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

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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.

Berlin: Fantasy vs. Reality

I fell in love with Berlin as a teenager. I made three trips to Berlin the year I was living as an exchange student in Germany in 1991-1992.  The Berlin wall had only come down in 1989, a few short years before, and the differences between the eastern and western sections of the city were stark. There was a gritty energy to the place that I had never previously experienced and formative experiences with black light, tobacco and staying out late into the night made lasting memories upon my impressionable mind. For me, Berlin meant artist squats and strange bars where the tables and chairs were iron trees you perched on. It was punk rockers and bars called “The Toilet”. It was seeing my first flasher and people who wore only black.

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Here I am in front of the Gedächtnis Kirche (church of remembrance) in 1992 with my friend Anna, the Finnish exchange student. I believe that was my Ankh necklace she is wearing.  Ah, the 90’s.

 

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Here we are, posing in front of the same church, 25 years later.  In our defense, we are incredibly jet-lagged in this photo as it was taken the day after we arrived in August.  Also, I can’t believe it was ever warm enough to wear short sleeves!  Summer is a distant memory at this point…

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And here’s a photo of the same church taken shortly after the war showing the extent of the damage Berlin suffered in WWII.

Needless to say, my experience living here as a middle-aged stay at home mother of two hasn’t quite matched my youthful memories of the city. We live in a staid upper middle class neighborhood with nary a squat in sight.

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lovely old buildings in my neighborhood (Friedenau)

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As opposed to the grittier Kreuzberg with huge apartment blocks (a lot of Berlin looks more like this).

The nightlife around here is limited to the monthly “Blues Jam” at the corner bar (which is way too smoky for me to ever want to go in there). I am lucky if I stay up until 11 PM. For a while this frustrated me. We rarely leave our neighborhood, especially at night, and I’ve felt like I’ve been missing out on the “real” Berlin that is going on all around me.  FOMO in action! But, I went for a run this morning in a direction I haven’t previously gone in (so easy to get into ruts, even in a new place) and was marveling at the lovely pre-war buildings with their beautiful balconies and cornices and thought how glad I was to be back in Berlin and how I wasn’t missing out, just experincing the city in a different stage of life. Black light just means corneal abrasions and erythrasma to me now anyway (insider medical joke, sorry) Plus, now I’ve been to LEGOland Berlin. That certainly didn’t exist back in ’91.

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Kunsthaus Tacheles, an artist’s squat as photographed by me back in 1991.

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Kunsthaus Tacheles today.

Holidays & Holocaust

We stayed in Berlin over our winter holidays. Everyone was a little bit sick and it was nice to just lie low, sleep in and enjoy a staycation in a place which still feels foreign and exciting to our small town sensibilities.  We ended up visiting several Christmas Markets and ate our fill of crepes and roasted chestnuts (Marroni). We celebrated Christmas day with our neighbors, a Polish-Ethiopian family whose daughter and Iris are close friends.   Iris and Gus’s good friend from China also joined us as he was returning home to China the next day.  Anyway, it was quite the international gathering.  I roasted a turkey and our neighbors brought injera, shiro wat and kik wat. It was a delicious and festive combination.

 

IMG_8079Another day, another Christmas market

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Christmas kids.  Its a Small World after all.

Over the break we made an effort to get out and see some of the city. We took the kids to the Jewish Museum designed by the architect Daniel Liebeskind. The museum content is really centered on the innovative design of the building itself. Visitors are taken down various pathways leading to the Holocaust Tower, the Garden of Exile and a long upward staircase representative of the path of Jews who survived the war and stayed in Europe. Hard to describe but really made an impression on all of us. We especially found the work Memory Void and the installation Shalekhet by Menashe Kadishman to be very powerful. Meant to evoke fallen leaves, you walked a path covered in heavy steel circular plates with screaming faces cut into them. It was a discomfiting sensory experience that none of us will forget.

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Outside view of the Garden of Exile

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Shalekhet

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On a lighter note, the anticipation of New Year’s Eve had been building with the florist shop across the street having been converted into a fireworks stand. The children in the apartment had been pooling their money and stockpiling fireworks for the big Silvester celebration (as New Year’s is referred to in Germany). We celebrated in the IBZ club room with a potluck and dancing. Our kids lit their fireworks at about 9 PM but at midnight we went back to Rüdesheimer Platz to take in the big show. It sounded and felt like the shelling of a war zone and lasted well into the night. American 4th of July celebrations pale in comparison to Berlin on Silvester! And we weren’t even near the Brandenburg gate where the “real” fireworks show was happening. I’ve really never seen anything like it. The smoke was thick and you were surrounded by people lighting off fireworks in all directions. It was amazing no one lost an eye.  On New Year’s Day we went ice skating (along with the rest of Berlin) and thankfully no one broke a bone.  Wishing you all intact sight organs and a war-free 2018!

