A sweet day at the Sonnenalp
January 6, 2013
Why is it that after a lovely fine dining meal, full of goodies such as duck fat, butter and cream, many people raise their hands and say “no, not for me” when the dessert menu is presented?
Are they stuffed? Shouldn’t be, if the portions are properly sized. Are they counting calories? A little late for that, don’t you think?
Whatever the reason, they are missing one of the best parts of a meal, particularly in any of the Sonnenalp Resort’s restaurants where Austrian-born pastry chef Bernie Oswald’s sweet masterpieces are served. Share if you must, but don’t forego his desserts.
I first met Oswald in February 2012, when I spent 12 hours working for Sonnenalp executive chef Steve Topple and chef Dan D’Onofrio in Ludwig’s kitchen. While we worked in close quarters in the restaurant’s kitchen one floor below, Oswald and his assistant, Krybie Barnett, worked magic with sugar, flour and chocolate, creating imaginative and delicious desserts in his small pastry kitchen.
After 10 months experiencing the savory side of meals, I wanted to work for Oswald. Finally, in the waning days of the Christmas holiday season, I got my chance to live a childhood dream – making Christmas cookies with a chef.
Like so many gifted chefs, Oswald’s mother and grandmother – Granny – helped him take his first steps on his career path. To my delight, Oswald reminisced about his youth in Klagenfurt, Austria, where he learned the art of baking at an early age, all day. Oswald’s vignettes stirred my own fond memories of my grandmother and soothed my Christmas blues.
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Although he didn’t study pastry during his three years of culinary school in Austria, Oswald is a gifted artist. He loves transforming simple grains of sugar into sweet, crystalline sculptures used to adorn his wedding cakes and desserts.
It’s when he’s making wedding cakes that he’s happiest. One day I’ll learn how he transforms the basic ingredients of butter, eggs and flour into beautiful cake tiers worthy of a lifetime of wedding memories. But on this day, it was cookie time.
I’ll admit it: Baking is not my forte. I make yummy southern desserts like cobblers, bread pudding and a wicked coconut cake, but pastries and breads present huge challenges, particularly at high altitude. For me, the science of baking is too confining. In the kitchen, I’m a free spirit who views cookbooks as recommendations, not edicts.
Baking – let’s face it – is a chemistry experiment involving precise measurements of catalysts and reagents. Want to add a little more salt to my gumbo? No problem. Want to add a little more salt to my cake batter? Out it goes.
Chemistry demands accuracy. Now I can understand better why Italians are not known for their pastry prowess. Too many rules too obey!
So with that background, you can understand my apprehension when I entered the pastry kitchen on a day Oswald was completing his quota of Christmas cookies. Hotel guests were arriving for their holiday celebrations and Oswald’s cookies would be in big demand.
To my delight, I discovered the dough for the various cookies – all from Oswald’s granny’s traditional European butter dough recipe – was prepared and ready for cutting and shaping.
But on second thought, perhaps making the dough might have been easier. First up: vanilla gipfeli, little butter dough crescent-shaped cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar after baking.
I am very fond of Oswald, but I saw a bit of his naughtiness in assigning me the gipfeli as my first task. Their small size and finicky dough challenged my skills and my patience. Butter dough is temperamental and can quickly become too soft to handle, so we had to work fast and in small batches. Oswald calls that making cookies “housewife-style.”
The first step was to roll a small piece of lightly floured dough between my hands to form a quarter-size ball, then flattening it. Rolling it between my hands into cylinders a little thicker than a pencil was where I struggled. Just the right amount of pressure is needed to get a fairly uniform thickness. If it’s rolled too much and is too thin, the dough will crack when shaped into crescents. Too thick and they aren’t pretty. It’s a delicate balance.
I quickly realized why cookies from pastry shops are so expensive. This isn’t like making Oreos. There’s no automation for this time-consuming work. The more than 1,000 cookies we made that afternoon were all shaped and decorated by hand.
After struggling for about two hours, I filled three sheet pans with the bite-sized cookies. Oswald was kind and reassuring, but he did toss a few into the reject pile. Fortunately, once baked, it was nearly impossible to tell which ones were mine and which were Oswald’s. Apparently he thought it best not to tell me that at the beginning, opting to let me struggle to perfect the technique.
Now came the part of making pastries that I fear – rolling out dough. We were making Linzer cookies. Oswald patiently showed me how to continually release the dough by swiping a straight spatula under the growing – and softening – disk of butter dough. I quickly got the hang of it, and was soon confidently handling the dough.
While I was making Linzer cookies and nickel-size Heidesand (German sand cookies), Oswald was busy with a pastry bag, making Eisenbahner cookies. He squeezed two 18-inch parallel rows of butter dough along two sides of precise rectangles of the same dough.
Oswald is quite fit, but I could see this was hard, tiring work. Between the two “train tracks” of dough, Oswald squeezed raspberry jam, then cut the prepared rectangles into identical 2-inch wide pieces without a cutting guide or jig. Lovely, and oh so tasty!
The most enjoyable experience was meeting Francesca Faessler and working beside this delightful young woman.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the high school sophomore, the daughter of Sonnenalp proprietors Johannes and Rosanna Faessler, was Oswald’s student in the art of making gingerbread houses. As Granny had taught him, Oswald now taught Francesca. Oswald, who has been at Sonnenalp for 11 years, began his pastry career at the hotel making birthday cakes for Francesca. So it seemed fitting that he now was teaching her as he had been taught back in Austria. It was a transfer of knowledge.
Like anyone charged with the preservation of a craft, Oswald takes his role as teacher very seriously. The house, though still unfinished, was quite impressive.
There’s so much more to a hotel pastry kitchen than cookies. Housemade marshmellows, sugar sculptures, chocolates, breads and desserts are but some of the products Oswald and his team make everyday. Christmas is fun, but I’m looking forward to returning before Easter to learn Oswald’s techniques of making chocolate bunnies and artistic Easter eggs for the Sonnenalp’s famous Easter brunch.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go online to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.