American-style Cheesecake

Cheesecake in Germany is different. It’s good, but it’s far lighter and crumblier than American cheesecake, with nowhere near the tangy flavor I expect. I’ve tried to make cheesecake over here before, but it never quite works out correctly. The flavor is always somewhat lacking and the texture is a little off. I’m certain it has to do with availability of ingredients. The cream cheese here is all spreadable – they don’t seem to have the big, dense blocks of Philly, wrapped in foil, that have to sit out and soften on the counter before you can put it in the mixer. Even if I could get the blocks (and I probably could – I have ways), I really don’t have the fridge space to store it.

While planning Thanksgiving desserts with our friends, we decided a cheesecake might be in order (counterpoint to the omnipresent pies). So I started my usual recipe search, when I had an idea; look for a German-language recipe for ‘American’ cheesecake! I found a winner here. The original recipe is in German with metric measurements, but here’s my translation.

Crust
25-30 Leibniz wholegrain (vollkorn) cookies, crushed
5-6 T (80 g) butter, melted

Filling
17 oz (500 g) cream cheese1
14 oz (400 g) quark cheese
3/4 c (160 g) sugar
1 1/2 t vanilla extract (wanna be fancy? Scrape a whole vanilla bean instead)
3 eggs
1 pinch salt

Topping
1 large jar sour cherries (Schattenmorellen)
2 T cornstarch

Preheat oven to 350°F/170°C.

Mix the crushed cookies and melted butter together in a bowl, until all the crumbs are evenly moistened and are starting to clump. Press the crumbs into the bottom of a 24-26 cm. springform pan until they make an even layer.

In a large mixer bowl, combine all the filling ingredients and beat until smooth and light. Pour into the springform and bake for at 40 minutes or until the center is somewhat jiggly, but no longer liquidy. I prefer to bake mine a little longer, until the top is no longer shiny – but this will probably cause your cake to crack. Allow cake to cool to room temperature, then chill for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

The topping is optional, but I like my cheesecake with cherries. Into a small saucepan, drain your cherry juice and set cherries aside for now. Put 4-5 T of the cherry juice in a small glass or measuring cup and add the cornstarch, stirring well. Bring the juice in the saucepan to a boil, then add the cornstarch slurry while stirring. The mixture will immediately thicken. Remove it from the heat, stir in the cherries and serve with the cheesecake.

  1. Edited on 2018-04-30; a previous incarnation of this recipe had the cream cheese-to-quark ratio flipped. This way (as written here, now) is even better. []

Five Places for Lunch in Two Capitals

London

A couple weekends ago, we did a B&B stay in London at a perfectly lovely flat in Balham — more on that later. One of the joys of a trip to the United Kingdom for us is a visit — or many — to Marks & Spencer for a fast, simple, comparatively cheap, and possibly even healthy (or at least not obviously BAD for us) lunch on the go. They’re located all over the United Kingdom. It seems like about the time we’re getting hungry, but are on our way to some other exhibit, show, or shopping area with not a lot time to eat, an M&S comes into view just at the end of the block. Big thanks to our pal and travel buddy Monet for this tip. Previously, we only knew Marks & Spencer as a department store and purveyor of fine barnyard animal shaped gummy candies.

Marks & Spencer Simply Food is a great thing if you’re in the mood to snag a bench and eat outside. It’s ostensibly “just” a grocery store, but the things they have in there appear to be very good quality, whether ready-to-eat or requiring a little oven work to make them edible. If you’re renting an apartment with an oven included, M&S Simply Food can be your best bet for not-eating-out meals. For the ready-to-eat, single-serving stuff, I recommend Hoisin Duck and greens wrapped up in a tortilla, a bottle of freshly squeezed orange/mango juice, and a little pudding cup. But that wasn’t our exclusive choice for lunch in England.

