dimanche 27 septembre 2009

Autumn memories, plus pâte feuilletée for the Daring Bakers

(I accidentally published the picture without the text while I was fiddling around so apologies for the confusion for those who saw that!).

It was perhaps the last beautiful day of autumn before the cold and darkness of winter set in. When I awoke, the sunlight was already streaming into our apartment and the sky was clear and the deepest blue. Though the trees were not yet bare, many of the leaves were tinged with gold or red and acorns and conkers lay scattered on the ground. Somehow I already had a feeling the day would be special and we set off early for Potsdam along the cobbled streets you find in the East. Potsdam was a place we visited back in 2006 before arriving in Berlin but that was at the height of summer when everyone seemed a little stunned by the heat. Along both sides of the tree lined roads, there were already rows of parked cars as others set out to picnic and walk. We stopped for lunch at a curious place with fake petrol pumps decorated with pictures of red Indians. Most tables were occupied by bikers and I couldn't imagine the food would be any good. How wrong can you be though? J. had the lentil soup and I chose potatoes with Fromage Blanc and onions (a speciality I thought was found more in Northern Germany but which is actually more common in the South as I learned from Christa - thanks for the info!), followed by homemade apple cake with fresh cream. It was simple but perfect being there, enjoying every minute.

Afterwards, we walked close to the Glienecke Bridge where captured spies were once exchanged at the time of the Iron Curtain. Around us, lamas grazed in gardens of exotic houses with thatched roofs while others took tea in a converted castle down by the river Havel.

We drove up to the Sanssouci palace and park where Frederick the Great used to live in summer. It's still perhaps my favourite park where I've sat many hours reading or strolling until I came to the most amazing buildings like the orangery or the Chinese tea room with its golden roof. This time, we walked hand in hand, looking at the statues and the yellow walls of the palace glowing in the sunset. The hours had gone by unnoticed and I felt heaviness in my heart at the thought of returning. Somehow, the loveliest days of autumn fill me with joy but also a kind of strange melancholy as you can feel the need to catch the fading light while it lasts. The evening became cooler with sharpness in the air; on our way back, we stopped to look at a favourite spot of J's down by the lake and held each other close. I often think back to that day two years ago, especially as the autumn weekends in Berlin are now spent alone. When we still had our apartment in Pankow, I would take his sweaters and wrap them around my shoulders when it grew dark, as if I could somehow feel his warmth but now there are just these sun-drenched images of an Indian summer to do that.

This month's Daring Baker's challenge seems perfect for autumn when the days are getting shorter and you long for something special to bring back the warmth of summer. Admittedly, after the Dobos Torte last month, I was terrified to find out that I'd have to make puff pastry and vol-au-vents. Couldn't it be something easier? I remember Ju once telling me "La pâte feuilletée est un truc impossible à faire soi-même, c'est à oublier." And if she couldn't do it, could I? I had visions of butter oozing and pastry that wouldn't rise. The only thing to do was to take a deep breath and get my rolling pin out. What happened? Well, it was not only much easier than I could ever have imagined but it was also fun. I decided to make two large square vols-au-vents with caramelised apples but immediately regretted not having made more pastry because the variety of things you can do with puff pastry is simply amazing and J. expressed a strong desire for something with spinach and ricotta. Thanks to Steph from A Whisk and a Spoon for inspiring me. Otherwise, I'd probably never have ever attempted anything so scary. And believe me, if I can do it, so can you!

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

Puff pastry (aka pâte feuilletée) is something most of us usually buy at the grocery store, but in order to be really daring, we should make our own at least once in awhile, right? Kitchens should be getting cooler in the northern hemisphere, and are hopefully still cool-ish in the sourthern hempisphere, so I’m hoping you will all join me in making homemade puff pastry from Michel Richard’s recipe, as it appears in the book Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan. With our homemade puff we’ll be forming vols-au-vent cases to fill with anything we chose.

