Sunday, March 6, 2011


I am going to have to challenge this recipe on several fronts. Here it is in a book of American Desserts, but it is neither a dessert nor particularly American. Of course, a lot of the muffins and such in the book are not desserts either, so OK. And of course, the US is a melting pot of cultures, so a lot of the desserts in the book have an antecedent in other countries.

Still, zwieback? In the US, you can only find the stuff in the baby food aisle as a food "for teething babies". We usually had a box in our pantry because Mom used zwieback for crumb crusts (try it some time: it gives you a more neutral crunch than a graham cracker crust would).
Here in France, however, zwieback (biscottes) reigns. In the US there is a full grocery store aisle devoted to breakfast cereal; in France, there is one devoted to crunchy dried bread products. I'm not sure if these products are meant to substitute for or supplement fresh bread, but my guess is that people buy them for le goûter.

Ah, le goûter. As the British have their afternoon tea and the Germans have Kaffee und Kuchen, this is an afternoon snack ritual. Unlike the above, however, there is nothing really cozy about this afternoon snack, which according to my dictionary consists of "bread, butter, chocolate, and a drink". French kids have a long day at school--9 to 5--and don't usually sit down to dinner before 8 (despite this 35-hour work week, most working people don't come home before 7). Therefore, they require sustenance to get through the piles of homework that await them.
Since Mom may also be at work, since there may not be a bakery nearby, biscottes are a popular bread substitute. You can eat them as a tartine with butter and jam (as above) or with Nutella. One of my market vendors tells me that applesauce and biscottes is a classic goûter. My Franco-American kids tend to buy sandwiches or reheat leftovers for their afternoon snack, but I decided to make them the classic French snack.

It's a rather long process, this zwieback thing. Make dough, let it rise. Cut into rolls, let them rise. Bake and cool. Slice and bake again. Let me just say that they weren't finished when the girls came home from school. However, the rolls were. They were a big hit with Julia, who begged me not to toast all of them. Which reminded me of something her father said many, many years ago when I was trying out a recipe for rusks. Sami looked upon them in horror and asked, "You did THAT to perfectly good rolls??" I guess that zwieback were not a happy part of his childhood.
Finally the zwieback were done--on a Saturday. Of course I timed it to be finished when the girls needed no after-school snack. I put some sugar and coconut on some to try and duplicate a favorite German treat--not worth it. The verdict: I love them. I can't stop eating them. They taste just like the kind from the bright yellow box. I bet they'd make a fabulous cheesecake crust.
The rest of the family--not so much. "They're too crunchy! You can't even get your teeth through them!" And so my adventure in French culture through an American dessert book was not an unqualified success. No problem--I've got a big bowl of applesauce and a large container of zwieback in the kitchen, and I'm sure to have several happy afternoons with them.

Here's the recipe. Make them if you'd like something crunchy, toasty, not too sweet.


4 c. (20 oz.) unsifted flour (I used some whole wheat flour)
1 envelope rapid-rise yeast
1/2 c. (3.5 oz.) sugar
1 t. salt
3/4 t. nutmeg
1-1/4 c. (10 oz.) milk
4 T. (2 oz.) melted butter
1 egg

In a large bowl (you can do this in a mixer with a dough hook, in a food processor, or by hand), whisk together the flour, yeast, sugar, salt, and nutmeg. Add the milk, butter, and egg, and stir until the dough holds together. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and stretchy. Return to the bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled in volume.
Punch the dough down and turn it out back onto your floured surface. Roll into a cylinder of sorts and cut that into 12 even pieces. Line two baking sheets with foil or parchment. Form each piece of dough into a ball by pulling the sides out and then tucking them under. Put the balls on the baking sheets, cover with tea towels, and let rise again for 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 400. Bake the rolls at 400 for 10 minutes, then turn down the oven to 350 and give them 15 more minutes.
Let the rolls cool; do yourself a favor and eat one hot from the oven. You can let them sit out on the counter overnight if you want, or you could refrigerate or freeze them. Anyway, you want them pretty cool or even cold to slice them well.
When you're ready for the second baking, heat the oven to 300 (if you have convection or if your oven runs hot, I really recommend something more like 250). Slice the rolls horizontally into rounds (the French way) or vertically into slices (the American/German way); either way, the slices should be about 1/2 inch thick. Put the slices on parchment- or foil-lined baking sheets. Bake them until they are golden and hard to the touch. Maida doesn't give a baking time, so let me suggest giving them 15 minutes, then turning them over and giving them another 10 minutes or so. That was plenty for mine; your results may vary depending on your oven.
Let cool and then store airtight. Consider making some applesauce. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to my kitchen for a cup of tea and a little zwieback.

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