dimanche 28 mars 2010


Coming out of the underground, the sky suddenly darkened and there were a few spots of rain. Potsdamer Platz was busy with traffic, scientologists surrounded by anti-scientology protesters wearing masks and tourists crowding around a few remaining slabs of the Berlin Wall. It's not a place real Berliners typically hang about in; compared to other areas, the restaurants and cafés are not the cheapest and the ultra modern architecture seems impressive but a little cold sometimes. I often think back to a beautiful scene in Wim Wenders Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) where the old writer is wandering through the wasteland, looking for the old Potsdamer Platz which was once the liveliest and most cosmopolitan meeting place with the café Josti. He knows he must go on because if mankind loses its storyteller, it also loses its childhood. The new Potsdamer Platz is unrecognisable.

Come on now, don't be shy!

But once a year, something wonderful happens there. Under the strangely shaped roof of the Sony Center, there is the smell of lilac and pots of daffodils and rhodedendrons blossom outside small greenhouses. The sound of music mingles with the advertising outside in a strange echo all around because it's time for the Herzgrün Liebeslieder festival (literally Green hearted love songs). For a free event which has been taking place for five years, it's still amazingly unknown. Every spring, over three days, musicians and singers perform short concerts in those little greenhouses full of Japanese blossom, lavender, bay trees, citrus plants and even a magnolia. You must call a few days before to reserve tickets and just before the concert stand in line impatient to get into that wonderful garden full of music and flowers. The first year we went, the charming Kitty Hoff and her Forêt Noire band were playing. Dressed in a pretty brown patterned dress with white knee high boots and wavy 1920s style hair, she enchanted us with her mix of jazz and chanson in songs about the little things in life. Last year it was Lisa Bassenge and her band Nylon. Seeing her standing in the crowd before the concert, dressed in black, I felt a little disappointed because she seemed so ordinary and not especially pretty but the moment the came on stage, a transformation took place and there was an amazing magnetism about her performance and her face became beautiful in the twilight.

The Sony Center in bloom

Yesterday, there was the strumming of a guitar and a samba beat as Bergitta Victor took us on a journey starting in Schlosspark Charlottenburg where she sat writing songs barefoot before finally coming back to the Seychelles where she was born. Towards the end, the sun made its welcome reappearence, illuminating the glass exteriors of the buildings and the inside of the roof with its golden rays.

As lovely as the afternoon concerts are though, I feel that everything only really comes alive when the light begins to fade. Shadows fall on the fresh green plants and the smell of the flowers become more intense the longer the music plays. We stayed for the next concert by K.C MacKanzie with her wonderful mix of folk songs and dark humour which made me think of the qualities of the Coen Brothers' films. Accompanied by Buddi on the double bass, banjo, Maultrommel (a small mouth instrument which makes a sound like a didgeridoo) and my favourite, a hammer and rock. I felt so sad when they finshed their last song and I knew this year's festival was over for us. Who says Germans can't be romantic?

The wonderful and talented K.C MacKanzie

Last Friday, the day was so warm and vibrant. I stared out at the park opposite from the place where I work, longing to be able to enjoy it while it lasted as rain was forecast for the weekend. Coming out of Savignyplatz S-Bahn, there was the smell of fish and chips as people sat outside at the restaurant Jules Verne where I've always wanted to go, if only for the prettiest, multi-coloured sprit bottles behind the bar. I made a visit to my favourite bookshop in Carmerstraße where a woman was telling the bookseller that she was travelling the island of Sylt (somewhere I've dreamed of for so long with its dramatic cliffs and waves) and wanted a book about the sea to read there, finally choosing an enormous volume by Claudie Gallay (in French Les Deferlantes) which I also can't wait to read, in spite of my suspicion of prize winning literature. I was a little less ambitious and found a collection by a Norwegian writer I'd never heard of before called Kjell Askildsen which I chose more for the beautiful cover than anything else, but I guess that's Pia's influence! I've only read a couple but there's a charming quirkiness and absurd humour in the way he describes characters who are mostly losers or outsiders. Sadly, little of his work seems to be available in English.

Springtime on Gendarmenmarkt last week

Making the most of the beautiful weather on Friday afternoon before the rain came.

Isn't that a little premature?

The perfect cheesecake which I made again for a friend's birthday - recipe here

Sunlight on my balcony yesterday

Sadly, the past couple of days weren't the best for me because I was ill. This also explains why I missed out on the lovely Daring Bakers challenge.The cause was my cooking, not overdosing on cakes as you might expect, but experimenting with a pasta dish including mushrooms. They once made me ill a long time ago but I've eaten them in the meantime without any bad effects. Anyway, you'll understand that I've decided not to post this recipe (or ever cook with mushrooms again) and after longing for something warm and nourishing but being unable to eat anything, it's a relief to just be able to cook again.

