15 December 2008

of head, heart and base

What is it actually that makes mulled wine, and especially his fiery cousin, the 'Feuerzangenbowle', a preferred metaphor for reminiscing?

Is it the fact that it is closely associated with dark winter evenings and miserable weather, when there is nothing else to do then think of better times gone by? (Like, summer, for example?)
Or is it that mulled wine can pack quite a punch and get you talking incoherently much faster than many other drinks?

Surely the eponymous German movie from 1944 helped a lot in cementing the reputation.

But for me, mulled wine so far only evokes memories of burned gums and icy feet, of cheap sweet wine, either overcooked and flat or stunningly cloying with destilled cinnamon.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine who lived in one of Germany's wine regions told me how they made their mulled wine: instead of simmering the wine with spices and citrus peel, they prepared a sirup in advance, and only spiced the wine as it was warmed.

Of course, I tried it out, but the results were only marginally better than what I could buy in a shop. The aromes were somewhat flat, and there just wasn't any chance to strike a balance between the citrussy and spicy flavours.

So I abandoned that project.

But, as these stories go, a few weeks ago another dear colleague of mine got us talking about said 'Feuerzangenbowle'. And somehow, the rum traditionally used to set the sugar-loaf alight turned into the missing link and sparked a whole bunch of quite delightful experiments in my kitchen.

Making a dish and composing a perfume isn't all that different in my eyes. It is about harmony, complexity, and head, heart and base notes, however you might call them.
To keep with the perfume image, it was the head notes I had been missing in the usual mulled wine. Macerating the spices in the cold rum instead of boiling them for a prolonged time preserved much, much more of the more volatile essential oils, and the resulting drink is astonishingly fragrant and the taste much more complex.

Also, the ingredients gives off their flavours into the rum after a different amount of time. So you get the citrussy aromes fully developed before the spices come in. Which means that you can time the whole process perfectly to suit your very personal perferences in the citrus vs spice department.

Also, the prepared infusion is just perfect to make single servings of mulled wine - just warm a glass of wine (like, the one glass traditionally left over from last night's dinner), spice it up and there you go. Not as good as a whole bucket for the whole family, but still better than not having any because you're the only one wanting some.

The only drawback is that the final infused rum won't burn properly on its own, even if you started with 54% alcohol content. But that's really only a minor drawback, especially as I see no problem at all at using some other, unspiced rum to light the sugar.

And then you can lean back, enjoy the show, and reminisce in olden times. Or you can act the nerdy foodie, happy about the fact that you now have a hot drink with head, heart and base notes.

mulled wine - single serving edition

for the infusion
4 organic oranges
5 organic lemons
6 sticks cinnamon bark (about 15g)
12 star anise (also about 15g)
10g whole cloves (about 20 cloves, I guess)
1 vanilla pod (optional)
750 ml dark rum, 50% alcohol minimum

to serve
red wine
sugar or honey

As long as you are not in the lucky situation to have grown the oranges and lemons in your own yard, give them a thorough wash. Peel the fruits, leaving as much of the white pith as possible.

In a large bottle or screw-lid jar, place the spices as they are, and add the fresh citrus peel. A one litre bottle or jar should be big enough.

Cover with the rum and close tightly. Leave at a dark but not too cold place for about a week (inside a cupboard, for example).
By then, the citrus peel will have given off most of its aromes to the alcohol, with the dry spices only gradually beginning to macerate. So each day you can check if the cinnamon / clove taste is strong enough for you yet or if you'd prefer to leave ot for another few days. I wouldn't leave the mix longer than two weeks, after that the cinnamon becomes too cloying, I think.

Strain the liquid into another clean bottle and store dark and cool until use.

To make the actual mulled wine:
Heat a glass of wine but do not let it boil. Add some sugar or honey to taste (three teaspoons of sugar for me per glass) and some of the infused rum (also three teaspoons for me per glass). Stir and enjoy.

For the 'Feuerzangenbowle' version:
As above, but do not add sugar. Instead, place the desired number sugarcubes onto an absinthe spoon and drizzle with some high-percentage alcohol, dark rum preferably.
Do not use the infused rum on the sugar as the essential oils it now contains will prevent it from burning properly and if it burns, it'll smell real funky.
Light the rum-drenched sugar, switch off the lights and enjoy.

08 December 2008

(mostly) unfounded

Some ingredients I can only treat with a certain cautious reluctance.

Every now and then again, I come across something that strikes me as so odd, so entirely against the grain of what I have become to consider edible, that it just gives me the shivers.

And I am not talking about something generally off. I mean, as a kid I just couldn't imaging raw fish to be edible. I have been eating raw minced porc on bread since I can think, but fish was just... mind-boggling. And now I love sushi.

But I think that is cultural, and just a question of what you are used to eat in general.

No, I am talking about those single ingredients that just seem totally out of place and can not possibly taste good when you encounter them the first time.

Like licorice and anything containing pineapple.
Apricot jam in chicken stir-fry.
Honey and raw tomatoes.
Strawberries and pepper.

The list is probably endless.

Over the years, I have learned that those preconceptions are (mostly) unfounded, especially when such ideas come from people I usually attest knowing what they talk about. Still, I have to admit that there are some of those combinations that I do not dare to try on my own, as I have no idea what it's supposed to taste like, and rather wait and see if I can catch up on it in some restaurant somewhere.

The whole subject was brought to my mind the last weekend, during our annual cookie-craze, when a dear friend of ours completely balked at the thought of using lard in a cookie recipe.

Her wide-eyed stare, unbelieving and mostly hoping that I was only kidding, probably was met with equal surprise on my side that she was so stunned. It quite markedly reminded me that even among our most every-day things, even tiny details can seem quite freakish to someone else.

She trusted me eventually, but as unfortunately I am not immune to Murphy's law, those were the cookies that died in the oven. No chance for me to convince her that everything is fine and these are lovely cookies despite the lard.

Actually, they are quite common cookies in Germany, with many households having their own, handed-down-from-generations, absolutely bestest, version of it. They are called ox'-eye cookies, for the obvious look of them, in most parts of the country. Also, as in my family, they are known as what only roughly translates as the-longer-the-dearer, because they keep very well and become all the tastier with the time passing. (At least, that is how the legend goes, mine never last long enough to find out.) Our lard-loathing friend, of course, named them pig's eye cookies, because they were a) too small to be ox' eyes and b) were made with lard, of all things.

However they are called, they are crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth soft little things, they look just adorably pretty and the lard adds that certain je-ne-sais-quoi to both texture and taste that makes them even more irresistable.

And just to reassure you, no, they don't taste of porc, nor will your cookie box smell like you hid a slice of bacon somewhere at the bottom. Trust me, as long as I don't forget half the flour, I usually know what I do.

the-longer-the-dearer (pig's eye cookies)
(makes 50 to 60 cookies)

140g lard
140g butter
140g sugar
3 eggyolks
420g flour

jelly to fill
yolk to glaze

In a large bowl, mix the fat until soft. Add the sugar and then the yolks, one by one.
If the mix curdles, add a tablespoon or two of the flour, it should be smooth and dough-like already before you add the flour.

Add the flour, and mix until all flour is well incorporated.
The dough should be rather on the brittle side of smooth, a standing mixer is really usefull here. Try not to knead with your hands, as the dough will get too warm and the cookies won't be that tender then.

Cool for at least two hours, better overnight.

Cut the dough in small portions, rolling balls of each of them.
I usually make two large rolls of dough, each about two fingers thick, and cut them into pieces a finger wide each. That swiftly makes for a lot of nuggets that are sufficiently close in weight to each other.

Arrange the balls on baking sheets lined with baking paper, spacing them a little apart.

With the rear end of a cooking spoon, punch a dent in each ball, so they look like broad-rimmed bowls.

Pipe or spoon the jelly into the indentions. Do not overfill as the jelly will turn liquid in the oven and should stay inside their little basins.
We prefer blackcurrant jelly for this, but I think any jelly or marmelade that is not too sweet will do fine.

Glaze the raw cookies with beaten eggyolk.

Bake in the pre-heated oven at about 160°C for about 15 minutes, until they just catch some colour.
Leave to cool on the tray for a moment to cool before transferring them to a rack, as they are very soft and brittle for the first minute or so.

They keep nicely several weeks in a cool and dry box.

07 December 2008

some you win...

Remember what I wrote last week about the slightly mishappen Pfefferkuchen?

That they were quite vile and only suitable for decoration?

Well, as usual in that case, I took a bunch of them with me to the office. Just to see if someone there liked them after all. They were lying in their tin box together with all those other cookies, and probably because I had warned everybody else, no one touched them. Actually two colleagues of mine shared one and precisely described that notorious, soapy-chemical aftertaste, just to tell you that I have witnesses and was not hallucinating.

