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Gebrannte Crème

by Jack McNulty
January 8, 2010

Like bumble bees defying physics in order to fly, the Swiss have managed to disregard any health risks associated with eating high fat/sugar foods; they happily continue consuming desserts like gebrannte crème…a luscious soupy dessert made from caramelized sugar, milk, cream, eggs and a thickener – and amazingly garnished with…well yes, whipped cream.

Warning…you should proceed with caution if you are trying to lose weight or if you are concerned with your blood glucose level…oh, and gebrannte crème can be addictive!

Gebrannte crème is also called crème brûlée in the French-speaking side of the röstigraben but, please don’t confuse this Swiss classic with a baked custard.

My first encounter with gebrannte crème occurred while working at Kaiser’s Reblaube restaurant in Zürich during the late 1990s. It was a late evening on my very first day of work…Suddenly the chef yelled out for one ‘crème brûlée,’ and I immediately felt somehow relieved at recognizing a menu item. You see, I had just spent the last twelve hours trying to understand the strange German dialect everyone around me was speaking…Swiss German with a distinct Portuguese-, French-, Kosovan- or Swiss accent.

Then, out came the dessert in a large ceramic bowl. I watched with curiosity and a bit of shock as Paolo began to ladle the cream into a soup bowl. What? I know I was still technically in culinary school, but I was sure a crème brûlée was baked a bit longer than this soupy concoction. Surely I misunderstood the order, so I asked Paulo if he heard correctly. He just gazed at me with one of those I-know-you-just-said-something-but-I’m-not-sure-what looks, and simply asked me to try some. I was skeptical…but also interested.

The cream entered with a cool lusciousness somewhat reminiscent to ice cream – just not as cold. My taste buds immediately jumped to life as the caramel-flavored cream coated every part of my mouth. The flavor was vaguely familiar to dulce de leche, yet somehow more sophisticated. The intensity of the caramel was tempered by all that cream and milk…and most amazing of all…it tasted light! I shuttered…and from that moment, I knew I needed to learn how to make this dessert.

Sadly, not too many restaurants make their own gebrannte crème from scratch any longer, preferring instead to save a few francs and use one of those awful dried mixes…yikes, sort of like mashed potatoes from a box…So, to get the true experience of this classical Swiss dessert you may need to make your own. Here’s how…

One important warning before getting started. Working with hot sugar can be very dangerous. I recall a particularly awful experience I had while working in a very nice restaurant in Italy. We were making cute little sugar garnishes by piping designs of caramelized sugar onto a baking tray. I was pressed for time and decided to just work quickly…and without any gloves to protect me. What could go wrong…right? Well, as it turns out, plenty could and did go wrong. The piping bag burst open onto my hand leaving me with a very ugly burn, which took months to heal. I don’t mean to be too dramatic and this recipe is not terribly hazardous to make, but please be mindful of the dangers involved while working with hot sugar…especially if kids are around.

The next important tip is get the right pan. I like using a high-sided pan, which has plenty of room for the sugar to bubble away. Avoid using a pan which is too small or even a frying pan – unless you like cleaning up dried bits of caramel which will sizzle out of the pan and pepper your countertop.

It is also important to get all of your ingredients together before you begin. You will need the following to make enough for about 4 servings: Place 250 grams granulated sugar in your pot, then measure out 80 grams of water in a separate cup. In another separate measuring cup, mix together 4 dl. whole milk with 1 dl. cream. Finally, in yet another separate bowl, combine 35 grams corn starch, 1 Tablespoon vanilla sugar, 2 egg yolks and 1.5 dl. whole milk.

Ok, let’s put it together!

Start by caramelizing the sugar over medium-high heat – I use number 7 of 9 on my stovetop. It is really important to refrain from stirring the sugar too much until it is mostly caramelized. I like to move the sugar around a bit just to make sure it melts evenly. One other little helpful tip is to lightly coat the sides of the pan with some water. I simply get a wet brush and sort of paint the sides of the pan, taking care to not allow any water go dribble into the sugar. This little water coating helps reduce the amount of sugar that could stick to the sides.

So when is the sugar done? Good question! I like my gebrannte crème to have a very rich caramel flavor so I like to take the caramel to a very dark color – just shy of black! Look for the bubbles on the surface of the sugar to form…once they are covering the sugar it’s time for the next step.

