So here it is 2018 and not a pizza blog to be seen for nearly 3 years! I hit the milestone of 100 and said enough is enough. It had occurred to my wife, Sheri, that I hadn't written any blogs lately and how it is actually a great tool to document your activities. She's right. It is.
In the past I have written about pizza at Christmas time or Italian style Christmas after returning from a 5 week journey to Italy and this year, I took, by default, of one brother who wasn't interested in having the clan over for Christmas Dinner to claim the responsibility for myself. I welcomed it. The problem was what theme shall we do this year? I love themes because as soon as you find one the event just unwraps itself before your eyes. There's no guessing.
We have done pizza at Christmas along with Chili, all homemade of course. We did Danish for my dad and family serving duck, Danish meatballs and Kringle. We did a Victorian England theme one year along with a Mardi Gras theme one year and most recently, since my wife's family came from Bavaria I thought, Let's do German! German it is.
I have always loved German food. I can remember eating street sausage in Berlin and drinking a stein of beer to wash it down. However, this is Christmas so I have to do more than beer and sausage. First thought was Sauerbraten. It has to marinate for 5 days and all that fuss. Wait a minute, I don't even like Sauerbraten that much. What am I thinking? Schweinhaxen! Yes, Schweinhaxen or as we know it here as pig knuckle or pork shank. That'll be cheap and easy...or so I thought. Let's go to Raley's and buy a couple so we can practice on ourselves. Raley's didn't have them so I'll try Safeway. Not there either. OK, let's try a more upscale store and get them at Nugget or Sprouts. I asked the butcher behind the meat counter if they had any Schweinhaxen. What? "You know pig knuckle or pork shank," I asked. He went to his department manager and asked him. The manager comes out from behind the counter and tells me in a low voice. "We're not butchers" "Oh," I said, "meat cutters?" " We aren't meat cutters either. We just wrap the meats in cellophane and put them in the case. They do all the cutting back at the rendering plant." Hmmm, I guess I've been out of the loop for awhile. These guys in the meat department aren't butchers? They wear white outfits with blood all over them. "So where do I get them?" He says you have to go to a meat market. Not the nightclub-dance scene but a real meat market. Wow! I thought this was going to be easy. After searching the internet I found Schweinhaxen online. Do I order them online? Prices ranging from $9 to $12 lb. plus shipping! Holy Crap! Keep looking for a meat market. I found one in Roseville 25 miles away and they knew what they were and could get them...frozen and by the case. Pay in advance. "How much?" $1.89 lb they tell me. Yes, that's more like it. I'll take them. "Wait, how many are in a case?" About 20-24. Good enough. The next week we get a call to come pick them up. Just as we were rolling out of our driveway they call back. "Wrong thing, they sent us whole pig legs. " "OK, when will they be in?" "Next week," he tells me.
I was excited to follow up on this cheap and easy theme but didn't know what I didn't know. Fortunately with the excitement I had I started in early October, I had time to spare.
The next step was to thaw one or two to break out of the solid cube of ice and flesh so that I can practice. Discovering how big they were at 2-3lbs each I suddenly realized one 13" x 21" pan wouldn't be large enough. It would fit seven maybe eight. I need to cook 20! After purchasing another 13" x 21"pan I still didn't have enough space. So, since I was measuring I thought about it and decided to see if the two pans would fit in the oven. Yes, sideways only and the Schweinhaxen were not going to clear the roof of the oven with 2 pans in there one on each shelf. If the bones and flesh touch the walls or roof of the oven they will undoubtedly smoke and burn smelling up the house. What to do? After trying every shelf combination I could, I had to think of something else. I put the Schweinhaxen back into the fridge and had to think about it. The next day came and when I looked in the fridge the shanks had thoroughly thawed and by doing so had relaxed enough by shrinking some by about an inch. Hooray, they'll fit in the oven now but I still have 4 more and no place to cook them. Another problem. Toaster oven? Crock pot? Two separate batches?
Luckily I've got a mom. After mentioning the problem to her she mentions that she has a countertop oven that she could loan me. Perfect, if it'll hold 4 Schweinhaxen!
So, what to do for the side courses? I'd already researched it and discovered Kartoffelkloesse, a German potato dumpling. Other side courses would be Røtkol, red cabbage, Sauerkraut, Bratwurst, soft pretzels, pickles and of course some German beer. No problem, let's get started.
