mardi 28 avril 2009

Sunday morning strolls

A few pics from my area. Sunday is a good time to go to avoid all temptation to buy anything...

vendredi 24 avril 2009

Moomin bicuits...and a few questions

I've just returned from holiday to find a Berlin full of springtime. I had forgotten how beautiful the school yard behind my room is with the pink and purple lilacs and the radiance of the fresh green leaves in the evening sun. My street is lined with horse chestnut trees which seem to have sprung up from nowhere and it's so wonderful to see their flickering shadows on the pavement as they dance in the breeze. From the my balcony, I can see the bellydancing classes in the dance studio opposite and the distant strains of oriental music mingle with the gentle conversations of the people in their gardens. Sometimes I feel that anything is possible and it makes me want to explore the city for hours on end.
I'll write more about my holiday soon but first, Abbie asked me to answer a few questions. Apparently, you're supposed to delete one and add another of your own so here goes...

Who was your childhood hero or person you most admired and why?
From about the age of seven, Steffi Graf. I was tennis obsessed for a really long time and used to try and get the last week of Wimbledon off school. Later on, probably Simone de Beauvoir. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter had a huge influence on me and made me want to move to Paris and live in scruffy hotels. I was heartbroken when Zaza died too.

Who was the last person you hugged?
My flatmate.

Do you nap a lot?
Sometimes. I generally try to avoid it because if I sleep too long, I wake up not knowing who or where I am but if I feel really sleepy, I don't fight the need for a snooze.

What is your current obsession?

Watching and collecting Ingmar Bergman films. I first became a fan when our Marxist General Studies teacher showed us bits of the Seventh Seal. People are often shocked I like him because his films are often pretty bleak and everyone thinks I'm very cheerful but deep down, I'm quite melancholy and pensive. Also Woody Allen is huge admirer and his films are generally comedies so that doesn't mean anything in my opinion.

What’s for dinner?
Probably pasta with roast vegetables. I'm pretty tired and feel like just watching a film and crashing out. Tomorrow will be better though and a bit more creative.

What was the last thing you bought?
A purple mug from Penguin classic books with a Room of One's Own written on it which makes a lovely cuppa and If This is a Man by Primo Levi which I've been meaning to read for ages.

What are you listening to right now?

The new Kitty Hoff album. She's one of my favourite singers who I discovered thanks to Chrissi. She's amazingly talented, beautiful and can also sing in at least three languages perfectly.

What is your favorite weather?

A crisp autumn day when the trees still have their red, gold and orange leaves and the sun is shining.

Say something to the person who tagged you:
Hello Abbie. I wish you'd write more on your blog as it's so nice to read about what you're doing. Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday.

What would you like to have in your hands right now?

A big piece of warm apple pie with double cream please.

If you could have a house, fully furnished and paid for, anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I wouldn't mind a large apartment in Paris or Vienna just for me. There'd be a large room for books and films and it'd be in good reach of lovely parks and museums. Or then again a house by the sea would be wonderful with the sound of the waves crashing as I went to sleep. I think I could be creative there.

Favorite vacation spot?
Perhaps Haute-Savoie in France because it has everything - great food, mountains, lakes. Then again, I haven't seen so much of the world. I find travelling quite stressful but want to see Rome and Scandinavia sometime.

What would you like to get rid of?

Death. The worst thing about life is that it all has to end sometime

What is your favorite tea flavor?

English breakfast, preferably Twinings.

What is your favorite snack?

Chocolate - preferably dark. Well, at least it's low G.I.

Dog or cat?
Definitely cat. I like dogs but big ones scare me. I'd love two cats to cuddle and keep me company and miss those at my parents' place.

What do you always fail to do, even though you think you should be doing it?
Cleaning and being tidy. It's a losing battle I'm afraid. Each time I try to sort things out, my room looks good for about an hour and hten it's chaos again. I like to delude myself, that's just because I've only got one room but deep down, I know if I had a bigger place, it'd still always be a mess.

When did you last start a book and fail to finish it?
I frequently start books and then start reading other things before I've finished it because I want to read everything. I think the last one I didn't finish at all was Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften by Musil because I found it was too hard for me but I hope one day to have the intellectual capacities necessary to get through it.

If you could change places with anyone alive or dead for a day, who would it be?
Probably one of those lovely New Wave actresses like Anna Karina or Jeanne Moreau. They were beautiful and vivacious but always brought warmth and intelligence to all the roles they played.

Last, but not least, the change in the weather should be the perfect excuse to enjoy afternoon tea and a biscuit. I've been longing for moomin cutters for ages to receive these and a baking tin for Easter but feel free to use other cutters to suit your interests.

Biscuit dough for cutting out (from How to be a Domestic Goddess from Nigella Lawson):

175g soft butter
125g sugar
2 large eggs
A little vanilla essence
1 sachet of baking powder
200g flour
A pinch of salt

Pre-heat the oven to 170°C

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar togther until mooselike. Then add the eggs one by one and the vanilla and blend carefully. In another bowl, sift together the baking powder, flour and salt and add to the egg mixture a little at a time. Go carefully here as you don't want the mixture too dry. Just use as much flour as needed so the dough won't be too sticky to roll out.

