dimanche 30 octobre 2011

Things I like for winter

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I like to think of myself as an autumn person, much happier putting on a chunky sweater and tights than a summer dress (even if I have a nice collection of the latter). There's no longer any danger of sweaty nights and the days are often golden and filled with colours. Winter doesn't affect me like some people who feel the cold terribly and get depressed by the dark mornings and short days but every now and then I get a touch of the blues, made worse by miserable grey skies and heavy rain. With that in mind, I've decided to put together a list of things that bring a smile to my face and help me get through times when everything seems as bleak as the wind blowing outside.

1.Classic literature

Some books are simply better for reading in winter and having a good book or two on the go makes staying in seem less bad. Reading Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell always make me feel as if I'm sitting curled up in some country house by a roaring fire, even if the reality is a little less charming. Persuasion has the wistful melancholy of an autumn afternoon and its golden leaves and last year, Cranford had me laughing out loud.

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In our family, we spend our Christmas evenings selecting our favourite texts and reading them aloud. It's so much fun so if you don't live alone, why not give it a try? Diaries like those Pepys are be great orBoswell's Life of Doctor Johnson or some correspondence. Or how about some classic ghost stories like M.R James or Wilkie Collins?

2. Baking with fruit and spices

The kitchen is my favourite room to spend time in but it's unfortunately also the coldest with only a tiny radiator and thin windows and a cold draft. Switching the oven on is a necessary step, plus what could be better than having an apartment filled with the smell of chocolate cake, cinammon or baked apples? In a few weeks' time I'll be preparing my yearly batch of Plätzchen or Christmas cookies to give to my friends. This year though I'd also like to try this Panforte recipe and Julia's Kardemummabullar. In the meantime, there's the stem ginger shortbread recipe at the end of this post.

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Stem ginger shortbread

2. Knitwear

Even if I can never resist a pretty summer dress, secretly I'm always looking forward to the day when the thick jumpers come back. I'm happy to say that fair isle patterned ones are a key trend this season. I covet this one from Gudrun and Gudrun but sadly not the price tag but there are plenty of high street alternatives. I've just ordered this one from Esprit, along with this knitted dress and this jumper from H&M. Otherwise, I'll be wearing my Muji hat from last year on frosty mornings and slipping on the thick socks in the evenings. My best investment recently has been a pair of Sandra Juto wristworms which make it possible for me to write, work on the computer and read while keeping my hands warm.

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3. Kitchen stories

One of my favourite films which I found thanks to Julia and wrote about in more detail here. A story about a Swedish man from a home research institute sent to investigate the kitchen habits of single Norwegian men. Funny, touching and quirky, it's perfect for winter viewing.

4. TV series

There are some things you should know about me; apart from pyjamas and sportswear, I don't own any trousers, I have never had a washing machine and I don't have a TV. Recently though, I've discovered the joys of television series on DVD, the satisfaction of viewing something over several weeks, that sometimes I only feel like watching something for a hour or 30 minutes, rather than a whole film. Last summer I once again fell in love with Brideshead Revisited, nostalgic for a Britain of a different time, and the autumn evenings have been devoted to Fortunes of War with the amazingly young Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Classic comedies like Frasier or Open All Hours remind me of Friday nights spent glued to the television as a teenager when I had a crush on Niles and wondered if Granville would ever find a girlfriend while the House of Elliott takes me back to Sunday teatime watching it with crumpets and boiled eggs, dreaming of having Evie's style.

Right now though my waking hours are largely devoted to thinking about the Killing, A Danish series revolving around a single case and a stubborn female detective with a black and white jumper I'm also obsessed with. No silly car chases, explosions or glamourous police officers. It's tough limiting myself to just two episodes a week.

5. Woody Allen films

Whenever I feel the winter blues or the mean reds coming on, I reach for a film in my Woody Allen collection. Somehow they make you feel that it's Friday evening even on a grim Monday and that everything is all right with the world. In Woody Allen films there's always something good at the cinema, people burst into song or stroll along the Seine. There are flea markets to visit, restaurants that stay open all night and most of all, New York with jazz music.

6. Beauty products

As a teenager I was an avid reader of fashion and beauty magazines, saving for weeks to buy Lancôme skincare and Clarins make-up. I've since become disenchanted with the whole industry but still rely on a few key products, especially in winter. I suffer from rosacea on my face and eczema on my hands (it's not as bad as it sounds) so need gentle, effective and most of all, unperfumed products. For my face I wouldn't be without my Liz Earle Cleanse and Polish hot cloth cleanser complete with muslin cloth or Simple Hydro Boost cream for dehydrated skin. Sali Hughes has a brilliant beauty column in the Guardian and following her recommendations, I threw away my tins of Vaseline and bought a dinky little tube of Clinique Superbalm. For hands, Body Shop Almond Hand and Nail Cream or L'Occitane Shea Butter hand cream are wonderful.

7. Winter walks

It seems a strange thing to suggest a walk when it's freezing cold outside but often when I'm feeling down, a brisk stroll through the park helps me collect my thoughts. The days are shorter but the light can be amazing. On Christmas Day, there's no feeling like it as we put on our coats, boots and scarves and set out down frozen lanes, silent for once. In Berlin, I keep seeing posters for great houses and palaces in Brandenburg. A walk through fresh snow around Schloss Rheinsberg below would be wonderful.

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8. Soups

If anything can make you grateful for that chill in the air, it's a comforting bowl of hot soup. Except for summer, I eat it almost every evening, dipping into Lindsey Bareham's A Celebration of Soup or my other cookbooks for inspiration. On warmer days, I tend to prepare clearer, lighter soups but now is the time for hot, thick ones, with strong cheddar grated on top and a piece of dark, crusty bread. I'm planning a series on soups, beginning with the cauliflower one below in the next post.

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9. Films/ exhibitions

When I'm not brave enough to face the great outdoors, I head for an afternoon screening at the cinema which still makes me feel as if I'm skipping school. A season of musicals is beginning at the British Film Institute very soon which I'd love to see and in Berlin, I'm looking forward to seeing Meek's Cutoff, the new Paolo Sorrentino film, Polanski's Carnage and perhaps rewatching the latest Jane Eyre because of its Derbyshire landscapes and wonderful performances.

In Berlin there's still time to catch the Hokusai and Faces of the Renaissance exhibitions if you can face the crowds but I preferred to go upstairs in the Gropius Bau to look at the photos by Eugene Smith. The Museum of Photography is always worth returning to and I'm dying to see those Helmut Newton Polaroids. In London, if you can, it's really worth going to see the Degas exhibition at the Royal Academy, along with the Soviet Art and Architecture one. At Somerset House there will soon be ice skating but what I'd most love to see would be these exquisite photos of Venice, like the one below. If you can, will you go there for me?

Apologies for the rather rambling post but then I like so many different things. Let me know what brings you comfort through the winter.

Stem ginger shortbread (from Linda Collister's The Great British Bake Off)

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Makes 20

200g soft unsalted butter
100g caster sugar, plus some extra to sprinkle on top
240g white spelt flour, or 260g plain flour if you prefer
40g rice flour, ground rice or cornflour (I used the third)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
a pinch of salt
50g chopped glacé ginger

1-2 baking sheets, greased

1. Cream the butter in a large mixing bowl with a wooden spoon or an electric mixer until creamy. Pour in the sugar and cream again until light and smooth.
2. Sift the flour, rice flour or cornflour, ground ginger and salt into the bowl. Add the chopped ginger and using your hands, combine all ingredients until the mixture can be formed into a ball. Roll the dough into a log shape, wrap in plastic and leave to rest in the fridge for around 20-30 minutes.
3. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F. Remove the dough from the fridge and using a sharp knife, slice 20 evenly thick rounds. Place them slightly apart on the baking sheet.
3. Bake the biscuits for approximately 20 minutes or until firm but not coloured. Take them out of the oven and sprinkle a little caster sugar over them. Leave to crisp up for a few minutes on the baking sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool. They keep really well for up to a week in an airtight container, if you can make them last that long!

If ginger isn't your thing, you can leave out the glacé ginger and ground spice and use 50g chopped dark chocolate instead, skipping the caster sugar sprinkled on top. 50g of chopped, unsalted pistachios would also be a great alternative.

samedi 22 octobre 2011

Seven days

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In seven days, the sky turned from deepest grey to the lightest blue. Through my parents' visit, I rediscovered the joys of seeing Berlin with fresh eyes, returning to places half forgotten or which somehow fade into the background of everyday life.The heavy drizzle the first day left us cold and wet and after sighing at the enormous queue, the idea of a visit to the Pergammon museum was abandoned and we did what any sane person would; head for Marzipantorte and a large cup of coffee in the plush salon of the (soon to close - sob!) Opernpalais. The whimsical delights of an afternoon screening of Midnight in Paris left me humming Cole Porter and wanting to re-read a Moveable Feast. Some mornings there were a breakfasts of scrambled eggs with chives, dark bread with quark and mini Windbeautel or cream puffs with a view towards Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower with its disco ball. I discovered that from the top of that the trains look like something from a model railway set and the city glides by over lunch as the restaurant turns. There was the pleasure of afternoon tea at Café Einstein where the waiters wear long aprons and the sunlight filters in through half closed blinds. A large portion of borscht at Datcha followed by a warm blini with almond quark and cherries made the perfect autumn dinner. I got used to cooking in the evenings for them, making large pots of pumpkin, cauliflower and tomato soup, with plum crumble or Zupfkuchen for dessert. One of the best things about having visitors is the pleasure of preparing a breakfast table crammed with the most delicious things; fresh rolls, quark, apple and cherry juice, goats' cheese, cheddar, large bowls of porridge and of course, a cake (see below). In the evenings we'd move to the red sofa in the living room with candlelight to watch a Woody Allen film. It was all over much too quickly, and exactly seven days later I found myself once again at Schönefeld saying goodbye. Even if the UK is only a couple of hours away by plane, I'm envious of Berliners who can visit their families on Sundays and wished it could have been one week earlier, even if it would have meant exchanging sunshine for rain. The city seemed somehow emptier when I got back, in spite of the autumn glow that strange, hollow feeling washed over me knowing that I would only be cooking for myself that night. Luckily there was still cake, one with quark, streusel and apples from my parents' garden, the bramley ones that give you stomach ache and are only suitable for cooking. I thought of my dad, making masses of stewed apple from them, of my mum's apple pie with single cream, of the blossom on the tree in the spring and felt glad that at least a part of Derbyshire was in my kitchen.

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Early morning at Senefelderplatz

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Statue of a socialist worker near Alex

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At Schloss
park Charlottenburg

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At the Russian memorial on Straße des 17.Juni

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The TV Tower and the view from the top

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Cheesecake and Sachertorte at Café Einstein

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The Jewish memorial

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Apple quark Streselkuchen (from Heimwehküche Backen)

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For a 26cm springform tin


280g all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
125g cold butter, cubed, plus some more for greasing the tin
80g sugar
a pinch of salt
1 large egg


1 kg cooking apples (or non sweet ones like russets)
100g sugar
1 cinnamon stick
250g low fat quark/fromage blanc/curd cheese
2 egg yolks
50g cornflour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1. To make the dough, sift 250g of the flour and baking powder together into a large bowl. Add the cubes of butter, the sugar, salt and the egg and mix together (you can also do this in a food processor but I find it more satisfying by hand).
2. Grease the springform tin. Take two thirds of the dough and flatten it with the palm of your hand and your fingers to create a base and sides for the cake. Prick with a fork.
3. To make the filling, peel and quarter the apples, discarding the pips. Place the apple quarters, 150ml water, 50g sugar and the cinnamon stick in a saucepan and cook over a low heat for a few minutes until softened but not mushy. Drain the apples and save the cooking juice.
4. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Whisk together the quark with the remaining sugar, the egg yolks and cornflour. Add in 4 tsp cooking juice and mix again. Pour the quark onto the streusel base and scatter the apples evenly over it.
5. To finish, mix the remaining 30g of flour and the cinnamon into the remaining stresel mixture in the bowl until you have large pieces of crumble. Sprinkle over the quark and apples.
6. Bake for 35-45 minutes until golden.

dimanche 2 octobre 2011

Blue in green

Bild 151 For me. a journey always begins with a book. Unlike some friends, I'm simply not able to polish off one a day so it has to be good. Chosing it however, isn't always that simple. Hesitating between classics like Hery James' Portrait of a Lady, volumes of short stories by Scott Fitzgerald and Katherine Mansfield, thrillers with Brunetti or Wallender, I was paralysed by the fear of taking something too short which I would finish in a matter of days or something too long which I wouldn't like. Late on a Saturday evening, I pushed open the door to Dussmann's English bookshop to find a group of young students talking excitedly about literature with an Irishman leading the discussion from Martin Amis to Cormac McCarthy. Patiently I strolled along the shelves, opening books and letting my eyes run over sentences at random before I spotted the perfect holiday book, Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, a memoir about the five years he spent on Corfu and his discovery of the wildlife there. I had his descriptions of the arrival one morning on the Greek island still in my mind as our train pulled into Avignon station where the heat hits you as soon as you open the door and your eyes struggle to focus on a landscape bathed in sunshine. Travelling South means cyprus trees which stand tall like stiff paintbrushes and a sky so blue it can only be a reflection of the sea. It means running your fingers along the twisted trunks of olive trees which have been there for longer than you can imagine, being jostled in French towns on market days among stalls selling garlic, honey and nougat, being swept away by the mistral with the sounds of doors creaking and lavendar shutters banging. On days of wind and rain, there are the churches to shelter in, sometimes of the simplest stone with only a single window and the flickering of candles for light, sometimes elaborate baroque. It means wandering the through the streets of Avignon until you know them like the back of your hand, pausing in the evening to hear someone practising the guitar or catching the snippets of conversation through the open windows. It means eating galettes in a leafy square and stopping at a patisserie for large pistachio macaroons, even if the ones in Arles close to the Place du Forum were still the best. On the last evening, an old man was sitting alone in the shadows as I made my way to the bakery on the boulevard Raspail which sold tarte tatin and the most delicious cake with pistachios and cherries. I thought of how I would miss the light, the colours, the streets so quiet as darkness falls where I could imagine living.

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Thanks to all of you for your kind comments for my last post. Reading them made me realise how I much I'd miss you if I didn't continue this blog and I apologise for any confusion caused by the title or content. I'll be back with more photos from Provence in a few days.