Käsewähe (a Swiss cheese tart or pie)

Fasnacht is coming...

To compare the Basel version of Fasnacht to Mardi Gras is probably a mistake, but it happens around the same time of year, and is a pre-Lenten carnival in the same tradition...though with traditionally idiosyncratic behavior, the Baslers insist on having it after Lent starts. Basler Fasnacht is seventy-two hours of parades large and small, nonstop 24/3 fifing and drumming, and general license and hoohah, with the accent on two principal factors: satire and food.

The satire is everywhere -- in the laderne, eight- or ten-foot-high exquisitely handpainted and airbrushed lanterns, lit from within, sometimes with electric lights, sometimes with candles, covered with biting political satire executed by the city's best graphic artists -- during the parades, when (between blizzards of confetti) people leaning off the floats hand you satirical poetry written in the local Basel-Swiss-German dialect, laser-printed on long strips of colored paper -- and even in the restaurants and bars, where small groups of three or four costumed people, armed with musical instruments and flipcharts, will come in and sing you schnitzelbaengg -- barbed little rhyming-doggerel poems about how the government (local or national) has screwed up this time.

But more to the point, the food is everywhere. For these three days the city streets are lined with (well, confetti, "raeppli" or "ripped up bits" as they call it, three feet deep; but also) food and drink stalls selling everything you can think of. Sausages, obviously: the Swiss love these, from bland (weisswurst) to wildly spicy (merguez with harissa on the side). Roast chicken, chili, steak on a stick. Basler mehlsuppe, "flour soup": a flour-thickened onion soup based on beef stock and red wine, and flavored with cloves. Hot dogs, inevitably. Hot mulled wine, cold beer (probably the best is Ueli Bier, from the city's innermost microbrewery, the Fiescherstube), black tea with brandy in it (jaegertee), coffee with every kind of booze in it... And there are pastries, too; especially the city's own fried pretzel-y-shaped puff-pastry things scattered with caraway seed: Fasnachtskuechli. But the best thing they make for Fasnacht, if you ask me, is the käsewähe, the cheese tart.

Down one of the back streets in the Old Town south of the Rhine, near a handsome carved granite fountain and across from the Bang & Olufsen store (where my husband and I annually stand staring in horrified wonder at the prices), the same stall sets up each year. It is run by a husband and wife team (the rumor says that they work as stockbrokers the rest of the time) and some of their friends. Every year the lot of them take these three days off -- the Three Best Days of the Year, as the Basler Fasnacht-lovers call them -- and do nothing but make käsewähe, nonstop.

It comes out of their mobile oven on gigantic baking sheets, and is rapidly cut into slabs the thickness and shape of Sicilian pizza in the USA: square, about three quarters of an inch thick, six or seven inches square, a street version of the more civilized käsewähen that most Swiss bakeries sell the rest of the year. The smell of the hot, crunchy-on-top cheese drifting across that little plaza is unspeakably wonderful, in the cold air of February or early March (Fasnacht will be late this year, moving as it does with Easter: the festival opens with the Morgestraich, the "Reveille", at 4 AM of the Monday after Ash Wednesday). Käsewähe is very minimally seasoned. Cheese, onions, maybe a little nutmeg, a relatively short pastry. Day or night, you buy a slab of it on a paper plate for about a franc fifty, buy a beer or a bottle of wine or (if you're feeling nonalcoholic) a bottle of that peerless and unusual soft drink Rivella from one of the next stands along, and sit down at one of the picnic tables on the cobblestones in front of the Hotel Basel, watching the random fifers and drummers go by in their masks and costumes, playing songs heard on every battlefield in Europe and some in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. And you eat the käsewähe, and debate whether to get another one, or a sausage hot off the grill, or a steak on a stick...

Naah. Another käsewähe...

This isn't exactly what you get at Fasnacht, but it catches the general spirit, especially hot out of the oven, with a glass of dryish white wine. At home I would serve it by the slice with a green salad. (When other human beings are present. By myself, I'd probably just have another slice. And another...) Please note: the teaspoons are US teaspoons containing 5 milliliters; the tablespoons contain about 15 milliliters.

For the tart crust:

For the filling:

For the custard:

Equipment: one 10-inch tart tin, preferably metal, preferably the kind with the removable bottom

First: preheat the oven to 200 degrees Centigrade / 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then make the dough. Combine the flour and salt and cut in the butter until the mixture is the consistency of coarse cornmeal/maizemeal. Add the egg, and mix until the dough gathers together. Try not to handle it more than you have to (don't overknead: if using a food processor, a few pulses worth about fifteen seconds total should be enough to make it all come together). Round into a ball and wrap in Saran wrap / clingfilm: allow to rest in the refrigerator or another cool place for 20 minutes.

Chop the bacon small and saute it in a frying pan until the fat runs. Add the onion, chopped; lower the heat and saute slowly until the onions start to become translucent. While this is going on, grate the cheese on the finest setting of the grater, or the smallest holes.

Roll out the tart dough to about 1/6 inch thick or so and line the tart pan with it. Prick the pastry all over with a fork. Finely chop up the garlic clove and add it to the sauteeing onions and bacon. Saute briefly, so as not to cause the garlic to burn or become acrid. Scatter the onion/bacon mixture evenly around the tart shell.

Beat together the cornstarch with about 3 tablespoonfuls of the milk and cream mixture to make a thick paste. Add the rest of the cream and beat briefly. Add the eggs and seasonings and beat again.

Scatter the grated cheese evenly over the onion and bacon mixture in the tart shell, and dust with paprika. Place the tart pan in the preheated oven and carefully pour the egg/milk mixture into it. Bake at 200 degrees Centigrade / 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes: then lower the heat to 180 Centigrade / 360 Fahrenheit and bake for another 25 minutes, or until the pastry and filling are golden brown. Remove and cool on a rack. Serve warm or reheated.

  • (adapted by dduane2 from recipes in FESTIVE BAKING IN AUSTRIA, GERMANY AND SWITZERLAND, Sarah Kelly)
  • For further (English-language) information about Basler Fasnacht, check http://www.fasnacht.ch/?pm_1=21&mid=21. The website also has much more Fasnacht-oriented news in German, as well as the slightly famous Fasnacht Countdown Clock..
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