Add the water to the sugar. Be careful here as this will cause some splattering. Some people like to remove the pot from the heat and then add the water, but that’s really not necessary. Make sure you stir the sugar well though, and get ready for the next step.

Add the milk and cream all together, then turn the heat down to medium. Stir the mixture very well. You may notice some sugar bits that have crystallized. That’s ok…if you keep stirring, those little bits will eventually melt. Try to scrape the sides of the pan to pry loose any stubborn bits – do this carefully however…too much movement could cause some splashing.

Once the mixture is relatively smooth, it is time to add the thickening mixture. Make sure you mix it up well before adding it to the caramel, as the corn starch will tend to settle. Once you add the thickener, make sure you keep stirring for a couple of minutes until you notice the cream thickening. Remove the pot from the heat, then strain the cream into a clean bowl. Place a bit of plastic wrap over the top of the cream to prevent any skin from forming…and don’t forget the quality control!

Gebrannte crème is best served cold, so make sure you get it refrigerated for a few hours. You can also lighten it up and thin it a bit by beating in some cold cream just before serving. We always did this in the restaurant…adding just enough cream to create a consistency of a thick soup.

If you really want to impress Swiss friends (or if you really like fat), then serve the cream in a shallow soup bowl and top with a dollop of whipped cream. I generally leave out the whipped cream part, but I really like having a portion of gebrannte crème with something hot…something like beignets (just in case you need more fat and sugar)…

Another variation I like…Try adding about 50 gr. of white chocolate to the hot crème and enjoy the whole thing served warm. Avoid milk and dark chocolate though, as they are too strong and will interfere with the taste of the caramel.

Sorry to those who may be on a new year’s diet, and sorry to those who may have a new addiction!


video credits: the video was shot, produced and edited by Silvia Gautschi McNulty… The tasty gebrannte crème was made by Jack McNulty…The original music was composed by Gavin Norton… The vocals were were provided by Arno van Workum and recorded in a sauna somewhere in Austria…

Quick Puff Pastry

by Jack McNulty
August 26, 2009

One of the most intimidating recipes for aspiring cooks to attempt is making homemade puff pastry…but, in reality it is simply mixing flour, butter, water and a pinch of salt together to form a light dough. So, why does this recipe seem so unapproachable?

It is difficult to get a clear historical perspective on the origin of puff pastry. The French, of course, like to claim credit for this classical preparation…and there is no doubt the French have used puff pastry broadly in many sweet and savory dishes throughout the past few hundred years or so. It appears, however, that ancient documents mentioning puff pastry happily give credit to ancient Greece…far before the days of Carême.

Now…I make no claims on being an expert in ancient Greek puff pastry – something I am still trying to visualize – but, I do know traditional French puff pastry. And, I know from my days working in the Savoy the French take puff pastry very seriously indeed. Everything has to be just right…very fresh flour mixed together with very fresh lightly salted butter to produce layers upon layers of delicate and flaky pastry. In some ways…puff pastry seems to define French cooking and perhaps even explains why so many of us are just intimidated by the thought of making puff pastry.

The traditional method is a bit tricky and involves a bit of practice and patience – as well as using perfect ingredients and having the right atmospheric conditions. To produce a light and flaky product, everything must be done carefully and properly – start to finish – or the results may be disappointing.

French Lesson: The French word for puff pastry is feuilletage from feuilles, meaning ‘leaves.’ The pastry often called Napoleon is known as mille feuilles or ‘a thousand leaves.’

Classical puff pastry is made by carefully mixing together just enough water with flour to produce a light dough (careful though…too much water or mixing will lead to a rubbery dough, which will shrink when baked). Next, great care must be taken when rolling in the butter and turning the dough to get the optimum rise – or puff if you will. The goal here is to create a layer of butter between each layer of dough. In a hot oven the moisture in the dough layers produces steam that will push up as it evaporates, and voila – puffed pastry!

If done correctly, puff pastry should rise about four times its original height. Most standard commercial varieties of puff pastry will have 513 layers of butter (or another fat) and dough. The classical French version will be ‘turned’ more often to create even more layers…something like 1,500!

Fortunately, I’m not counting the layers (nor should anyone else), and quite frankly I do not need a perfect puff pastry. I do, however, need one that tastes of real butter and is not difficult to make, so I compromise and make a version of quick puff pastry.

