Categories
food this and that

Straw Berries

I was probably in my teens, visiting relatives in the Lake Contance region, the fruit basket of Germany, close to the Swiss border. We were going for a walk, and came by a large strawberry field. All along the ground beneath the plants was spread a thick layer of straw.

And all of a sudden the penny dropped: strawberries!

I was already familiar with the English word, which I had learned in school. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “[t]here is no corresponding compound in other Germanic languages”; the German word is Erdbeere, earth (or ground) berry – presumably because they grow so low to the ground. But seeing that straw spread under the berries suddenly made sense of the English word.

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“What’s the straw for?” I wondered. Somebody explained (or maybe I figured it out myself, I don’t remember): it’s to keep the ripening berries from sitting and rotting directly on the damp soil.

It makes sense that in rainy England, it would have been common practise to protect the precious crop that way, and so have given rise to the name. Strawberries are extremely susceptible to wet: they can rot in a matter of hours on a rainy day, right on the vine, and even after they’ve been picked. (So if you’re picking strawberries, do it when the sun is shining; and if you’ve brought home a flat of strawberries from the farmer’s market on a soggy, dreary day, better get them into those jam jars or freezer bags ASAP, or you’ll lose half your purchase. Yes, I know that from experience.)

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I have no idea if “strawing” the berries is common practise anywhere, or is even done anymore back in the Lake Constance region. However, in my own garden, I actually got some strawberries for the first time this year (I don’t have much of a green thumb, so this is a triumph). And, well, I didn’t “straw” them, but I had a cardboard box of wood shavings around (I think they were left from somebody’s project). So I “sawdusted” the beds between the berries. Or one of them, anyway – I didn’t get around to the other one in time. And sure enough, the berries in the bed with the wood shavings were nice and clean; the other ones had dirt stuck to them and weren’t as happy-looking. I’m going to have to see about doing this again next year – I think grass clippings would work as well, or maybe even bark mulch.

And meanwhile, we’re going to enjoy this year’s strawberry harvest, the whole pound of it.

Life, the Universe, and the Straw in Strawberries. The best fruit ever.

PS: Old-fashioned strawberry jam: 1 kg of strawberries, 800 g of sugar. Mash the berries, mix with the sugar, bring to a rolling boil, boil for 10 minutes. Put in clean jars and cap to keep from drying out (doesn’t need to be sterilized or refrigerated; the sugar is preservative enough). Very sweet, very tasty, keeps in the cupboard for a long time (except it doesn’t because it gets eaten so fast).

Categories
food

#SweetSaturday: Springerle

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We finally got around to baking this year’s Springerle (Shpring-er-la) – “Little Jumpers”. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

They’re a cookie that’s unique to Swabia, the South-Western region of Germany around Stuttgart. The dough consists of eggs, flour, icing sugar and just a pinch of hartshorn salt (ammonium carbonate)*, and the cookies are made by pressing the dough into carved wooden molds, letting them dry overnight, then in the morning brushing the bottoms with water and baking them at a fairly low heat. The dried-out surfaces are firm and hold the image, while the bottom expands straight up – they “jump up” to twice their height, hence the name.

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My grandmother always made them and sent us some, and when she passed away more than twenty years ago, I asked for her molds. I already had some molds I got from my mother, who wasn’t using them; one of them, a double mold with a squirrel and a strawberry, had come from a great-great-aunt, and it has her name and “1909” written on the back. My grandmother’s also have her last name pencilled on the back.

The reason for labelling them is the (now mostly lost) custom of Springerle-baking evenings: a little bit like quilting bees, where all the women in a village would get together to bake Springerle, sharing the molds, so that everyone could get a good variety of images. The men, in the meantime, would sit around carving new molds out of hardwood.

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As I said, some of my molds are 110 years old; others are much newer, labelled with my name and the name of my daughter and the date just a few years ago, acquired on one of our trips. My favourites are the Father Christmas and the goose girl, which are among the antique ones – no date on them, but they might be the same vintage as the squirrel/strawberry. When the goose girl turns out well, you can see the tiny imprints of the grain kernels she’s scattering for the goose at her feet! (Hmm, actually, now that I look closely – that’s not a goose, it’s a chicken. And here I’ve been calling that mold “the goose girl” all these years, after my best-disliked fairy tale.)

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Springerle are actually not the tastiest of cookies – they’re kind of bland and mostly sugary. Also, you’re supposed to bake them much earlier in the season (I’m about four weeks behind this year), and they go rock-hard in storage and are best eaten as “dunkers”, rather like biscotti. But because of that, they don’t need to be kept in airtight containers; in fact, if you want, you can poke holes into them before baking, and then put a ribbon through them and hang them on the Christmas tree. After Christmas you get to “plunder the tree” and eat all the edibles that have been hanging on it.

