Archive for the ‘Luisa Weiss’ Category

2016 was an entirely adequate year for me.  I earned my first professional designation after three years of hard work and study, went on some great trips (though, having stayed in North America all year, I really did miss my usual visit to Europe), and, the crucial difference from 2015, none of my loved ones died or seriously injured themselves.  Well done us!

And, of course, there were lots of books.  Here are the best of the best:

books-310. The Lark (1922) – E. Nesbit
This charming story of two young women and their attempts to support themselves is featuring on a lot of “Best of” lists this year and rightly so. And the best news is that it will be reprinted and easily available as of March 2017, thanks to Scott!

9. More Was Lost (1946) – Eleanor Perényi
An interesting and entertaining memoir about life in Central Europe in the late 1930s from a young American woman married to a Hungarian nobleman.

8. Classic German Baking (2016) – Luisa Weiss
Simply put, this is the cookbook I have been longing for all my life. The Christmas chapter alone – heck, just the recipe for Basler Brunsli cookies – would have been enough to earn it a spot on this list. As it is, the other chapters are equally wonderful.

books-27. Lassoing the Sun (2016) – Mark Woods
I feel rather guilty that I didn’t get around to writing about this wonderful book. A journalist based in Florida, Woods set out to spend a year visiting twelve of America’s national parks. Not the necessarily most beautiful or the most popular ones, but “each symbolizing a different issue facing the national parks in the next hundred years.”  A fascinating project, but not the heart of what the year evolved into, as Woods’ mother passed away after a short and fierce illness.  His travels are tied up with his mourning for his mother, his lifelong memories of visiting the parks with his family, and the urge to share that same sense of wonder and discovery with his own daughter.  Really very wonderful and touching.

6. The House by the Dvina (1984) – Eugenie Fraser
This memoir of Fraser’s childhood in Russia (before, during and immediately after the Revolution) is richly and wonderfully told, taking you deep into a close-knit family and a vanished world. It feels very Slightly Foxed-esque and I can only hope it’s on their radar for possible reissue.

5. Terms and Conditions (2016) – Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Speaking of Slightly Foxed, this wonderful history of girls’ boarding schools is one of the most amusing and original books I’ve read in years.

books-14. Saturday’s Child (1914) – Kathleen Thompson Norris
I first read this novel in 2015 and loved it then too but I think it made an even bigger impact on rereading. The perfect dose of both commiseration and inspiration at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and indulging, like the heroine, in a bit too much “woe is me”-ing and not enough productive action. It’s deeply reassuring to know that a hundred years ago young working women felt exactly the same way I do in 2016.

3. Children of Earth and Sky (2016) – Guy Gavriel Kay
The newest release from the master of historical fantasy, I loved this so much I read it twice this year.

2. To the Bright Edge of the World (2016) – Eowyn Ivey
A magical, enthralling tale of an 1880s expedition into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Beautifully told and deeply satisfying to read, I keep pressing everyone I know to try it.

new-i-was-a-stranger-bunkerbooks1. I Was a Stranger (1977) – General Sir John Hackett
In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.

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classic-german-bakingTwenty five years ago this autumn, I met my best friend.  We were five years old and met the way any five year old meets a new friend: a forcible introduction arranged by our parents.  It was just before Kindergarten started, where she and I would make up two thirds of the female population of our class, and our parents thought it would be good for us to meet before school started.  So my friend was brought over to my house, Lite-Brite in tow, and, as far as we can recall, we sat side by side at our respective Lite-Brites, diligently but silently plugging coloured pegs into the screens.

Now, a common love of Lite-Brite only gets you so far.  But from the very beginning we realised we had something in common that all the other children found very weird and slightly suspicious: we got our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.  This is a very big deal when you are little and, in our minds, marked us out as rather special people.  What it actually meant was that her father was from Germany and my mother was from the Czech Republic.  Our respective Canadian grandparents lived too far away to hold much sway over the holidays, whereas our European grandparents lived nearby.  So the holiday traditions we followed were theirs and were similar enough for us to feel a sense of a shared heritage.

This sense of heritage extended into the kitchen.  As we grew up, we both became keen bakers and cooks.  The Czech women I am descended from are famous for their lack of interest in anything culinary so it was my friend I could share my cooking adventures with.  We experimented with all cuisines but it was the Central European recipes that bound us together.  We could talk to anyone about making a quiche or homemade pasta and find hundreds of books to advise on how to do it perfectly.   But, thanks to a dearth of books about Central European cooking, we alone could talk over how to make a feather light dumpling (something I have still to master), debate what the “correct” filling is for rouladen (still no consensus around whether or not there should be egg), and share our secrets for the perfect schnitzel (carrying these to the grave, sorry readers).  It wasn’t an everyday thing and it wasn’t the core of our friendship but it was a way to explore our heritage and share it with one another.

