So You Want to Talk about Cats:
Flammkuchen with Shaved Fennel
April 30, 2021
So I had been planning to write about cats. Specifically, the cat birthday I was going to throw for Rum Tum light of my life, who turned two on April 8. He’s got a friend staying with him for a month and a half, and in these pandemic times, when you get to be in the same place as a friend, it’s already a party. My human friends with cats were going to Zoom in. I’d organized a Champagne-colored satin dress to borrow. (The aesthetic I was going for was one of those old oil paintings of royalty where everyone’s wearing light blue and pink satin and holding a silky-looking lapdog.) I’d purchased a sparkly gold party hat and a pink bowtie for Rum Tum, two tins of pate cat food – the good stuff – which I was going to stick with a cat-head party topper and maybe candles, and a pack of milk-flavored cat snacks. Alas, two days before the big day, my human co-conspirator and photographer got corona.
Like my bag of 50-count deflated metallic balloons, I put my cat party dreams on the back shelf of the cabinet, to be dusted off in tamer times. When I finally do it, it’s going to be even bigger, even more absurd, and my cat will still care zero much.
When I finally do it, it’s going to be even bigger, even more absurd, and my cat will still care zero much.
In the meantime, I continue to enjoy the joys and annoyances of having two cats for just a few more days until my friend returns to Berlin to take my godchild away from me.
Universe and the German government, if you’re listening, please make it so that I can spend more time with people again.
Zami has taken a while to settle in. He’s not keen on change. Which I get, I really do. But every week, we cross new territory. Today, he clambered onto the desk while I was in the middle of typing and began to purr insistently, nuzzling my head in a bid for attention, which, obviously, he received. Hesitantly, he stretched his front legs out to climb into my lap, back legs planted firmly on the sturdy safety of the desk. With tentative, exploratory steps, he walked his paws up my chest and back down to my lap, until all at once he threw his whole body into my arms and curled up in them like an infant. I melted.
Rum Tum, for the most part, sits impassively at the top of his cat tower and does not deign to engage. He blinks royally, looks slowly away, looks slowly back. He is only roused by the fluttering of a flour moth from the infestation I can never manage to quash, or the lure of the balcony door – which he is very good at opening – while I am outside watering the plants. When the window is open, he’ll sit on the ledge for hours and hours, squeaking at birds and watching the new leaves sway on the chestnut tree across the way.
Like Zami, spring is taking its own sweet time to settle in. The constant and unpredictable rains keep the temperatures modest, and the sun is unreachable behind a veil of very brisk breezes. But every now and then, there’s enough of a balm to drink a glass of wine on the balcony, or in the mornings, jog through Gleisdreieck park. The grocery store shelves are sporting rhubarb and white asparagus again, and beside them suggestive displays of firm little potatoes, bottles of white wine, and boxes of premade hollandaise. Spargelzeit – more or less “asparagus season”, but emotionally more like “THE ASPARAGUS HAS ARRIVED!!!” – is a real event here. In Schöneberg, we even have (well, had) an annual street fair where you can (well, could) buy kilos worth of raw white asparagus from local farms and things like asparagus liqueur (good) or decorative asparagus statues (confusing).
The constant and unpredictable rains keep the temperatures modest, and the sun is unreachable behind a veil of very brisk breezes.
In Germany, when you say “asparagus,” you mean white asparagus. The other one is “green asparagus” and hardly treated as reverently. White asparagus is grown beneath tiny hills of soil, preventing evil, evil chlorophyll from staining it green. It’s labor-intensive to grow, and also costly to buy. But adherents (read: all the Germans I’ve ever met) laud its mild, buttery flavor and natural sweetness. For my part, well sure, I like white asparagus. I’ll knock back a platter of simmered stalks drizzled with browned butter and served with a side of boiled yellow potatoes and thinly sliced ham. But I’m also enthusiastic about green asparagus, maybe even more so than white asparagus. I guess ten years in and my roots just still show.
In the kitchen, we’ve been replacing our winter staples – slow-cooker chili; eggy, herby knödel; spätzle swimming in mushrooms and cream; Goan daal and puffed bhatura – with lighter, leaner fare. Roast fish with lemon and tabbouleh, pork dumplings swimming in silken chili oil, classic Alsatian Flammkuchen. It’s felt good to pare down and freshen up.
