Morning Clubbing

I’ve discussed Berlin’s amazing opera scene in a previous post but it’s perhaps even more famous for its electronic music dance clubs. I guess that might depend on whom you are asking. Berlin is home to perhaps the most famous nightclub in the world, Berghain, which is located in a former power plant. Germany has always been on the forefront of electronic music (think bands like Neu!, Kraftwerk, Cluster und so weiter). After the fall of the wall, there was a lot of cheap real estate available on the former east side and the freedoms that came with it nurtured a vibrant club scene. Although Berlin has been known for its nightlife reaching back to the 1920’s when it was widely known as one of the most permissive and progressive European cities, in particular to freedom of expression for the LGBTQ community in a time when being queer was still very taboo if not outright illegal in most places. It was and remains a safe haven in many ways. Berlin continues to attract people from all over the world for its live and let live mentality and dwindling cheap real estate (though some would argue the days of cheap real estate are over).  Berlin clubs rundown.

Which brings me to morning clubbing. I love to dance! My husband and I met at a party, basically on the dance floor. But staying up until midnight (or later) to go to a club is out of the question. However, the beauty of Berlin’s nightclub scene is that some clubs stay open all weekend. Which means on a Friday morning you can put your kids on the bus to school at 7:15 AM, be at the club by 8 AM and find yourself dancing in a haze of fake (and real) smoke by 9 AM surrounded by sweaty 25-year-olds who have been up dancing all night long. Now I realize this doesn’t appeal to everyone, but while going to an opera is a musical/aesthetic experience that I feel everyone should try at least once, so is dancing ecstatically to heavy bass at 9 AM while stone cold sober. The club we have visited is called Salon zur wilden Renate (Salon of the wild Renate) and is supposed to conjure an old-fashioned bordello. It is located in a pre-war apartment building close to the river Spree and includes 3 dance floors each playing a different style of techno with many smaller “chill out” rooms and a large outdoor seating area with boats, gazebos, a fountain and a bar.  For an example of some of the typical music you might hear at this place…

DJ Jama

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flyer from the recent show we attended featuring DJ Jama

It’s just as dirty and smoky as you might imagine it would be. There is a strict no photo policy (they cover the camera of your cell phone with a sticker) to ensure privacy and to encourage people to live in the moment and not be on their phones in the club. The bathrooms alone are an adventure in and of themselves. Iced tea (my 9 AM drink of choice) costs the same as a beer, a quite reasonable 4 euro (5 bucks). The people watching is excellent and I’m happy to report that both times I’ve gone, I’ve definitely not been the oldest person there. There is a decidedly non-snobby element to nightclubbing here (though I should note some clubs are notoriously hard to get into ie. Berghain where people queue for hours on a Friday night at a shot of getting in). But for the most part, anything goes. You can be 43 years old wearing a t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes (aka me) or 21 and wearing a sequined captain’s hat with matching sequined jacket and short shorts (aka me at 21) or perhaps just a wife-beater and nothing else or soiled onesie or bathing suit or suspenders without a shirt, etc, etc.  A fanny pack is a must though.  Extra style points for creative use of thrift store fashions that skew 1990’s (aka the last time I was clubbing in Germany).  This past Friday there was a great female DJ and I got pulled to the front by another woman for a “Frauen Party”–all the ladies on the dance floor dancing right up in front of the DJ stand.  So much fun!

And perhaps the pièce de résistance of morning clubbing as a middle-aged person? Amazing way of racking up those steps on the Fitbit. Just sayin’.

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Also, Happy Spring!

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Springtime in Berlin/Easter in Sicily

Spring has finally come to Berlin. While the Winter wasn’t especially cold (except for the month of March where we had days of sub-freezing temps the ponds and canals all froze over and it snowed more than in any preceding months) its been loooong. Cold, dark, gray and 40 F every day. It was snowing in Berlin on April 1st (Easter Sunday).  Not an especially funny April Fool’s joke to Berliners burnt out by the long winter. And then magically, seemingly overnight, the crocuses and daffodils (called “Osterglocken” or Easter Bells in German) are in full bloom and the bushes are breaking out in tiny green leaves.