Puff pastry is in the ‘laminated dough” family, along with Danish dough and croissant dough. (In fact, if you participated in the Danish Braid challenge back in June 2008, then you already know the general procedure for working with laminated dough.) A laminated dough consists of a large block of butter (called the “beurrage”) that is enclosed in dough (called the “détrempe”). This dough/butter packet is called a “paton,” and is rolled and folded repeatedly (a process known as “turning”) to create the crisp, flaky, parallel layers you see when baked. Unlike Danish or croissant however, puff pastry dough contains no yeast in the détrempe, and relies solely aeration to achieve its high rise. The turning process creates hundreds of layers of butter and dough, with air trapped between each one. In the hot oven, water in the dough and the melting butter creates steam, which expands in the trapped air pockets, forcing the pastry to rise.


-food processor (will make mixing dough easy, but I imagine this can be done by hand as well)
-rolling pin
-pastry brush
-metal bench scraper (optional, but recommended)
-plastic wrap
-baking sheet
-parchment paper
-silicone baking mat (optional, but recommended)
-set of round cutters (optional, but recommended)
-sharp chef’s knife
-cooling rack

Prep Times:
-about 4-5 hours to prepare the puff pastry dough (much of this time is inactive, while you wait for the dough to chill between turns…it can be stretched out over an even longer period of time if that better suits your schedule)
-about 1.5 hours to shape, chill and bake the vols-au-vent after your puff pastry dough is complete.

Forming and Baking the Vols-au-Vent

Yield: 1/3 of the puff pastry recipe below will yield about 8-10 1.5” vols-au-vent or 4 4” vols-au-vent

In addition to the equipment listed above, you will need:
-well-chilled puff pastry dough (recipe below)
-egg wash (1 egg or yolk beaten with a small amount of water)
-your filling of choice

Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Using a knife or metal bench scraper, divided your chilled puff pastry dough into three equal pieces. Work with one piece of the dough, and leave the rest wrapped and chilled. (If you are looking to make more vols-au-vent than the yield stated above, you can roll and cut the remaining two pieces of dough as well…if not, then leave refrigerated for the time being or prepare it for longer-term freezer storage. See the “Tips” section below for more storage info.)

On a lightly floured surface, roll the piece of dough into a rectangle about 1/8 to 1/4-inch (3-6 mm) thick. Transfer it to the baking sheet and refrigerate for about 10 minutes before proceeding with the cutting.

(This assumes you will be using round cutters, but if you do not have them, it is possible to cut square vols-au-vents using a sharp chef’s knife.) For smaller, hors d'oeuvre sized vols-au-vent, use a 1.5” round cutter to cut out 8-10 circles. For larger sized vols-au-vent, fit for a main course or dessert, use a 4” cutter to cut out about 4 circles. Make clean, sharp cuts and try not to twist your cutters back and forth or drag your knife through the dough. Half of these rounds will be for the bases, and the other half will be for the sides. (Save any scrap by stacking—not wadding up—the pieces…they can be re-rolled and used if you need extra dough. If you do need to re-roll scrap to get enough disks, be sure to use any rounds cut from it for the bases, not the ring-shaped sides.)

Using a ¾-inch cutter for small vols-au-vent, or a 2- to 2.5-inch round cutter for large, cut centers from half of the rounds to make rings. These rings will become the sides of the vols-au-vent, while the solid disks will be the bottoms. You can either save the center cut-outs to bake off as little “caps” for you vols-au-vent, or put them in the scrap pile.

Dock the solid bottom rounds with a fork (prick them lightly, making sure not to go all the way through the pastry) and lightly brush them with egg wash. Place the rings directly on top of the bottom rounds and very lightly press them to adhere. Brush the top rings lightly with egg wash, trying not to drip any down the sides (which may inhibit rise). If you are using the little “caps,” dock and egg wash them as well.

Refrigerate the assembled vols-au-vent on the lined baking sheet while you pre-heat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). (You could also cover and refrigerate them for a few hours at this point.)