Another one of my favourite molds is the grape. The reason I love that one is because it was the one that Oma liked best, and it has her name on the back. The bag of cookies she’d send us always had one or two of those in it.

Christmas traditions tie me to my past, to my history. And now that I’ve been baking Springerle for several decades myself, they have become part of my family’s tradition, too. The word “tradition” comes from Latin “tradere”, “to hand on”. My molds were handed on to me by forebears, and my daughter already has dibs on inheriting them when I go.

Now that is sweet.

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For those who’re wondering, here’s the actual recipe. You probably don’t have any antique wooden molds to make them with, but maybe you can find something else to imprint the tops with?

SWABIAN SPRINGERLE

4 lg. Eggs

500g Powdered (Icing) Sugar

500g White Flour

1 knife-tip (=1/8 tsp) Hartshorn Salt* (aka ammonium bicarbonate, smelling salts, etc.)

Beat the eggs and icing sugar until very fluffy; stir the hartshorn salt into the sifted flour and mix into the egg & sugar, knead into a smooth dough. Form into a ball and let rest for 1 hr.

Roll out ca. 1cm thick, cut into little squares. Dust the molds with flour, press dough into it, trim the edges. Poke in holes with a toothpick for hanging up, if you want.**

Lay onto a cookie sheet overnight to let the tops dry and the designs “set”. In the morning, brush bottoms with water, put on a greased cookie sheet (the recipe calls for sprinkling it with ground anise, but I don’t, because I don’t care for the flavour). Bake in preheated 150-160°C (200-210°F) oven for 18-22 minutes. They’re supposed to “spring up” and have “feet”, but stay nice & pale.

Store in cookie tins or hang on the Christmas tree.

Beware of the first bite once they’ve sat for a while; you might chip a tooth. The best tooth to attack it with is your eyetooth, the sharper the better. Or else, dunk them into your afternoon coffee or Christmas Eve mulled wine.

Frohe Weihnachten!

*Hartshorn salt: I get it in a German deli; I’m not sure what you could substitute it with if you don’t have access to one of those. It’s extremely volatile stuff – it comes in little pouches, and once or twice when the pouch wasn’t properly closed after using the tiny pinch required for the recipe, I’ve had the remainder evaporate on me between one year and the next.

**When you’re cleaning up, do not get the molds wet, or they’ll crack. Brush out any stuck-on dough with a stiff dry brush (I use a toothbrush that’s reserved for this purpose) and maybe scrape out the design with a knife tip or a toothpick.

Categories
fairy tales food

Fairy Tale Food: The Gingerbread House

amovitam_gingerbread house 1“What came first,” my husband asked when I made this gingerbread house last year, “the pastry or the fairy tale?”

Good question. So I looked it up. According to the internet (scholarly fount of all wisdom), there isn’t any clear indication of when the first gingerbread house made its appearance on the scene of Christmas goodies, but it does seem that it was after the Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel” became popular. Gingerbread men or other gingerbread figures for gift-giving had been around since the Middle Ages, more or less, but shaping it into a house and glueing candy on it seems to have been inspired by this lovely story of child abandonment, attempted infanticide, and cannibalism.

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I have to say that that fairy tale was never one of my favourites – I prefer stories without bad guys, and this one has not only one very bad witch, but a nasty stepmother to boot. I did like Gretel’s bad-ass vanquishing of the witch, and the ending where Hansel and Gretel get home to their father and live happily ever after.

What I didn’t notice as a kid, though, was that Daddy isn’t that much of a good guy either. In fact, he’s an utter wet noodle; all his moaning and guilty conscience doesn’t make up for the fact that he lets his wife talk him into abandoning his kids in the forest. It even occurs to him that it would be better for him to share his last piece of bread with them and then starve together with them, but does he act on it? Not Mr Wet Dishrag, no. Standing up to the wife would require a backbone, and that he hasn’t got. Macbeth, indeed, has nothing on Hansel Sr.

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Another thing I never knew is that originally, the Grimms told the story with the nasty wife being not the children’s stepmother, but their real, biological mother (the stepmother entered the narrative around 1843, according to Hans-Jörg Uther*). Now doesn’t that put a nice spin on the story? Your mom is feeling a bit peckish, so in order as not to starve, she sends you out into the woods to die. Oh yeah, and Daddy ties a stick to a tree that makes a tapping noise so you think your parents are still around, chopping wood, while they sneak away and leave you to your doom. You’d think the witch would come as somewhat of a welcome relief after that kind of loving home life… So that’s your tragic backstory, before you even run into the cannibalistic witch with the overkill kiddie trap.