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crocuses and Osterglocken in full effect

Germany observes daylight savings later in March and being at this northern latitude (52 degrees N) means the sun now sets at nearly 8 PM in early April. People are out in droves, sitting in the park on benches or lounging on the grass soaking up the sun.

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At the Winterfeldmarkt street market

In the evenings after dinner the sidewalks are thronged with people strolling and the bike lanes are full again. Two dudes standing in a wide spot at an intersection drinking beers with a boombox blasting at their feet taking in the evening sidewalk show is not an uncommon occurrence. Rüdesheimer Platz was just planted with fresh flowers and I literally applauded the gardeners as I passed by on my morning run.

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People smile! And ride their bikes festooned with flags blasting music from portable devices. Berlin is a place transformed by a little warmth and blue sky. Not coincidentally, the bulk of our guests have chosen the Spring and Summer months to visit us here. Our first round of friends arrived at the end of March, the week before the begin of our 2 week Easter vacation and just in time for 2 inches of snow and the dreaded “wintry mix”. But, the weather did give them a few breaks and they managed to hit some playgrounds, visit the zoo and squeeze in a few museums during their week here.

The following week we traveled with them to Sicily. We flew direct from Berlin to Palermo and then I had the particular joy of navigating our rental car from the airport to our AirBnB during rush hour traffic in a place where lanes are more suggestions and the use of the horn is preferred over a turn signal. But I did it! My marriage is still intact and no one died in the process. Our apartment in Palermo was majestic, freezing cold and incredibly loud (as in a literal jack hammer outside the window woke us every morning).

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Yellow Sicilian tile kitchen of my dreams.

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view from the apartment in Palermo (the jackhammers are not visible)

Palermo was a magnificent city of beautiful decay. For anyone who has read “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante, the scenery of Naples she describes reminded me very much of the gorgeous decrepitude of Palermo. We visited one of the street markets and ate fried chickpea patties called “panelle” and fried artichoke which was in season.

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artichokes (carciofo) at the market

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and octopi

We roamed aimlessly through the city down narrow streets cramming into doorways when a car came around a corner. We stopped in awe of the magnificent cathedral with its Arab and Norman architectural mash up. Sat in a lovely park near some Roman ruins and took in a fantastic fountain which Italy just seems to specialize in.

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Palermo Cathedral

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in front of the Fontana Pretoria

That night we decided to see an opera at the Teatro Massimo which I was especially interested in having recently read this article in, where else, the New York Times. Seeing the inside of the theater alone was worth the entrance price. I sat with a teenage boy and his grandmother who gave me candy and at one point had me share her seat so that I could get a better view of the stage. It was really one of the highlights of the trip.  We saw Fra Diavolo a French opera by the composer Daniel Auber.

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In my box at the Teatro Massimo between Daniele and his grandmother.

The next day we escaped to the town of Cefalu, about an hour away from Palermo by train. It had a dramatic setting with huge rock hanging over the city and another Arab-Norman cathedral to boot. We hung out on the beach, the kids played in the waves and we hiked nearly to the top of that rock overlooking the city below. Our reward was the best gelato I’ve ever tasted at this place.  Cefalu was probably my favorite place we visited in Sicily.

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photo of Cefalu courtesy this blog: wishsicily

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playing on the beach, Cefalu

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Hiking la rocca (that big rock above the city) with friends!  Thanks for visiting us guys!

We then headed for the opposite end of the island to the town of Siracusa (Syracuse). The Sicilian countryside was lush with green grass and blooming flowers. We stopped for lunch in the mountain-top village of Enna along the way.

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This is technically the mountaintop village of Calascibetta which we had a great view of from neighboring Enna.

