With a sly smile, like some mischievous 6-foot-7 Santa Claus, Austrian chef Bernhard Mairinger says he has just dropped off a strudel for L.A.’s best-known Austrian, Wolfgang Puck. Giving a gift of strudel is one of the holiday traditions he still clings to, even though it’s hard to imagine two places more different than Austria and Southern California.
After closing his modern Austrian bistro, BierBeisl, late last year with plans to relocate to the Westside in Los Angeles, the barely 30-year-old chef has been free of his grueling day-to-day cooking schedule for the first time in years. Last Christmas, the hiatus allowed Mairinger to go back home for the holidays.
He loves the holidays, he says, and then he proceeds to list the things he enjoys most about celebrating at his village of Nussdorf am Attersee in upper Austria. Population: 1,000.
First of all, there’s snow. And starting the first week of December, little stands are set up outdoors to serve glühwein (warm, spiced wine) and roasted chestnuts. Usually, he says, you go with friends after church and meet at the glühwein stand. “It’s so good standing around in the snow drinking hot wine, which is spiced with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and apple. And roasted chestnuts? That’s my favorite way to eat them, just out of the shell.”
By mid-December, the outdoor Christmas markets, where you can buy hand-carved wooden animals and nativity figures, are going up. The biggest one in the region is in Salzburg. You drink more glühwein and also eat bauernkrapfen, warm pan-fried doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar or stuffed with jam. They’re made with a light brioche dough and don’t have a hole. “I could die for those. They’re amazing.”
In Austria, Christmas Eve is the big day, and the tradition is to have a lunch of bratwurst with boiled potatoes and onions. They’re not the usual pork-and-veal bratwurst; they’re special ones that are leaner than usual, made only with veal. It’s meant to be a light lunch, because the big holiday feast is that night, when everyone either eats out or eats at home with family.
For Christmas Eve, Mairinger likes to roast a duck or goose with braised red cabbage and the bread dumplings that function like an extra stuffing to soak up all that rich, redolent gravy. As a first course, he usually serves some kind of soup, especially pumpkin soup garnished with roasted pumpkin seeds and a special iridescent pumpkin seed oil. The best oils come from Styria in southern Austria, he says. “It takes 300 kilos of pumpkin seeds to make one liter of oil.”
In Austria, Christmas almost always involves snow. In Southern California, where Mairinger has lived for six years, he likes to have the same menu, even though it doesn’t get that cold.
Because who knows the next time he’ll get a chance to get back home. That long vacation is about to end when his more casual concept and bakery BierBeisl Imbiss opens at the end of February.
2 (750-milliliter) bottles dry red wine
1 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 whole allspice berry
1 star anise
1 orange, zest and juice
1 apple, diced (prefer ably Gala)
Zest of ¼ lemon
In a heavy-bottomed pot, combine the red wine, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, anise, orange zest and juice, apple and lemon zest over high heat. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Pour everything into a nonreactive container, cover and set in a cool, dry place for 1 to 2 days. Strain through a fine sieve or chinois into jars or bottles, and refrigerate until ready to drink. Reheat before drinking, and check the acidity of the wine before serving.
Per serving: calories, 341; no protein; carbohydrates, 40 g; no fiber; no fat; no cholesterol; sugar, 35 g; sodium, 10 mg.
Braised Red Cabbage
3 cabbage heads (red)
2 tablespoons salt, more if desired
¾ cup sugar
2 apples, preferably Gala
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
2 teaspoons ground allspice
About ∏ cup mixed berries (fresh or frozen and defrosted) or ½ cup lingonberries
4¼ cups dry red wine
About ¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
Aged balsamic vinegar, if desired
Quarter the red cabbage heads, removing the cores. Slice each quarter into a fine julienne, and place the cabbage in a large glass or plastic container (it should be large enough for you to massage the cabbage). Add 2 tablespoons salt and the sugar, and massage them into the cabbage until the cabbage begins to release some of its juice (wear food-safe gloves if desired, as the cabbage might stain your hands).
Peel the apple and grate it over the cabbage, using a fine cheese grater. Grate the potatoes and add them. Stir in the allspice and berries. Finely zest the orange over the cabbage using a microplane and add the orange juice, then pour over the red wine and vinegar. Stir the mixture together to evenly distribute the flavorings.
Make a bouquet garni, tying up the rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and cinnamon stick in cheesecloth, and add that to the cabbage. Cover the cabbage with 2 layers of plastic wrap, and weight it under about 5 pounds of weight (such as plastic-wrapped cans placed on top of a large plate over the cabbage). Place the cabbage in the refrigerator overnight; the next day, you should see about double the amount of liquid.
Transfer the cabbage into a pot with all of its liquid. Cover the pot and bring the mixture to a boil, and continue to cook until the cabbage begins to soften, about 35 minutes (timing will vary depending on the thickness of the julienne. Remove the lid and lower the heat to a gentle simmer, slowly reducing the liquid until it thickens. Taste the cabbage for texture (it should be soft and tender) and seasoning, adjusting as needed before serving. If desired, add a little aged balsamic vinegar to round out the flavor of the cabbage.
Serves 8 to 12.
