mardi 7 décembre 2010

La maison où j'ai grandi

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The house where I grew up is red brick and on the right side of a courtyard, joined to two other sides in a U shape. For a long time I used to think it was haunted. There is a room at the furthest end referred to as the back bedroom which you can only get to by going through a tight, dark corridor. Nodody has ever really occupied it, except for my grandmother many years ago and the occasional guest so my mother found the perfect use for it as a storage room for books for which we have no space on the shelves. The door sticks, the brown curtains are always drawn across the window to prevent the book covers from fading and the heating is often switched off. When I was a child, an old TV set stood by the wall, chunky and with buttons you had to press firmly to change channels. It was here that I would watch bits of forbidden films my parents didn't want me to see like the Godfather or Betty Blue and perhaps it was those forbidden films that created my fear of being in there, one in particular called Halloween. Sometimes the urge comes over me to rent it just to see how ridiculous I'd find it now but horror films have always scared me and even today I find myself with my hands over my eyes when danger threatens the main character. The ghost that frightened me didn't have any particular form, it was rather a presence that could pull me back into the shadows unless I was as quick as possible getting out. The ghost stuck to its own part of the house so the minute I retreated to my bedroom, I knew I was safe. Mine was the smallest room with a window overlooking the garden that goes all the way down to the ground. Every inch of wall space was covered with newspaper cuttings about tennis and later on, film posters given away by the cinema for promotions. One day I suddenly awoke with a desire to tear all of that down and paint the walls medium blue, spray the frame of the mirror silver and stencil some Charles Rennie Mackintosh designs onto the chest of drawers. I think I have never been so creative since. The little room was warm and cosy in the winter and far enough away from that of my parents for me to be able to listen to piano concertos until the early hours of the morning without disturbing anyone. One night though, I woke up in the darkness to hear scuttling and scratching coming from somewhere but no matter how long I looked, I couldn't find anything but felt too afraid to go back to sleep. Instead, I took my beddding with me to the middle room a short way across the landing. Our house used to be a barn and many locals tell us how they used to come up here to buy eggs as children; my new bedroom had an extremely high ceiling, punctuated with wooden beams. On the opposite side stood the stereo on a ledge my father used to do his watercolour painting on but I quickly made the place my own, sticking postcards of French icons from the 60s and the Left Bank around the mirror and enormous posters for Godard's Breathless, Ozon's 8 Women and Amélie whose eyes still meet mine when I wake up in the morning.

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I have my favourite spots. The small closet where I used to hide whenever I played games with friends where I can still recall the smell of fresly washed clothes around me in the darkness as I closed the door. The kitchen with the original wooden cupboards from when we first moved in, crammed with mugs and baking tins. I've always loved the luxury of having so much space to bake and cook in it but my favourite time of year is on Christmas Eve when we roll out and fill the pastry for mince pies and jam tarts while listening to carols from Kings College, Cambridge. Somehow I feel nothing bad could ever happen to me there, as strange at it may sound. In the living room, a gas fire has replaced the log one we had when I was very small which filled everywhere with smoke. Bounding up the brown carpeted stairs to my room, everything seems so comfortable and warm. Sometimes I pause on the landing lined with tall bookshelves, scanning the titles which only increase my reading appetite, or simply listening to the sounds from downstairs - my father laughing at an old British comedy or my mother feeding the cats at teatime. When life in Berlin seems as lonely and grey as the winter landscapes around, I think of those moments and long for the Christmas holidays to arrive a little faster with their smells of oranges and spices.

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Snow has been falling since this morning and I finally bought myself a pair of warm winter boots with a decent grip before the black ice arrives. The city ground to a halt under the weight of fresh flakes last Thursday and after the dentist appointment, I took the day off to wander though Tiergarten and see the Moholy-Nagy exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau. An umbrella stood abandoned in the middle of the park, as if its owner knew that rain was no longer a likely threat. Joggers passed me and I lost myself in a maze of trees and lamp posts, trying desperately to locate the skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz but under a colourless sky, all points of reference vanished, just snow upon snow. Apologies for the rather dull photos but they were the best I could do and to make up for it, there's a few more from Derbyshire lower down.

