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Archive for the ‘Cooking & Baking’ Category

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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I am on a baking bender this month, which, as far as benders go, has to be the most enjoyable kind.  There is something so soothing about baking, which means I’m drawn to it most when I’m busy, as I have been lately, as a sort of relaxation exercise.  I love to cook but the strictness of baking makes it a much calmer process.  And you end up not only more zen-like but with a delicious cake to hand.  The very definition of a win-win situation.

Last weekend, I was using up mammoth zucchinis and turning out perfect zucchini loaves studded with walnuts and currants and delicious, chewy shreds of coconut.  This weekend, I turned to my favourite baking fruit: the Italian prune plum.  The local plums have just started appearing in stores and while some are still a bit too firm to be perfect for eating they are ideal right now for baking.  Rather than turning to one of my tested plum recipes, I tried Dorie Greenspan’s Dimply Plum Cake (recipe via Luisa Weiss).  It turned out perfectly.  The smell of the cooked plums is almost better than the taste of the cake itself.  Almost.

Meet Me at the Cupcake CafeSince it is impractical to bake all the time (at least without having a team of hungry rugby players to hand to eat the results), I’ve also become a bit baking-mad in my reading and television watching.  Last weekend, while baking the zucchini bread, I read Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan, a delightfully frothy little novel about a young woman who opens a small bakery.  Issy Randall grew up in her grandfather’s chain of bakeries and has always been a favourite with friends, coworkers and even the people who stand in line for the morning bus with her for the wonderful cupcakes and treats she bakes and shares with them.   When she loses her job and a small storefront in her neighbourhood becomes available, she takes the plunge and decides to open her own bakery.  This is 100% wish-fulfillment fantasy, which made it perfect for a lazy early morning read.  I particularly enjoyed how Issy’s story was complimented by those of the people around her, whose lives were also impacted by her decision to open the bakery.

The Great Australian Bake Off

To fill the great big Mary Berry-sized hole in my life as I wait for the new season of The Great British Bake Off to start (only a couple of days now!), I have been watching The Great Australian Bake Off.  While the America riff on the GBBO was dire and best banished entirely from the memory of those unfortunate enough to witness it, this Aussie version has been wonderfully fun.  It feels louder and younger than the British version and, in earlier episodes at least, we get to see more of the participants’ shenanigans but the set styling and format is very familiar.  And it has the marvellous Dan Lepard, whose recipes have never failed me, as one of the judges.  It is the semi-final this week and my two favourite bakers (Maria and Monique) are still the in the running.  Has anyone else been watching?

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Mother's Day Brunch

It is Mother’s Day today, which in our house means it is time for mom to relax (or, you know, for us to drag her out of her office and force her to relax), for dad to open a bottle of celebratory champagne (we are incapable of having any kind of family gathering without it), and for my brother and I to pull together an appropriately festive meal.  Then we all settle down at the table together for a few hours to enjoy the wine, the food and the company.

Menu

Carrot Soup with Orange

Banana Coconut Bread

Fruit Salad

Spring Frittata (with Asparagus, Spinach, Peas, Mint and Goat Cheese)

It was a very girl-y meal – as my brother teased, there was no dead pig anywhere – and very delicious.  I love to celebrate my mother but I d0 also love to work in the kitchen with my brother.  One of my mother’s proudest achievements is having raised two children who are so happy in the kitchen: she spends as little time there as possible and loves to know that when my father is away she now has two more people who can be called upon to feed her!

Heat LightningBut not all my time today has been Mom-focused: early this morning, when I was baking the (insanely delicious) banana bread, I started reading Heat Lightning by Helen Hull; though I’m only three chapters in, it is wonderful and extraordinarily well written.  I can’t wait to get back into it.  After some unseasonably spectacular weather, it is finally raining here so I have the best excuse possible to stay inside with my book!

 

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After the week I had, I needed a comforting sort of weekend.  Thankfully, I rather specialise in cosy, cheering activities and so I have had a busy but calming couple of days with my books and my various adventures in the kitchen.

salt sugar smokeAs soon as I finished work on Friday, I pulled out Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry, flipped to the recipe for pink grapefruit marmalade, and got to work.  My grapefruit were fresh and free (having been picked three days before off the tree outside our front door in Palm Desert) so of course I had to try my hand at this.  It was only my second time making marmalade (having made orange marmalade in February) so I hovered anxiously over the stove the entire time but the end result is beautiful and very tasty.  The only problem was that other members of my family kept wandering off with the book while I was needing to refer to it, eagerly looking through the recipes and taking note of the ones they most want to try.  I am thrilled that it interested them but their interest could have been better timed!

Catherine the Great by Robert K. MassieAlso on Friday, I finished reading Robert K. Massie’s wonderful biography of Catherine the Great.  I had started it earlier in the week and sped through the first half but stalled out for a day or two after the news about the firings broke at work.  Really though, it was the perfect book to return to after that, being absolutely in no way related to anything going on in my life.

What I knew of Catherine before reading this book was minimal: our focus in school had been on her relationships with Enlightenment philosophers and other enlightened despots and how she applied Enlightenment ideas to Russia.  Massie does an excellent job of describing this and of putting her policies into perspective versus what the rest of Europe was doing at the same time.  But what really fascinated me was his portrait of her life before she seized the throne, of her life from the age of fourteen (when she came to Russia from Prussia) to the age of thirty-three, when she became empress in a coup d’etat that deposed her husband, Peter III.   Her careful and astute handling of herself and her relationships over this period was extraordinary, reflecting “years of ambition beginning in childhood; the years of waiting, of hungering for power, of always knowing that she was superior in intellect, education, knowledge, and willpower to everyone around her.”  The entire book is masterfully written, making excellent use of Catherine’s memoirs and her letters, which reveal both her intelligence and humour, and skillfully entwining the personal and political, but it is the woman herself who makes it such an interesting story.

