Alsace, on the eastern edge of France, has plenty of robust, rib-sticking, flavor-packed dishes that are just right for winter days. Uncomplicated to prepare and good-natured in the cooking, they provide the perfect rescue remedy for the harassed holiday cook. Baeckeoffe, a one-pot meal that combines pork, beef, lamb and vegetables marinated in the region’s famously fragrant white wine, is one of the best.
The name of this traditional Alsatian specialty refers to both the bakery (baecke) and the oven (offe). In former times, ovens in private homes were an undreamed-of luxury — not to mention an unwelcome fire hazard. Small, simple dishes were cooked in a pan on the top of the stove, but larger items requiring all-round heat were prepped at home, then taken round to the village baker’s to be cooked in the wood-fired oven after the bread had its turn.
Origins of Baeckeoffe up for debate
The story most commonly related is that Baeckeoffe was a Monday morning wash-day dish, outsourced to the village baker so the housewife-cook could get on with the household chores. But this seems an unlikely story. (Monday lunch would surely be an occasion for recycling the remains of a Sunday lunch feast — leftover choucroute and bacon or ham for a choucroute quiche, for example.)
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Picture the scene, in a small, cozy, wood-paneled inn somewhere on the Route des Vins. The tables are decked with rich red-patterned tablecloths decorated with vine leaf motifs. On the sideboard is a collection of classic, decorated pottery terrines and Baeckeoffe dishes. Napkins are unfurled, orders are taken and a small jug of refreshing Sylvaner or Pinot Blanc is brought to sharpen the appetite and ease the pain of waiting.
In due course, the stout chef-patron, clad in his whites, emerges backward through the swinging doors, swirls around in a neat pirouette and sets the immense decorated pottery dish down on the table with a satisfying thud. Carefully he chips and pries away at the band of dough that seals the gap between lid and dish. The whole table leans forward in eager anticipation, the lid comes off and there’s a collective intake of breath as some of the finest flavors and fragrances of Alsace are released: pork, lamb, beef, root vegetables, juniper berries and Riesling, all marinated together for days and baked to a state of gentle perfection.
This is a perfect dish for the holidays, which you can time to your convenience. It benefits from 1 to 3 days’ marinating, and then it needs several hours left to its own devices in the oven. Choose a fatty cut of pork, like neck, which will stay nice and moist, and cut all the meat in quite large pieces so they don’t dry out in the long, slow cooking. Any Alsace Riesling will do as long as it’s a dry one and preferably not outrageously expensive — an entry-level wine from one of the grand domaines like Trimbach, Hugel or Beyer would be perfect. (Keep the expensive one for drinking with the meal.) The ideal container is a large, lidded ovenproof ceramic pot. When you’ve assembled the dish and put it in the oven, you can set out for a long walk to work up an appetite. On your return the kitchen will be filled with wondrous aromas of Alsace. Serve the Baeckeoffe with green salad and plenty of bread to mop up the (unthickened) juices. Any leftovers can be reheated.
Serves 6 hungry people
For the marinade:
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon juniper berries
6 bay leaves, crumbled
2 generous pinches mixed dried herbs
1 bottle dry Alsace Riesling (or other dry white wine)
For the Baeckoffe:
1 pound (500 grams) boneless neck pork
1 pound (500 grams) boneless shoulder of lamb
1 pound (500 grams) boneless stewing beef (skirt, for example)
3 to 4 pounds (1½ to 2 kilograms) firm, waxy potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
2 large carrots, diced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 leek, finely diced
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter, cut in small dice
1. Prepare the marinade by combining in a bowl the chopped garlic, carrot, onion, juniper berries, cloves, bay leaves, herbs and wine.
2. Cut the meat in fairly large pieces and put them in a bowl with the marinade.
3. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 12 hours and up to three days.
4. Tip the meat into a colander placed over a second bowl, drain the meat and reserve the marinade.
5. Lightly butter a large, deep ovenproof dish with a well-fitting lid. [Mine is oval, measuring 14 inches by 9 inches by 4 inches deep (36 centimeters by 23 centimeters by 10 centimeters deep) with a 24-cup (6-liter) capacity.]
6. Place a thick layer of potatoes in the bottom of the dish, then follow with successive layers of meat and the remaining vegetables (carrots, onions, garlic and leek), seasoning with salt and pepper as you go and finishing with a thick layer of potatoes.
7. Pour on the reserved marinade. It should come about three-quarters of the way up the meat and vegetables. If not, add a little water.
8. Scatter the diced butter on top of the potatoes and cover the dish with a double thickness of foil and the lid.
9. Bake in an oven at 300 F (150 C) for about two hours or until the meat is fork tender. (Fish out a piece and taste it to check, then prolong the cooking if necessary.)
10. Remove the lid from the Baeckeoffe and bake uncovered for another 30 minutes or so, or until the potatoes on top are nicely browned
Photo: Alsatian Baeckeoffe ready for serving. Credit: Sue Style