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A Land Where Dessert Rules

May 30, 1996|ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM | Beranbaum is the author of "Rose's Christmas Cookies" and "The Cake Bible" (William Morrow)

This year, Austria celebrates its 1,000th anniversary. I have always had a special fondness for the country, not so much for reasons of ancestry but because of the value that Austrians place on desserts. What other country considers eating dessert for dinner a perfectly reasonable approach to life?

Whenever I think of Austria, dreamy visions of elaborately ruffled, whipped creamed Viennese pastries waltz through my head. So imagine my surprise when, on my first trip to Austria last June, I ended up being most enraptured by the least pretentious of baked desserts, known as buchteln.

Neither advance word nor their humble appearance had prepared me for the sheer wonder of these ethereal, sweet, yeasty little rolls, served while still warm.

Buchteln are similar to brioche, but lighter, because they have fewer eggs and less butter. And they have a long history. In the Biedermeier era, they were called "lotteries" because lottery tickets were baked into the centers. Nowadays, some cooks tuck in a tiny dollop of prune or apricot preserves instead.

My favorite way to enjoy buchteln, however, is as plain uninterrupted fluff, floating on a pool of vanilla-scented cream sauce. The rolls soak up the sauce as if they were little sponges, becoming even more tender.

Here's how I stumbled upon buchteln. One afternoon, someone took me to Hawelka, the oldest, darkest, smokiest and certainly seediest student cafe in Vienna, and casually mentioned that the house specialty, buchteln, was something that might interest me. I must admit that I was skeptical that anything good to eat could possibly emerge from such an atmosphere. This was clearly a place of sepia-tinged, antiquity-steeped tradition, likely to prompt poetry or intense discussion, perhaps, but certainly nothing gossamer and frou-frou like pastry.

The owner, a small, gracious, elderly man, informed us that the buchteln were available only at night, after 9:30, when his wife took over. I returned at 9:30, but the buchteln were not ready.

"About how long will it be?" I asked a surly waiter.

"Forty-five minutes; they just went into the oven."

After an hour I asked again. "Just a few more minutes," he assured me. Another 10 minutes passed.

This time, when questioned, the waiter replied with irritation, "I have no idea!"

I considered leaving. But I had been sitting near the kitchen, and when I stood up on my tiptoes I could see batches of dough go into the oven, emerge golden brown and then seem to disappear. I decided to monitor the next batch carefully.

Sure enough, the owner's wife made the dough, baked it, unmolded it onto a plate, dusted it with powdered sugar and then wandered around the cafe looking confused as to what to do next.

In desperation (and with no fluency in German), I ran up to her and said, with pleading eyes and voice, "Bitte Frau, per mir?" I hoped this meant "Please, ma'am, for me?" but reasoned that the actual words were not important.

Apparently I was right, because she handed me the whole plate of seven. I had wanted only one, but I thought I had better take them rather than try to argue and lose them all. Although I ate only one, it was worth the price of the seven and the two-hour wait.

BUCHTELN

3/4 cup milk

1 tablespoon powdered sugar plus additional for serving

2 packed teaspoons fresh yeast or 1/2 tablespoon dry yeast (not rapid-rise)

6 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup eggs (about 1 1/2 eggs), at room temperature

2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups Vanilla Cream Sauce, optional

A half recipe of buchteln can be prepared in a 7-inch pan.

Combine 2 tablespoons tepid milk (not hot milk or yeast will die), 1 tablespoon powdered sugar and yeast in small bowl. If using fresh yeast, crumble slightly while adding. Set mixture aside in draft-free spot 10 to 20 minutes. If mixture is not full of bubbles, yeast is too old.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter. Set aside in warm spot so it stays melted but not hot.

Combine sugar and eggs in large bowl and stir with wooden spoon. Warm remaining milk to no hotter than tepid and stir into sugar mixture. Stir in yeast mixture. Add 1/4 cup flour, stirring until smooth. Set aside.

Whisk together remaining flour and salt in medium bowl. Stir into dough until incorporated. (Dough will be very sticky.) Continue stirring about 5 minutes or until dough is smooth, shiny, elastic and cool to the touch. (It will be very sticky.) Pour in 2 tablespoons melted butter and stir about 5 minutes, until it becomes very smooth, soft and elastic. (It will still stick slightly to hands.)

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