Confessions of a Sentimental Baker

I’m not a recreational cook. I prepare food to eat it, though I discovered that I enjoy a simple cooking process or also putting together a meal with my family or a group of friends. While the end goal is always to eat, for anyone, with time I’ve grown into my own understanding of the special moments of eating and cooking together.

My mother comes from a family with lengthy branches of extended relatives on either side, with multiple family units, and she inherited the gift for efficiently prepared and delicious meals. Not to mention sharing this gift again and again, to this day, with her own big family. Scheduling, time-saving measures, a fair amount of multi-tasking among mothers and grandmothers, gatherings around a kitchen table that would inevitably lead the way to jokes and stories that were passed on in the future – all this, together with and around the process of cooking, contributed to the fundamental base of home and family. Many of those mothers, grandmothers and aunts also developed their own recipes.

My father, being a scientist with an eye for taking things apart and seeing how individual components relate to each other to create a whole, is adept at following a complicated recipe that might involve several hours of labour. It was a treat when he had time to do this and I remember how, as children, we were entranced by one dish where the pieces of spiced meat were carefully wrapped up in foil (so shiny) and stuck in the oven. He was also always willing to lend his strength (and patience) to mixing or rolling out dough to the necessary thinness, also for layers that had to be put in the freezer first – my sister and I were very keen on puff pastry for a while.

Baking stands out to me because of childhood memories of spending time with my mother and, of course, knowing that I would get a treat. I remember my sense of importance when we were allowed to shape dough into anything we liked or use cookie cutters. My mother would regularly bake in the evenings as well for the week ahead. When we were older, sometimes we would come to the kitchen after already having gone to bed, drawn in by the aroma of baking cinnamon buns.

My sisters are both good at understanding more intricate baking recipes and proceed with focused confidence once they start. There was a Betty Crocker cookbook from the 1980s in our house that had amazing photographs. My sister and I spent a large share of our early teens trying out various recipes and sitting in front of the oven, watching a cake take shape.

I’ve come back to baking at home this year, after I realized I missed it. Tonight’s cake didn’t turn out like expected, namely it crumbles easily, but it’s still perfectly edible, and thanks to the chocolate frosting (which turned out amazing) the apartment smells lovely.

 

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Recent Travel Reminders

Travel, even if it’s a short trip away, always opens you up. You have to make decisions along the way, the unexpected may happen, your daily routines might be left for a while, freeing time for something else or a new day rhythm. You remember or refresh things that might be useful, and discard others that are not. I love making lists and my brain starts buzzing with the random, the practical and the sentimental as I make my way to a given destination.

So here’s a selection from my recent trip

Have a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer readily accessible. Or wet wipes. Big fan, yes. And never again shall you be unpleasantly surprised by the absence of soap in the airport bathroom when you eagerly press the dispenser button or hopefully flap your hands in an attempt to activate the motion sensor.

There’s never really a bad time for a cup of hot chocolate, if you want one, but maybe there’s more variety around than Starbucks? And if not, heck, go for that Wifi.

Phones, tablets etc. are indispensable, but sometimes it’s so nice to read an actual book or magazine while waiting for boarding or during train journeys. It’s getting a tinge of rarity around it and rare is chic.

Browsing a good bookshop, if there is one in the train station or airport, is a very absorbing way to fill the time, even a nice ritual I like to follow before departure. It’s kind of like a final tourist activity to do in the place and you might find something interesting to bring home.

Headphones are the ultimate blessing and accessory for anyone wanting to be left alone in their seat, and you don’t have to actually listen to anything – I can’t get over the coolness of that one. Chatting to someone is always easy, but this bubble of time for yourself only before you return to everyday life is just too luxurious an opportunity to pass up.

 

 

 

Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 2

If you’re thinking where to go out after arriving, especially if it’s closer to the evening, the Bornheim Mitte district is a good suggestion. Just a few minutes on the U4 subway line from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) and get out at the stop called…you guessed it, Bornheim Mitte. It’s a cosy, lively area full of cafés, bars, restaurants and shops, also great for meeting up with friends.

The next day is open to me and I can do whatever I want, so I set off towards a classic destination, the old town, planning to walk around and refresh my memories. Frankfurt’s city center around its cathedral, Dom Römer, had been severely destroyed during air bombings in the 1940s and painstakingly restored since then. Arriving at the square that is still relatively quiet for a Friday morning, I pause to take it all in. It’s a pretty sight.

I’m about to go all around the square first, but then when I start I walk past a sign next to the cathedral pointing towards the entrance to the tower. It seems encouraging and I make the detour. Hamburg doesn’t have a cathedral and I’ve had a hankering for visiting them ever since seeing Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in my youth (yes, I know the book is vastly different) and going on my first trip to Paris shortly after. There’s a bit of construction going on around the ticket office of the Dom, I contribute 3 euros to preserving this historical structure and pull open a heavy metal door. It shuts behind me with a resounding bang after I enter.

