The New Convivialist

Category: holiday

A Marriage and a Seaside Paella

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A couple weeks back I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the wedding celebration of our friends and across-the-hall neighbors Nikolaus and Clarissa on the stunning island of Ibiza. No, it did not take place at the mega-club where Skrillex was in residency. The Ibiza we experienced was instead a dry, rolling farmland sheathed in a quiet interrupted only by lambs trotting through clumpy fields. All the wedding festivities were centralized around the hills of the tiny village of Santa Agnes de Corona, which the bride’s family has known as a home for nearly four decades. Read the rest of this entry »

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Old School Christmas Cookies

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If there’s one time of year to get traditional in the kitchen, let this be it. Growing up, this meant pulling out the shoebox of ancient aluminum cookie cutters and rolling out batches upon batches of Ethel’s Sugar Cookies. There were years when my mother made up to five or six times the instructed batch size. Once my sisters became bored with the cookie production (usually after about 10 minutes), I would continue, maniacally rolling, cutting, and decorating for hours until the red and green toppings had dwindled to sugary dust.

The recipe for Ethel’s sugar cookies is from a Betty Crocker cookbook, called the ‘Cooky Book’. I think the odd spelling of the singular form of ‘Cookies’ is a testament to just how old that book is. Pages and pages are dedicated to Christmas cookies, and there are two recipes for the classic Christmas sugar cookie: our family’s standby, Ethel’s, and another called Mary’s. Once, as a child, I convinced my mother to try out the Mary’s, just for fun. They were fine, but did not come close to the perfectly simple vanilla sugar flavor of Ethel’s, which seemed only to get better into the first weeks of January.

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The recipe is incredibly easy. You’ll see that it calls for a mixture of ‘shortening’ or margarine, but please ignore this and go for all butter. That book was printed back in the day when people thought margarine was a health food. Another recommendation from years of making Ethel’s is to leave the dough to chill in the refrigerator overnight. It will seem very hard when you take it out to roll, but the chilling time is important to give the flavor a chance to develop and keep the dough from getting too sticky as you work with it.

This year we will be staying in Berlin for Christmas. I managed to whip up a double batch of Ethel’s last week to have plenty of sugar cookies on hand for our holiday party over the weekend. Some I decorated with colored sugar, others more maturely with tiny rose leaves or vanilla sugar with cardamom. Alas, I (inadvertently?) neglected to put them out on the buffet. Oooops. At least it ensures we’ll be eating Ethel’s into January, just as it should be.

Recipe: Ethel’s Sugar Cookies

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New York Impressions and Gift Guide for Food Lovers

I returned from my spontaneous Stateside trip earlier in the week with a bout of food-related illness that I attribute to an ill-timed visit to Veselka in Manhattan. Otherwise a wonderful last minute dip into authentic New-Yorkism with dear friends Ashley and Emy, perhaps a bowl of Ukranian Diner borscht was not the best choice two hours before boarding an intercontinental flight. Further details really not necessary. But suffice it to say that during the last days the only holiday dishes that have been on my wish list have been white rice and vegetable broth.

Before I foray into my New York holiday impressions, I will share with you some gift suggestions for the food-lover in your life, whether that be your great aunt, boss, sister, godson, best friend, brother-in-law or significant other. These are products from around the world that will not only impress during the holidays, but will also pay their rent all year round. I love food-related gifts: they’re unpretentious, (usually) won’t break the bank, and will never end up unused in the bottom drawer.

So, here goes:

riess-convivialstFor your sister, perhaps: Riess Cookware, edition Sara Wiener. This playful, yet sophisticated set of bakeware is designed by notable Austrian chef Sarah Wiener.

 

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For your great aunt, perhaps: spice grinder by Menu. Danish design that keeps it simple, featuring a ceramic mill, grippable silicone finish for finishing off the dish right.

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For your best friend, perhaps: Mast Brothers Cookbook. Best friends are always chocolate fiends, right? Or at least they should be if they are any best friend of mine. Try this new cookbook by Mast Brothers, Brooklyn-based chocolate manufacturer. The recipes run from savory to sweet to insane.

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For your boss, perhaps: Seagull Tiffin lunchbox. He or she loves cooking, so why not encourage the gift of homemade lunches for the New Year with this practical and plastic-free tiffin.