This method will never produce the rise of the authentic version, but it can be completely made within a couple of hours and with very little effort. The resulting dough is perfect for lining tart pans, making little pies like empanadas or making those fancy little French Fleurons.

The ingredients you will need are 100 gr. bread flour (I use a white spelt flour), 100 gr. all-purpose flour, 200 gr. good quality sweet butter (unsalted), 3 gr. sea salt and 75 gr. cold water. Remember, the ingredients are really important to produce a tasty final product. If you are adverse to using butter, then consider another fat – but, you could just as easily go buy a dough (most commercial puff pastry has palm fat or some other type of hydrogenated fat and very little or no butter).

This recipe will produce about 500 grams of quick puff pastry…so, let’s get started…

The first step is to sift the flours and salt together into a mixing bowl to completely mix the two flours together. The next step is to cut the butter into the flour, either with your fingertips or with a knife. Using very cold butter is important in this step to insure none of the butter melts into the flour. Work quickly and make sure you leave the butter in very large chunks. Add the water to the butter and flour mixture and mix the dough until the water is absorbed. This won’t take too long, and it may be necessary to add a bit of flour if your mixture is too moist. I like to create a dough which is still a bit sticky to the touch, rather than soft like a bread dough.

Dust your work surface with flour, then form the dough into a rectangle with your hands, finishing with a rolling pin to create a rectangle about 30-cm wide. Make sure the corners are square and even, then fold the two ends to the center. Dust a bit with some flour, then fold over one more time like you’re closing a book (watch the video for a good example of how to fold the dough). Wrap in plastic and refrigerate the dough for about 20-30 minutes. Be careful to watch the time. If the dough gets too cold, then the butter will smear when rolling out the dough – this will tear apart the layers. If you happen to let the dough get too cold, then just let it sit at room temperature for another 15 minutes.

You have now give the dough one 4-fold to create sixteen layers. Go ahead and repeat the process four more times for a total of five 4-folds, which should yield 1024 layers…but, who’s counting?

Working with Puff Pastry

  1. Once you’ve made your own puff pastry, the last thing you want to do is mess it up during the cooking process…so, here’s a few tips on working with puff pastry:
  2. Be careful when rolling out the dough and make sure you are not smashing the edges down with the rolling pin. This will cause uneven rising and baking.
  3. Allow the puff pastry to rest about 15 minutes before baking it. This should help alleviate the problem of shrinkage.
  4. If you are cutting the dough, make sure to use a very sharp knife and cut through the dough evenly to make sure the edges are perfectly straight.
  5. When using an egg wash on the dough, make sure you do not let any of the wash drip down the sides, which would seal the dough to the pan and prevent it from rising properly.
  6. Start baking puff pastry in a very hot oven (between 200 and 225 degrees C). If the oven is not hot enough you will lose the rising effect of the steam and the butter will run out of the dough.
  7. Ideally, the dough is best one day after making it. Make sure the dough is kept well-wrapped and refrigerated, then allow the dough to warm slightly at room temperature before working with it.
  8. Puff pastry freezes very well, which is what I normally end up doing. Avoid keeping it refrigerated for more than a day or two, as the water and flour will begin to ferment and the dough will turn grey. The ideal way to use puff pastry is to divide it into suitably sized pieces, wrap well in plastic and place in a freezer bag. Defrost the dough overnight in a refrigerator.


video credits: the video was shot, produced and edited by Silvia Gautschi McNulty…The nervous hands producing the pastry were Jack McNulty’s

music credits: the original music was composed by Gavin Norton, using in many instances synthesized kitchen noises.

Zopf: US Recipe Conversion Tips

by Silvia
November 23, 2008

Our recipe conversion tips for making a successful zopf in the U.S.

Since our original posting on How To Make Zopf appeared, we have received a number of conversion questions from our readers in the U.S. – and rightfully so!

There are always a number of issues to consider, which can affect the outcome of most recipes. Different measurement standards (U.S. system of weights vs. British system vs. metric system), temperatures (C vs. F), and ingredients are the major factors to think about when reviewing a recipe.

Measurement and temperature conversions are easy enough to find or calculate, but the ingredients often require some special considerations. This is also true with our original zopf recipe as we discovered last year while attempting to make a fresh zopf in the U.S.

