Blank Brain and Winter Birds

birds (1) I’ve got a serious case of blank brain right now. I just haven’t come up with anything wise, witty or weird to say on here – or at least haven’t been able to remember it long enough to put on screen (I had one or two really great blog posts plotted out – at 3:00 AM when I was lying awake with insomnia. Alas, they have vanished into the abyss of post-insomnia early morning sleep). So that’s why there’s been a bit of a dearth of postings here lately.

Of course, what’s in the forefront of my otherwise blank mind right now is my stories. The sequel to Seventh Son is actively in the works, and coming really soon! It’s largely a winter story, and was much easier to write at this time of year than Book #3, which is set around Summer Solstice. Maybe I should take a quick trip Down Under, and just live in summer for a while to keep that story moving forward. Any New Zealanders want to send me a plane ticket and put me up for a few weeks?

birds (3)Speaking of winter, I’ve been watching the birds bickering over seeds on my balcony bird feeder. And I got to wondering: how can they even survive the winter? At the beginning of December for several days in a row we had a cold snap where it was -15° C (in °F, that’s, umm, really really cold). How can those tiny little bodies make it through those temperatures without turning into little frozen lumps? But from what I could tell, they weren’t particularly bothered; they just puffed up their feathers a bit more than normal and became birdie puffballs instead of birdcicles. And then there were the ducks on the lake: the water was forming a rime of ice, and the ducks were still merrily paddling around in the unfrozen bits. That’s crazy – hasn’t anybody told them that warm-blooded creatures should have their feet freeze off in ice water?

Maybe it’s because they don’t know that that they can survive it. That was the theory I heard a little boy proclaim once, when I wasn’t all that big myself, about how birds can survive sitting on power lines. He was wondering aloud why they didn’t get killed by the electric power surge, and then he came to the conclusion that maybe it was because they didn’t know that by rights they should. From my superior vantage point of the ripe old age of seven or eight I was feeling vastly amused at his infantile theories (although I didn’t have anything better to offer, I figured that probably wasn’t it). But now I’m starting to wonder if he didn’t have something after all. How do birds survive the winter? It’s quite a miracle. And yes, I know there are wise explanations which are only a click of a Google button away – but really, when you think about it, it’s just simply astounding. Quite wonder-full, in fact.

Life, the Universe, Blank Brains and Winter Birds. Wishing you (and the birds) a good move into the New Year!

winter sunset
Midwinter Sunset

Time Travel

Sometimes, there’s this question that goes around on the Internet: if you could time travel to anywhere (anywhen?) in the past or future, where would you go? For me, that statement has to be qualified. First of all, would I go there to stay? That would be a very different deal than just going for a visit and being able to come home whenever I want. If it was to stay, umm, that would rule out anytime pretty much prior to the mid-twentieth century – in fact, I don’t think I’d want to go at all. You see, I think the greatest inventions of recent-ish history is not the Internet, or even plastics – but antibiotics and anaesthesia. I would not want to live in a time or place in the past where those are unavailable. And the future, who knows what it’ll hold, so I’m not going to go there (besides, I’ll get there eventually anyway, so what’s the point of wasting a perfectly good time travel ticket?).

However, if I could go just for a visit – like going camping or something, for a couple of weeks or even months in the summer – there is no doubt where I’d go: the Regency. Hop back exactly two hundred years, to Europe – England first, I think, and then Germany (where it wasn’t called the Regency Period, it was just, well, the beginning of the 1800s).

Jane AustenWhy? Well, obviously: it’s when my most favourite writers were active. It was Jane Austen’s birthday just a couple of days ago (in case you’re wondering, she would have been 239). I kind of missed her birthday, even though the AustenBlog sent me the post about it on Tuesday. Another thing I missed this whole entire year was that it was the bicentennial of the publication of Mansfield Park (ah, the blog entries that could have written on the topic!). Once I got away from studying Austen and into studying fairy tales, I got out of the loop; there’s all kinds of things that whizzed by me.

GrimmsAnd yes, speaking of fairy tales, that’s my other favourite, of course: the teens of the 19th century saw the first edition of the Children’s and Household Tales, aka Grimms’ Fairy Tales. So just think, if I was hanging around Europe two hundred years ago, I could go meet all those awesome writers. However, I think I’d leave the visit to the Grimm family for a decade or so later – in 1814 Germany was still under the occupation of Napoleon’s armies. The 1830s would probably be a better time to go hang out with the German folktale collectors.

