dimanche 27 décembre 2009

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, plus the Daring Bakers

Although the snow has almost melted, there is still so much about the festive season to savour. The days blend into one another and I sleep longer in the mornings, often forgetting if it's the weekend or not it is. The time is going fast though and unbelievably, this is already my last week in Derbyshire. My normal life in Berlin seems so far away which can make it hard to return. When I think back to the past few days since London, it's not so easy to remember exactly what I've done. The icy road conditions meant I had to abandon my plans to visit places and spend the days at home instead which I actually didn't mind. There was plenty of baking to do - mince pies, a trifle, a Christmas cake among other things (I'll post the recipes for the last two sometime next week) and in the evenings, we sat around the fire reading aloud to each other from Pepys' diary, Saki's stories, Alice in Wonderland, P.G Woodehouse followed by some poems and afterwards watched films like Charade, It's a Wonderful Life, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, How to Marry a Millionaire and Gigi.

A snowy Rudolph

I've settled back into my old room where everything is almost as I left it five years ago - the same movie posters, the postcards by artists stuck around the mirror, the piles of French classics - yet I relate to them differently now and feel it's more a reminder of who I used to be. But then there's something about Christmas that brings back the excitement of childhood. I can't resist watching the Snowman every Christmas Eve and then listening to Carols from Kings while I make mince pies which my Dad always comes in to sample as soon as the first batch is ready. Christmas Day morning always seems so fresh and exhilerating and I rush downstairs to admire the huge pile of presents I can't wait to exchange. More than just opening my own, I love to see other people's face as they tear open the paper impatiently. Afterwards, there's the preparations for the Christmas meal and the non-stop eating for the rest of the day. As a child, I was always sad after the two Christmas days were over and found the time up to New Year a little depressing and empty but now I love having some quiet moments to reflect on the past year and on the new decade to come.

A Christmas meal at a local restaurant called the Dog - I chose Stilton and Broccoli soup, served with baguette and melted cheese

Of course, I also couldn't forget the Daring Bakers' challenge which I completed more than a month ago because otherwise, I knew I'd never have enough time. When I saw it was a gingerbread house, I felt incredibly excited, thinking back to the one Hansel and Gretel which enchanted me so much growing up, but also a little intimidated because the idea of designing, assembling and decorating one seemed beyond me. As usual, I threw myself into the challenge and tried to be creative. Actually, it wasn't as tricky as I'd feared, although getting the different pieces to stick together was far from simple and the icing glue was a bit runny for decorating. When I'd finished though, I felt proud of my first attempt and found my house quite charming, even if it wasn't perfect. So if you're feeling brave, why not try it?

This month's Daring Bakers' challenge was chosen by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. I decided to use Anna's recipe from Good Housekeeping which produced incredibly tasty gingerbread.

Gingerbread house

Equipment Needed:
Stand or handheld electric mixer (not required but it will make mixing the dough a lot easier and faster)
Plastic wrap
Rolling pin
Parchment paper
Baking sheets
Cardboard cake board or sheet of thick cardboard
Foil, if desired
Small saucepan
Small pastry brush (optional)
Piping bag with small round tip, or paper cornets if you're comfortable with them

Anna's Recipe:
Spicy Gingerbread Dough (from Good Housekeeping) http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/recipefinder/spicy-gingerbread-dough-157...

2 1/2 cups (500g) packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups (360mL) heavy cream or whipping cream
1 1/4 cups (425g) molasses
9 1/2 cups (1663g) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoon(s) baking soda
1 tablespoon(s) ground ginger


1. In very large bowl, with wire whisk (or with an electric mixer), beat brown sugar, cream, and molasses until sugar lumps dissolve and mixture is smooth. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and ginger. With spoon, stir flour mixture into cream mixture in 3 additions until dough is too stiff to stir, then knead with hands until flour is incorporated and dough is smooth.

2. Divide dough into 4 equal portions; flatten each into a disk to speed chilling. Wrap each disk well with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight, until dough is firm enough to roll.