Once the oven is heated, remove the sheet from the refrigerator and place a silicon baking mat (preferred because of its weight) or another sheet of parchment over top of the shells. This will help them rise evenly. Bake the shells until they have risen and begin to brown, about 10-15 minutes depending on their size. Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF (180ºC), and remove the silicon mat or parchment sheet from the top of the vols-au-vent. If the centers have risen up inside the vols-au-vent, you can gently press them down. Continue baking (with no sheet on top) until the layers are golden, about 15-20 minutes more. (If you are baking the center “caps” they will likely be finished well ahead of the shells, so keep an eye on them and remove them from the oven when browned.)

Remove to a rack to cool. Cool to room temperature for cold fillings or to warm for hot fillings.

Fill and serve.

*For additional rise on the larger-sized vols-au-vents, you can stack one or two additional ring layers on top of each other (using egg wash to "glue"). This will give higher sides to larger vols-au-vents, but is not advisable for the smaller ones, whose bases may not be large enough to support the extra weight.

*Although they are at their best filled and eaten soon after baking, baked vols-au-vent shells can be stored airtight for a day.

*Shaped, unbaked vols-au-vent can be wrapped and frozen for up to a month (bake from frozen, egg-washing them first).

Michel Richard’s Puff Pastry Dough

From: Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan

Yield: 2-1/2 pounds dough

Steph’s note: This recipe makes more than you will need for the quantity of vols-au-vent stated above. While I encourage you to make the full recipe of puff pastry, as extra dough freezes well, you can halve it successfully if you’d rather not have much leftover.

There is a wonderful on-line video from the PBS show “Baking with Julia” that accompanies the book. In it, Michel Richard and Julia Child demonstrate making puff pastry dough (although they go on to use it in other applications). They do seem to give slightly different ingredient measurements verbally than the ones in the book…I listed the recipe as it appears printed in the book.http://video.pbs.org/video/1174110297/search/Pastry

2-1/2 cups (12.2 oz/ 354 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups (5.0 oz/ 142 g) cake flour
1 tbsp. salt (you can cut this by half for a less salty dough or for sweet preparations)
1-1/4 cups (10 fl oz/ 300 ml) ice water
1 pound (16 oz/ 454 g) very cold unsalted butter

plus extra flour for dusting work surface

Mixing the Dough:

Check the capacity of your food processor before you start. If it cannot hold the full quantity of ingredients, make the dough into two batches and combine them.

Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will be very moist and pliable and will hold together when squeezed between your fingers. (Actually, it will feel like Play-Doh.)

Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, with a small sharp knife, slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that's about 1" thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.

Incorporating the Butter:

Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour (A cool piece of marble is the ideal surface for puff pastry) with your rolling pin (preferably a French rolling pin without handles), press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10" square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with "ears," or flaps.

Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. (If you have to stretch the dough, stretch it from all over; don't just pull the ends) you should now have a package that is 8" square.

To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. There are specified times for chilling the dough, but if your room is warm, or you work slowly, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it . You can stop at any point in the process and continue at your convenience or when the dough is properly chilled.

Making the Turns:

Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24" (don't worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24", everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).

With a pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.

Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24" and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.

Chilling the Dough:

If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you've completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.

The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.

Steph’s extra tips:

-While this is not included in the original recipe we are using (and I did not do this in my own trials), many puff pastry recipes use a teaspoon or two of white vinegar or lemon juice, added to the ice water, in the détrempe dough. This adds acidity, which relaxes the gluten in the dough by breaking down the proteins, making rolling easier. You are welcome to try this if you wish.

-Keep things cool by using the refrigerator as your friend! If you see any butter starting to leak through the dough during the turning process, rub a little flour on the exposed dough and chill straight away. Although you should certainly chill the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns, if you feel the dough getting to soft or hard to work with at any point, pop in the fridge for a rest.

-Not to sound contradictory, but if you chill your paton longer than the recommended time between turns, the butter can firm up too much. If this seems to be the case, I advise letting it sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes to give it a chance to soften before proceeding to roll. You don't want the hard butter to separate into chuncks or break through the dough...you want it to roll evenly, in a continuous layer.

