dimanche 28 février 2010

Sundays past and present plus tiramisù for the Daring Bakers

The rain had stopped by the time I left the underground. It had been falling steadily all afternoon but the sound of it against the window only made me happier to be inside with my book of the moment that I can't stop reading and a large mug of English breakfast tea. Near Nollendorfplatz, everything seemed strangely empty, just a few couples or families enjoying the rest of a grey afternoon under a dramatic sky. I had been there many times before, once on a rainy day looking for Christopher Isherwood's apartment in one of the streets with their solid, beautiful apartment buildings with balconies and then another time to meet Abbie on a bright summer's day touched with sadness because she was leaving Berlin. Now the snow has melted, there is the constant crunch of gravel on the pavements after months of gritting. Pushing open the door of Albrecht's where I was to meet a fellow Berlin blogger, the tiny café was busy with children playing in a corner, friends talking softly over large cups of coffee, and others who sat quietly reading, savouring sandwiches or delicious pastries. The white walls contrasted with the red of the cushions and the floral patterning of the sofas. Absorbed in conversation and comforted by the chocolatiest hot chocolate and the most delicate pastries, the evening fell and the other customers left unnoticed.

I thought back to other Sundays when I was still new in Berlin and spent most of my time with a group of expats. We would take the S-Bahn home after a long night out, glancing at the faces of those around us. Some of them were also finally on their way to bed while others were up early to enjoy the freshness of the morning when everything is so quiet. We would sleep until midday when the sun crept in through the cracks in the curtains and the light hurt our eyes and we finally decided to go out for brunch and café au lait. People that were part of my everyday life have now faded from view. I wonder if they remember these times with as much fondness as I do, if they ever long to return to Berlin, if we will ever meet again.

After the snow, there's a different feel to the city. A colleague of mine told me that for the first time in ages, she could smell the freshness in the air. Looking back at photos from last year made me impatient to rediscover the colour and inspiration of spring again.

Last but not least, it's time to unveil my creation for February for the Daring Bakers. After I missed last month's challenge, I was determined to be more disciplined and was delighted when I saw that I had to make one of my favourite desserts: tiramisù. It was extra special because some of the readers of this blog got to try it for themselves and it turned out to be a huge success. Just one point: this was not my most photogenic dessert. Putting together the different elements took some preparation so I ended up doing it late at night which made taking pictures impossible and then there was only a small amount of the finished tiramisù leftover from my dinner party. Making the different elements - ladyfinger biscuits, mascarpone, zabaglione, vanilla cream - was fairly straightforward though and I felt pleased that my very first attempt at making this wonderful dessert went so well.

The February 2010 Daring Bakers' Challenge was hosted by Aparna of My Diverse Kitchen and Deeba of Passionate About Baking. They chose tiramisù as the challenge of the month. Their challenge recipe is based on recipes from the Washington Post, Cordon Bleu at Home and Baking Obsession. Thanks to Aparna and Deeba for a great choice. You can find the entire recipe on Rosa's wonderful blog which is always worth visiting in any case.

Next Sunday will be a special day for me because my little blog will be one year old! So I'd like to invite you to ask me some questions. If there's anything you've ever wanted to know about me (not TOO personal please!), just leave me a comment or write me an email by next Saturday night. I'll do my best to answer them all.

jeudi 25 février 2010

The time of roses

In England, last summer

There was a time long ago when summer never seemed to end. A time when the six week break from school seemed interminable, a time when days were filled with nothingness and I was unable to sleep at night because the evenings were so light and I was sent to bed fairly early. Back then, I would spend many days at my grandparents' house (the parents of my Mum) while my parents were working. It was the same house my mother grew up in. Behind the garden with a greenhouse filled with tomatoes and old newspapers (a mania of my grandfather's - don't ask!), fields stretched as far as the eye could see. I used to love to climb over the fence to run through the long grass. It reminded me of waves in the sea when it swayed with the summer breeze. There were the delicate colours of the wild flowers and the shady spots under the trees where I liked to sit and make daisy chains.

Apparently, my grandfather was extremely popular with my brothers. They loved him for his charming eccentricity, humour and willingness to play non-stop cricket. But I always preferred my grandmother. She had wavy white hair, thick rimmed glasses, shapely legs and the softest skin which reminded me of the yellow roses she grew. I loved to whisper to her, play secret games together and make fun of my brother always warming his feet above the gas fire. I often think back to one Sunday in autumn when my mother drove us out somewhere in her mustard Cortina. I snuggled up close to her as we looked out at the countryside and then suddenly there was the sadness at having to return already and the thought that the next day would be a school day. Frustratingly, I have so few memories of that afternoon that was to be so important for me but there is just the final impression of looking back out of the car to see my grandparents standing together after we had dropped them off, waving goodbye.

