Austrian Food Memories

Food always shows up in my memories I have realized. I am currently taking a cooking class at a local community college, and we were asked to write about our food memories. I noticed how many of my food memories are connected with growing up in Austria and the desire to find the same flavors and dishes again even when living abroad. Our instructor asked us to write about foods we hated but now love, special foods, and foods associated with the seasons.

Foods that I Hated but Now Love

I have noticed that most of my loves and hates in connection with food have stayed the same over the years; the only exception is foods that I first ate prepared differently from what they were meant to be.

For example, I have never really understood the excitement about fried chicken (and now I cannot believe I ever thought that). I did not really hate it, but if I had a choice, I would have eaten nearly anything else rather than fried chicken. I found the breading rather tasteless, rubbery, and greasy covering dry meat. That was when I ate the European version of fried chicken, which usually means a thick layer of breadcrumbs and panfrying/roasting in about half an inch of oil. Then, I had fried chicken in a U.S. military messhall and prepared by a chef who grew up in the South. It was a revelation – the chicken was moist and not greasy at all and the breading actually added to the taste. Now I love fried chicken – if it is prepared well (which for me so far means made by a chef who uses Southern recipes).

Another example is fries; the only American-style fries I knew from Europe were McDonald’s fries since McDonald’s was the only U.S. fast-food restaurant I have known. I actually liked those fries, but when I moved to California, everyone always mentioned how I had to try the fries at In-N-Out since they were so great. The first time I tried the fries, I thought they were too dry and too thick; I was not a fan, but people continued to tell me how good they were and always wanted to eat at In-N-Out instead of any other burger place. After a few more visits, my taste changed, and I actually started to like the fries. I have not eaten at a U.S. McDonald’s in years, and I am one of these annoying people now who always try to convince others that In-N-Out has the best fries.

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Fries and burgers at In-N-Out; photo by pointnshoot from Oakland, California, USA (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Foods that Remind Me of Special Occasions

One dish that always reminds me of family dinners for Christmas or Easter is my grandmother’s stuffed veal breast. It is a traditional Austrian dish and pretty common, but it is a large piece of meat that is rather expensive, so we usually ate it only for special occasions. The boneless veal breast is cut open to create a pocket that is filled with a mixture of parsley and  old bread soaked in milk and white wine. The stuffed breast is sown shut and sitting in a liquid of wine and butter is then roasted in the oven for two hours and regularly moistened with the liquid. It is served with steamed cabbage, bread dumplings, and boiled potatoes that soak up the juice from the meat. Since the death of my grandmother, I have never eaten this dish again because I am nervous that it would not be as good as her version (she never shared her recipe) and that I would “ruin” my memory of the amazing taste.

 

Foods Associated with the Seasons

Since I grew up in Austria, many of associations are still made based on the weather and local ingredients there, which is very different from California with its much warmer weather. This has sometimes become frustrating to me since I cannot find the same foods and puzzling to friends, who become excited about pumpkin in fall for example, which as a vegetable has really no special memory or season associated with it for me.

Spring:

It can snow in mid-May in Austria, so I do not necessarily associate fresh vegetables and lettuce with spring. In fact, many of the greens that can be grown in California in February would not show up in Austria until April and even then most likely from a greenhouse. I am still amazed by what can be planted when here in Northern California. So when I think of spring, I think of special dishes associated with carnival, Lent, and Easter, large celebrations in spring. The dish associated with carnival is called Faschingskrapfen, a type of donut filled with apricot jam and powdered sugar.

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Faschingskrapfen – Photo by Wikimedia Commons/KarlGruber

Lent is connected with creamed spinach and a fried egg, the typical dinner for Maudy Thursday, which is focused on green foods.

Creamed Spinach

Creamed Spinach and Fried Eggs (photo by belu1004 on Pixabay)

Easter is associated with Osterzopf, which at first glance looks a lot like Challah bread but is much sweeter and a dessert by itself or a breakfast bread.