Because (cue drumroll) - that taste is gone.

Kitchen chemistry will never fail to amaze me.

It was, I think, wednesday afternoon, during the usual 5 o'clock sugar crave (also known as the irrational afternoon feeding frenzy), that I was so low on sugar I ate a handfull of those Pfefferkuchen.

And much to my surprise, no soap, no chemicals. Just plain, lovely, if a little dry, Pfefferkuchen.

Back at home, I tried one of the vast batch that was still standing around in its corner, and they were still... heinous.

So after a long, head-scratching moment I decided that the only difference between the nice ones in the office and the vile ones at home was the fact that those in the office had been standing around in an open box for two days by then, whereas those at home had been constantly tightly lidded.

Consequentially, I openend the two boxes at home, leaving them open. They were doing a nice job as a room scent, actually, but that was not the point. Because, perfectly in timing four weeks after they were made, the Pfefferkuchen taste lovely now.

I am still a little dumbfounded.

But they are and seem to remain perfectly spicy and dark and sweet and everything. Apparently they just didn't have had enough time to rest, with the first of Advent being the last weekend of November this year. And leaving the boxes open to breathe did the trick of speed-aging them.

Actually, I couldn't have thought of a nicer gift for St. Niclas.

30 November 2008

this time of the year - part three

Alright, this year's annual cookie craze is over.

At least almost, that is. So far, we didn't really have the mood to glaze the two kinds of cookies that still need glazing, meaning that technically we aren't finished yet.

But, all things considered, it was a great and productive first Advent weekend.

Together with our friends, we made like a hundred batches of cookies, at least that's what it felt like.

We went into town for a stroll over the local christmas market, and kindly it was even snowing, making the excursion a whole lot nicer than it usually would have been.

We watched the Muppets Christmas Carol, and I experimented with duck in red wine marinade, which luckily the wife considered to be a success.
I attempted to make 'muffoccacias', which I found on the internet but sadly cannot remember where. Those on the other hand still require a lot of tweaking before they will become regulars in our household.

Oh, and I ripped out that vine that had been choking our back hedge the whole summer long and turned it into our Advent wreath, as you can see above. I really like the idea of having those annoying weeds serving a decorative purpose now. Yay, go me!

But, not all is peachy here.

The Pfefferkuchen somehow ended up less then perfect. Usually, they taste hardly bearable when they come fresh out of the oven, and four weeks later, they are lovely, harmonious, spicy treats. This year, it seems, of all the battling ingredients there has been a winner, and unfortunately it is the salt of hartshorn. The first bite tastes fine, but then there is this lingering, soapy chemical aftertaste that really ruins the whole thing for me. I have no idea why, but I am afraid I'll only be able to use them as decoration, threaded on a golden wire.

Also, one batch of cookies died in the oven. For no apparent reason, they melted into pathetically flat puddles instead of turning into neat little knobs of jelly filled cookie crispness. The mess tasted lovely, but apart from that it was completely unusable. The only explanation I can think of is that I must have taken either too much butter or too much lard, or nor enough flour, but I was reading all of it off the recipe, so what the hell...?!

I'll make another batch this week, just to see if it turns out different.

Saving my sanity, (apart from my wife, that is, naturally) was the Stollen. They turned out just as lovely as they promised to, fragrant and moist and succulent.

Also, as extensive testing has shown, I am onto some really good recipe for Feuerzangenbowle in single servings. So far, I am still working on the actual burning part, not having been able to make much more than mulled wine 'flambé'. But that already has been much, much better than anything that I have seen served on christmas markets all around. Or served anywhere so far, that is. Really, really good. Expect to see the recipe here as soon as I have finished testing.

Which reminds me - I have a few experiments to set aflame.^^

23 November 2008

the swiss reason

I like cheese. Lots of it.

If I get some cheese, some bread, and maybe a bit of red wine and a small salad, I have my perfect meal.

That is, perfect as long as it is summer.

During the cold (or rather wet and windy) time of the year, I need something heartier. So it is molten cheese in any variety that I can get my grubby hands on.

When my mother-in-law first suggested to make her 'Swiss Ragout', I was intstantly excited. Meat, mushrooms and cheese, how good was that? It was great, and has since then become a household staple in my own kitchen.

Admittedly, I have yet to find out what is so 'Swiss' about the recipe that it deserves the name, apart from the fact that someone has added cheese. But, on the other hand, that already is a good enough reason for almost anything in my book.

You can't have such a thing as too much cheese, can you?

Ragout Suisse
(serves four)

800g to 1 kg of porc filet
500g (button) mushrooms
500ml cream
1 large bundle of chives
1 small glass brandy (Cognac or similar)
salt & pepper
at least 300g cheese (Fontina or similar)

If necesary, pare the meat, and cut into slices no more than half a centimeter thick.

Clean the mushrooms, also cut into slices. Chop the chives.
Cutting chives with scissors helps saving time and also makes less of a mess, at least for me.

Grate the cheese, or if it is too soft, cut into slices or cubes as small as you can comfortably handle.
You could also take a more neutral cheese like Gouda, but we usually prefer Fontina or Gruyere, as the cheese adds a lovely note the the whole dish that can comfortably be a little more pronounced. And of course, there can never be such a thing as too much cheese...

In a heavy, high-rimmed pan, heat some clarified butter and fry the meat at highest temperature until it catched colour; the meat does not yet have to be completely done.

Deglaze with the brandy, then set the meat aside.
If you are cooking with guests, this is the perfect opportunity for some show-offish fireworks. Or to set yourself and the kitchen ablaze. Please consider carefully.

In the same pan, add the mushrooms and maybe another bit of brandy. Stir occasonally until the mushrooms initial moisture has mostly evaporated and the first slices start getting golden.

Add the chives and the cream, heat until the sauce starts bubbling. Maybe thicken the sauce a little with some flour mixed in a little bit of cold water.

Return the meat to the sauce and reheat. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Pout the meat and the sauce into a wide, oven-proof dish and evenly cover with the cheese.
Of course, if you have an oven-proof pan, you can just keep everything in there.

Put in the oven underneath the pre-heated grill until the cheese is golden and bubbly.
Depending on the oven, this might take a moment, so I try not to overcook the meat in the first place as it will have ample time to get done in here.

Enjoy with bread, or along some pasta or rice, with some fresh white wine.

19 November 2008

waltzing pineapples

Yesterday, we were eating out, as it was the birthday of a dear adopted aunt who currently stays with us. We ended up going to our usual Italian haunt, as we didn't feel too adventurous. Dinner was lovely, both the food as well as the company, but what really made my day was dessert:

Fresh pineapple, caramelized and doused with sambuca, a strong anise-flavoured liquor, together with lemon-rosemary sorbet.

I never really cared for the pineapple/anise or rather pineapple/licorice combination, and had always thought it a little too funky and a little to 'must-try-something-new' for my tastes to really consider it.

But it was lovely. Really, really lovely. Not merely interesting, but perfectly great as both flavours really waltzed together, making each one more complex and less dominant at the same time, creating something new and lovely.

Must. Make. That. Myself.

Now all I lack is an occasion.

17 November 2008

a lot more bling

Surely you all know the feeling. Some evenings, you just need some luxury.

Oddly enough, as common as that sentiment is, each person seems to have a different definition of what 'luxury' actually entails. For some it might be taking the time they do not really have, for others it might be spending money on things they do not really need. If I were to generalize, I'd say luxury is when we indulge in something that makes us feel good, despite better knowledge.

Which brings me to Sunday night's dinner - something I make for us when I think we have deserved some treat, but do not want to spend hours in the kitchen.

I love this dish, but my relationship towards it is somewhat conflicted.

It is relatively expensive, at least for my tastes, so that is a minus. Beef filet, Parma ham, liver pate - just the finest. And before you cringe - yes, all this in the same dish, and no, it's not a waste, it definitely is a treat. I hardly believed it myself the first time.

It is almost primitive in preparation, which is good because I like simple recipes, yet at the same time makes me feel like a snob for making no better use of the ingredients. Which in turn makes me feel like a snob for wanting a more challenging preparation instead of being happy that cooking in this case has more of an assembly job. I never claimed to be free of contradictions, did I?

And I am not even sure it constitutes a proper dish - there are no sides I could think of to go with it, no starters or sweets - it is a very happy, posh stand-alone.
The more I come to think of it, it seems like the ultimate snack. Cousin to a slice of pizza, or a nice döner pide - just with a fine red instead of coke and a lot more bling.