After purchasing a pork butt and going online to get some hog casings and Prague Powder and to the store to purchase a myriad of spices I realize I don't want to serve standard mustard. I'll Google it and see what I can find. Wow! You can make mustard at home? I didn't know that! So back to the store and get some mustard powder and white vinegar etc. I'm making mustard at home! I thought mustard came in jars from the condiment counter at the grocery store! It never occurred to me to make it. After several batches and return trips to the bulk spice section at Winco and YouTubing some videos I was able to make my own mustard. What a treat!
Now to the sausages: Where do you get hog casings better known as sausage casings? Forget the butcher, pardon me, meat wrappers. So back online to Google up sausage casings. The local German/Mexican market had them but would only sell them to be in a 100 yard package. A hundred yards!? I'm feeding 20 people not entire elementary school! So, online I go and am able to get 10 yards of casings for a fair price.
I had purchased online some attachments for my Kitchen Aid mixer to grind meat and make sausages. After YouTubing a bunch more videos on the process I was in business packing those hog casings full of ground, spiced pork. Learning lots along the way and knowing well that all of this fuss could easily have been averted if I just wanted to purchase canned, boxed, dried, bottled, German products and call it authentic. But, that's not me. I wanted to make everything including the pickles. Pickles can be home made??? Back to YouTube and trying to find Pickling cucumbers and dill weed in November. No such luck, out of season. Not to be deterred, I bought regular standard cucumbers from Mexico and used dill spice and seed. I should be using the flower they tell me but I've got to make this work. Pickles are trickier than you think. I guess since I had success with the mustard I could make pickles. They take about a week or two to ferment and do their thing. When I finally was able to pull one out and test it I learned an important lesson...sort of. Pickles are tricky and I shouldn't bite off more than I could chew and spit out. So, I tried again knowing it was still November I had time to try one more time.
December was approaching quickly. I had dozens of bratwurst in all shapes and sizes. I had cooked Schweinhaxen a couple of times now and they were progressively getting better. I had made dozens of soft pretzels and frozen them. Two different kinds of mustard were made. I had practiced the Kartoffelkloesse with a failure at first then a success a week later. The second try on the pickles was nearly as bad as the first. Darn. On one of my many journeys to the store picking up ingredients, spices and who knows what, I saw at Smart & Final large one gallon jars of giant dill pickles for $4.99. Alright, I'll admit failure and buy some. That was hard to do because the invitations had already gone out. "Alles Hausgemacht" (Everything Homemade) I had told everyone but printed it in German so I figured nobody would accuse me of store-bought pickles. Clever!
I had already ordered online a case of dimple steins 14oz. size to serve it in since every Oktoberfest you've seen is German Frauleins hoisting up a dozen or so filled steins to take out to their thirsty revelers. That's when I realized I have 2 different beers brewing and only one keg. My options were to go back and buy another keg with a splitter to divert half the Co2 into each keg. I decide to serve one beer. The dark German lager is my choice. I just won't mention the Pilsner and they'll never know!
In one of my many online searches to German cooking, recipes, decorations, German style Christmas etc. I had noticed something I hadn't seen before nor had I even considered. How do you serve pretzels? On a plate, in a pan? With a napkin? There on a table at an Oktoberfest was a small wooden doweled tree with about 6 arms reaching out was a display of pretzels all hanging nicely from it. Yes! I can make one of those. Out to the garage I find everything I need to build one. One 2" dowel for the trunk about 18" tall. A Christmas tree stand configuration to hold it vertical and about 6 arms as branched made of 1/2" dowels I had laying around. perfect. An hour later I was done. Pretzels hung beautifully from it like it came from Munich!
Meanwhile, if all that wasn't enough, I wanted to go up to Oregon and have dinner with my brother Paul and sons over Thanksgiving. Hey, this should be a learning trip. By that I mean, why don't we take some Schweinhaxen, a few pretzels and German beer up there and we'll practice cooking the pork shanks once more to see if we were just lucky then first time or actually doing it right.
I had put Sheri in charge of baking a Schewarzwald Kirsch Kuchen. Black Forest Cake. She accepted the challenge and immediately dove in as we went looking for Kirsch which is German for cherry. It's a liquor used to flavor the cake in a syrupy way to add another dimension. After getting some advice at the Wine and Liquor outlet plus BevMo she opted for authenticity and paid about $38 for the real deal from Germany. With all the flour, sugar, Kirsch and chocolate gathered up along with the Schweinhaxen we drove up to Paul's house in Bend and took over his kitchen while he was at work.
