Sunday, 25 November 2012

All the fun of the Fair

Yesterday saw G's school's Christmas Fair.  Still being relatively new to the school, we of course decided that we must go and support the Fair as much as we could.  Whilst this time we were unable to give our time - we've had visitors this weekend, I did bake for the cake stand, and we turned up and participated in the activities and spent our 'wertmarken' on various goodies there. 

The week beforehand, we had been asked to buy activities cards for the children (5Eur each) which would allow them to participate in various craft activities, these included fabric bag/wallet painting; candle making; orange and clove pomander making; biscuit decorating; face painting and an activity organised by a group of Japanese parents at the school which involved sticks and elastic bands (more of this later!)

I was pleasantly surprised at how busy the school was when we arrived, it seemed like a good turn-out, and of course the money we are all contributing is going towards the school and so will benefit the children so you don't mind too much the additional spending! There was a busy 'Christmas Market' zone in the main hall, at which some commercial traders had set out their wares - decorative items, calendars and the like.  I have to admit to whizzing round for a cursory look before heading down to the children's activity zone and the cake/beer/grill tents!!

It seems from our experiences at Kindergarten, Football Club and now school that you can't use cash at these events where they sell food and drink.  Instead, you need to buy 'Wertmarken', I'm  not sure if this is just to make life easier for those on the stalls or to get round some sort of tax/licensing requirements.  Anyway, I had my strips of tickets to exchange for goodies at school.

G wasn't up for taking part in any of the activities when we arrived, but once he saw H and L joining in he did decide that it was perhaps not such a bad idea after all.  He'd had his eyes on the bamboo stick activity - this involved a convoluted contraption, constructed from bamboo sticks and elastic bands - this eventually turned into a functioning, elastic-band shooting gun - all of the children had done this activity and were careering around the playground shooting each other - absolute chaos - but out from under our hair!!

L and H were a bit more sedate, and decorated their canvass purses, studded oranges with cloves (oh how the smell makes me feel Christmassy!), H went for the face-painting and L got carried away with the biscuit decorating - this involved lots and lots of little sugar balls, very sticky fingers..... and a massive grin on her face! (thankfully I wasn't on tidying up duty afterwards - lots of excited children, and bowls of small sugar decorations - hundreds & thousands, silver balls and so on make for a large amount of debris under the table!)

Obviously an event like this wouldn't be complete without the obligatory bratwurst (or 2!) and a small beer to wash it down with!  I've had it on good authority that the bratties were of top quality - and can vouch for the restorative powers of the beer myself! There was also a superbly well stocked cake stand with everything from baked cheesecake, to chocolate brownies, to flapjacks (mine!) to cupcakes and everything else in between!

All in all our first visit to the Christmas Fair seemed to be a great success, next year I will try to be more involved and help out - but well done St George's a resounding triumph!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Wine of the Month - November 2012

It's coming up to the party season and so thoughts are turning to celebratory drink (as if we need a reason!) and I want to point you in the direction of a sparkling-wine based cocktail to try, if you've not already.

Aperol seems to be on the rise here in Germany - and Aperol Spritzers are becoming very popular.

So what is Aperol then - the new Campari?  It's an Italian bitter-orange flavoured aperitif, but who knew it also contains Gentian and Rhubarb?!   Indeed, a quick browse on the interweb tells us that Aperol is indeed owned by Campari now and the main difference between the two seems only to be the alcohol content - with Campari being twice the strength of Aperol.

Now, the Aperol Spritz, a somewhat trendy beverage for me to be indulging in, but is actually very drinkable - perhaps a little too so!!  You need a sparkling wine - I suppose seeing as it's an Italian drink, Prosecco should be called for, but any fizz will do.  Then a good splash of Aperol, and then topped off with sparkling water - and there you have it, a lovely vibrantly orange coloured aperitif, ideally suited to Christmas parties (as you can drink a fair few and still be standing.....) or to summer lazing - and we need to look forward to the long warm summer evenings as it's dark and miserable now!  Apreol spritzers will brighten any occasion!!

This being the land of the discount 'super'market, you can of course buy a variety of un-branded variations on the Aperol theme.  The real thing will set you back about 10Eur a bottle here in Germany, but of course if you're somewhat miserly (like me) you'll want to shop for a bargain.  I have to say, that the version I tried from Lidl is indeed a passable alternative - and at half the price would make a good option for a party drink!  There you have it then - Bitterol the recommendation for November....