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For your little godson, perhaps: Sabadi Hot Chocolate Set. With these adorable and tasty hot chocolate sticks, you just need to add hot milk and stir. Fun for kids, and healthy, too, made from raw chocolate and local Sicilian herbs and spices.

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For your brother-in-law, perhaps: Four Grain Bourbon from Hudson Whiskey. This is the bottle I brought with me when I spent a summer alone in the Norwegian countryside. It’s that good. Your brother-in-law will think so too, neat or on the rocks.

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For your significant other, perhaps: notecard from Rifle Paper Co. My boyfriend and I never exchange Christmas gifts. Best possible from your significant other is a sweet note, on an equally sweet card.

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And…why not. For yourself, perhaps: Shirt Collar Apron by Aiste Nesterovaite. This Lithuanian designer makes the only apron I know that is neither folksy nor industrial. It is simply elegant, made from thick fabric, and with an air of formal attire. If you’re hosting a dinner party in 2014, this apron will outshine whichever outfit is underneath.

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Now that a few days have passed and I have a bit of perspective my recent trip, I can reflect on the whirlwind that is New York as a visitor. I lived in New York for about five years, with many longer visits over the last three, which makes eight years of intense relationship with that huge apple. Given the fact that my visits have become less frequent and I no longer have a real ‘home’ there, my perspective on the city has changed immensely. Naturally, living in a much smaller and tamer city like Berlin will make the contrast even more stark, but there are a few things in particular I noticed this time that I found to be a new degree of shocking, dreadful or delightful.

1. No other city smells as great as New York during the holiday season.

I was walking down the subway platform in a dingy Midtown station and was suddenly overwhelmed with a surprising smell. No, not of trash, armpits or rat urine (though that wouldn’t be all that surprising), but of balsam, pine tar and forest! The multitude of tree and wreath vendors throughout the city might take up precious sidewalk space, but the intoxicating aromas extend even down through the subway vents and underground.

2. That place is expensive.

I know you know. But, no, really: It. Is. So. Expensive. It was the first time ever since being in New York that I essentially ate all my meals out or on the go. Even being as thrifty as I am, with an occasional dumpster dive, it was shocking.

3. Since when did it become appropriate for a server at a restaurant to ask you to leave after an hour at dinner so that they could have the table for another party?

This one really gets me. I know, space is a premium in New York City, and that includes restaurants. Places are tiny and hype is rampant, making waits for a table border on intolerable. But in the very short time I was in the city, this push-and-shove happened to me THREE times. The most appalling was on a weeknight at a small, popular Brooklyn restaurant (apparently one of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s faves, I later found out.) After my friends waited outside for more than an hour, we sat down at a table for four and placed our order reasonably quickly. Since the place is BYOB and the menu is small, this was relatively uncomplicated. We dined in two courses, the second being slower as we became more full. The server tried two or three times to remove an unfinished platter of shared food from the middle of the table. We stopped her at all instances, but finally she just said outright: “I’m really sorry, but I have to ask you guys to leave. We have a party of four that’s been waiting outside for an hour.” As if we hadn’t. It was later in the evening, and as I glanced around the dining room, I spied three tables for two lining the far side. Empty. It would have been tight, but had I been in her position, I would have pushed two together and made it work, rather than very rudely asking paying customers to leave their table after no more than an hour and a half. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t seen my friends in over a year, and all we wanted was to sit in peace and talk. We were all so taken aback by the request that we just stared, slack-jawed, and complied, but on the subsequent walk back to the subway I deliberated the alternative ways we should have behaved.

4. Those Salvation Army Bell Ringers went out and got themselves some SASS!

If you come from the US, you’ve seen them on city street corners in December, ringing their bells, calling for your loose change to fight poverty. While charming, the fundraising routine of the Christian charitable organization has started in recent years to seem, well… tired. With so many other distractions, not to mention our space phones, we barely look up if something doesn’t REALLY call for our attention. Well, on the streets of New York, those Bell Ringers just got younger and got some serious moves. They are no longer just ringing bells, but also lip-synching pop songs, singing and dancing to wrestle our attention away from our mini screens. And it works!

