Neuschwanstein Castle in winter
One Sunday morning, on a day when I planned to be skiing, I woke up in our mountain guesthouse a bit late and with a bit of a backache, and the call of the ski slopes wasn’t quite strong enough. It’s early season, so I felt justified in my lack of enthusiasm, and also blamed it on a late night out which had ended in an hour-long battle in the cold to hail a taxi (I am not exaggerating. It was hell.). So even though the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the slopes were undoubtedly snowy and white and perfect, all I wanted was to spend a day soaking in a mountain spa and not exerting myself. So that’s what we did.
We hopped in the car, after a lazy, drawn-out breakfast at the village café, and wended our way from the Swiss border through the Austrian Tirol to Füssen, Germany. Füssen may be known to you because it is the location of King Ludwig’s Disneyesque castle, Neuschwanstein. It’s a touristy place, but for good reason – it’s a magical setting right at the foot of the Alps, and in winter it looks like the setting of a storybook. In fact, it probably is the setting of a storybook... Well, that’s certainly how it felt looking at the majestic castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau from the vantage point of a rooftop spa across a snowy field (so much better than fighting off the crowds of Japanese and American tourists that swarm the castle grounds).
I’ve written about German thermal spas
before. They take a bit of getting used to – the co-ed nudity and the slightly torturous Aufguss
practices – but once you embrace it, it’s a wonderful thing. In fact, while we were relaxing, first in a sauna with a panoramic view of the mountains and the castles, and then later in a rooftop healing pool with the sun slowing setting in the background and the mountains glowing with soft evening light, my friend Melissa sighed in extreme contentment and expressed what we were all feeling: life in Munich is amazing, mostly because we have places like this practically on our doorstep. In fact, my brain immediately jumped ahead to how I could stop off at this spa regularly on my way home from skiing… It’s totally doable, right? I could leave the ski resort at like 4PM, and then an hour later I’d be at the spa, two hours of saunas and soaking, and then on my way back to Munich. I think this is my new winter ski agenda. Oh, and we even found a great little roadside Italian restaurant on the drive back between Füssen and Munich. This is just sounding better and better, isn’t it?
The Königliche Kristall-Therme in Füssen (actually, it’s in Schwangau, but that’s practically the same thing) has now moved up to first place on my list of favorite German thermal spas. It’s smaller than Therme Erding, but still has a wide variety of saunas and pools. And the location couldn’t be better. I reiterate… views of snow-capped mountains, snowy fields, and magical castles. In fact, a really great day trip from Munich would be to combine a day exploring the castles with a visit to the spa. Oh, and one of my little tricks for Neuschwanstein is that it’s actually a cool place to visit after dark, when the castle is closed and all the tourists have gone home. You can still hike up the trail to the castle and see it from the outside (which is way better than the inside anyway – a lot of people actually express disappointment about the inside, because the castle was never finished and only a few rooms can be visited). But make sure to bring a flashlight, as the path is not lit up and you're going to need to exercise vigilance to avoid stepping in any of the steaming piles of shit, which happen to be everywhere, as during opening hours horse-drawn carriages carry passengers up to the castle. As always, you can rely on me for practical tips like that. That's what I'm here for!
Open daily 9AM to 10PM, Fridays and Saturdays until 11PM
Thermal Bath + Sauna (you want to choose this option because the sauna zone is the best part of the complex)
2 Hours: 15.50 Euros
4 Hours: 21.90 Euros
Day Pass: 27.10 Euros
Discounts for children and students under 16 year old.
Christmas markets are not just a Bavarian thing -- they're an all-Germany thing. Actually, they're not even just German, as the tradition extends to the German-speaking countries of Austria and Switzerland, and I believe also east to places like Prague and Budapest. That said, there is a particularly high concentration of Christmas markets down here in the south of Germany, and it's a good region to visit if you want to explore the markets during this time of year.
