mercredi 28 avril 2010

So bright and delicate - the Daring Bakers challenge

I cannot remember what day of the week it was or if it was cold and rainy when I went to see the film Bright Star a few months back. On free afternoons, there's nothing I love more than going to the cinema when everyone else is working and I have the impression I'm missing school. I remember though that the auditorium was almost empty in that large multiplex cinema I don't normally go to because the independent art one is nicer and cheaper. But from the moment it started, I was completely transfixed by the stunning images, the exquisite details of Fanny Brawne's needlework and by the all too brief but intense love affair between her and the poet John Keats. It made me long for the freshness of an English summer, the crispness of the frost in winter and to see the flowers in bloom. Afterwards, the impressions lingered in my mind and I found it hard to forget the intensity of this experience.

image from

The day when I discovered the blossom, I walked a short distance to the Burgerpark in Pankow where I used to go jogging and sat close to a large children's playground to eat the leek and goats' cheese tart and raspberry muffin I had brought with me. It was warm with just the gentlest of breezes and I opened the slim volume of Keats' letters to Fanny Brawne and once again found myself hearing that fresh, modern voice which had so captivated me. There are just 17 letters written by Keats and sadly none of hers survived but reading them is truly one the most moving and inspiring experiences ever for me.

"My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again - my Life seems to stop there - I see no further. You have absorb'd me. I have a sensation at the present moment as if I was dissolving - I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit to my love."

I hope to find this too when I visit Keats' house in Hampstead this summer and walk in their footsteps on the heath where Fanny spent so many unhappy days grieving for him after his death in Italy.

The Daring Bakers' challenge for this month also made me think of the best of England and feel nostalgia for those harsh winter days when you can only be revived by a pudding. The English term "pudding" is sometimes confusingly used as a synonym for dessert but in its original meaning it refers rather to a heavy, solid mass which was steamed or boiled.

The Daring Bakers' challenge was chosen this month by Esther of "The Lilac Kitchen" who asked us all to prepare one of these original puddings, either sweet or savoury, using a traditional ingredient called suet. This is something that comes from innards of animals and I have to admit, I couldn't face using the non-vegetarian version for my pudding but for the recipe, below, you can also skip it altogether if you prefer. I decided upon a syrup pudding since it brings back memories of my childhood when my mother used to make it for us with fresh custard. Traditional puddings require a special form which I've only been able to find in Britain and take 2-3 hours to cook because they have to be steamed. During that time though you can be doing other things though and the result is a light and fluffy sponge with a rich and sweet flavour. I made this for some friends late at night which is why I could once again only photograph the leftovers the next day but I promise to do better next time! For inspiring variations, check out Rosa's stunning My Fair Lady pudding and Sasa's Sticky Date pudding.

Golden syrup pudding

You will need a special 2 pint pudding basin which can be steamed

175g soft unsalted butter
150g caster sugar
175g plain flour
4 eggs, beaten
50g shredded suet or substitute
Grated rind of 2 unwaxed lemons, plus juice of one
2-4 tablespoons milk
200g golden syrup

1. Grease the pudding basin with a little butter. Pour the golden syrup into the bottom of it.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, lemon zest and juice, suet and milk with a hand held mixer. If it's too liquid, add a little more flour or a drop more milk if it's too dry.
3. Pour the mixture ont the syrup and seal with the plastic lid which you should also remember to butter first. Steam over a pan of boiling water for around 2 hours or until it's risen and feels firm. Keep some extra boiling water handy in case it boils dry. When it's ready, remove carefully from the pan with two spatulas and leave a rest a couple of minutes. Serve with custard and ice cream.

dimanche 25 avril 2010

A thing of beauty

Often when I walk through the streets, I long to push open the closed doors to the wonderful buildings and imagine going into a courtyard or climbing heavy wooden staircases. In the evenings, I look up to the windows glowing with light and get a glimpse of what's inside. It gives me the impression that the lives of others are much more interesting than my own, that somehow I'm outside another world which I'd love to belong to. I remember at school they'd often ask us what job we wanted to do. Mine changed fairly often, sometimes it ranged from photographer, screenwriter and at one time, film director. Yet I never took these options too seriously, never really considered what I wanted to do with my life or how to make it work. Besides, I was always the outsider, the one with hair that was too dark, skin that was too pale, crooked teeth and no style - what did it matter?

I changed my mind a lot, was unable to just stick to a decision. At high school I changed from English to economics, psychology to history, German to philosophy so that I ended up staying on for an extra year. But then there was my first trip to Paris; the lights, the sense of freedom walking along those wide streets and the cafés. There too I had a feeling that I was somehow staring into a different world through the other side of the glass, unable to get in but I wanted to find the door so badly. That was the thing that made me start learning French and feel that something new was in my reach. Four years later, I left for Annecy and began my life abroad. Studying philosophy made it difficult to choose a high powered job and so I started teaching English, feeling it was the only thing I could do. Even though I liked it, there always the thought running through my mind that it was something anyone could do, that it wasn't good enough. I felt inadequate next to the managers and professionals I was teaching, that somehow what they did counted for so much more. I was still standing on the wrong side of the glass. This impression stayed with me until I did a teaching qualification just after I arrived in Berlin and saw that teaching well is more difficult that you think, that not everyone is cut out for that. I realised that it's not your education, money or status that will open you that door but only yourself, that others don't see their lives as any more interesting and often envy things about mine.

After years of doubt and struggling, I finally have the chance to do something a little different in addition to language teaching. The thought of it makes me nervous; I wonder whether I'm good enough for that, feel somehow bad about taking more money. Yet I'm also aware that I have to grab this chance with both hands, regardless of where it leads me, walking close to the edge of the void but with the sense of exhileration being so high up. I hope it works out.

To reflect a little more on things, I took a trip to the botanical gardens today, getting up early to be there when they opened. I'll let the photos speak for themselves but just say that it felt good to be alive with the warmth on the sun on my skin and the smell of the flowers.

Can't get enough of magnolias

In the tropical greenhouses

Stunning camelias

To finish with, a couple of inspiring recipes I tried this week. I know that the emphasis is more on rhubarb rather than apples now but I just couldn't resist making an apple cake. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Spring onion risotto (from the New York Times click here for the recipe)

Apple cake

100g sugar
125g soft butter, unsalted
200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
zest of one unsprayed lemon, plus 1 tbsp juice
3 eggs
2-3 large apples (it's best to use ones that aren't too sweet like Braeburns), peeled and cored
some cinnamon for decorating

Pre-heat the oven to 160°

1. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with a spoon until pale and fluffy.
2. Add in the eggs one at a time, mixing well before adding the next one. Add the zest and lemon juice.
3. In another bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder and add it to the batter a little at a time until completely blended. If the mixture seems too dry, add a little water. Pour the mixture into a greased and lined springform tin.
4. Peel and core the apples. Cut them into quarters, then cut each quarter into thin slices. Starting at the outer edge of the tin, make a circle with the apple slices. Do the same with some smaller slices in the middle for another little circle. Sprinkle with cinnamon on top and bake in the oven for 30 - 40 minutes or until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean.
Leave to cool a little before eating and serve with fresh whipped cream.