Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Loot Gloat: Delhi

I've been away in Delhi and nearby Haryana, India, for a week and a half to attend a couple of conferences, so my internet access has been pretty sporadic and consequently my blog posting temporarily died back.  Nothing at all to do with the fact that I spent most non-conference time in India sightseeing and shopping, of course!

Some bangles, bindis, and other baubles and beads, as well as cards and calendars:

And some scarves and suits (the soaps and sandalwood that alliteratively belong here were included in the previous photo):

(Schlüsselkäfer didn't get to come along on the India trip and is he ever FURIOUS about it. I explained that cadavers, even handsomely resin-entombed beetle cadavers, are simply not considered a fun accessory in Indian culture, but he wasn't buying it and high words unfortunately ensued. I'm sure we'll see him around again when he's through sulking, but in the meantime I would just like to state for the record that the phrase "zombie bug" was inappropriate and offensive and I'm sorry I used it. More posts coming soon!)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Parsifal, Pretzels and Pumpkins

Well, the Deutsche Oper Berlin has started its 2012-2013 run of Parsifal, and I went to see it last Thursday: really terrific!  Act II felt a bit over-the-top with, for instance, the sorcerer-king Klingsor slaughtering an erring knight in a ritual reminiscent of a Mesoamerican heart-extraction sacrifice (and yes, he "ate" the "heart"), but Wagner is a very sturdy framework that can stand a lot of intepretation piled on it. I had never previously heard unamplified (to the best of my knowledge and belief) soloists singing over, er, with a Wagner orchestra and was amazed at how well the soloists' voices came through most of the time. The choral singing was also fantastic: there's nothing like hearing a German libretto sung by German singers. It was a real revelation of what living in a major European city can mean performing-arts-wise, and I've resolved from now on to attend a concert or opera performance at least once per week, and preferably twice in December when the Christmas music gets going! (Die Zauberflöte next Friday; I have one of the cheap seats for that one, so we'll see if there's any noticeable difference in the acoustics of the hall, although maybe there's not really a common baseline for the listening experience across Wagner and Mozart.)

I had forgotten what a marathon Parsifal is, though: the overture began at a few minutes after 5 and the curtain didn't come down after the last bows until about 10:15. There were a couple of half-hour intermissions in there, but that's still a pretty big lump of music and a long wait till dinner.  Fortunately, the Kantine or snack bar of the opera house, like many many cafes and vendor carts and other food establishments in Berlin, sells the classic Berliner lye-dipped (!) Brezeln or "Philadelphia-style" soft pretzels for a couple of euros apiece. (I hear that the Berliner Philharmonie serves them with butter but I haven't checked them out yet.) It looks a little weird to the American eye to see elegantly dressed opera-goers chowing down on a soft pretzel, but don't knock it till you've tried it: that's what got me through Acts II and III without absolutely starving!

In other news, here's a jack-o-lantern (or "Halloween-Kürbis") that I carved for a hostess gift (accompanied by a few tea lights and the roasted pumpkin seeds; roasting at about 125 degrees Celsius for about an hour seems to crisp them up nicely). I had to be a bit creative about illuminating it with the desk lamp for a reasonably effective photograph (although it makes the pumpkin look bright pink, which it isn't!), since using actual candles in the offices or residences is strongly deprecated. (Other people have had a few incidents with unattended cookery setting off the fire alarms.  No serious damage, thankfully, but the fire department charges an arm and a leg just for showing up in response to an alarm, so the administration would rather we didn't invite them so often.)

Schlüsselkäfer says, "Take me, take me!  I glow in the dark too!" We've been over this already, Schlüsselkäfer: you're too dim to show up well on camera if there's little or no ambient light.

Oh, all right:

Schlüsselkäfer says, "Woooooooo-woooooo!  Wooooooooo!" Shut up, Schlüsselkäfer.

