This year, Austria celebrates its 1,000th anniversary. I have always had a special fondness for the country, not so much for reasons of ancestry but because of the value that Austrians place on desserts. What other country considers eating dessert for dinner a perfectly reasonable approach to life?
Whenever I think of Austria, dreamy visions of elaborately ruffled, whipped creamed Viennese pastries waltz through my head. So imagine my surprise when, on my first trip to Austria last June, I ended up being most enraptured by the least pretentious of baked desserts, known as buchteln.
Neither advance word nor their humble appearance had prepared me for the sheer wonder of these ethereal, sweet, yeasty little rolls, served while still warm.
Buchteln are similar to brioche, but lighter, because they have fewer eggs and less butter. And they have a long history. In the Biedermeier era, they were called “lotteries” because lottery tickets were baked into the centers. Nowadays, some cooks tuck in a tiny dollop of prune or apricot preserves instead.
My favorite way to enjoy buchteln, however, is as plain uninterrupted fluff, floating on a pool of vanilla-scented cream sauce. The rolls soak up the sauce as if they were little sponges, becoming even more tender.
Here’s how I stumbled upon buchteln. One afternoon, someone took me to Hawelka, the oldest, darkest, smokiest and certainly seediest student cafe in Vienna, and casually mentioned that the house specialty, buchteln, was something that might interest me. I must admit that I was skeptical that anything good to eat could possibly emerge from such an atmosphere. This was clearly a place of sepia-tinged, antiquity-steeped tradition, likely to prompt poetry or intense discussion, perhaps, but certainly nothing gossamer and frou-frou like pastry.
The owner, a small, gracious, elderly man, informed us that the buchteln were available only at night, after 9:30, when his wife took over. I returned at 9:30, but the buchteln were not ready.
“About how long will it be?” I asked a surly waiter.
“Forty-five minutes; they just went into the oven.”
After an hour I asked again. “Just a few more minutes,” he assured me. Another 10 minutes passed.
This time, when questioned, the waiter replied with irritation, “I have no idea!”
I considered leaving. But I had been sitting near the kitchen, and when I stood up on my tiptoes I could see batches of dough go into the oven, emerge golden brown and then seem to disappear. I decided to monitor the next batch carefully.
Sure enough, the owner’s wife made the dough, baked it, unmolded it onto a plate, dusted it with powdered sugar and then wandered around the cafe looking confused as to what to do next.
In desperation (and with no fluency in German), I ran up to her and said, with pleading eyes and voice, “Bitte Frau, per mir?” I hoped this meant “Please, ma’am, for me?” but reasoned that the actual words were not important.
Apparently I was right, because she handed me the whole plate of seven. I had wanted only one, but I thought I had better take them rather than try to argue and lose them all. Although I ate only one, it was worth the price of the seven and the two-hour wait.
3/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon powdered sugar plus additional for serving
2 packed teaspoons fresh yeast or 1/2 tablespoon dry yeast (not rapid-rise)
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup eggs (about 1 1/2 eggs), at room temperature
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups Vanilla Cream Sauce, optional
A half recipe of buchteln can be prepared in a 7-inch pan.
Combine 2 tablespoons tepid milk (not hot milk or yeast will die), 1 tablespoon powdered sugar and yeast in small bowl. If using fresh yeast, crumble slightly while adding. Set mixture aside in draft-free spot 10 to 20 minutes. If mixture is not full of bubbles, yeast is too old.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter. Set aside in warm spot so it stays melted but not hot.
Combine sugar and eggs in large bowl and stir with wooden spoon. Warm remaining milk to no hotter than tepid and stir into sugar mixture. Stir in yeast mixture. Add 1/4 cup flour, stirring until smooth. Set aside.
Whisk together remaining flour and salt in medium bowl. Stir into dough until incorporated. (Dough will be very sticky.) Continue stirring about 5 minutes or until dough is smooth, shiny, elastic and cool to the touch. (It will be very sticky.) Pour in 2 tablespoons melted butter and stir about 5 minutes, until it becomes very smooth, soft and elastic. (It will still stick slightly to hands.)
Place dough in lightly buttered 4-cup bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place (80 degrees but not above that temperature or yeast will develop sour taste) until double in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours (dough will rise to fill about 3/4 of bowl). Gently deflate dough by kneading lightly. It is preferable to refrigerate at least 1 hour to firm dough for easier handling. Dough now can be shaped and baked or covered tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerated up to 2 days. If refrigerated, gently knead to deflate before shaping.
Melt remaining butter and strain into small bowl. Allow to cool until no hotter than tepid.
Turn dough out onto floured surface. It will still be slightly sticky. With lightly floured hands, roll rounded tablespoons of dough between palms to form 1 1/4-inch-diameter balls. Dip each ball into melted butter, turning to coat well. Place in well-buttered 9-inch round cake pan. (Rolls should be close together; the few spaces remaining will fill in during rising.)
Cover dough lightly with buttered plastic wrap and allow to rise in warm place until top of dough reaches 1/2-inch from top of pan, about 1 1/2 hours. Thirty minutes before baking, place oven rack on bottom rung and place oven tiles or baking sheet on rack. Preheat oven to 425 degrees (400 degrees if using dark-colored pan).
Place pan on tiles and bake 5 minutes. Lower heat to 375 degrees and continue baking 15 to 20 minutes longer or until wood pick inserted in center of a roll comes out clean (instant-read thermometer will register 190 degrees).
Pour about 1/4 cup Vanilla Cream Sauce onto each serving plate. Unmold buchteln onto wire rack and place on baking sheet. Gently pull rolls apart. Place 3 or 4 rolls, top-side up, on cream sauce on each plate. Sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar and serve at once.
Makes about 28 (2 1/4x1 1/2-inch) rolls or 6 to 8 servings.
Each serving, without sauce, contains about:
314 calories; 248 mg sodium; 86 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.11 gram fiber.
VANILLA CREAM SAUCE
6 egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
1 cup milk
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Have fine strainer ready near range, suspended over medium mixing bowl. With wooden spoon, stir together egg yolks, sugar and salt in small heavy noncorrodible saucepan until well blended.
In another small saucepan (or heat-proof glass measuring cup if using microwave on high--100% power), bring milk, cream and vanilla bean to boil. Stir a few tablespoons into yolk mixture. Gradually add remainder of mixture while stirring constantly. Heat mixture, stirring constantly, to just before boiling point (170 to 180 degrees). Steam will begin to appear and mixture will be slightly thicker than whipping cream. It will leave well-defined track when finger is run across back of spoon.
Immediately remove from heat. Pour into strainer, scraping up thickened cream that settles on bottom of pan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into sauce and stir until seeds separate. Return pod to sauce until ready to serve. Chill until cold. Remove pod. Stir in vanilla extract. (Sauce will keep refrigerated 5 days, frozen 3 months.)
Makes scant 2 cups.
Each 1/4-cup serving contains about:
132 calories; 57 mg sodium; 227 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0 fiber.
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Pointers for Success
* For lightness and tenderness, dough must be exceptionally wet. Add just enough extra flour to handle for shaping.
* Use bleached all-purpose flour for tenderest results.
* Use a national brand of flour, like Gold Medal or Pillsbury, because regional brands vary in protein content. If too low, bread will not rise well; if too high, it will be tough.
* Do not allow dough to rise more than recommended times or it will weaken the structure.
* Unbaked dough can be frozen up to 3 months.