My last full week was busy with little time for cooking and baking. On Wednesday, I'll be travelling back to the UK for a visit to Derbyshire where I hope to see the bluebell woods, rhodedendron gardens, the parks of Chatsworth and take a tea at old Hardwick Hall in between chocolate bunnies. I'll leave you then with one of my essential recipes for keeping me going during the week. It's a pie with a difference - instead of pastry, you use a cheese scone crust. No rolling out, no chilling in the fridge for an hour. Just quick and delicious. Nigella uses red onions but I chose white ones instead.

Onion Pie for busy people (from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess)

For the filling/topping

4 medium onions (about 750g)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 heaped tablespoon butter (approx 25g)
3-4 sprigs of thyme
150g strong hard cheese like Cheddar or Gruyère, grated

For the scone base

250g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
100ml milk
40g butter, melted
1 teaspoon mustard
1 large egg beaten

For a 24cm pie dish, greased

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Peel the onions, cut them in half and then each half into 4 quarters. In a frying pan, heat the oil and butter then tip in the onions. Fry over a medium heat, stirring from time to time until they're soft and brown (Nigella says this should take 30 minutes but I've always found they're done in around 15). Season with salt and pepper, add the thyme and turn out into the bottom of the pie dish. Sprinkle about 5og of the cheese over them.
2. Put the flour, baking powder, salt and the rest of the cheese into a large mixing bowl. In a jug, pour in the milk and mix it with the melted butter, the mustard and the egg, then add it to the flour mixture in the bowl. Use a fork to blend and finally your hands (it'll be sticky). Knead it for a few moments (use more flour if needed) then on a generously floured work surface, press it out so it's big enough to fit the pie dish. Press it down on top of the onions of the bottom of the dish, paying careful attention to the edges.
4. Bake in the oven for 15 mins, then turn it down to 180°C for another 10 mins or until firm and golden. Leave to cool a couple of minutes, then cover the dish with a large plate and tip it out so the onions are on top.

dimanche 21 mars 2010

Chocolate moments and a tart for the dormouse in the teapot

Growing up, one of my favourite books was about a girl called Flossie Teacake (I sometimes think of changing my name to that) whose life was transformed every time she put on a magic fur coat. The plain girl with glasses became a glamourous eighteen year old who could go out and do anything she wanted. Although it doesn't have quite the same magic powers, my thick winter coat with the fake fur collar around the neck and the blue suede boots everyone seems to love give me even more of the impression that I'm doing someting special when I put them on for my outings in Berlin. Soon though, they will no longer be needed because the days are getting warmer at last. From the open window, sounds of the springtime enter into my room; the chirping of the birds, a moped in the street, voices in the garden below. Normally, I'm not one of those people who feels the cold too much (which explains my trip to Wannsee on one of the iciest days of winter) but last week, I felt an optimism and inspiration which have been missing these past few weeks. I had forgotten the pleasures of going out on mild evenings without a scarf and gloves, of seeing the shadows of the branches on the sunlit walls in the mornings when I leave home and of shopping for summer dresses.

Somehow the dirt and grime are as fascinating to me as the beautiful buildings

Although the buds on the trees remain tightly shut for the moment, I have the feeling they won't be able to resist the spring much longer and can't wait for those colours to come bursting out all of a sudden and take me by surprise as they do every year. I was hoping to give you some brighter images but instead, big, fat raindrops are falling from the sky even as I write which meant I wasn't so keen to go for a long walk today. I stuck to the little streets close to home and walked along Ku'damm where groups of French tourists rushed to shelter in the entrance of the theatre and elegant, old ladies were accompanied by their dogs. I strolled under my umbrella with my camera in my pocket, determined to at least capture something of the warmer days and found most of the springtime contained in the large shop windows packed with daisies, tulips, gerberas and daffodils.

No watering cans needed today

The windows of Habitare on Savignyplatz

The deserted tables of Café Grolman

The window of Bücherbogen, of my favourite bookshops

I also thought back to times when, like Flossie Teacake, I was sent to bed early. Sometimes, I would try to delay this as long as possible by drinking my tea incredibly slowly until my parents finally lost patience. Seeing the daylight above the curtains in my bedroom made me feel I was missing out on life. Downstairs, I could hear my brother playing snooker (we have a small table) and sometimes, my parents would take their dinner into the living room to watch a film. When I was a litle older, I used to secretly watch American TV series in my room late at night with the volume on low, ready to reach for the remote control just in case anybody came upstairs. I never got caught. Ironically, after all that effort, I haven't watched TV for years and love nothing more than going to bed early with a book, knowing that life is not just outsde but also in the words I'm reading which let me travel. I guess things are often less interesting when they're no longer forbidden.