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view of the mainland and Siracusa with UFO-looking clouds taken from Ortigia island

Siracusa is best known for its Greek theater and the beautiful winding old town of the adjacent Ortigia island complete with an ancient Greek temple to Apollo. So nice to see the antiquities I’d seen in Berlin museums but in their native habitat. Traveling with friends was super fun as the kids and adults were equally entertained. Also travel in Italy with children is great solely because of the food. Who doesn’t like to eat pizza, pasta and gelato every day? To that list I would add arancini (giant stuffed fried ball of rice), artichokes and cannoli. We also ate an amazing spread of vegetable antipasto in Siracusa that blew all our minds (especially as we hadn’t been eating that many vegetables up until then).

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view of Ortigia island at sunset from the beach near our AirBnb in Siracusa

As a final farewell to Sicily we spent our last night in the foothills of Mt. Etna outside of Catania from where we flew back to Berlin. We drove close to the summit of Etna where the winds were gale force (as in you could barely stand upright) and it was freezing cold. After taking a few quick photos we staggered back to our car to take a more leisurely walk amongst the olive and pistachio groves farther down the mountain nearer our AirBnb.

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Freezing cold and insanely windy Monti Silvestri on Etna

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near Pedara, Italy (Etna foothills)

The air was fresh and clear and we had views to the sea below. To top it off, our AirBnb hostess cooked us an amazing Easter dinner meal of potato omelette, bruschetta, antipasto plate (salami, cheese, olives), ham panini sandwiches (this was just the first course!) followed by pork ragu lasagna and a dessert involving white chocolate, ricotta cheese and cherry. I’ve never eaten so well on vacation. Italy:  go for the weather, stay for the food. We returned to a Berlin where it was suddenly 65 degrees and people were blasting boom boxes walking down the sidewalk while simultaneously smiling and now I really never want to leave!

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The absolute best Cannoli in Siracusa from this awesome place

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The rubber park at Winderfeldmarkt in Berlin on a sunny Saturday in April.

On Thin Ice

I went to a 40th birthday party over the weekend where I was the only non-German in attendance. Someone asked me what I thought the biggest difference between the United States and Germany was. This person had just commented that she had lived in Miami for a while and the biggest thing that struck her was the stark contrast between the very rich and the very poor. I had to agree with her that Germany is a more equal society. While there are certainly very wealthy and the very poor here, you get the sense that most people fall somewhere in the middle and are doing pretty well overall. I’m sure this is in no small part due to Germany’s thriving economy.  However, support provided by the government and subsidized by taxes also significantly evens the playing field. The opportunity to have a free university education certainly doesn’t hurt. We receive close to 400 euros (about 500 dollars) per month in the form of “Kindergeld” (child money). Thanks, German taxpayers! This payment is made to families from birth until the age of 18. Think of all the things one can provide for one’s child with this money: the inevitable pair of new shoes, annual winter coat or just straight up food. Investment in things like parks, public transportation and the arts benefit the greater good and we are certainly enjoying the perks of life in a social democracy this year. Don’t even get me started on the generous family leave benefits that Germans enjoy. Such a humane way of living.

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At the Sunday flea market.  Flea markets abound in Berlin and are a super cheap way of outfitting an apartment, scoring a book or a winter coat.  Also, because old European crap is way more exciting that old American crap!

