Archive for March, 2007

March 29, 2007

The Black and White Cookie Meets the Amerikaner

This is a post I’ve been musing over for a very long time. It probably started when I was a child when I first discovered that in Germany there is a cookie called an Amerikaner (transl. “an American”). You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that this cookie looked like the ones depicted on the left.

Now, I understand that Germans do not have the same racial history we do in the States, and therefore aren’t as sensitive to this issue. Nevertheless, this seemed a downright racist way to describe Americans to me. I could go off on this rant, but there are other things to talk about so I will leave it at that.

Two events set off my recent, once-and-for-all (albeit Wikipedia) research on the details of this cookie.

Event number one happened while I was in Oregon visiting David. Another high school friend, Will, came over and we watched some Seinfeld episodes on DVD. One of the chosen episodes was The Dinner Party, most famous because of the bit about the chocolate Babka. However, while Elaine and Seinfeld are standing in the bakery waiting their turn, Seinfeld starts a monologue about the Black and White Cookie (the American name for the identical confection) while he eats one in line. Here’s his bit:

“Oh look Elaine, the black and white cookie. I love the black and white. Two races of flavor living side by side. It’s a wonderful thing isn’t it? The thing about eating the Black and White cookie, Elaine, is you want to get some black and some white in each bite. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie all our problems would be solved.”

Unfortunately, later in the episode, Seinfeld claims he has David Duke and Louis Farrakhan fighting in his stomach and gets sick. Nevertheless, this provided an excellent platform for my own thoughts: I hadn’t been the only one who made this connection!

Event number two happened, coincidentally, only two weeks later when I was back in Radeberg. The German name for the cookie had kept me from actually trying one until a teacher offered me one on a class trip. However, her cookie was all white. Now that added even more complexity to the name! I tried the cookie – it’s actually less a cookie and more a vanilla cake – and it tasted disappointingly bland, except for the white sugar glaze which made it taste overly sweet.

So my quest was official: I had to figure out more about this cookie. Where did it come from? And why is it glazed differently in southern Germany than in eastern Germany?

The second question was easily answered: my parents, who are living in southern Germany, were coming to visit me. I requested two things: their vacuum cleaner (I hadn’t vacuumed since I moved in six months ago) and some Amerikaner. I snapped the above photo before we delved into them – actually, I wasn’t fast enough with the camera, and so I had to “hide” the broken one on the left. Nevertheless, these were dryer (I assume due to the trip), which created negative consequences for the chocolate portion: the dry, semi-sweet chocolate glaze and the dry cake did not mesh well together. However, the moist sugar glaze was just right in terms of moistness and sweetness, but lacked the complexity of the chocolate flavor. Seinfeld was right: you have to get the perfect blend of black and white. That, or assume that the east Germans solved the problem of dryness by sacrificing a bit of flavor. Besides, in the end the cookie is all about sweetness, and not quality confection, isn’t it?

That more or less answered my second question. Wikipedia had to step in for me to answer the first question. However, in finding the answer, I actually found the answer to the sub-question I’d always been asking myself: why is it really called the Amerikaner?

Apparently it’s disputed, but Germans living in post-war American occupation zones in Germany were introduced to several American delicacies in the 40’s and 50’s (including peanut butter and apparently the Black and White cookie). Thus it was called American, because American GIs would bake them with the ingredients on hand, which weren’t many, perfect for a post-war kitchen. However, another more interesting explanation for the name comes from its longer name, called Ammoniumhydrogencarbonatikaner or also Ammoniakaner. These refer to a form of baking powder (also known as Hirschornsalz) used as a leavening agent in the baking process. Of course those are both mouthfuls, and so the name was shortened to Amerikaner. I suppose both of those explanations write off any racist social interpretations that I may have created in my head.

Who knows what really happened. I suppose I could do some more investigation, but for now the case is closed: the cookies have a murky history, I can only speculate as to why the glazing varies throughout Germany, and the most disappointing thing is that they don’t have much flavor. However, I did learn that I haven’t been missing out on abstaining from them, and will happily eat my Marzipankuchen at the café instead – sweet and flavorful!

And for those of you still interestd in Seinfeld, and Superman, here are two funny little clips to help you procrastinate your work just a wee bit longer:

A Uniform Used to Mean Something

Hindsight is 20/20


This post is dedicated to Kait, the Seinfeld fan in my life.

Sources:

“Amerikaner (Gebäck).” URL: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amerikaner_(Geb%C3%A4ck) [accessed March 28, 2007].

“Black and white cookie.” URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_and_white_cookie [accessed March 28, 2007].

“Seinfeld. The Dinner Party.” URL: http://www.seinfeldscripts.com/TheDinnerParty.html [accessed March 28, 2007].

