What I didn't know and learned from my favorite French radio food podcast (in an episode broadcast live from Strasbourg a year ago and available on the web until September 2014) is that Christine Ferber is also a celebrated pâtissière-chocolatière-confiseuse (pastry-chef, chocolate maker and confectioner), that she owns a pâtisserie (pastry-shop) near Colmar in the Alsace region of France and that every year she makes a sumptuous traditional Alsatian holiday bread, the Beraweka, also known as Beerawecka or Bierawecka or Birewecke.
The origins of the bread (traditionally enjoyed at Christmas with a glass of vin chaud - hot mulled wine -, Gewürztraminer or Riesling vendange tardive (late harvest Riesling) upon returning home from midnight mass) are a bit unclear: some believe Beraweka to be as old as Alsace itself (Beera meaning "pear" and Wecka "bread" in Alsatian) while others think it was brought to the area by the once vibrant Jewish community as a traditional Passover dessert (bere meaning Pessa'h in Yiddish). In the Jewish version, it requires plenty of dried fruit but no pears and it remains unleavened.
There seem to be as many recipes as there are spellings for Beraweka: some call for dried apples; some require scalding all the dried fruit before soaking it in kirsch; some replace almonds with hazelnuts. The variations are endless. In Christine Ferber's village of Niedermorschwihr, the bread is traditionally made at home from a recipe handed down from mother to daughter since the sixteenth century. She feels very fortunate because her fellow villagers still honor the age-old tradition of bringing their holiday breads to the baker for baking, which means that each December she gets to experience many different Berawekas.
Winters can be long and harsh in Alsace and drying fruit has always been a favorite way of making sure summer bounty would remain available throughout the cold and dark months. Ferber says she starts drying pears from nearby orchards in August. She chooses barely ripe sweet pears, cuts them in half, removes the core, and cuts eight slices out of each half. She puts these slices on racks in the oven and lets them dry for eight hours at 70°F/158°C. She stores the dried fruit in a dry spot away from the light. She also dries her own questches (damson plums).
Christine shared her recipe with the audience. I have translated it below, with some modifications. Many Alsatian Beraweka recipes use regular bread dough. Christine's uses brioche dough. Since the amount of dough is minimal (just enough for the fruit to stick together), the bread never dries out and keeps forever. Christine says she still has some at home that she made five years ago. I wasn't planning on making brioche, so I used a bit of levain-based sifted flour dough I had just proofed for another recipe. It turned out just fine. I doubt I'll have enough left over to test the five-year shelf life though...
Christine also uses two different kinds of anise when I only had one sort: rather than using more of that one, I replaced the other one by a good pinch of mixed baking spices. Finally since there were no pictures of the Beraweka on the podcast's webpage and I couldn't find attractive ones elsewhere on the web, I didn't know what it was supposed to look like. Looks-wise, mine certainly didn't end up like a winner but when I bit into a slice, I felt transported as by magic to a faraway place and time that tasted just as Christmas does in dreams.
Pierre Hermé, the renowned pastry chef and macaron all-time wizard, has been friends with Christine Ferber for more than forty years (his mom is from the same village). According to him, her Beraweka is one of the five products that should be on everyone's bucket list (he didn't actually use the expression "bucket list" but he did say it was one of five products everyone should taste at least once in his or her lifetime). I don't know if I'll ever make it to Niedermorschwihr but at least I have Christine's recipe and now so do you. Christine said it herself, the bread really isn't difficult to make. It only requires a bit of time and patience. As for another Alsatian Christmas favorite, the Stollen, she said the best she has ever had was Pierre Hermé's (who got the recipe from his own mother).
Ingredients (for two breads)
(Note: Christine actually makes four 250 g-breads with this recipe. Since I didn't soak the pears in water, I ended up with a lighter"dough"which I decided to divide in two)
- 100 g dried pears (Christine soaks hers for 24 hours in 500 g hot water. See Note, Method, step 1)
- 100 g dried plums, pitless (in the absence of Damson plums, I used California dried plums, also known as prunes)
- 100 g dried figs (I used small black mission figs)
- 100 g dried apricots (I used unsulphured ones)
- 100 g raisins
- 50 g kirsch (to which I added another 50 g for a total of 100 g)
- 50 g candied lemon, slivered (home-made would be preferable to store-bought and certainly closer quality-wise to what Christine has available to her in Alsace but it is an extra-step and if it prevents you from giving the bread a chance, it isn't worth it. I used candied orange and lemon that my friends from Tree-Top Baking kindly gave me. Next year if I get my act together early enough, I might try making my own)
- 50 g candied orange, slivered (same remark)
- 40 g walnuts, roughly chopped
- 40 g almonds, peeled (mine were pre-sliced)
- 5 g green anise (I used regular ground anise seed)
- 5 g baking spice (a mixture of cinnamon, mace, anise and cardamom) (Ferber uses ground anise seed)
- 100 g brioche dough (or any other bread dough you have on hand), divided in tiny pieces
- walnuts and almonds for decoration (I skipped that step)
Method: (the bread is made over three days but requires minimal intervention until the third day)
- On the first day, scald the pears and let them soak overnight (Note: I did that and my pears -which were fairly tender to begin with - ended up way too soft). So, as an alternative, if your dried pears are almost tender enough to be eaten straight out of the bag, just slice them into slivers on the second day and add them to the bowl with the other fruit
- Soak the raisins in the kirsch and let them macerate overnight
- On the second day, sliver the figs, apricots and plums. Put these slivers together with the pears and the raisins in a large bowl
- Add the candied lemon and orange and leave to macerate overnight, covered (that's when I added the extra 50 g of kirsch since I wasn't using the softened pears)
- On the third day, add the spices, the walnuts, the almonds and the little pieces of dough
- Mix until everything sticks together
- Pre-heat oven to 300°F/150°C
- Wet your hands and shape the breads as small bâtards
- Set on a parchment-paper baking sheet and bake for one hour (Christine didn't mention proofing but I didn't feel comfortable going straight from mixing to baking. So I set the baking sheet inside a tightly closed clear plastic bag and gave it an hour. I could see no appreciable difference in the size of the breads but maybe the levain still worked a bit of its magic)
- Bake for one hour
- Cool on a rack (Christine doesn't say to glaze the bread but I did. When it came out of the oven, I brushed it all over with a bit of confectioner's sugar diluted in two tablespoons of kirsch and a drop of boiling water. It made it all shiny)
- When cool, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and wait at least a week before eating
The Beraweka is going to Yeastspotting, Susan's weekly round-up of breads.
More info: If you read French, you might enjoy this interview of Christine Ferber for Le Journal des femmes).