Filet Millefeuille
(or puff-pastry beef, which has nowhere near the ring of it)
(serves two, generously, though that might still be not enough)

400g beef filet
100g Parma ham
100g liver pate
4 sheets frozen puff pastry

Clean the filet, if necessary, and cut into two portion-sized medallions. In a pan, heat a small knob of butter and sear the filets at a high temperature, until all sides have taken colour.
It is not necessary to actually fry the meat to the point you prefer - just given a hot trip through the fire, and they'll be fine.

Add freshly ground pepper to your liking and set aside.

Thaw the pastry, stack two each and roll out to form a rough square a little more than 20 by 20 centimeters.
Of course you could make your own, and it probably would be better. But on the other hand, then it would lose a lot of convenience, wouldn't it?

Onto each of the squares, put a layer of parma ham, making sure that the individual slices overlap.
I am not too sure here about the amount of ham I mentioned above, as it depends mostly on the thickness of the individual slices. I usually make sure I have enough to cover about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, then I am sure I'll have enough. Oh, and Serrano ham will do just as nicely.

Cover the ham with a generous layer of liver pate.
This is where I usually get stingy - so far I have found no reason why to stick with anything more espensive than a good, smooth German 'Leberwurst' - I am pretty sure any decent liver spread will do quite fine actually.

Wrap the medallions with the ham. Wrap the meat in the puff pastry, positioning the bundles in a way that the seams all face down.
As much of this dishes appeal comes from having a little bit of meat with both liver pate and ham on each fork, I think it is important to make sure they are well covered all around, not only folded in. Also, as the only salt comes from the ham, I tend to prefer an extra slice if in doubt.
For added colour, you can glaze the pastry with the remaining butter from the pan you fried the filets in.

Bake in the oven at about 180°C, until the pastry turns golden (about 15 to 20 minutes).
As soon as the pastry case turns golden, the meat inside will be rare to medium rare, depending on size and shape of the medallions. Every minute more will get them more done - and this is a perfect way to produce tasty but incredibly tough meat. As we love our meat almost raw, we just take them out as soon as they start bronzing - I am afraid you'll have to figure out your own point of no return. As a rule of thumb - if the case rips open the some juices spill out and bubble, it's ready.

Leave to rest for one or two minutes before serving.
This is to give the meat inside a moment to gather up the juices, and to let the steam inside lose some pressure. These little bundles don't smell like much in the oven, but once opened, their smell is hypnotic. I start drooling as I write this, I really need to get some dinner. Enjoy with a good red wine and better company.

10 November 2008

political yet again

Damn, living in this world sure is full of surprises. And some of the are even good ones.

Remember that article about food policies I posted the other month?

Seems the newly elected 'Farmer in chief' hasn't only read it as well, but also neatly added it to his energy policy - see here.

I have to admit, I am moderately impressed.

09 November 2008

poolside in the shade

One year, I almost missed Christmas.

Not 'to miss' as in 'to long for', but as in 'to overlook'. Seriously.

I was working in Pretoria, South Africa at that time, and Christmas in the southern hemisphere is something entirely different to what I had been used to. Christmas is the hottest time of the year down there, the sun is blazing, and when you're not in the pool or at the brai, you're watching cricket all weekend long.

Very, very different.

I only realized that it would be Christmas in a few weeks when suddenly the young ladies who were handing out flyers at the mall started wearing skimpy outfits in red with white fur trimmings. Instead of their usual skimpy outfits, that is.

Most stunning was the fact that I hadn't felt like Christmas was just around the corner. I love this season of the year, the buildup, the special food, everything. Sure, I am happy once all is over, but that doesn't keep me from doing all this over again come next year.

So, I decided, something had to be done to get me 'into the mood'. Home decoration was out of the question because a) it wasn't really my home and b) palm trees and strelizias just don't give themselves to seasonal motives.

So I would cook something, which always is a fine remedy to almost everything. It had to be seasonal, very German, resistant to heat and local ingredients.

In the end, I came up with the idea of making Stollen myself. Stollen is a traditional German christmas cake, with a lot of dried fruits and icing sugar and mostly a rather dry and industrial affair. But very 'christmassy' and quite German, so I decided I'd try.

The ingredients were not too hard to come by, and actually, it turned out much better than their store-bought 'originals'.

Like the Pfefferkuchen, Stollen has to rest some weeks before they taste right. But in the end, they are a fragrant, aromatic and despite all the icing-sugar susprisingly un-sweet affair that just screams to be enjoyed with a huge cup of black, unsweetened tea on a dark and rainy afternoon.

Though, as I can confirm from my own experience, they taste just as good poolside in the shade of some wild strelizia trees.

(makes four medium loafs)

1 kg all-purpose flour
1/2 l milk, lukewarm
150g sugar
500g butter, softened
1 sachet dry yeast

500g raisins
150g raisins (Zante currants)
150g candied orange peel
75g candied lemon peel (succade)
200 ml dark Rum

150g almonds, chopped
zest of one lemon, finely shopped
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon macis
1 teaspoon cinnamon
a generous pinch of salt
1 flask bitter almond essence

250g butter
250g icing sugar

One day before baking:
Dissolve the dry yeast in the milk, leave to activate for a moment. In a large bowl, mix the flour, butter, sugar and milk until well blended. Cover with clingwrap or a large plate and leave in a cool place over night.
A pound of butter is a lot, I know. But this is one of the reasons Stollen taste as they do, and it is a once-in-a-year thing, so just go for it.

In another bowl, mix the dried fruits with the rum. Leave to soak over night, stir once or twice to incorporate as much liquid as possible.
Again, lots of rum, I know. But you will want some moisture in the final cake, and this is a perfect way to smuggle it past the actual baking.

Day of baking:
Take the dough somewhere warm (like, the kitchen) knead thoroughly and leave to raise for about another hour or two.
The dough will have hardly risen over night, both because it is quite heavy with all that butter and it was stored cool. But the long fermentation helps both the taste and the stability of the dough. And as soon as the yeast gets somewhere warm, it'll work like a charm.

When the dough has risen, add the spices and the almonds and knead until well incorporated.
The bitter almond essence in Germany comes in small flasks containing about one and a half teaspoon of heavily aromatic oil. On the package, it states that one flask is sufficient for about 500g of flour, so if your essence comes in a different form, please adapt accordingly.

Add the fruits, and knead briefly to incorporate.
There should be very little to no liquid left of the Rum. The raisins are quite soft now, and make ugly brown smears in the dough if squashed, so be gentle.

Quarter the dough, and form four rectangular loaves. Cover with a kitchen towel and leave to raise for another half hour.
Traditionally, the loaves have a lenghtwise ridge, as if the dough had been folded over. Nice, but entirely unnecessary. Especially as I still have yet to figure out why in some years, the dough keeps shape nicely, and in others just runs away. This year, it rose exceptionally well, but turned almost circular in complete ignorance of whatever efforts I had put in shaping it.

Bake in the pre-heated oven at about 160°C for about an hour, until a stick inserted comes out clean.
They will be covered in icing-sugar anyway, so it's fine if they come out a little pale rather than scorched. Also, I usually make two medium loafs and four tiny ones as gifts. If you make smaller ones, they will be done much faster.

Melt the butter, and leave to cool for a moment.

When the Stollen are out of the oven, leave to cool on a rack. While they are still warm, brush them with the liquid butter, using up all of it.
I am no one to complain about a lot of fat in cooking, but this is the one moment in the year I regularly cringe. I mean, seriously, that much butter in the dough already and now you SOAK it with butter? Yes, you do. Yes, it is cringe-inducing. And yes, you'll love it. Once in a year, you can do it.

Take the warm and butter-soaked Stollen and cover in a thick layer of icing-sugar, about a centimeter or more.

Cover tightly and leave to rest at least four weeks before serving.
I use both a layer of cling-wrap and then tinfoil to wrap them securely. During the rest, the moisture in the cake will even out - meaning that if there is some succade or a raisin close to the icing-sugar, it'll leave amazigly unsightly brown blotches in the sugary crust. That's ugly but fine, as it shows you've been working with natural ingredients. And it's nothing yet another layer of icing-sugar can't fix.

The Stollen keep very well, tradtionally until Easter. I have even found one in the back of our larder one year in late August, and it was still perfectly fine.

03 November 2008

this time of the year - part two

Four weeks now, the Pfefferkuchen dough has been quietly resting in his corner of our larder.

So yesterday, I took him up into our kitchen, to get warm again and wake up, and to make the actual cookies.

