Monday, April 15, 2013

Bringing Spring Back from Portugal

Happy Spring friends!

It seems as if spring came to Germany overnight. Sunday was by far the warmest day of the year. It felt so good to picnic outside in the sun and soak up all of that Vitamin D.

Speaking of sun though- I had the loveliest of spring breaks with my boyfriend in Portugal. I returned a trifle tanner and with a much sunnier disposition.

We flew into Faro on the southern tip of Portugal. Nestled in the region known as the Algarve, people from all over Europe are drawn to its sunny climate, beautiful nature reserves and wide open beaches. And the Portuguese people are so friendly. Everywhere we went we felt welcome and people wished us a good morning, good afternoon and good evening. Sometimes it's really all about the little things.

What I would give to walk these halls every morning on my way to breakfast...

Faro, Portugal

We stayed at a lovely guesthouse in the old fishing village of Olhao. Run by an Australian couple I would highly recommend staying there to everyone. You can learn more about our guesthouse at their website here :

A Moorish city, the whitewashed buildings and mosaic detailing are unique to Olhao. 

Though the city is largely Catholic now the old Islamic vestiges still remain. They are subtle reminders of the tremendous fusion of cultures that dramatically influenced Olhao.

One of the very best parts of our trip was sitting outside (!) and enjoying some of Portugal's finest wines.

Somehow I we didn't feel like we were in Europe anymore.

We wanted to see as much of Portugal as we could during our week in the Algarve so we rented a car and did a bit of road-tripping. One destination was Sagres-a fortress on the southwestern tip of Europe. The day turned out to be dark and stormy but to me that just added to the magnificence of the scenery. 

The end of the world!

We also drove east to the Spanish border, the city of Villa Real.

I was never so happy to see a palm tree!

We also had the very great pleasure of meeting a new friend.

He found us on the island of Culatra, about a 30 minute ferry ride off the coast of Olhao. He met us on the beach  and ended up spending the day with us. I've been missing my dogs back home so this was so nice! We named him Joao (the only Portuguese name we know) and though I was dreadfully sad to say goodbye to him, he is a true dog of the island. And that's where he belongs.

Everywhere we went in Portugal dogs run freely. No leashes and very few of them wear collars. This is  something that would be absolutely verboten (or forbidden) here in Germany. But I loved seeing them run free. Happy and jolly in the sun.

After laying on the beach we tucked in to some true Portuguese fare. But actually we ate like this every day. I've never eaten such amazingly fresh, beautiful fish. We ate sun fish, sea bream, langoustines, crab,  razor clams, tuna, salmon, giant anchovy (seen above) and more. Everything was cooked so simply. The fish is certainly the star in Portugal. Throw it on the grill, serve it with lemon, boiled potatoes and a simple tomato and fennel salad. There really is nothing better. Except perhaps a bottle of vino verde and a view of the ocean... :)


Vino Verde on ice. 

Our private beach.

Take me back!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cozy Eats: Semmelknoedel

Sooooo. I may have been a tad optimistic about Spring's arrival in my last post.

We've had quite a bit of snow lately.

As in lots.

For me March is when Spring really works its magic. In Northern California everything is blossoming, the air is fragrant, the sun shines brighter and everyone trades their coats and boots for knee-skimming dresses and strappy sandals. As you can imagine it's been an adjustment :)

So while my friends and family back home have been enjoying the glorious spring weather I've still been in hibernation mode. Hearty winter dishes are certainly in play here and that's why I turned to Semmelknoedel.

 Semmelknoedel waiting for their steam bath!

You may have heard of Knoedel, a traditional dumpling made from potatoes that you can probably find at any German pub...erm..well anywhere. It was my first taste of "German" cuisine- you could call it my gateway food if you like- and I loved them.

My boyfriend, and every other German I've ever met, use a boxed variety. They're tasty, easy and fast. What's not to like? I however, in my normal capacity, wanted a bit more. I didn't just want to open a box, pop the little knoedels into boiling water and 10 minutes later have dinner on the table. I wanted to make them from scratch.