Osterzopf

Osterzopf – Photo by Capri23auto on Pixabay

Summer:

I associate summer with red currants, berries that grow like weeds but do not do well in the heat of the Sacramento Valley (I have tried growing them here). I remember there were weeks and weeks of summer where I would pick and de-stalk currants nearly every day. Most of the red currants were made into jam or thick juice to be mixed with sparkling water all through winter till the next summer. My favorite way to eat red currants is as a yellow sponge cake with a layer of the sweet-sour red berries topped with thick waves of meringue. The recipe does work with frozen berries, so I can recreate it with frozen red currants usually found at Russian supermarkets in Sacramento, but it does not taste quite as good as it would with fresh berries just picked from the backyard.

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Red Currants – Photo by danigeza on Pixabay

 

Fall:

Fall is connected with roasted chestnuts and new red wine – a combination that is particularly popular in Northern Italy and in the Austrian state of Tyrol (see a previous blog posting). In the US, most people think of pumpkin when they think fall – as seen with the excited social media postings about pumpkin flavors being offered again at Starbucks and other places, but I am not used to the pumpkin obsession. For me, pumpkins are associated with a dark pumpkin seed oil available and used all year long and roasted pumpkin seeds on breads and as snacks, also eaten throughout the year.

Starbucks Pumpkin Meme

Starbucks Pumpkin Meme Found on the Site Your Tango

 

As a child, I associated fall with hiking through forests to collect mushrooms, especially mushrooms of the Boletus family such as Bay Bolete and Penny Bun. I learned early on as a five-year old how to identify the edible mushrooms from the poisonous ones, how to cut them correctly, so they would grow back next year, and how to clean them. Fresh mushrooms would be made into a thick sauce that was a meal by itself with bread or bread dumplings. We also dried pounds and pounds of them to be used in soups and sauces throughout the year.

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Mushroom from the Boletus Family – Photo by czu_czu_PL on Pixabay

 

Winter:

Winter is closely connected with gingerbread and a variety of cookies that are made only around Christmas time, but usually so many pounds are made and received as gifts that we ate Christmas cookies till long into January. Many of the cookie dough recipes include nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts. One famous Austrian cookie is the Vanillekipferl, shaped like a crescent moon (see a great recipe here). Another popular recipe is cinnamon stars (see a recipe here). All the cookies seem much less sweet than American desserts and a lot drier; an American chewy chocolate-chip cookie seems undercooked to me for example, but my American husband compares Austrian cookies to wood chips or bread, and the possibility for Austrian cookies to stay fresh in an air-tight container in a cool place for weeks is not a good sign for him.

Vanillekipferl

Vanillekipferl – Photo by Blueeyes on Pixabay

 

Reflecting on foods has shown me how closely all of my especially favorite memories are connected with foods. One of the main reasons why I have become interested in cooking and taking cooking courses is because I want to recreate flavors that are connected with special memories, places, and people . Since I have moved around quite a lot in my life, I have learned that it is often futile to try to find a restaurant or bakery that offers these flavors from my past, so it just seems easier to learn how to create them myself instead of looking for someone else who might be able to do this.

PS: When I am around food, I seem to be more focused on eating than taking photos, so many of the photos in this posting are from Pixabay, a site with free, high-quality images. Thank you to all the artists who make their work available for free (and also take much better pictures than I can).

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Thanksgiving Alfresco and “Stray” Aliens in California

Another November in Northern California, and another reminder how amazing the weather is here. While I see postings about European Christmas markets opening up and about snow angels in the northern parts of the US, I am able to have Thanksgiving dinner outside. Sure, we are not quite as lucky as those in Southern California and still need a jacket once the shadows get longer and the sun sets, but it is still unfathomable to me that I can actually sit outside for hours and be comfortable at the end of November.

Oranges

Abundance: Under an Orange Tree

Tee by the Fire

Tea by the Fire Pit

 

Even though I do not have a close connection to Thanksgiving since I did not grow up with this tradition, I have become rather fond of this holiday by now; what is there not to like when it is mostly about giving thanks and of course food – and more food – and then even more food.

Turkey on BBQ

Turkey on the BBQ

Pie Buffet

Pie Buffet: Banana, Pecan, Blueberry, Apple, and Pumpkin (under the Glass)

Even though some dishes are traditional and expected at Thanksgiving, most families also seem to include at least one dish connected to their ancestors; American Italians, for example, seem to serve ravioli, and our Thanksgiving dinner included sauerkraut and Polish sausages.