Here’s how we converted the recipe and produced a successful and tasty version of zopf:   read more

How to Make Zopf…

by Jack McNulty
April 5, 2008
How to Make Zopf…

Let me start by saying, I am a border-line zopf addict.

I’m not referring to the zopf everyone can regularly buy in most store locations throughout the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, although freshly baked store-bought zopf is not bad. No, I’m referring to the real thing.

I crave that taste of real butter and full fat milk in genuine zopf. I marvel at the light and airy texture. I become utterly intoxicated whenever the aromas gently waft out of the kitchen. I drift with those aromas and begin to visualize soaking up the last bits of olive oil infused with tomatoes and mozzarella, or slathering marmalade on lightly toasted zopf…

Oops…sorry about that divergence. I suppose I should write a bit about zopf and how it’s made.

Classic zopf is a bread braided in a very specific manner to give it a unique shape (the word zopf actually means braid). It is a simple bread enriched with high proportions of milk and butter, which played an important historical role. Zopf was traditionally made on Friday and consumed on Sunday. To prevent the bread from becoming stale large amounts of fat were incorporated into an otherwise basic bread dough, and voila…a bread that stayed fresh for several days.

Zopf is not uniquely Swiss, although the tradition has survived since the mid-fifteenth century. The origin of the bread is a bit hazy, but it is not too difficult to imagine that zopf came from the widely-known Jewish Challah bread (or Hallah), which is virtually identical in its make-up but often braided differently. Challah bread was known throughout Austria and Southern Germany shortly before zopf emerged in Switzerland. The Jewish tradition of making and consuming the bread was also quite similar to the Swiss custom. The dough was formed on Thursday evening, baked on Friday morning and usually consumed Saturday night or Sunday morning.

The shape of the bread is filled with symbolism. Some say the braid represents intertwining arms and symbolize love. Others have a more biblical reference, saying the twelve humps from the braid represent the twelve original tribes of Israel. According to Swiss lore, some believe the shape grew out of the old custom of widows cutting off their braid to bury with their husband.  Over time, the braid was replaced with a fresh loaf of zopf.

Today’s zopf is mostly mass-produced and made without the use of butter or fresh milk. Instead, most commercial zopf is made with milk solids, aroma and plenty of hydrogenated fat (not exactly our idea of a fresh alternative).  But as it turns out, making your own zopf at home is not too difficult.

Have a look at our video to see how it’s done…

Our Zopf Recipe…

1 kg. Zopfmehl
1 Tbl. sea salt
1 Tbl. sugar
6 dl. milk
150 gr. butter, melted
30 gr. fresh yeast
one egg yolk mixed with 2 spoons of milk

yield: 4 loaves weighing about 400 grams each, or 2 loaves weighing in at about 800 grams each

Before you try making your own zopf, we think it is a good idea to understand the importance of each component and why we are careful in choosing specific ingredients.

The Flour: Zopf is traditionally made with a special type of flour called Zopfmehl. It is readily available throughout Switzerland. This type of flour is mostly a mixture of all-purpose white flour and white spelt (gr. Dinkel). It is especially well-suited for fat-filled doughs, because the increased amounts of protein from the spelt will improve the dough’s elasticity and help hold the shape while keeping a soft texture. If you do not have access to zopfmehl, then try making your own mixture by combining about 15% bread flour with 85% all-purpose flour.

The Fresh Yeast: We use fresh compressed yeast in our zopf recipe. Dry yeast can be substituted by using 40% of the fresh yeast’s weight (I’ll do the math for you…that would be 12 grams of dry active yeast in place of 30 grams fresh yeast). You will need a bit more time to develop the sponge if you are using dry yeast.

The Milk: We like using full fat milk in our bread recipe, which contributes to the texture, flavor, crust color, and keeping qualities. Using low fat or non-fat milk will produce lighter colored breads, which are slightly more dense.

The Butter: Butter is about 80% fat, which is very important for a good zopf. Fats tenderize and soften the texture of a dough, while adding flavor, richness and keeping qualities. We prefer using unsalted butter in our recipe, because it has a fresher and sweeter flavor when compared to salted butter. If you want to use salted butter, then make sure to reduce the amount of salt you use in the recipe. We don’t recommend the use of margarine or other types of shortening to produce zopf…we just think these fats defeat the purpose of making your own zopf.

