One of my favorite things to do when traveling to cities in Europe is to taste their cheese. It seems like every region of Europe has its own distinct variety of cheese that is beloved by locals but little-known (or little-appreciated) outside of the area.
For Mainz, Germany that would be spundekäs’ (pronounced schpoonduh-kayz). This paprika and onion-flavored cheese dip is a requisite presence at wine festivals and outdoor shindigs. Delicious German bretzeln (pretzels) are the best way to dip, but raw vegetables and crackers are equally satisying companions.
Because fine local cheeses are just that–local–it’s difficult to transport these dishes far outside of the country. Spundekäs’ is made with quark*, which is somewhat difficult to find outside of Germany, Austria, Poland, and Eastern Europe, although similar European cheeses do exist. A soft and white fresh cheese, quark resembles French fromage frais and is a bit like a smooth cottage cheese. High-fat creamy quark is often eaten for dessert, similar to French fromage blanc. Americans may find it labeled as “farmer’s cheese,” but otherwise we’re pretty much out of luck for finding quark.
After much research, I found that acceptable substitutes for quark can be made by mixing combinations of fresh white cheeses more familiar to us in the United States such as cream cheese, ricotta, cottage cheese, yogurt cheese (made by straining yogurt), or even sour cream. You may mix cream cheese and cottage cheese, and blend until smooth. Alternately, you might mix 2 parts ricotta and 1 part sour cream. Or, mix yogurt cheese with cottage cheese. Ultimately it will come down to what texture you prefer (using cottage cheese will inevitably give a lumpy or grainy feel) and what you have conveniently on hand.
If you like spundekäs and want to delve more pungently into Mainzer cheeses, you might try handkäse mit musik, a strongly flavored soft white cheese served topped with raw onions and vinegar. Literally translated, handkäse mit musik means “hand cheese with music” which sounds intriguingly potent and slightly poetic; indeed, the best handkäse should knock your socks off a little. And why “with music”? Well, apparently the eating of onions inspires some human bodies to–ahem–”make music.” So, file that one under one of those foods to be avoided on a first date.
*the cheese, not the elementary particle
serves 10 people
- 8 oz. (250 g) package of cream cheese, room temperature
- 8 oz. (250 g) cottage cheese, strained
- 1/2 cup (about 75 g) sour cream
- 1 small white onion
- 2-4 cloves of garlic
- 2-3 tsp paprika, plus more for garnish
- to dip: pretzels, carrot sticks, celery sticks, tomato slices, radishes, broccoli, cucumber, etc.
- sea salt, to taste
- Roughly chop onion and put in a food processor, reserving a few slices for garnish. Add the garlic, cream cheese, and cottage cheese. Blend until smooth. Add paprika and salt and blend in. If texture is too thick, add sour cream as needed to achieve desired texture.
- Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight to let the flavors blend.
- Serve cold garnished with onion slices and paprika, and eat with pretzels and raw vegetables.