Divide the mixture into two section and wrap in clingfilm. Leave to chill in the fridge for at least an hour. After that, take the first bag out of the fridge and roll out the dough on a surface dusted with flour until approx. half a centimetre thick. Then cut out as many shapes as possible with your cutters and place them on a lined baking sheet a little apart from one another. Bake in the oven for around 12 mins but keep an eye on them. They should be lovely and golden around the edges.

Leave the to cool and enjoy with a cup of tea or better still with some raspberries and cream as Abbie suggested.

lundi 6 avril 2009

Hanging up my apron strings...

This will be the last blog entry before I leave for Austria on Thursday. Already the excitement at the idea of visiting the Thomas Bernhard house in Ohlsdorf, seeing the spring flowers bursting into bloom in the Alps and sampling the delicious cakes is almost too much to bear but there are still 2 and a half days to go. Still, there's something so wonderful about having your train ticket all ready with the promise of the happy hours spent in trains, the landscapes flashing by and the pleasure of smiles and warm embraces awaiting you on the platform.

Cookingwise, I haven't been as busy as I might have been amd often, things I tried out weren't great sucesses, with the exception of the fantastic poppyseed cake I made from the Carnets de Ju. It's funny because I've been crazy about poppyseeds ever since the time I travelled to London St. Pancras station when I stopped off for a tall tea with milk and a giant lemon and poppyseed muffin before catching the train home, yet I have never baked with
them before.

I did however, take advantage of a long lunchbreak last Friday to check out a sweet little French café in Zinnowitzer Straße. It was raining and the U-Bahn had broken down but I was able to leave all that behind the minute I walked in there. Behind the counter there's a huge blackboard sprawled with spidery handwriting of all the things you can choose from - actually, it's rather confusing. The panini with ruccola and goat's cheese seemed most tempting followed by coffee and raspberry tart. The café has a rustic, homely feel with walls covered in a rough blue wash, broken up with patches of red paint and yellow motifs . Vintage adverts and paintings of fruit and vegetables are dotted around as decoration. I took a spot at the window to savour my lunch which was also a great viewing point to observe the busy street outside. Most distinctive was a Japanese girl wearing a red coat, black shoes with pink toes and carrying a white umbrella which looked like the damp petals of a white peony. Often I wish I could have another glimpse into the lives of passers-by - what are they thinking? Where are they going? What happened to them? Generally the staff in the café are nice, although the mangeress forbade me from taking pictures which I found a bit mean (luckily I managed to sneak these few).

I've just started learning Swedish which is really something I've been dying to do for ages. Often people ask me why I don't rather learn Spanish or Italian because they're more practical but somehow, I feel a bit closer to the Scandinavian mentality and besides, the culture is so rich. As I speak English and German, I'm hoping the grammar will be OK to master but probably it'll be quite some time before I can try to watch my favourite Bergman film without subtitles and I'm hoping I can find some Swedes who are keen to practise one of my languages in exchange for some help.

All that remains for me now to do is to pack and most importantly, to choose the books that I'm going to take with me. I have a hard time doing that and am hopelessly indecisive. Even though I'm a slow reader, I'm somehow terrified I'll be stuck somewhere without enough to read and also don't like to feel restricted to just one book. The result is that I take too many away with me which is even more ridiculous as I desperately want to bring some big books back with me from my parents' place where I'll be going after Easter.

Currently the list is as follows:

Capote by Gerald Clarke
The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Herzzeit Briefwechsal by Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann
Korrektur by Thomas Bernhard

Before I sign off, I just wanted to mention something that a student of mine asked me the other day. She was curious whether I missed England. Actually, apart from my family and the cats, I don't long for so much and will soon have been living abroad for 5 years. Funnily, whenever I'm in a different country, I feel terribly British but when I go back to the UK feel a bit like a foreigner. Anyway, here's a little list of food related things that I miss about England and France (not an exhaustive list!) :


-Chips (or French Fries for non UK citizens ;-) with vinegar - I know, this is the bit where all non-Brits say "ugh!"
-Marks and Spencer - not really justifiable in times of the credit crunch because the food is generally pricey but I love the mousses, cheese scones and fresh mango amoung other things.
-Cadbury's cream eggs and mini eggs at Easter. The former consists of a layer of chocolate with a sweet, gooey yellow and white filling; the latter are small and covered with a crunchy shell and have solid chocolate on the inside. Bliss!
-Double cream - sorry but Schlagsahne and crème fleurette can't compete with the thick, luxurious liquid which whips up like a dream.
Innocent smoothies - yum!

-Monoprix - same as for Marks as Spencer's, not the cheapest but I could never resist the range of biccies or the gorgeus chilled fruit juices and somehow, it's always fun shopping at Monop.
-The cheese - OK, I can get some here but it's expensive. I most love Cantal, Reblochon, Gruyère and Roquefort.
-Free water with a meal.
-The bakeries - Ah, the times in Lyon when I could just stop off almost anywhere for a mouthwatering croissant.

