Oktoberfest is a special time of year. It’s an opportunity to celebrate my German heritage while drinking great beer and eating delicious food. And as it falls around the autumnal equinox, it signals the beginning of my favorite season. By this time, the majority of my fall decorations are out and our house feels warm and inviting.
Recently, Oktoberfest has meant a bit more because it reminds me of my Uncle Tom. He passed away six years ago, but I’m still coming to grips with the loss of such an exuberant and adventurous person. My uncle loved all things German—especially the beer. After living in Germany—first while serving in the army, then later for work—he decided that American beer simply wasn’t up to snuff. Most people would go to their local beer distributor and buy a case of imported beer; his solution was to open his own brewery. He and my aunt dedicated many years to running a German brewery and beer hall, serving the very finest, award-winning beer (certified Reinheitsgebot) and delectable food. To give you an idea of how good his beer was, it was featured in Ultimate Beer, a beer guide to the best beers in the world, by Michael Jackson (the beer and whiskey enthusiast, not to be confused with the King of Pop). The brew-pub became a Pittsburgh institution and my uncle earned the moniker “Mr. Beer” around the city. Every year, they hosted a massive Oktoberfest party in their Biergarten and surrounding property. The fall after I graduated from college, I had the opportunity to work at this event, which was almost as fun as attending it. This experience gave me insight into my Uncle Tom’s incredible work ethic and devotion to celebrating a culture and heritage he so fully embraced. So for me, this holiday (yes, I consider it to be a holiday) has become a wonderful way to celebrate my uncle’s life, and is a lovely reminder that while he may not be here physically, he will always be with us in spirit.
Since small children and crowds of people drinking copious amounts of alcohol don’t really mix, we have opted to forgo public events for the time being, and instead, enjoy a German feast at home. It gives me the opportunity to bust out some of my favorite recipes and utilize the spaetzle press and spargel steamer, given to us by my cousin as wedding gifts. I have always enjoyed German food—it makes me feel cozy—so this is a meal I always look forward to preparing.
Laugenbretzel (Soft Pretzels)
Scweinebraten (Braised Pork Roast)
Spargel (Asparagus) with Mustard Sauce
Gurkensalat (Cucumber Salad)
Bienenstich Torte (Bee Sting Torte)
Festbier (Oktoberfest Beer)
In the past, I used a Lucinda Scala Quinn recipe for soft pretzels, but decided to try a new one I found on the “All Recipes” Website (link provided above). While this recipe did not produce pretzels with the same sheen, I preferred their flavor, as the dough had a hint of sweetness. I think the next time I make them, I will allow them to bathe in the baking soda-water solution a little longer with the hope that it might improve the pretzel crust. Otherwise, this is an excellent recipe. I definitely recommend giving it a try.
The recipe for the schweinebraten was inspired by the first meal I had when my parents took me to Munich years ago. We were dragging our jet-lagged bodies all over the city and stopped at a local cafe for lunch. I had thinly sliced roasted pork with a sweet apple and onion gravy and dumplings. We enjoyed many wonderful meals on that trip, but this one was hands down my favorite. It has taken many attempts to come even close to recreating that meal; the recipe provided in the link is the result of my efforts.
As far as homemade applesauce goes, my favorite recipe, hands down, belongs to Ina Garten. It is ridiculously easy to throw together (the only thing tiresome is peeling the apples), and it makes your home smell incredible as it bakes. If you have not tried it, please do so. You’ll thank me later. (Link provided above.)
If you are unfamiliar with spargel, it happens to be white asparagus. Germans are crazy for it, so much so that they have a term for the time of year in which it’s available: Spargelzeit. I love it, too, but sadly, it’s not that easy to come by in the fall. However, I still wanted to give that favorite veggie a nod, so I prepared one of my favorite recipes from the Everyday Light Cookbook: “Steamed Asparagus with Mustard Sauce.” The asparagus is steamed until just softened, but still with some crispness, only about 6 minutes, then drizzled with a sauce that is reminiscent of deviled egg filling (minus the egg). My husband loves this sauce. In his words, “I would put it on anything…it would even make poop taste good!” 😳 So, the asparagus addition isn’t specifically traditional, but it allowed me to get a green veggie into the mix and it provided a bit more color to the plate (so much of German cuisine tends to be some shade of brown).