Happy Halloween to all!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mushroom Sampler Lunch

Here's the selection of fresh mushrooms I used for Wednesday's mushroom lunch party:

And here's the best I can do on reconstructing the varieties, though I'll have to check some of them when I go back to the market (this has something of the mycological mystery and discovery of actually hunting edible mushrooms, without any of the danger and anxiety because I already ate all of them and I'm fine).  Clockwise from bottom left:

  1. Package of Kulturchampignons or ordinary cultivated white mushrooms, more or less as a control for mushroom flavors. 
  2. I thought these were Steinpilze but the stem looks wrong.  
  3. Orangey-brown Pfifferlinge (Eierschwammen) or chanterelles.
  4. A clump of deep-cupped Limonenseitlinge, golden oyster mushrooms.
  5. One honking big Kräuterseitling or king oyster mushroom.
  6. Creamy white something-or-others, can't figure these out at all.
  7. Bitty little Samthaube or black poplar mushroom (never even heard of these).
  8. Fan-like caps of the Austernseitlinge, oyster mushrooms.
  9. One white Weiss Buchenpilz (Buna-Shimeji?), at least I think that's what it is (where did the rest go, I wonder?).
Anyway, we had #5 and #8 oven-roasted with oil and garlic, #1 and #9 as baked mushroom caps stuffed with a mash of lentils, potatoes, onions and mushroom stems, #2, #3 and #7 sauteed and then baked in a cheese quiche (carefully arranged in rings so that each piece had some of each kind of mushroom in it), and #4 and #6 just sauteed in a little butter and salt, and they were all very tasty.  Also some breads and cheeses and tomatoes and a carrot salad and some grapes for dessert.  I'll be eating leftovers for a while, but I'm not complaining!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Photo Album

Here are a few photographs that have been kicking around for a while but haven't rated a post of their own.

1. From the Berlin Marathon a couple of weeks ago, where my bike route to the Sunday stitch'n'bitch coincided with the marathon route in a number of places (and I took two hours figuring out how to get through the city without riding through the last of the straggling runners on what should be their personal streets for the day).  The loyal crowd is still watching for runners at Potsdamer Platz:

A race volunteer walks through the tidewrack of discarded water cups on the Clayallee:

2. A weekend seminar on the history of perspective and optics sharpened my eye for weird optical effects like this Light Bulb Tree produced by a reflection on my window:

3. This is the season for all the local mushrooms, and the farmer's market has some amazing displays.  I'm having a mushroom sampler lunch later this week and will try to post the details.

4. Shopping at the Idee craft store in Charlottenburg, where I said my first real totally voluntary non-trivial German sentence:  "Gibt es Häkelgarn mehr fein als zwanzig?" which means more or less "Do you have crochet thread finer than #20 weight?" As it happened, unfortunately they did not, but at least the saleslady understood me perfectly!  (It might have helped that I was holding a ball of #20 crochet thread at the time.)

Anyway, Schlüsselkäfer thought this sign on the wall of the jewelry-making section was hilarious and insisted on my photographing it.  (It just means "jewelry" in German, you dumb bug.)

5. And finally, in the TK Maxx store (that's TJ's German cousin, I guess) next to the Idee, they actually sold saucepans!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Flat Round Brownies

My phone charger got fried recently (these airport shop travel voltage converters are not very impressive), so I haven't been able to take or upload any pictures for a bit. I bought a proper European-plug charger today, though, and while I'm getting my phone back in action, here's a record of my recent attempt to make traditional American brownies to pass around during my colloquium talk at the Institute on Tuesday.

The recipe is more or less the one from Rosie's All-Butter Fresh-Cream Sugar-Packed Baking Book, with strategic modifications as noted:

Step 1.   Improvise a double boiler by putting a couple inches of water in a saucepan and setting a similarly-sized saucepan on top of it. Melt a 200-gram block of semisweet baking chocolate and about 200 grams of butter (or whatever's left in a 250-gram butter block after you take out a few tablespoons now and then for sauteing onions and potatoes for dinner or dropping a butter blob in the lentils) in the "double boiler" over simmering water.

Step 2.  While the chocolate-butter mixture melts and then cools somewhat, beat up eggs in the mixing bowl with a big German whisk that is inconveniently heavy and makes your arm tired. These German eco-eggs look a bit smaller than our usual Grade A Large (nice deep yolk color, though), so use four of them and beat well.

Step 3.  Find the one piece of graduated volume measuring equipment in the kitchen, a plastic jar marked with 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 levels that looks like about one cup. Open the bag of Kristallzucker which fortunately is more or less the same as regular granulated sugar, put a "cup"  in with the eggs and beat till very frothy and thick.