Also though the traditional Knoedel is made with potato, I had more of a hankering for Semmelknoedel: it's the same idea but instead of using potato you use day old bread. Good idea right? I think they have more flavor and a better texture than their potato siblings. What surprised me though was how easy they are to make. There's no reason to buy the boxed version! These are so much better. Trust me.

recipe adapted from Original GU Rezept

6 day old whole grain rolls
1 cup milk (use any milk of your choice except non-fat)
1/2 c parsley, chopped
1 yellow onion, minced
1 T butter, melted
1 t nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
3 eggs
1 t lemon zest
salt and pepper to taste

Makes about 15 Semmelknoedel

1. Roughly chop the rolls into small cubes. Place in a medium sized bowl and pour the milk over the bread. Allow to sit for 15-30 minutes, just until all the milk is absorbed and the bread has softened.
2. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium-high heat. Once the butter has melted add the onions and sauté until they have softened completely but have not yet started to brown. Remove from heat.
3.  Bring a pot of water to a simmer. While this is happening add the eggs, parsley, onion, nutmeg, lemon zest and salt and pepper to the bread mixture. Using your hands gently mix everything together. Don't over mix just gently, massage if you will, the bread so that all the ingredients form one mass.
4. With clean hands form little balls (about the size of a golf ball) and set aside. Using a spoon add the Semmelknoedel to the simmering water in two batches. Cook for 20 minutes turning the Semmelknoedel every few minutes.
5. Eat alone with lots of cracked pepper and a pat of butter or as a side to any main course. If you're feeling like a German feast serve with a beef stew- like goulash- (pictured above) and red cabbage.
Guten Appetit!

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Weekend in the Sun: Venice

If you couldn't tell from my last post I (and the rest of Germany) have been suffering from the winter blues. Heralded as the darkest winter in forty odd years, the past few months have been dark.

Sunshine hours hover around 0 and that kind of grey-ness can really start to wear on you!

Last weekend though I had the privilege of being whisked off to a sunnier place.


Simply put, Venice is beautiful. I thought that perhaps the droves of tourists might diminish that beauty somewhat but I was pleasantly surprised. All you have to do is step off the beaten path to discover the other side the Venice. The Venetian side.

St. Mark's Square is an attraction that's not to be missed. Be prepared for all those tourists though. And the 6 euro espresso shot.

We had the most fun when we were wandering away from the heart of the city and tourist hot spots.
And found the best food.

We spent Friday evening in a great little cafe eating the best offerings from the sea. I had the pasta seppia which was deliciously briny and satisfyingly decadent. Squid ink is tossed with al dente spaghetti and fresh squid. It's simple but really fantastic! Don't let the color scare you, it's worth having black teeth for the rest of the evening...

Public transportation in Venice is just as unique as the rest of the city. Water buses come regularly and provide a convenient and relatively fast trip through the canals. Ironically it took me until after being in Venice for a day for me to realize that there are no cars in Venice! If you're lucky enough to count yourself as a Venetian than you probably have your own boat :)

We spent Saturday afternoon on the island of Burano. Smaller and less famous perhaps than it's glass-making neighbor Murano, Burano is a colorful little community with great little cafes and a renowned reputation for handmade lace.

Back on the main island we spent the evening in the Dorsoduro district. Home to many of the students and young people of Venice the Dorsoduro district offers cheaper prices and and a less touristy atmosphere. You find yourself the only tourist in the room, something that I find refreshing and a wee bit scary at times.

The Aperol spritz is the drink of Venice, and certainly the Dorsoduro district, where you can get one to go for 2.50 euro. Sitting in the sun on the piazza drinking cocktails and munching salty potato chips was the closest  I've been to paradise in a long time.

There was also pizza.

I generally try to avoid mid-bite photographs but for this pizza I couldn't be bothered.
It was that good.

We got our "family" pizza to go (feeling slightly conspicuous as there were just the two of us) and did as true Italians do,  we sat in the piazza and wolfed down that pizza. It was huge so in the end Tim had to pick up the slack and finish it off. I don't think he minded much.

So all in all Venice was my tonic. When we arrived back in Germany the sun was shining and I could finally hear a little whisper of spring in the air. I feel like everyone's perked up a bit and the heavy darkness of winter had passed. Until I can go back to Italy I'm filling my apartment with fresh flowers and am dreaming of cocktails in the sun.

Stay tuned for some real German cooking next week. It's going to get meaty. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Spitting (on) Snowflakes

I find myself constantly reevaluating my relationship with snow. As in on a daily basis.

Coming from California snow was always an anomaly that never really happened "in these neck of the woods."

Growing up there was usually one or two days a year when  my Dad would load up the truck and drive my sister, our trusty hound dog Jake and I up to the Foothills to experience a little snowfall. In fact I vividly remember the first time I actually saw snow falling from the sky! I must have been 10 years old or so and it made quite the impression. :)

So now for the first time in my life I live in a climate that experiences regular snowfall and my reaction has ranged from pure child-like bliss to slightly-less-than-natural downright resentment.