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roasted chestnuts at the Christmas market

 

Real Goddesses of Berlin

One of my primary responsibilities as a housewife or, as I prefer, Goddess of the Hearth, is the meal planning, shopping and cooking. Thankfully, this work provides endless inspiration for blog documentation and commentary. Grocery shopping is time consuming. Not only because of the commute (by foot or bus with rolling shopping bag in tow) but because I get caught up in the fascinating study of foreign foods available. The choices are seemingly endless, especially when it comes to the trifecta of German food culture: sausages, cheese and bread.   Considering that processed meat is technically considered carcinogenic, it’s really a Christmas miracle that Germans live past the age of 60, what with all the tobacco and sausage consumption going on in this country. It appears the “meat and potatoes” diet was invented in Germany. Thankfully, living in cosmopolitan Berlin affords us access to other cuisines. Don’t get me wrong, I love German food, but I also occasionally enjoy consuming vegetables other than potatoes and cabbage.

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twice weekly outdoor market in my neighborhood, selling everything from fruits and vegetables to fish, meat, bread, flowers and clothing.

But what really has me transfixed at the grocery store is the sheer variety of processed meat and cured meat products—from thinly sliced “farmer’s ham” to Leberkäs (basically a loaf of meat with the texture of something like baloney). You can also buy a wide variety of wieners in jars and even aspic. This makes me wonder if I could actually find aspic at Homeland (our local worker-owned grocery chain in Norman—which will forever be referred to as “Heimat” in my head from here on forward). Probably so, I just haven’t looked for it. And I come from a family where aspic (aka “Galerts” in Latvian) and blood sausage have been known to be consumed.  Intentionally. Other temptations I’ve spotted include “Fleischsalat” (aka mayonnaise + meat salad). Also, bizarre to me is the section of vegetarian processed meat. There is actually a fairly thriving vegetarian/vegan community in Germany and, evidently, they still want to eat mortadella made of soy or whatever other substances fake meat is made of.

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A staggeringly large selection of canned wieners at the local grocery store.

 

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…and the fake stuff.

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“Fleischsalat”= Flesh salad

The cheese section selection is also crazy. And stinky. In fact, you can smell the cheese counter before you see it. Limburger is just the tip of the iceberg. My favorite thing is to randomly pick cheeses based on their name. They are often labeled with a helpful flavor profile such as “kräftig” (strong) or “mild”. I recently tried the “rote Hexe” (red witch) based solely on its intriguing name. There are also two entire refrigerated aisles of just yogurt, quark and other cultured dairy products. Milchreis (rice pudding) is also big here and there is a large section of various flavors of Milchreis.  The chocolate section is also pretty off the hook with special seasonal flavors of Ritter sport bars.

And the bread, oh the lovely, bread. This is perhaps the best thing about life in Berlin. Besides the lovely, dense loaves of bread I should also mention Brötchen (rolls) and the sweet buns and cakes that are ubiquitous and a pillar of the German diet and culture. Traditional German breakfast consists of a variety of fresh-baked rolls served with cured meats, pate, tartare, lox with a variety of cheeses, soft boiled egg plus marmalade, honey and/or nuttella. An excellent way to start off the day!

Berlin street food is very tasty. Turkish guest workers invented the Döner kebab which is gyro/shawarma meat stuffed into a square piece of flat bread along with tomatoes, cumbers, cabbage and spicy sauces.  Falafel abounds.  Perhaps the most famous Berlin street food is currywurst. It is a sausage that is sprinkled with curry powder and drowned under a layer of ketchup. I’ve tried it once.  Which was enough.

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Berliner currywurst

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Falafel Baba

Let me tell you about the “Bifi” (pronounced “beefy”) roll. This is what appears to be a hot dog in a bun that you can purchase from a vending machine. The fact that you can buy meat from a vending machine is a little nauseating. The first time we spotted one, the “B” wasn’t visible making it appear to be an “ifi” roll.  Thus they are referred to as “iffy” rolls in our family. I’d seriously rather eat fresh, raw organ meats (an Ethiopian delicacy) over meat purchased from a vending machine!

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An Iffy roll

The German tradition of a cup of coffee and piece of cake in the afternoon is one of my favorites. While not exactly great for the waistline, the regenerative power of caffeine and sugar at 3 PM is known the world over. I try to indulge whenever I can. I’ve also used the opportunity of this luxury of time to do some baking and have been working my way through the cookbook “Classic German Baking” by Luisa Weiss.

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The restorative power of apple cake with heavy whipped cream at 3 PM.

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I’ll end this post with a jar of aspic.  From my hearth to yours!  My new year’s resolution for 2018 is to consume less meat.  Wish me luck when faced with such temptations.