If you do happen to find yourself in Munich in December, these are my tips for which markets to visit. I'm sure there are tons of others that I have yet to discover, but here's my current shortlist of go-to spots:Best Overall: Middle Ages Market
Wittelsbacher Platz (near Odeonsplatz)
This market has a great old-time flare, including performances by jugglers and dancers, and music dating from the middle ages. It also has a Feuerzangenbowle
on fire - not to be found at all markets). The stalls sell a lot of handmade goods, and food is also appropriate to the time period, e.g. you can walk around the market while gnawing on a turkey leg.Best Late Night: Tollwood
on the Theresienwiese
This is like a combination of Christmas market, hippy market, music venue, and just a full-on winter festival. There's a big tents with art exhibitions, an international food hall, and a big bazaar. It's probably got the best shopping of any of the markets, though not always the most traditional offerings. And you're bound to find a lot of hippy imported goods, like statues of the Buddha and incense. One of the great things about this market is that if it is cold or raining/snowing, you can go into the tents and escape the bad weather. Like the Middle Ages Market, there's also a Feuerzangenbowle. Most Picturesque: Munich Christkindlmarkt
This is the official Munich Christmas Market that is located on the main square at the Rathaus, and flows down the shopping street in the direction of the ice skating rink on Karlsplatz. Photos of this market are gorgeous, with the city all lit up with twinkly lights, and the Rathaus and its famous Glockenspiel hovering over the market in the background. Best Neighborhood Picks: Haidhausen,
, Münchner Freiheit
All of these are great markets that have a real neighborhood feel to them. People meet up here with their neighbors and friends for cup of Glühwein
after work, or on a weekend with the whole family. You'll see lots of kids running around and you're more than likely to run into someone you know.Most Colorful: The Pink Market
It's a tiny little market put on by the gay and lesbian community in Munich, and it's open later than many of the other markets (past 8PM! Woohoo!). There are also performances every evening at 19:00.Most Romantic: Rothenburg ob der Tauber
To really get the authentic Christmas Market experience, you should leave the city and head for a smaller town. My recommendation is to check out a couple of markets on Germany's romantic road, in particular the markets in the medieval towns of Rothenburg ob der Tauber
and Dinkelsbühl.Best Day Trip: Chiemsee Fraueninsel
This is an island Christmas Market in the middle of the Chiemsee. This small island is the home of a cloisters and is beautiful all year round, but in the winter it is magical as it is lit up with white lights and the whole island is converted over into a Christmas Market. You have to take a boat a boat from Prien am Chiemsee to get there.
I’ve been spending a lot of quality time with my girlfriends lately (always wonderful!), and one of the things we like to do the most is to cook together. In fact, when I think back, cooking has often been a big part of my closest relationships, particularly with my girlfriends. Julie and I bonded by baking pies together in my kitchen in DC. Erin pretty much immediately decided to move into my house when she came to look at the room I was renting, and we just happened to be in the middle of one of those pie baking sessions. Rita and I used to get together and make curries and homemade sushi on weeknights at her little apartment behind the University of Denver. While studying abroad in a small town in the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco, Chizuru, Catherine and I used to do “experimental cooking” in the dorm kitchen, stir-frying up whatever ingredients we could gather together from the local market. Later, when visiting Chizuru and her family on the island of Kyushu, Japan, her grandma taught me to roll sushi and we spent the New Year making mochi with the age-old technique of piling the sticky rice into old stone mortars and pounding them with giant sledgehammers. Emily taught me to make the best spinach-artichoke dip for Thanksgiving, and when I first moved to Berlin, I bonded with my girls Renu and Jenny over Sunday morning brunches at our temporary language school housing way out in the Berlin suburb of Schmargendorf (there really wasn’t much else to do out there on Sundays besides going for long walks in the Grunewald and cooking elaborate brunches).
In Munich, the tradition continues. I find that more and more, I look forward to evenings spent with my girlfriends, sometimes in the form of an official girls’ night gathering, which most likely includes wine or cocktails, a potluck-style evening, a favorite TV show or movie, and definitely lots of conversation. But sometimes it’s also just a quick dinner and catch-up with a girlfriend whom I haven’t seen for a couple of weeks, and who I can spontaneously invite or drop-in on for a throw-together meal that is just as satisfying as the best-planned dinner party. I appreciate that so much.