Step 4.  Pour the chocolate-butter mixture in a thin stream (so as not to curdle the eggs if the melted stuff's still hot) into the egg-sugar mixture, beating all the time.

Step 5.  Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C, which you can tell even doing the conversion in your head because there's no pencil and paper in the little kitchen is very nearly 350 degrees F, so good enough. In the meantime, open the little bottle of "Arome Vanille", WHICH IS CLEAR AND SYRUPY AND MILDLY VANILLA-ISH INSTEAD OF BEING NORMAL BROWN ALCOHOL-BASED STRONG VANILLA EXTRACT FOR PETE'S SAKE GERMAN PEOPLE WHAT THE HELL IS THIS. Pour some good glops of it into the batter anyway until you think you can smell and taste a difference. (Next time try getting a real vanilla bean and letting it sit in the batter.) Add a pinch of salt.

Step 6.   Open up the bag of Weizenmehl number 405, which more by good luck than good management turns out to be standard German low-gluten white flour which is pretty much exactly what you want for dessert baking. Carefully mix about a "cup" of it into the batter, and if you had an 8x8" brownie pan this or a bit more would make about the right consistency for baking brownies, but since all you have is a couple of baking sheets (oh, and you should have greased those with the butter paper back at the beginning), you need something that's more of a drop-cookie consistency. Somewhere between 2 and 3 "cups" will be about right. If you don't recognize a drop-cookie batter when you see one then try dropping a spoonful on a plate from time to time, and add flour until the dropped batter keeps a roughly circular shape and isn't runny enough to spread out very thin.

Step 7.   Drop teaspoonfuls of batter on the greased baking sheets and bake the sheets one at a time (although now that you think of it, even though there's only one baking rack in the oven, the sheets do slide right into slots in the oven sides so you could have baked two sheets at once) for about 15-20 minutes until crackly-surfaced, no longer shiny, and somewhat springy when poked. Remove from baking sheets and cool on paper towels on table because there are no cooling racks. The cooling cookies develop a weird eczema-like condition where a very fine grayish layer of the top surface flakes off (different composition in the chocolate?), but it tastes fine and won't show in the finished product. These definitely are more like flat round cakey brownies than like standard chocolate drop cookies, though.

Step 8.   While successive trays of cookies are baking and cooling, melt the other 200-gram block of semisweet chocolate in the "double boiler" and mix it up well with the remnants of the chocolate-butter mixture. Scoop up some of the melted chocolate in a big spoon and twirl a cooled cookie upside-down in the spoon to coat its top with chocolate. Set aside for final cooling and letting the melted chocolate topping harden. Repeat for all the cookies.

Optional step (not recommended).   While letting the melted chocolate topping sit in the "double boiler", fail to notice that the two saucepans have got wedged together and that the cooling water in the bottom pot is causing a vacuum seal to form between them, thus causing you to be unable to separate them for washing when the cookies are all done. Pulling, twisting, reheating on the stove and putting cold water in the top pan, shaking, squirting dish soap into the join for lubrication, and banging the pots on the metal sink are all equally unsuccessful. When the bottom pot has its handle wrenched off and both are severely dented but still inextricably conjoined, give up and hide them in your room and resolve to go buy a couple new saucepans to replace them. The Karstadt, Saturn, Woolworth, Depot, and similar housewares or department stores as well as the Kaiser's supermarket all carry individual frying pans but don't seem to have any individual saucepans. You will probably have to make the trek out to Ikea in Tempelhof.

Everybody did seem to like the cookies, though.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Taking Care of Business in Berlin (or, Unjustly Making Dutch People Look Stupid)

Today I determined that I really had to find a German post office and figure out how to buy stamps and mail things to the States. So I Googled for "Deutsche Post Filialen" that would be on my way to the Karl-August-Platz Saturday market in Charlottenburg, and found one on Kantstrasse (right next to the Kumasch fabric store and not far from Idee crafting supplies, hmm, must check those out at some point).

More monster cucumbers (Schmorgurken) from the vegetable market in Charlottenburg. 