P1060193Then, for something completely different, I read What Did It Mean? by Angela Thirkell on Saturday.  While it is not one of her better books (it make actually be the worst of the ones I have read so far), it was exactly the book I needed.  Published in 1954, it focuses on the celebration preparations in Northbridge for the Queen’s June 1953 coronation.   Lydia Merton has been elected chairman of the Coronation Committee and, being Lydia, does an extremely competent job.  She even manages to get the famous Jessica Dean and Aubrey Clover to agree to perform a short play as part of the festivities.

While the number of characters starts out at a relatively manageable size it explodes by the end of the book to include practically everyone living in Northbridge, as well as anyone who can be feasibly dragged in from further afield.  It is nice to see old friends again, especially the delightful Mrs Turner whose not-quite-romance with Mr Downing was my favourite part of Northbridge Rectory, but there are far too many of them.

There are two things that are responsible for my enjoyment of this somewhat uneven book: the blossoming of shy Ludo, Lord Mellings (Lord and Lady Pomfret’s eldest son) and the constant praising of Lydia Merton.  I am perfectly happy as long as people keep saying lovely things about Lydia and a rather ridiculous amount of the book is spent doing just that.

Now, bereft of Lydia, I am spending today baking vanilla crescents (vanilkové rohlíčky in Czech or Vanillekipferl in German), making chicken soup, and reading the new Slightly Foxed quarterly, which arrived on Friday.  A very nice end to a not particularly nice week!

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A Trio of Jams

Well, I did it.  After months of dreaming about jam-making – spurred on by my success with marmalade this winter – I finally got down to business yesterday afternoon, putting the berries I had picked to good use.  I made three different batches – one raspberry, one strawberry, and one raspberry-strawberry blend – and am well on my way to building a stockpile for winter.  My brother joined me in making the raspberry jam (using the raspberry fridge jam recipe from the River Cottage Preserves Handbook) but then wisely went home, missing out on the opportunity to watch his sister evolve from a calm, serene home preserver to a jam-obsessed maniac.  (I did go a little crazy and, after hours spent in the sun picking berries all morning and then an afternoon and evening spent processing them in the kitchen, it was no surprise that when I closed my eyes that night all I could see were strawberries.)  The strawberry jam was also made using the River Cottage Preserves Handbook recipe and, since there was a bit extra that is now being stored in the fridge, I can attest to its scrumptiousness, having had a bit on my toast this morning.  Then, for the raspberry-strawberry jam, I tried Molly Wizenberg’s jam recipe, which I’m not quite sure about.  Everything went perfectly but I think it’s just a bit too sugary for my tastes.  Or maybe, after sampling so much jam all day, I had just finally hit my threshold for anything sweet.  All in all, a very productive day!

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Berry Picking

Bright and early this morning, I headed out into the country with my brother and his girlfriend in search of berries.  The sun was up, the weather was warm, and it was rumoured that strawberries and raspberries were out there, just waiting for us to come and pick them.  We came home with scads of both, particularly strawberries, and got to enjoy a beautiful day out in the fields – a good morning’s work!

Now, I am making absurd quantities of jam (pictures to follow tomorrow), after which I will still have mountains of strawberries left over.  If you have any stellar recipes for strawberries, now would be the time to pass them on!

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I had just about the most perfect Sunday I can imagine. I began the day snuggled up on the sofa with a fleece blanket and Katie Fforde’s Living Dangerously (not my favourite of her books but still very enjoyable), went outside to prune roses and pull out some sad, straggly heather bushes (which were surprisingly heavy), and, after a quick grocery shop, kicked into high gear in the kitchen.  Soup was made, goulash was prepared, and, most excitingly, cake was baked.  I’ve been wanting to make a Dundee cake since last November and it was just as delicious I had imagined it would be.  I love fruit cakes.  Any other kind of cake or baked good I can usually resist, but not fruit cakes.  Theoretically, this cake can be stored for years.  I’m fairly confident this one is not going to see out the week, given the enthusiastic response it’s had.

I also rewatched Midnight in Paris with my father, who was seeing it for the first time.  I’d forgotten how much I loved Hemingway’s scenes – too perfect!  It is such a charming movie but, like any Woody Allen movie, has those painfully embarrassing moments that make it excruciating for the overly sympathetic viewer to watch.  Does that happen to you?  When I’m watching a movie at home and I know a character is about to do something ridiculous, I sometimes have to walk out of the room until that scene is past (sadly, I do not have this option in the theatre).  Otherwise I spend all my time squirming in my chair, my eyes screwed tight and my face an unbecoming beetroot-colour, praying for the awkwardness to pass quickly.  My father shares this trait so it makes him the perfect movie-watching companion.  Strangely enough, I never react this way when I’m embarrassed – my reaction is always more extreme when witnessing the embarrassment of others.  It does make Woody Allen movies difficult to watch!

I hope to get back on track with my reviews soon but I’ve been having too much fun reading in the evenings to want to put down my book and write.  Usually, I have a very precise schedule I follow to ensure that a few reviews are written every week, blocking off several hours after dinner to work on the next day’s post.  Last week, it went completely off the rails.  Why would I want to write about a book when I could read one?  A fine attitude for a book blogger to have!  I am, however, finally caught up on all the books I wanted to review for January, which feels like a major victory.  I’m going to savour that feeling while I try to figure out how to attack the books from February – War and Peace is proving far more intimidating to review than it was to read!

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