My thoughts on snow in a nutshell:

1. Being inside toasty warm with a mug of tea in hand and a fleece-y blanket tucked around me = WIN

2. Trudging (emphasis on the trudge) through slushy, filthy, frozen, ice = NOT FUN
Nor for that matter is having snowflakes blown into your eye by the Arctic wind any better. It's painful, especially if you wear contacts.

I thought after living in Ireland I would have become accustomed to rapidly changing weather. That is not apparently the case. Here it could start out sunny in the morning, followed by dark angry clouds, then a flurry of snow fall, and finally the return of sunshine.

Or it could be like today- sunny, windy, cloudy and lightly snowing at the same time.


It's something I'm still trying to wrap my brain around.

In other news I've fashioned myself a remedy to snowy-angry days. Days when I come home in the evening and I literally cannot feel my face and my nose has turned so red that I resemble Rudolph.


Not especially German, but it's helping me cope with the German weather, so that must count for something!
It may seem like a no-brainer, and yes I agree with you. It totally is. But that fact doesn't tarnish the brilliance of an old fashioned bowl of tomato soup.

I've been making this soup weekly, and sometimes bi-weekly. It's so easy to throw together and makes for a perfect easy dinner or lunch. Best of all it's totally customizable to what extra ingredients you have lying around. Last night I went Mexican and topped it with sliced avocado, sour cream and homemade tortilla strips. Today for lunch I served it over a scoop of brown rice and topped it with low-fat yogurt and red chili flakes. Feel free to make it your own!

Tomato Soup
recipe adapted from

2 T olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large red onion, chopped
1 1/2 t  ground cumin
1 t ground coriander
1 t cayenne pepper (or red chili flakes)
2 t salt
2 14-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
4 cups vegetable broth

1. Start by heating the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Then, add the onion allowing them to soften for 2-3 minutes. Next add the garlic and salt and sauté for one minute.
2. Add the spices. While stirring cook for a few minutes or until the spices become fragrant.
3. Add the tomatoes and allow to thicken. Once tomatoes have thickened add once cup of stock and remove from heat. Using an immersion blender (or a regular blender) puree the soup until smooth.
4. While pureeing add the remaining stock. What you want here is a nice consistency without it becoming too watery.
5. Taste the soup for seasoning and spice.

I have to apologize but I was so eager to eat up this soup that I forgot to snap a picture! So get to your kitchens and make some tomato soup this weekend! Then you can see for yourselves :)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's, Karneval and just because...Kaesekuchen

Happy Valentine's Day from grey Germany!

Whether or not you celebrate it, "believe" in it or like it in general, I wish you all lots of love and smiles. Because that's what it really is about, right?

My boyfriend and I are pretty low-key about it, some fresh flowers and an "I love you" and I'm a happy girl. Chocolate for him (us) and a special dinner seals the deal.

In California step into any shop the day after New Year's and it looks like a violent eruption of pink, purple and red paper hearts caught the staff by surprise. Conversation candies and overpriced paper cartoonValentines take center stage. And for the men out there, I feel for you. The ball does tend to lie in your court on this one. :)

It's not all bad of course. Amidst all the cynics out there I tend to be a little more traditional and as far as I'm concerned what's wrong with some extra romance? Unlike the United States, here in Germany  Valentine's Day doesn't whack you in the face every time you step out to buy some essentials. Most flower shops display a bouquet or two of red roses but other than that, it's not really marketed.

In fact, one might be able to entirely forget that Valentine's Day is in fact on February 14th without some discreet (or possibly very direct) reminders from their significant other.

The reason behind all of this probably has many answers. I'm sure studies have been conducted and I feel pretty confident assuming that it has to do with the no-nonsense attitude that seems positively genetic in most German people. But maybe the most prevalent reason, the one that's staring everyone in the face, is Karneval.

Now before I go any further, let's get some background out of the way. My city lies in the western most point of Germany, hugging the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands. Aachen is a part of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and cosseted between the two larger cities of Cologne and Duesseldorf.

This area is known collectively as the Rhineland, due to its proximity to the Rhine River. The people of this region have a special dialect and a unique culture, just like many other parts of Germany. Karneval though, the likes of Mardi Gras and other similar celebrations around the world, is only celebrated in the Rhineland.

Ask 10 Germans how they feel about Karneval and I guarantee about 50% of them will love it (they will probably be from Cologne) and the other 50% will absolutely hate it (they will not be from Cologne). This was my first Karneval and to be honest, I think I'll have to side with the rest of Germany. Not exactly my cup of tea. For those of you wanting to know more about Karneval check out this article:The Local: Karneval in Germany.

