Oktoberfest: Belgian Beers & Soup

Pretzel Bowls

Today we leave Germany behind and visit Belgium. As I recall, the process to brew both German-style and Belgian-style beers is similar, but the Germans are precise whereas the Belgians just sort of wing it. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time certainly knows I am on board with the Belgian’s style.

In a nutshell, Belgian beer history is steeped in the Catholic Church. For centuries, the Church allowed abbeys to brew beer to earn needed cash. People wanted beer because in those days a low-alcohol version was a substitute for impure drinking water. Today, a number of popular beers once brewed in abbeys continue to be made following those traditional methods.

Pretzel Bowls

What’s more, monks at seven monasteries continue to brew and sell beer to meet their living and maintenance expenses. Six of these seven Trappist breweries are found in Belgium: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. The remaining, La Trappe, is located just across the border in the Netherlands. An eighth Trappist brewery exists in Germany’s Mariawald, but they have not brewed beer since the 1950s.

It’s been noted Westvleteren brews the best beers in the world. But they are not available in the United States. And the monks only brew the beer when they need money. So I guess I will stick with the second best beer in the world: Bud Light.*

Pretzel Bowls

A fairly tiny country, Belgium boasts the largest number of breweries per capita than any other country. A few Belgian beer types you should try when you visit include:

Dubbels – Malty! Rich and dark as well.

Tripels – Strong! Also brewed with a lot of malt, but the addition of candy sugar lightens its color to a pretty golden hue. It is worth noting the strong refers to alcohol content, not to taste. A good Tripel should actually go down pretty smooth.

Saison – Fruity, but more dry than sweet. They were brewed in the winter for drinking in the summer.

Witbier – A light, spiced “white” beer brewed with wheat.

Labmics and Gueuzes – Delicious. To be discussed in further detail in an upcoming post.

Pretzel Bowls

Let’s talk about food. I picked a recipe for Belgian Beef Stew seen in Ted Allen’s In My Kitchen. At the time, I thought it was a good alternative to the knee-jerk Belgian waffles I considered. Pretzels were pretty obvious for Germany, so I thought I should go off the beaten path with this one. About half-way through, I was seriously reconsidering the waffles.

While I can appreciate the art of cooking that requires one to braise beef in the oven for over two hours, the way in which the recipe was written was overly complicated. It involved cooking meat multiple times and layering things in a Dutch oven to cook both on the stove and in the oven. I was so frustrated with trying to figure out just what should be going on that I recognized recipes like this are why people say they can’t cook.

We all can cook. Though a cookbook might call something Belgian Beef Stew, at the end of the process, it’s a soup. How can you possibly mess up soup? It might boil over, but it won’t burn. It might not taste quite right, but that’s nothing a little salt and pepper can’t fix. I’m fairly certain that unless you throw a handful of  dirt in the pot, you are not going to mess up soup.

Pretzel Bowls

So let’s do as the Belgians do and throw caution to the wind. The original recipe for Belgian Beef Stew calls, obviously, for beef. I just happened to have two cans of fully cooked beef from a local farm near my hometown (which is another story altogether), so I used that. Typically, I do not buy beef, so I do not even know how to suggest a cooking method for the beef  called for in this soup. But since we are all traveling along our own paths with the recipe as a guide in this one, I know you will figure it out.

I happened to throw in some carrots and celery. If you do not want to eat beef, throw in some beans. Vegetarians can omit the meet altogether and substitute vegetable for the beef stock. The important thing here is the focus on is the beer because that will affect the taste of the broth. I used New Belgium’s Abbey. For a lighter broth, you might opt for a golden ale. Serving suggestions include pouring the concoction over boiled potatoes, rice or noodles. I used some of my beer pretzel dough to bake the bowl you see here.

Incidentally, this year’s June/July issue of Saveur included a nice write-up of Belgian beer and breweries. There is also a Conde Nast Traveler article out there about one man’s quest to visit Belgian’s Trappist breweries. Cheers!

Pretzel Bowls


*I’m totally kidding.



Belgian Beef Stew
  • 4 strips bacon, diced
  • 1 pound beef, fully cooked
  • 1 pound yellow onions
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 cups Belgian golden ale or Abbey ale
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 cup carrots (optional)
  • 2 stalks celery (optional)
  1. Brown the bacon in a large pot over medium heat.
  2. Once cooked, remove the bacon and allow it to drain on a plate lined with a paper towel.
  3. Toss the onions into the now empty (except for the bacon grease) pot and cook until soft and golden brown, about 10 minutes.
  4. Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, cayenne and allspice (if using) and cook until fragrant, one to two minutes.
  5. Add the bacon and the (fully cooked) beef.
  6. In a separate bowl, mix the beer with the beef stock, brown sugar and vinegar.
  7. Pour the mixture into the pot to cover the meat and onions.
  8. Bring to a simmer, then add carrots and celery if using.
  9. Allow to simmer for an hour or so.
  10. Discard the bay leaf before serving.