5. Where has the middle class gone?!

I am exaggerating certainly, but more than ever before I noticed an extreme wealth discrepancy in the city. Perhaps it’s the holiday season that brings in the tourists, but I have never seen more people strutting along 5th Avenue with Bergdorf Goodman bags and, conversely, more people begging or helpless on the streets. The unbridled consumerism of December only reemphasizes the stark contrast of New York’s haves and have-nots.

6. Music is EVERYWHERE.

For better or worse, I’ve become used to silence. Silence while I sleep, silence on the train, and best of all, silence while I buy my groceries. I think it’s a quintessentially American thing to pump music at high decibel into every possible corner of commercial space. Case in point: while picking up a couple of snacks at a Manhattan Whole Foods, rather than checking out some new products that could potentially be tasty or fun, I suddenly felt like I was suffocating. I had an irresistible urge to run for the exits as fast as I could. Why? Ahhh, yes, the music, if that’s what they call the cheesy techno-pop that pounds throughout the gourmet emporium. What’s so bad about a little quiet while deciding between the Lacinato versus Siberian kale?

Whether or not you live in New York or have been to New York during the holiday season, I hope you can relate to some of these observations. Give thanks for those that you experience yourself. Or, better, those that you don’t have to experience!

 

 

A between weathers cake

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Despite Sunday’s Easter feast, the weekend in general had a decidedly un-Easter feel. One may attribute this to the hard fact that every now and then, glancing out the window, blizzard-like conditions were shockingly present. I know, I know, I know… everyone is tired of complaining about the weather. But for me, it wasn’t even the weather in itself. The winter-is-supposed-to-be-over-depression really sunk in on Saturday’s visit to Markthalle Neun to scout out something vaguely Spring-like for our Easter meal. After stand upon stand of bottom of the barrel beets and a scrum of carrots and potatoes, I headed to the supermarket and settled on a couple of small bulbs of fennel grown in Italy.

Fennel just seems like it could fit to any time of the year. Fresh, herbaceous and light, it is appropriate raw in summer salads but can also be combined with enhancers like cream or butter for a wintery meal. What about in something sweet? Fennel in desserts I had not before experimented with, but when I stumbled across a recipe for fennel buttermilk cake in an old issue of Gourmet, I thought: perfect. It deceived nothing of seasonality – it felt appropriate for a holiday that is supposed to celebrate Spring, but did not feel anything of the sort. A chameleonic cake, if you will.

The preparation of the candied fennel is a bit time-consuming, but aside from that first step, the cake comes together quite easily. It can also be decorative, depending on how beautifully you arrange the fennel in the bottom of the cake pan (mine=not so beautifully) making it impressive for dinner parties or holidays.

I hope my next recipe will be with something that betrays the first signs of spring (can you tell I am dreaming of rhubarb?!), but in the meantime be content with the temperature-defying abilities of this fennel cake.

Recipe: Fennel Lemon Buttermilk Cake

Candied Fennel:

  • 2 small bulbs fennel
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3 strips lemon zest, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Cake

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
  • crushed edible rose petals (optional)
  1. Lightly butter pan (I used springform) and line bottom and side with parchment paper. Lightly butter paper.
  2. Cut fennel bulbs lengthwise with slicer into enough 1/4-inch-thick slices to cover bottom of cake pan.
  3. Cover fennel with cold water in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Drain fennel and set aside. Add sugar, water (3/4 cup), zest, and fennel seeds to saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add fennel slices and very gently simmer until tender and translucent and liquid is syrupy, about 40 minutes. Lift fennel slices out with a fork and arrange decoratively in bottom of cake pan. Boil syrup to reduce to about 1/3 cup liquid. Cool syrup slightly, then pour over fennel, seeds and lemon strips and all.
  4. Preheat oven to 350ºF (170°C) with rack in middle
  5. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  6. Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in zest.
  7. At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, and mixing until just combined. Gently spoon batter over topping, spreading evenly.
  8. Bake until cake is golden-brown and a wooden pick inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool cake in pan 15 minutes, then invert onto a plate and continue to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
  9. Garnish with crushed rose petals, if desired.

 

recipe caramelized fennel

recipe buttermilk cake fennel
recipe fennel cake