Oh yes, that trap? Grimms says specifically that the witch only built the bread house to lure children, not because it was her preferred construction material for superior country cottages. I’d call that overkill, wouldn’t you? Because, as I can tell you from experience, building a gingerbread house is a lot of work.

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However, it’s also a lot of fun. Here is a relatively simple version (not cheap, because of the honey, but that does give it a great taste and texture). No windows made of spun-sugar “glass”, but hey, if you want, you can add those, too.

Incidentally, you might note there is no ginger in this “gingerbread” – there never is in German Lebkuchen. Just plenty of other spices, which were historically so expensive they were reserved for Christmas baking (and sometimes all lumped together under the term “pepper”, hence the alternative term “Pfefferkuchen” – pepper cake – for gingerbread. You might know it from “Pfeffernüsse“, the cookie).

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Gingerbread House**

(this makes one large house plus several tiny ones and a bunch of gingerbread people or bears. For just a house, half the recipe will do. Imperial measurements are approximate.)

House
-1 kg (2 lbs) Honey
-250 ml (1 c) Water
bring to a boil; cool.

Mix/knead into:
-650 g (5 c) Rye Flour
-600 g (5 c) White Flour
-100 g (3 oz) each finely chopped Candied Lemon & Orange peel
-40 g (3 Tbsp) Lebkuchen-Spice (see below)***
-30 g (3 Tbsp) Baking Soda

Let rest for a few hours, up to a day or two.
For cookies or small gingerbread houses, roll out 1 cm (1/4″) thick, bake about 7-9 minutes at 400°F (200°C).

Dimensions for the large witch’s house:
Base plate, ca. 20×30 cm (8×12″), prick with fork, bake 12-18 minutes.
Roof (x2): 13×20 cm (5×8″).
House walls: (x2) 8×16 cm (3×6″); (x2) 16 cm (6″) wide with 16 cm (6″) high at the point of the gable.
Cut windows out of the side walls and a door out of one of the gable walls (can also be done immediately after baking). Bake ca. 12 min.
Make fence posts, window shutters, chimney pieces, small trees etc. out of the remaining bits of dough – maybe even a Hansel and Gretel and a witch?
Cool everything.

Icing
-500 g (1 lb) Icing Sugar
-2 Tbsp Lemon Juice
-3 Egg Whites
Mix together to thick consistency (kind of like peanut butter). If it’s too runny, add more icing sugar; if too stiff, more lemon juice or water, a teaspoonful at a time. If you want to keep it vegan, skip the egg whites and just use lemon juice.
For the house construction, you might want to trim the edges with a knife so they are straight and hold together better. Support the roof plates (prop a cup under the bottom edge) until the icing has dried a bit and they no longer slide off. When things are holding together, go to town with covering everything in icing “snow” and candies. “Icicles” at the corners of the roof can be achieved by dribbling runny icing down the edge.

***Lebkuchen-Spice (Neunerlei – Nine Spice)
Lebkuchen spice can be bought ready-mixed, but if you can’t get it, here’s my own blend that I made up from the ingredients list on the package. All the spices are ground.

Zest of 1 orange & 1 lemon
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp star anise
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp mace
1/4 tsp fennel
1/2 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp cardamom

To build into full-size cottage, multiply ingredients by approximately 500. Proceed as above, but build roof out of smaller tiles and use scaffolding for construction. In case of intrusion by marauding small children, keep phone number of child welfare services on hand to report the parents for abandonment.

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References:
*Hans-Jörg Uther, Handbuch zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013. p.13.
**recipe adapted from: Christian Teubner & Annette Wolter, Backvergnügen wie noch nie. München: Gräfe und Unzer, 1984.

Categories
photography this and that

A Day for Apple Pie: A Picture Essay

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APPLE PIE

-pastry for a 9” double-crust pie, rolled out (I use this recipe – had some in the freezer still)

-6 cups peeled & sliced apples (about 6-8 large)

-2 Tbsp flour

-2 tsp cinnamon

-2/3 cup brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Put the filling ingredients together in a big bowl, toss until the apples are coated. Put into the pie shell, top with the lid, seal the edges. Slash holes in the top crust. Bake for 45-50 minutes until it’s golden brown and the juice bubbles up through the holes in the crust.

Life, the Universe, and Apple Pie. Perfect for a snowy day.