It took a publishing-world nanosecond for the customer feedback about “New German Cooking” that Jeremy Nolen had been dreading to appear online: “as a Pennsylvania Dutch descendant . . . having lived in Germany . . . a total let down.”
Never mind that the first word in the book’s title ought to have been a tip-off. As it happens, Jeremy Nolen grew up near Reading, Pa., helping his chef dad cook at the local German festivals. At age 19, he learned the classics from immigrant women in their 70s and 80s who produced the likes of sauerbraten and rolled beef for the private German club in Nolen’s hometown.
The 37-year-old chef and his pastry-chef wife, Jessica, 28, managed to write and test their recipes at home in a mere eight months while working at their Brauhaus Schmitz and Wurst Schmitz restaurants in Philadelphia. Their goal for their first cookbook was to demonstrate an evolutionary approach to the cuisine: seasonal, technique-driven, not heavy. He knew that some traditionalists would not be on board. “That lighter approach works against us,” he says.
I think they’ve nailed it, with dishes that taste clean and are omnivorously compelling.
Sausage and sauerkraut are not overlooked, figuring as signature DIY recipes and as main ingredients. But both components are fried into addictively crispy fritters, and they appear in braised rabbit and pierogi, respectively. Beer is poured into a vinaigrette for roasted parsnips and flavors a pan of brisket — not a typical German cut — and is paired with pickle juice to brine a roast chicken. Only the current dearth of fresh apricots kept me from roasting the fruit in a mixture of dark lager, fresh ginger and warm spices for the sweet sauce called aprikosenkompott. Vegetables and salads get by quite nicely without meaty interference.
The German recipe subtitles, by the way, were run past the Deutsch-born manager at the Brauhaus beer hall. Only the pumpernickel brownies, called schoko schnitten (“chocolate cuts”), failed to translate closely.
Hazelnut lovers like me are treated to a savory, rich soup, a compound butter with ramps and a pesto, in addition to a multi- layer torte that the Nolens’ patrons continue to demand as a permanent menu item. In fact, every one of Jessica Nolen’s desserts in “New German Cooking” looks tempting, including her bee sting cake (a classic bienenstich) and glazed gingerbread cookies.
Those brownies, on the other hand, get an unorthodox, chewy assist from toasted dark-bread crumbs — one of the ways the Nolens repurpose restaurant leftovers. The flavor notes imparted won’t be to everyone’s liking, but I found the treatment a good one to file away in the ever-expanding universe of brownie variations.
The chefs’ recipe headnotes often educate about ingredient use in the old country. Germans are fond of quark, a fresh cheese akin to ultra-thick sour cream. Make Jessica Nolen’s take on German cheesecake and you’ll wonder how dense, New York-style cheesecakes ever became the standard; the quark and beaten egg whites make the texture light and luscious.
The cake’s crust consists of crushed hard pretzels, sugar and butter, highlighting more smart repurposing; 15,000 pretzels were baked at the Nolens’ restaurants last year. The topfentorte could be symbolic of “New German Cooking’s” very mission. “I haven’t seen a pretzel-crusted dessert in Germany,” Jeremy Nolen says. The component is authentic, delivered in a modern way.