3. Grease and flour large cookie sheets (17-inch by 14-inch/43x36cm)

4. Roll out dough, 1 disk at a time on each cookie sheet to about 3/16-inch thickness. (Placing 3/16-inch dowels or rulers on either side of dough to use as a guide will help roll dough to uniform thickness.)

5. Trim excess dough from cookie sheet; wrap and reserve in refrigerator. Chill rolled dough on cookie sheet in refrigerator or freezer at least 10 minutes or until firm enough to cut easily.

6. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (149C)

7. Use chilled rolled dough, floured poster board patterns, and sharp paring knife to cut all house pieces on cookie sheet, making sure to leave at least 1 1/4 inches between pieces because dough will expand slightly during baking. Wrap and reserve trimmings in refrigerator. Combine and use trimmings as necessary to complete house and other decorative pieces. Cut and bake large pieces and small pieces separately.

8. Chill for 10 minutes before baking if the dough seems really soft after you cut it. This will discourage too much spreading/warping of the shapes you cut.

9. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until pieces are firm to the touch. Do not overbake; pieces will be too crisp to trim to proper size.

10. Remove cookie sheet from oven. While house pieces are still warm, place poster-board patterns on top and use them as guides to trim shapes to match if necessary. Cool pieces completely before attempting to assemble the house.

I found it tricky to keep the house together and stop it falling apart so tied ribbon around it and propped it up with some tins until the next morning when it could stand alone.

Royal Icing:

1 large egg white
3 cups (330g) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon almond extract

Beat all ingredients until smooth, adding the powdered sugar gradually to get the desired consistency. Pipe on pieces and allow to dry before assembling. If you aren't using it all at once you can keep it in a small bowl, loosely covered with a damp towel for a few hours until ready to use. You may have to beat it slightly to get it an even consistency if the top sets up a bit. Piped on the house, this will set up hard over time.

Simple Syrup:
2 cups (400g) sugar

Place in a small saucepan and heat until just boiling and the sugar dissolves. Dredge or brush the edges of the pieces to glue them together. If the syrup crystallizes, remake it.

Here's the link to the template I used:


Thanks to Anna and Y for selecting such a lovely recipe and happy holidays to you all!

dimanche 20 décembre 2009

The dust of snow

I was already awake before the alarm went off and outside there was still the coldness of the night. I made myself some tea and tried to eat something but my mind was busy with the anticipation of the long journey ahead of me and I felt unable to concentrate. Holidays have always seemed more exciting when you begin so early in the silence of those twilight hours. As I pulled my case through the deserted streets, I looked around one last time at the familiar places which I would not see again this year. Above, there were still some stars twinkling brightly and the thinnest sliver of the moon. On the train, other passengers snuggled up in their coats and sweaters and slept or flicked through newspapers. My eyes tried to become adjusted to the pitch black landscapes whizzing by outside and I wrote letters to friends. Little by little as day began to break, the countryside around became white and I was mesmerised by the tiny flakes falling constantly from the sky which became thicker the further South we went. It was a route I've travelled many times and which I've talked about before; I saw the places between Jena and Nuremburg thick with snow, including the graveyard I always looked out for and imagined how magical it would be to explore the silence of the deep, dark woods or go sledge-riding.

The flight from Munich to Birmingham was one of the loveliest I've ever been on. When we took off, there was a stunning patchwork of white fields beneath us and above the clouds, it felt so good to see the sun again and catch its dying rays in an unending sunset with green, orange and purple stripes on the distant horizon.

And then there were the days London. That first day spent wandering through the parks where big grey squirrels chased each other around the flower beds and later in the British Museum where I thought of Rose's beautiful story which made me want to rediscover Greek culture and the ruins of their lost civilisation.

Blossom in December

When night fell, the windows of the beautiful eighteenth century Georgian houses glowed with light and their Christmas trees decorated with red and gold.

Lemon cheesecake in its "jewel box."

Christmas decorations on the South Bank.

A visit to the National Gallery shop after looking at the paintings to find the most beautiful tree decorations.