Another difference I have observed is in the parenting style in Germany. While this observation is somewhat obscured by the fact my children are going to the German-American school, it is still noticeable. The main difference being the level of freedom and independence children are given here. For instance, it’s pretty standard for a 3rd grader to come home from school on their own via public transportation. The playgrounds are awesome and also definitely slightly dangerous. No padded edges and gentle slopes. They are physically challenging and you will get hurt—but learning the limits of what you can and cannot do physically is also a lesson in itself. Even the schoolwork is presented so that the child is to take responsibility for their own work. Iris is required to have a “Hausaufgaben Heft” (homework folder) wherein she is required to keep track of when her assignments are due. In Germany you don’t stay in your homeroom all day. By 4th grade you are changing classrooms to switch teachers who specialize in individual subjects and she has to organize herself to remember which folder to bring with her to her next class. This was probably the biggest challenge at the start of the school year as it was all so new and the school itself is large and maze-like in its layout (3 stories, sky bridges, etc). I escorted the kids home from school every day for the first three months we were here. It was about an hour and a half out of my day every day to do this. Finally in December on the cusp of Iris’ 10th birthday we decided they could navigate getting home on BVG (Berlin Verkehrsbetriebe==the public transport system) on their own. Iris called me the other day to brag that she had slid on the ice coating the small pond after school. While my inner American parent wanted to freak out (“were you all alone?” “how thick was the ice?” “Don’t do that ever again!!!”) I calmly asked her about it and learned that several of the other kids were also doing it, that there was some concern about hearing it “cracking” and that she had in fact stuck close to the shore and hadn’t tarried as she knew she still had to catch the bus. She was clearly calling me to brag and probably knew that it was also inciting a little panic in her mother. But it was fine, I trusted she was smart enough not to venture out into the middle of a cracking ice floe and that countless generations of children (myself included) have flirted with icy ponds and that these adventures are what give us confidence and a sense of self reliance. I still remember the elation I felt after negotiating the train by myself from Heidenheim to Aalen (all of like 20 minutes tops). And that was when I was 16. Anyway, I enjoyed reading this book review shared with me by a friend and look forward to reading the book even more.

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Very shallow pond, very cold temps, large crack, many children.  What could go wrong? (The answer is nothing.  Relax people!)

Shouldn’t we all just redistribute our wealth and let out the reins on our kids? The thought of returning to Oklahoma is becoming more difficult by the day…

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At the bus stop with a ubiquitous bright orange garbage bin, it says “For the cigarette, afterward.”  Clean streets, efficient public transportation, affordable concerts/museums. All very nice!

Holiday in Spain

We recently spent a week in Spain for our winter break. The second week in February is typically when Germans take their skiing vacation in the Alps, but we were definitely missing the sun and had decided in the fall to go as far south as we possibly could come February. It was my first time in Spain and I struggled to switch my brain over to speaking and understanding a version of Spanish which sounded so different from the Central American Spanish that I am more familiar with. We flew directly from Berlin into Malaga (thanks EasyJet!), the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, a city on the famed “Costa del Sol.” With our trusty GPS-less VW Cabriolet rental we headed straight to the mountain town of Ronda based on recommendations from friends and our own research. It was breathtakingly beautiful and very cold. In fact, it snowed our first evening in town! But the orange trees were laden with fruit and when the sun did peek out from behind a storm cloud, the white buildings glowed in the light.

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view of Ronda from our apartment.

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famous Puente Nuevo bridge

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view of Ronda from below with its dramatic cliff side setting

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Tourists taking photos of the bridge (with beautiful countryside in background)

We were definitely not in Berlin anymore. We spent our days wandering the beautiful cliff side city and eating delicious tapas. Even the kids got into the spirit willingly eating pork cheeks and trying calamari (well, one of our children). While decidedly off-season, Ronda was a popular tourist attraction with large groups of tourists roaming the town, even in early February.   The best part was getting out into nature. With the cold weather and urban surroundings, we had really been craving a little fresh air and wide-open spaces after 5 months in the sprawling metropolis of Berlin. Randomly, our Berlin neighbors happened to have also chosen Malaga as their vacation destination and they drove up to Ronda for the day to meet us for lunch and a walk around town.

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hiking below Ronda with signs of spring!

From Ronda we drove 2 hours south to the southernmost tip of continental Europe near the rock of Gibraltar to a town called Tarifa. Most famous for its kite surfing and windsurfing, it felt sort of like a Spanish version of Hood River, OR with “surf bars” and laid back style. We could see Morocco from the window of our airbnb as Tangier was only 14 km across the water. Again, it was not as warm as we might have hoped, but the sun did occasionally come out and we got in some quality beach time. The first day we hiked along the beach to the neighboring town of Bolonia where the ruins of a Roman town, Baelo Claudia, were located. The next day was spent wandering around the lovely old town of Tarifa with its obvious Moorish influences and thinking we probably should have caught the ferry to Tangier, just for the day. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Instead we ate churros, then more tapas and spent the afternoon at the beach. Iris, mermaid that she is, even went in the water!

