The New Convivialist

Month: July, 2012

Avventura Toscana

I must excuse my lack of posts in the past couple of weeks, but it was for good reason, I promise. Tuscany invited me to explore its bounty of food, landscape and, yes, most importantly, party. More specifically, the beautiful wedding of my friends Katharina and Lorenzo, a German/Italian couple who also call Berlin their home.

If you have ever been to Tuscany, I don’t need to go on, because you understand. If you have never been to Tuscany, I probably still don’t need to go on, because you have surely already heard its accolades from smug friends returning from their vacations there. I will suffice it to say that the world travels to its cities and countryside for good reason, and likewise, its cuisine has reached all corners of the world also for good reason.

As you might imagine, an Italian wedding is very food-focused. I expected this. What I did not anticipate was the sheer eating marathon that would occur: three straight days of copious amounts of food and wine. It ranged from the humble unsalted Tuscan bread with speck and what was definitely the largest piece of mozzarella di bufala that I have every seen; to the fresh, seasonal panzanella salad made by the parents of the groom; to zuppa di faro e fagioli, which focuses on the ancient Etruscan grain; to melt-in-your-mouth beef tagliata at a hillside restaurant just outside Lucca. The list goes on, but as I am now back in Germany, these specialties are simply unreachable, so I won’t torture myself with the thoughts any longer.

The food, however, paled in comparison to witnessing the matrimony of my friends, whose open-minded, ecstatic and generous way of living could only bring together to Tuscany the most wonderful group of people from all over the world. The villa outside of Lucca was the stunning site of the party brought together, firstly in support of the future life of the couple, and secondly in appreciation of living in the moment and wholly enjoying a place and its company. To take the title of this journal, it was the ultimate display of conviviality.

The image that will stay with me for years to come is the bride in her perfect white dress, jumping into the swimming pool as the sun began to rise over the hills beyond, officially ending a long night of dancing off all that pasta, prosciutto and pecorino.

The recipe I want to present to you is Panzanella, a traditional Tuscan summer salad made from stale bread and fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and basil leaves. When I ate it at the party the night before the wedding, I actually thought at first that it was couscous. Depending on how hard the bread is, you may have to soak it in water for a few seconds, squeeze it out and pull the bread into little pieces. The type of bread that is used in Tuscany is unsalted and quite crumbly when moistened. If you can’t find this exact bread, any kind of country loaf or sourdough will work fine. The idea is that the bread soaks up all the flavors of the tomatoes and olive oil. I will present here the most basic form of Panzanella, but you can also try to add other ingredients, such as parmesan cheese or capers.

Recipe: Panzanella, Tuscan bread salad

The following will yield 2 large helpings but feel free to double or triple!

A half-loaf of day-old bread (unsalted Tuscan is most authentic)

1 medium cucumber, peeled
and diced

1-2 large or 4 small tomatoes (Roma/San Marzano/plum varieties suggested)

5-10 basil leaves

¼ red onion, sliced thinly

3 Tbsp. olive oil & 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
(or to taste)

salt & pepper

1. Take the day-old bread, and if too hard, lightly moisten it with water. It should be moistened all the way through. If it’s too wet, gently squeeze excess water from the bread with your hands and set aside for a few minutes. It should crumble and not get too soggy.

2. Crumble the bread into a large salad bowl. Depending on how small you make them, you will get a different texture (smaller=more couscous-like).

3. Cut the cucumbers and tomatoes into small pieces and add them to the bowl. Thinly slice a red onion and rip basil leaves. Also add them to the bowl.

4. Add vinegar and olive oil and mix completely and add more to taste. Taste before adding salt and pepper.

5. The salad should ideally be chilled for 30 minutes in the refrigerator before serving.

Fast Fruit

Although it is mid-July already, in Berlin you might be mistaken and think it is not yet April. Or perhaps that we have skipped summer completely and ended up flat in the middle of October. That is, if not for the bounty of summer fruits. I must admit, I have not quite taken advantage of the strawberries, tart cherries and johannesbeeren that crop up in the markets on a daily basis, so when Paul and I walked away from the Turkish Market down the street on Friday with five boxes of strawberries, I knew something sweet, gooey and baked was in order.