We stayed together from Kindergarten to the end of university, moving through four different schools together.  We made strudel with my Czech grandmother when we were little, lost our minds trying to get the streusel topping right on fruit cakes when we were teenagers, and caught up during busy times at university over homemade schnitzels.  During high school, we co-wrote a food column for our school paper that was titled something like our “German Cooking Corner”.  Because every teenage girl is naturally looking for a good Christmas stollen recipe, accompanied by bad puns and hilarious family anecdotes.  (For the record, it was an excellent recipe, direct from my friend’s oma, even if it did call for 20 cups of flour.  The danger of getting a recipe from a woman who came from a family of 12 and used to run a beer garden, I suppose.)

When I bake, she is always the person I wish was in the kitchen with me.  But these days we live in different cities and in different countries.  It isn’t so easy to make vanilla kipferl together at Christmas or pflaumenkuchen (the best of all possible cakes) in the summer.  But now there is at least one way to bring our kitchens closer together…

Today is the release day for Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, a book I’ve been eagerly waiting for ever since Weiss announced it was in the works.  You may remember Weiss’ excellent memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, or know her from her outstanding blog, The Wednesday Chef.  Now she has presented us with this gem of a baking bible, which, thanks to NetGalley, I have been using for months and which served as the inspiration for most of my summer baking.  Some recipes are familiar favourites, others I remember from my travels , and some are entirely unknown to me (naturally, these are the ones I’m most eager still to try).

Weiss confidently guides the uninitiated through the wonderful world of traditional German baking.  She gathers recipes from around the country (with the odd drift into Austria) and the results are a tempting introduction to the region’s too often overlooked delights.  There is an entire chapter devoted to Christmas baking, which is inspired, and I appreciate that cakes and yeasted cakes are handled in separate sections (giving us that much more cake – never  a bad thing).  Yeasted cakes are something I have yet to master and I am hoping this book will give me the confidence to finally confront them.  As much as I love my current plum cake recipe, I know I’d prefer it with a yeasted base.

All of the recipes I tried were excellent.  One of the hits of the summer was the recipe for Swabian Streusel-Jam Slices.  Made with apricot jam and a streusel topping with nuts, they were the perfect combination of sweet and tart, crunchy and buttery.  And they travelled surprisingly well on hiking trips (which were necessary to burn them off as they were very more-ish).  I lost track of how many times I used the Sour Cherry Streusel Cake recipe as inspiration, replacing the cherries with whatever fruit happened to be in season (it handled excessive volumes of blueberries very well indeed).  I loved the simplicity of the Simple Rhubarb Cake and the equally straightforward Sunken Apple Cake has become one of our go-to recipes (I made it again over the weekend).  And, for those who aren’t familiar with it from Weiss’ earlier book, she includes her recipe for plum butter (Pflaumenmus), which is absolutely delicious and so, so much better than any of the store-bought brands you can find.

Versunkener Apfelkuchen

Versunkener Apfelkuchen

I’ve only tried a handful of the recipes and I’m eager to move on to more, especially the savories and the breads.  If I could whip up fresh rolls for a proper German-style breakfast one weekend that would be joyful (and require much more confidence with yeast than I currently possess).  And who isn’t intrigued by a Cabbage Strudel?

These are exactly the kinds of recipes I want to be sharing with my friend.  Which is why one copy of the book is on its way to her and another is on its way to me.  We might not be able to share a kitchen these days but we can still share the recipes we love.

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What a wonderful reading weekend I have had – and Sunday still awaits!  But I knew it was going to be good when two of the books I have been most excited to read this fall arrived at my library late Thursday.  It was as if the universe knew I was taking Friday as a half day off work and so was in need of wonderful reading material to fill the empty hours (or, those hours that weren’t going to filled by my optometrist appointment – after all, I hadn’t known the books were coming and I couldn’t let a half day go to waste).  And Saturday obliged with torrential rains which (I learned the hard way) are not meant to be enjoyed out of doors but instead wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa, book in hand.

My Berlin KitchenI started with My Berlin Kitchen, a memoir with recipes (like Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris or Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life), by Luisa Weiss, who blogs as The Wednesday Chef.  Right after my optometrist appointment, I walked over to one of the nearby restaurants, ordered my lunch, and settled down with the book.  I was not waiting until I got home, no sir.  The book, needless to say, got far more attention than my food.

Weiss was born in West Berlin to an Italian mother and an American father.  After her parents divorced when she was three, she spent her early childhood living with her father in Boston and then moved back to Berlin when she was ten to be with her mother.  As an adult, she worked in publishing in New York but it was Berlin she longed for, though it took her a while to realise that and longer still to find her way back.  A product of so many different cultures and with so many different homes to turn to, food was a way for Weiss deal with her homesickness – whichever home that might be.