There’s something about cooking with someone, isn’t there, that brings you closer together? My brain is sensory-wired to associate memories with food. Weird how that works isn’t it? A friend once mentioned to me that it is bizarre and uncanny how I can remember exactly what we were eating where and when, even if it was something entirely unremarkable. I must somehow focus my energies intently in the moment on enjoying – or not enjoying, depending upon what it is – that sensory experience, because otherwise my memory is really quite crap. Honestly, I can’t remember names, faces, important dates, or even (apparently) seminal moments in my own life (my sister is constantly astounded that I don’t remember particular events that supposedly should have scarred or transformed me for the rest of my life), but I do remember that we had that amazing roasted red pepper soup with just a hint of paprika… I believe that if I had a superpower this would be it. Sadly, it would probably also be the world’s least useful superpower- one can't exactly save lives with instant food recollection. Superpowers aside, the point is that because almost all of my memories are interwoven with culinary exploits or experiences, it’s natural that I bond with people in the kitchen.
All of this was meant to be a lead-in to the discussion of this cake. It came out of a recent girls’ night gathering. The theme was meant to be Mexican (on its own a worthy reason to gather when you live in a land that is almost barren of all things truly Mexican, or Tex-Mex, or Californian), and I wanted to bring a fitting dessert. I settled on Tres Leches Cake, even though I had never made it before. But I trust my abilities in all things cake, and Tres Leches is actually a very simple concept: a classic sponge cake soaked in a combination of milks. So I did a little research, and voila!
, seriously fantastic results. It’s not a cake I would have intuitively considered writing-up as a must-bake-this-and-add-to-your-regular-rotation-list, but now that I’ve made it, I’ll be making it again.Coconut Tres Leches Cake
Adapted from the Pioneer WomanSweetened condensed milk can be a bit difficult to find in Germany. The key thing to know is that evaporated milk is actually called condensed milk in German, and condensed milk just has the additional word "sweetened" (Zucker) on the can. A little complicated, but not impossible to sort out... I've had good luck finding sweetened condensed milk at Karstadt, and evaporated milk is available pretty much everywhere. Also, those sweetened coconut flakes - brought them from the U.S. So in the absence of that ingredient, you could top the cake with toasted unsweetened coconut, or alternatively toast the coconut with a bit of sugar. That would be great. I'm also guessing that almond extract would be an excellent substitute for the vanilla extract in this recipe. One last thing: this cake gets even better after a couple of days in the refrigerator. So don't throw out those leftovers.
1 cup (125 g) white flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (200 g) white sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup (80 g) milk
1 can evaporated milk
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup (60 g) heavy cream
For the Topping:
Fresh whipped cream
Sweetened dried coconut flakes
1. Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.
2. Butter and flour a cake pan (I used a round springform pan).
3. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
4. Separate eggs.
5. Beat the egg yolks with ¾ cup of the sugar on high speed with a mixer until the yolks are pale yellow.
6. Stir in the milk and vanilla.
7. Pour egg yolk mixture into the flour and gently stir to combine.
8. Beat the egg whites on high in a separate bowl until soft peaks form. Add in the remaining ¼ cup sugar and beat until the egg whites form stiff peaks.
9. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter until everything is incorporated.
10. Pour batter into prepared pan, and spread with a spatula so the surface is flat.
11. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until a knife or toothpick comes out clean.
12. Remove from oven and let cake cool slightly. In the meantime, mix together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and the ¼ cup heavy cream.
13. Using a fork, poke holes all over the cake and then pour the milk mixture all over the cake, letting it soak into the holes.
15. When cake is cool and ready to be served, mix up some fresh whipped cream and spread a thick layer of the whipped cream all over the top of the cake.
16. Last, sprinkle a thick layer of coconut on top of the whipped cream. Slice and serve.
A "recipe advent calendar" - one recipe for each day o the season.