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Sauerkraut and Polish Sausages

As a foreigner/alien without a large family nearby, I have been invited for several years now by American friends that lay out one of the largest spread for the dinner (made from scratch). All I need to do is show up, bring appetite, and take leftovers home (and I don’t even need to bring any boxes for the leftovers). I jokingly observed that I have been taken in like a stray kitten, and like with any stray cat, once fed, I am hard to get rid off and come back again and again.

 

Over the years as I moved from country to country and continent to continent, I have often been invited to share holiday traditions and meals with locals. Thank you to all those who take in those “stray” aliens without family nearby during holidays.

 

Getting Ready for Easter: Shops in Florence

More Eggs in Windows

Window Display in a Interior Design Shop in Florence

It has been obvious for days that Easter is nearly upon us here in Florence: the churches offer more religious ceremonies, the streets are clogged with more and more tourists, and Easter merchandise has dominated the stores. It is impossible to avoid Easter or not notice it in this town. In the States, Easter nearly passes me by with just a few chocolate bunnies and sugary Peeps in the stores.

Here, I am fascinated by the large and colorful Easter chocolate eggs that also usually contain a surprise inside. The shiny foil or colorful fabric wrappings shimmer in the shop windows and in the supermarket aisles. It seems that Easter eggs should not be a realistic egg-size but the bigger the better. Most of the ones I have seen are ten inches taller or even more. The surprises inside can vary from more chocolate truffles to toys and even jewelry.

 

Eggs definitely dominate more than chickens or bunnies here in the Easter food and decor. If it is not in egg shape, the food seems to have to be in dove-shape. “La Colomba” is a dove-shaped sponge cake  (with a lot of imagination I can see a flying dove, but without the name I would have guessed a misshapen four-leave clover). The cakes come with candied orange peel or chocolate or cream filling or no filling  at all.

Surprisingly, I have not seen any lambs or lamb-shaped cakes, which I am used to from Austria. The cakes also come packed with bottles of sweet spumante/sparkling wine, so I am assuming the cake is paired with alcohol and not only with coffee and tea as I would have assumed. The “dove-cake” is very similar in texture and taste to the Italian Christmas cake, panettone or pandoro.

Pigeon Cake

“Dove Cake” with Sweet Spumante Seems to Be a Good Combination

Stores are decorated with spring flowers; Italians have switched from dark blue, black, or green downjackets to light blue, white, and pink short-sleeved downjackets;  I can hear the clop-clop of the hooves of horses pulling tourists in carriages through my street – it is clear that Easter is just around the corner. If you are celebrating Easter, I hope you have a wonderful holiday.

Easy Pasta Topping: Sage Butter

I am a big fan of easy recipes that do not require a lot of ingredients, are quick, and are still delicious. I also had red tomato sauce as topping for pasta way too often so that I am always excited about finding a new topping for fresh pasta (see previous posting). A new way (at least for me new – research online showed that this is pretty well known already) to eat pasta is with sage butter. I participated in an Italian cooking course recently here in Florence, and one of the dishes we learned how to make was spinach-ricotta ravioli with sage butter. Even though we received a booklet with recipes after the course, the recipe for sage butter was not included; it is so simple, it does not even need a recipe.

Ravioli Cooked

Ravioli in Sage Butter

It is as simple as it sounds: butter and sage and salt and pepper to taste. Some online recipes do add a little bit of lemon juice, but I have never tried that. The ingredients are butter (I always opt for the grass-fed dark-yellow kind of butter) and fresh sage leaves. Several recipes online offer specific measurements of butter and fresh sage, but since I did not receive a recipe form my cooking instructor, I just go by gut feeling: how many people do I need to feed and how much do I like the sage taste, and I adjust measurements accordingly. The procedure is simple: melt the butter over a low heat and let brown, and add as many fresh sage leaves as desired (I like sage, so I add quite a lot). The leaves will turn a little crispy. Remove from the heat and toss the ravioli in the butter/sauce. It is as simple as that. If you like a more traditional recipe format with measurements, try this one I found online.

Uncooked Ravioli

Uncooked Ravioli

The cooking class also showed me how simple freshly-made pasta is:

  • 2 eggs
  • 50g (1/4 cup) of durum wheat flour
  • 150g (close to a cup) of flour type “00”
  • salt to taste

Mix the flours and make a large well in the center of the mound of flour (in a bowl or on a board). Add the two eggs into the well and add salt.