Let’s diverge from the story for a moment and talk about the Turkish Market. For those of you who do not live in Berlin, every Tuesday and Friday there is a sprawling market of produce, Turkish specialties and textiles on the Maybachufer in the Kreuzberg/Neukölln district. It is not exactly known to be the highest quality market in the city – one has numerous tiny bio shops for that – but rather where to get your basic produce in large quantities and on the cheap. Particularly in the late afternoon, venders are notorious for dumping off the end of the day’s fruits and vegetables for a pittance to tourists and locals whose eyes are bigger than their (or their entire household’s) stomachs. Sometimes I have found luck and stocked my entire refrigerator for a week for less than 10 euros, but more often than not, the quality of this “discount” food is sub-par and simply does not last more than a day or two.

Therefore, when we scored five boxes of strawberries for 2 euros, we left the market feeling slightly queasy with the half mushed boxes that would have been simply thrown away if not for our coins. A step below dumpster diving, I thought. It is quite the opposite feeling you get when returning from a farmers market on a sunny Saturday morning with a small basket of perfect, tiny local berries, that you paid dearly for, but that will be delicately savored. To be honest, this is the way I would like to eat all the time, but in this instance I had to reconsider: when life gives you half-moldy lemons, cut off the rotted parts and make a half batch of lemonade.

This crumble can be made quickly and easily with any summer fruit that you have at home. It requires simply chopping it up, topping with an oat-streusel mixture and popping in the over for a half hour. Effortless but delicious. Whether you have a box of half-mushy raspberries in the bottom of the refrigerator or gorgeous hand picked organic cherries, the crumble is a remedy for the “where-is-summer ?” blues.

Summer fruit crumble- recipe

3 cups summer berries or chopped stone fruit (or a mix)

½ cups (45 grams) whole oats

½ cup (62.5 grams) flour

1/3 cup (76 grams) cold butter, cut into pieces

1/3 cup (65 grams) dark brown sugar

zest of one small lemon

½ tsp ground cinnamon

pinch salt

  1. Pour the berries and/or chopped fruit into the bottom of a lightly buttered 8” round or square ceramic or pyrex pie dish.
  2. Combine all dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry cutter or knives until evenly crumbly.
  3. Spread the crumble batter over the fruit.
  4. Bake at 350° for 25 minutes or until browned on the top.
  5. Cool slightly and serve with vanilla ice cream for dessert or over vanilla yogurt for breakfast

Caramelized crunch: the art of the Canelé

If you have never eaten a canelé, I advise you to book the next flight leaving in the direction of France. If this is logistically and/or financially impossible, then find the closest available Frenchman or Frenchwoman and beg. Unfortunately, there is also the chance that he or she does not own the proper canelé forms. Now, it becomes more difficult– but not impossible. Listen carefully. Get out your credit card and click on this link. Purchase forms. In one or two weeks, when a package arrives on your doorstep, unwrap immediately and follow closely the recipe that I am about to present. Try it a second time, because it is that hard to achieve success. By the third (maybe fourth) attempt at making canelés, you will be both thrilled and addicted.

The first time I tried these pastries, with their caramelized exterior and custard-like interior, my friend Benoit baked them. Benoit, an effortless genious in the kitchen, whipped up a batch of canelés like a French grandma who also happens to be a pâtissière. He insisted it was not as easy as it looked. First was the issue of the canelé forms, which cannot easily be secured outside of France. Second was the oven temperature and timing. To achieve that caramelized, almost crunchy exterior and soft chewy interior, one engages in a tenuous waltz with the oven thermostat.

