Eleven years ago, my family discovered we had relatives in Alsace, France. In the first decade of the 20th century, when Alsace was still a part of Germany, my paternal great-grandfather “jumped ship” in New York City and settled down as a baker. He lost touch with his siblings during the first World War and for years we wondered what became of them. (In the meantime, Alsace, ever disputed over like an only child suffering a nasty divorce, went back to being a part of France.) My mother, excited by the mystery despite her lack of blood relationship, got hold of a page from a phone book bearing addresses for a couple dozen people who shared my great-grandfather’s (rather uncommon) last name. She mailed a form letter to each of them, including a copy of the only old family photo we had, and lo and behold, one chilly December day we received a heavily-accented phone call from one of the long lost cousins.
This kicked off what became a Griswaldian European family vacation with cranky grandmother in tow (they were her first cousins, after all) to the pays natale. With my one year of high school French, I represented my family’s most fluent speaker, forced to attempt translations of such phrases as “Pull ovah, let me buy you some gas. Oh my god, there’s no shouldah on this road!” (Needless to say, my grandmother’s heavy Bronx accent got lost in translation.) Luckily, when it comes to food and wine, no translation is needed.
During our week’s visit to Alsace, the cousins practically fought over us, the result being a different home-cooked meal, complete with ravishing local wine, every night. The night we arrived, however, before we met the family, we ventured out on our own to the town hall of Séléstat where there was a rousing Bastille Day celebration happening. A full band and dance floor, free-flowing Riesling and Pinot Gris, and something we determined must be pizza. In fact, it was pizza-esque but oh-so-different: more delicate, more subtle, more French. What we glommed on all night was tarte flambée, also known as Flammekueche, a thin-crust wonder topped with a mixture of fromage blanc (essentially a very fresh white cheese) and crème fraîche and sprinkled with sliced onions and lardons.
Occasionally one sees cheesier versions (Trader Joe’s sells a frozen tarte flambée with Gruyère), or some topped with other things like mushrooms. One of my cousins made a dessert tarte with fresh plums which was heavenly. But the traditional tarte flambée, and the one I make most often, is the most common for a reason. The crispy cracker-crust of the dough, the warm, rich sauce, the salty lardons and the sweet onions meld into a glorious mouthful that demands you a) keep eating and b) keep drinking. There’s a reason this dish arose in a region where you literally cannot find a bad white wine. I suggest pairing this with a crisp, semi-dry Riesling or, if you’re feeling fancy, some crémant d’Alsace, but it would really work well with any white, dry or sweet. Tarte flambée is versatile, and addictive, so be prepared to double your portions here.
Traditional Alsatian Tarte Flambée
I’ve adapted this recipe from a French version given to me by one of my cousins, and have included both metric and imperial measurements. If you have a kitchen scale, use the metric measurements for more precision and, well, just to make your life easier.
250 g/1 heaping cup all purpose flour
150 ml/10 Tbs. room temperature lager such as Pilsner Urqell or Kronenbourg (The measurement in my cousin’s recipe is actually 1/7 liter or “3 mignonettes”, a measurement I have never been able to determine. Who has a measuring device for 1/7 of a liter??)
1 Tbs. (cuillère à soupe) vegetable or sunflower oil
1/2 tsp. salt
118 ml./1/2 cup fromage blanc (available stateside at some Whole Foods or specialty cheese shops)
118/1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 egg yolk (optional)
pinch of nutmeg
salt, pepper to taste
1 small onion, sliced
1/2 cup lardons
Note: If fromage blanc is unavailable, substitute thick, full-fat yogurt, such as Greek yogurt. If crème fraîche is unavailable, substitute full-fat sour cream. If you can’t get lardons, try diced pancetta or thick-sliced smoked bacon cut into bits and half-cooked ahead of time.
Preheat oven as hot as it can go, at least 500°. If you have a baking stone or baking steel, now’s the time to use it—preheat at least an hour. If you have an outdoor brick pizza oven, you’re golden.
1. Combine flour, beer and oil in a bowl. Using a fork, blend until dough forms a shaggy, wet ball, adding more flour or beer as necessary. Do not overwork. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together fromage blanc, crème fraîche, egg yolk (if using), and spices.
3. When dough has rested, remove from refrigerator and separate into two equally-sized balls. Roll each one out very thin to a rectangular or circular shape. (For easier rolling and moving, use two sheets of plastic wrap on the top and bottom of the dough, or parchment paper on the bottom and plastic wrap or flour on top.)
4. Top each crust with half the sauce mixture, half the onions, and half the lardons. Pop into the oven on a baking sheet or stone and bake until the center is bubbling and the edges are nearly black, usually 10-15 minutes.