Advent in Germany is an important a part of the holiday season. It's full of traditions - advent wreaths, advent calendars, visits from Krampus
and of course the Christmas Markets
. My impression is that the Advent season is, in fact, in many ways more important than the actual Christmas holiday. Of course, this is all based on hearsay as I’ve never actually stayed in Germany for the 25th, always choosing to jet off to the U.S. to be with my family on Christmas. However, I’ve been told that it can be a bit anticlimactic in Germany after the big December holiday build-up. The Christmas markets abruptly shut down, offices close, and everyone exits the city to visit their relatives. The streets are eerily empty (until everyone comes flooding back in full force for the New Year celebrations – but that’s a different topic).
Advent, in contrast, is a lively, festive time in Germany. This has a lot to do with the Christmas markets that crop up all over the country, and the crowds that merrily mill around outside, drinking Glühwein
and eating roasted nuts and all manner of Christmas specialties… you can tell I love it, can’t you? I've actually decided that I live an ideal holiday life by being able to enjoy the whole Advent season in Germany, soaking in the wonderful atmosphere, and then flying off to see my family, fully primed to enjoy the holiday.
One new tradition that I have semi-adopted is the Advent calendar (I did it last year, but somehow this year I lost track of time and neglected to get one. Kind of like how I keep telling myself everyday that I should get a Christmas tree, and yet every time I am anywhere near a place where one could be bought, I forget entirely about the task). Anyway, despite my lackluster semi-observance of the Advent calendar tradition, I think it is a sweet idea, and I decided to learn a bit about the origins of the practice.
So it turns out that Advent calendars originated in Germany in the early 1800s, although they have now found their way into many other cultures around the world. In fact, Munich is actually the epicenter/birthplace of today’s Advent calendar, as a Munich company (Reichhold & Lang) was the first to print commercial cardboard calendars with the little doors that could be opened each day. In Germany, all children grow up with Advent calendars. I think most Americans know what an Advent calendar is – maybe we had an enterprising teacher who thought it would be fun to introduce her class to the tradition – but it certainly is not a widespread tradition. In short, today’s Advent calendars are usually some sort of cardboard box decorated with a winter scene and 24 little windows that are to be opened – one per day – to reveal pictures, small toys, or little treats like chocolates (or for the very religious, perhaps religious messages in keeping with the idea of marking the time leading to Christmas with a daily reminder to prepare with penance and hope for the coming of Jesus. Though, to complicate things a bit, contrary to what one might assume, the first commercial Advent calendars actually were not religious in nature- Advent calendars with Bible verses instead of pictures behind the doors were introduced later). In Germany today, it’s mostly a secular practice. Generic calendars are produced in bulk by the many European chocolate companies (e.g. Lindt, Milka) and can be found in every grocery store. More intricate, handmade calendars can also be found in several shops. There’s really no limit as to what can go into an Advent calendar; I saw a beer calendar last week at Karstadt, with a different bottle of beer for every day leading up to Christmas. The picture above shows my flatmate's Advent calendar this year, which is a decorative musical canister filled with recipes. A lot of people also make their own calendars - it's a fun, crafty project for the season and an expression of love for whomever is the recipient of such calendar.
This is my second favorite time of year in Munich, after beer garden season
of course. It’s Christmas market season in Germany! The Germans really do this time of year right. From the first weekend of Advent until Christmas, the entire country is taken over by Christmas markets. Munich, alone, has almost 20 markets in the inner city. Most of the surrounding towns turn their central squares into small markets, and the celebrations are not limited to southern Germany – it’s a cultural practice that unites the entire country.
I know it’s a difficult time for Americans to travel – this holiday season sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas – but I would encourage a little manipulating of vacation schedules when possible to make a trip to Germany in December, at least one time in your life.
The best thing about the Christmas markets is the enchanting festive atmosphere that they evoke – it’s the stuff movies are made of. The town square becomes filled with little wooden huts, out of which vendors sell handmade gifts (candles, soap, socks, scarves, jewelry, wooden toys) and seasonal food such as roasted chestnuts, potato pancakes, sausage sandwiches, marzipan, and of course, mulled wine (Glühwein
). Most markets have similar products – they’re not mass-produced, commercial goods (for the most part), but rather, handmade goods that happen to have widespread appeal.