March 27, 2007

Die Raclette

It seems strange, to use the article die for Raclette, though two sources I’ve looked at on the web use die. I’ve always used der. However, my trusty Duden insists it can be either die or das (but definitely not der). One of my weakest links in German is articles, I will be the first to admit that. However, usually I know when it’s die or not. It’s usually differentiating between der and das that is difficult for me (I like to blame my family’s Swabian dialect, which tends to use der for a lot of nouns that High German frowns upon). This is why die Raclette is particularly disturbing for me.

Nevertheless, I digress. The point is to tell you a little bit about Raclette (there, we’ll avoid the article completely!). This Swiss dish consists of the eponymous cheese, melted and served with boiled potatoes, dill pickles, pickled onions, and thinly sliced smoked ham. A little googling, and some memories of my family’s Raclette nights (see above), and I came up with the following rough history and explanation of Raclette:

The dish is thought to be as old as 400 years old, and was traditionally invented and eaten in the mountainous French-speaking canton of Wallis (Valais in French, they have to be more distinguished). I say “invented” because it has a unique preparation: originally, one sets an entire chunk of a wheel of Raclette onto a stone slab that is set next to an open pit fire. The cheese will begin to melt, and at that point you scrape off the exposed section and replace the cheese by the fire. Thus the name Raclette, which comes from the French verb to scrape: racler. Because it’s hard to control the heat (you have to switch out the stones when they get too hot) there are many electric machines nowadays to do the work for you. Some simply replace the fire with a heat source, but still require an entire chunk of cheese, and others require slices that are melted in mini pans by a heat source from above. These machines can get really fancy with grills on top to sauté additional vegetables and meats for accompaniment. Raclette didn’t actually become well-known outside of the Valais canton until 1909, at the national Canton Fair, to which the people of Valais brought their favorite food, then called Bratkäse (transl. “fried cheese). At the fair it was given its more dignified-sounding French name (what’s up with that?) as well as its introduction into international cuisine. Today many Swiss families all over the country, as well as many German families, eat Raclette very regularly. It’s also known in the States, and if you don’t want to invest in one of your very own, you can rent Raclette machines from some gourmet cheese stores in larger cities (St. Louis is an example). The cheese, in small chunks, should be available in any cheese store that rents out machines, but you should also check out the cheese section of Trader Joe’s if there is one in your area.

And now for my own musings: I recall learning in one of my countless German Studies courses in college (perhaps the one in which we had a guest lecturer from Geneva for four weeks?) that Switzerland to this day, mainly in the more traditional, rural areas, is known for its communal cooking. That’s not to say the whole village comes together and cooks. What I mean is that the family, usually an extended family with several generations living in the same house, will eat together at the dinner table, usually all with their own utensils but out of the same serving dish (i.e. no plates of your own). It seems only logical for me then that, along with one of Switzerland’s best products, cheese, we get two incredibly good, communal dishes: Fondue and Raclette. Both of these are really fun family foods, but also great to bring a group of friends together on a cold night. Let’s hope though, that we won’t have too many more cold evenings ahead. Spring is inching its way into the Dresden area slowly, and I hope that it continues to get warmer. But if it doesn’t, perhaps I just might go out and rent one of those machines…

Sources:

“Raclette und Mehr: Wissenswertes.” URL: http://www.raclette.de/wissen/die_geschichte.php4 [accessed March 27, 2007].

“Der Raclette-Käse – Info.” URL: http://home.balcab.ch/r.l.sperandio/rezept_191.html [accessed March 27, 2007].

March 19, 2007

I’m feeling a bit nutty…

Here is another edition of my series “A Glimpse into Other Blogs.” This one is David Lebovitz’s blog. David lives and works in Paris, after having spent many years working, among other employers, for Alice Waters’ restaurant Chez Panisse. His humorous and informative blog on living and baking (as well as cooking) in Paris is a wonderful read. During the holidays he posted a recipe on mixed nuts, that I have adopted and love. It is the quintessential snack of bars and cocktail parties in many cultures, including both the US and Germany. Although there are differences (Germans tend to shy away from sweet and salty and stick to their favorites like “Erdnuss Flips,” which are deliciously unhealthy peanut-butter-flavored puffs) these nuts seem to appease both taste buds, perhaps due to the spices involved.

Of course, I have to admit that I liberally changed and added ingredients to fit the contents of my kitchen “pantry” (i.e. the nuts in my bread box, the sweet syrups in my cupboard, and the spices in my spice rack). In my version of the recipe I replaced maple syrup with a mix of sugar beet syrup and honey. Instead of cinnamon (and the second time I made it along with cinnamon) I added cumin, which added a very interesting spice to it. I experimented with all kinds of nuts, including pecan, walnut, peanut, almond, and cashew, and both times they were received very well: the first time I made it I ate the whole bowl myself, the second time I made a lot more and my friends gobbled them up at the birthday party I took them to.