Oktoberfest, German Beers & Pretzels

Cheddar Beer Dip

Long ago, I mentioned I planned to spend a few days in beer school. Now that school is over and Oktoberfest has just begun, I thought this would be a nice time to share a bit of what I learned. Every few days between today and October 7, I will share a particular beer and a recipe to match. Since this is Oktoberfest, let’s start with German beers.

Oktoberfest began as a celebration of the wedding of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October12, 1810. I will drink a beer for nearly any occasion, but drinking a beer in tribute to love just makes it all the better, don’t you think? If my ongoing obsession with both Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey has taught me anything, it’s that they probably got married because one of them had a nice chunk of land the other one was after.

That aside, the kind royals hosted a festival complete with horse races for all of Bavaria to enjoy. Everyone seemed to like it so much, they added an agricultural festival and did it again the next year. And it just kept going to where we are today. The festival always runs for 16 days and ends the first Sunday in October. To learn more about present-day Oktoberfest, visit the official website.

Cheddar Beer Dip

An important component of the history of German beer is the beer purity law Reinheitsgebot. In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria was not pleased with the poor quality beer consistently placed in front of him. Too many brewers used cheap grain as a substitute for quality grain. So he did what any man of power might do and passed a law restricting the ingredients used to make beer to malted barley, hops and water. (Yeast was added later.) The result was delicious beer.

Here are a few German beer types, along with my overly simplistic descriptions:

Altbier –  A brown ale that is conditioned for a while longer than normal so it doesn’t taste so fruity.

Bock – A strong lager. It is lagered (stored in a cold place) for a while longer than normal so it’s not so in-your-face with taste. In my extracurricular activities after school I learned the goat is the mascot of Bocks. Something about the beer was originally brewed only during the astrological phase of the Capricorn? I was born under the sign of the goat, so I guess I should like these beers.

Dopplebock – An an even stronger lager! And darker than a Bock. I suppose this makes the Dopplebock the strong, dark and handsome one in the family.

Eisbock – The brewing process includes freezing off a portion of the water, so in a sense, this beer is more concentrated than others.

Cheddar Beer Dip

Hefeweizen – Typically brewed with at least 50 percent wheat. The Hefe portion of the name indicates the yeast, and the Weizen means wheat. These beers look kinda cloudy.

Dunkelweizen – Also a wheat beer, but darker than a Hefeweizen.

Weizen-Bock – The pimped out version of the Dunkelweizen.

Schwarzbier – A black beer, though its color does not necessarily indicate its heaviness. These beers are actually quite light and flavorful.

Though I have done my best to provide accurate information, please note I continue to have a very simplistic understanding of the world of beer.

Speaking of World of Beer, Preston at Charlotte’s South End location graciously put the summer beer school program on for eight consecutive Mondays. Any errors, omissions or out-right butcherings of the information he provided and I have re-shared are most definitely my own.

Cheddar Beer Dip

Let’s move on to the food. Nothing says German food like a really nice pretzel! More accurately, nothing says “German food I can actually make” like a nice soft pretzel.You many recall I made soft pretzels last winter, but these are the with-beer versions. I also made a cheddar beer dip for those of you who are like me and need something to go along with your soft pretzels.

I used local Olde Mecklenburg Brewery’s OMB Copper for both the pretzels and the dip. This beer has quite a few fans across Charlotte. I have heard “OMB’s Copper is my favorite” proclaimed in settings that range from the dinner table to yoga class. I myself do not care for it. It’s one of those things I really want to like because I think I should, but when it comes down to it, I simply do not. This characteristic actually makes it excellent for cooking purposes because it doesn’t pain me to pour it into something I’m going to eat instead of wanting to pour it down my throat.

As I was checking to make sure pretzels do indeed have origins in Germany, I learned a French or Italian monk is actually given credit for inventing the pretzel. But since German immigrants (today known as the Pennsylvania Dutch) introduced soft pretzels to America, I though this was an acceptable recipe to kick off Oktoberfest. For a different twist, bake the pretzel dough into small rounds to use as sandwich buns or large rounds to use as bowls. Fill them with cheddar beer soup, or simply wait until my next Oktoberfest post when I provide another beer-meets-soup recipe and discuss monks in much more detail. Prost!

Cheddar Beer Dip

Soft Beer Pretzels with Cheddar Beer Dip
Serves: 12
  • For the Pretzels
  • ¼ cup warm water
  • 1, ¼ ounce package active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ¾ teaspoon salt plus additional for sprinkling
  • 1 to 1¼ cups brown ale, room temperature
  • 3¾ to 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • For the Dip
  • 1½ cups beer
  • 1½ cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Place warm water and yeast in a large bowl and allow to stand for five minutes.
  2. Add the sugar, olive oil, salt beer and 3¾ cups of flour and stir until dough is soft. Continue to add flour or beer as needed until dough comes together.
  3. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 6-8 minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic.
  4. Place the dough in lightly greased bowl and cover with plastic or a clean towel. Allow to rise for one hour. The dough should double in size.
  5. Punch down the dough and divide into 12 pieces.
  6. Roll each piece into a rope, about 20 inches long and twist into a pretzel shape.
  7. While you shape the pretzels, bring the water and the baking soda to a boil.
  8. Dip the shaped pretzels into the boiling solution for a few seconds, then place on a lightly greased baking sheet.
  9. Cover the pretzels and allow to rise another 15 minutes.
  10. Brush their tops with the beaten egg, then sprinkle with salt.
  11. Bake at 425 degrees until lightly golden brown, about 15 minutes.
  12. To make the dip, pour the beer into a sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium high heat.
  13. Add the cheese and stir until melted.
  14. Reduce the heat to medium low and thicken with corn starch.
  15. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Feel free to use a stand mixer and the dough hook to knead the pretzel dough. The pretzels will keep in an air tight plastic container for several days. I ended up using 3¾ cups of flour and 1 cup plus three tablespoons of beer to get the dough the consistency I desired.