There's nothing much to say about this part of the process - you roll the dough and go wild with a cookie cutter.
Well, maybe I should tell you there is no point in trying to knead the dough - it's about as pliable as asphalt. Just cut the dough in chunks as it comes out of hibernation and flatten it.

But I can already say that it was a good decision to add more butter to the recipe, as the whole procedure was much less sticky than usual. Also, using darker honey resulted in a much more fragrant dough. Actually, I was quite surprised when I unwrapped the dough, with the memory of the exploded hair-dye still in my nose, and found something rather sweet and spicy and flowery inside. (Alright, there was still a faint whiff of ammonia, but nothing compared to the raw dough a month ago.)

Time is one of my favorite ingredients ever.

Anyway, baking these has to account for the fact that the Pfefferkuchen are little more than solidified honey, so you bake them at a low to moderate temperature (140°C - 160°C) until they just start to take on some colour.

I know, telling when a brown cookie starts to brown is a little bit of a challenge. But once they have stopped raising, it'll take just a few minutes more and then they're done. After the third tray you'll have the hang of it anyway.

Originally, they ought be larger, almost the size of a palm, and plain round or rectangular. But this way, they look nicer, and make better servings than their larger shapes. At least, that's what I think.

Right out of the oven, they taste sweet and spicy, but not particularly good. It is as if the different aromes still struggle to get acquainted, or like an ochestra still trying to find a common tune.

So, like in one of these 'stuck-in-an-elevtor'-movies, you box them all together in one airtight cookie jar and have them battle it out until they have found a way to live together in harmony.

In another four weeks, we'll have our friends over for our annual cookie craze. Then we'll open the lid again and see what has happened inside.

01 November 2008

a fitting send-off

Summer is definitely gone, with autumn hitting us full force. Which means rain, hardly no sunlight (for the working population, at least), and little hope for change.

It is the time for the last clean-up action in the garden, and for moving around plants that somehow have outgrown their current location. So today I dug out two roses, one gooseberry shrub and, believe it or not, a (small) rowan tree. All four are doing well now and look like they will wake up in spring at their new locations as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to them.

Oh, and we picked the last apples. Quite a fitting send-off for a nice summer, don't you think?

29 October 2008

simplify your... duck

Once in a while, like in every other household, it happens that I have no idea what will be for dinner until I start cooking.

An honestly, I really like that sort of challenge.

I have always liked to try and make the best out of what was at hand. Like that time when we had to figure out how to build something like a broom from what you can find in the forest (because the proper brooms were still at home). Or standin on a a stage and trying hard not to let the audience notice that it was not part of the script that some part of the set had just collapsed.

Things like that.

What I am actually trying to say here, is that like to improvise.

And every once in a while, on rare occasions, I get lucky and not only make do, but make something really good I would never have thought about otherwise.

Like that one, memorable day when I was shopping, my lovely wife next to me, and we found these lovely duck breasts. I had never made duck before, we only knew we loved it in almost every version.

So we bought them, with little to no idea what to make out of them actually.

Back at home, I checked what we had in the larder. Canned apricots, soy-sauce and apple-juice. Nothing stunning, but it gave me an idea.

And it turned out fabulous. Historically great.

Duck'n apricots has since become a household staple, and returns ever so often as soon as the weather is miserable enough to call for such pungent flavours. It is a hearty dish, sweet and spicy and tart and fragrant, and by now the smell of roasting duck always makes the tip of my tongue tingle in anticipation of that gravy.
Sort of like Pawlow's dog, only with less saliva.

Cooking this may result in the reception of several marriage proposals. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Duck'n Apricots
(serves four)

800g duck breast (usually two, sometimes three filets)
2 cans of apricots
200 ml apple-juice, unsweetened
200 ml light soy-sauce
1 tablespoon apricot jam
1 teaspoon five-spice-mix
salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to about 180°C.

If necessary, pare the filets and remove remaining feathershafts. Cut the skin diagonally, trying not to damage the meat underneath. Rub with some salt and a generous amount of pepper.
It might look like unnecessary decoration, but I have found that the neater and the narrower I cut the skin, the crisper it gets. And admittedly, it does look nifty.

Drain the apricots, but keep the sirup.

In a large pan, heat a little bit of olive oil, until almost smoking. Fry the duck, skin side down, for a few moments, until it gets some colour. Turn and fry from all sides.

Take the pan off the fire and deglaze with the soy-sauce.
Watch out, this is, once again, the perfect moment for a truly memorable mess. Keep the meat in the pan while deglazing, skin side down, preferrably. It gives a lovely, dark colour to the meat.
Unfortunately, when I took the pictures for this dish, that was the step I had forgotten. I am still getting used to my new kitchen, and so, to my eternal shame, the meat is a little pallid compared to usually. Next time will be better, I promise.

Transfer the meat (skin side up, this time) onto an oven-proof dish and keep in the oven until the meat feels just firm when pressed with a spoon.
Put it a little higher than the middle, so the skin has a chance to get crispy. If you want, you can also add the grill, but that's risky business.

In the meantime, add the apricots, the apple-juice, 200 ml of the reserved sirup, the jam and the spices to the soy-sauce and bring to a rapid boil. Then turn down the heat and simmer until the first apricots start to look soft and a little frazzled.
By then, the gravy should have thickened sufficiently on its own, if not you can add some cornstarch mixed with cold water.

Take the meat out of the oven and leave to rest for a minute or two.

Cut into thin slices and serve with lots of sauce and pasta or rice.
This is one of the few dishes I have yet to find some decent vegetable side to. Though, I don't really miss it either, in this case.
Pasta is great for another reason besides the fact that pasta is a good thing by and in itself: when you put the water for the pasta on the stove at the same time you start frying the meat, both pasta and duck will be ready at the same time. Neat, isn't it?

Pasta and remaining sauce, even without meat, make excellent lunches the next day.

26 October 2008

an exercise in period dining

It was my father-in-law's birthday this weekend.

And as usual, we had some guests over, family and friends, for a nice evening all together.

We usually try to have something like a motto going for these birthday parties, and this year we went for a classic sixties buffet. An exercise in period dining, so to speak.

Admittedly, we weren't too scientific when it came about re-creating the things our parents and in-laws remembered from that time. But we came up with a lot of stuff that was plain fun to make, and actually quite pretty (if a little odd) to look at.

There was nothing much noteworthy in terms of recipes, as most of this is nifty decoration. But I definitely know now that I really, really do not like caraway schnaps with preserved plums.
I have learned, though, that I can dig in quite a lot of raw minced spiced porc with onions, and that it is called (quite fittingly, I think) 'German sushi' by the Japanese co-workers of a friend of ours. (So little surprise here that I like it.)

As you can guess, it was a really nice evening, and dinner was (once again) a nice talking point to get things started.

I just wonder what we are going to do next year...

19 October 2008

sunshine on command

If you'd ask me if there is a specific scent to any given season, I’d be hard pressed to give an answer. Of course, a lot of scents jump into my mind the very instant I think of any place, weather, or season, in this case.

Summer, especially, is a hard thing for me to put an olfactory label on.

There is the scent of pine trees in the sun, warm and dry, reminding me of the Croatian islands and childhood vacations at the Cote d’Azur.

And of course, smoke. Smoke from campfires in the forests of northern Portugal, smoke from the barbeque at the pool, from my parents’ fireplace in their wintergarden. All of those, naturally, only being the prelude for other favorites: of herbs burning among the embers, rosemary especially, of steaks and squid on the grill, sizzling and steaming.

There is the smell of lavender, of tomato fields, lemon peel and olive oil, of warm concrete and even the dry brown smog of Paris in July, or the cloying stench of harbour water and rotting seaweed – the list is endless.

But if you turn the question around, and instead ask me if there is any one scent that instantly reminds me of summer, the answer would come like a snap.

Lemon chicken and potatoes. The lemon potatoes even more so than the chicken.

Don’t ask me why, but that scent of crisp potato wedges, dark and fragrant in their coat of almost burned lemon juice always sets my mind to ‘summer’ mode. Suddenly, I’m buzzing with ideas of goat cheese that would work wonderfully if marinated, or of squids on the grill that might almost be as good as those I had as a kid on that beach in Greece. It makes me feel as if I had spent a day in the sun.

For me, it is the scent of summer.

There is something imminently more-ish about this dish. Something deeply satisfying that made the whole family sit around the messy baking tray, eating just one more wedge despite being already stuffed, scraping and dipping and trying to get as much of the scented oil and concentrated juices onto their last piece.
Which, of course, it usually wasn’t.

And this recipe has one absolutely endearing quality that sets it miles apart from all other summer food I know – it is just as good in winter. It’s completely unaffected by the season outside, and the ingredients, as simple as they are, are available all year round in passable quality.