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I was also lucky enough to get a prize from the lovely Hila last week on her stunning blog, Le Projet d'Amour and she asked me to answer a few questions:

1. Why did you create the blog?

I was really inspired by Patoumi's stories and writing and thought it would be a nice way to combine anecdotes and baking. At the beginning, I thought of it more as a way of discussing my love of food but then I realised that talking about eating without any pictures is pretty boring and got my hands on a camera.

2. What kind of blogs do you follow?

To be honest, even though I love baking and reading, blogs that are just recipe after recipe or pure book reviews leave me a little cold. I need the personal touch, some kind of twist. Blogs with beautiful photos or interesting stories that take me along with the writer. I like discovering new blogs but somehow prefer just following a small number of the same ones so that I get to know the person behind the profile pic.

3. Favourite make-up brand?

I suffer from eczema on my face so avoid using too many products or ones with perfume and opt for natural ones. Dr. Hauschka for example. Lancôme mascara is nice though and for evenings, Chanel liquid eyeliner. I normally prefer to keep make-up to a minimum though.

4. Favourite clothing brand?

I like Comptoir des Cotonniers, although I can only really afford to go there when the sales are on. I have a weakness for pretty dresses and find British High street chains wonderful for that or little boutiques round Savignyplatz, even if I can only afford to make a couple of purchases a year there.

5. Your indispensible make-up product?

My vaseline lip balm because my lip are so dry all the time. There are lots of dinky pink tins scattered around my apartment.

6. Your favourite colour?

I'm a person of strong contrasts and like my colours to be strong as well. Red, black, deep blue or purple. I'm pale so pastels can make me look washed out.

7. Your perfume?

I never wear perfume now, although I used to like Issey Miyake.

8. Favourite film?

Impossible to answer as I have so many films I love and it depends on my mood. Chungking Express, Lost in Translation, Manhatton, Annie Hall, Some Like it Hot, The Squid and the Whale, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Chinatown, Double Indemnity, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Days of Heaven, Stolen Kisses, Breathless, L'Avventura, Bright Star.

9. Which country would you like to visit and why?

New York stands out at the dream place for me, even though people tell me it's loud and huge. I dream of milkshakes and diners, visiting Tiffany's and the Empire State and strolling though Central Park before finishing the evening in a jazz club. It's a totally romanticised view via Woody Allen. In Europe, Sweden is top of my list for Stockholm, Bergman's island and the Northern lights.

10. Make the last question and answer to yourself: what are you reading at the moment?

I'm especially enjoying Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm. It's charming, funny and the characters are completely outrageous. I honestly can't imagine how it's all going to end but am savouring every minute. for bedtime, there's the Exploits of Moominpappa to make me dream.

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The Christmas baking season is upon us once again and it wouldn't be right without German cookies or Plätzchen. So far, I've re-made all the ones from last year, using Mingou's recipes which you can find here.

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The final result, packaged and ready to give to friends. I used star cutters for the Linzer Augen this year.

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Patoumi made thse damiers or chessboard cookies using Loukoum's recipe last year and I thought I'd also give it a try. Mine aren't quite so perfect because I lack the discipline to measure and roll out even squares but they were still straightforward and delicious.

Chessboard cookies for those Alice in Wonderland moments

For around 40 cookies

230g soft butter
100g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
350g flour, sifted
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1 egg

1. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter then add the sugar and mix until smooth.
2. Add the vanilla extract, then the salt, and while all the time continuing to beat the mixture, add the flour a little at a time.
3. Use a wooden spoon to blend until the dough becomes drier and eventually forms a ball. Place this ball on your work surface and crush it with the palm of your hand, pushing it further and further before collecting all the parts and starting again. Repeat once or twice more without overworking it.
4. Divide the dough in half (around 380g each). Put one half aside and mix the other with the cocoa powder until fully absorbed.
5. Place one half of the dough between two sheets of greaseproof paper and roll it out until you have a square of 18cm which is 1cm thick. Repeat with the other half. Using a ruler and a sharp knife, cut each square into 9 strips of 2cm.
6. Beat the egg with a little water and place a layer of clingfim on the work surface. Place 3 strips of dough on it, alternating the colours (for example, one plain strip between two chocolate ones). Stick them together carefully on top and at the edges with a little of the egg. Place 3 more strips of dough on top of them but reversing the order of the previous layer's colours, repeat with the egg and then finish with a third layer. Wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for 30 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
7. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C. Cut each wedge into thin slices (approx 0.5 cm) and place on a baking sheet covered with greaseproof paper. Bake for 10-12 minutes but make sure they don't turn brown. When they're ready, leave them to cool a little before transferring to a wire cooling rack.