Monday, 19 November 2012

In der Weihnachtsbäckerei - Plätzchenzeit

Schönes Leckerei
"In der Weihnachtsbäckerei
gibt es manche Leckerei
Zwischen Mehl und Milch
macht so mancher Knilch
eine riesengroße Kleckerei.
In der Weihnachtsbäckerei

In der Weihnachtsbäckerei"

This time of year, just before Advent is 'Plätzchenzeit' - the time in which the baking of Advent and Christmas biscuits is undertaken, the cookery magazines are full of recipes for the varying types of Plätzchen and the ingredients are often on special offer in the shops - or at the very least grouped into a seasonal display along with biscuit cutters, special baking trays and all the other accessories and implements one might need to bake these delicacies with.

A & H hard at work in the Weihnachtsbäckerei
The words above, come from a traditional children's song and it's title translates as "In the Christmas Bakery", each year, as I read the recipes for these biscuits, or see them in the shops, I can't help but start humming the song to myself - it's one of the sure-fire signs that Christmas is on the way - and I love it!

So, what of the biscuits themselves?  This year, A has been busy biscuit baking for us, we've had Vanillekipferl, a crumbly almond and vanilla biscuit shaped as a half moon; coconut macaroons - very yummy and moreish, and I'm not even a big fan of coconut and finally, black & white cookies - a chocolate/vanilla swirled cookie.

Schwarzweiß Gebäck / Black & White Biscuits
Coconut Macaroons
These biscuits are very traditional to Germany at Christmas time, although the style and flavourings are anything but.  Of course, there are the traditional Kipferl or Lebkuchen recipes, but a quick look on one of the German recipe sites Chef Koch brings up almost 5000 different 'Weihnacht Plätzchen' recipes - there's certainly no shortage of choice on shape, flavour, ingredients and so forth. There are variations from plain butter biscuits, to poppyseed or marzipan or nuts or dried fruits or rosehip paste.  The shapes and decorations are endless - and what's more, in my experience they all taste pretty yummy too!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Crock-pot Cock-up

Never one to shy away from experimentation in the kitchen, I've naturally had my ups and downs.  Fortunately, there have been more ups than downs, but this week saw an epic fail on my part.

It's not often I have to throw something away - and yes, this week I had to throw (most of) a whole dish out it was so revolting.

The story starts with me getting the slow cooker (Crock pot if you're from 'over the pond') out from it's summer hibernation and starting to get back in the swing of slow, languorous cooking resulting in melt-in-the-mouth moist stews; thick, hearty warming soups or slow roast pieces of brisket and the like.  So  slow cooker installed on the worktop, I decide that a risotto must be doable in the slow cooker - and therefore bung in the ingredients, onion, garlic, herbs (thyme and oregano), chicken, stock and rice and pop it on and away I go.

So far so good - well I say that but it didn't look overly appetising at this point, but such is the art of a slow cooker that sometimes things which look the most unappealing and unassuming turn into things of great joy over the hours - this time it was not to be.

When I came home from the school run, the house is suffused with a wonderful smell of cooking chicken and aromatic herbs - at this point I'm quite hopeful for a good supper - then I get to the pot.  I look inside.  Somehow, all those lovely ingredients and that wonderful smell looks like something the cat threw up (if indeed I had a cat - that is what I would assume it to look like).  I taste it - oh my, it is so utterly revoltingly pappy that I cannot bring myself to eat it myself, let alone serve it to the family.  There's only one thing for it - rescue remedy.

I carefully pick out the pieces of chicken and rinse them under the hot tap - thinking I can transform the cooked chicken into another dish easily enough.  The wallpaper paste pot of rice is unceremoniously dumped into the bin.  The chicken was added to a tomato ragu and served with pasta and passable enough so not all was lost - thankfully.

I remain convinced that a risotto is slow-cooker friendly and am not entirely sure what went wrong with mine - perhaps I ought to look at a recipe -or measure some ingredients - you never know that might help!

Never one to be put off, I try the slow cooker again the following night - this time a somewhat 'out-there' recipe which involves cooking a ham joint on a bed of sugar.  And well, it was a triumph!  No messy burnt on sugar to deal with, just melt in the mouth Kassler with a sumptuously sticky sauce - perhaps only to be improved upon with a slug of rum next time, or some Chinese spices - I was hoping for leftovers for sandwiches for lunch - but no such luck.