On Ku'damm

The incessant tapping of the rain left me feeling in need of comfort. There are certain places which make you feel at home the moment you walk through the door. The Choko café in Charlottenburg is one of these. I had walked past it many times and thought it looked like a place for me. Early afternoon, shortly after it had opened for the day, I took my place in the little domed alcove looking out onto the street, meeting the glances of many passers-by. Inside, chandeliers hung from the ceiling, there were benches and little stools with plush red cushions, little tables with floral cloths and a large counter full of bars of chocolate, easter eggs and pralines. The board outside advertised hot chocolate with cream which I couldn't resist. I'd read good reviews of the Kalter Hund but today there were just two other cakes on offer, the most delicious of which was the Torte della Nonna with lemons and almonds. The hot chocolate cake came in a large mug with a nice, thick layer of real cream (I don't care how good the chocolate is, for me the effect is always spoiled if it's topped with artificial cream from a squirty can), under which was dark and luxurious sweetness - a drink for grown ups. The torte was also amazingly good, delicate and creamy without being too heavy. Tucked away in the corner, it felt like pure indulgence. I sat there reading Paris by Julian Green, a strange but wonderful book about the city he loved which gives me the feeling of discovering it afresh again.

Inside the Choko café on Bleibtreustraße

Yes, I know that's an indecent amount of cream for one person. Isn't this what Sundays are all about?

The delicious Torte della Nonna - how have I lived without this for so long? I have to make my own soon.

My place at the window - so gemütlich!

Last week, I also finally made it to see Alice in Wonderland. Although the true Alice fan inside me still regrets to see most of the original story disappear and some irritating changes (why is the Dormouse Scottish and female?), it was fun seeing it in 3D and with friends, one of whom always brings chocolate and wonderful homemade peanut butter cookies - a kindred spirit. My favourite part of the book is the Mad Hatter's Tea party and the dormouse's story about the three little girls, Elsie, Lacie and Tillie who live in the bottom of a treacle well. This inspired me to make a long lost favourite pudding of mine, treacle tart which is amazingly simple to make. Served warm with some crème fraîche or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it's the perfect comfort food.

Treacle tart

For the pastry

1 Sweet tart dough / pâte sucrée pastry case, baked blind, from Dorie Greenspan as used on Smitten Kitchen

For the filling

400g golden syrup (golden syrup is a lighter version of dark treacle, in Berlin you can find it at Karstadt or at the Brot und Butter bakery at Ernst Reuter Platz)
50g treacle/ Zuckerrübensirup (from a Bio shop)
85g fresh breadcrumbs*
zest plus 1tbsp juice of a lemon

* To make fresh breadcrumbs, you need some slice of dry, white bread (not stale!). You can dry it out if needed by putting it in the oven for a few minutes. The easiest way is then the put the slices onto a food processor and blend until you have fine crumbs but otherwise a cheese grater will work just as well.

1. When the pastry is ready, leave the tart tin to one side and prepare the filling. To do this, just mix the syrup, treacle, breadcrumbs, zest and lemon juice together in a large bowl and pour onto the pastry. Bake in the oven at 190°C for 20-30 minutes but not too long, otherwise it will be too hard. Leave to cool some minutes before serving.

dimanche 14 mars 2010

Man cannot live on cake alone - cheese scones for Oscar

I can't explain why but somehow I'm attached to certain routines. There are Saturday mornings, waking up without the alarm clock, making myself a cup of black tea with milk in my Penguin Pride and Prejudice mug and settling down on my sofa to read for a couple of hours. Eventually though, there's a gnawing hunger which can no longer be ignored. I know it would be simpler to already have some bread and a full fridge but somehow I love the obligation of having to go out to stock up on pasta, cheese, fruit, vegetables, huge free range organic eggs and of course, a fresh loaf from the market around the corner. There's the smile of the old woman with the eggs stall, the Italian choosing the flowers who exclaims "Grazie mille"when she pays and the elegantly dressed Russian explaining why she always buys bread with sunflower seeds instead of with rye. My arm aches under the weight of the canvas shopping bag with ladybirds brought back from the UK and turning down the little street that leads to mine, I notice the red haired woman who lives in the same building with her black sausage dog. After spending far too long desperately trying to make space for everything in the fridge and the pantry, there's breakfast of sourdough bread, Apfelbrötchen (a roll with caramelised apples, totally irresistable), yoghurt and fruit followed by a few more hours on the sofa with my books.

