Monday, December 26, 2011

The Days of Christmas

During those days leading up to Christmas the aroma of baking wafts through the house.  Decorating the house inside and out with our two cats underfoot starts on First Advent weekend and finishes on the 24th, with cards and letters to friends and family written at the kitchen table from late November onwards.  In the last week before Christmas we buy our scallops for Christmas Eve supper and the goose for Christmas Day.  During those last weeks, we enjoy many outings to fine restaurants and family Gasthäuser, with good food, good wine and good company.  As it is for everyone, a busy time of year. 

Here are some of our highlights this past week or so:

On Fourth Advent Sunday we picked up our friend Lina in Freiburg and headed to Glottertal, well known for its many beautiful restaurants and Gasthäuser and one of our favourite places in which to dine.  Some years ago now I counted fourteen restaurants (perhaps even more today) in that small town of about 600 residents.  It is situated about twenty minutes northeast of Freiburg, a university city of about 150,000 people.  On any given day or evening, many of the guests will be from that city.  Glottertal became known all over Germany and elsewhere in Europe in the early 1980s because of a television series, "Die Schwarzwald Klinik," filmed there.  Of course, the town has always been renowned for its hotels and restaurants, its food and wine.  Many Canadians stationed here in Lahr knew it well.

On this occasion, we went to Zum goldenen Engel, a Gasthaus-Restaurant in the Black Forest Style:  red and white curtains on the windows, the waitresses wearing Trachten and with many lovely decorations inside and out.  It is a very old Gasthaus, one of the oldest in the town, dating back 500 years.  Its wooden floors and ceiling, soft lighting, tables topped with sparkling white linen, candles and glasses along with the friendly owners and staff, welcome one to come in and enjoy the ambience, good food, wine and other liquid refreshments.

The picture at left shows one of the rooms with the Stammtisch at the forefront, left.

We had not reserved ahead as we weren't sure about the weather beforehand.  It was becoming colder and snow was in the forecast.  Fortunately, the roads were fine that day.  On a Sunday in Glottertal or almost anywhere else where there is good dining, it is recommended to book a table.  Luckily, two tables were free, the only two in that huge restaurant as all the rest had been reserved.
On the right, another of the rooms.  This was 4th Advent Sunday but only three of the candles are burning as the one behind had burnt itself out!

We sat near the bar, where one has a great view of the Gasthaus, the guests, the food and drinks being served.  We were also close to the Stammtisch, where on that morning (it was just before noon hour when we arrived) some of the elder men from the town were enjoying glasses of wine before heading home for Mittagessen (their midday dinner).

Hans took this picture for me.  The men raised their glasses in a prost to us, which we returned, as we sat just kitty corner from them.  That table is very old and is filled with initials carved into it over the years.

Just below right is our table facing the bar.  We always like to sit where the action is.

Lina, at age 95, is as young as a person in her 40s when it comes to her mind.  She has trouble walking but goes out on her own with her walker.  She mentioned that many of her friends who are also quite elderly told her that they do not buy any new things for themselves anymore and wondered why she did.  That day she wore a new white and lace blouse with a lace underlay, as well as a very smart black jacket with white trim on it.  She was her usual talkative and interesting self.  She listens well but also has an opinion about everything, from politics, to customs, to men.  Oh, to be like her in our old age! 

The three of us having a wonderful afternoon, enjoying the ambiance.

Lina ordered Zander, a delicacy (shown at left).  The perch was served over Sauerkraut and a delicious sauce, along with Schinken pieces.  (You may remember that I wrote about another outing with her, saying how upset she was when those smoked bacon or ham bits were served with the Chanterelle mushrooms.  This time she mentioned it to us but just laughed.  Hans again ate her bacon bits!)

Hans and I both ordered Schweine Medaillons (pork filet).  It was accompanied by creamed Wirsingkohl, which is Savoy cabbage.  Hans cooks that at home from time to time when we have a beef or pork filet.  It is not a vegetable that we see people buying often in Nova Scotia, but it makes for a delicious vegetable dish.  Our meal came with gnocchi, but we both requested Bratkartoffeln instead.  Those fried potatoes sauteed in butter were crisp and delicious.  (As a note of interest, in many Gasthäuser in our part of Germany--as at Zum goldenen Engel--instead of being called Bratkartoffeln, they are known by the Allemannisch name of Brägele.)

Hans' Wirsingkohl:  He just slices the Savoy cabbage (as you would a regular cabbage), adds it to boiling water and some vegetable bouillon (not too much bouillon), then lets it simmer until tender.  He then drains it well, adds cream, salt and pepper and voila!, you have a superb vegetable dish.

