Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Season of Good Cheer

Christmas seems to come more quickly every year but it is over almost as quickly.  Some of our highlights of this lovely season follow.

The Christmas cactus on the left bloomed in early October; the same one, at right, surprisingly began to flower once again in time for the Christmas season.

Looking through the window as I write, snow is falling and all is white outside.  We didn't have any snow for Christmas but it is still the season to enjoy it.  It is also getting colder.  I am happy that we do not have to go out.  We do not get much snow so I am not that used to driving in it anymore. 

These two pictures are from the upstairs balcony looking out over the countryside.  It is now morning and it is snowing again.
All is calm and beautiful.

The Gasthaus Bruckerhof

The Advent season was filled with good food, good friends and visiting our local Gasthäuser.  We especially enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Gasthaus Bruckerhof just outside Reichenbach.  Hans arranged a goose dinner with all the trimmings for our two groups (the men and the women) that meet once a week.  It was held on 1 December and it was superb.

The Wirt, Herr Brucker
Herr  Brucker took part of his apprenticeship training at what is now a 1-star Michelin restaurant in Reichenbach before taking over the family Gasthaus, the Bruckerhof.  He is an excellent cook.  On this occasion, he almost outdid himself!

We started with a Vorspeise or appetizer "on the house" (totally unexpected):  a wonderful seafood dish which included a large shrimp, salmon and a scallop nestling in a delicate sauce, with a thinly cut potato pancake on the side.  This was as good as we have ever had and as delicious as it looks in the pictures!

The first course was Feldsalat, my all-time favourite salad, a specialty here in late fall and winter and almost into spring.  It nearly always includes some warm Schinken bits (bacon), a little onion and with small, warm croutons scattered over it.  The dressing is not the same dressing they use in their usual salads.  This is generally the case at all Gasthäuser who serve this delicious seasonal specialty

The goose came next, presented on a platter before being served to us.  Herr Brucker had more than one goose, of course, as there were 13 of us. 

Hans had requested particular side dishes and all were excellent.  They included: cooked red cabbage; dumplings with croutons in the centre, which is traditional; superb mashed potatoes as well as boiled potatoes.  

Herr Brucker added candied hot chestnuts, which were excellent and, of  course, a wonderful gravy.  Dishes of cranberry sauce were within arm's reach.

A plate was served to each person with goose meat and a leg and then the platters of all the various dishes, including goose meat, were placed at intervals along the length of the table:  all one wished to eat and all one could possibly eat.  The wine flowed.  The picture below shows everyone relaxing after a wonderful meal and now, mostly empty glasses.  That dinner was as excellent as any you could have anywhere, whether at home or in a very good restaurant.
I am not sure how I managed to eat this sundae with hot chocolate sauce and whipped cream, but I did!
Silvi surprised us at the end of our meal with her handmade Christmas tree on a small board for all the women.  I have ours outside our door on a small table (her tree on the far right below).  Silvi's husband, Hans, helped to distribute them.
The Wirtin, Frau Brucker

Now a few pictures of a couple of our other local Gasthäuser during the pre-Christmas period.

 The Rebstock in Münchweier where we stopped in for a glass of wine (me) and a beer (Hans)

The Engel in Dorlinbach, where we had dinner that evening.

The Linde in Wallburg, the Gasthaus where I go each week for their wonderful chicken.  Below left, the cascade of spruce branches greeting guests before entering the main room of the Gasthaus.  On the right, the sign for the well known beer from the Schlossbrauerei zu Schmieheim, just two kilometers from Wallburg.  This is their special Weihnachts or Christmas beer.  Many of the Gasthäuser serve it, including the Linde.  These three pictures below I took a week ago.

If the snow stops and the roads are clear, we shall go this evening.

The picture following shows Wallburg's town Christmas tree. 
  Hans' beer glass shows the name of the Hieronymus beer.  Weissherbst, my wine of choice, and a small Schnaps glass to aid digestion for Hans
It is now the following day and we did go to the Linde last evening.  The Gasthaus was very busy with people wishing to go out and not having to cook at home before the last big celebration of the year.  First, though, we drove to Schmieheim to see the tallest living and lighted spruce Christmas tree in Germany.  That is also where the Schlossbrauerei is located whose beer the Linde serves. 

The Schloss or castle/chateau is located in the town
The brewery

Our car parked in front of that largest lighted Christmas tree 

The beautiful Christmas music is now past for another year.  New Year's and its joyful music is about to begin.  We are staying at home once again for our own celebration and the beginning of another year. 

