Normally, watching reality food shows doesn’t make me want to pick up the frying so much as it just makes me think about cooking. But when Hubert Keller waxed nostalgic about his favorite dish from his childhood in the Alsace region of France and prepared it for the finale of Top Chef Masters this summer, Les was compelled to action and I was drafted into service as her sous chef. Not only did Keller tempt us with the holy trinity of beef, pork, and lamb, he brought in the ultimate cool factor of sealing something with pastry dough, tugging at the heartstrings of everyone who had more than a passing attachment to Play-Doh in kindergarten.
With one flick of the TV remote, the Baeckeoffe was on.
According to Keller, baeckeoffes were typically prepared on Mondays because moms needed to do the laundry at the river and who had time to slave over the stove when the tidy whiteys needed to be cleaned? Flash forward to the era of Maytag machines and two income families, who has time to cook this stuff on a Monday? So we planned a weekend al fresco dinner and set about to replicate the dish that made our jaws drop to the floor into a collective puddle of drool.
The week of, we hunted down items like dry German Riesling, juniper berries, and yukon potatoes. Yukons are necessary because they hold up well to extended cooking times. I consider them to the be the long distance runners of tubers. Russets are easier to find but they are kind of like sprinters. Good stamina for a quickie and a solid frying potato (McDonald’s favorite), but they crumble over the long haul. And of course we corraled all the different cuts of meat. Keller’s recipe suggested adding pig’s feet as an option and we opted out. Although I do like pig’s feet, I think it would have made the resulting broth too sticky from the gelatin and we wanted a cleaner taste.
We decided to triple the recipe because Les invited a group of friends over and I must mention that these are the same friends who taught me how to eat dim sum like it’s a winner take all fight. Bragging rights goes to the table with the most stamps covering the dim sum order form and bonus points if the servers can’t find any more room to stamp their dim sum insignia.
The baeckeoffe is a pretty easy dish to make if its planned out before hand. You just have to prep the night before because the meat needs to marinate overnight. The only challenge we had was finding bowls big enough to hold it all since we used triple the amount of ingredients listed in the recipe. The meat and vegetable marinade looked great, about as delicious as raw meat can look. It also smelled intoxicating, filled with the heady aromas of leeks, thyme, juniper berries, and riesling. And my hands, well, they smelled like the raw meat I handled and continued to be so for a few days.
The next morning, we peeled and sliced the potatoes and lined up our dutch ovens to assemble the baeckeoffe. Les had specifically purchased a 9 QT Les Creuset for just this occasion as she already owned a 4 QT, and the two were just enough to fit all of the ingredients. The knobs on the Le Creuset lids were easily removed to allow steam to escape during cooking. (With all the product placement in this post, you would think I was getting paid for this.)
When we brought the marinated meat out of the fridge, it was mouthwatering to look at, even in its uncooked state. We put a couple of layers of potatoes on the bottom of the pot and added in scoops of the drunk and glistening meat. Then we layered the vegetables over the meat before topping off with the remaining liquid marinade. Finally, we arranged the remainder of the potato slices on top. Instead of making our own pastry dough seal, we bought pizza dough and saved a few steps. Once the dough was wrapped around the edges of the pot, we pressed the lid down firmly to seal everything in.
Everything was relatively easy until then. The true herculean effort was lifting the two cast iron pots and placing them into the oven. We had 9 pounds of meat, 9 pounds of potatoes, 9 pounds of marinade and veggies, pizza dough, and not to mention the the heavy cast iron pots. I swear I heard the oven groan heavily from the weight. I promised Les that I would buy her a new oven rack if this one broke, which thankfully it did not.
Then we waited and waited. Four hours of salivating, stomach grumbling agony passed by slowly as smell of baeckeoffe just wafted through the entire house. After a tortuous eternity, the finished baeckeoffe was brought out with much fan fare to the oohs and aahs of everyone. When we pried the lid open, the steamy aroma from the dish just hit us in the nostrils and we all had to mop up the drool.
I thought it was a funny scene because we all kind of hovered around politely, respectfully acknowledging the awesomeness of the baeckeoffe. Les ladled out the first serving for everyone and after the initial ecstasy, we started shoveling the food into our mouths and it became a free for all. In between mouthfuls, we would start debating(distracting) others on the best way to eat it, whether in a bowl or on a plate, or with bread to sop up the all juices. Yeah, eat more bread, it’s so good when you soak it in the broth (read: fill up your stomach so there’s more for me). We kind of nervously eyed each other and the quickly disappearing baeckeoffe (I may be exaggerating here but only slightly). But Les planned well and we were all sated and happy when we staggered back into the house.
All the Alsatian mamas would have given us their nod of approval for our meal. The baeckeoffe is definitely a dish worth undertaking and thanks to Hubert Keller for bringing it to our homes. From the small screen to the dinner table. Now that’s a real tv dinner.