Some polaroids from Friedrichshain.

There is the silence of Sunday mornings and a little later the ringing of the church bells close by, sometimes the pleasure of taking my time over a long brunch, perhaps at Datscha and always the afternoon walk with my camera.

A dramatic sky this morning at Warschauer Straße

Brunch at Datscha

Just as welcome though are Friday evenings after a long day which starts too early when everything is dark and cold. There's no time to eat between lessons which means that I take cake for the important hours between 10 and midday to share with happy students but somehow it never makes up for having a real lunch and by the end of the last lesson, my eyes are heavy with fatigue. After work though, there are the meetings with W. to look forward to. Once there was the caesar salad and coffee in a record store specialising in jazz with the faint strains of samba music in the background. Later there was chocolate cake and a glass of prosecco as they were getting ready for a concert and one of the salespeople took to the piano to play a few bars. Another time, we met in the most gorgeous, old fashioned café whose wooden tables are decorated with large vases of tulips above which are shelves crammed with the loveliest accessories and where you sit on benches with gingham cushions. Time stood still as I savoured an Auflauf (a gratin) with ruccola and later an enormous piece of rhubarb Streuselkuchen with cream which turned out to be too big even for me! Later that evening, we walked just a little further down the road to Marga Schoeller, my favourite place for English books where we browsed, agonising over what to take.

Despite being so tired, Friday nights always seem right for Woody Allen films. Favourite are Manhatton with the little voice of Mariel Hemingway, Manhatton Murder Mystery with the poker scene, the Thanksgiving dinners from Hannah and her Sisters (and empathising with the character of Dianne Wiest, the kooky failure of the family) and Dianne Keaton singing in Annie Hall. Last week though, there was a screening of the Ghostwriter in a tiny cinema at Hackesche Höfe. I've always loved the fact that unlike in the U.K and the U.S, you can take in glasses of wine and beer and afterwards went next door for late night pasta with a carafe of red wine. We talked for hours, only noticing how late it was when the waiters took the desserts from the glass cabinet back to the kitchen. Walking back alone from Savignyplatz through the streets which have become so familiar, there was the pleasant warmth of the alcohol inside mixed with sleepiness and the thought that it was the weekend at last.

Walking around the market at Boxhagener Platz today

A poster from one of my favourite films, Persona by Ingmar Bergman you can buy there.

Two of the other things I made this week, cinnamon stars (yes, I know it's not Christmas but other cookies don't turn out well with my difficult gas oven) and an amazing whole lemon tart from Smitten Kitchen you have to try.

And the title of this post? I often look at the list of these recipes and feel bad that there are so non-sweet ones. Perhaps you all have the impression that I only live on cake. Actually, I love preparing salty dishes but find desserts much more photogenic and don't have the patience to compose the shots. But I'd like to tell you about Oscar, one my parents' cats. Oscar is a cat after my own heart; un vrai gourmand. It all started the day we bought the bread rolls and were astonished to find the packaging had been torn and that one was missing. Later it turned out that Oscar had a passion for bread. He went through phases of liking different things; green beans, roast chicken and most of all, cheese scones. Every time anyone went to fridge, he would be there, begging for food. As I said though, he's a gourmand and doesn't just like any cheese scones; the favourite are Marks and Spencer's which meant that we have to call in advance to reserve them as they sell out quickly, or otherwise homemade ones are the next best alternative. Recently it's seemed like everyone is making cheese scones, thanks to Gracienne's amazing recipe. I prefer though to give you my traditional one which is good enough for Oscar.

Cheese scones for Oscar

225g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
55g butter
a pinch of salt
150ml milk
150g strong cheddar cheese (or you could take Gruyère if you can't find cheddar)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Grease and line and baking sheet.
2. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and rub in with your fingertips until you have a mixture like breadcrumbs. Add in 3/4 of the cheese and the milk, mixing with a fork, then with your fingers until the dough forms a ball.
3. On a well floured work surface, roll out the dough until it's about 2cm thick, then cut out the scones using a round metal cutter and place on the baking sheet. Brush the tops with a little milk, then sprinkle the rest of the cheese on the tops of the scones.
4. Bake for approximately 12-15 mins or until golden and cheesy on top. Leave to cool a little but enjoy them while they're still warm with a thick layer of butter.