May you all enjoy a safe and happy New Year's Eve!
Prost Neujahr!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Sweet Tastes of Christmas

St. Nicholas at the Christmas Market during Advent.

Below, our cat Whitey is entranced with the candles on 3rd Advent.

On that Advent Sunday we visited our friend Anita at her extended care home.  We are sitting in the small Gasthaus there where the three of us had coffee and cake.  (Well, I had a glass of wine as did Hans.  Anita had the coffee.)  It was beautifully decorated throughout this wonderful facility. 

I had their chocolate mousse cake which was superb!  I may try to make it myself at some point as I love chocolate mousse and do make that dessert for special occasions.

As I write, it is now Christmas Eve and almost everything is ready for this special celebration:  the tree is decorated, the baking is in the cookie tins, the Coquilles St. Jacques are prepared and in the fridge for our supper this evening and the goose is thawing for tomorrow, Christmas Day.  We are fortunate.  No snow for Christmas, though, as it is very mild in southern Germany.  With all the Christmas lights on everywhere, the snow missing is not that important, although it would add a special atmosphere nonetheless.

During the last few weeks I have been busy with Christmas baking.  I don't really like to bake, although when my children were growing up, I baked often.  Those were the days when mothers did as it wasn't that easy to buy cookies that tasted like homemade ones and it wasn't that reasonable to buy them either.  My mother baked a lot when my sisters and I were young.  Some of those recipes I have used since I first left home as a young bride.  They are still as good now as then.

I believe most women still bake the cookies they grew up with; that is, if they bake.  Of course, we try different recipes through the years and pass on those we like.  So our recipes will be the "heirloom" recipes of tomorrow, the ones our children and grandchildren will remember and carry on themselves and then make them theirs.

Years ago I baked many things for Christmas; now I just make a few things.  Some of my baking wasn't always traditional Christmas baking but something I made at that time of year because it was special and something I made seldom, if at all, during the year:  things such as walnut slice and mocha cakes for example, the latter as shown here.

I have made these this Christmas for the first time in more than 30 years.  My mother made them, I think, just at Christmas because of all the work involved in doing so.  I have always loved them, but they do take time and are finicky.  In fact, while frosting them and then rolling them in chopped nuts, I decided it would be the last time!  We shall see.  I now understand why Mom usually made them when we kids were out.  What a mess there would be otherwise!
I could not find finely chopped peanuts and I did not feel like chopping two bags of them myself.  (We have or had a chopper, but it was nowhere to be found.)  I bought a bag of finely chopped hazelnuts and they were as good as the peanuts and maybe better.  I also used some crushed almonds, but they were too fine and were more difficult to work with.

My mocha cakes frosted and rolled in the nuts and ready to eat

Here is my mother's recipe from the 1940s era.  This is what she wrote at the top of the recipe when she sent it to me in the 1950s.  Mom:  "Small squares of day-old cake (if too soft, hard to frost), frosted on all sides and rolled in ground-up peanuts.  I usually use hot milk cake as the base.  You might buy a small cake to use."  End of quotes.  J:  Actually buying a small cake or sponge cake might be the answer for another year.

Mom's Mocha Cakes (no coffee in the recipe)
For the cake itself:
2 eggs, beaten 5 minutes (J: less time with today's electric mixers)
1 cup white sugar
1 cup Swan's Down flour (J: if using cake flour, it should be sifted)
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch salt
1/2 cup hot milk
Butter the size of an egg melted in the hot milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

2 packages finely chopped peanuts, hazelnuts or almonds.  I used about 250 grams.

Her instructions:  1 hour in a moderate oven.  Here are mine:
Method Cake:  Add the beaten eggs to the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.  Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together; add them alternately with the milk and melted butter mixture, ending with the hot milk.  Mix well after each addition.  Stir in the vanilla.  Bake in an 8-inch or 9-inch pan in a 325F to 350F oven (depends on your own oven and the size of the pan).  In Celsius, 160C to 180C.
Bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

1-1/2 squares good chocolate; I used semi-sweet but unsweetened would be good as well
   or 2 tablespoons cocoa mixed with a little hot water
1/4 cup butter or margarine (I use butter)
2 cups icing sugar
2 tablespoons cream (Mom: "top of bottle"; J: the days when cream rose to the top of the milk bottle!)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Method Frosting:  Melt the chocolate; remove from the heat; cool slightly.  Add the butter and icing sugar and cream all together until light. (If using cocoa instead, add just enough hot water to incorporate the cocoa and then follow the creaming directions.)  Add the cream and mix well.  Add the salt and then the vanilla and beat until very smooth.