The next 10 minutes that feel like half an hour are spent climbing a tightly spiraling narrow stone staircase, holding on to a rail on one side and gripping a rope on the other. A few other visitors make their way down as I’m going up and we carefully maneuver around each other, me pausing to let them by. One size stairs fits all! A sign next to a caged door that’s locked despite providing the first view of what seems like a balcony points upwards to the observation deck and I cover a few more flights. So that’s my morning workout and suspense kick sorted, but the views from the top of the cathedral tower are more than worth it. Like this classic one of the Frankfurt city skyline (contributing to the fact that many people think it’s a metropolis – there’s just something about skyscrapers):

Or this one of the Main river:

I love finding a place to get a good view of a city from above when I travel, it just adds something special to your day and provides some reflection time to scope out the area before joining the action on the ground. Going up the cathedral tower was more taxing physically then going down, but going down is also more likely to make you slightly dizzy.  Feeling proud of myself for being a good tourist, I walk around the square, going into every side street and passing a chattering class of French exchange students clearly just beginning their journey through snooty puberty.

I make my way towards the Kleinmarkthalle on foot, everything is close – it’s a covered marketplace that I’ve briefly been to years ago and decide to explore more after a tip from my friend. But first there’s a bookstore right by the entrance that pulls me in. While the massive volumes about Vogue shoes or Hitchcock’s blondes are way out of both my budget and suitcase range, it’s fun to leaf through them, and then I spot a small discounted daily desk calendar for 2019 with screenshots from Disney animated films. And what do you know, I actually don’t have a desk calendar for this year yet. Thank you, Frankfurt.

The market is filled with people, but it’s easy to move along, and colours, food, smells, sounds all take up my attention for a while.

Plenty of stalls offer lunch, and I settle on one that promises homey food. “Here you go, my dear, enjoy and come again,” – well, thank you. The breaded salmon with fried potatoes and a minty green sauce is delicious and it’s fun to listen to what the other diners around me are talking about. After that I treat myself to some homemade chocolates and conclude the day’s walk by doing that thing all the tourists here do.

Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 1

The first month of 2019 is coming to an end and even if I already live in a big city, I felt like a city weekend in another city. That’s enough times saying “city” in one sentence! So Frankfurt it is, with the added pleasure of having friends living there.

6 AM rising and successful arrival at the train station in Hamburg with 20 minutes to spare. One of my friends once told me with a smile, incidentally one of the people I’m visiting this time, “The train will not leave earlier.” That’s true! But you never know how other elements of getting to your platform will work out. If you’re going from Hamburg to Frankfurt by train, some of the options available are leaving either from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) or Dammtor station. The former is always busy and bigger, the latter is usually quieter and it’s a smaller space.

My early morning train choice was cancelled, something I found out only upon arriving at the platform. Not to worry, my organized (German) thinking switched on. Down to the travel center (Reisezentrum) of the Deutsche Bahn I go. I get a free ticket and a free reserved seat for another direct train. My first adventure of the day, practically a classic for any train traveler, has been mastered. I while away the remaining half hour in the bakery next door and reward myself with a cup of hot chocolate for my common sense. It’s not 8 AM yet, but the station is already bustling with commuters and other travelers rolling their suitcases past me. I think once again that as much as you love playing tourist in the place where you live, it’s good to get out of that zone every now and then by being an actual tourist.

I have a spot at a table by the window, the sun is shining and all around me people are quietly working on their laptops, or reading and watching stuff. There is Wifi, halleluja. I wonder if I’m the only one heading to Frankfurt for a vacation, since it’s the kind of city that typically attracts a steady stream of business people, many of whom take the train due to the good connection as far as long distances go.

Hamburg’s familiarly flat landscape has given way to hilly forests wherever we are now, and so far I see it has snowed here too, like it did in Hamburg last night. I’m not sleepy at all, though very comfortable, and it’s nice to think I didn’t panic one bit when I saw my original train was cancelled. “Oh, so this is what’s happening now, OK.” Looking forward to Part 2.

The Innkeeper Chronicles: Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews

Breath caught in my chest. I realized with absolute clarity that one day I was going to die. One day I would no longer be here. All the things I wanted, all my thoughts, all my worries – all of it would be gone with me, lost forever. There were so many things I wanted to do. So much I still wanted to see. I had to hold on to it. I had to hold on to every short second of life. Every breath was a gift, gone forever to the cold stars the moment I exhaled.

This is expressed so well, it makes me want to cry just like the main character, Innkeeper Dina Demille, owner of Gertrude Hunt – not exactly your average, everyday hotel.

I seem to be reviewing sequels lately, or at least not the first book in a series. But sometimes books need to sit with me a little, or I’m reading a couple of things at the same time and I just want to sort through my thoughts and feelings. With Sweep in Peace, my review started forming as soon as I read the paragraph above, and this is one of many poignant moments in a novel packed with action, mirth, drama and excitement, but a novel that still stops to think.

Dina knows how to put down roots, literally, and her magic, the profession that she was basically born into, is a reflection of who she is as a person. She is hospitable, hard-working, occasionally desperate, realistic, witty, and she’s a deeply loving, loyal human being. Whether it’s the special attachment formed between her and Gertrude Hunt, for the Inn is a living being of its own kind, or the fierce love that drives her to search for her missing parents, Dina’s heart is in everything she does. What’s also appealing about her are her moments of immediately relatable vulnerability, popping up among all the skills, talent and magic that make her a true Innkeeper.