Here's a brief summary. Karneval celebrations date back to Roman times. In this area of Germany though, what we know today as Karneval stems from the period after about 1820- otherwise known as Post-Napoleonic Germany. So it began as a way for the German people to mock the previous order, and the establishment. With all sorts of drunkenness, debauchery and blatant chaos.

The season starts on the 11th of November but the real party starts on Fettdonnerstag (Fat Thursday) and continues until Ash Wednesday- when everyone stops drinking and behaving like adults again.

Parade on Rosenmontag

The parade on Rosenmontag is perhaps the biggest highlight. People wear costumes- animals, clowns and cowboys all seem to be popular choices, and stand outside in the cold and snow for hours! The parade is an elaborate event, candy is thrown, people yell "Alaaf!" and that's that.

After Karnival everything seems a bit quiet. Maybe that's why Valentine's Day is such a snooze here. Everyone is so tired from Karnival how can they bear to tackle another one?

I was tired just like the rest of my city. So I haven't been cooking or baking much this week. Last week though one of my girlfriends invited a few of us over for dinner and I thought to myself, it's time for another cake!

This is my new favorite discovery in the form of baking inspiration. A seasonal magazine devoted entirely to cakes, cookies and other fabulous baked goods.

This recipe caught my attention as soon as I saw it.

German Cheesecake with Cherry Jam and Streusel Topping

German Cheesecake or Kaesekuchen is lighter and fluffier than traditional American or New York cheesecake. The reason for that lies in the filling.  Whereas American cheesecake calls for cream cheese, Germans use quark. Quark is staple in any German kitchen. They eat in on bread for breakfast smeared with a thick layer of jam. You can buy varieties that have absolutely no fat at all, 20% fat, 40% fat and even some with herbs mixed in.

I've tried finding it in the States and though it's tricky I've found quark variations at specialty grocery stores and small markets. It's a bit pricy though (which is crazy because it's incredibly cheap here) but if you're willing to do a little leg work you can mix your own quark substitute pretty easily.

I'm still in the process of perfecting a substitute but here are your options.

Option 1: This option will require the least amount of effort. Mix nine parts ricotta cheese with one part sour cream. Voila! That should achieve the necessary texture and tangy-ness.

Option 2: Get yourself some plain full-fat yogurt (no flavorings here) and set it to drain for a day or two. (Use a coffee filter or some cheese cloth to separate the whey) Once it's fairly solid throw out the whey and use what's left of the yogurt as a substitute for quark.

Now on to the recipe.

Kaesestreuselkuchen mit konfituere 
Streusel cheesecake with cherry jam
Recipe adapted from Lecker Bakery, Special 2013 No. 1

Preparation time: 40 minutes
Baking time: 50-60 minutes


3/4 cup cold unsalted butter plus extra for greasing the pan
2 1/3 cup all purpose flour plus 1 T
3/4 cup plus 1 cup granulated sugar
5 medium eggs

1 small jar cherry jam (3/4 cup)  (Any red, tart jam will do here. Just try to avoid using jam with seeds. The point we're aiming for here is color and tartness.)
1 3/4 pounds quark (or quark substitute)
1 packet of vanilla pudding powder
zest of one mandarin orange
1/2 c sliced almonds

1. Grease and flour a standard springform pan, set aside. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F
2. For the dough: Mix the flour, 3/4 c sugar, the butter, 1 egg and salt in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. I find sometimes that it's easier to do this with a pair of clean hands so that I can evenly distribute the butter throughout the flour. Mix until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Divide the streusel in half, using one part for the crust and the other half for the streusel topping.
3. With your hands press half of the mixture into your prepared springform pan. Push the dough up the sides so you have about 2 inches in height. Spread the jam evenly over the crust.

4. For the filling: Mix the quark, 1 cup sugar, pudding powder and zest with a paddle attachment or handheld mixer until smooth. One at a time, add the remaining eggs, mixing thoroughly before adding another egg.

5. Pour the filling into the pan. Mix the almonds with the streusel topping and then sprinkle the mixture evenly over the filling.
6. Bake the cheesecake for 50-60 minutes. After the first 30 minutes cover the cake with foil to avoid over-browning. Once the cake is baked leave it in the oven with the door open for  at least 10 minutes to cool. Remove the metal ring from the cake and allow to cool on a rack completely before serving.

Finally a cheesecake we don't have to feel guilty about! :)