Bismarcks: At the Gates of Paris

| June 5, 2009 | 0 Comments
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bismarcksI’ve currently got Paris on the brain. I’m about to invade that city for a week of eating and drinking and wandering and thinking.

So, naturally, the first thing to pop into my head for today’s post was, “Oh, I should do something German.”

Because that’s how my mind works.

Oh, it’s not what you’re thinking. My mind has been on the Franco-Prussian War, naturally enough, since I’m currently re-reading The Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne.

Paris is a city that has been, at least historically, in perpetual turmoil. It started with the Norsemen pillaging and burning the town until they were bought off with a big chunk of land in the North (Normandy). Only to see those same Normans a couple of centuries later restyling themselves as Englishmen and setting the country afire during a little conflict known as The 100 Years War.

Then, of course, there were several plagues, internal revolts, sieges, and revolutions– 1789, 1830, and 1848 (twice in three months), World Wars I and II, and a near-revolution in 1968.

But never did the city of Paris suffer more than during what the French refer to as L’Année Terrible, 1870-1871.

The Year in Review

A sickly Emperor Napoleon III declared war on Prussia on July 19th, 1870, hoping to distract people from the problems at home in his dying Empire. It was a bad move, but one made with characteristically Gallic flair. The French were trounced, the Emperor was captured six weeks later at Sedan, and that was pretty much that.

Or so the Parisians thought. They celebrated the fall of the Empire with a lot of cheering and declared The Third Republic two days later. The war was lost, but at least it was over.

Or not. The Prussians, with the iron-willed, iron-fisted, all-around Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck forging policy, kept on coming. The French, Bismarck felt, needed to be taught a lesson.

So they marched on Paris.

Surrounding the city, the Prussians sought to starve Paris into capitulation. For five months, the only contact Paris had with the outside world was via hot air balloons floating up and over the enemy filled with letters and dispatches from those trapped inside. The only messages in came from an occasional carrier pigeon. Rats, horses, house pets and nearly every animal in the zoo (one exception being monkeys because, apparently, the Parisians embraced Darwinism) were consumed by the hungry Parisians in their effort to fend off starvation*. By the time the French surrendered, Germany had united over the near-dead body of France and declared itself an empire. At the palace of Versailles, of all places. Nice touch.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

As happened so often in Paris, the working class sparked a revolt, leading to a government take-over. In a nutshell, The Paris Commune was set up, socialist reforms were attempted and things went generally crazy. The Tuilleries Palace was burned to the ground, the Vendome Column toppled, even Notre Dame barely escaped destruction– it’s benches had been piled up and doused with kerosene but was saved at the last minute.

The Commune ultimately failed– stamped out by the what was left of the French government and army in the bloodiest moment of the city’s history– 20,000 Parisians were slaughtered in just one week alone. The city was shattered.

Or was it?

What has always amazed me is the resilience of Paris. Each time it is beaten down, it seems to come back a little bit stronger. After a year of alienation, isolation, the pounding and ensuing humiliation by a stronger enemy, self-destruction, and thanks to a 5 billion franc war reparation bill, crippling debt, Paris rebounded into one of the most brilliant (or at least, fondly remembered) periods of its history– La Belle Epoque, which lasted nearly 43 years. Solidly, it returned to and confirmed its status as the cultural capital of Europe, if not the world.

It’s as though Paris can historically shake off its woes with its world-famous shrug.

So why the history lesson today?

Well, I’m coming out of my own p’tit année terrible– one that strangely mimics the year Paris faced, but on a much smaller, human scale. So I’m off to see how the Parisians manage it; to do a little shrugging of my own, you might say. I will eat and wander and observe the natives in a place that is more than likely Bismarck-free both in terms of the pastry and the guy who brought Paris to its knees. Or the one who brought me to mine, for that matter.

And maybe I’m hoping for a little belle époque of my own to begin. 43 years? Yeah, I think that will do. That will do nicely.

I will be back blogging June 19th.

* On the bright side, the Parisians were never in any danger of running out of wine.

Bismarcks

Bismarck is the Canadian/American name for the German pastry Berliner, as in John F. Kennedy’s famous declaration, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” In Berlin, however, they are referred to as Pfannkuchen.

Call it whatever you like.

Apart from the time spent allowing the yeast dough to rise, these doughnuts are relatively simple to make. And delicious– the unfilled pastry being light and airy and not especially sweet. Fill them with whatever you like, sweet or savory. Hell, toast one and use it to bookend a hamburger, while we’re eating things named after German cities.

It’s a good thing Kennedy wasn’t in Hamburg when he decided to make that speech. Or worse, Vienna.

Makes: 12 Bismarcks

Ingredients
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 packages of yeast
4 tablespoons of sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 egg yolks
a pinch of salt
Raspberry Jam for filling
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preparation:

1. In a saucepan, bring milk to a boil. Turn off heat and stir in butter and sugar. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over the top of the milk mixture and leave it to bloom and reanimate for about 10 to 15 minutes, until it starts to foam up.

2. Add this yeasty liquid to a large bowl in which the flour and salt have been patiently waiting. Stir and fold to combine into a sticky mess of dough. Cover with a damp, clean cloth and set in a warm place to rise for two hours.

3. With floured hands, turn dough onto a lightly-floured surface and roll to a 3/8-inch thickness. Cut into circles (I used a 3 1/2- inch cutter). Place them on a baking sheet or what-have-you and cover with the same damp cloth to rise for another 30 minutes or so.

4. Fry the Bismarcks in 350° F vegetable oil or lard for 4 minutes. I find flipping them every 30 seconds helpful for some reason. Drain on a paper towel-lined rack to cool.

5. If you are filling these pastries (and you should be or they’re not Bismarcks), if you lack a pastry syringe, cut a small opening into the side of each bun and wiggle your knife or (what I used) scissor blade around the inside to create a small pocket into which the jam might find purchase.

6. Put jam into a pastry bag with a plain tip. Place the tip into the pastry’s hole and pipe in the jam until it starts to spill out the side like some mortal flesh wound. The jam should be cold, like the blood of Bismarck himself.

Serve fresh, and not over anyone’s white carpeting.

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Category: baking and bakeries, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, food history and celebrities, recipes

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I am terribly fond of martinis, Edward Gorey, and sleeping with many pillows. You are more than welcome to follow me on Twitter: @procopster