My version becomes quite sticky – I believe David uses less syrup than I do – but no one complained about that as they ate the delicious snack. It’s a very simple recipe to make with rewarding results. Just try it for yourself at your next dinner party and see how much your friends will ooh and ah (that is, if any of it survives your munchies!).

March 17, 2007

High-Brot Diet


When I left the United States in August 2004 on a direct Lufthansa flight from Portland to Frankfurt I exhaled. Not only was I incredibly excited to spend a year in Hamburg, and not at Smith, but I also was leaving the booming no-carb diet behind. Just a couple days before I left, I had stumbled across pasta in the grocery store. Now, this is usually not an abnormal occurrence; however, this pasta said “Low Carb” on it. Let me ask you: what makes pasta (a carbohydrate by nature) low carb?? Key: by nature. This pasta was no longer anything resembling “natural.” The sadder thing was, that this pasta was made by an Italian company. Americans had even convinced foreigners that to make money in our country, they had to cave in.

Not Germany. This is the land of bread, and I trusted that no silly fad would be able to take that identity away from it. And I was right. When I landed, I was wafted with the smell of Brezeln (German pretzels), rolls, and other baked goods from the airport bakery. This was pure happiness, and no one buying the bread was feeling guilty about their choice. Especially not me.

My family has battled the lack of decent bread in the States all of my life (and before). My father’s infamous homemade wood-fired oven is proof to this. My father enjoys his time in Germany for many reasons, but not excluding the fact that he gets to take a vacation from baking. Although he is proud of his work, and finds peace and meditation in it (except when things go wrong), he is a baker forced to do so by the situation of his society, not by his own original desires.

Not only my family enjoys the bread here. My boyfriend thrives on it – he loves carbs to begin with, and when he lived here, he would frequently take advantage of his local bakery’s year-long special: three Brezeln for a euro twenty-five. This, along with a banana, would be his lunch. Other friends from high school who traveled to Germany on school trips also commented on the tasty bread. I remember one of my friends responding to my mother’s inquiries with: “It tastes so good! But I can’t get over the crust – it’s so hard!” Unfortunately, Americans have grown up with Wonder Bread and the only slightly better Oroweat “crusts” and have to take some time to acclimate themselves to breads that live up to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition:

crust (n.) – The hard outer part of a loaf or roll of bread.

Overall, as I have mentioned before, bakeries specialize usually in either pastries or bread. My parents have good friends in Friedrichshafen, the Rieser family, who own a bakery and make what my family claims to be the best Brezeln in Germany. This is proven by the use of sound logic:

1. The further south you go in Germany, the better the Brezeln.
2. Friedrichshafen is on the southern border to Austria and Switzerland (pretty much as far south as you can get in Germany).
3. Riesers makes the best Brezeln in Friedrichshafen.

Therefore:

4. Riesers makes the best Brezeln in Germany.

A good Brezel is one that has a crunchy crust, and X, but has a soft interior perfect for butter (Butterbrezel) or a soft French cheese like Camembert or Brie (or Germany’s fantastic Geramot, a commercialized knock-off of French cheeses that just might be one of my favorites…).

This whole somewhat disjointed “ode” to German bread is simply to say this: Germans understand that bread is essential. Everyone has their favorite bread, sold at their favorite bakery, and eaten in their favorite way. And let me tell you, there are many different kinds. So if you try one kind of bread here in Germany and dislike it, just try a different one. Or go to a different bakery. Overall, carbohydrates in Germany are delicious. And for those of you expats looking for a blog niche, here it is: travel Germany and write about your experiences in German bakeries. Now wouldn’t that be a tasty read?

March 4, 2007

Seattle

So here’s finally a post about my recent trip back to the States. I won’t go into the surprising homesickness I felt upon having to return to Germany, other than to say that this trip has reconfirmed that for me, home is so incredibly relative that it can refer not only to a place, but almost more importantly to a person. I had known this before, but this time it really hit home (no pun intended) that I will spend another five months away from that home. This is a difficult prospect to face.

However, the trip you ask, no mushy-mushy please: it was fantastic. David and I spent a wonderful two weeks together. The first week he had to work in Beaverton, so three of those days I hitched a ride with him and spent time in my old summer stomping grounds: the GSP and my boss’ house. The GSP is the German-American School of Portland, and my boss’ house is home to one of the most inspiring families I have encountered in my life. The first day I was at Susan’s we spent the whole day chatting over coffee in her kitchen, catching up on each others’ lives. The second day I went I was able to actually help her prepare lesson materials for the German Saturday School of Portland. The first week was actually quite nice, although halfway through I caught a cold which lasted through the beginning of my second week.