This was well over a year ago, so when Benoit returned a couple of weeks back from France with a Silicone canelé form especially for me, I booked a lesson immediately. Just a note on the forms: traditionally canelés come from Bordeaux and are baked in copper molds, which are beautiful and produce a more even, professional result, but are very costly. For home baking of canelés, Silicone-coated Gastroflex molds will do. Professional patissiers will coat their forms with “white oil”, a mixture of melted beeswax and safflower oil, before pouring in the batter. If you have some beeswax lying around, knock yourself out, otherwise, coating the molds with cold butter will also work. Many recipes say that you don’t need any greasing if you are using Silicone molds, but following Benoit’s instructions, I felt that the cold butter coat even in the non-stick form equaled an extra level of caramelization.

When I asked Benoit to email me the recipe before coming over for our canelé session, he sent a list of the ingredients, but no instructions. Better, I thought, then I will just have to learn by watching, with no preconceived notions of how it should be done. Benoit, though, is a very intuitive chef- he mixes by feel and approximation, and he convinced me that canelé could also be made in this way. When the result consisted of clumpy batter with an odd greyish consistency, I still held onto the belief that everything would end up ok. Only now do I realize that he was testing me, that sneaky Frenchman with his sly and playful sense of humor. He didn’t think the American was up for making real Canelés de Bordeaux.

Later, though, Benoit sent me a more precise and instructive recipe and I had more success. So after some trial and error I present you with the following. Canelés are best eaten within six hours out of the oven. Enjoy for breakfast with a cup of strong coffee, or as a dessert with a glass of wine.

Recipe – Canelé

makes 16 small canelés

½ liter (2 cups) milk

1 tsp vanilla extract or ½ vanilla bean

50 g butter, plus more for the forms

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

100 g (3/4 cup) all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

200 grams (1 cup) granulated sugar

2 Tbsp. good quality dark rum

1. Combine milk, vanilla extract or bean and butter in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

2. Meanwhile, whisk together flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Beat eggs and egg yolks lightly in a small bowl. Pour eggs onto the dry mixture but do not yet stir in.

3. Remove vanilla bean (if using) from milk mixture. Scrape the seeds out and return them to the mixture.

4. Slowly pour the milk mixture into the large bowl and whisk until well-combined.  Let sit for a few minutes. Add rum and stir.

5. Let the batter sit until it comes to room temperature, then refrigerate, covered, for at least one hour, ideally a day (I simply couldn’t wait one day).

6. Heat oven to 270° C (500° F) and make sure it preheats well enough (you want it REALLY hot). Grease canelé forms with cold butter and set on a baking sheet. Pour in batter so that it comes to a bit below the top surface of the molds. Place baking sheet into the oven. After 10 minutes, turn down the temperature to 180° C (350° F) and let bake for another 50-60 minutes or until brown and caramelized on the outside and soft but not liquid on the inside.

7. Remove from oven and let cool for at least 10 minutes before de-molding.

I’ll have a New York Soda, please

Ever since I studied in Italy years ago, I have been a coffee lover. I just don’t think I understood it before I actually lived there, where good, rich espresso is a given part of daily life. Sure, I drank coffee every once in a while, but coming from Massachusetts, the home of Dunkin’ Donuts (but, really, I swear it wasn’t so bad when I was young!), my choices for freshly ground coffee, never mind espresso drinks, were practically nil. Remember, this was the 90s, before terms like “single-origin espresso” and “third wave” and “aeropress” became themes one could read about in the food section of any major newspaper on a weekly basis. [If coffee and Massachusetts interests you, there was actually just this week a column in the NYTimes by Oliver Strand about the subject.]

I think I can recall the first time I went into a Starbucks as a naive high school student. It was in Boston on Newbury Street and the drink was a Caramel Macchiato. It all felt so… fancy. At the time of course I had no idea what was inside that cloying frothy drink, nor did I realize that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what you would be presented with when ordering a caffè macchiato in Italy. Nevertheless, ignorance is bliss and I happily sipped the novel treat.