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25 commentaires:

  1. Well, of course it's a beautiful post yet again! But I just wanted to say HOORAY that you're reading Cold Comfort Farm! Whatr a joy to have the ending still ahead of you. It's one of my all-time favourite books because it shows that you can always _always_ poke fun at life and enjoy things however ridiculous everything around you is. I especially like the purple prose passages with the ****s. Oh joy! Tell me when you finish it!

  2. Aaahhhh, Mackintosh designs & carols from King's College! I love that.

    Great to learn more about you through this interview.

    Those cookies are so lovely! i'd love to have one of each.



  3. Congratulations! Your site is wonderful. I love your photos and thoughtful writing.

  4. Your Lebkuchen look so lovely! I made some last year with Backoblaten on the back and they went all funny shapes :(

  5. I like the way you choose a special book for bedtime. The novels I love reading don't always make for the best dreaming. Sometimes I read cookbooks before bed, for inspiration and nice dreams. You really captured my attention with your writing about your childhood home. Wonderful.

  6. I found it really interesting reading about your childhood home. Interesting and beautiful, Vanessa.

  7. Beautiful post and photos! Your childhood home sounds wonderful. And congrats on the award.

  8. @Abbie - Ooh, I didn't know you were already a Cold comfort fan, although with your literary knowledge it doesn't really surprise me! It's so hilarious and I truly admire the way Flora keeps going; as you say you can always poke fun. I haven't got to the bits with purple prose yet but can't wait, although deep down I don't want to finish it either. A perfect book for cold, dark days.
    @Rosa - Nice to know we like the same things. I have another baking session planned for the rainy weekend so hope to try out some new recipes.
    @Olga - Thanks dear friend, that means a lot to me.
    @Sasa - I've never used Backoblaten and even though I enjoy eating other people's cookies with them, I prefer to stick to my reliable recipe. I'm sure if you re-made them they'd come out perfect this time.
    @Denise - Before I used to continue with the same book as in the daytime just before going to sleep but found I wasn't always in the right mood, as you say. I don't like just getting into bed and turning off the light right away so started reading a few poems or books which comfort me or inspire my imagination like the Moomins. Cookbooks are a nice idea though so I'll have to try that.
    @Lecia - Wow, that's so nice to hear. I feel lucky enough to be able to go back there and rediscover those memories and know it'll always be a part of me no matter where I live.
    @Christine - Thanks a lot! Others might see the house as a regular home but to me it's magical.

  9. Dear Vanessa, it's the first evening in a long time that I really sit in front of my computer and find a moment to read your post in peace. Your writing is comforting like a cup of Advent-Tee and a good handful of Plätzchen. And God knows if I need comfort food right now.

    PS: I can't watch horror films either. I can't even watch a documentary about big cats eating gazelles, all that blood makes me sick. And it's even worse with polar bears - these red stains on their beautiful white fur, really... :)

  10. So many wonderful cookie recipes. I wan to make them all. I a gree with Mamon, you're writing is very comforting. Whenever I need a calm moment, especially at work, I gravitate to berlincheesecake.

  11. Vanessa, this was wonderful. I'm a bit brain-frozen today or I'd comment more closely. I very much enjoyed reading about the house...

    I loved reading your interview/answers. I agree with Tracy & Manon--it is comforting to read your remembrances.

    I'm so glad that you got the boots, the photos are NOT boring, & I do wish I lived nearby so you could help me with those cookies. I can do some things well & then just fall down when it comes to things like chess cookies.

    It's very cold here, we've caught up with you, but no snow (yet).

    PS: With you on the horror films. I wish it were not so. Recently a relatively mild suspense television show made me nervous.

  12. @Manon- Thanks for finding time to read my post! I hope things aren't too stressful for you and wish I could come over with a bag of cookies for you right now. I'm with you on the nature programme squeamishness and polar bears are especially brutal.
    @Tracy - That's lovely to hear. I find your blog really comforting as well.
    @Susan - Thanks and you don't seem brain frozen at all. I really enjoyed the music and the lights of Washington last night so many thanks too for the link. Funnily, Christmas cookies are the only ones that work for me, all others are pure disaster, believe me. I've tried choc chip and hazelnut ones so many times and they either come out like rocks or falling to pieces. Oh well. Ha ha, glad I'm not alone in needing to hide nehind the sofa when there's even a hint of suspense.