But if I ever had to leave Berlin, I'd miss:

-Kartoffelpuffer with Apfelmuss
-Quark - in Germany you can get some with 40% fat which works fantastically for cheesecakes and tastes rather like mascarpone.
-The many Turkish shops and snack bars
-Those hazelnut biccies sandwiched with cream from Kaisers

For those of you who love chocolate, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the Easter bunny will be extra generous this year.

vendredi 3 avril 2009

The imaginist's chocolate cake

There are some people who don't like stories. A friend of mine told me he never reads fiction because we understand so few things about the world, so why waste what little time we have reading something that somebody just made up? I felt a pang of guilt becuase although I sometimes delve into history, art and biographies, there's so much that I'm not aware of. Then there are others who tell you that fiction is bad because it makes us long for a different life which we can never have and only leaves us with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction. Personally though, I think I couldn't live without stories; there's something so wonderful about being taken on a journey through a labyrinth of words and also I come from a family of bookworms where it would have been a sin NOT to read and where novels are most highly prized. As a teenager, I sat alone in the corner at school lost in books by Camus, de Beauvoir, Paul Auster and Bruce Chatwin and can safely say, it was the only thing that helped get me through.
Last weekend, I entered a speech contest and talked about how important it is to not give up your imagination. Unfortunately, nobody really seemed interested or to understand and I left feeling disillusioned and convinced that my other friends were right: stories don't matter.

The day after though, I saw a wonderful film about the power of stories and the imagination called The Fall where a little girl in hospital befriends a paralysed stuntman who tells her an incredible epic tale set in a faraway land. Little by little the story of other characters becomes their story and we see it unfolding in rich, beautiful images. As the minutes slipped by, I found myself so caught up in this film that I never noticed the two hours going by and was truly heartbroken at the many moving parts of the story. Coming out into the daylight afterwards, everything seemed so surreal and I found myself unable to switch off from this other world and leave it behind.

The cake recipe below has perhaps been my most used one since I discovered it in Nigella Lawson's Feast. It's very simple and is guaranteed to lift your mood on even the greyest of days or is a perfect accompaniment when you settle down with a good book.

Old fashioned chocolate cake

150g soft butter
100g sugar
3 large eggs
40g best quality cocoa
200g flour
1 packet baking powder
1 small tub of crème fraîche

Grease and line a springfrom tin and pre-heat the oven to 160°

1. Just put all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl and blend with an electric hand-held mixer until smooth. Add some milk if it's too dry.
2. Now pour the cake batter into the tin and bake in the oven for around 30 mins.

J'ai décidé d'écrire une version française. Ca me permettra aussi de ne pas oublier mon français comme je le pratique si peu en ce moment. Je m'excuse d'abord pour les fautes d'orthographe!

Il y des gens qui n'aiment pas les contes. Ils trouvent que l'on comprend si peu du monde que ce serait dommage de passer tant de notre temps précieux avec des romans. Il y a aussi des personnes qui pensent que de tels romans sont dangereux car ils nous donnent envie d'avoir une vie différente et impossible à obtenir. Pour moi, c'était plutôt le contraire. Sans Camus, Proust, Auster, je ne sais pas ce que j'aurais fait pendant mon adolescence si triste. Quand la vie nous est insupportable, il n'y a rien de mieux à faire que prendre un livre et se perdre dans des phrases sans cesse.

Ma participation le week-end dernier au concours du Toastmasters m'avait laissée un peu déçue. Dans mon speech j'ai parlé de ma passion pour les romans mais franchement, j'avais l'impression que tout cela ne comptait guère pour la plupart des gens....Et pourtant peut-être ce n'est pas toujours le cas. Le lendemain j'ai vu un film si merveilleux et beau (qui passe malheureusement presque inapperçu) où on est vraiment plongé dans un autre univers. The Fall est l'histoire d'une petite fille qui s'attache à un patient paralysé. Il lui raconte une conte extraordinaire que nous voyons sur l'écran. Quand ils sont obligés à retourner à leur chambres d'hôpital, il se sentent si frustrés et peu à peu cette conte fusionne avec la vie. Honnêtement, je peux dire que j'ai rarement trouvé un film si émouvant (je n'ai pas honte à dire que j'ai versé pas mal de larmes vers la fin) et je me sentais bien rassurée que l'imagination ne sert pas seulement aux enfants.

La recette pour le gâteau au chocolat est issue du livre merveilleux Feast, par Nigella Lawson et convient parfaitement aux imaginistes inguérissables comme moi pour de longs voyages avec son roman.

150g de beurre
100g de sucre
3 oeufs
40g de cacao en poudre non sucré (j'aime Van Houten)
200g de farine
1 sachet de levure chimique
150g de crème fraîche

Préchauffez le four à 160°C et chemisez de papier sulfarisé un moule à gâteau springform.

1. Mélangez tous les ingrédients dans un grand bol jusqu'a ce que tout soit lisse. Ajoutez un peu de lait s'il est nécessaire.
2. Versez dans le moule et faites cuire dans le four pendant environ 30 minutes.