I lived in Louisiana for three and a half years and ate my share of pecan pies while there. I’ve made quite a few of them too, from plain ones to chocolate and Bourbon variations—nut and caramel flavors go well with dessert wines. But no matter how good the pie, all these baking and eating efforts never replaced the walnut torte I grew up on in Switzerland. Tarte aux noix des Grisons (Graubünder Nusstorte/walnut torte) is a specialty of the Grisons (Graubünden), the canton in eastern Switzerland where our fourth language, Romansh, is spoken, but it is found throughout the country. It features a shortbread-like dough and a caramely walnut filling sweetened—and flavored—with honey. No corn syrup here, which gives the torte a smoother, creamier filling than its pecan cousin. The tartelette version is open faced, the family-size topped with more dough, which completely encases the filling. Something a very thin layer of chocolate is brushed over the top. It’s the type of tart we buy in pastry and gourmet shops, not so much something we make at home, at least not in my region. Because it is so rich and dense, we cut it in small slivers, to enjoy as dessert or with coffee or tea in the afternoon. It gets better after a day or two, as the flavors mellow together.
Unfortunately it’s not something I can find commercially here, even in the best New York pastry shops. And I’ve grown tired of pecan pies, which are too often much too sweet. So in recent years, I’ve started making my own tarte aux noix, trying each time to perfect it a little more. I don’t like very sweet desserts but yet I want the honey in the torte to come through, so I use a one with a strong flavor, and not too much of it. A local wildflower honey made at the height of the summer is perfect. Something like buckwheat is a bit too strong and doesn’t taste very “Swiss.” Clover is too mild. I make both open and closed tortes—the open-faced version gives me quicker access to the filling, so I don’t always bother eating even the bottom crust. That’s the craving version. The ratio of dough to filling can easily be off in a closed torte, since the typical dough can be thick, so make sure to roll it thinly enough. An open-faced torte will not have that problem but I like the aesthetic of a closed one; it’s also easier to transport.
Nearly all my Swiss baking books have a recipe, and I’ve tinkered with them all. But when American friends ask me for a recipe, I point them to Nick Malgieri’s. It’s adapted for U.S. ingredients and kitchens, so easy to follow, especially if you’ve never made it before. It also tastes very much like the tartes aux noix I eat when I go home—essential taste tests to keep my palate well informed of all the nuances of this truly special dessert.
One of the best and simplest dinners you can have on a cold, snowy day is Vacherin au Four–a flavorful cheese that is baked until melted, and is then laddled onto boiled potatoes. Vacherin Mont d’Or, a cheese from the canton of Vaud in Switzerland, is the one and only cheese for such preparation, thanks in part to the round pine box in which it is sold. The soft cheese has a pale orange rind and is made from lighly cooked milk (“thermised,” per the Mont d’Or website). It has a strong flavor and smell, particularly if you purchase it on the riper side. It is only available in the winter months. In the US, order it through Murray’s Cheese, which sells it for $28.99 plus shipping. The price in Switzerland is about 20 CHF (but can be more than that depending on your cheesemonger or the weight of the cheese), so this is fairly priced, in my humble opinion, and worth every penny.
Rather than pouring the cheese onto potatoes, you can dip chunks of breads directly into it, as you would eat fondue. Vacherin Mont d’Or is also delicious raw and will make an unusual addition to your cheese platter. If you can get your hands on Swiss wines, a chasselas will be wonderful, but a dry riesling or a gewurtztraminer will be great too, as will a beer.
Vacherin au Four
1 vacherin Mont d’Or, in its wooden box, top of box removed
6 to 8 garlic cloves, or to taste
1/2 cup white wine
Boiled potatoes, to serve
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Wrap the bottom and sides of the vacherin in foil. Pierce the cheese a few times with a knife and insert the garlic cloves in the holes. Pour the white wine on top of the cheese and place in the oven. Bake it until a crust forms and it bubbles up, about 30 minutes.
Place the vacherin on the table, put a couple of potatoes in each plate, and let each guest pour the melted cheese onto the potatoes.
My mother sent me this new book on Swiss cuisine, published by Betty Bossi–the mainstay of Swiss kitchens in terms of recipes, I think I can safely say. The book offers “the greatest classics,” along with “new recipes from the market and typically Swiss ingredients.” The authors go on to state that they have also revisited some traditional dishes: “using the same products, we have created new dishes, while always preserving their authenticity.” This revisiting leads to such dishes as sauerkraut spring rolls, asparagus samosas, and a ramequin that takes the form of a cheese and bread pudding.
I tend to be rather conservative with the cuisine of my homeland, so these innovations made me cringe. When they are properly and smartly executed (meaning, when I see a purpose for the changes)–which is key–I have no problem eating variations on traditional dishes in restaurants, where I feel that the creativity and craft of the chef take them out of the possible realm of gimmicks to that of fine dining. In a cookbook aimed at home cooks, I find it more problematic, because it is harder to understand the intent of the authors. A dish like sauerkraut spring rolls feels like a gimmick, like “art” for art’s sake, like a dish that started in a list of “new” Swiss dishes rather than being driven by the goal of creating the best possible dish with sauerkraut. It might be delicious, and I am open to accepting that, but why should I make that rather than a traditional spring roll or choucroute? What do I gain, as a cook wishing to know how to cook Swiss dishes, by making such a variation?
This is a subject that is very dear to me in most aspects of my life: professional, academic, and personal. It is clear that I am biased as to where I allow changes to take place. I am probably open to changes in any cuisine other than my own. The books and articles I read, the talks I hear, the discussions I participate in as part of my academic life allow me to rationalize my reaction and laugh at it because it is ultimately hypocritical. But my gut reaction is one that wants to see sauerkraut piled up high in a steamy mound, not rolled up and crispy.
The key word in that last sentence is “see,” by the way. I don’t like sauerkraut.