  13. Such a beautiful blog. Glad I found it. I miss the snow, reminds me of my childhood!

  14. I do love your snow photos, Vanessa. I miss it....not enough that I'd move back home though; freshly fallen snow is such a delight. But then it's followed with slush and dirt.

    There was a ghost in my bedroom came out at night and woke me from a sound sleep. Nobody ever believed me.....
    As for the scratching, probably mice. I was sleeping in my sister's log cabin a few years ago and heard the same thing. Turned the light on and beady eyes were staring at me from in between the logs in the corner.

  15. Oh, thanks for sharing so much goodness!!!
    I love the story of the house you grew up in! So lovely!
    I want to read the Moomiepappa book - what can be cuter than that? My mom used to read us about the Moomietrols when I was little. And Alice inspired cookies (thank you for the recipe link, I'm looking forward using some of your recipes this Christmas!)
    Your pictures are amazing! And it was great to read about your favorites! I share your NY dream! I love that city. And the film list covers most of my favorites as well!

    I'm in Victoria now, escaping the Montreal snow and work stress. It's sunny and warm here today. What a welcoming!
    I'm looking forward to cozy days with good books and food.

    Happy holidays!

  16. @Theresa - So nice to see a little sunflower in these cold days and thanks for the sunny comment too.
    @Barbara - It's true that fresh snow, especially in the country is a joy and no matter how much chaos it causes, I can't stop myself from feeling excited at the sight of those fresh flakes. Funny you had a ghost too. Those noises were indeed mice but unlike yours, ours stayed behind the walls or in the loft and we've never seen them. Actually, I prefer it that way!
    @Kat - Aw, thanks. I'm so glad you're enjoying your days free from teaching and even have some sunshine. That must feel so good! Cool that you already know the Moomins. I absolutely love the books and before the Moominpappa one, I also read Moominland midwinter which was truly beautiful. Nice we have so many things in common and I'm already looking forward to meeting you next year.

  17. Avec le temps, j'ai développé un faible pour les films d'horreur et je me rappelle avoir regardé avec plaisir Halloween il y a quelques années (moins terrifiant que Shining par exemple...)! Ta description de ta maison me rappelle la maison de mes grands-parents, certaines pièces étaient inutilisées, glaciales et encombrées, et je ne les traversais pas sans un petit frisson...

  18. Ah, que j'aime ces photos enneigées et ces Weihnachtskekse :-)
    C'est chouette d'en apprendre un peu plus sur toi à travers cette interview...

  19. @Rose - Je me souviens de tes billets sur les films d'horreur et j'étais pleine d'admiration. Je crois que le courage me manquera toujours pour ça. C'est rassurant pourtant de savoir que je ne suis pas la seule d'avoir peur dans une grande maison!
    @Mingou - La neige, on en a pas mal ici et à Paris maintenant je pense. Merci encore pour toutes tes recettes - elles sont géniales. Beaucoup de gens se plaignent de la difficulté de faire des Zimtsterne mais quand il s utilisent ça marche toujours.J'aime surtout tes Plätzchen et ceux de Loukoum aussi.

  20. Vanessa, if you ever jump over to NYC, let me know... it is all you said but so much more.

    I don't know what pleased me more the beautiful snow photos or the kipferl (like my gram used to make). NYC is so beautiful and quiet after a big storm... probably one of my favorite times to walk the streets.... before the black and slush consumes the perfect whiteness.

  21. Hi ! Thanks so much for your comment! All of that baking looks so delicious!

  22. Moi j'aime bien la description de la maison surtout, le bonheur familial a l'anglaise, les odeurs de Noel, le confort chaleureux. C'est une jolie evocation.

  23. @Deana - Oh yes, it would be so lovely to have you as my guide. It always looks especially magical with snow which makes me want to visit it in winter despite the cold. Nice that your Gram used to make Vanillekipferl.
    @Kate - Thanks for your visit.
    @Gracienne - J'ai tellemt hâte de retourner en Angleterre jeudi pour retrouver tout cela. Noël m'y semble particulièrement magique et j'aime savourer cette ambiance et le confort à la campagne.

  24. merci pour la balade et les jolis sablés bien appétissants !

  25. @Trinidad - De rien et merci de ta visite!