, hollow at the center and fruity with raisin and almond additions, are commonplace offerings in Europe with breakfast coffee or hot chocolate. The bread also forms a traditional evening appetizer for wedding receptions and cocktail parties. It is baked with bacon and onion flakes and served sandwich style with walnuts, sour cream, garlic cheese, herbs and proscuitto.
Traditionally, the kugelhopf came from Austria, but there is evidence that it also was prepared centuries ago in other sections of "mittel-Europa." All but universal ingredients for kugelhopf are raisins and almonds in the batter. At our house we distribute skinned, blanched whole almonds up and down the sides of the mold before adding the batter. These serve as decoration when the cake is unmolded. We also have used ordinary holiday-season chopped fruit in the loaves for a colorful effect.
Less universal ingredients in kugelhopfs, added when they are out of the oven but warm, are brandy or rum. The Alsatians sometimes drench their baked kugelhopfs in rum (like the French baba au rhum) and serve slices with whipped cream.
But the kugelhopf can also be treated as a bread rather than a dessert. See below, the kugelhopf au lard, a snack-type pastry ideal for wine tastings or with soups or cheese. Generally, fresh rather than powdered yeast makes for the more authentic and fresh kugelhopf. A note of warning: Do not place your dough in direct sunlight to warm it. But do cover the rising dough, once it is in its pan, with a dry towel. Generally speaking, the kugelhopf is more successfully made in cool to cold weather than in hot, humid seasons.
Here is a simple kugelhopf formula for making the cake with conventional kitchen supplies. It's from "A Taste of Alsace," by Sue Style (Hearst Books, 1990, $25).
3 1/3 cups plain, all-purpose white flour
5 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons instant-blending, rapid rise dry yeast or 1/2 ounce fresh yeast
10 tablespoons soft butter or margarine
2 eggs, lightly mixed
1 scant cup (7 ounces) warm milk
2/3 cup raisins
2 tablespoons kirsch or hot water
8 to 10 skinned almonds
confectioners' sugar in a shaker
In an electric mixer bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. Add the butter a little bit at a time, working it into the flour. Mix together the eggs and milk and add to dough bowl. Beat hard for at least 5 minutes until the dough starts to come away from the sides of the bowl. Add sprinkles of flour, if necessary, to achieve this result.
Allow to rise in the bowl for as long as it takes to double in bulk (1 1/2 to 2 hours). Soak the raisins in the kirsch or water.
When the dough has risen, punch it down and fold in the raisins. Butter a kugelhopf mold thoroughly and put an almond in each runnel (the vertical creases in the sides of the mold). Press in the dough, cover with a cloth and leave to rise again until doubled.