Last year with a little help from a German friend, I gave the best ever Oktoberfest-picnic-bonfire right in my own back yard. It would be a cinch to duplicate, requiring only a little effort and a willingness to experiment.
Though many Americans believe Oktoberfest originated as a harvest festival, tradition claims it began in Munich with the flamboyant wedding celebration last century of Ludwig II, the "mad king" of Bavaria. Now Munich breweries co-sponsor the city's annual fall harvest festival, which takes place in a large meadow called the Oktoberfest Wiesen.
For your Oktoberfest, first line up the equipment: a covered barbecue grill for the German sausages and the potatoes that you will bake directly in the coals, and a large tin washtub in which to contain the bonfire. (Important: Check first with your local fire officials concerning the legality of bonfires.) Gather downed tree limbs and branches for fuel.
Then concentrate on the food. Buy weisswurst (white veal sausage) and bratwurst (pork sausage) for grilling. Serve them DTC as the main course with sauerkraut. For starters, serve Handkase (a translucent and odoriferous cheese that is best eaten sliced, with onions and dressed with vinaigrette), Westphalian ham, herring and Landjager (air-dried beef). Add frozen Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels to be sprinkled with salt and baked, and Bauernbrot, a farmer's rye bread.
A good beverage to drink with the appetizers is Krambambuli, a hot wine punch that German hunters enjoyed in the old days when they returned tired and thirsty to their castles. With the hearty main meal, strong dark beer is the German drink of choice.
Originally, Oktoberfest beer was specially brewed in the spring to be enjoyed in Munich during the fall celebration. Now it is widely available. Typically, Oktoberfest beer is a heavy, Pilsener-like brew, full-bodied, sweetish and of a rich dark color.
To finish off the meal, serve plum kuchen (plum cake) or apple strudel and chestnuts roasted in the bonfire. After dinner, when it is dark and eerie, gather round the bonfire and sit down to tell stories and sing songs.
Our comfortable fall weather makes this the perfect time for an outdoor Oktoberfest celebration. Here are some recipes to inspire your menu.
1/2 gallon dry red wine
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 spiral orange peel
1 stick cinnamon
8 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup rum
Combine wine, juice, peel, cinnamon, cloves and half the sugar in a saucepan. Simmer 8-10 minutes; strain into a punch bowl. Heat rum slightly. Place remaining sugar in a large metal spoon or ladle. Light rum with a match; pour over sugar. Pour burning sugar over punch. Serves 18.
HERRING AND APPLE SALAD
1/2 cup sour cream
1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon horseradish
5-ounce jar pickled herring, drained and chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 cup sweet and sour pickles or dill chips, finely chopped
Combine sour cream, vinegar, sugar and horseradish. In another bowl, combine herring, onion, apples and pickles. Add sour cream dressing to the herring mixture and toss well. Chill. Serves four.
5 ounces unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
24 Italian prune plums, halved and seeded
1 teaspoon flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut in small pieces
Grease a 10-inch springform pan. To make crust, combine butter and dry ingredients and add cream and vanilla. Press into bottom of pan. Place plum halves, cut side down, over bottom in overlapping circles. Sprinkle with flour. To make streusel, combine sugar, flour and cinnamon and cut in butter. Sprinkle over plums. Bake in a 350-degree oven until crust is golden, 45-60 minutes. Cool and remove from pan. Serves eight. (This recipe is from David Bell, pastry chef of the 1789 Restaurant in Washington, D.C.)