The recipe I read called for 400g of dark brown sugar (not very easy to get hold of in Germany) - I only had 250g of light muscavado sugar so used that instead - and a ham joint - I used a peice of Kassler which is a smoked, cured pork from Germany, and that was it.  The recipe calls for 10 hours on low - but I only put it in at 1.30 so it had 4 hours on high then the leftover bit went on low for a couple more hours once the children had had their share!

The moral of the story - try, try and try again - never let a culinary disaster deter you from your dishes!

Laterne, Laterne, Sonne Mond und Sterne...

Yesterday at Kindergarten we celebrated the story of St Martin in a traditional way with a lantern parade. The official saint's day for St Martin is 11 November and as that was a Sunday this year, we celebrated on the next closest day.

The story is that of St Martin of Tours, who as a Roman Soldier gave away half his cloak to a beggar who turned out to be Jesus - see here for more information about St. Martin.

At this time of year, Kindergarten swings into full Blue Peter mode with the building of lanterns which we parade around the village on a light stick.  This year, having 2 children at Kindergarten, I had the joy of two lanterns.  Fortunately, the wee girle's one was simple as she's only 2, but they get progressively more intricate as the years progress, we have done all manner of designs from simple glowing balls to sheep, crows and witches! So, about 2 weeks ago, we met at school for a 'bastel-abend' an afternoon of cutting, sticking, drawing etc - I think I was more covered in glue than the lantern but then I'm not known for my crafting abilities!  All this is of course accomplished with much chat, coffee and biscuits!  After we had all finished the lanterns, there was a wee practise of the 'Martinslieder' the special songs we sing whilst parading (today's title is a line from one of the songs).

So roll on to last night's parade.  We all meet in the dark at the appointed time at Kindergarten and form a parade to walk around the block next to the Kindergarten - for this we have a procession starting with the village policeman, then St. Martin on his horse, then the Maltesers (not the confectionery, but a First Aid organisation), then the Vorschulekinder (these are the biggest Kindergartners so aged 5/6), then a brass band to provide the music for our singing and finally the rest of the rabble of Kindergartners ranging from 2 - 4 with associated parents, grandparents and siblings - quite a feat for a small village Kindergarten - and all for a walk of about 500m!

Having paraded and sung, we then congregate on the football pitch next to the Kindergarten where there is a bonfire roaring in order to watch a small piece depicting St Martin sharing his cloak with the beggarman.

Having sung and paraded, it's then back inside to continue with another tradition of the day, the Weckmann which is a gingerbreadman shaped cake made from a sweet yeast dough and tradionally has raisins for eyes and a clay pipe.  These are handed out to all of the children at the Fest.  We used to then celebrate with Bratwurst und Glühwein, but after an unfortunate minesweeping incident at last year's Sommerfest, we are now 'dry' for Kindergaten events - which does make them that bit more difficult to get through!

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Schularzt Untersuchung

And so back to the fun and games that is German bureaucracy.....

H (5) is in the last year of Kindergarten and next year becomes 'Schulpflichtig' meaning that he is required by law to attend school, no not be educated / learn  etc but actually, physically go to a school and be taught there - you are not allowed to home school in Germany (in fact one German family was granted asylum in the USA as their human rights had been infringed by not being allowed to home school - but that's a whole other kettle of fish). As part of the preparation for entry into Primary School or Grundschule, each 5 year old is required to attend a pre-school medical.

This appointment is generated automatically and you are required to attend the regional health department to see the civil service doctors for a series of tests and examinations to ensure that the child is ready to go to school and that it can enter mainstream schooling without any problems.  We did this today, and H is not due (by German standards) to go to school until August when the next academic year starts, although we have chosen to opt out of the German state system and enter the International school system here instead and he will start after Christmas (this is a bit of a fudge of the two systems, UK and German - H would have started Reception in the UK last year but in the German system wouldn't start until next year - so he's going into Year 1 in January hopefully early enough not to have missed too much in the UK system, but with long enough in a German speaking Kindergarten to get the language well grounded).

We arrive a bit before the duly appointed time - and fortunately, they're running early (hurrah!) so H gets taken in to an office for a hearing and sight check whilst I have to grapple with some German forms about his behaviour and social skills (I can't help but think if I'd been in the UK that the form would have been provided in my own language to make it all a bit easier) I wasn't sure I'd completely grasped the right way to answer the questions but on further discussion with the doctor's assistant it seemed I had, thank goodness!  H then had to answer a series of basic questions based upon counting and colours etc as well as some simple drawing/copying tasks.  He accomplished all this without problem fortunately.