I guess that predilection for Austen and fairy tales makes me a Romantic, literarily speaking (is that a word?). I am a romantic in regular life, too – a dyed-in-the-wool lover of weddings and happily-ever-afters – but not quite in the standard mold. A lot of what goes by “romance” in today’s world makes me cringe and/or roll my eyes – pink frilly stuff, ugh. I still haven’t quite figured out the exact connection between “romance” in the weddings-and-happily-ever-after sense and “Romanticism” in the historic-cultural era sense – they’re two different beasts, although one developed from the other, methinks. In fact, there could be a whole other Master’s thesis in the exploration of that particular question, but that’s another topic for another day.

Suffice to say, I’m a romantic and a Romantic – and I’d love to go visit that time and see what it was really like. Dirty and dark for the most part, no doubt, but still, I’d love to check it out. And maybe learn to dance a country dance or two (the waltz was still brand-new and somewhat scandalous, at least in England), drink tea with a raised pinky, and perhaps sit around the Grimms’ parlour and listen to Dortchen Wild tell a fairy tale that Wilhelm Grimm then carefully writes down (between admiring glances cast in her direction – he married her, later on. Now that’s romantic).

Life, the Universe, and Time Travel to the Regency. Where would you go, if you could?


Lebkuchen (1)Except, I lie. Not one speck of ginger, fresh or dried, has come near these goodies. They are, in fact, genuine, honest-to-goodness German Lebkuchen. Yes, I know, I know, over here we call them gingerbread. So be it – as long as you keep in mind that ginger plays no part in it.

It’s a new recipe I tried from a cookbook I’ve had for a long time, and I’m very pleased with it. It tastes exactly like Lebkuchen should.  Except for the texture – boughten Lebkuchen, the ones from Nuremberg (which is famous for them), are soft and kind of chewy, more of a cake texture; these things that I baked today went rock-hard once they cooled off, kind of like biscotti. I guess they’re dunkers. Put on a pot of Glühwein (mulled wine), or if you don’t want the booze, some spiced soft cider, and you’re in business. Aaah.

Lebkuchen (3)It’s the quintessential Christmas goodie, loaded with ingredients that for Germans are exotic imports, because they can’t be grown in north-central Europe. Almonds, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg – things that come from the south.

And now they’re going into the cookie tin, the big one with the rounded lid, which years ago came in a Christmas parcel, filled with the real chocolate-glazed Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Of course, it’s the tin for keeping those gingerbread cookies in – just look at the picture on the lid!Lebkuchen (2) It shows exactly that kind of cookie, almonds and all. Baked by friendly little dwarfs, no less, who get the nuts from a squirrel family, take them home to their dwarfs’ cottage, bake them into gingerbread, and then take some back to the squirrels to share.

And just so you can share, too (maybe not with squirrels, but I’m sure you’ve got some friends who might be into it) here’s the recipe:

4 eggs
250g sugar
400g flour
1 tsp baking powder
400g ground whole almonds
100g mixed candied peel
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp each cloves, nutmeg and allspice
1 egg yolk
80 blanched almonds
Beat the eggs with the sugar until foamy. Sift together flour and baking powder, mix with almonds and spices. Stir into the eggs and sugar, knead together into a firm dough. Wrap dough in tin foil or parchment paper; put in the fridge (or on your sub-zero-temperature deck) for two hours to rest.
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F). Roll dough on floured surface to 1cm thickness. Cut into 40 even-sized squares; put on a cookie sheet. Beat the egg yolk with a little bit of water. Brush squares with egg wash, decorate with one almond half in each corner (I used sliced almonds instead). Bake on the centre rack of the oven for 20 minutes or until light brown. Cool on racks. Store in Lebkuchen tin with pictures of friendly dwarfs on the outside. Defend from marauding family members so a few cookies are left until Christmas.

And as a bonus, here’s how I make Glühwein and/or mulled cider:
1 bottle of red wine, or 1 litre of apple juice
1 cinnamon stick
about half a dozen whole cloves
if using wine, about 1/4 c sugar (or more, to taste)
Put all ingredients together in a slow cooker or a pot on low heat. Simmer anywhere from 1hr to all afternoon. Serve in mugs. Perfect while shopping at the Christmas market with snow drifting down on you, or perhaps while going carolling. Or just for sitting by the fireside and dunking gingerbread into.

There you are. Life, the Universe, Gingerbread and Mulled Wine. Wassail!