One cold, rainy day in October, I sat in front of a fireplace in a small weinstub, or bistro, in Strasbourg, France, listening to my growling stomach. I couldn’t face another round of choucroute, that heavy Alsatian ode of love to the pig and the cabbage.
On the greasy menu, fingerprints from previous guests clearly visible on the laminated plastic, one dish stood out: Flammekueche, also known as “Tarte Flambée.” I ordered it. And a bottle of Alsatian Riesling, never mind the particulars of vintage and terroir. Though Sylvaner or Edelzwicker will do the trick as well.
Arriving on a thin piece of board, which looked thinner than plywood and softened by years of service, my Flammekueche bubbled like a lava pit. The bacon, cut into lardons, still sputtered from the heat of the womb that birthed it, shooting drops of fat into the air, trembling. The bread crust, slightly blackened in a wood-burning oven, licked by the flames, was as thin as the cover of a hardback book.
My maiden bite of Flammekueche, or “flame cake,” convinced me that I’d found a keeper, a recipe I needed to engrave in my mental cookbook. I rolled up each piece like a crêpe and ate like a famished peasant. Not hard to do, since Flammekueche is Alsace’s version of “all you can eat.” If there were a Guinness Book of Records for Flammekueche consumption, top mention would go to a person who put away three Flammekueche at one sitting. Now that’s a trencherman! Or woman!
And so it came to pass. I brought it all back, packed away in a little corner in my brain. Flammekueche moved in and made itself at home.
But a little history first before we get to the recipes.
Fire and myth carved deep grooves into the ancient cultures of the area, according to Les hommes et le feu de l’Antiquité à nos jours: Du feu mythique et bienfaiteur au feu dévastateur. Man and fire, warmth and devastation. Flammekueche symbolizes well-being, home and hearth, and, yes, security.
Flammekueche entered Alsace’s repertoire of recipes through the ingenuity of farmwomen in the Bas Rhin region of what is now Germany. The key ingredients — bacon, onions, farmer cheese or quark, cream, and flour — all filled farm larders, at least in good times. Each farmwife boasted a different recipe, but the main ingredients always remained the same. Rolled out thin, the bread dough used in the dish served as a thermometer for bread baking. If the Flammekueche cooked up in one to two minutes, well, that signaled that the oven burned hot enough for baking the weekly bread supply. Near Pfulgriesheim, eight miles northwest of Strasbourg, cooks made another, creamier version called Flambreeli.
First mentioned in culinary literature in 1884, it was not until 1968 or so that the restaurants in Strasbourg began sell Flammekueche to the tourists coming to gawk at Strasbourg’s puff-pastry-like Notre Dame cathedral, its pink sandstone glowing in the sunsets. A Confrérie de la Veritable Tarte Flambée d’Alsace formed, to ensure the quality and standards of the Flammekueche sold in Alsatian restaurants. Nowadays, French housewives can buy ready-made Flammekueche in the supermarkets, made by companies like Pierre-Schmidt. Visitors to Paris can indulge in Flammekueche at Flam’s if they commit the ultimate sin by not visiting Alsace.
Julia Child never mentioned Flammekueche in her luminous masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And her role model, Madame E. Saint-Ange, failed to do so in HER master work, La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange.
Even without access to a wood-burning oven, you can still make Flammekueche. A pizza stone helps create the traditional crispy crust, but even that isn’t crucial to succes.
Start with good bread dough, like the Country Bread recipe provided below. You may use frozen bread dough from the freezer section of the grocery store.
Flammekueche /Tarte Flambée
1 medium onion, sliced VERY thin
½ cup plus 2 T. ricotta
½ cup plus 2 T. crème fraîche or sour cream
Salt to taste
¼-1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
½ lb. bread dough
½ lb. slab bacon, cut into pieces the size of wooden matches (You may use regular bacon if you don’t have access to good slab bacon like Sam Edwards’s hickory-smoked bacon from Surry, Virginia.)
Parsley, minced finely, for garnish
Place your baking stone on the lowest rack in the oven and crank up the temperature to 450 degrees. Remove the other rack in the oven. Grease a cookie sheet with sides at least ½ high. (If you don’t have a baking stone, don’t worry, just grease the pan.)
Mix the onions with the ricotta and the crème fraîche or sour cream. Add the salt and pepper. Let sit for at least 15 minutes. This melds the flavors a bit and the onions loosen up. (For a less strong onion taste, blanched the sliced onion in boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain on paper towels.)
Roll out the dough very thin, to fit the cookie sheet, and smooth it out up to the edges.
Spread the cheese/cream mixture over the rolled-out dough all the way to the edges. Put the bacon all over the top so that the whole area is well covered. Grind more black pepper over the whole thing, to taste.
Bake about 15 to 20 minutes, until the dough is crisp and the bacon sizzles. Remove from onion, sprinkle with the parsley, and cut into squares. Serve right away!
And don’t forget the wine!
Makes enough for 4 or more Flammekueche
1 T. dry yeast
1 T. sugar
2 c. warm water
4 cups bread flour
4-5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. salt
1/3 c. plain vegetable oil
Up to 2-3 cups additional water (more or less)
Proof the yeast in the water and sugar until bubbly.
Put flour and salt in large mixing bowl or Kitchen Aid mixer bowl or food processor; use dough hook.
Pour in yeast and extra water, and start mixing. When gluten strands (string-like) appear, add oil. Mix, add more water if necessary until dough is only slightly sticky. Knead 2-3 minutes in machine or until smooth. By hand this might take 10 minutes or so on a lightly floured board.
I usually give the dough a few kneads on the board even if I do the major part of the kneading in the machine.
Place dough in a large greased mixing bowl, flip over so greased side is up, and cover with a clean and very damp towel that has been wrung out. Let dough rise until doubled.
Divide dough into four or five balls, each weighing 8 ounces. Roll out thin and follow the directions for Flammekueche/Tarte Flambée.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen