dimanche 20 novembre 2011

Seeking colour

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Thank you so much for all your lovely comments and film tips last week which made being ill at home seem much less bad. After extended viewing sessions every day and plenty of lemon and ginger tea with honey, I'm starting to feel better at last. The days are still quite warm for mid November but the sky has turned its usual shade of grey and it's hard to believe that just one week ago I got up early to go to the the Bürgerpark in Pankow to take these photos. I always mean to catch the last of the golden leaves before they disappear then wake up to discover the bareness of the trees. That park is a place I know like the back of my hand, it's pinkish paths with stones that crunch underfoot as joggers go by, the rose garden with its white arches where I've often caught the last rays of sun over my book, the café where I've drunk hot chocolate with cream in winter and iced coffee in summer, the little enclosure where the goats live. Yet I always feel there's some little thing I've missed; the flowers in bloom, a sculpture, the way the light illuminates the tops of the trees late afternoon.

Later on that day I met a reader of my blog. Always too early for appointments, I sat in the lobby of the Hackesche Höfe Kino trying to concentrate on my book, nervously biting my lip as I wondered if we would find each other. I glanced over at every new person coming up the stairs yet I knew when it was her, even though I had never heard her voice or seen her face. We snuck into a matinee of Meek's Cutoff, ordered the only vegetarian dish at a Vietnamese restaurant down the road and enjoyed the last pinkish glow of a stunning day before going back into the cinema to watch Polisse, a really great new French film about a youth squad in Paris. Normally going to the cinema is my guilty pleasure I enjoy alone, picking out a seat at the end of the row and feeling the excitement as the lights go down without worrying if anyone else likes the film but it also felt good to to find someone to share that with.

I'm feeling in need of colour and comfort on these sunless days. This afternoon I'm off to a Finnish bazaar with some friends, will try baking a Danish style feta and leek tart for dinner and am hoping to finally catch the new Kaurismäki film, Le Havre at the cinema in the next few days. What are your plans?

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Finally, I couldn't leave you without giving you the recipe for my favourite cauliflower soup, promised a while back. It's truly one of my winter essentials, simple to prepare and heat up the next day when I'm too tired to cook.

Cauliflower Soup from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day

Heidi serves hers with aged cheddar and mustard croutons but I prefer a dollop of mustard in mine and some grated cheddar on top.


2 shallots, chopped,
1 onion, chopped
1 large potato, peeled and cut into small cubes
3.5 cups vegetable stock
a large cauliflower cut into little florets
some mature cheddar and Dijon mustard to serve
1-2 tbsp olive oil
a pinch of sea salt

1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and add in the salt followed by the shallots and onions. Fry over a medium heat until soft. Tip in the chopped potato, cover the pan with a lid and leave to cook for about 4 minutes or until soft.
2. Uncover, pour in the vegetable stock and bring everything to the boil. Add the cauliflower and cook until the florets are tender. Remove from the heat and puree with a hand blender. Add a dash of mustard and sprinkle over some cheese to serve.

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lundi 14 novembre 2011

Film cures for colds

As you saw from my list recently, I love the idea of winter much more than the reality but when the weather turns cold, I can't escape the chapped lips, cracked hands, frozen feet, raw, red skin and worst of all, sickness. Today I've abandoned all hope of going to work after waking up with a throat that feels like it's been sandpapered, sore eyes and a sinus infection. I hate taking time off work, mainly because I find it difficult to stay inside and do very little. If I can I make an effort and get dressed, make some tea and porridge with honey and venture outside for a bit. Somehow slobbing around in pyjamas with boxes of Kleenex everywhere makes me feel even worse. What helps me to survive though is my film collection and with about 200 DVDs, I'm never short of anything to watch. Bad colds mean I tend to choose films in English to give my sore eyes a break from reading subtitles or having to concentrate on listening to foreign languages. Below are my top 10 films to watch when you're not feeling so great.

1. Radio Days

You knew I'd start with a Woody Allen one, right? People tend either to love or hate him and those who love him always have their own particular favourites. I'd be happy with almost any of his films, but somehow Radio Days is my favourite. Seeing Rockaway beach on a grey, rainy day makes me feel all wistful and nostalgic and the soundtrack is wonderful. I already have this planned as my New Year's Eve film.

2. Groundhog Day

Basically, anything with Bill Murray gets my vote; Ghostbusters, Broken Flowers, Lost in Translation, The Royal Tennenbaums. I love the way he was never really young and always wears that look of eternal suffering. Groundhog Day is probably my choice for sick days because it really makes me laugh and also grateful that at least tomorrow will be different.

3. Bringing Up Baby

When it comes to comedies, I'm very picky; it either has to be screwball or extremely black humour which is the reason I tend to avoid them. Until recently, I had very few in my collection but then I had a terrible cold a couple of years ago and realised that I wasn't in the mood for Ingmar Bergman. Luckily, it was possible to watch the Marx Brothers on YouTube. This film by Howard Hawks with two of my favourite actors, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, is sheer perfection and I love the chemistry between them. Oh and the leopard is adorable too.

4. Metropolitan

What is it about New York winters that makes them seem so romantic? The reality must be different with blizzards and freezing temperatures but this comedy about the debutante season in the 80s always makes me long to spend Christmas there. The scenes where the main character is asked if he isn't cold just wearing a trench coat and replies that it's very warm and has a lining are my favourites.

5. The Squid and the Whale

I grew up in a dysfunctional family with parents who were both married before so this film really strikes a chord with me. It's painful, funny and reminds me how much easier it is to be an adult, even if they still act like children sometimes.

6. Stolen Kisses

One of the few non-English films I often watch when I'm ill is Francois Truffaut's Baisers Volés or Stolen Kisses. It felt so good to first see it as a twenty year old, unsure of my direction in life and as chaotic as Antoine Doinel. Now it makes me dream of being young in the Paris of the 60s and spending all day at the old Cinémathèque.

7. Rio Bravo

I know this won't be my most popular choice because westerns never are but at two and half hours, this one with John Wayne and Dean Martin manages to fill an afternoon which is nice for long days at home. Tarantino used it as a test for prospective girlsfriends but I love it because it's about friendship and courage in the Old West.

8. Atlantic City

Louis Malle has always been one of my favourite directors and film noir one of my favourite genres, but as you'd expect from Malle, he makes it his own and does something original. It's as much about the characters as the heist. Old has-been Burt Lancaster peeps at Susan Sarandon, his beautiful neighbour and imagines his great life as a gangster in a city that has also seen better days but then events throw them together that will change everything.

9. Chinatown

I can never resist the chance to rewatch my favourite film on a free afternoon. It's brilliantly written with perfect acting from absolutely everyone but especially Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson who I feel give their best performances as well as a chilling one from John Huston. The music makes me feel I'm sitting in an old fashioned cinema with velvet seats and it's nice to have a little LA glamour when you're sneezing and coughing.

10. Chungking Express

Two stories based around a snack bar in Hong Kong when paths cross, sometimes changing our lives, sometimes not. The first one is darker about Brigit Lin's need for survival and a chance meeting with a lonely policemen, the second is funny and touching with Tony Leung looking handsome in uniform and Faye Wong charming behind her black heart shaped sunglasses and rubber gloves, bringing change into his life.

And you, what are your favourite films for days off sick?

jeudi 10 novembre 2011

The weekly lunch

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Readers, I have a confession to make, I'm not much of a lunch person. The idea of eating at midday is a nice one but I often lack inspiration. Sandwiches have always filled me with dread; at school it was a choice between them or a cantine lunch and despite my love of good bread I'm not really in the mood for that and an exotic filling every day of the week. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to be able to come home for lunch, sitting down with a plateful of something nice while the church bells are chiming but I always opt for small portions to avoid that heavy weight in my stomach that tires me out in the afternoon. Large, hot meals are for dinnertime. Other days I pack cold leftovers to be eaten in the teachers' room which always excites my colleagues' curiosity and makes them label me exotic. I've decided to post a series of recipes that you can make quickly if you have a spare hour midday or take in a lunchbox. Please feel free to add your own ideas for tasty lunchtime bites in the comments section so that I can hopefully try some of them out and make lunch an event to look forward to. It will also give me a chance to share some of the backlog of photos that I've yet to post.

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By the Spree, early one Sunday last month

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This first recipe is one that I used to feel a little ashamed of because it doesn't really involve fresh ingredients but simply tinned tuna and tomatoes over pasta. Then a friend of mine confessed to loving tinned tuna as well and I felt much better. It may still be possible to get the odd good fresh tomato at the market but the season is all about pumpkins, kale, apples and quinces and in winter, tinned ones have more flavour. This recipe is a mainstay of my kitchen, one that I can whip up in around 20 minutes, feeling glad to have the ingredients in my cupboard so that I don't have to go out in the rain.

Tuna spaghetti (from the Moomins cookbook)

1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin tuna in oil, drained
1 leek, washed and with the tough green ends discarded
a little oil for frying

Heat a little oil in a medium sized saucepan and fry the leeks until soft. Pour in the tinned tomatoes and drained tuna and reduce heat to low. Simmer gently for around 20 minutes.
When the sauce is almost ready bring a large pan of water to the boil, add a generous pinch of salt and cook the spaghetti for the specified time. Wholewheat pasta blends excellently with this sauce and it's so rich and filling that you don't need any cheese.

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If you've time the night before or early in the morning, a wholewheat apple muffin would be the perfect dessert. Moist, spicy and with a crunch of brown sugar on top. You can find the recipe from Smitten Kitchen here.

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dimanche 6 novembre 2011

The devil's mountain

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My journey seemed like it would never end. A perfect autumn day with leaves shimmering gold and scarlet, yet still I was impatient on the train headed west and the bus offering glimpses of majestic villas shielded from prying eyes by high walls. I knew they would be there waiting for me though, ready to make our way through the Grunewald to the Teufelsberg where the Allies once listened to East German and Soviet radio signals until the Wall fell. Today the weather beaten ruins perch defiantly over the city and after seeing it so often when flying from Tegel, it had long been a dream of mine to get inside. An ever growing group of people gathered at the gates waiting for our guide, an American who had worked at the base. The clouds took over as we began to climb up, past buildings covered in graffiti and piles of rubbish left behind from wild parties which often take place there. The weatherproof covering has largely disintegrated because of the strong winds and vandalism but what remains is a haunting skeleton from which you look out over the woven colours of the trees below, across to the hill for kite flyers, the Olympic Stadium, the Wannsee and the river Havel with its sailing boats. The higher we went, the more beautiful the view and at the top of the tower the evening sun appeared, making everything even more radiant with a pinkish glow. I felt lucky to be there, knowing that in ten years' time it will probably be too dangerous to visit, the history under my feet and the wonderful city spread out below. Thanks to my dear friends for making this possible; it was the perfect late birthday present.

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Since my last post about my favourite things in winter, there has been nothing but a glorious late autumn I'm happy to say. Long walks outside with the camera are a must to catch every bit of light and the leaves before they disappear. Stepping out last night though, I felt a chill in the air as the sun faded from view and thought it was also the perfect time to make Julia's Kademummabullar or Swedish cardamom buns. Julia has one of the loveliest blogs, full of wonderful recipes and the most beautiful photography but I felt a little nervous at the idea of making these because of the decoration involed at the end. Luckily though, her instructions couldn't have been clearer and despite the excellent video she recommends no longer being available to German users, I managed to make the pastries look presentable. They were so popular that I needn't have worried. Merci Julia pour la recette! Those of you who can read French can also get her wonderful little book on baking and cooking with cardamom at Éditions de l'Épure here.

Kardemummabullar (Swedish cardamom buns). Original recipe in French from Ju* Carnets.

The recipe seems very complex and hard work because the preparation is spread out over two days but none of the stages took me more than 20 minutes, baking excluded. If a clumsy left-hander like me can manage it, I'm sure you all can too :-) The only things I changed were not adding the optional almond paste to the filling and I skipped making the syrup to pour over the buns when they come out of the oven because I normally find it a bit too sweet.

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Day 1 in the morning or the night before, create or feed your yeast starter by mixing 40g of fresh or dried yeast with 40 ml lukewarm water and 40g of all purpose flour, cover and leave for 8 hours or overnight.
Day 1 + 8 hours - prepare the dough without butter
Day 1 + 8.5 hours: add the butter to the dough
Day 1 + 18 hours: prepare the filling and make the buns
Day 2 + 8 hours - glaze the buns, sprinkle with pearl sugar and bake them

Makes 20 cardamom buns

For the dough

700g all purpose flour
80g yeast (see note above)
350ml milk
100g natural cane sugar
1 egg
10g sea salt
10g ground cardamom
100g soft butter, chilled

For the cardamom filling

150g soft butter, creamed
70g light muscovado or natural cane sugar
10g ground cardamom

For the glaze

1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp water
pearl sugar (I got mine at Galeria Kaufhof at Alex but most foodhalls of large department stores should stock it)

1. When your yeast is ready to use, pour the flour into a large mixing bowl and create a well in the middle. Pour the egg into the centre along with the salt, sugar, cardamom and yeast and mix the ingrediants together using your fingers (one hand is enough) and forming circular movements away from the centre. There will be plenty of flour around the middle but don't worry. Once you've mixed in the other ingredients, add the milk in several doses, still mixing with your fingers, working in the flour until it's all gone and you can form a ball with the dough. Lightly dust it with flour and place in a clean bowl, cover with a cloth and leave at room temperature for 30 minutes.
2. When the 30 minutes are up, remove the butter from the fridge, dust it with a little flour and roll it out between two pieces of clingfilm or plastic wrap to soften it. You should have a thin layer of butter. With your thumb, begin working it into the ball of dough then knead it with both hands on a floured work surface. The dough will become sticky and at times, almost impossible to deal with but keep going. Use more flour as needed until you once again have a smooth dough which forms a ball. Put it back in the bowl and leave to rest under a cloth at room temperature for 8 hours.
3. Eight hours later, you can begin to make the filling in a bowl by combining the butter, sugar and cardamom with a wooden spoon or a spatula. Dust your work surface with flour and roll out your dough to form a rectangle of approximately 40cm x 60cm. Spread the filling evenly over two thirds of the dough then fold it in three, beginning with the unfilled third over the middle third and the remaining filled one over this. I apologise for not having any photos here as none were in focus but you can find it shown very clearly on Julia's blog. Cut the rolled up dough widthways into strips about the thickness of your finger, twist them a little and tie them in a knot. Place your pastries on a baking sheet, cover with a slightly damp cloth and leave them overnight in a cool oven.

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4. In the morning of the second day, preheat the oven to 200°C. Brush the unbaked cardamom buns with the egg glaze and sprinkle some pearl sugar over them. Bake in the oven for 12 minutes and leave to cool on the tray for around half an hour before eating.

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