Self-portrait on a bitterly cold winter's day.

The rest of my time was mostly spent in museums, theatres, cafes, browsing endlessly in favourite bookshops and of course, eating! . There was the cheesecake and coffee in Pret, the beetroot cake at the Royal Academy, the Japanese pastries with red azuki beans on Piccadilly, the visit to the foodhall of Fortnum and Mason but most of all, the macaroons fron Ladurée which I've been badly missing since they left Galeries Lafeyette in Berlin. Entering the shop with its golden walls and pyramids of macaroons, you know something amazing is waiting for you. Every one is a miniature masterpiece and the way they melt in your mouth makes you feel you've gone to heaven.

The days were cold and clear but with enough sunshine to warm your face. Heavy snow was forecast for Thursday so I spent most of the evning in our chilly hotel looking out of the window hopefully, drinking tea and reading I Capture the Castle, a book I've fallen totally in love with. Sadly only the tiniest amount fell and the streets were their usual grey when I awoke the next day

The statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds with the Anish Kapoor exhibit in the courtyard of the Royal Academy.

The unusual, and tasty beetroot cake

A perfect raspberry macaroon (my fingers were suffering a bit with the cold here).

My selection from Ladurée

Fortnum and Mason

Oranges studded with cloves and some baguettes in Fortnum and Mason.

The last morning, we decided to skip breakfast at the hotel and go for brunch at Carluccio's, an amazing Italian cafe close to Russell Square. Just outside were many stalls selling food from all over the world; Mont d'Or cheeses and bread from France, baklavas, Portuguese pastries and custards, jewelled cupcakes, Korean dumplings; everything looked absolutely delicious in the glimmer of the morning sun. It was then that I regretted not being able to eat everything.

When you come in to Carluccio's, the first thing you see is the most exquisite and tempting range of cakes which makes it difficult to think of anything else. I somehow managed to find enough self-control to first order a coffee and eggs Florentine with toast, hollandaise sauce and spinach before choosing the Italian lemon tart which had caught my eye the second I saw it. The pastry was perfectly crisp but crumbly and the filling was thick and not too sweet. In the windows, large pyramids of chocolate pannetones stood like beacons drawing passers-by in and at other tables, people chatted over steaming cups of hot chocolate, savouring this special moments of gourmandise.

Arriving back in Derbyshire last night, I found the snow waiting for me when I was least expecting it, transforming the landscapes of my childhood just as it had done so many years before. As I write to you now in my icy room with its high ceiling, fingers frozen, big thick snowflakes are falling, old Christmas music can be heard from the kitchen and there is the delicious smell of apples and cinnamon. Everything around seems so silent and dark as the ground begins to freeze. I hope there will be many more days like this to come and I promise you some recipes soon. Happy holidays!

vendredi 11 décembre 2009

Just before I say goodbye...

There is so much to do, so much to say and so much to bake and yet the minutes are slipping by even as I write. I find myself in a race against time and (reluctantly) have to accept that it isn't one that I'm going to win. I promised you another recipe but that will have to wait; this week food has been the thing most lacking in my life and often I had trouble getting the opportunity to eat anything at all in the day, let alone something inspiring and more complicated things had to wait until the evening when photos were no longer really possible. But I wouldn't like to leave you without saying goodbye and turning my focus to the (for me!) real meaning of Christmas - sheer capitalist greed or in plain English, what I'd like as presents. This may seem egocentric but as Pia rightly said, Christmas is the only time when we can make wish lists without having a complex so here goes:

Top of my list has to be a camera. OK, I only got a new one in the summer but you can never have too many, right? Actually, before I started this blog, I'd never really taken photos before but now the very sight of a camera shop makes me go weak at the knees, especially the fabulous one at Viktoria Luise Platz. Seeing Julia's amazing photos makes me dream of getting a Canon EOS 350 or any nice DSLR, although I have the feeling Santa might already be over budget this year so it will have to be a present to myself in 2010.