On her first attempt of baking this complicated cake it was, we learned, a learning experience. The chocolate was to be shaved into curls. The crown of the cake had to be leveled, the frosting had to be made. Three layers all with frosting in between and the curls that wouldn't curl spread around the sides and top with the perfect choice of canned cherries on the top. (We tried several different types of cherries before agreeing on which to use). What's up with the chocolate curls? They would crumble but not curl. Agh! But as I reminded her, "We're practicing for the real deal."
The practice dinner was a success even with a couple hiccups and lessons learned. The next day was Friday and we had planned on all going up to Mt. Angel in Oregon to connect with a German store up there where the town of Mt. Angel hosts one of the biggest German style Oktoberfests on the west coast. I had bought Sheri a Dirndl dress online to wear at Christmas and I would wear Lederhosen of course but she wanted to buy a genuine Dirndl dress that came from Deutschland. You guessed it. $200 later with a genuine Dirndl and a a good German restaurant for dinner we were on our way home to Bend.
That was pretty much the last practice we had at perfecting our dinner for the family. The remaining time we had went into decorating in Bavarian style with a flag of Germany out on the porch, a Bavarian flag hanging from the upstairs rail in the foyer and not to mention the Christmas tree that while we were at a German fest in Sacramento at the Turn Verein downtown we saw Christmas tree candle holders and candles that you actually light with a match. Had to have 'em. I know they're dangerous but this was really old school and authenticity was my goal. We gave up on buying a fresh Christmas tree about 2-3 years ago and opted for the artificial one that mom gave us. Here we are with a fake tree and authentic candles decorating it. Oh, what the heck. Mom had loaned us her Nutcracker collection and I found a Father Christmas at OSH that I liked and stands about 30" tall. At the Turn Verien we also saw some tree decorations so I bought a miniature Bavarian hat and a tiny stein that seemed more apropos to being outfitted on the Father Christmas. His hands were empty so we put the stein in one hand the hat on his head and I baked him a miniature soft pretzel for the other. Couldn't have set the stage more perfectly. He hung out on the bar next to the keg and pretzels for the party.
I think we had 18 guests plus ourselves when the second cake that Sheri baked turned out beautifully. I was very proud of her and her Schwarzwald Kirsch Kuchen.
When the guests started to arrive the house was full of the aroma of Schweinhaxen. We were in our outfits, hers genuine, mine cheap. I had asked my brother Dan, to barbecue the bratwurst out back. Unfortunately, I didn't provide him with adequate lighting as he brought the brats in a little blackened on one side. He apologized but I told him "Not to worry, we'll say that's how the Germans cook them and who'll know?" He liked that idea.
As the guests had arrived I had already ordered little beer steins in cheap pot metal along with and shiny little pretzels and strung them to be given out as a gift to each new arrival. The tradition goes back to Oktoberfest where these tokens were given to a stranger or a friend and telling them that they had a friend at Oktoberfest. They seemed to like it.
The shanks were more than one person could eat and I expected leftovers so I bagged and tagged the meat to take home it they chose. Any left over, I kept and turned into tamales later.
The beer was nearly gone. Two mugs left out of 5 gallons! They loved the beer, pretzels, mustard and brats and the Schweinhaxen was the crown jewel with a Schwarzwald Cake to boot. I think it was the best themed Christmas we've done to date.
As the evening was closing we lit the candles on the tree and had everyone gather round. Someone started singing Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree I la da da, oh Christmas tree. Everyone had to laugh at how bad we sounded in unison. It would've made Simon Cowell cringe and throw up or go running for the exit.
Mom was gathering up her things and hitching a ride with Dan and Sue. We stood on the front lawn and I was telling him to drive to the end of the street to see this house decorated in a 1000 lights, fake snow, reindeer etc. etc. "I mean they went over the top with so many decorations. These people are EXTREME!" He says to me, "Yeah that's coming from someone standing in their front yard wearing Lederhosen at 10:00 o'clock at night."
All in all I was very pleased with how all the hard work paid off. My nephews and nieces have learned to make a point of going to Christmas at Uncle Vince's and Aunt Sheri's. I heard one of them say, "They do things right!"