Beat the eggs with a fork and slowly start to incorporate the flour from the perimeter until a dough forms (start using your hands once the dough is pretty dry). Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. The movement was described by our instructor as push and fold: press the dough down with your hand and then fold it once to become a thicker ball of dough again; push with the ball of your hand to flatten the dough and then fold; and so on.

Once the dough is elastic (but be fast, so the dough does  not dry too much for ravioli), cut the dough in half. Roll it with a pin, fold, roll, and repeat three times. Run the dough through the different settings of the pasta machine (6-4-2: at least for the machine we used). Fold the dough to fit exactly the width of the machine and repeat the process, but for ravioli end with the setting on 1.

Rolling Dough

Rolling the Pasta Dough

Fresh egg pasta takes only a couple of minutes to cook; even filled ravioli will take only 4-6 minutes.

If you are not ready or do not have the time to make your own pasta, buy fresh pasta from a store and try the sage butter. The most time-consuming part of the recipe is then getting the water to boil. Buon Appetito.

In case you are curious, I took the cooking class with In Tavola.

Lemon-Goat Cheese Pasta

I have never thought of myself as a pasta lover/fan and I usually avoid pasta in the U.S. It is just too much of the same taste with each bite for me and I get bored of the taste and consistency quickly. So I was excited to start tasting the food in Italy, where pasta is not a main dish and definitely not the only dish for a meal as I am used to from the U.S. (adding bread sticks does not help, Olive Garden). Here the pasta portions are smaller and are followed by a meat dish most likely. I can get on bored with that.

In addition, pasta is a lot more varied than tomato sauce with or without meat or the white creamy white sauce offered in mainstream American restaurants. For example, I had a lasagne that did not include any tomatoes but a thick brown sauce and radicchio and meat in between the layers of pasta.

Browsing through the English-language newspaper The Florentine this week, I cam across an intriguing pasta recipe: quick, cheap, and unusual. It is Lemon-Goat Cheese Pasta. The sauce is an interesting combination of lemony tartness and creamy cheese. So if you like tart and sour and/or are a little adventurous, this might be for you:

Recipe for 2:

  • 250g or 9oz fresh tagliolini or linguine pasta (I took whatever I had at hand, which is not the Italian custom)
  • Zest and juice of 1 organic lemon
  • 50g or 3.5 tbsp of butter
  • 1 tbsp of olive oil
  • 50g or 2oz of creamy goat cheese (caprino) [I actually added a little more since the package was 80g and I did not know what to do with the rest and the sauce worked out]
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional: Parsley

 

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Some of the key ingredients for the recipe. I went cheap and bought the store-brand fresh pasta.

Fresh pasta does not take long to cook, so I recommend getting the water boiling while preparing the sauce and then cooking the pasta just when the sauce is already done.

Place the butter and olive oil in a wide pan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, add the lemon zest and cook for a minute while stirring (do not burn). Add the lemon juice and let simmer for a minute. Add the goat cheese and let it melt into a sauce. If it seems too thick, add a few spoonfuls of the pasta water. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the cooked pasta and toss in the sauce to coat. If it seems dry, add a little more of the pasta water. Garnish with chopped parsley and add Parmesan cheese.

This recipe is from The Florentine, but I changed some of the directions based on my experience with this recipe (for example, the original adds a lot more water, which made the sauce too runny for my taste).

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Pasta with lemon and goat cheese (pretty sure I chose the wrong pasta shape)

The pasta is tangy and light, and I finally know what I can do with all the lemons in my California backyard next winter. I have been talking about this recipe to so many people around here and handed out paper copies of the one published in the newspaper that I decided that it makes sense to add it to the blog.

Who needs cream or tomato for fresh pasta sauce!

Shopping at the Mercato Centrale in Florence

Even though I was tempted to sleep in Friday morning, I am glad I got up early to go on a two-hour food and tasting tour at the Central Market before I went off to work. I am not usually a chipper person in the mornings, but there was so much to see and taste that even I had a smile on my face by the time we were done and I headed off to work on a very brisk but sunny morning.

