Snapshots from Germany: Flammkuchen, AKA Flaming Cake

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[Photograph: Urs Kuckertz]

Flammkuchen directly translates as "flaming cake." It's considered just as much as French (they call it tarte flambée) as it is German since this pizza-like dish is from the Alsace region of France around the upper Rhine river, which has shifted between German and French control for centuries.

For all the history nerds: French kings annexed the region in the seventeenth century, which the Germans took back after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. France won it back after World War I and Germany again annexed the region after invading France in 1940 until U.S. troops "liberated" the region in late 1944. French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently made a gaffe while addressing a group of angry French farmers in Alsace, saying he was "in Germany," so it's fair to say that the entire region suffers from ethnic and geographical sensitivities.

Well, that's enough history! The flammkuchen traditionally comes in two styles: sweet and savory.

The sweet flammkuchen gets covered with Braeburn apples (or in some cases with pears) and sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon. It's nice with coffee, tea or a cup of hot chocolate at a Vienna-style cafe (if you're in Berlin's Mitte area, head to Das Café Einstein Unter den Linden).

Both versions start with the same dough and sauce, and both are served straight from the hot oven. The dough is made with wheat flour, salt, water and a spoonful of olive oil, which must be rolled out super thin to create a cracker-like, super crisp texture. This isn't supposed to be a pizza dough but some people do add fresh yeast or use a sourdough starter or a mix of wheat and rye flour. I'm a traditionalist when it comes to flammkuchen and leave all that out.

Next comes a good swipe of creamyness: try crème fraiche or if you have access to German products try Sauerrahm, Schmand or Quark. But please, for the love of of all things delicious, never ever use fat free sour cream. Chop up a couple of onions (I prefer a mix of yellow and red) and lay them on top of the flammkuchen. Spread roughly chopped speck on top, but avoid using small pre-cut bacon cubes. Finish it off with freshly grounded black pepper, a squirt of olive oil and throw it in the oven at maximum heat.

Legend has it that in the old days of wood-fired bread ovens, the bread bakers of Alsace would put their flammkuchen into the oven at peak heat in order to determine the temperature before inserting their bread. Hence the name flammkuchen or flaming cake—if the oven was too hot, your flammkuchen would literally catch fire. Therefore this practice became a simple method to determine when the oven would have the perfect temperature before you inserted your precious loaves.

Many a pizza geek is aware of this challenge of getting enough heat from a normal home oven. I recommend using a pizza stone since flammkuchen, as the name indicates, needs extremely hot oven temperatures and should in fact be a bit burned on the edges.

In Germany, flammkuchen is sold at many a weekend market and traditional German restaurants or biergardens and just like pizza, it's offered with endless variations of toppings, sauce, and dough. For me, a true Alsatian flammenkuchen should either be sweet with apples or savory with speck and onions.

Try this recipe for an Alsatian bacon and onion tarte flambée!

About the author: Steen Hanssen lives in Berlin (tje Winterfeldt area) with his German wife and their six-year old daughter. Born in Saigon, he spent part of his childhood in Africa and grew up in Denmark. He's worked for the Norwegian and Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the United Nations in both Thailand and Indonesia. Passionate about delicious food and food culture, Steen is an average home cook and always up for a better-tasting bite and beverage.

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