Make Monday Better: Caramel Apple Pudding

Caramel Apple Pudding

Today was the loveliest of Mondays. A light rain fell most of the day. As I am lucky enough to work at a desk near an open window, I spent the day typing to the sound of rain drops falling softly against the trees.

Who am I kidding? Rainy days and Mondays tend to have enough negatives going for them on their own. Combine them, and it is the ultimate no-win situation. And now that we are past the mid-point of September, three weeks into college football, and have apples showing up at the farmer’s market, I am forced to let summer go.

When the seasons change from winter to spring, most of us probably do a lot of spring cleaning. I tend to do a lot of fall cleaning as well. Finally acknowledging the rapid approach of autumn, I did a little cleaning this past weekend.

Caramel Apple Pudding

My efforts led me to a diary I kept while in college. I imagine I got into the habit of writing a diary for two reasons: 1) I like to write and, 2) I grew up watching my grandfather  keep a daily diary. Though for a man, grandpa would probably rather I refer to his writings as a journal.

Every year for Christmas, he and grandma would give me a blank journal. And every year I would think, “Well, I guess I better write something in this.” So I did.

Though I do not keep a diary anymore, I am grateful I came across the thoughts I kept a decade ago. It gave me insight into the things I did not realize I still refuse to let go. It reminded me of how far I have come, and how much farther I hope to go. It made me feel good to know that I could once stay awake past 10 p.m.

Caramel Apple Pudding

I will spare you all the sordid details, but these were a few of my favorite things I once thought were terribly important:

July 11, 2002, 11:14 p.m. A nice thing that happened today was that Sister Nadine gave me three sticks of gum!

 July 24, 2002 10:08 p.m. I am writing now because I am eating popcorn and feel I should do something productive at the same time.

November 19, 2002 10:05 p.m. So it’s Michigan week, woo hoo! We are all so excited it is like we have ants in our pants.

Undated entry I had a six-year-old tell me he did not want to get married because he did not want to change stinky diapers. When I told him that he did not necessarily have to change diapers if he got married, he looked at me with giant blue eyes, and in an incredulous whisper said, “Really?”

Funny, I still like gum, popcorn and feeling productive. I had forgotten about Sister Nadine, but I was glad to remember her. The Ohio State-Michigan game week continues to raise my anxiety level. Equally sad, I continue to remain quite fond of corny catch-phrases like “ants in pants.” Heaven help those who have to listen me to speak in such a way.

Caramel Apple Pudding

While I enjoyed a glimpse into my former self, I hope you will enjoy this Caramel Apple Pudding dessert. Though it requires a bit of time to chill between its multiple steps, this dish is really quite easy to pull together.

I made it a day ahead of eating, and I am happy to report the gingersnap crust remained crispy. To keep the apples from browning prematurely, I tossed them in lemon juice before scattering them across the top. It maintains the lightness of a summer dessert, but the crisp caramel apples are the perfect taste to transition to fall. Enjoy!

Caramel Apple Pudding

Caramel Apple Pudding
Recipe type: Dessert
  • 2 cups crushed gingersnaps
  • ⅓ cup butter, melted
  • 1, 8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 3-1/4 cups milk, divided
  • 1, 8 ounce carton whipped topping, divided
  • 2, 3.4 ounce packages instant butterscotch pudding mix
  • ½ cup caramel sauce, divided
  • 2 medium apples, chopped
  • ⅓ cup roasted peanuts or walnuts, chopped
  1. Stir together the crushed gingersnaps and butter until blended.
  2. Press the mixture onto the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 baking dish. Refrigerate for 15 minutes or more.
  3. While the crust chills, beat the cream cheese, sugar and ¼ cup of the milk until smooth.
  4. Fold in 1 cup of the whipped topping.
  5. Spread the cream cheese mixture over the chilled crust.
  6. In a large bowl, whisk the remaining 3 cups milk and the pudding mixes for 2 minutes.
  7. Allow to stand for two minutes after whisking or until soft-set.
  8. Stir ¼ cup of the caramel sauce into the bowl.
  9. Spoon the pudding mixture over the cream cheese layer.
  10. Cover and refrigerate an additional 15 minutes, then spread the remaining whipped topping on top of the layers.
  11. Cover again and refrigerate for 4 hours or until filling is firm.
  12. Before serving, top with chopped apples, nuts and remaining caramel sauce.