However, I would say that the overriding appeal of a Christmas markets is actually not the shopping, but the festive atmosphere and the hangout potential. This time of year can be cold and somewhat depressing, but the markets inject joy into the streets and inspire everyone to get outside and enjoy the early days of winter. It’s a wonderful thing to be out with friends on a crisp, cold evening, wrapped in a heavy wool scarf and hat, drinking a steaming cup of Glühwein
and crunching around in the snow thinking about how wonderful this time of year can be and how much love you have for the whole world, and just feeling generally joyful. Or maybe that’s just me; I can be a bit sentimental.
If you’re not the sentimental type, there’s always the Glühwein
(or even better, Feuerzangenbowle
: basically, Glühwein
on fire). It’s amazing how after one cup you no longer notice the cold…
It should be noted that after a while one Christmas market can start to feel exactly like any other Christmas market. They all seem to sell the same stuff, they’re crowded… but you have to ignore that and just embrace the holiday atmosphere. I recommend heading straight to a Glühwein
stand upon arrival. Also, there are many Christmas markets that do try to do something a little unique. For example, some of the markets have a medieval theme, complete with candlelight, appropriately-themed food and drink, and music. Other markets may be unique for their romantic location – e.g. the market in the old, walled town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber
, or the market on the Fraueninsel in the Chiemsee (an island in the middle of a lake that can only be reached by boat). There’s a market in Berlin that even has a sledding (tubing) hill built above the market stalls.
The only drawback to the Christmas markets is that it is a short-lived season that only comes around once a year. Of course, this builds a feeling of sweet anticipation, but when you actually live here the time can slip by in a blur of ordinary work and life commitments with little opportunity to actually make it to the market. But, maybe we need this as a reminder to slow down and forget about those commitments for a couple of weeks, and instead just enjoy life.
I post so many sweet things on this blog that you might be forgiven if you think that all I eat is brownies
, and cake
. The truth is, I love to bake, and I do
bake a lot. At the same time, I am fully aware that it is a horrible idea to have baked goods sitting around the house, beckoning to my non-existent willpower, and so I usually only bake when I have somewhere to go. Luckily, those opportunities seem to come around quite often. And when all else fails, and a baking impulse fells me and I have nowhere specific to bring treats, I just take the goodies to work - my co-workers seem to be fine with that arrangement!
When I'm not baking, I can be found re-purposing leftovers
and making giant salads
that I take to work all week for lunch. In this post-Thanksgiving period, I'm making a lot of turkey sandwiches and sweet potato meals (my friend Mike hugely overestimated the number of sweet potatoes he needed to make his Thanksgiving casserole, so I've got an over-supply of sweet potatoes to work may way through in the next week. I really can't complain though, as sweet potatoes are one of my very favorite foods).
So yesterday I put together an exceedingly delicious roasted sweet potato and kale orzo. It was one of those serendipitous comings together of all things bright and delicious, made with ingredients that just happened to be on hand. And today I took the leftovers to work for lunch, and it was great as a cold, grain-based salad. All in all, a happy accident that definitely deserves a repeat performance. Roasted Sweet Potato and Kale OrzoThe surprise ingredient here is kale. I know kale is the sexiest of greens in the U.S. right now, but it is hard to come by in Germany. As usual, my Ökokiste came through in a big way, bringing me a beautiful bunch of kale right when I was missing it the most, and this is what I came up with. Kale goes very well with sweet potatoes, and when roasted to a slight crisp, it is hard to beat. Also, the orzo works really well here, but I could also imagine it being subbed out for something like barley or farro, if you want an even heartier wholegrain meal.
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cubed
1 red onion, sliced thinly
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
2-3 large handfuls (approximately 8 - 10 leaves) kale, de-stemmed and cut into strips
1 handful sunflower seeds
juice of 1/4 lemon
1/4 cup (60 ml) cream
1/4 cup (30 g) grated parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 400F / 200C.