I spent some time doing some Christmas baking during the last couple of weeks.  My mother's recipe book came out from the bookcase and once again I made her Scotch cake, better known elsewhere as shortbread.

On the outer circle are whipped shortbread.  On the inside, ginger snaps; on the inner circle, my Scotch cake. (I gave the recipe for my Scotch cake in my post of Dec. 14, 2009.)

The ginger snaps I made particularly because an English-Canadian friend of ours loves them and as they are not known here in Germany he is unable to buy them.  So he has a few and so do we.  Many of my cookies I give as gifts. 

I had thought I might make my mother's mocha cakes--one of her baked sweets I loved the most--but they will wait until next year as they are a lot of work and time ran out.  First you must bake a cake and then cut it into squares.  Then you frost all sides with chocolate icing and roll the squares in crushed peanuts.  The recipe for Stollen that our friend Ursula gave me this year will also wait until 2012.  It is Ludwig's mother's recipe from Dresden (where it is renowned) and is a very old one, which was passed down to her.  Stollen is somewhat similar to English fruitcake. 

 The Bruckerhof Gasthaus at right (taken in spring)

Last Wednesday we women joined the men at the Bruckerhof.  It is now traditional for the men to invite us to join them before Christmas.  Many Canadians knew this Gasthaus well when they were stationed here.  It is not a place one finds easily as it is down a long, narrow country road (wide enough in places for only one car at a time); then you drive up a hill and through a farmer's yard before finally reaching the Gasthaus at the end of the road.

The group of us at the left.  I ordered a Cordon Bleu and Hans, saure Leber.  We both took half home!  The servings are huge.  Sour liver is one of the specialties in Baden-Württemberg.  It has vinegar in the sauce but is not really that sour in taste.  Each Gasthaus will make it somewhat differently, with more or less sourness at each place.

The liver came with a salad and Bratkartoffeln.

Hans' liver below

One of our friends ordered a steak with onions.  It is almost as large as the plate!

Just down from our table was a large group of elderly men, all there to celebrate the 89th birthday of one of them.  I remarked at the time that he looked to be in his 70s, not in his late 80s.  They were having a great time, singing and prosting with their beer and wine glasses.  After they had eaten, they began singing German folk songs, accompanied by one of the men on an accordion.  What a great pre-Christmas celebration for all of us!
Although the picture on the right is dark, you can see the raised glasses in song.

On the Thursday before Christmas, we drove up into the hills to get our tree at a farm we go to each December.  We had put off getting it, as early in the week there had been snow, none of which stayed long, but in the hills it might have been tricky for driving.  All their trees are Nordmann spruce and do not shed their needles easily.  After we made our choice, we sat in the little warm hut, heated by a pot-bellied wood stove.  Everyone who buys their tree there is offered various types of Schnaps (on the house), produced there by the farmer and his family.  Hans also bought a good-sized salami to take home with us. 

Fourth Advent had arrived and now it was Christmas Eve.  We had our traditional Coquilles St Jacques (the best I have made I think), followed by Hans' potato salad and German wieners, along with an excellent bottle of 1993 Chablis, still perfect after 18 years.


Food and drink and our customs at Christmas, almost more than anything else or any other time, bring back nostalgic days and times spent with family and friends over the years.  Those memories are to be treasured as are all those we continue to make each year.  We hope you all had a very:

Merry Christmas! Frohe Weihnachten!  Joyeux Noel!
We wish you all a Happy New Year and all the Best for 2012!

Prosit!   Cheers!   A Votre Sante!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fondue, Wine, Schnaps and Other Cheese Things

I have never been a true "Cheese" person, although many I know are, including Hans.  He loves cheese in every way and especially by itself with some good bread.  I like mild ones; he loves the strong ones:  the stronger the better in taste and the stronger in aroma, the better he also likes it, it seems to me!  I enjoy cheese just as it is from time to time, but I especially enjoy it in baked dishes or melted at the table with some French bread or potatoes.

The Christmas season is now here with the New Year not far behind.  What better way to spend a simple and cosy evening than over a cheese fondue during this busy time of year.  We have had in the past fondue or raclette on New Year's Eve, which was a great way to end the year.  Just last weekend, on Second Advent, we had cheese fondue once again.

A fondue is a lovely way to enjoy a leisurely supper on a cold, winter's night.  It has perhaps gone out of fashion, but in the 1970s and 1980s it was a popular way to entertain a small group of friends or the family.  It still is a great way to do so!  It is easy and relaxing with little preparation ahead.  Fondues--whether meat, fish, chocolate or cheese--have one thing in common:  they follow the custom of everyone eating from the same pot.