Florence is really at its best in the early morning before all the tourists are out and when the city wakes up and bread, wine and water, cheese, table linens and more are delivered to stores and restaurants. The Central Market, Mercato Centrale, is north of the Duomo in the San Larenzo neighborhood, which also meant another gorgeous view of the Duomo’s cupola glistening in the morning sun on the way to the market.

Ceiling of Mercato

Top of the Building from 1874

Mercato Centrale, built in 1874, is packed with stalls selling fish, meat, cheese, olive oil, wine, fruits and vegetables, bread and sweets and more. The top floor used to be reserved for fruit and vegetable stands but is now full of little restaurants that serve the Italian version of “fast food” which is still wood-fired pizza and fresh pasta or fresh fish.

Our tour allowed us to stop at some stalls and taste the ware. For example, we stopped at a bakery and tried different pastries. I loved the fried rice balls called “frittelle” that are a specialty for Father’s Day on March 17 and are thus also literally called “St. Jospeh’s Balls.”

The fish stands highlight that Florence is not far from the coast and that fresh fish is an important staple.

Fish Monger

Fish Monger

Of course, there is also olive oil and balsamico. We got to try unfiltered olive oil as well as balsamico of a variety of ages: ten, 15, 18, 20, and 25 years old. The 25-year-old balsamico was thick and syrupy and it was recommended to put it over large shavings of cheese and just enjoy. We did not get to taste the 40-year-old balsamico but it was interesting to know it even existed – I always thought age was just important for whiskey and wine.

The fresh pasta was really made fresh just in front of our eyes:

The butchers offered not only the typical cuts but different parts of the cow’s stomach, including tripe, which is a local favorite and at every butcher stall. Most offer organ meat including brain but also bull testicles and penises.

Since it was still barely above freezing this morning, we also stopped for coffee and hot chocolate at a stall in the market. I am usually not a fan of either; hot chocolate is either too milky tasting or too watery, but this one was rich and thick and decadent. It tasted and had the consistency of a molten expensive European chocolate bar. I hate getting up early but this hot chocolate could turn me into a morning person – it is that good! Good thing it is served all day long.

I enjoy shopping for food at the little supermarket around the corner, but I look forward to coming back to the market and do more shopping here. The tour guide also taught us some basic phrases to ask for specific amounts and to interact with the vendors, which definitely helped ease any apprehension we may have had to shop at the market and actually have to talk in Italian (I am sure plenty of the sellers do speak English).

 

The Huntington Near Pasadena, California: Worth a Visit

A trip to Pasadena, CA should also include a visit to the fantastic Huntington, which easily overwhelms with its seize. The Huntington in San Marino, CA offers a library with a collection of rare books, four different art galleries, a 120-acre botanical garden, a large greenhouse, a tea room and much more. We tried to squeeze everything into a one-day visit but had to skip some of the gardens just because there is too much to do and see.

The Library collection of rare books was exciting since it showed books that I have heard so much about during my studies as an English major: the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, early editions of Shakespeare’s work and much more. The Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1450-1500) sparked a revolution throughout Europe in the way knowledge was presented and shared as previously nearly all texts were written and copied by hand. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and movable type changed the way books were created.

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Gutenberg Bible at the Huntington Library

The four art galleries on the grounds include a range of older to newer pieces with highlights such as Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg.

A personal favorite that is not one of the most famous pieces of the collection was A Foothill Trail (ca. 1919) by Granville Redmond:

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The Huntington is actually the former estate of railroad and real estate magnate Henry Huntington (1850-1927), who at one point was on as many as 60 corporate boards at the same time throughout the U.S. I am always fascinated by how many ultra-rich people on the West Coast during and after the Gold Rush got rich because of the railroad (Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, comes to mind as another example). The estate is so large that we had to skip some of the over a dozen specialized gardens that add up to 120 acres. Even though there are plenty of palm trees around California, I enjoyed the Palm Gardens the most:

After hours of walking through the grounds and standing in front of pieces of art, afternoon tea with scones and finger sandwiches was exactly what we needed (reservations are recommended for the Rose Garden Tea Room):

If you are in the LA area and especially if you are in neighboring Pasadena, I recommend a visit to the Huntington. For more information on opening hours and entrance fees, see: http://www.huntington.org/ . For more details about the Rose Garden Tea Room and to make online reservations for it, see: Tea Room.