2. Toss the sweet potatoes, onion, and garlic in a large bowl with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and a big pinch of sea salt.
3. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for about 30 minutes.
4. Toss the kale with another splash of olive and a pinch of salt.
5. Arrange the kale leaves on another baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the leaves are slightly crispy, but still green.
6. Get the pasta water boiling, salt well, and cook the orzo pasta.
7. Drain the orzo and transfer to a large bowl. Squeeze the lemon over the orzo, and mix in the cream and parmesan cheese.
8. Mix in the roasted vegetables and sunflower seeds, and add more salt if needed.
Now that the 6th Munich outpost of this popular local burger restaurant opened up just down the street from me (seriously. It's less than a 5 minute walk), I’m in danger. The temptation to suggest Hans im Glück for every dinner meet-up, rather than venturing out to other favorites, or trying someplace new, could be overwhelming…
The thing is, I’m not really a huge burger fan. They’re okay, but I usually end up ordering veggie burgers of some sort. I realize that is rather odd, particularly for someone who is in no way vegetarian. I think I’ve actually discovered why: I prefer a thin, smoky hamburger to a big, juicy patty, and that goes against almost everyone else’s preferences, and therefore is almost impossible to find. Hans im Glück is no exception- they do a thick, juicy patty just like you, and everyone else in the world, wants. So that’s one of the reasons I recommend it (for you). Me, I default to the veggie burger. Every time. And you know what- they’re so delicious at Hans im Glück, that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hans im Glück is a very happening spot in Munich, hence it’s meteoric rise in popularity from one lonely outpost on Nymphenburger Strasse a couple of years ago to its current six branches in some of the most desirable neighborhoods in Munich. So, as is so often the case in Munich, make a reservation. Also, expect it to be a bit of a “scene” – it is as much a burger joint as it is a trendy hang-out spot for an after-work or pre-party cocktail. Sigh… I kind of wish it hadn’t become such a scene, but you know what, I’m definitely not the only person to appreciate delicious food, and I can’t begrudge Hans im Glück its well-deserved popularity!
One of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of living in a foreign country is learning about, and celebrating, local holidays. However, I think it is also just as important to honor and celebrate the holidays of my home country, be it with a band of fellow Americans, or with my non-American friends. It doesn’t really matter who I gather together as my ragtag family for the holiday, the important point is taking some time to recognize who I am and where I come from, keeping my traditions alive and my heritage intact by observing the holidays that are somehow an integral part of me regardless of where I am in the world, and sharing and building memories with people whom I love. That’s what it’s all about.
Despite my strong avowal that these holidays should be observed, I am not totally strict in the manner of observance. In fact, I love to see a holiday morph between cultures, retaining the “spirit” of the original holiday, yet embracing other influences. Thanksgiving is a particularly fun holiday in this regard – the core essence of the celebration is to give thanks for the bounty and blessings we all have in our lives, and to share those feelings of gratitude with family – again, my definition of “family” is loose and really has nothing to do with blood relations. In fact, since childhood I’ve rarely had the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with my relations, instead gathering with friends who form my core support network wherever I might be and who I genuinely feel to be a surrogate “family” of sorts. It’s really a wonderful manifestation of what is traditionally a family holiday, and is particularly important, I think, to people living overseas who might feel somewhat isolated from their home culture. Sometimes we just need a reminder that we can have a little piece of home even though we are on the other side of the world, and that family, friends, community, and love can be found anywhere.
Thanksgiving is also a fun holiday to celebrate overseas because it is just so American (okay, I know you Canadians celebrate it too, but let’s be honest, you stole (borrowed?) the holiday from us because it is so awesome). There is no such holiday over here – and, it’s also a bit of an anomaly because it is (at least in today’s form) a secular holiday celebrated by all Americans, regardless of religion or creed, and therefore can truly be said to be “American”, as opposed to “Christian-American”, or “Jewish-American”, for example. It’s also a holiday that I am proud to share with the world – I mean, who wouldn’t be? The food is awesome, and the intent behind it is something that we all should strive for more in our everyday lives, i.e. expressing gratitude.