So I’ve scribbled on quite a bit about the main character, because I don’t want to spoiler about the plot, though let’s just say that Dina definitely has what seems like an impossible task on her  hands, and the conclusion had me tearing up. Final revelations make you stop and think about current events or even relationships inside families, how we can hurt each other, how hard it sometimes is to open someone’s eyes to the truth. Yes, deep!

Dina’s relationship with the Inn and the Inn’s with her is intriguing and heart-warming, taking me back to Russian folklore and understanding of the home as such in particular (that’s my roots talking), magic within four walls (or more) influenced by the people living in it and the environment around it. Brooms, as Dina’s own proves, are not to be underestimated.

Enjoy your stay.

The Dress: 100 Iconic Moments in Fashion by Megan Hess

To catch a thief must be one of the most stylish movies in the history of Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock’s romance mystery depicts Grace Kelly in ten costumes, each more beautiful than the last. My favourite, however, is this flowing, draped blue gown by Edith Head. The dress, inspires by Dior’s ‘New Look’, features a gathered skirt and variegated chiffon swathes, and was worn with a matching clutch, white open-toe sandals and a floaty blue stole.

Yes! Megan Hess said it. I have also loved that dress the moment I first set eyes on it in my teens and it is one of the reasons why I still hanker after light-blue frocks. This is one of the many enjoyable moments had while reading The Dress: 100 Iconic Moments in Fashion, that “my” dress made the list happiness, as well as discovering numerous delicious tidbits and trivia about 99 other gowns from the 20th and 21st centuries. Sounds grand, doesn’t it?

The book is lovely to hold in your hands, with it’s gold framing against black and white on the cover, and gold page tips, like a gift ready to be unwrapped again and again. It’s divided into sections covering specific dresses within them – designers, female icons, weddings (with another shout-out to Grace Kelly), music, film and the Oscars. For me the film chapter was especially fun to read, as I recognized many dresses that had also caught my eye in various movies, or got curious about others, especially in older movies I hadn’t seen. But the best part is that the book is not simply about the dresses themselves. In a warm and engaging style, Megan Hess shows with a few well-chosen sentences, just like the strokes in her gorgeous fashion illustrations, the women who gave life to the dresses by wearing them and putting them in the context of a memorable occasion.

The illustrations themselves give the whole representation a different quality then photos do, because while many stories, names and gowns might be instantly familiar, or conjure up specific real-life or cinematic images, removing them slightly from being documented, and illustrating instead makes it all just a tad more magical and imaginative. I may never afford any of the outfits in this book, but I loved the creative approach to showing the potential and the power a dress holds simply for ourselves, whatever dress it is.

Dear 18-Year-Old Me

I give what might be advice exceptionally rarely (family philosophy that turned out to be my thing as well, something all my friends know), but I was intrigued by the idea of imagining what I would say to my 18-year-old self if I got the chance. As my Granny told me once when I asked her if she was talking to herself, “But of course, it’s nice to talk to an intelligent person.” I was also inspired, among other blog posts and pieces I’d read, by this article published on Edition F in German. Here goes.

Dear 18-year-old Zhenya,

If you’re not ready to move away from or move out of the home you grew up in, and NO ONE is pressuring you to do it, stop pressuring yourself just because you’re “of age”.

Yes, you will go places. Please be patient and don’t doubt yourself.

You don’t have to know right now where you’re going to work and how it will all play out.

Sure, it’s a big disappointment that scholarship didn’t work out. It’s OK, though, it was just one of so, so many.

Continue to look for sensible jobs where you can earn money between the ones that you do for the experience. Save up – it will always come in good use. It’s important to be able to provide for yourself.

Not everyone your age has to understand or accept your views for them to continue being acceptable and understandable for you.

Still, don’t preach or explain, just stick with your principles.

Ignore the aunt repeating you need to cut ten inches off your hair to make it prettier. It’s already pretty.

The people who laughed at you for not getting drunk, and you will meet a lot of them in the following years, are stupid. Go talk to that nice girl from your German class instead.

Your feeling about that nightclub was right. Trust your gut, always. There will be a chance to re-examine whether you were right later.

I’m proud of you for leaving situations you were uncomfortable in. Just because seemingly “everyone” is doing something, doesn’t mean you have to.

That guy was worth more laughs than tears.

There’s nothing wrong with you, that girl was just jealous and she’s not your friend.

Write, write, write, whatever you like, as much as you like, type it up, write it down, scribble it, journal about it, designate special notebooks, submit it somewhere, send it out, share it with people you trust, JUST WRITE, WOMAN.

You’ll be glad you spent your teens without this thing called social media. Yes, you’ll find out what it is, and I trust you.

You’re not being overly sensitive, picky, emotional or immature – you’re facing a bully without empathy who is refusing to accept responsibility for their actions and doesn’t care about your feelings. Walk away, you have better things to do. The people who love you are waiting.