French food? Mais oui. Italian? Buongiorno! Spanish tapas? Si! Swiss cooking? Um…what? It just doesn’t sound right, does it? If you’ve only focused on chocolate and fondue though, you’ve been missing out. Swiss food is the ultimate comfort food and man is it ever comforting: comforting to the tune of fifteen additional pounds in my first year on Swiss soil.
There are the cream sauces, used on cutlets and, my favorite artery-clogging example, whole hardboiled eggs. There are the breads: soft, braided white-bread zopf on Sundays and nussgipfeli (croissants wrapped around tasty, tasty ground up nuts and sugariness). There are the endless cookies and the herbs-and-croutons cup o’ soup, the rosti, the rosti with cheese, the rosti with bacon. The raclette. And, oh my Lord, the cheese. Bring me all the cheeses. ALL of them.
The first thing on my list when I land in Zurich is Migros, the grocery store chain. Say, “Grüzi,” to the family and then off to Migros. Unfortunately for our vacation plans, R had to come back to San Francisco for business three days into our time in Switzerland. Fortunately for our autumn, that meant he could schlep back a duffle of culinary goodies that we then didn’t have to take along on the Italian leg of the trip. (It also meant that we could reload that same duffle when we passed through Zurich on our way home a week and a half later. How sweet is that? Pretty sweet, that’s how sweet.)
So here’s what you should try while you’re there, plus some tips to getting Swiss goodness on this side of the Atlantic (or the Pacific, if you’re really disoriented and into flying the wrong way round).
The VICTORY of the trip: kuche (if you’re in Bern) or wähe (if you’re in Zurich). Kuche is a fruit tart with a firm custard-like filling that’s made in a flat bottomed, wide quiche pan. The fruit is usually fresh, the custard filling not very sweet, and the crust approximately like a quiche’s but covered with a thin layer of ground hazelnuts. (If you want it sweeter, you can serve it with a little whipped cream. A very little.) I love it and have loved it since I first had it as a teenager.
However, I’ve never been able to find a recipe in the States and even if I had, I doubt I would’ve tried it because it involves dough. Let’s be clear: dough and I have a long and unhappy history punctuated by embarrassment and disaster. (For me, that is. The dough just sits there all smug.) It sticks. I add flour. It stops sticking. I stop adding flour. It ends up tough as nails. It took me three years to produce a decent biscuit, I won’t even try bread, and pie crusts make me cry.
Times they are a’changing though, people. With the aid of a Xerox machine (for the recipe, not the dough), Migros’ pre-packaged pastry (smuggled), and a Cuisinart (for pulverizing hazelnuts), I am the proud owner of a kuche of my very own, served in the photo on my grandmother’s china with a cup of afternoon tea.
It turns out that the recipe is so absurdly simple that no one even bothers to publish it in real cookbooks. R’s cousin Tanja found it for me in her Home Ec textbook from high school and it has all of five ingredients (besides the dough). Cut-up fruit (apricots are my favorite), the hazelnuts, milk, an egg, and a little sugar. Yeah, I’m an idiot, but now I’m a self-satisfied, fruit-filled idiot.
Another wild success from this trip. I got hooked on the Swiss, chewy version of these almond cookies while visiting Tessin, the Italian canton in the south. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would spend the next ten years purchasing and swearing at the super-hard, not-at-all-like-what-I-wanted version offered by Italian restaurants and stores in New York and San Francisco before giving up on ever finding what I was looking for again.
Lo and behold, as I was waiting for my train to Milan at the Zurich station, I happened to dawdle by a farmer’s market vendor selling breads and pastries. Next to the linzertorte lay a few craggy cookies powdered lightly with sugar and labeled as amaretti. I braced for disappointment and handed over a few francs. I needn’t have (braced, that is, not paid. It’s Switzerland: you always have to pay.) Ah, the chewy taste of sweet success! I’m back, baby!
It turns out, after further research and discussion, that these amaretti are, after all, a different animal than the hard as rocks Italian cookie. Nice of them to name them differently, don’t you think? Jerks.
Another trip to Migros and I scored three different versions of my (re)new(ed) best friend which I’ve worked my way through at an alarming pace since we got back. I got some small square ones, 20 to a bag, that are OK, still soft but without the slightly crunchy exterior layer. The layered ones in the photo are ridiculously good but might put you in sugar shock: the middle layer is an inch of soft milk chocolate laced with liqueur. The closest to the homemade are the same cookie (same photo) without the chocolate and I would eat them until I threw up except I only bought one pack so I had to ration them. They’re gone now, so I might have to start experimenting with recipes off the internet. Good thing I just joined that gym down the hill.
Aside from chocolate, I always bring back meringue cookies, usually the ones with their little bottoms dipped in chocolate, but this trip, Tanja converted me to a straight-up meringue lover. Put them (or just one, if you’ve gotten or made the large ones) in the bottom of a bowl, cover them with whipped cream and throw on a bunch of berries. You’re welcome.
I know I could’ve been eating this all along if I bothered to make meringues, which I know how to do, but meringues take so long to bake I just can’t take it.
(Reading all of the above, I do seem to have issues with patience and preparation in the kitchen, don’t I? I’ll have to have a long think about that as soon as the sugar-induced hyperactivity wears off.)
Spätzle, translated charmingly as “little sparrows” is a kind of tiny dumplingy tastiness. Again, something I could make myself, but I prefer to rely on Migros’ vacuum-packed goodness that is at the ready in my cupboard whenever I need my fix. I’ve bought the dried spätzle available in supermarkets here, but it’s not quite right, dry instead of moist and a general disappointment.
If you live in San Francisco, hit Suppenkuche in Hayes Valley for the original and order the Jägerschnitzel in Champignonsoße mit Spätzle und grünem Salat. It’s what spätzle should be: soft, yummy and covered with a creamy mushroom sauce.
Rösti is R’s preferred side dish: grated potatoes fried as a pancake and flipped so both top and bottom are brown and crispy. (I make a mess of the flipping bit, so R handles that. Can you tell I’m not much of a cook?) Yet again, not so hard to make at home, but that would require forethought, patience and a lot of grating, none of which sound good to me, so packs of plain rösti, cheese rösti and rösti with bacon bits come back with us.
I can’t begin to explain to you how rich pastetli are and how much you need to make some.
Here’s what they are: puff pastry shells filled with mushroom cream sauce with little kügeli, or balls, of what they claim to be veal. (I know I shouldn’t eat veal, but I console myself that little Swiss cows have much happier lives than American calves who are treated abominably and whose farmers must, I fear, have black hearts.) I say “claim” because the little meat balls are the consistency of bratwurst, not regular meat. Those meat balls are the missing link. I’ve found the pastry shells in the freezer section of the grocery store courtesy of Pepperidge Farm, so I’m set there, and I can make a mushroom sauce by adding milk to roux, but the meat escapes me.
In Switzerland, you can buy packages of the fleisch kügeli to add to your sauce and come at it that way or, of course, you can rely on Migros 100% and buy their packets of pastetenfullung as I have and horde them for comforting dinners at the end of your very worst days. I’ll keep you posted if I sort out the meat component and figure out how to make my own.
So we’re sorted for now on the Swiss food front, but I might need to start an import/export ring to keep the supply lines properly open. Or learn to cook, I guess , which somehow seems harder.