It was to be the last time I would ever see her because the next day she suffered a massive stroke and died a few days later in hospital. Although I spent other summers with my grandfather, it was never exactly the same. The empty fields I played in gradually were fenced off or used to graze horses and it has been many years since I last went to the house which no longer belongs to us. Most of all, I have always been haunted by the idea of how fragile life is, that nothing can be taken for granted, of keeping memories alive. Perhaps it seems a strange time to be telling you this while we're still in the grip of winter but I've wanted to write this post for quite a while and most of all make a recipe that was dear to my grandmother; an egg custard tart. I never really knew her cooking because she had just changed to a gas oven which wasn't good for baking. But my mother told me about this tart and so in way, I have the feeling of my grandmother looking over my shoulder when making it and continuing a tradition somehow. Most of all, it brings back the memories of hazy summer days when everything was simple and the house was filled with the glow of yellow roses.

Some shots from last weekend during my walk in Schlosspark Charlottenburg. Finally, I felt the warmth of the sun again but the ground was icy and the thaw still seems a little way off.

Egg custard tart (not my grandmother's but I'm sure she would have approved)

For the pastry (from Rose Bakery)

125g cold butter
250g plain flour
60g sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Mix the flour, sugar and butter together with your fingertips to get rough breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs and the vanilla extract. Mix them in with a fork and finish off by hand until the dough forms a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for about an hour.
2. When the time's up, roll out the pastry onto a well floured surface until it fits your pie tin with about 1cm overhanging the edge all around. Brush with egg yolk and prick all over with a fork. Bkae blind in the oven at 180°C for about 15 mins then remove the paper and beans and bake for a further 5 minutes or until golden brown.

For the custard

470ml full fat milk (from jersey cows if possible)
100ml double cream
4 large eggs
50g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
One and a half nutmegs

1. Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan until barely simmering.
2. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a heatproof jug. Pour over the milk mixture, vanilla and half the nutmeg. Pour the liquid onto the pastry case (it will seem very full but don't worry!) and grate over the rest of the nutmeg. Bake at 170°C for around 30-40 mins or until golden brown with crisp pastry.

mardi 16 février 2010

Fall leaves fall die flowers away

For once I was unable to read in the tram as I made my way across part of East Berlin, too fascinated by unfamiliar buildings and occasional glimpses of some forgotten, monumental communist statues. After getting off, I walked through empty streets, whose names were shared with great composers, past high street chains, florists and graffiti covered walls, finding it hard to imagine that I would arrive soon at the Jewish cemetary, a place I had wanted to go ever since a friend told me about it.

Changing trams at Alex with the Rote Rathaus in the snow

A school playground on the way to the Jewish cemetary

I have always loved cemetaries. For me, they are not cold and morbid but places which offer us a chance to reflect and as they are so quiet, I often find it relaxing to take few hours to wander round, yet never before had I been to one that overwhelmed me with its silence and vastness. As the deserted, tree lined alleys led me further and further, the snow seemed to become deeper and deeper. The only sound was that of my boots sinking into the soft, white powdery surface and the squawking of the crows above. I felt far away from Berlin and lost in this landscape of eternal sleep.

There were the graves of those who disappeared tragically into the dark night of history in the 30s and 40s, the rows of tiny headstones whose names were hidden by the snow but who gave their lives in the First World War so we might live in peace, those who left for a better life in America but who were brought back to rest here. I thought of all these people, some of whom must surely have felt the same things as me, who thought that life would never come to an end. I thought back too to my first visit to Prague in November 2007 when I visited the Jewish monuments. On the whole, it seemed a little too commercial and touristy but the old Jewish cemetary made the biggest impression on me with its old, sometimes illegible gravestones piled upon one another in all directions. An icy wind was blowing and small, delicate snowflakes had started to fall.

Close to the deepest point of the cemetary, a solitary figure wandered back and forth with papers in his hand, searching endlessly for what? A name, a memory, a sign perhaps. I do not know how many hours I was in this magical place but found it difficult to tear myself away from it. Of course, I can always return there but somehow I knew such an experience would be unique with the silence and the melancholy romanticism of the snow.

Afterwards, returning to civilisation seemed a little unreal but I decided not to return home immediately and gather my thoughts during another long tram ride to the November café which Julia recommended to me a while back. It's in the heart of Prenzlauer Berg, one of the coolest parts of Berlin and on Sunday afternoon, it was bustling with locals enjoying étagère brunch and reading newspapers. I was lucky enough to get a place right by the radiator from which I could observe the passers by brave enough to face the cold. Locals sat on stools near the bar and greeted each other and as I sipped the most perfect frothy and creamy Latte Macchiato and enjoyed a bauern Frühstück (roughly translated as farmers' breakfast) which consisted of a thick omelette with fried potatoes and onions, my eye wandered over the range of colourful drinks and spirits behind the bar, especially to the Galliano which made me think of Venice at dusk when the light is fading and the illuminated buildings are reflected in the water. The service was a little slow as you can expect at busy times but for once, I wasn't in a hurry. Just as I was about to ask about cake, they brought out the most amazing looking ones: cheesecake, strawberry cake, walnut cake and a lone slice of poppyseed cake which I ordered. Although Julia particularly recommended the carrot cake to me which I hoping to try for myself, I wasn't disappointed with my choice; the delicate crunch of the poppyseeds in the moist cake with the lemon icing on top. If only all days could be so perfect...