So tonight I am gathering 15 or so of my closest friends in Munich, and we are roasting a giant turkey and serving all the traditional sides- there will be stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, salads, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, pecan pie… it will be a meal for my American friends to sigh in pleasure over all those familiar manifestations of home and Thanksgiving, and for my German friends to experience a “traditional” American holiday. Of course, we will also be drinking German beer, and celebrating with a dinner after work, rather than with a lazy afternoon lolling around the house and watching football while pre-stuffing ourselves on appetizers before the real meal has even begun. Not quite the same, yet somehow just as wonderful and memorable as those long-ago Thanksgivings from my childhood (I almost said, “from my life in the U.S.”, but then I kicked myself and thought, three years in one place is a long time to me, but it’s really just a blip on the map of a life, and can hardly be classified as a long time. i.e. I realize my reality can sometimes be a bit distorted).
And I’ve also been thinking – as I should – today, about all the things for which I have to be grateful in my life. First and foremost, are the people who fall into this web that I call “family” and can be found scattered around the world, usually in those spots where I at some point wandered through, often planned but just as often unplanned, and usually not knowing anyone and in search of something – be it adventure, or interesting work, or the opportunity to learn a language, to experience some wonder of the world that can only be experienced in person, or just simply the possibility to learn more about anything … This is perhaps not the most coherent expression of gratitude, but what I’ve realized through all these wanderings, is that life is essentially about people and relationships. Wonderful people can be found the world over, and I have had the great fortune to meet some of the most wonderful people in the world. For that, I am beyond grateful. And the fact that you all have gone to such lengths to keep our connections strong, putting up with my wanderings, and always pulling me back in with a warm embrace whenever I come back to your corner of the world, even if years have passed, makes me a lucky lucky girl.
So, as an expression of my gratitude I shall offer you pie. If you were here with me, certainly I would be plying you with love and this pecan pie, so in your (my) absence, here is the recipe and my warmest Thanksgiving greetings:
I have to say it: pecan pie has loads of corn syrup. That's not usually my thing. I like to keep my ingredients fairly wholesome and all natural (e.g. I always use all butter in my crust - no shortening), but I will make an exception for this pecan pie, and especially as I only make it once a year. I always make it for Thanksgiving. In fact, my first year in Germany I blithely volunteered to make this pie, completely ignorant to the fact that pecans cost a fortune over here, and almost 50 Euros later... it was still worth it. So, now I have wised up and I always buy a big bag of pecans (and a bottle of corn syrup) to bring back with me when I make a trip to the U.S. Also note that I'm a bit of a renegade when it comes to pie pans - I don't think I actually own a regular pie pan anymore, which is a little bizarre for someone who calls herself a baker. But casserole dishes such as the one pictured above really work quite well.
1 recipe All-Butter Pie Dough (follows)
1 cup (200 g) white sugar
3 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup (300 g) corn syrup (I use dark syrup)
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup (75 g) melted butter
3 eggs, beaten
1 heaping cup (125 g) of chopped pecans
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.
2. Make pie dough, roll out, and spread into pie pan. Do not pre-bake.
3. Mix white sugar, brown sugar, salt, corn syrup, butter, eggs, and vanilla together in a medium-size bowl.
4. Chop pecans and pour into the bottom of the pie shell.
5. Pour syrup mixture over the top of the pecans.
6. Cove the pie lightly with foil.
7. Bake pie for 30 minutes.
8. Remove the foil and bake for another 20 minutes.
9. The pie will still seem molten when you remove it from the oven - it will thicken as it stands.
10. Serve at room temperature.
All-Butter Pie Dough (enough for one single crust)
I always use a food processor to make pie dough. It is just way, way easier. You can use a fork and do it by hand, but it takes a long time to incorporate the cold butter into the flour by hand. I recommend investing in a food processor, if only to make pie dough.