-Roll the puff pastry gently but firmly, and don’t roll your pin over the edges, which will prevent them from rising properly. Don't roll your puff thinner than about about 1/8 to 1/4-inch (3-6 mm) thick, or you will not get the rise you are looking for.

-Try to keep “neat” edges and corners during the rolling and turning process, so the layers are properly aligned. Give the edges of the paton a scooch with your rolling pin or a bench scraper to keep straight edges and 90-degree corners.

-Brush off excess flour before turning dough and after rolling.

-Make clean cuts. Don’t drag your knife through the puff or twist your cutters too much, which can inhibit rise.

-When egg washing puff pastry, try not to let extra egg wash drip down the cut edges, which can also inhibit rise.

-Extra puff pastry dough freezes beautifully. It’s best to roll it into a sheet about 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick (similar to store-bought puff) and freeze firm on a lined baking sheet. Then you can easily wrap the sheet in plastic, then foil (and if you have a sealable plastic bag big enough, place the wrapped dough inside) and return to the freezer for up to a few months. Defrost in the refrigerator when ready to use.

-You can also freeze well-wrapped, unbaked cut and shaped puff pastry (i.e., unbaked vols-au-vent shells). Bake from frozen, without thawing first.

-Homemade puff pastry is precious stuff, so save any clean scraps. Stack or overlap them, rather than balling them up, to help keep the integrity of the layers. Then give them a singe “turn” and gently re-roll. Scrap puff can be used for applications where a super-high rise is not necessary (such as palmiers, cheese straws, napoleons, or even the bottom bases for your vols-au-vent).

For my filling, I used 6 apples, peeled and cored and caramelised them in 75g of melted butter with 50g of sugar until they were golden and soft. Then I simply transferred them to the empty vols-au-vent cases which J. and I consumed ravenously with afternoon tea.

mardi 22 septembre 2009

On reading and Kaiserschmarrn

For me books have always been like friends. Paul Morand once said that we carry different versions of the same books with us throughout our lives and react to different things as we change and get older. I love to re-open old favourites and look at passges underlined in pencil which obviously meant a lot to me and which had been forgotten. Have I really changed so much? Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like without this endless stream of printed pages I'm so dependent on but that seems unimaginable. In a way though, I had to love reading because of the mini library I grew up in which probably also explains why dust doesn't bother me! My mother fed me words, not just cakes. As a child, I wrote stories; once the headmistress of the school read one out and it felt so strange hearing my own words that I was no longer sure it was even my story anymore. At the end, she asked the author to stand up. It took me about five minutes to get over my embaressment and then I was crushed not to get a prize like the other kids who'd painted pictures. Perhaps it explains why I've never been brave enough to write a novel or a story, even though it gives me so much pleasure to write.

Back then, I even had the courage to talk to authors at book readings my parents took me along to. It didn't bother me that I didn't know anything about their work and I felt special being the only kid there. The first books I can remember were the Orlando ones about a marmelade cat and his family which included a naughty black kitten called Tinkle who had a pet spider in his pocket. Then there was The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the story of a tiger who called round at a little girl's house and was so hungry and thirsty that he emptied the cupboards and drank all the water out of the taps so later she couldn't take her bath and the whole family had to eat at a café. The major obsesssion though were the Narnia books which made me travel to a world so different from my own. They made me laugh but also cry and never before had anything been so important as getting through the next volume. When the TV version was on, I felt disappointed that it wasn't at all how I'd imagined everything; it just seemed dull and obvious. I guess I knew even then that sometimes the wonderful journey books take us on can only be experienced for ourselves and that no image, however beautiful can replace the first impressions words make on us.