The most relatable portion of the book, for me, was the section dealing with her confusion during her late twenties as she tried to figure out what it was that was missing from her life, despite the excellent job in her chosen field and committed long-term boyfriend.  Weiss describes herself as “a responsible person, possibly even a square.  I always eat my vegetables.  I never have that third glass of wine (in fact, rarely even that second one).  I get palpitations if I’m not punctual.  And I tell my parents everything.  Sometimes I think this stodgy obedience is the honorary German in me, the stuff that rubbed off on me by osmosis.”  I know how hard it is for that kind of person (being one myself) to admit that all the things you had planned for yourself – and achieved – aren’t actually what you need.  I am always filled with admiration when, having figured out what they actually do want and need, people go out and get it.  (I am still at the figuring out stage myself.)  And that is exactly what Weiss did; she moved back to Berlin, got a book deal on the strength of her success as a blogger so she could do the work she loved, and rekindled a romance with her first love.  Interspersed through this story are her wonderful, incredibly tempting recipes.

Weiss admits that German food does not have the romance of French or Italian cuisine – especially given the hoards of food books or mid-life memoirs screaming in praise of those two countries – and though she spends plenty of time cooking Italian, American and various other types of food, she does do her best to make the case for German food.  For me, this is preaching to the choir.  I adore eating in Germany.  I used to travel to Europe in the spring after university let out and I would always arrive in Germany in time for Spargelzeit, when white asparagus would be in every restaurant, prepared every way you could imagine.  Now, when I visit in the late summer I enjoy pflaumenkuchen (which is less exciting since we make it at home all summer) or  feast on mushrooms when I drop by in the autumn.  Delicious.  So it is no surprise that Weiss’ descriptions of her German meals were my favourites, especially this passage about breakfast offerings:

As for the Germans, well, their breakfasts are legendary.  Groaning boards piled high with thin slices of cheese, hams – boiled, smoked, and cured, sliced cucumber, boiled eggs, tomato wedges, coarse and smooth liverwurst, butter and Quark, plum butter and red currant jelly, all meant to adore slices of dark, grainy Vollkornbrot or freshly backed crusty rolls split in half.

And, at this time of year especially, we must acknowledge that Germany knows better than any country how to celebrate a proper Christmas.  But this is not casual cookie baking; this is a serious production:

I made chewy little squares of gingerbread studded with candied citrus and snow-white anise-flavoured domed cookies that disappeared with a quick crunch.  Meringue-topped hazelnut stars that crackled lightly under out teeth, nuggets of almond paste adorned with peeled almonds and baked until glazed and toothsome and snappy, spiced butter cookies shaped into narrow rectangles and decorated with a scatter of slivered almonds.  Not to mention rich, winey fruit bread, damp, dark, and mysterious, and dense, buttery Stollen coated in a thick layer of powdered sugar.

I spent all day Saturday fighting the urge to go to the store and start buying the ingredients for some of her Christmas recipes – I have enough Czech Christmas cookies that I need to start on without adding these!

I have been busily copy recipes out of the book in anticipation of returning it to the library – Flammkuchen!  Meatballs in Tomato-Chipotle Sauce!  Those Christmas cookies that I say I shouldn’t make but am still ridiculously tempted by! – but that is only a temporary solution.  I need to own this book.

English DecorationAnother book I need to own, that other much-anticipated book that came into the library with My Berlin Kitchen, is English Decoration by Ben Pentreath, which I curled up with on Saturday afternoon.  If you are not already following Pentreath’s Inspiration blog, you should be.  I have severely culled the number of design-focused blogs that I follow but his I will never drop.

English Decoration is a celebration of English (and Scottish and Welsh) rooms where, in Pentreath’s words, “the personality of the owner is […] woven into every fibre.”  These are not grand estates nor have they been “done” by hired decorators.  They are homes, usually of Pentreath’s friends, that have been decorated over time and, most importantly, have been thoroughly lived in.  There are newspaper clippings and notes pinned up on walls and scattered across dressers; kettles, toasters and sugar bowls have been left on kitchen counters; and magazines are piled high on the floor underneath side tables.  These rooms have clutter of the most functional, attractive sort and they all express their owners’ preferences and personalities.

The book is divided into chapters by types of room: foyers and halls, sitting rooms, kitchens and dining rooms, bedrooms, etc.  It is an image-heavy book (there is nothing more disappointing than a book about interiors that is text-heavy) but the real joy for me came from reading the descriptions that accompany each photo, seeing everything through Pentreath’s eyes.  It is easy for me to look at a photo and say “I like that” or “I hate that” but I don’t learn much doing that and I do so want to learn.  Going through the book more slowly, taking the time to actually read it, helps me to appreciate even more the rooms I like and to consider more closely the rooms I am not immediately drawn to and the reasons why that is.  Happily, this book is full of rooms I loved and the photos by Jan Baldwin are wonderful.  Still, of all the houses featured, I think Pentreath’s own Dorset home remains my favourite:

credit: Ben Pentreath Ltd.

credit: Ben Pentreath Ltd.

Needless to say, I will be handing out an updated Christmas list to my family with these two books added.

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