Now that the time of the year has come where the drizzle is never ending, and cold is seeping into my bones that has nothing to do with the temperature, I always know that I am only an hour away from a plate of sunshine on command. And yesterday evening was the perfect opportunity for this.

Lemon Chicken and Potatoes
(serves four, though we usually double the amount, as leftovers make great office lunches)

for the chicken
1 large chicken
1 large lemon
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon of rosemary, dried and ground
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon of honey
1 tablespoon sea salt
some olive oil
chilli to taste (we prefer about a teaspoon of chilli flakes, or two to three small dried pods)

for the potaoes
1 kg of potatoes
1 large lemon
200 ml olive oil
1 heaped tablespoon thyme (or more, if you like. I do.)
1 teaspoon of rosemary, dried and ground
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sea salt
chili to taste

If necessary, clean the chicken.

Cut the zest off the lemon, chop it very finely. Quarter the remaining lemon along its length.
Only use the yellow peel of the lemon, with none of the white stuff as it gets bitter. I think it is easiest to get off the lemon with a really sharp potato-peeler.

Mix the spices and the lemon zest with salt and honey; add some olive oil so the rub will be moist but not too runny.
If you have a mortar and pestle, this is the moment to use it, especially to get the fragrant lemon oils out of the zest. Probably a food processor will do just as well.

Rub the chicken with the spice mix, using all of it. Stuff the peeled and quartered lemon inside the chicken’s chest cavity.
Use the entire rub, if some falls off, it’ll just spice the potatoes.

Leave the chicken to rest.
Half an hour is fine, two hours or three is better.

Meanwhile, clean the potatoes if necessary, and cut (unpeeled) into wedges.
Try to keep the smallest diameter of the wedges approximately the same, so they will all be done at the same time. I usually quarter them along their longest side.

Mix the lemon juice, the olive oil, spices, honey and salt.
Spice with a little chilli if you like, but normally the lemon alone will have enough zing to keep things interesting.
I usually add the second lemon’s zest to the chicken rub, but you can also add the lemon peel to the potatoes for added scent. Just warn your guests that it is decoration and not very tasty…

Put the potatoes in a big bowl and toss with the dressing until they are evenly coated.
This is usually the perfect moment to make a truly memorable mess out of your kitchen, especially if you are preparing a batch of 10kg as I did a few weeks ago… Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Pour the potaoes onto a high-rimmed baking tray (or into a large oven dish), the chicken on a gridiron above them and put into the oven at about 180°C. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes (or more for bigger batches), and turn once or twice so both the chicken and the wedges have a chance to brown evenly on all sides.
There should be hardly any liquid left among the potatoes, and they should be crisp outside and soft inside. Both the tray and the potatoes should be smudged with a fine, brow layer of caramelized, partially burned lemon juice. Actually, you might want to line the tray or the dish with non-stick paper, as the lovely, tasty stuff is close to impossible to get off again.

Take out of the oven and leave to cool for a moment, then serve.
This is mostly to allow the juices recover a bit and resolve some of the caramelized lemon juice. And of course, the wedges are fragging hot inside, and we have had more than one unhappy accident with overeager eaters…

As a side, you can serve any green salad, and my mother-in-law and me especially like to have heavy, Greek-style yoghurt to go with it as a dip.

Leftovers make a perfect office lunch the next day, hot or cold, once again with some yogurt.

13 October 2008

right up my alley

I usually try to stay away from political discussions as far as I can. This is not because I am not interested, not at all. But I think a lot of people (including politicians) have little to no idea of what they are talking of most of the times. And I include myself, as I know at least enough to know that I should'n put my foot in my mouth by discussing things I don't even know half of.

But just a moment ago, I stumbled over this article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan, which resounded deeply enough with me to make an exception. As it is dealing with food, I think it fits neatly into this blog.

"Farmer in Chief" by Michael Pollan

It is, at least in my eyes, a very interesting and quite comprehensive essay on the challenges of the modern food industry. And not only valid for the US market, for which this open letter is written, but with a few exceptions for every other 'modern' food industry.

Go have a read.

12 October 2008

bountiful is a big word

When I look out of the window, there is no denying that summer is over. But that is not to say that the months-long, depressive gray soup of German autumn has already come up.
No, the sun is shining, golden and still surprisingly warm, adding a glow to the last flowers outside. And the apples, of course.

We have spent the weekend mostly in the garden, weeding the dead plants out, de-scumming the pond, generally making the first attempts at getting everything settled for the winter to come. Oh, and we harvested the last bunch of grapes. I am still more than a little amazed myself, but we have a proper grape vine covering two storeys of one south wall of our house, and harvest has been surprisingly bountiful. (Yes, actually bountiful enough to justify such a big word.)

I have grown up with apples, pears and plums growing in almost every garden. But grape vine is something quite exoic for me, at least to have in my own garden. Well, to have next to the driveway, but that would be nitpicking, wouldn't it?

I just wonder when our peach tree will bear fruit for the first time, and our kiwi plant...

Anyway, this is the season for apples, no way around it. And apple cake, consequentially.

I have been on search for a recipe that would be sufficiently moist (she'd say soggy) enough for her to like, with some sort of vanilla cream and still not too artificial in taste.

We've been through a good number of miserable fails in this regard already, but finally, it seems we're on to something. Maybe it still requires a little tweaking here and there, but this one definitely is a keeper.

Apple cake with vanilla custard

for the shortcrust pastry
250g butter, cold
400g flour
100g sugar
1 egg
one sachet vanilla sugar
one generous pinch of salt

for the filling
6 large apples (Boskoop or similar)
one tablespoon of butter
300 ml cream
100g sugar
1 whole vanilla-pod
4 eggs, whole

In a large bowl, add all the ingredients for the shortcrust pastry and swiftly mix to incorporate all flour. Set aside to chill.
I usually take the mixer for this, running through the dough until it just starts to form clusters and looks like coarse sand or real good crumbles. (Which you could take this recipe for just as well, actually.)

Preheat the oven to 170°C.

Peel and core the apples, cut into slices.
Originally, the recipe called for the apples to be freid in some butter before adding them to the cake. For boskoop apples, this might be unnecessary as they turn rather soft when cooked. Other sorts might benefit from this, use your own judgememt.

In a small pot, heat the cream and the sugar. Open the vanilla and scrape out the seeds, add to the cream. Bring all to a short boil, then leave to cool a little.
You can add the emptied seed-pod to the cream and fish it out before you continue. But I save those pods to make vanilla-rum-sirup in a bottle on my kitchen shelf, so mine goes there everytime.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs until pale and fluffy. Add the cream, first in little steps, then in increasingly greater quantities. Mix until well combined; there is no need to work in air at this step.
Never pour the eggs into the milk. You'll end up with vanilla-flavoured scrambled eggs, which might be nice as well under certain circumstances, but is definitely not what we need here.

Line a round springform pan with non-stick paper or grease well. Either roll out the shortcrust pastry or pour in the coarse crumples to form the base and a rim more or less three fingers high.

Loosely arrange the sliced apples on the base, then pour in the vanilla cream, but no higher than the rim.

Bake until the custard has set, approximately 40 to 60 minutes. Leave to cool on a rack, do not cut before the cake has cooled sufficiently.

The cake is moist and rich, actually I can imagine this making perfectly nice desserts when made in individual portions, maybe in a muffin-pan or somehing similar... I will have to try this one day.

05 October 2008

It's this time of the year...

Usually, my first reaction to the whole gamut of christmas food appearing all over the shops at the end of September is one of slightly disgusted irritation.

It is September, dammit, and the whole golden October still ahead of us. Christmas cookie season starts with the first day of December, not a day earlier.

That noble sentiment usually lasts for about two days.

And then, there is this inevitable, creeping feeling of dread. Dread that I will, once again, buy a whole heapin' pile of that stuff as soon as I get the chance.

As you can imagine, I am a little picky when it comes to food. Sweets I am especially careful of what I eat and what not. And, you see, I love Dominosteine, a German confection of gingerbread layered with jelly and marzipan. But only from one very specific producer. And said specific producer has that slightly annoying habit of only delivering once to all the retailers at the beginning of the season, and if some of their stuff runs out of stock mid-November, then it's tough luck for all the customers.
(Maybe that's just an error of perception on my part, but after having spent two Decembers already without, I won't err again.)

So I buy my Dominosteine the very first week of October and hide them in the larder. And I almost always manage not to eat any of them before the first of December.

But this year, things were a little different.

Sure, the whole line of Christmas cookies and whatnots appeared in the shops right at the end of September, as usual.