One day though, I stopped reading; I can't tell you exactly when or why. Perhaps it was an overdose or a teenage rebelllion against how my parents wanted me to be, I honestly don't know but I didn't miss it at all. Later on though, books became my way or rebelling against being an outsider at school. I was considered strange because I was the hopelessly shy girl with braces and no sense of style who couldn't relate to others. Reading made me different, it gave me something over them I could use and I sat alone in a corner of the classroom at breaktimes with Fitzgerald, Camus or Beauvoir who none of them had ever heard of. With books, you can be somebody different and you never feel alone. I sobbed at the lost youth of Le Grand Meaulnes, my heart was pounding at the love story of L'écume des jours and I longed to be as cheeky and clever as Zazie. Most of all, drifting from line to line, the sense of time faded away. It's still wonderful to do that in the U-Bahn, just immersed in my book, even if I tend to miss my stop. Since then, the addiction to words has never left me and I love to think of all the unexplored literary places I have yet to visit. I still feel amazed that such a small, simple object like a book can give me so much and personally, there's nothing which would terrify me more than the thought of being without something to read. On my return to Munich, I finally started my first Carson McCullers book and wondered why it took me so long. It's like something that's been waiting for me to open; the loneliness , the connections with others, the humanity and her amazing descriptions. I find myself unable to get it out of my mind and want to savour every minute of it slowly but also read it all in one go non-stop. It's been a while since a book really made me feel like that but below are some others I adore.

Some authors I can't live without:

Marcel Proust

This is probably on most people's reading list and I'm honestly not trying to show off by listing him! I first became interested when I bought Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life and then Malcolm Bowie's beautiful Proust Among the Stars made me see how modern, touching and eccentric he can be. I love the way each volume of the Recherche has its own colours and style and I find it hard to think of anyone who made me see the pain and beauty of life and love so much. I adore (and am frustrated too) how the long, long sentences slow you down and how he weaves the text together, moving back and forth and reminding us of everything we've lost. I feel guilty for abandoning him at volume five but know I'll come back to him and his curious circle of characters who stay with you long after you've closed the book.

Thomas Bernhard

J. and I were sitting one winter in a bookshop in Arles, looking at a Libération book on twentieth century culture. "You must know him", he told me, (I had never heard of him) "He thought all Germans were Nazis but he's also one of best writers in German." I couldn't imagine the kind of books he had written but a little later he brought me one back from Germany called Alte Meister and I had never read anything like it before. Long sentences again like with Proust but which repeated themselves like in music, going round and round. He was so critical but so funny and the situations he observed were almost tragi-comic - the public toilets in Vienna, the Habsburg's lack of artistic taste, guided tours in museums. It's impossible to translate him properly into English (it works better in French because of the special tense used for reported speech) but I love the exaggeration of his descriptions and the uniqueness of his style.

Scott Fitzgerald

I was so obsessed with foreign languages and reading books in them that I neglected ones in English for some time but these days, I can't seem to get enough of books in English. If I could write like anyone, I would choose Fitzgerald. I love the gorgeous sensuality of his language and the things or people he describes, whether it's Gatsby's parties or a beach in the South of France. I love the way things are doomed against a beautiful, glittering sky and the fragility of it all. Every time I re-read Gatsby, I feel the sadness of the broken American dream more and more.

Simone de Beauvoir

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is one of the most important books I've ever read, even though I love the other volumes of autobiography too. I read it as a spotty, scruffy teenager and it instantly spoke to me with her honesty, the way she wrote about the confusion and pain of growing up, the fact that she didn't believe in anything religious. I almost felt I knew her. From that moment, I wanted to be an intellectual, to shape my life like her and study philosophy. I didn't exactly achive the first thing but managed the last! Even today, I can still remember the pain I felt, reading about Zaza (I don't want to say anymore for those who haven't yet read it).

Marguerite Duras

Moderato Cantabile was the first French book I read from beginning to end and the short, simple phrases made me feel confused but also fascinated. Not much seemed to happen but somehow every bit of dialogue and expression was important. After that I read the earlier more descriptive books like Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique and La Vie Tranquille which were so different but still mesmerizing and La Douleur was something I read and re-read constantly as student with its beautful, poignant descriptions. I haven't read any of her books for some time now but have never stopped dreaming of going to Normandy to discover the places where Marguerite once was.