Per serving: calories, 234; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 42 g; fiber, 6 g; no fat; no cholesterol; sugar, 26 g; sodium, 1,225 mg.
Braised Duck or Goose
2 fresh whole ducks or geese (with liver and neck bones)
6 slices brioche, cut into cubes
2 slices bacon, diced, and 3 whole slices bacon, divided
4 apples, cored and diced (preferably Gala)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
6 sprigs thyme, divided
4 sprigs rosemary, divided
4 sprigs marjoram, divided
2 tablespoons butter, melted
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
10 whole shallots, halved
2 carrots, diced
1 celery stalk
2 fresh bay leaves
2 whole garlic heads, cut in half horizontally
1 cup dry white wine
4¼ cups goose, duck or chicken stock
Fresh chopped parsley, garnish
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Clean the birds: Remove the little bag of neck, kidney and liver pieces (the liver will be used in this recipe, the rest can be saved for another use). Dice the liver and set aside. Place the birds on a rimmed baking sheet fitted with a roasting rack, and make shallow slits into the skin over the breasts of each bird, to allow the flavor to penetrate as the birds cook.
In a medium bowl, combine the brioche with the diced liver, diced bacon and apple. Season with one-fourth teaspoon salt and several grinds of black pepper. Stir in one-fourth teaspoon ground nutmeg, or to taste, and one-fourth teaspoon ground coriander. Add the orange zest. Remove the leaves from 2 sprigs each of the thyme, rosemary and marjoram, and stir them in with the stuffing (save the stems).
Brush the birds with the melted butter, and season each with 1 teaspoon salt, rubbing the salt over the inside and outside of the birds. Divide the stuffing and place half in each of the birds’ cavities. Tie the birds’ legs closed with butcher’s twine to keep the stuffing from falling out.
In a large, heavy roasting pan, heat the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat until hot. Add the shallots, carrots, celery stalk and remaining bacon slices, searing everything until golden brown, stirring frequently, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and remaining herbs (and stems), including the bay leaves. Add the wine, scraping any flavoring from the bottom of the pan. Continue cooking until the wine is mostly reduced, then stir in the stock. Add the ducks and cover tightly with a lid or foil.
Place the roasting pan in the oven and cook the birds, 1 hour and 20 minutes for the geese and 1 hour for the ducks. Remove the lid and increase the temperature to 425 degrees. Continue to cook the birds, 45 minutes for the geese and 30 minutes for the ducks, basting every 15 minutes with the liquid in the pan.
Remove the pan from the oven and place the birds back on the rack on the rimmed baking sheet and place on the counter top to rest. Increase the oven temperature to 475 degrees. Cut the butcher’s twine and untie the legs to remove the stuffing.
Strain the pan liquid (discard the vegetables and aromatics) into a clean pot, skimming and removing the fat from the top. Gently simmer until reduced by half. While the sauce is reducing, brush the birds with some of the skimmed fat and place them back in the oven to crisp the skin, approximately 30 minutes, brushing once or twice with fat (the fat should help to keep the skin from scorching, but keep an eye on it, tenting the birds if needed with foil).
Remove the crisped birds to rest a little while before serving. Serve the stuffing garnished with chopped parsley and the sauce served on the side.
Serves 6 to 10.
Each of 10 servings, using duck: calories, 770; protein, 35 g; carbohydrates, 17 g; fiber, 2 g; fat, 57 g; saturated fat, 19 g; cholesterol, 194 mg; sugar, 8 g; sodium, 793 mg.
Bauernkrapfen with Powdered Sugar
1 cup warm milk
4½ teaspoons active
dry yeast (2 packets), or 3½ teaspoons instant yeast
3 extra-large eggs
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup rum
2 tablespoons butter, melted
5 cups (2¼ ounces) flour, divided, more if needed
1 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar, garnish
Apricot jam (or other jam), garnish
In a small bowl, combine the warm milk and yeast, stirring until the yeast is dissolved in the milk. Set aside until the yeast begins to bubble in the milk, several minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar until smooth. Beat in the warm milk mixture, rum and melted butter. Slowly beat in half of the flour mixture, then beat in the salt. Beat in the remaining flour to form a smooth dough.
Remove the dough to a floured surface and knead until it is soft and somewhat silky (it’s a rich dough and may not be entirely smooth), 5 to 7 minutes; the dough should be very soft, but if it is too moist, slowly knead in additional flour. Place the dough in a large, oiled bowl and lightly cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 2-ounce pieces, rolling each into a ball. Loosely cover the balls and set aside until they have puffed and almost doubled in size, about 20 minutes.
While the balls are rising, heat oil in a large pot or deep fryer to 385 degrees. Flatten the dough balls into doughnut-like shapes; however, instead of poking a hole in the center, leave a very thin film of dough in the center (it will look like a very thin indentation in the center of each piece.
Fry until golden brown on each side, 2 to 3 minutes, and then place on paper towels to soak up any excess oil. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with apricot jam.
Each of 10 servings: calories, 389; protein, 10 g; carbohydrates, 53 g; fiber, 2 g; fat, 14 g; saturated fat, 3 g; cholesterol, 71 mg; sugar, 7 g; sodium, 269 mg.