But this time, my first tought wasn't said slightly disgusted irritation. No, my first thought actually was that there was still one of my homemade Stollen of last Christmas in the larder, and that I should really find a way to use or to get rid of it.

And the second, much more jolting thought was that this year, I mustn't forget, absolutely and under no circumstances, to make Pfefferkuchen dough in time. Pfefferkuchen, literally 'peppercake' is a spicy, soft version of gingerbread. And both the dough and the resulting cookies have to rest for a few weeks each before they are good. Unfortunately last year, I only remembered half-way into November, so it was too late by far.

So there is a certain 'pre-start' to the Christmas season in my household once again this year. I have prepared the Pfefferkuchen-dough on the first weekend in October, we will bake the cookies the first weekend in November together with the Stollen, so all will be nicely matured the first days of December.

Alright, this year the first sunday of Advent is going to be November 30th already, so it's not exactly working out, but that's a minor flaw, don't you think?

Anyway, I will add this recipe as some sort of an extra to my weekly posts, as I won't be able to show the results until November. This particular one has been handed down in our family from my wife's paternal grandmother, and legend has it, from her mothers before.

Of course, I couldn't quite resist to meddle with the original a little. I've added some more butter, mostly for handling, as the dough is very sticky and every tiny bit of fat helps tremendously. If it improves the taste, we will see in eight weeks.
And I evened out the amounts of spices and added ground anisseed, for pure olfactory balance. Once again, it'll take eight weeks before we can see how it pans out.

Grandma Ursula's Pfefferkuchen
(makes for a lot of cookies)

500g of runny honey, the darker the better
300g sugar (I prefer unrefined cane sugar)
100g butter

1kg all-pupose flour
75g dark cocoa powder
100g raisins (Zante currants)
100g candied orange peel
100g candied lemon peel (succade)
100g ground almonds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground macis
1 teaspoon ground clover
1 teaspoon ground anisseed
3 corns black pepper, finely ground
2 teaspoons ammonium carbonate (salt of Hartshorn, 'Hirschhornsalz', should be available in the pharmacy)
2 teaspoons potassium carbonate (Potash, 'Pottasche', same as above)
2 eggs

In a small pot, gently heat the honey, the sugar and the butter, until the sugar is halfway dissolved.
Do not boil the mix. This is what I call 'kitchen napalm', and it is getting really, really hot and flies and sticks and hurts like you won't believe. Please, take care.

The candied citrus peels should be chopped finely, I usually mix them with the ground almonds and run them trough the food processor until the look like coarse sand and smell delicious.

Next, add all the dry ingredients in a big, heatproof bowl and mix thorougly until well combined.

Have the buttered honey cool down for a moment, then add the whole bunch to the spiced flour. Mix with the kneading hooks of your electric mixer. Add the eggs and kned until smooth and well combined.
Now as the the rising agents get in contact with the warm liquid, all hell will be breaking loose in your bowl. For one, the pale mix with turn dark brown where moist, it'll start to bubble and foam wildly if the honey is still too hot and most important of all - it'll stink.
Imagine an onverheated pack of chemical hairdye exploding between bottles of cough sirup, and you get the image. Hot ammonia with spices, lovely. Hardly bearable, but it'll pass. I promise.
Reason for this is that the honey ought to be still warm at least, and very runny. Because as it cools down, the dough will get very tough and even more sticky, and no fun at all to work with. So bear with the smell, you won't notice a thing in four weeks when it's time to make the cookies.

Leave the dough to cool. Wrangle into a manageable shape (I prefer a large roll, but a ball would do just fine as well, I assume) and store in an airtight container for at least two weeks, ideally four.
I wrap the dough up in a generous layer of clingwrap, with another layer of tinfoil for good measure. Worked perfectly so far, but I think any airtight container will work.

No unsavoury comments, please, I've had enough of that this year already, and it's not the dough's fault.

More on this project in four weeks.

The island at the edge of time

Pretty much one year ago, our dear friend Mel visited from Australia. We picked her up in London, where she visited another mutual friend, and then took off on a two weeks tour by car to show her around Europe.

At least, we showed her around Paris, and so many German castles and baroque parks that I lost count along the way.

But one hightlight definitely was the detour we took on our way from London to Paris. While not exactly 'en route', the Mont St. Michel was close enough to warrant an extra stop on our tour, and luckily, we deciced to stay the night on the island itself.

It was magical.

The Mont St. Michel is a terribly touristy place. It is a breathtaking sight, especially when the island first looms on the horizon like some very weird kind of spaceship. But the place itself is so crowded, you can harld see the buildings or the monastery, you're just being shoved on by the huddled masses.

But at nightfall, all this changes. The tourist busses leave, and with them all the noise, all the nervous buzz and hawking touristy-ness. What remains is just a handful of people who stay in the few rooms available there and the staff of hotels and retaurants. Within less than an hour, the whole place seems to take a deep breath and once again turns into that magic place travellers have come to marvel at since centuries.
It is basically just you and this medieval town below the looming monastery, with the sea all around, sights and sound so timelessly breathtaking they feel like from the very edge of time.

From dusk till dawn, you're left alone, and sunrise on the island was another moment I will never forget.

Naturally, we had dinner on the island as well. We were lucky to get a table with a view all over the bay, and were right on time to see both the tide come in and see the shadow of the island wander along our view like the pointer of a giant sundial.

Food wasn't too memorable, with two notable exceptions. The first being Mel's first time of trying foie gras, or 'tortured goose liver', which she didn't like too much, to put it mildly.
And the other exception was the starter my wife had chosen, a bowl of 'moules a la creme', mussels in cream. They were good, much better than expected, actually they were positively exceptional.

I had grown up with Odettes version of 'moules aremoricaine', being mussels in a broth of tomatoes and white wine, with tons of garlic and parsley. Very good, and actually one of the first seafood I really liked.

But these moules a la creme at the Mont St. Michel were something special. Right there in the restaurant, I couldn't quite put my finger to it, mostly due to the fact that my wife only allowed me to taste two measly spoonful of her bowl. But there was something that 'clicked', some aromes that worked perfectly together and both underscored and enhanced the taste of the mussels.

I had to promise on spot that I would learn how to re-create this recipe.

And guess what, I did. I remembered the taste of a lot of onions, bay leaves, and white wine, and not much else. Heavy cream, of course.

Back at home, I tried the simplest possible version of the recipe, and ZAP - an instant keeper.

Simple, with very few ingredients, failsafe and plain lovely. The bay leaves and the onions in the white wine just work perfectly for the mussels, to a point that the recipe feels a little to me like this was the way mussels were intended to be served from the very beginning: in a steaming bowl, with cream and a lot of fresh, crispy bread to get as much of the delicious broth as possible.

Moules a la creme - Mussels in cream sauce
serves 2

2 kg mussels, cleaned
3 medium onions
75 g butter
1 heaped tablespoon flour
2 bay leaves
0,5 l dry white wine
0,5 l heavy cream
pepper, garlic and ground anisseed to taste

If necessary, clean the mussels.
We were lucky to get a bunch of galician mussels, which I vastly prefer to the usual ones you get here. They are a dirty, gritty, hard-shelled bunch, those Galicians, but damn, they are healthy. Hardly a dead one in between, all of them sturdy and almost snapping at your fingers, even after a trip through half of Europe. A real mess to clean, but worth every extra minute.

Finely chop the onions.

In a large cast-iron pot, melt the butter and stir in the onions. Cook until the onions begin to soften and start smelling sweet (until they lose their bite). Add the flour and mix until well combined.
75g butter are a lot, but I highly recommend being generous in this case. It is worth it.

Add the bay leaves and the white wine and bring to a vigorous boil.
If you want to, you can add a bit of garlic, some ground black pepper or some chili at this point. A little anisseed works lovely as well, though no more than a quarter of a teaspoon maybe. I usually leave it at the basic recipe, though, as the simplicity only adds to the appeal in my eyes.

Add the mussels, bring to boil again and cook for about ten minutes. Stirr occasionally, until all mussels have opened.

Take the mussels out of the broth, and set aside. Boil down the broth until only about two thirds remain.

Add the cream, and reheat.
Do not boil, or else the sauce will fall apart. If it does, it can be remedied by adding a little more flour mixed with cold water.

Season to taste.
There is no need to add salt, usually, as the mussels will have added enough salt on their own.

Pour back the mussels to the sauce, reheat one last time. Serve with fresh white bread and more of the white wine used for cooking.

29 September 2008

La Cucina Caprese

The last week seems to have passed in a flash.

I mean, looking back, there seems to have been little to no time since my last entry, at least that is what it feels like.