We also tried Dish Dash, at our B&B hostess’ recommendation, just up the road a short walk. It’s a Persian (is that politically correct outside the realm of cats and rugs?) restaurant with lots of items to mix and match, differing portion sizes, and plenty of vegetarian options. I had the Khoresh Ghomesabzi, a generous bowl of thin lamb stew with fresh parsely, coriander and chives, a side of rice (works great IN the stew) and a side of tabbouleh. Sarah had Joojeh Kebab, a skewer of lemon, garlic, and yogurt-marinated chicken with a side of crispy spicy potatoes. Very tasty food in a comfortable atmosphere. They looked well-equipped for large parties, too.

For sheer variety of offering, try the Borough Market at lunch. Individual hawkers of meats, cheeses, sandwiches, pies, burgers, sausages, breads, falafel, curries, Greek stuff…the list goes on and on. It’s popular at lunch, and with good reason. Plan lots of extra minutes to tour the whole area and make (mental) notes about the stalls warranting a second look. We ordered some lovely pies from pieminister and followed up with a falafel from Arabica Food & Spice.

Berlin

Cabin 2We took a night train from Munich to Berlin on Wednesday night. We’d done this once before, years to the week ago with friends visiting from California. Back then, we’d chosen sleeper berths for the four of us, but they weren’t in a compartment. Rather, they more more like individual pods built into the sides of the train car, with an aisle running down the middle, and I recall zipping up a side wall to isolate myself from passers-by or ambient light. This time was a completely different configuration, however: one side of the train car had the aisle along the edge and the the other was marked with two staircases — one down, one up — each leading to two tiny twin bunk berths. You can see there that I’m standing in the only spot in the “room” where one person could conceivably stand. If you don’t happen to have a close, personal relationship with your bunkmate, you will pretty quickly.

Dolores Burrito FairyAfter we got settled in Berlin, Sarah met up with Yelli the next day for coffee while I was working a little. Eventually I joined them and she gave us a choice of Dolores or …something else. It doesn’t matter. Dolores was the right choice. Big, flavorful burritos with plenty of variety and not skimpy on the extras essentials like sour cream and shredded Monterrey Jack (!!!) cheese. Be prepared for a wait at lunch time; every hipster in Berlin knows about Dolores, too.

Sunday brunch at Café do Brasil was the final stop on our three-continent culinary tour through London and Berlin. This was another suggestion from Yelli & Co. and I am thankful for it. It certainly was eclectic: standard German buffet things like salami and cheese and yogurt, sure, but also fresh pineapple, shrimp on skewers, deep-fried crab legs, eggs scrambled with tomatoes and onions, breakfast sausage, beef stew over rice and barbecued chicken wings — oh, the chicken wings. All this, plus a bottomless cup of coffee (pretty unheard of in German buffet settings, since the coffee is almost never included). We paid just over €40 for a feast for 4 adults plus one kiddo (pretty sure the youngest didn’t even make it onto the bill, but really, I’m not sure the kiddo did either). Take the U7 to Mehringdamm and walk about 2 blocks. Just make sure you’ve got a reservation well in advance or are there on Sunday morning before they open at eleven o’clock to snag a table; otherwise you’re probably out of luck.

Three Unusual Occurences

Slightly less graceful and demure than this
Slightly less graceful and demure than this
1) I was complimented on my hair color by the lady sitting across from me in the train. Why’s that weird? Well, I haven’t colored it in about 3 months, so I have about 2+ inches of root with my grown out highlights (foxeh!). Plus, it was dark. Plus plus, said lady’s style was…questionable. So, I took it with a grain of salt.

2) There’s a pretty good burrito place in Munich! I read about it at Servus München and finally got around to trying it a couple of days ago. Tasty, fast and inexpensive.

3) While in the subway in Munich, I was riding escalator down to the platform behind a totally normal-looking young woman. Smashed into grooves of the escalator were the remains of a pretzel that had been there for while (i.e., there were footprints on it). The woman stooped, peeled the pretzel off the step, touched it once to her lips (ZOMG!!1!), once to her forehead, shoved it in her pocket and turned to see if I had noticed.

Um, yes. Yes I did.

The Grand Turxperiment

I saw the video below a while ago and have been patiently waiting for a chance to try it ever since. I saw it in the How To Cook Everything app and that spurred me on. Then, with some upcoming Thanksgiving plans in mind, I advised our gracious hostesses to give us a little time to try it out. Watch the video; it’s a good use of three minutes of your time.