Now, thirteen years and thousands of cups of coffee later, my general mantra is that there is no excuse for a bad coffee. There are a multitude of possibilities out there to find great coffee beans and brew a cup yourself at home with very simple means or, if you live in a larger city, to go to one of many coffee shops and let the experts make you a fine espresso. In Berlin, my current favorite is Five Elephant in Kreuzberg, which just so happens to also be very close to my apartment. That said, I wouldn’t quite say I am a coffee snob; sometimes 80-cent deli coffee is just right and if you are in New York on a very limited budget, there is no shame in Bustelo. But I do try to drink the good stuff as much as possible.

Enough of boring you with my personal path to coffee enlightenment. The moral of this story is actually to bring the highbrow and the lowbrow together in one glass of, shall we call it, New York Soda. I first heard about the concept from my very special friend (boyfriend sounds too young, partner too old!) Paul, who is a life-long New Yorker. Paul is anything but a coffee snob. He cringes at the thought of spending $4 on a cappuccino. I have on more than one occasion caught him eating ground coffee out of the can on the way out the door in the morning. He hates drinking coffee hot. All this I could deal with. But one day – must have been a few years ago – I was horrified to see him pour seltzer over day-old cold coffee, hold it up to examine the carbonation, only to gulp it down in three seconds.

“What did you just do?” I asked, not quite trusting my own eyes. “You don’t know it? It’s coffee and selzer- a New York Soda,” he replied casually. As new waves of ever more complex gadgets and fads have entered the world of coffee, that New York Soda has stuck with me. The audacious simplicity of it! How has it not been ironically adopted by some fourth-wave coffee shop?

It turns out that a brand called Manhattan Special has made an espresso soda since 1895. Manufactured not in Manhattan but Brooklyn and founded by southern Italian immigrants, bottles of the stuff can still be found in some delis and old-style restaurants around New York City. It appears, however, to be a marginalized cult drink.

I personally have never been much of a fan of bubbly water, but Paul is, and due to an unfortunate accident, he is now confined to bed for the next weeks with a fractured knee. Therefore, I am running out to the store twice a day to satisfy his effervescence cravings. Which is not entirely bad, since it got me thinking again about this New York Soda business. Paul and I began brainstorming.

While one could ostensibly make a satisfying New York Soda with regular drip coffee, we both agreed that espresso would be richer and more cola-like. Depending on how strong you like it, you could begin with 1 – 1 ½ shots of espresso (we made ours using a stovetop Moka pot). The next question was sweetened or unsweetened. Paul insisted on unsweetened: pure so that the true flavors of the coffee could shine through. I thought it would be nice to try it with a sweetener, and ended up using maple syrup, though I suppose cane sugar would also work well.

Finally and also very importantly is the bubble issue. Paul feels that carbonation emphasizes and brings to the surface the aromatics of the coffee in a way that drinking it straight cannot. He may be onto something. Just think about it: it is accepted that many single-origin brews, and the lighter and fruitier ones, should not be drunk hot but left to cool a bit so that the mouth can detect the full bouquet of flavors. I’m sure there is a scientific explanation for all of this and I will look into it further, but for the purpose of this experiment, I will leave it at that. Moreover, the carbonation encapsulates the vibrancy and complexity of the coffee and, according to Paul, creates little explosions of flavor burps in the mouth. Therefore, he decided that New York Soda should be made with a fruitier, lighter brew, not too dark or woody, which would just deaden when cooled. The water should be very carbonated, but the bubbles not too big. This may take some experimentation and is also based largely on personal preference.

I personally found the sweetened version of the New York Soda to be more quaffable. It is a thirst-quenching alternative to straight iced coffee in the summer and one that I wonder whether will eventually catch on in coffee shops. But for now, it remains one of those old New York quirks, paved over by an insatiable search for the unprecedented.


New York Soda


1 – 1 ½ shots of espresso (ideally a lighter, fruiter blend), cooled to room temperature

2 tsp. maple syrup

Carbonated water (Natürliches Mineralwasser mit viel Kohlensäure)


  1. Brew the espresso. Pour into a heatproof container and stir in the maple syrup. Let cool to room temperature.
  2. Fill a 12 oz glass with a couple of ice cubes (not too much). Pour in the espresso and top with carbonated water. Stir slightly and drink immediately before the effervescence weakens