Admittedly, it also feels like an epic muscle-ache in my thumbs, and in my shoulders, and my feet, and like the bruises and scrapes on my forearms. And my nose is still itching from all that sawdust.

We have been working hard setting up the new kitchen, 'we' in that case being my lovely wife and both our fathers.

It started last tuesday when we painted the place in a weird patchwork of red and white. At first, the red was a real shocker, and only in parts due to the shock that the paint is MUCH brighter when wet and only darkens and deepens while drying.

But the dry paint looked great, if a little intense maybe. But the more we're getting used to it, the more we like it. Very energetic.

And on tuesday, the furniture arrived. As we bought the whole lot at IKEA, it arrived in flatpacks which seemed to stack up to the ceiling.

Naturally, the delivery service lost three parts out of 95, but they weren't the most important ones, so we could wait a few days until we got them back.

Once again, my wife and I proved that we are real heroes when it comes to assembling IKEA flatpacks, as we managed to build up all the bigger parts in less than a day, and had a great time doing so. Everyone always tells me that assembling those flatpacks is a pain in the ass and a real breaking-point-trial for a relationship - if that is true, I am the happiest man on earth right now.

From thereon, things got less breezy, more straining and at times plain annoying.

Who'd have thought that an apparently rectangular room didn't have any right corner; with slightly curving walls for added fun? We also had the classic walls that wouldn't hold a screw, much less a cupboard; wooden countertops that weren't available in the proper size even though a phonecall two days before had confirmed them as being on stock so abundantly a reservation was absolutely unnecessary; feet that were too high despite a different description; just to name a few.

My personal highlights were the drill that wouldn't fit inside either of two adjoining cabinets so I could bolt them together, and the adjustable feet of our dishwasher that could only be adjusted by pulling the dishwasher out of its niche yet had the perfectly crappy ability to literally screw themselves when being pushed back in.

But none of the above were real deterrants, though some stuff managed to get us noticeably behind schedule.

In the other hand there were moments when everything fit together nicely, and many great ideas were contributed to the whole project. My father once again prove himself a real wizard fitting and finishing the countertops; my father-in-law is now officially master of all drawers and hinges; and kudos go to my wife for remaining calm and co-ordinated even if I sometimes lost it.

But sunday at about seven pm, we installed the last board (at least for now), and even though I felt tired enough to collapse happily on a pile of sawdust, we cleaned up and had a lovely dinner in our new, dazzling, well-lit and spacious kitchen.

And to be honest, the whole room reminds me of an insalata caprese, especially with the green sunscreens and the basil on the window-shelf. But that is not a bad thing for a kitchen, is it?

For dinner, we had tomatoes fried in butter and honey, ciabatta roasted with olive oil and herbs from the garden and a cool bowl of mozzarella cheese with balsamic vinagar each.

Quite needless to say, it was lovely.

22 September 2008

the white cube

From mottled gray to shapeless white in a single afternoon; via a tiny hour of truly heinous nicotine vintage yellow.

The wallpapers are on - gone is the basement charm of the place, replaced by an artsy coolness, if it weren't for all the plugs and tubes sticking out of the walls.

21 September 2008

Devenir gris

The kitchen is clean and smooth and by now only faintly smelling of wet concrete. The various shades of gray are making way for a more uniform and frighteningly boring gray as the floor dries.

Yesterday, we bought the furniture and appliances.

It was exhausting but also great fun, all together 96 separate parts that will be delivered on Wednesday. So looking forward to the whole thing.

Tea and cookies

For obvious reasons, there will be no recipe this week. At least, none of mine. There is no kitchen, and I am admittedly not too good at cooking with only a microwave.

But the weather is lovely, and so I went out and had tea and cookies in the garden.

And these actually are the famous (or should I say notorious?) New York Times chocolate chip cookies.

They are lovely. I think they are totally adorable. The wife hates them. Well, I think you can't have everything.

Over at Orangette, the equally adorable Molly has a perfect article covering these little delights, maybe you go and have a look at her take on the NYT-ccc's. I promise they are worth the attention.

And to see you off into another week, here's a little bit of the last sunlight I caught today:

19 September 2008

Colour me surprised

Now colour me surprised.

These guys we hired to do the dirty work of remodeling our kitchen are the cleanliest craftsmen I have ever seen.

In the last two days, they have hewn the old tiles off the walls and the floor, removed the old linoleum and pitted new cabled into the walls - and I didn't even have to sweep the floor.

I am so confused.

This is how it looks right now, with the whole room a patchwork of various shades of concrete gray and smelling, well, like wet concrete and plaster.

And already, the room is beginning to look rather huge, with all the details gone... Wonder how this will look once all the furniture is inside.

17 September 2008

the last bucket of dirt

Last night I cleared out the remains of our old kitchen, and since this morning a whole gang of guys is ripping the tiles off the walls and making all kinds of holes for the electricity.

What a very odd feeling. You have a house, a home, and right at the centre where the kitchen should be there is this dirty gaping hole. Especially this morning, when all was still quiet, and nothing was left in the kitchen except the very last bucket of dirt...

I am so curious to see how things will have progressed tonight when I come back.

14 September 2008

Simplify your... salmon

I think it has something to do with the way I learned cooking.

Of course, the real learning happened at home, with my mother and grandmother and other grandmother. And on my own, figuring out what works and what doesn't.

But I am talking about learning new things; dishes and techniques that just didn't happen at home.

And that was invariably when I was on holiday, somewhere abroad.

One of my earlier memories concerning actual cooking and not just food is of a camping site somewhere in rural France. Armed with nothing more than a camping gas cooker and a pan, Odette was making Crêpes for us. (Us in that case being the bunch of kids running around.)
Standing in the meadow in front of their caravan, turning the pancakes with her inch-long, lacquered fingernails, she made the best Crêpes in the world.

Another memory that is still vibrantly clear comes from another vacation to Greece. We had tiny fishes, maybe sardines, grilled on sticks on a smokey driftwood fire on a summernights beach. They were tiny, crisp, slightly burned with head and tail and all the fishbones, and they were so gorgeous I still remember them even though I couldn't have been much more than five or six years and didn't really like fish that much.

I love good food. I love pretty food. But what I really cherish is when a dish is all that and simple to prepare on top. With simple I do not necessarily mean easy or fast, but when it doesn't rely on special gadgets or a lot of constant attention.

For many years, I have been a boy scout. Cooking outdoors is something special, all the more so if you have fifty to sixty kids age six to eighteen to feed and keep happy.
And it teaches you to be grateful for the ameneties of modern life. I am rather sure all of you have at least once tried making you own mayonaise. (You're reading a foodie-blog, so I think I am allowed that assumption.)

Have you ever tried to make a batch of 12 litres?
Without electricity?

It was a humbling experience.

But we managed, and those burgers & fries we made afterwards were the best I ever had.

I have learned a lot about cooking 'in the field', and even though I now have a very normal kitchen at home, some of those lessons have left their mark. I prefer food without frills, I don't mind if it challenges my skills, but it has to be something that works reliably, even when I have little time and a lot of other things to do.

Which brings me to this weeks maritime charmer:

This is an adapted version of a recipe that, once again, the wife came up with. It started as fish with soysauce, orange-juice and maple syrup, which she loved. I thought it was revolting.

But I really liked the way of cooking that fish: marinated and skin-side up under the oven-grill it didn't need any care except for an occasional basking and half an hour of time.

So I wrote the original recipe in my little brown book and started working: A bit more of this, a bit less of that, and one day, ta-daa! it wasn't only quite delicious, no, it was pretty. For the soysauce and the sugar in the marinade had coloured the skin of the salmon we used, and had turned it into the most lovely, appetizingly amber shade of gold.

Instantly, that new darling of the family had found its name:
The Golden Salmon

Sure, it's just another braised salmon. But the slight acidity of the applejuice together with the dark, salty flavour of the soy-sauce are great additions to the sometimes bland fish. It is the way they add to the natural flavour of the salmon, making it more complex and interesting, without overpowering the original tast.

At least in my kitchen, the golden salmon is a keeper. And guess what: here's the recipe.

Golden Salmon
(for 4 people)

1 Side of a Salmon, roughly a little less than a kilogramm
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons of dark soy sauce
4 tablespoons of applejuice (unsweetened if possible)
2 tablespoons of maple syrup (less if applejuice is sweet, rather take too little than too much)
ground pepper

Mix the liquid ingredients.

I don't add salt usually, as the soy sauce will be salty enough for my taste.

Wash the salmon and pat dry, eventually check the skin for remaining scales.

