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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The final result, packaged and ready to give to friends. I used star cutters for the Linzer Augen this year.
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
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
350g flour, sifted
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa
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.