His 'Red Book' or baby record was checked for immunisation details, birth details, weights and measurements - and this always causes debate as the UK and Germany don't share the same immunisation schedules, the same system of developmental checks, even the same basic recording of birth data - so we muddle through and understand that some information is not available - cue much huffing and puffing - and that yes, I do know we haven't had X jab or done Y check - in this case, Hepatitis B being the immunisation - not regularly done in the UK, part of the standard baby jabs in Germany and also no significant baby development checks - done  very regularly in Germany and not at all in the UK (see my post on the U Appointments for more on these checks).  Anyway we beg to differ, but all is well.

We then have to wait to see the real doctor - and after a while are called through and some of the same checks are repeated, followed by some more complex drawing and describing exercises - well all going well here until H is asked to repeat something which he'd already said - and down comes the wall and he's not playing ball anymore - had enough of doing and saying and following instruction.  Now I'm sure this is all part and parcel of ensuring they are ready for school, but H is a very stubborn fellow and an immovable force - thank goodness after much cajoling, threatening and stern talking to he finally went back to finish most of the exercises and we have our signed piece of paper to say we are ready for school - not that it actually matters as he has his place for January anyway, but these hoops are here to jump through.  The threat that he'd have to come back and go through the whole thing again was too much to contemplate for him and me and fortunately he saw sense and got back to it.

Of course, once we'd left the building the little darling was full of all the answers to the questions asked of him, and could I shut the bugger up!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Dressed to Impress....

the table that is - not me!  Last night we played hosts to some friends for dinner and I'd decided to push the boat out somewhat and step up from last time's curry banquet!

After much deliberation I'd narrowed down the menu to - something cheesy to start with, followed by lamb (my absolute favourite meat - and not the easiest to get hold of here in Germany - you can really only get frozen New Zealand imports unless it's Easter) and then I thought something chocolaty for pudding.

So far so good - but the loose airy ideas needed focusing into dinner.  Well, being Autumn, we needed something warming and hearty - and that didn't require too much last minute attention - after all who wants to leave their guests to don a pinny and faff in the kitchen - not me, that's for sure!  I therefore plumped for braised lamb shanks - something I could get going and then forget about.  After much perusal of recipe books and the interweb, I came across this Lorraine Pascale recipe on the BBC Good Food website and felt it was just what I was looking for, strong robust flavours which had mellowed over the 5hours I cooked it for.

Main course sorted I then went to work on the starter.  I'd fancied something cheesy and was erring on the goats cheese/red onion combo which I know works well, but then thought I'd try something slightly different and I decided to add beetroot to the mix - so I was after a beetroot chutney/relish type recipe.  Despite copious amounts of googling, I couldn't find a recipe I was happy with - so had a go at throwing something of my own together and came up with my own beetroot relish recipe.

 500g Beetroot
1 bulb Garlic
1 Red Onion
Red Wine Vinegar

I roasted the beetroot and garlic till soft (wrapped each piece in foil) then fried the chopped red onion in olive oil and added the soft roasted garlic and some thyme and fried a bit more.  The I added the roasted beetroot which I'd diced.  Briefly mixed together, I then added about 3 tablespoons of sugar and about 150-200ml of red wine vinegar (just guessing here as I didn't measure it).  I left this to boil on the hob until it had acquired a deep purple colour and a jam-like consistency - and voila!

I made some shortcrust pasty tartlet shells and put the relish in the cooked tarts and topped each one with a generous slice of a Camembert style cows cheese and grilled it before serving with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

We paired the Cheese Tartlets and the Lamb Shanks with the Nembus wine - which was wine of the month in October - and it definitely hit the right notes with both dishes - suitably robust to cut through the Camembert and the richness of the lamb, but not so much to overpower either dish.

And so to pudding....... well chocolate was definitely order of the day - and I pulled out all the stops and attempted this Moelleux au Chocolat  which was actually a remarkably easy pud to make - it didn't need quite so much cooking as suggested on the recipe but was still moist and very, very moreish!  The pudding is a butter-free recipe ( so almost diet food!!)  The melted chocolate and cream ganache was mixed with egg yolks, ground almonds and a tablespoon of flour,  then a meringue mixture was folded in, the resulting batter baked for 30 minutes to give a moist, sunken cake - which I think could probably be slightly improved upon with a generous slug of Cointreau or Armagnac or the like - will have to remember that next time I try!  Served with cream it was actually a lot lighter than I thought it might be and so finished the meal off perfectly.

Mmmmmm Lecker!