The Salt & Sugar: Salt plays a very important role in baking. It is more than just a seasoning or flavor enhancer…it also strengthens the structure of the dough and improves the texture of the bread. Salt will also inhibit yeast activity, so never add salt directly to the liquid in which the yeast is softened. The addition of sugar will add sweetness and flavor to the dough, as well as creating a soft texture. Sugar helps yeast to ferment and retains moisture in the finished bread.

Ok, let’s get started…

Steps in Making Your Own Zopf

The first step is to create a sponge (the common term used by bakers). This step is important because it gives the yeast a head start…and it allows you to check to see if the yeast is in fact alive and well. Place the yeast in a small bowl and break it up a bit with your fingers. Add the sugar to the yeast, then add about 1 dl. of the warmed milk and mix slightly (make sure the milk is not over 40° C or you will kill the yeast). Place the flour into a large bowl and sprinkle the salt around the edges. Form a well in the middle, then add the sponge mixture, making sure to blend in a small amount of flour with the sponge. Let the mixture sit for about 10-15 minutes in a warm location to allow the sponge to develop. You will notice bubbles forming as the fermentation process gets going, and the sponge looks like…well…a sponge. You are now ready to begin mixing and kneading the dough.

Melt the butter and add it to the remaining milk (remember…keep the milk mixture warm, but not over 40° C). Mix the dough well in the bowl, then place it onto a clean work surface and begin kneading. You should knead the dough for about 10-12 minutes, or until the dough is smooth, soft and slightly moist to the touch. Place the kneaded dough in a clean bowl, lightly coat the top of the dough with oil, then cover with a clean towel and allow the dough to rise for about one hour in a warm location. The fermentation process is complete when the dough has doubled in volume. A dent will remain or fill very slowly after you press lightly into the top of the dough. If the dough springs back, fermentation is not complete. Once the fermentation process is complete, you are ready to begin rolling and braiding the bread.

Begin by splitting the dough into four equal parts if you want to make two larger breads or alternatively, split the dough into eight equal parts if you would prefer making four smaller loaves. One loaf requires two equal parts, so we will begin there.

Roll two of your portions into a long log shape (the video demonstrates an effective and simple method to rolling out the dough…even though most professional bakers would…hmm…mock our simplified approach). You are now ready to braid the bread.

Braiding is often the most difficult part of learning how to make zopf, but once you get the hang of it…well, it’s actually not that difficult. Place the logs in a wide ‘X’ shape in front of you. Pick-up the furthest end of the bottom log and bring it towards you, placing it between the bottom portion of the ‘X’ shape. Place the other end of the same log over the top to form a new ‘X’ shape. Next, pick-up the furthest end of the second log and again bring it towards you, placing it in the middle of the bottom portion of the ‘X’ shape as before. Place the other end of the same log over the top, and continue with this same process until the braid is completed. When you get to the bottom, just gather the loose ends together and tuck them under the braid. When you’ve finished one bread…well, go ahead and make the remaining breads. Simple…right?

Allow the braided zopf to rest for about 30 minutes. Make sure to keep the bread covered with a clean towel during the resting period. Meanwhile, go ahead and prepare the egg wash, which can be prepared in a number of ways. You can simply use one whole egg, or combine an egg with a bit of milk or sugar. Our preference is to use an egg yolk mixed with two spoons of milk, which we think produces a nice dark crust.

Bake the bread on a baking tray lined with parchment paper in a pre-heated 200° C oven (if you are using a convection oven, then reduce the heat to 180° C). Allow about 45-50 minutes for larger loaves and about 35-40 minutes for smaller loaves. Cool completely on a rack before slicing…if you can wait that long!

Tip: Zopf freezes very well…but, there is a trick. Don’t bake the bread entirely, but rather remove it from the oven after 20 minutes of baking and cool the bread completely. Place the half-baked zopf in a plastic freezer bag, seal tightly and freeze. To finish baking, simply place the frozen zopf directly in a cold oven, turn the temperature to 200° C and bake for exactly 20 minutes. Cool slightly before slicing and enjoy! You can keep frozen zopf in the freezer for up to six months.

än guete…