Ingeborg Bachmann

The book of poems lies constantly beside my bed and I try to read at least a couple before going to sleep. They're often so painful and dark but her words make me feel at least someone understands me, even at the saddest times. Perhaps the most beautiful things written in German.

There are, of course so many other books and writers left unmentioned; Jane Austen, Alice in Wonderland, Molesworth, Modiano, Kundera, Heiner Müller, Calvino.

To finish this long post, a recipe which brings back memories of my first ever trip to Germany and Bavaria when the day was wet and rainy. We sat in a café close to Austria with some Amercian friends, waiting endlessly for the sun. J. recommended Kaiserschmarrn to me, a name that always amuses me because it literally means Emperor nonsense, although it's a kind of eggy pancake. It was filling and comforting and has been a firm favourite of mine ever since. It's traditionally served with raisons soaked in rum (but I prefer mine without) and also plum jam. I've always had mine with Apflemus though which is why I chose it this time too but any jam would work well.

Kaiserschmarrn (for 2 people as a main meal or 4 as a dessert)

300ml milk
125g plain flour
20g sugar
a pinch of salt
3 eggs, separated
a little butter for frying
icing sugar and jam or compote to serve

1. Put the sugar and salt in a bowl and mix in the egg yolks using a balloon whish until frothy and light orange.
2. Add the milk a little at a time, blending well, then gradually stir in the flour until you have a smooth mixture.
3. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold them in carefully and blend well.
4. Melt a little butter in a large frying pan then when the pan is hot, pour in the mixture. When it's brown underneath, turn it and continue cooking until you have everything is golden brown. Then use two forks to cut it into pieces. Remove from the heat and turn out onto a plate, Dust with icing sugar and serve with the jam or compote of your choice.

dimanche 13 septembre 2009

Best laid plans

Do you have little things that really give you pleasure but that you never tell anyone about because you think they're too insignificant and that no-one would understand? When I spend the weekends in Berlin, one of my favourite things is to go food shopping late at night, around 10 or 11pm at the store around the corner. It feels so nice to walk there, canvas shopping bag in hand when everything's quiet. In my street, there are old fashioned lamps sending out a soft, white light and last night, the breeze rippled through the leaves so you weren't sure if it was raining. Opposite the store is the Deutsche Oper and often you see crowds of people standing round outside in the intervals or coming out afterwards to make their way home. Perhaps what I love most in the supermarket are the groups of people buying things for their evenings together like wine, garlic baguettes, potato chips, cheese and fruit. People linger over vegetables and yoghurt and there's never any need to rush. It sounds strange but it makes me feel happy coming out afterwards into the darkness, knowing I can make myself a tisane and a supper of whatever I've bought myself.

It was a good way to finish a day when nothing seemed to work out as planned. The fruits I'd so wanted for a pie have disappeared from market stalls and supermarkets and my planned trip to Köpenick which I'd been so looking forward to ended in frustration, waiting on a deserted platform for an S-Bahn train that never came. Getting through Berlin is now only possible by U-Bahn or regional train but they don't always take you where you want to go and sadly, travelling to smaller places outside Berlin seems difficult until the end of the year. On my way back to the centre, I decided to get out at Alexanderplatz, a place I normally avoid at weekends with so many tourists around. It has a reputation for being ugly with a lot of concrete and high buildings around and there's nowhere really nice to eat but I've never found it so bad. I remember how much I loved being able to see the TV tower from my first flat in Pankow and the old eastern things there still seem to have charm like the Haus der Lehrer or the clock which shows the time in different countries. It's the modern attempts to make it popular that are ugly, like the big pink shopping centre or enormous Saturn store.

The rote Rathaus being eaten up

Even though it's September, it still felt like a summer's day with people sitting outside at cafés and wearing shorts. Oktoberfest has begun in Munich (please don't ask me why it's in September, I've never understood!) and near the Rote Rathaus, there was a tent set up with waitresses wearing dirndls and Berliners enjoying large glasses of frothy beer. Funnily, alongside it was a demonstration for the Left and people holding red banners close to the statue of Marx and Engels who started it all.