So yeah, we did this, and it was great. I am polishing off a wing and some home-made stuffing (perhaps another post in the making) as I write this. I think it’s actually tastier as leftovers, but then again I think I’ve said that about every turkey dinner I’ve ever had, too. If you’re a purist insisting on a huge turkey stuffed with stuffing, this recipe is not for you — it only works for birds about 10 or 12lbs. (5.4kg). The advantage of stuffing outside the turkey — which we call dressing and might well confuse any Germans present for the feast — is that your stuffing is suddenly vegetarian-friendly.

Like all things demonstrated (to me) on the internet, it’s not as easy as it looks, but this one is really almost that easy. SDC10339We start off with a thawed turkey, still very cool, but no longer ice-encrusted, plus the biggest cutting board we have backed up by an old towel which is allowed to get bloody if it needs to, and plenty of extra surface area on the workspace. A couple of good knives, kitchen shears, and of course the devices with the recipes on them are standing by.

SDC10340I began hacking away at the spine of the bird with a good-sized boning knife, but quickly switched to the chef’s knife. I’m sure the boning knife was actually appropriate here, but the chef’s knife — particularly when cracking through bone — felt a lot more stable. Save everything you cut out if you’re going to make soup or something. That turkey spine is currently chilling out in our freezer. Following the instructions from the video and the recipe app, I cracked that bird open as widely as possible, exerting pressure on front- and backsides (or without the spine, I guess it becomes “inside” and “outside”) trying to spread everything out and take advantage of the surface area of the pan.

SDC10341We drizzled a little olive oil into our roasting pan and plopped Tom on in there.

SDC10343 I hid about 10 cloves of garlic into various turkey nooks and crannies and cut a a few slits in the skin to stuff our herb mixture (fresh chopped parsely and sage and dried thyme) in under the surface.

SDC10345Finally, we massaged a little more olive oil together with generous amounts of salt and coarsely ground pepper onto the bird, going for an equal distribution.

SDC10346Here’s what our bird looked like at the 20 minute mark, the point at which you are supposed to drop the heat from 450°F (232°C) down to 400°F (204°C), or even down to 350°F (170°C) if it looks like it’s browning “too fast.” We weren’t sure what that mean. Clearly, our bird was turning crispy and brown in places. Was this too fast? We weren’t sure, so we only dropped the heat down to 375°F (190°C)

SDC10347The bird was supposed to be done at this point (45 minutes in), but some temperature probes indicated the internal temperature wasn’t up as high as it needed to be. We let it go another 20 minutes and found lots of pink spots in places where the meat was folded over on itself — think armpits and crotch. We finally gave up and cranked the heat back up to the 400°F (204°C) mark for 10 or 15 more minutes and spread ’em.

SDC10348Finally we got the temperature readings we wanted, cut some slits into previously pink parts to check for moist whiteness and clear juices, and after letting our bird rest for a few minutes, started the carving process. That was a catastrophe, but suffice it to say that I will need more practice with that. However, the flavor, moistness of breast, and crispiness of skin all exceeded our expectations. Can’t wait for turkey sandwiches and gravy!

Pumpkin Pie from Real Pumpkins

Sarah and Tammy took the German pumpkin situation into their own hands — literally — last week when tackling the time-honored American Thanksgiving dessert option. Canned pumpkin puree is hard to come by around here. You’ve got to have a military post hook-up or have flown it in with someone who otherwise travels light. Note to those reading and thinking about moving to Germany: fill up extra space in your shipping container with hard-to-find canned goods. Even if you don’t like them yourself, they are worth their weight in trade.

So here’s the weird part: the cute little good-for-cooking pumpkin varieties are pretty easily available in Germany. Most supermarkets and organic markets seem to carry them. But does that mean that everyone is cooking with pumpkin from scratch? I don’t think so. You see the occasional pumpkin soup or pumpkin-infused pasta sauce around here in restaurants, but I don’t get the impression that pumpkin is a part of standard Bavarian cuisine. So what are they doing with them? Not making pie, as far as we can tell.