For a cheese fondue, the mixture and the pot used are important.  One can buy the ready-to-make fondues and that can be fine; however, it is better when one adds to it.  When we buy the fondue mixture, Hans always adds more of our own cheese (Emmental or Gruyere), more white wine and Kirschwasser.

The traditional ceramic-type pot or dish sits atop a burner, one using spirits, which means the pot or dish must be heatproof.  If you do not have the traditional pot, use a pot that withstands good heat.  You can start heating the cheese fondue in a pot on the stove and then transferring it to your fondue pot over its burner or you can start it directly over the fondue burner.  Here is the recipe for the original Swiss fondue as given with our made-in-Switzerland "Spring" fondue set.

Swiss Fondue - Serves 4:  Rub the pot with 1 cut clove of garlic.  Warm 1-1/2 cups of dry white wine in the cheese pot; to the wine, add 1 teaspoon lemon juice (the dry wine and the lemon juice help to melt the cheese).  Add gradually, stirring continuously (do it in a figure 8-motion), 20 ounces grated cheese (half Emmental, half Gruyere.  If there is no Gruyere cheese available, according to "Spring" add a pinch of salt to the Emmental cheese in the pot.)  Do not stop stirring.

Add 1 teaspoon cornstarch to a jigger of Kirschwasser (Schnaps), stirring until the cornstarch is dissolved.  (A jigger is about 4 tablespoons.)  The Schnaps does add to the flavour.  Kirschwasser is the traditional one used.  When the cheese is bubbling, stir in the Kirschwasser/cornstarch mixture.  Season according to your taste with some pepper, nutmeg and paprika.

Hans doesn't always follow recipes, but when he does use one, he adds to it and changes it to suit his own taste.  It was no different with the fondue this time. 

Hans' Fondue:  First, he rubbed the cheese pot well with a cut garlic clove.  He then melted in our fondue pot, on top of the stove at low heat, about 700 grams (1-1/4 pounds or so) of equal amounts of Emmental and Gruyere cheese, cut into pieces.  (Grating the cheese, as called for, would be better as it would melt more quickly and would be easier to stir.)  He added one garlic clove, minced, and some butter (not really needed).  He did not use any flour or cornstarch.

Below, the Gruyere cheese is shown on the left; the Emmental on the right
He added at the same time a good splash of lemon juice and about a cup of Weissherbst, a rose-type wine found only in three or four German grape-growing states.  It was excellent in it.  It has good acidity and is flavourful.  (We would not use a regular rose wine from France or Italy nor a Portuguiser rose from Germany, as the fondue would have an entirely different taste.)  Normally, we do use a dry white Riesling.  Hans stirred continuously (as did I).

Hans then added a good jigger of Kirschwasser and then placed the pot over the fondue burner.  He added more Kirschwasser and more again just before eating, stirring it in well.  It may sound as if it would overwhelm the cheese (and our taste buds), but it did not.  You need that flavour.  I rarely drink Kirschwasser and normally do not like a lot of its flavour in a dish, but this was not too much--although I was saying while he poured it, "No, No, No!"  The fondue flavour was excellent.  A sprinkle of pepper and paprika at the end and it was ready.  Nutmeg is also usually added.  Note:  Do not mistake North American Kirsch for Kirschwasser;  Kirsch is a cherry-flavoured liqueur and not suitable in a fondue.

With the fondue, serve fresh baguette, cut into cubes.  (Bread cubes sauteed in butter and garlic ahead of time and then set aside until ready to fondue add extra flavour.)  On New Year's Eve one year we also dipped small, whole potatoes, cauliflower florets and mushrooms into the bubbling cheese (none of them should be too soft or cooked too much beforehand).  Olives, sweet pickled onions and sweet pickles are also very good as accompaniments on the side.  Make sure to have the long fondue forks to use for the dipping.

Wine to serve with a cheese fondue is usually a Riesling--or the white wine used in the pot.  On this occasion we had a 2005 bottle of Huxelrebe Rheinhessen Kabinett, one we have bought many times as it is one of our favourite white wines to have in the afternoon or without food.  It also goes well with flavourful dishes such as the cheese in a fondue.  This particular bottle came from vintner Holdenried in the town of Partenheim, a place we have visited many times over the years for their white wines (they also have an excellent Weissherbst).  We have given many of those bottles as gifts because they carry Hans' surname.  At some long-ago time someone who passed along the family name likely came from Partenheim.   