Friday night, at the end of a long day of work for David, we drove his family’s hybrid from Portland up to Seattle. I drove most of the way, which we’d agreed on, as long as he drove through Seattle to our friends’ apartment. Dan and Max, two of our good friends from high school, were waiting for our arrival and we enjoyed a pleasant evening catching up with each other.

Saturday Max had to work, he’s an intern/box office worker for the Seattle Children’s Theater, so Dan, David, and I went down to the International District to enjoy the Chinese New Year celebrations. We met up with a friend of Dan’s from his graduate program in Japanese studies at the University of Washington and enjoyed watching the Japanese drumming performance. Then, after being thoroughly fascinated (and at the same time scared) by the fireworks that the dragons set off in front of each shop in the district to scare away the evil spirits, we said goodbye to Steve and his girlfriend Chica and walked through Pioneer Square to the Pike Place Market where they make fish talk and then throw them. After buying some mediocre apples at the market, seeing (but not buying) the donuts that the Amateur Gourmet wrote about, pushing through crowds of tourists, we finally made it to what I thought was the same shop the AG recommended: the spice shop. It smelled heavenly in there! They had all kinds of spices and teas, and although we didn’t buy anything, it was a great shop to browse. In retrospect, I don’t think it was the same (at least his picture doesn’t look like the shop I was in at the market). So it’s probably good I didn’t make a purchase and just continued on.

Our next stop was heaven: Gelatiamo. This was the best gelato place I have been to outside of Italy. The staff there was really nice (they gave each of us as many samples as we wanted while we figured out which flavors would fit together best). The chocolate noisette was probably the best frozen chocolate I have ever eaten: it had such a rich, complex flavor and was scattered with small hazelnuts that made it taste like a luxury, frozen nutella. The pear, which Dan had, was a very light gelato, with a subtle, delicate pear aftertaste that made you want to appreciate it all by itself. The raspberry and the tiramisu were the only slightly disappointing ones. The raspberry was your traditional smack-you-in-the-face acidic raspberry flavor, and the tiramisu had too much espresso. However, the straciatella made up for it, and so did the frozen metal dishes our gelato was served in, which developed a white frost while we devoured our treats.

Our next stop was the Seattle public library, which I have to say just might have been the coolest attraction while I was there! Prepare to go and be dazzled by the architecture and weird quirky building. However, I have to admit, the building almost seemed to say: we can’t lure you here simply because of the books, so let’s make it a funky building for you to explore and perhaps you’ll stumble upon some books while you’re at it. We didn’t stumble upon books, but we did accidentally stumble upon Steve and Chica again. What are the chances? They had mentioned a Japanese 100-Yen store that had recently opened as a dollar-fifty store, and so we all decided to treck together to see what wonderful treasures it might behold. It was in the big, ritzy mall right that is the other end of the disappointing and expensive monorail. We had a fun time digging through the stuff, and I thought that it was good I don’t live in Seattle and can’t waste too much money pretending to buy useful things for my apartment there.

After a bit, we met up with Max because by that time it was evening, and went to the Japaenese restaurant Dan used to work at. We had a delicious meal – I had teriyaki salmon that was to die for. All of their salmon, Dan said, is cooked incredibly well. I have to agree that this was probably some of the best salmon I’ve ever eaten. Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture. Everyone was happy about their food – David had udon noodles, Dan also had salmon, and Max put together a vegetarian meal with a deep-fried tofu appetizer and vegetarian sushi. We had wanted to check out Tula’s, a jazz bar, but were so exhausted we ended up going home and indulging in the geeky pleasures of watching four episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of the trip – this post is long enough. Suffice to say that we had a wonderful time exploring Seattle, catching up with friends, and discovering its beautiful different parts of town. On our way back, David and I hopped on a ferry to Bremertown and drove down the Olympic Peninusla, which was a beautiful drive. I highly recommend it to anyone who has a bit of extra time on their hands and wants to experience one reason why the Pacific Northwest is so special.

The rest of my trip went by much too quickly, and too soon I was saying goodbye to David at the airport, the security agents were confiscating my priceless Tom’s of Maine toothpaste (and giving it to David who was waiting to wave one last time to me), and I was protected by the powers that be and made it through Chicago and Boston during a weekend of heavy snowstorms. The best part of the two-day trip back to Germany: seeing Kait and my other college friends during a super-long layover in Boston. Overall, I had strong mixed feelings coming back to Radeberg and while I enjoy my work, and I enjoy my friends here, I am excited about what events may unfold in the upcoming summer and next year.

Gelatiamo can be found on the corner of Union and 3rd streets in downtown Seattle, across from Benaroya Hall. Also on the web at http://www.gelatiamo.com/