Marx and Engels on what used to be called Marx Engels Platz

Often , it's difficult to find traces of the old East in the centre. A line of bricks on the street indicate where the Wall once stood and the massive Palast der Republik which took so long to demolish has vanished without a trace, replaced by a fresh green lawn where people picnic. Only the stalls with fake Russian hats and furs remind us of the former presence of communism there.

A nice day for a boat trip on the Spree (on the right, the old spot of the Palast der Republik)

Its remains last winter

I also finally made it to König, a wonderful bookshop near the cathedral. If you like art, philosophy, cinema or photography, you have to go there. It seems to continue inside forever with shelves stacked from floor to ceiling with the loveliest books imagineable. For a bibliophile like me, it was tough sticking to just one book but I came away with only a sweet little Reclam guide to film noir with its yellow paper cover. There are some places which capture your heart and where you seem to fit in the moment you walk through the door. For me, this was one of them and I'm already looking forward to my next visit, flicking through the pages endlessly in a world where only words and images matter.

Even the window displays are amazing!

The "Three Girls and a Boy" statue opposite the cathedral

The international business centre in Friedrichstraße

Close to Friedrichstraße station, I wandered through the flea market and on the bridge, a man was playing music on wine glasses and selling cds. As I climbed into the hot, overcrowded train that would take me home, I knew I was in serious need of a pie and a couple of lazy hours with my book. Not for nothing is this blog called coffee and pie. As Rose already knows, it was named like this because of my passion for Twin Peaks and Agent Dale Cooper, a man who likes his coffee blacker than a moonless night and can eat three pieces of cherry or huckleberry pie, not to mention his passion for doughnuts! Apparently, Kyle Maclachlan who played him hates cherry pie so perhaps it's appropriate that the first serious one I'm making should be apple which might appeal to him more! When I'd finished though, I realised I was fighting a losing battle to get decent photos with so little light which is why they're not my best. Believe me though that there are few things as nice as getting a hot, fruity pie out of the oven.

The days are already getting a little shorter and the leaves are tinged with gold. In the schoolyard behind my room, I can see some fluttering down to the ground and soon there will be more. I spent the afternoon at the cinema (though not one of my favourites) watching Julie and Julia. Everybody's talking about it so I'll just say that I loved it and felt inspired to try new things in the kitchen. Just make sure you're not hungry when you see it! I was which is why I'm also giving you the recipe for Bratkartoffeln, the perfect Sunday evening comfort food when the though of Mondays seems too depressing.

Apple pie

Martha Stewart's Pâte Brisée
4 large Canadien Gris/ Boskop apples or whichever you prefer (they shouldn't be sweet though)
30g butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar, plus a little white sugar to sprinkle over for decorating

Pre-heat the oven to 170°C

1. When you've made the dough, divide it into two equal parts (I like to weigh mine) and press them into discs. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for one hour.
2. Roll out your dough so that it just fits your tin (you can place it upside down to measure it first) and gently place one disc for the base into the greased tin. Leave the one for the top to one side while you make the apple filing.
3. Peel, core and roughly chop the apples then place them into a medium saucepan with the butter. Leave on a medium heat, moving them around with a wooden spoon until the apples are soft but not a purée.
4. Spoon the apple mixture onto the pie base. Take the pastry for the top and press gently around the sides of the base in the pie tin to seal it. Make a cross on top in the middle to let the steam out while baking. Sprinkle with sugar on top. Place in the oven and bake for about 30-40 mins or until golden brown and crisp. Best served warm with vanilla ice cream, custard or whipped cream.