Flammkuchen, it tuns out, is much easier to make from scratch than I’d thought. I’d always been a little intimidated by its impossibly thin and crackly crust, but it’s really much more forgiving than its kissing cousin pizza. The Alsatian classic is topped with speck and onion on a bed of crème fraîche mixed with schmand, but I’ve been using it as a vehicle for whatever leftover bobs I’ve got in the fridge. Like this very seasonal variation with both types of asparagus, a little bit of shaved fennel, scallions, and speck. It’s currently in most favorite spot.
The cats agree.
No, wait. The cats don’t care. The cats at dinnertime are usually busy getting out the zoomies, sprinting the entire length of my small, 60-square-meter apartment multiple times, ruffling the rugs, knocking into plants, scattering anything so unlucky as to have been left on the floor. Probably bringing the neighbors ever closer to wanting to murder me.
They – the cats, not the neighbors – do like to eat while we’re eating. Whenever we’re at the table, first one and then the other will stroll into the kitchen and have a nibble. I’m convinced they like the company.
After dinner, we’ll curl up on the couch, and they’ll curl up in their favorite perches – Zami on top of the chair, Rum Tum in the basket underneath. And then the apartment is finally still, the little sage green living room full of quiet life, the brilliant hues of the new leaves outside turned jewel-toned in the dark.
It’s not until bedtime that Rum Tum will cuddle. He likes to wait until the lights are off, and in the dark of the bedroom, I’ll hear the soft thud of his little feet jumping off whatever perch he’d been on and patter to the bed. I’ll feel, rather than see, his body land on the corner of the mattress, feel the shifting of covers as he crawls up to my chin and nestles there in the crook of my neck. He comes and goes in the night, leaving to prowl and do cat things after I’ve fallen asleep. D complains that the cat’s constant coming and going is an impediment to sleep, and he’s probably right. But nevertheless, what a wonderful thing it is to nestle cozily into the covers, the soft sound of snoring in one ear, a gentle purr in the other.
Flammkuchen with Shaved Fennel & Asparagus
If you have trouble finding white asparagus, upping the amount of green asparagus and fennel is a fine solution. If you’re cooking outside Germany and can’t find schmand, smetana is an excellent substitute. And if you can’t find that, mix equal parts mild, high-fat sour cream, cream cheese, and crème fraiche for a total of 400g (a little less than 1 ½ cup) instead of the crème fraiche to schmand ratio listed below. If you can’t find speck, sub with bacon (slightly pre-cooked) – or leave it out to make this vegetarian. And if you don’t like any of these toppings, feel free to do something else entirely. Makes 4 Flammkuchen for 4 people.
For the dough:
1 1/3 cup (220g) flour
3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 egg yolk
½ tsp. salt
½ cup (100 ml) warm water
For the topping:
¾ cup (200g) schmand
½ cup (150g) crème fraiche
16 stalks of green asparagus
12 stalks of white asparagus (add 2-3 more if your stalks are skinny)
1 small, fist-sized bulb of fennel, very finely shaved
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
2/3 cup (100g) cubed speck
Salt and coarsely-ground black pepper to taste
Knead flour, 2 tbsp. oil, egg yolk, salt, and water into a smooth ball of dough. It should come together quickly, in about 3-5 minutes. Pour over the remaining 1 tbsp. of oil, wrap in plastic wrap, and allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 480 ºF (250 ºC).
Mix together the schmand and crème fraiche. If you haven’t already, now is an excellent time to prepare your veggies.
Once the dough has finished resting, portion into four equal pieces. Working one piece at a time, roll the dough at as thinly as possible without tearing. I do this right on a piece of parchment paper that then goes right on the baking sheet.
Using the back of a spoon, spread ¼ of the schmand-crème fraiche mixture over the dough. Lightly scatter both types of asparagus, fennel, spring onion, and speck across the top. Season with a healthy grind of black pepper and just a little salt.
If you’re lucky enough to have two baking sheets, you can go ahead and repeat with the second piece of dough.
Bake 10-12 minutes on a mid to lower rack in the oven. Eat immediately, then repeat with the remaining two portions of dough. (Small postscript: I garnish with fennel fronds and flaked sea salt.)