1 1/4 cup (160 g) white flour
1 Tbsp white sugar
1 pinch salt
1 stick (110 g) unsalted butter, cold
3 Tbsp cold water
1. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor.
2. Cut the butter into small chunks, add to the food processor, and pulse.
3. Add the water, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough just comes together. Stop pulsing as soon as the dough comes together in a loose ball inside the food processor.
4. Roll the dough out immediately on a floured countertop.
Most people have a favorite day of the year. Maybe it’s Christmas, or a birthday, or the first day of summer, or even the first day of school come fall. For me, it’s the first snowfall of the year. There’s something magical about snow, and the first time each year when the world becomes blanketed in that soft white evokes so many memories of childhood and the giddy joy that comes with waking up to a white white world. That’s actually the best: when you wake up really early in the morning, and it’s supposed to be pitch black outside, but instead the world outside your window is glowing white and there’s a hushed silence that has fallen over everything. I remember one time, as a small child, sitting with my sister in the middle of the night in front of our living room windows with our noses pressed against the glass, entranced by the snow falling outside. And then the next day, sledding on our neighbor’s driveway, and later, skating to the bus stop on the frozen ditches. Those memories are some of my strongest memories from childhood, and they play out almost like an excerpt from “It’s a Wonderful Life” in my head. And every year, with the first snow, those sweet and wonderful memories come rushing back in.
So yesterday I was overjoyed when, just as we lined up for our first cup of Glühwein, the snow start falling and falling, and eventually sticking. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the winter holiday season, and I was so glad that L&P were back in town to share in the moment as well. Just perfect. Snow, Glühwein, a little holiday spirit, and much-loved friends by my side.
When it comes to baking, I'm all about developing a list of "go-to" recipes for the classics - brownies, chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, chocolate cake, carrot cake, etc. I always want everything I make to be the best of the best - what's the point of eating something unhealthy otherwise? It better be worth those calories! - so I search and search and search, experimenting with ingredient proportions and preparation methods, until finally I feel that I have reached the "pinnacle" of whatever it is I am baking, and from then on, that becomes my go-to recipe and I rarely deviate from it. The final recipe must fulfill a few basic requirements- first, it has to include quality ingredients; second, it has to be easy - I don't go for obscure ingredients or complex preparations when it comes to the "classics", and third, it has to taste damn good (as already stated), and prove its consistency through repeated makings.
So I've already given you the recipe for my cocoa brownies
. I make those a lot - I like the rich, dark (practically black) chocolate flavor and the slightly gooey consistency. They can also be a lot easier to make overseas, because cocoa powder is usually widely available, whereas unsweetened baking chocolate may be difficult to find. But sometimes I want a more classic, non-cocoa-based brownie. And sometimes I do just happen to have unsweetened chocolate floating around...
Such was the case yesterday. I had an invite to a friend's place for dinner, and I usually like to bring some sort of home-baked deliciousness on those occasions. So I opened the cupboard, saw a few loose cubes of baking chocolate lying there, and the decision was made. Brownies.
So. The brownies were baked, cooled, wrapped in foil, and stuffed in my handbag, and I set off to my friend's house, making a detour along the way to have one beer with the boys at the bar where they were watching the Bayern - Dortmund game. And then it happened. I don't really plan it, but for some reason I almost always have baked goods on my person when I am meeting the boys at the bar - it's becoming a trademark thing. Classic Brownies Just one little tip about brownies- they are even more delicious after they've been frozen! I recommend wrapping up the brownies in individual portions and stashing them in the freezer.
3 oz unsweetened baker's chocolate
1 stick (4 oz / 115 g) butter
1 1/4 cup (250 g) sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup (90 g) white flour
1. Heat oven to 350°F / 175°C.
2. Line a square baking pan with buttered parchment paper.
3. Melt butter and chocolate in a medium-size saucepan on stovetop, then stir in sugar, eggs, salt, and vanilla extract.
4. Stir in the flour.
5. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, until surface looks evenly cooked and set.
6. Wait until brownies are cool to slice.