I found this recipe online for pumpkin pie from real pumpkins and they set to work. This recipe is very generous with metric conversions and dietary and preparation alternatives (nice!) and Comic Sans (less nice). But oh well. The content is solid, with lots of ideas for extra pumpkinny usage.

Sarah and Tammy opted to roast the cleaned-out pumpkin chunks in the oven to soften up the flesh as described in her recipe for pumpkin purée. The upshot here was avoiding too much moisture in the puree.

pie crustsThis is the part where I got involved. I whipped up a pie crust from our standard recipe. We were worried that the crust might have been a little too thin (you can see the pie pan pattern through it!), but it came out just fine — probably owing to the reduced moisture from the roasting method of puree collection as well. I even had enough dough left over to make a midget pie, too. Sarah does the fluting (looks nice, right?) and you can see that I was in charge of the midget pie and went for the more rustic (read: lazy) look. Here are the pie filling ingredients we used — see the original recipe for alternatives:

1 cup (210 g) sugar
4 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (I ground fresh nutmeg shavings and cloves together in our spice grinder to make ours a few months ago; individual proportions are available in the original recipe)
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
3 cups pumpkin puree
18oz (530ml) evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Note: don’t get confused by the milk nomenclature here in Germany. Evaporated milk is known in Germany as “Kondensmilch” and Sweetened Condensed Milk is called “Kondensmilch, gezuckert” — at least in our supermarkets. You’ve got to look pretty carefully at the labels. You’ll probably find them in the same section as the canned coffee creamers.

one pie, one custardMix all that stuff up together, in no particular order, though I submit that if you add the spice ingredients last, you’ll have less chance of your spices collecting on the bottom of your mixer bowl. That happened to us, and you can see spicy plumes in our midget pie and crustless pies. All three still tasted great, but the spice distribution was uneven and obviously more concentrated in the midget and crustless pie.

two pies and a custardThen fill your pie shells right up to the top. With our 9″ pie shell, we still had enough for the midget pie, and still some left over, which we baked as a crustless pie in a non-stick loaf pan. Bake the pie at 425°F (210°C) for the first 15 minutes and then turn the temperature down to 350°F (175°C) and bake another 45 to 60 minutes, until a clean knife inserted into the center comes out clean. You can see what happens if you forget to reduce the heat after the first 15 minutes on our crustless pie. Still totally edible but with more of a skin developed on the top layer.

This is a fluffier-than-I’m-used-to variety. I normally think of pumpkin pie as a dense and heavy custard, and I enjoy that, but this lighter variation was really good.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

I was wondering what vegetarians bring to Thanksgiving dinner potlucks. My favorite vegetarian over at zurika.com said “roasted sprouts.” I was intrigued — at first I was thinking alfalfa or mung bean sprouts or something. When she clarified that she meant Brussels, I was inspired, having previously only had them steamed. Maybe that’s because I’ve only been eating them since I turned 32 or so … perhaps I was bound to discover the roasted method sooner or later.

I googled around and found the Barefoot Contessa’s version. Some other versions I found called for chiffonading or discarding (!) the outer layer of leafy sprouty goodness.

In the end, I opted for B.C.’s ingredients, but with an 8″ square glass baking dish to prevent any escapees from rolling off her recommended sheet pan during the shaking episodes.

1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts
3 tablespoons good olive oil
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F (204°C).

Cut off the sproutbutts and pull off any yellow outer leaves. Cut each sprout in half; we’re going for maximum surface area here. Don’t discard any nice green leaves which loosen up and fall off in the process — you will thank me later. Mix them in a bowl with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour them into a glass baking dish and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Shaking the pan from time to time to brown the sprouts evenly was too risky for me, so I stirred them a few times over the course of the roast time. The loose leaves brown up and look a little weird, but they have a lovely crispiness to them. (You’re welcome!)

They were mighty tasty, hot and fresh out of the oven, but I thought they needed just a little something extra. I threw a little Herbes de Provence in garlic butter leftover from a previous variation on a garlic bread theme on there. Then they were perfect.