Mohnkuchen (poppyseed cake) at the november café

The icon of the GDR, the Trabi, also stranded in the snow

Last but not least, some of you may know that today is Shrove Tuesday in the UK, or mardi gras, more commonly known as pancake day so naturally, I have to give you a recipe for them.

Shrove Tuesday pancakes

Makes 6-8 large pancakes

325ml milk
250g plain flour
50g melted butter, plus some extra for frying
1 large egg

To serve, lemon juice and sugar or the topping of your choice

1. Begin by melting the butter in the microwave or a saucepan and leave to cool a little.
2. Put the milk, flour and egg in a bowl and whisk until smooth and frothy then add in the melted butter. Cover the bowl in foil and leave in the fridge for at least 20 minutes so the batter can thicken.
3. Take a small frying pan and melt some butter in it over a high heat.
4. Pour enough batter into the pan to cover the bottom and leave to fry until the edge are golden brown and with a texture like lace then gently turn over or flip if you're brave. Cook the other side until golden then serve with lemon juice and sugar as we normally do in the UK or anything else you prefer. I love the sharpness of the lemon followed by the crunch of the sugar.

Tulips and pancakes to brighten up the winter!

mardi 9 février 2010

Tage in Weiß

The days before the snow came seem like a distant and unreal memory, almost as unreal as the idea that spring will arrive soon. As I'm writing now, delicate little flakes are starting to fall once again, muffling the steps of the few passers by. Yet I still feel the need for the long walks and photo sessions. On the streets, mountains of old snow are piled high at each side, and as you walk taking the smallest steps possible, there is the crunch of the gravel underneath your shoes and the cracking of the layers of ice. Coming back from the Autorenbuchhandlung, my favourite bookshop with yet another book to get me through the long evenings, the only colours to be seen were those of the traffic lights and the headlamps of the cars. These are the days for staying inside, baking and finally visiting all those cafés which have been on your list for so long.

The extra time in the kitchen is not only good for my cooking though but also for reminiscing about the past. Making rice pudding for example, reminds of those awful school dinners I used to dread and also how depressing and uninspiring I found schooldays. Whenever there was the slightest possibility of getting at least one day off, I used to take full advantage. Sometimes, I was actually ill but even then, there was nothing I loved more than to have time at home, watching films or reading books when everyone else was working. Perhaps that's why an afternoon off work gives me that same feeling. But rice pudding also reminds me of my Dad because it's his favourite dessert.

I don't think his parents were much into cooking. My grandfather died before I was born and whenever we visited my grandmother, the fridge and cupboards were empty except for some milk, bread and honey which always makes me nostalgic whenever I have that at teatime. She lived to be 100 despite smoking, drinking brandy and never dieting (though maybe that helped!). Apparently, my Dad's first cooking experience ended in disaster when he tried to prepare tomato soup. He simply took the can (unopened!) and placed it in a saucepan on the stove. When he removed the lid of course, the hot soup exploded and my somewhat unhappy grandparents had to redecorate their kitchen. A similar event occured many years later when my Dad made his annual batch of marmelade (one of his two specialities, the other is stewed apple) and forgot to put the lid on the blender, covering everything with orange peel. When my grandmother came to visit once, my Dad accidentally misprogrammed the microwave so that the hot cross bun he meant to defrost filled the kitchen with thick black smoke. Then there was the time he had to look after me while my mother was at work but unfortunately managed to drop a full litre bottle of lemonade on a hard floor which meant that both of us, as well as the pantry ended up seriously sticky.

Rice pudding is also something I used to have when I returned from a long weekend hiking in the mountains. There was nothing more wonderful than returning from a day out in the fresh air with aching muscles when the light was beginning to fade to have a bowl of potato soup topped with cheese, followed by rice pudding with apple compôte. The warmth and heaviness of the meal used to make me feel sleepy as I stretched out with a film afterwards.

At the Rebellion des Zimtsternes in Kreuzberg

I had wanted to make my own rice pudding for a long time but somehow, the version cooked in a saucepan never worked out; it ended up dry and burnt on the bottom while the rice was still a little hard. The baked version always seemed a lot of hard work but making it today, I realised how amazingly simple it is. Short preparation, no standing over the stove stirring constantly and a minimum risk of burning. Instead just rich and creamy; the way I remember it from home.

Baked rice pudding

Ingredients (serves 4)

450ml full fat milk
25oml heavy cream
100g round milk rice
85g brown sugar
a teaspoon of vanilla essence
25g butter
some nutmeg to grate

1. Wash the rice and drain it. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.
2. Pour the milk and cream into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add in the vanilla, followed by the rice and the sugar. Stir well.
3. Pour the rice into a greased and shallow baking dish. Grate some nutmeg over the top and to finish add some flecks of butter on top.
4. Bake at 180°C for 15 mins then turn the oven down to 160°C and bake for an hour. When the rice pudding is done, it should be golden on top and thick and cream underneath.
5. Serve with the jam of your choice.