Dump all the finely chopped nuts into a pie plate or dish.

To frost and roll them in the nuts:  It is best to wait a day before frosting the cake.  First, cut the cake into small squares.  I finally figured out the best way to frost them, although it is still messy.  There are six sides. With a knife spread frosting on four sides; then, place one of the frosted sides down into the chopped nuts while you frost the 5th side and then carefully frost the 6th one.  I'm sure bakeries have a machine that turns them and perhaps there is one you can buy.  Likely a tool can also be found to hold them.  They are fairly delicate, though, so they might fall apart, another reason to make them a day or so later. Then carefully roll all the squares in the chopped nuts.  Place them in a large covered pan or tin.  They freeze well.

I have baked whipped shortbread for several years.  One of the women working with me in Medical Records at the Canadian Forces Hospital Europe brought some in for our annual cookie exchange before Christmas back in the 1980s.  They were delicate and melted in your mouth.  In December 2006 my sister Anne sent me almost the identical recipe.  She, as I do, bakes them every year now.

Here are Lil's and Anne's recipes.  Try one of them if you haven't already baked a similar recipe.

Lil Skelding's Whipped Shortbread (I double the recipe; the recipe as shown is not doubled)
1 cup butter
1/2 cup icing sugar
1-1/2 cups flour

Combine all ingredients and beat for 10 minutes with electric mixer.  (I usually cream the butter and sugar a bit first and then gradually add the flour, continuing to beat them well.)  Drop from a teaspoon onto a cookie sheet (I cover mine with baking paper).  Decorate with glaced cherry halves.  Bake in a preheated oven at 325F to 350F (160C to 180C) for approximately 17 minutes or until the bottoms are lightly browned (check beforehand).  These call for no corn starch.

Anne's Whipped Shortbread
1 lb butter (2 cups)
1 cup icing sugar
3 cups flour
1/2 cup corn starch

Whip butter, then add sugar and beat with mixer until fluffy.  Gradually add other ingredients, still beating.  (I would combine flour and corn starch first.)  Drop onto cookie sheet.  Decorate with green and red cherries.  Bake in a preheated oven at 275F/140C for 20 to 30 minutes.

This Christmas I also made my traditional Scotch cake or shortbread.  The recipe for them can be found in my blog post of December 14, 2009 (Childhood Memories of Christmas in Charlottetown).

When at one of our favourite Christmas markets I bought some German Christmas cookies, all homemade.  A lot of work went into them.  They were excellent and reasonable.  I wish I had bought more and next year I shall.  On Sunday, 4th Advent, we had some of those I bought at the Christmas market and those I made, along with a glass of wine.

German Christmas cookies on my mother's china plate
The last-baked cookie this year was not baked by me but by Hans!  He is not a baker and I don't believe he had ever baked a cookie before.  This year, as other years, he was remembering his mother's so decided to find a recipe and make them himself.  Hans found a recipe on-line; none could be found in any of our German cookbooks.  He made them and I was surprised that they actually turned out well and tasted like cookies!

Does anyone out there remember Pfefferkuchen-Plätzchen?  This was a specialty in northeastern Germany where Hans grew up.  They remind me of gingersnaps but have a couple different spices in them.  It is the aroma of those spices that remained with Hans.

You make the dough and then let it sit, covered, for at least seven days.  Then you knead them, roll them out and bake them.  The directions said to then put them into a tin, loosely covered, for two to three weeks.

I had also made my gingersnaps; along with Hans' Pfefferkuchen we shall be eating cookies for weeks!

This year we did not have a Christmas party although good friends, who had decided to take that custom over from us, did.
Hans snd Silvi with Hans on the guitar. 

Silvi made five cakes!  I didn't get a picture of them all in close-up although the semi-lighted table is filled with atmosphere and the cakes.  The first cake went so quickly that I had only time to get a picture of half of it.  It was filled with raspberries and whipped cream and was truly delicious!   All of them were.
What a great music evening with good friends, a great meal and wonderful cakes!

Hans lighting the 4th Advent candle

As I finish writing, it is Christmas Day.  Our Coquilles St Jacques and Hans' Kartoffelsalat and wieners were all excellent last evening, Heiliger Abend.  Along with a good bottle of wine, it was a lovely meal. 

The goose is now waiting to go into the oven within the next hour.  I hope all of you will be enjoying a wonderful Christmas dinner and time with friends and family.

The tree on the left with the electric candles on; the one on the right with the real candles alight

Enjoying a Glühwein at the Christmas market
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas, Frohe Weihnachten, Bonne Noel