When it comes to sauerkraut, I take the easy road—I use canned (Silver Floss is my favorite). I empty it into a saucepan, add 3/4 of a can full of water, and allow it to simmer on low heat for hours to tenderize it. It’s important to stir it every once in a while and check it to make sure the liquid hasn’t cooked off—if it’s looking low, add more water to the pot. Just before serving, stir in a couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter—it adds a nice richness.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite dishes to order at the Brewery was kasespatzle, or spaetzle in a cheese sauce, otherwise known as German macaroni and cheese. If you are unfamiliar with spaetzle, it’s basical a rustic pasta that resembles scrambled eggs. It is a tremendous vehicle for many ingredients, but my current favorite method of preparation includes bacon and onions. The link for my recipe is provided above. Also, please note, there are several different ways to spell spaetzle, but as I do not have access to umlauts on my keyboard, I generally use the “ae” spelling.
Gurkensalat, or cucumber salad, is another favorite from the Brewery. Thinly sliced cucumber and red onion, tossed with fresh dill and sour cream (although, to keep it on the healthy side, I substitute Greek yogurt for the sour cream…you really can’t tell the difference). My favorite version of this recipe comes from Bobby Deen’s cookbook, From Mama’s Table to Mine.
Bienenstich Torte, or Bee Sting Torte, is a traditional German dessert consisting of two layers of yeast cake sandwiching a sweet vanilla cream filling, topped with a crunchy honey-caramel-almond crust. It is to die for! And so much simpler to make than it sounds. It definitely takes some time to prepare, but the steps are easy to follow, and it is so worth the effort! The recipe I used to make this dessert was found on the International Desserts Blog and I provided the link above.
Regarding festbiers, there are so many excellent options out there today, especially with the many craft breweries that are popping up around the country. Our favorite, beyond my Uncle Tom’s, is Great Lakes Oktoberfest. However, if you want to stick with German-produced festbiers, I like Weihenstephaner Festbier. Spaten Oktoberfest is also excellent.
When planning decorations for my Oktoberfest dinner, I actually like sticking to a fall theme. It may not scream “Bavaria,” but I like to think of this feast as a welcome to the change of seasons. Plus, I already have a wide supply of fall decorations to pull from. I do, however, fly the blue and white checkered Bavarian flag, as a nod to the origins of the festival. Maybe one day I will go all out with a full Bavarian theme, but right now, it’s not worth spending the extra money.
This year, I used chargers decorated with watercolor pumpkins, which I bought at Michael’s. White plates made for a nice contrast to the warm colors of the chargers. Silverware was wrapped in orange napkins (from Crate & Barrel), which were then tied with gold-flecked twine. The centerpiece was a simple brass candlestick with an ivory tapered candle, set within a glass hurricane.
Food was served buffet style on the kitchen island. To decorate the area designated for food, I used a burlap table runner. Food was predominantly served in white serving dishes, with the exception of the mustard sauce, which was served in a pumpkin-orange ramekin (another Michael’s find), and the Bienenstich Torte, which was placed on a square plate painted with pumpkins (a gift from a dear friend). In order to keep food warm, the schweinebraten and sauerkraut were both served in slow cookers. The pretzels were served in a wire basket lined with an orange and ivory-checked paper napkin. German mustard was served alongside in another pumpkin-orange ramekin.
🍻🥨🍺 Prost! 🍺🥨🍻
“Authentic German Bee Sting Torte,” International Desserts Blog. 2018. Retrieved from: http://www.internationaldessertsblog.com/german-bienenstich-bee-sting-cake/
Deen, Booby, Clark, Melissa. “Quick Pickled Cucumbers,” From Mama’s Table to Mine. Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks: New York, 2013. Page 142.
Garten, Ina. “Homemade Applesauce,” Foodnetwork.com. Retrieved from: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/homemade-applesauce-recipe2-2120623
Rose, Christa. “Buttery Soft Pretzels,” Allrecipes.com. Retrieved from: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/24272/buttery-soft-pretzels/
Stewart, Martha. “Asparagus with Creamy Mustard Sauce,” Everyday Food Light. Clarkson Potter Publishers: New York, 2011. Page 178.