Berliners seem to like to complain that Berlin is lazy and slow and inefficient compared to the rest of Germany; whatever, but if so, someone forgot to tell the people at the post office. They took my international parcel, sold me a couple packs of envelopes, sold me some international stamps, and I was done literally in less than three minutes. Of course, it was all so brisk I didn't actually end up registering or insuring my parcel, but I hope it will get there okay nonetheless!  (The only thing that mystifies me is that for some reason every transaction had to be done separately:  calculate the international postage, pay for that, ring up the envelopes, pay for that, find the stamps, pay for that. I'm not complaining about it---I simply put some euros on the counter and the clerk just took whatever money she needed for the transaction of the moment and put the change back in the pile---I just don't get it.)

Unfortunately, however, the more I make the effort to learn my way around and cope with things in Berlin, the more difficult I make life for the unoffending Dutch. After living for a couple years in the Netherlands a few years back, speaking Dutch (even though I don't do it very well) comes far more easily than speaking German. So if I try to speak German for more than a sentence or two at a time, it veers off into Dutch, or as much Dutch as I can get hold of, at least. Moreover, if I don't know a particular German word I will deliberately use the Dutch equivalent instead, because if I'm lucky it turns out to be the same in both languages, and if it doesn't, well, start over.

Naturally, this linguistic strategy carries the risk of causing people to believe that I'm from the Netherlands myself, which is hardly fair to the Dutch. At the post office today, for instance, I couldn't remember the German word for "stamps" so I asked for "zehn Postzegels", that being the corresponding Dutch term. The brisk clerk whisked a book of ten stamps out of the drawer and kindly but firmly replied "zehn Briefmarken" as she handed them to me. (Oh right, I knew that.) So now I look like a Dutch speaker who not only doesn't know enough to use the German word for stamps in a Berlin post office, but doesn't even know enough to use the English word for stamps instead of the Dutch one since English is more likely to be widely understood in a place like Berlin. Would you want one of your countrypeople going around giving that sort of impression to foreigners? I didn't think so.

I suppose I could try to counter that impression or at least confuse the issue by trying harder to look more American: wearing a "USA" T-shirt or an American flag lapel pin or something. But I'm afraid that would just make matters worse by making me seem like a Dutch person who's obsessively enamored of the US, which heaven knows doesn't enhance anybody's reputation either. The only alternative seems to be to give up altogether and speak only English as an out-and-proud monoglot American, which would be a real waste of an opportunity to improve my language skills. So I guess I'll go on trying to speak German and the unfortunate Dutch are just going to have to take the hit. Het spijt mij jongens, but if it's any comfort, by the next time I visit the Netherlands I will probably know and use enough German words to make German people look stupid too.

In the meantime, getting out of the mostly-English-medium enclave of the Institute and into the life of a German city is fascinating. Even the names on street signs are fun to read, both for pronunciation practice and the recurring startled recognition of historical figures you've read about in books but never seen directly commemorated. (I remember on my very first visit to Germany some 27 years ago being impressed by all the streets named after famous scientists, although it took us longer than it should have to figure out what was going on with all the signs apparently honoring some mysterious Herr Doktor Professor Einbahn.)

Schlüsselkäfer says, "Look at me, I'm a rationalist philosopher!  A priori monad transcendental Ding-an-Sichlichkeit!" Shut up, Schlüsselkäfer, and quit photobombing.

Yarn Store Yatra, Part II: Actually Buying Stuff

Saturday mornings are an important part of the week in Germany because a lot of places close at mid-afternoon and stay closed on Sunday.  So you need to plan your Saturday pretty well if you want to fit in, say, a morning yoga class...

Schlüsselkäfer says, "I spend all of class doing Shoe Protection Pose." 

...And then make it to a yarn store or two while they're actually open.  I stopped only long enough to check out the window of "La Laine" on Kantstrasse, but it looks as though they have some nice things:

But I did meet a colleague for a quick visit to a knitting/coffee shop in Wilmersdorf, "boucle+cafe",  where they sell both yarn and very tasty chai latte without any straw. They have a Ravelry group and a regular schedule of Stricktreffen or stitch'n'bitch meetings, so that would be a good thing to try at some point to get my German language use a little more activated. Also a nice yarn selection:

Most of the yarns are major multinational brands, naturally, but they also had some handsome German natural wools and a selection of variegated yarns dyed by a Berlin artisan called "Wool Queen" (Wollkönigin)And although of course the store was overwhelmingly geared towards knitting stuff, they did have some crochet hooks, including one tiny steel hook that I think is going to save my lace gloves project!