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walking along the beach to Bolonia

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Exploring the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia (that’s Morocco in the distance)

 

We spent out last night in Malaga and took in the final evening of Carnival festivities including a parade comprised of various groups of people in themed costumes—roses, pirates, anchovies, Germans. Dan had read that the parade was supposed to culminate in the ceremonial burying of an anchovy on the beach—the meaning of which I do not know. We missed the anchovy-burying ceremony but did enjoy wandering around the beautiful old city with its winding, narrow cobblestone streets.

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Pulpo (octopus) y uno en Espana

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Watching the sunset on our last night in Tarifa.

All in all, I highly endorse February vacations in Southern Spain.  I’d love to see more including all the sights we missed: Seville, the Alhambra, the caminito del rey

Expat Life Listicle

It’s that time in an expat’s life when one reflects on the things they miss from home. Here are mine, in no particular order.

My friends & family back home

My dishwasher

Salsa/Mexican food

Good Pho (I’m sure its out there, just haven’t found it yet!)

Blue sky/sunshine/temps above 45 degrees

My car

My yard/garden/houseplants/birdfeeder

Income

Customer service

Let’s be real though, I’m hardly suffering here. Here’s a list of things I will surely miss about life in Germany.

All that Kuchen & bread

Public transportation

Extensive well-marked bike lanes

Low priced, high quality food

Ample affordable cultural offerings

The German people’s dedication and commitment to the art of recycling

Sparkling water by the case

Weissbier

Quark!

Endless Rittersport bar flavors (this alone deserves its own post) and a mind-blowing selection of gummi candy (I’m in Haribo heaven)

The little sushi place around the corner

Living in an apartment complex with neighbors who have kids the same age as mine and who love playing together all day.

The mind-blowing parks and playgrounds

EasyJet for cheap intra European flights

The luxury of time

fresh flowers from the market

Feeling safe from random gun violence

etc. etc. etc.

Kind of wishing I could stay forever…

A Night at the Opera

I returned to Berlin in 1996 as an undergraduate. I was on a study abroad program through the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire led by a Latvian professor of history and headed to Riga and the University of Latvia for the winter term. But before we started our studies in Riga, our small group of study abroad students (half comprised of Latvian-American kids from all over the country, like me, and the other half UW Eau Claire students who somehow got talked into studying abroad in Latvia in January) did a group tour through Eastern Europe led by the professor, Dr. Lazda. We all met up in Berlin for the start of the trip. I was thrilled to be back in my favorite city, whose skyline was now a tangle of cranes as the city was undergoing major renovations in preparation for the transfer of the capital of the reunited Germany from Bonn back to its historic Berlin location. It was also on this trip that I saw my first opera. Dr. Lazda was a real opera fan and every city we subsequently visited he tried to get us tickets to see one. There are three opera houses in Berlin. I’m not exactly sure which one we went to but I do remember the opera we saw: Carmen. It is a great opera for a novitiate with famous music and memorable scenery (a cigar factory). I was smitten.  Now, I’m no opera connoisseur. I really don’t know much about the various composers or their specific works or styles. But I do love the theatrics and music of an opera. It’s classical music for the masses. The plots are dramatic and soapy, the costumes and sets lavish. It is a sight for the eyes and the ears and going to see one was probably the equivalent of binging Game of Thrones in the 1800’s.   We ended up seeing several more operas on that trip. A modern “rock opera” in Vienna (not great, but I do remember people flying across the stage on ropes so that was kind of cool).  Later, in St. Petersburg, I got to see Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. This was memorable as it truly seemed an activity for the people. The operagoers were openly eating in their seats and it was kind of raucous and dirty. I remember there being crumbs and wrappers discarded on the floor. Felt more like a dollar movie theater or a sports event than an opera. To cap off our trip, we saw a Latvian opera in Riga’s beautiful old opera house. Magical. It was a semester full of opera and I loved it!