Southern Germany Sampler: Day 5 — Lunch with Monks, Then Home to Regensburg


View Larger Map

We got up on time at the Hotel Alte Post in Oberammergau and the fog coming out of the mountains was too much for me to resist.
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After driving straight through downtown Munich — isn’t there a better way to do this!? — we arrived at Weltenburg near Kelheim about two hours later. It was time for some lunch and a little exercise, hiking up the hill to the Roman fortress ruins and checking out the chapel at the monastery.

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And thus ended our road trip around Southern Germany.

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Night shots of Iași

Unknown Church near Copou -- PA281181Got some local help on the evening activities on my most recent trip to Iași — mulțumesc to all. They helped me to see some aspects of their town — perhaps even their country — that were new to me, even though I’ve been to Iași more than ten times by now. Apparently, ancient art and architecture like these examples are abundant all over Romania, but as one of local friends said, they don’t put any effort into promoting foreign tourism. He noticed how easy it was for him to navigate around Austria’s treasures without speaking any German, because they have signage and guides and websites and brochures all catered to speakers of English, French, Italian, etc. Certainly Romania could profit greatly from visitors who can function in these languages, if not Romanian. So why not capitalize on it? It seems like such a small step to take to bring in money from tourism.

Or is the intent to keep Romania an insider’s secret?

Iași at dusk -- PA291189 Eminescu Tree and Obelisk -- PA281185

Unknown Church near the Cultural Palace -- PA291197 Unknown Church near the Cultural Palace -- PA291208

Front (but not the street side) of the Mitropolia -- PA291211

Radio Shack World Tour

Cliff carries a lot of stuff. More than I do, by far.

You may have gleaned from his various gadgety posts, camera compositions and programming geek-outs that he’s a bit of a device devotee. That’s fine – I benefit greatly from that. With the MyFi, we’re almost always connected to the internet; we can empty the camera card with the card reader and laptop and keep batteries charged with the charger, giving us near limitless photo-taking abilities; our GPS device has a pedestrian function, so it’s helpful whether we’re driving or not.

Unfortunately, all of these things take up space, physical and mental. Each of these devices has a cable with which to connect and/or charge it and those cables need to be transported without damaging the port. A few of the devices have their own bags in which they live. And none of these are the bare necessities of travel, i.e. clothes, shoes and toiletries. Those all get transported separately.

Too much stuff!

So you can imagine our dismay when Cliff left one of his bags of devices on the train.

He was outfitted much as he is in the above picture: camera bag on belt, backpack with tripod and lens case on back, purse with iPod Touch, cell phone, navi as well as wallet and passport. Upon getting off the train – which was making its one-hour trip back up the Zugspitze – we didn’t notice anything. It was when we got in the car and started looking for the GPS device that the realization dawned: the purse was gone. Not in the backpack, not in my purse, not already stashed in the car, simply gone – along with about 500€ worth of electronics, Cliff’s credit cards, driver’s license and his proof of U.S. citizenship.

We rushed back to the ticket kiosk to ask the guy there when the just-departed train could next be checked for a missing bag. He was very helpful and sympathetic and called the next station, then passed the alert on to all of the other stations along the way. However, no one saw it. We had one more hope. The trip up the Zugspitze is a three-part journey: first a regular train, then a cogwheel train and, finally, a cable car. The guy called up to the final station of the cogwheel train and they said they would contact him when it rolled in. About 15 minutes later, just as we were giving up and preparing to call the banks and have our cards canceled, the call came in. The purse was there!!! Most of the way up the mountain, but it was in possession of the rail workers and would come back down to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in about an hour. We had some coffee to pass the time and rolled back up just as the train arrived. Not only was the purse there, but it was entirely untampered with! All contents present and accounted for.

As happy an ending as this is, I don’t really want to risk this rigmarole again. So I’m putting this out there to other gadgeteers and photo enthusiasts *cough*Snooker*cough*: how do you keep track of everything? Is there anyone out there that carries a comparable amount of stuff who has found a way to efficiently consolidate?