Over the years we have hosted several wine and cheese evenings, both here in Germany and in Nova Scotia.  On at least one of these occasions at our house in N.S. we passed out paper and pens and asked everyone to write down their favourite cheese and wine combinations.  Hans had matched each type of cheese with the appropriate wine.  The winner was Munster with a Gewürtztraminer Spätlese or Auslese wine. The second favourite was Roquefort--a blue cheese--with a Sauterne.  This was the same result as at our house in Germany.  This really surprised us in Nova Scotia as we had wondered whether Canadians would enjoy either cheese, as these two are not to everyone's taste (nor to mine, but they are Hans' favourites).
(I took the following four pictures from snapshots, thus the reason they are somewhat unclear.)

Below, our friend Rosi from Nürnberg, Germany beside Hans, before the other guests arrived.

Hans is opening the first bottle of wine to get the cheese and wine party started.  My sister Paula is in yellow.
Canadians have, of course, been enjoying wine and cheese evenings since about the 1970s when it became a popular way to entertain.  In those days, however, the variety of cheese available was small in comparison to today.  I lived in Winnipeg during several of those years of the '70s, during which time a cheese boutique opened in the Shopping Mall at Polo Park.  They had a good selection, although their cheese was expensive.

For our cheese buffet we had brought all the cheese--except for the Cheddar and Feta--to Nova Scotia with us from Germany (all of it bought in Germany and Alsace, France) as one is allowed to bring into Canada up to 20 kilo.  If you do buy cheese to take back from Europe, make sure to declare it on your customs form.  You cannot import cheese in liquid, such as Feta, into Canada.  That one we bought at a cheese farm just south of Aylesford, about 40 minutes from our house in N.S.  His wife is the daughter of good friends of mine.

Our guests making their decisions on what to have and what they like best.
Years ago, when posted to Marville, France, we had cheese every so often.  Up until then I likely had had only Cheddar and perhaps Velveeta or cheese slices.  My husband loved all kinds of cheese and would buy several types, keeping them in the fridge.  As it happened on one such occasion--in about 1962/63--my sister Paula was visiting us.  She had come over with a friend to tour Europe.  Later, she came to stay with us for a while.

As she wanted to make herself useful and help out, she decided to clean out the fridge one day while we were out.  "Goodness," she said to herself, "this smells terrible!  And so does this!"  And out of the fridge it went until all of her brother-in-law's cheese was thrown into the garbage can.  He, of course, went looking for it to have for supper and that is when she had to confess.  She didn't know, of course, that such cheese as Munster, for example, does smell pretty high.  My husband took it in good stride and Paula learned that not all that smells bad is!  (We make sure to keep all cheese well wrapped and in an air-tight container in the fridge so that the aroma isn't so pungent when opening its door!)

This was Hans' supper last evening.  (I had a Schnitzel and a glass of wine!)

Here is a long-time dessert recipe of mine that I have made over the years and one that my friend Mary in Ontario still makes often when she entertains.  It is an uncooked cheesecake that can be made ahead and frozen.  It was  one of Mary Moore's recipes published in the Regina Leader Post in the late 1960s.  At that time we were living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

Cheesecake:  Makes 8 servings
1-1/4 cups chocolate cookie crumbs (200 gram box of chocolate wafers, using about 3/4); roll into crumbs
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup melted butter
2 three-ounce packages cream cheese, softened (about 200g total)
1/2 cup white sugar
Pinch salt
2 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup heavy cream, whipped
Green food colouring (optional)
1 basket strawberries (optional, but worth it)

Combine the crumbs, brown sugar and melted butter.  Press the mixture into an 8-inch or 8-1/2-inch spring form pan (sides need to be removed later).  Chill.

Beat the cheese, white sugar and salt together until very light and fluffy.  Add the egg yolks and vanilla; beat well.  In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites (with clean beaters) until stiff peaks form.  Gently fold in the whipped cream and the egg whites into the cheese mixture.  Tint mixture a soft green with a little food colouring, if wished.  Pour over the crumbs.  Cover and freeze 6 hours or overnight.  Remove cheesecake from the freezer 1-1/2 hours before serving and place on the fridge shelf.  To serve:  Place pan on a serving dish and remove the sides.  Cover the top with whole strawberries or pass them separately.  Cut into wedges and serve.  Note:  If you serve this in the summer, it will soften quickly.  The trick is to cut it and serve it to your guests before it does.

We have just celebrated Third Advent, with Christmas just two weeks away.  Enjoy the lovely season!