In a large oven dish, turn the salmon in the marinade until it is evenly covered. Grind the pepper onto the meat side, then turn around one last time so the skin is up and the pepper (mostly) underneath. Leave to marinate for a few moments.

Put in the cold oven and switch on the grill or upper heat only, at about 150°C. Grill for 20-30 minutes until the skin turns crisp and golden.

If you want, you can pour some of the marinade onto the skin somewhere halfway though the time, it adds to the color.

Watch out, the salmon only stays golden for a short while, afterwards it'll turn dark very quickly.

Actually, it turns dark SO quickly you definitely haven't got the time to go upstairs and tell your mother-in-law that dinner will be ready soon. For she just might seize the moment and tell you why on earth she thinks she needs spring-green curtains at the beginning of autumn, and when you manage to escape and come down you'll find you've missed the moment.

This is to say: Sorry it isn't as golden as usual, but on the lower right corner you get an idea of how it might look like when you manage it. It'll still be lovely, but won't get full marks in the looks department.

Works great with a salad and some bread.

Leftovers are great the next day with more salad but on bread.

11 September 2008

How to paint sunlight?

Computer working again. Wasn't cheap, as feared.

But as I have been asked what the new kitchen is supposed to be looking and words sometimes can be tricky to make an image of, here you go:

That's about the plan, though looking at it now it seems a bit dark. But I admittedly have no idea how to paint sunlight. There's a whole front of windows to our kitchen, and it should look much brighter.

Can you guess I am a bit bouncy?

10 September 2008

Black + Red = Burgundy

Ah well. The new kitchen floor is ordered. More money spent.

In other news, my computer is broken. Kaputt. Bozuk. FUBAR.

Right on time, I'd say, and it doesn't look like it is going to be fixed with a few new parts...

So what. We'll survive. Though our bank account may not, but that's a different matter all together.

Anyway, the kitchen by now looks like we're planning major changes:

The red in the middle of the image is the one we're heading for, for the few places where the walls will still be visible after all the cupboards have moved in.

We'll have white fronts, wooden workboards and said red walls. Oh, and this utterly cool floor:

'burgundy' linoleum, producer's product information

It doesn't look even half as striking online as it does in real life, unfortunately. But the two colors are quite clear and contrasted and sparkle in sunlight, but give a calm impression when seen as a whole floor.

Actually that is the one thing I am most curious about to see how it looks in the finished version. All else I feel I can imagine right fine, but the floor...

Enough rambling for today, gotta nag the poor people charged with repairing my computer.

08 September 2008

Signed, sealed and (hopefully) delivered

Just few moments ago, I signed, sealed and sent off the contract for the guys who are going to do the remodeling for our new kitchen.

I have no idea if I feel scared or relieved or whatever.

It is the first time in my life I will spend such an amount of cash on anything. It is the first time in my life I actually have money to spend on anything beyond short-term needs. But I am so worried I may be spending money on things that aren't really worth it, or that it'll all turn out much more expensive than planned and in the end I'll have to live with a compromise worse than the ramshackle gatherings that make up our kitchen now.

On the other hand, I am so happy that in a few weeks time (with a little luck) I will have a kitchen that has none of those nooks and crannies that dirty up faster than you clean them, and an oven that will actually keep the temperature that you have set, and cubboards that do no longer threaten to fall off the wall at any moment. All of that in pretty colors, easy-to clean surfaces, only one kind of flooring and finally, finally, with more than one wall-socket!

Amazing, isn't it?

Our kitchen is the room in our house we spend the most waking time in. In my eyes, it is the part of the house where it is 'home' the most. Naturally, a change so central to my life scares me and exhilarates me at the same time. I almost crave for the works to begin, or rather, to be already finished.

We'll see. In a way, I am bouncy as a kid before christmas, and I will chronicle all the little wonders and disasters here on nomnom for you to suffer a little with me and for me to have a place to go back and see what a silly twit I have been. ^^

06 September 2008

Ain't that pretty?

I come from a family where food has always been highly cherished.

That is, all food except cakes.

There were, of course, the occasional trays of apple or plum cake, maybe some almond-topped one. But only on birthdays or other occasions, never a cake just because it was weekend or for the sheer joy of it.

Did I mention I love cakes? In any version?

I love how they come together from humble ingredients, forming something extraordinary. Every time I am fascinated by the alchemy of caramelizing sugar, of rising yeast dough, of the endless variations of crunchy, spongy, crisp, flaky dough that basically is nothing more than flavoured wet flour. And I love to have some slice of cake with my tea, either in the afternoon or right the very first thing in the morning.

My childood was meager years in that regard, alas.

There were, of course, memorable exceptions. Other people's birthdays. My last years at school, where our chemistry course had such an unassailable standing that we were allowed to have our own coffee and tea infrastructure in the classroom - and naturally, we had homemade cakes or cookies to go with.

During all that time, I can only recall one place worth mentioning when talking about cakes - the Aunt Emma Cafe in the 'next bigger town'. Their cheesecake, together with a small pot of hot chocolate, was a staple of my youth. I always asked if they had some cheesecake left over from the day before, because by then the slightly rubbery texture and the slighty bland tast would have matured to something better - more silky then chewy, more white cheese with vanilla than plain sticky sweetness.

But one thing always annoyed me. As much as I liked taste and texture of cheesecakes, I found them utterly uninspiring when it came to looks. Do not misunderstand me - I am deeply convinced that form has to follow function, especially with food. Presentation, in my eyes, is secondary to taste and simplicity of preparation. But it IS secondary, which means still quite important.

And cheesecake looks so boring, I can't even get myself to romanticise it as a 'reminder of simpler, better, times'.

So for a long time, cheesecake was something I had as a single slice when eating out, or brought as a gift by friends. But then, my wife asked me to make a marbled chocolate cheesecake, after a recipe she had stumbled upon somewhere.

The original recipe was not really worth anything - the cake turned out too oily and tasted pretty much of nothing - but two ideas stuck.

One of them was the simple thing of chocolate cheesecake. Never had that before, neiter eaten nor heard of nor seen. What a shame that thought never crossed my mind on its own.

And the second was using a rectangular baking form instead of the usual round ones. Once again, nothing really profound, but the effect couldn't have been more impressive.

Because the cake sinks in, as all cheescakes do, and the individual slices get an 'M' shape. As the form isn't too wide, you may want to have more than one slice in each helping. Combine those two facts with the amazing property of slices that they will have the exact same pattern on both sides of the cut, and you get -

Butterfly cake.

Ain't that pretty?

It's almost painfully simple to make, basically failsafe, keeps for a few days (theoretically, at least^^), reconciled me with cheesecakes in general and best of all - the wife loves it.

Butterfly Cheesecake

100g really dark chocolate (60% to 80%)
150g sugar
1 sachet vanilla sugar (about 1 tablespoon, alternatively one teaspoon of vanilla essence)
3 Eggs
125g butter, softened
100g all-purpose flour
400g cream-cheese
2 teaspoons of baking powder

Melt the chocolate.

In a separate bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar, the vanilla sugar and the salt until white and fluffy.

If you want to speed up the process a little, you might want to stir in the eggs with the sugar and leave it at that for a while. Usually this is when I take a moment to clean up the mess I have made so far.

During that time the sugar can already start to dissolve, which is the most important part of this step. Whisking air into the mix afterwards is only a matter of moments.

I use about half a teaspoon of salt instead of the usual pinch, but that might be a little hardcore for everyone else. Though, no complains so far with my version. Trust your own judgement.

Add the flour, mix briefly. Add the soft butter, work in as well.

Make sure the butter is soft enough, otherwise little lumps of butter will form in the rather liquid mix and stay for good.

Add the cream-cheese, starting with a few spoonfuls at a time. Mix until smooth, then add the rest.

As with the butter before, either you soften the creamcheese separately or make sure you don't dump in the whole at once. I don't want to clean an extra bowl, so I add the cheese in steps.

Add the baking powder and mix thoroughly.

Line a rectangular baking tin with non-stick paper (see first image above). Fill with approximately two third of the dough.

The chocolate should have cooled down a little by then, add the chocolate to the remaining mix and blend until fully incorporated.

Scoop the chocolate mix on top of the plain one.
With a fork (or a knife, or a screwdriver, or whatever you deem appropriate for that kind of job) stir up the two layers so you will get nicely marbled slices.

Put into the cold oven, heat up to about 150°C, bake for about an hour or until a stick inserted to the centre comes out (mostly) clean.
Baking time depends very much on the shape of the tin you are using and may vary wildly. Fortunately, this cake is not too sensitive to overcooking, now will it be bad if the centre is still very moist.

Leave to cool on a rack.

Remember to cut two slices for each helping, and build butterflies!