So I was excited to revisit the opera in Berlin. I attended a performance of The Barber of Seville by Rossini a few weeks ago.   I’d never previously seen this particular opera performed and my only association with it was this Bugs Bunny cartoon. It was a “family performance” meaning you could bring kids for a discounted price. This didn’t prevent them from including graphic simulations of sex or a semi-nude woman running across the stage. Ah, Germany and their permissive views towards nudity and sexuality. Such a breath of fresh air! My only regret, I didn’t bring Iris. I’m already looking out for one to take her to. The Staats Opera is putting Carmen on in June…

Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville

Wherein I pretend to have a cooking blog…

Today I made an apple strudel from “Classic German Baking” Seemed like a decent idea on a day where the temperature has capped out at 32 F.

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Well-kneaded dough ball, apple + raisin and toasted butter-crumb filling.

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The dough is kneaded for 10 minutes then left to rest for 30 meaning some pretty strong gluten bonds have formed.  It was surprisingly easy to get the dough stretched out to this level of windowpane thinness.  Note how you can see the pattern of the dishcloth through the dough!

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Crumbs (to absorb the juices from the apple) are laid down first after the dough is thoroughly brushed with butter.  Then the apple and raisin mixture is spread over the crumbs.

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And the whole thing is rolled up into a big log.  Remarkably, the dough didn’t tear.  Its very pliable though my edges were a bit thicker than I would have hoped for.

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Voila!  Baked for approximately 45 minutes, brushing with more butter every 15 minutes and rotating in the oven.  My very first attempt at a strudel shown here with some sad tulips longing for spring.

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It was sehr lecker (very delicious) as they say in German.  If you like pictures of cake and are on Instagram you can follow my public account called @the_year_of_cake.

Apfelstrudel from Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking

Soak 1/2 cup of raisins in 2 tblsp of dark rum for 24 hours (I used vodka and a little rhubarb juice because I AM OBSESSED WITH RHUBARB)

Dough:

1 1/4 cups flour

pinch of salt

3 tbsp sunflower or other vegetable oil

1/3 cup water

Apple Filling:

2 1/4 lbs apples (6-7 medium)

juice of 1 lemon

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

8 tbsp unsalted butter

1/2 cup unseasoned dry bread crumbs

1 tbsp vanillezucker (can’t get this in the states, sorry)

pinch of salt

Powdered sugar for dusting

Heavy whipping cream or vanilla ice cream for serving

Prepare the dough:

Mix flour with salt and add oil.  Stir in water until dough comes together.  Lightly flour a board, set timer for 10 minutes and knead until soft, pliable dough ball remains.  Let rest 30 min.

Prepare filling:  Peel, quarter and thinly slice apples then cut slices in half.  Place in a large bowl and toss with lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon.  Add plumped raisins and any juices.

Melt 3 Tbsp butter in a small pan and add the bread crumbs, vanillezucker and salt.  Stir to coat and cook, stirring constantly until they are golden brown and very fragrant, 5-8 minutes.  Set aside.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper

Melt remaining 5 Tbsp butter in a small pan and set aside.

Spread clean kitchen towel on counter.  Lightly flour and roll dough out into a rectangular shape.  Then gently stretch dough until it measures 16 x 24 inches. Try for uniform thinness and you should be able to see the pattern of the dischloth through the dough.

Brush the dough evenly with melted butter.  On the right side of the rectangle, distribute the bread crumbs from top to bottom, leaving a 1 inch border at the edges.

Drain off any accumulated juices from the apples and pile the apple mixture evenly over the bread crumbs.  Gently pull the top and bottom edges of the dough over the sides of the filling, stretching slightly if necessary.  Then pull the right edge of the dough up and over the filling as far as it will go without tearing.  Working carefully, use the towel to roll up the strudel all the way then transfer to the prepared baking sheet.

Brush with butter and bake for 15 min.  Then take out, brush with butter again and rotate, baking an additional 15 min.  Brush one more time and bake an additional 10-15 minutes until golden brown.

Cool then dust with powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream on a cold gray January afternoon, preferably in Berlin.