Linked to cameras are books on photography. One of the best books I read this year was Robert Capa's Slightly Out of Focus which was funny, touching and compelling. I lust after Magnum Magnum, amazing books on Henri Cartier Bresson and also the cityscapes of Andreas Feininger. It won't come as a surprise to regular readers that I'm not a very technical person - my toothbrush is more hi-tech than my mobile phone and that lovely Robert Doisneau picture someone gave me is still on my floor because I haven't quite managed to get the three nails in the correct places and after making a lot of holes in my wall, I'm hoping for a kind visitor to offer to help me out. Therefore, learning more about technical aspects of photography is a must. I never expected Andreas Feininger's Foto Lehre to be so interesting or readable so have already got my eye on his große Fotolehre. Let's hope his influence rubs off on me ;-)

There's also the question of mugs and crockery. Since I don't have my dream apartment, beautiful things to eat and drink from are essential. This year, I started my collection of mugs and am completely addicted to the Penguin Classics ones so want to expand my collection very soon. My favourite is the one from the incredible Barter Books in Alnwick which is perfect for tall teas to accompany your winter reading curled up on the sofa. You could also surely do no better than the beautiful one on Patoumi's blog with the wooden cover.

Highlights of my reading list this year were two new books by my some of my favourite authors, even though they've been dead for some time. While I don't agree with the Frankfurter Allgemeine that Meine Preise is Thomas Bernhard's best book, it's certainly one of them and full of humour and his usual provocativeness which I love so much. True Bernhardologists also shouldn't be without Thomas Bernhard: Leben und Werke in Bildern und Texten with amazing pictures from the places which inspired him, like his house in Ohlsdorf which I visited from the outisde this year, alongside extracts from his writings. I covet this book every time I go into Dussmann but somehow manage to find the self-control to resist buying it. No lover of germanophone literature can have missed the Herzzeit Briefwwechsel between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. While I'm a great admirer of both poets, even those who feel intimidated by their complex works and sombre tone will find something touching in these letters of two people who loved each other so deeply but could not find the words or the way to stay together. Einmal muß das Fest ja kommen: eine Reise zu Ingeborg Bachmann is an amazing book that I'm always drawn to, a travel journal to the places and her works for those who find amazing beauty in her dark and difficult texts.

As an insatiable Proustian, I'm always on the lookout for new and inspiring books. While Proust Among the Stars is in my opinion, one of the very best books ever written about the Recherche, top of my list after the camera has to be Painitings in Proust, beautifully illuminating his amazing words with the paintings to which they are so closely linked and it's perfect for Proustians and also those new to his work.

If I had a bigger place to live and a strong coffee table, I would almost certainly order myself a copy of the Ingmar Bergman Archive, a 5 kg heavyweight book full of amazing photos and complete texts of the gloomy Swedish director that I can't seem to get enough of.

Tomorrow will be my last night in Berlin before I leave for the UK and will be away from this blog for the next week. Somehow it always hurts a little whenever I leave my beloved city. I think of all the days and evenings without it when my footsteps won't echo in it's empty streets and all the buildings that I'll miss seeing every day. Yet I know Berlin is part of me now and that it will never leave me, wherever I may go. On my way to the Christmas market tonight, I looked out from my usual U-Bahn route to the skyscarpers of Potsdamer Platz, one of the places I visited on my first visit to Berlin in 2006. Back then it seemed too modern and lacking in charm but now I somehow find it a comfort to see the green light at the top of the Daimler building and the bright roof of the Sony Center when I look across the skyline. I remember my last day in Berlin. It was a grey, wet day but I walked through Tiergarten to the Siegesäule with the pattering of the drops on my umbrella crossing only were reluctant cyclists. At that time, it seemed unlikely I would ever return and it seemed so cruel to leave this place so full of unexplored horizons and energy. But now it's mine to return to next year when I will have seen and done so much; it will be waiting for me and I'm sure that my heart will beat faster, just like it did when I finally moved here in 2007 and set eyes on the dome of the Reichstag after a long journey from Basel; it was truly of the happiest moments of my life and I find it hard to express the emotion. There's simply nothing like the feeling of coming home.