Bratkartoffeln for 2 (from Basic Cooking)
500g potatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter

1. Wash, peel and dice the potatoes. Heat the oil in the frying pan (you'll need one with a cover) so it's good and hot.
2. Carefully tip the potatoes into the frying pan, taking care not to burn yourself. Cover with a lid and leave for 10-15 mins.
3. Uncover and give the potatoes a stir. Then add in the butter and fry for another 10-15 mins without the lid and stirring occasionally until brown and crisp. Serve with whatever you're most in the mood for but ratatouille or fried egg go especially well.

mardi 8 septembre 2009

A house is not a home

It sometimes seems strange to think I've spent my longest amount of time since I left the UK in Berlin; now over 2 years in a place I call home but of which I still seem to know so little. As I was travelling on the train on one of my loveliest journeys so far, I couldn't help looking up from my book to gaze out of the window at the landscapes around me. Further north there were golden stubbly fields of corn with shadows of the large heavy clouds above. We even went through Weimar which J. and I visited on our way to Berlin back in 2006 and where I've often longed to return.

Closer to Munich, raindrops started to fall, cars switched on their headlights and a damp mist was drifting over the trees. Fridays are meant to be about going home to warmth and light and evenings full of laughter and good food. I had a strange sense of belonging here although I can't really explain why. Many people ask me if I ever wish to return to the UK, if I don't long for British culture and miss my family. When I was growing up in my home town in the Midlands, I longed to leave for America or France, certain of finding people who would understand me, where no-one would find me too shy or my hair too dark and my skin too pale. I was certain such a place existed and when I started learning French after my very first visit to Paris in 2000, I also found that there's nothing I love more than speaking another language all day and being in a foreign place where you can observe people from the outside. It was so refreshing not to associate every word and object around me with things from my own life and after just moving to Lyon in 2005, I remember walking around Croix Rousse and feeling the freedom and space of a life elsewhere. In the evening. lights flickered softly on the Saône and from my apartment, I looked across to the Fourvière cathedral like a giant wedding cake on the hill and in the other direction over the roofs of Lyon to the Crayon. For the first three years, nothing else mattered except distancing myself from my old life, believing I could be someone different, yet over time I also realised that I'll probably always be an outsider wherever I go but perhaps that's not such a bad thing either.

The Fourvière in Lyon

Returning to Britain, those I knew before have left and I find myself able to appreciate things missing here which are important to me after all, even if that doesn't mean I want to go back there soon. At the same time though, there's a strangeness of seeing old places with new eyes. And Berlin? Perhaps it's my city because it was divided and it's still so new. I can't pretend to be like the real Berliners but then again there's not so many of them left. Yet there's a feeling of being able to do anything here which inspires and for the moment, I'm always happy to come back to it.

On Saturday, J. took me out to the Tegernsee close to Munich. There's a kind of coldness as so many rich people live in ugly mansions with high black gates guarded by dogs. Yet when we wandered down to the lakeside for one of the finest strudels and coffee, the sun came out and the lake appeared in all its loveliness as a boat pulled into the harbour. The water was clear and smooth and the colours seemed to come alive with the final rays of the most beautiful evening sun. Sometimes it seems difficult to connect with others and I understand so little, least of all about myself but at that moment, everything was of a perfect simplicity and you could just enjoy the experience for what it was.

Coming back, the sun cast long shadows on the greenest fields I've ever seen and I wanted the moment to last and last.

On Sunday, I decided to make a banana cake because it felt like the most comforting and homely cake there was. I hadn't made it for such a long time but felt inspired by Ju's delicious 5 banana cake. Normally, I'd have made it in a loaf tin and called it banana bread but there were none to be found in J.'s kitchen. It's perfect with crème fraîche and tea to accompany a long weekend film or at breakfast with a rich, frothy hot chocolate.

Banana cake/ bread

100g butter
120g sugar
200g plain flour
1 sachet baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 ripe bananas (the riper the better, even if you don't normally like them in this state!)
100 ml milk
4 large eggs

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C.

1. Begin by creaming the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one but don't worry if you have one or two lumps - they'll disappear.
2. Mash the bananas in a bowl using a fork until smooth. Stir into the egg mixture.
3. Sift the remaining dry ingredients (flour, baking powder and cinnamon) together into a bowl. Alternate spoonfuls of the flour mixture with the milk, blending well with a balloon whisk until you have a nice smooth batter. Then pour into a greased and lined Springform or loaf tin and bake for 30-40 mins.