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.

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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.

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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.

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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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New Year’s Resolution

With the beginning of 2017, of course I also thought about New Year’s resolutions as so many others do, and getting fit is always pretty high on any list of resolutions. But I know myself well enough to know that these resolutions have a a tendency to fizzle out before too long, so I see no sense in getting stuck with a long-term, pricey membership contract with a gym. Indeed, plenty of memes and articles have made the rounds on social media based on the same idea in the last few days; one that in particular spoke to me was a fake offer for one to two training sessions and four photos of the new member working out on social media. Here is another meme that entertained me:

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Meme found on Tumbler

I have avoided the temptation to sign up for a gym so far, but I could not resist an original vinyl record of Jane Fonda’s 1981 workout record in a local thrift-store ( and with a two-dollar price tag also much cheaper than a gym membership). I mean – it is Jane Fonda, THE original workout maven! The VHS tape that followed and was based on her book and this record is the top selling VHS tape of all time according to several online sites. The record has a cheesy 8os sound track so that alone makes it entertaining; and the cover design is hilarious. I do not think even the thrift-store sold a pair of those 80s legwarmers and the high-cut leotard with matching belt.

Jane Fona Record

Album Cover of Jane Fonda’s 1981 Workout Record

Even if I stop the workout regime based on the record in a few weeks (which is very likely based on previous new year’s resolutions), I still have the entertainment factor, so I call this a good buy. If you are interested in the original video workout, browse YouTube (see example here).

The record is also an important piece of Americana, artifacts related to the cultural heritage of the U.S. It might not seem worthy of this label to some, but when I think 80s and U.S., Jane Fonda and aerobics always come to mind.

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Christmas Decorations and Workout Record

So here is to a great year ahead; may you stick to you resolutions or at least be entertained by your pursuit of your goals.

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.

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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.

Carnevale di Viareggio

Italians really do not worry about punctuality too much – not even when it comes to the end of Mardi Gras/Carnival, which traditionally celebrates the last few days or maybe weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent. The keyword is leading up. Here the Carnival parade can last deep into Lent. One of the famous Carnival celebrations in Italy and also shown on TV is Carnevale di Viareggio in the small seaside town of Viareggio about a 90-minute train ride West of Florence.

The parade takes place on several Sundays in a row in the streets bordering the beach. It is a family affair, which means even though alcohol is served and visitors are dressed up and dancing in the streets, the celebrations do not seem to get out of hand (at least at the one I attended). The parade starts at 3 in the afternoon and is a slow procession of huge paper-mache floats, dancers, and smaller costumed groups. The tallest floats dwarf the  five-story buildings next to the parade route. The parade is slow enough that one can walk faster than the floats and the parade route is a large oval, so there is no worry to miss something and always a chance to see a favorite float or group again.

The first Carnival celebration in Viareggio took place in 1873, and paper-mache floats were added in 1925. Just as with the American Rose Parade, artists work on the floats for a whole year. In contrast to the Rose Parade, there are no flowers on the floats, a lot more biting political commentary in the theme of the floats, and more dancers (who are not strapped down to the floats as in the Rose Parade). Unfortunately, my Italian was not strong enough to decipher the political commentary. One float made fun of Facebook and Zuckerberg and seemed to criticize the hold Facebook has over our lives; signs on the float read “Io sono dio” (“I am god”). Another float was clearly criticizing Angela Merkel’s tough stance on the Euro and her/Germany’s influence in the EU. And another float showed Hillary riding a donkey with Bill sitting behind her; the word “Bill” had been edited to now read “Hillary.”

Many of the statements, unfortunately, were lost on me; for example, I could not figure out what the point of the float was that was filled with dancers in a Uncle-Sam costumes.

The official site of the event mentions that over 200,000 people attend the parade, but the event does not feel too crowded or out of hand. Most visitors were dressed up or wore at least a small mask. Plenty of vendors sold cheap masks for a few Euros as well as wigs for those who did not plan ahead. Of course, they also sold bags and bags of confetti as well as spray cans of silly string. The streets were covered with confetti so that they seemed covered in snow. I had so much confetti in my hair that I could not get it all out and still found confetti on my pillow the next morning. There are also food and beer vendors and a few cafes and restaurants, so it is easy to spend several hours at the event.

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Visitors are dressed up as well.

Visitors to the parade need tickets as the whole area is fenced off, but that also makes it easier for police to check bags of visitors coming in and I think keep the event more controlable. The Carnevale is still on for a few more weeks: Feb 21, 2016; Feb 28, 2016; and Mar 5, 2016 in case you want to go. Check the official website to learn more about the event and where to buy tickets.

Rose Parade

The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day is over a century old and is usually shown on American TV. 2016 marked the 127th year of the parade. All floats have to include only natural materials such as flowers, seeds, and grasses and most floats take a year to construct by mostly professional float-building companies. Seeing the parade live though provides a lot more behind-the-scene details and close-ups than ever shown on TV, and this year I had a chance to see the parade live.

What I did not realize was that people actually reserve spaces on the sidewalks along the over five-mile long parade route 24 hours before the parade starts at 8 in the morning on New Year’s Day. Plenty of people camp out over night just to ensure the best spots to view the parade.

 

Some people were really settling in for the night:

Side Walk Camping4

We went the more traditional route and put chairs out the day before but hoped they would still be there in the morning even if we did not spend the night. Another option was to spend money on grandstand tickets.

 

And it worked! Our chairs were right there in the front row waiting for us. Someone actually moved them even closer to the line during the night, so we sat so close that I was worried some of the members of the larger bands would actually trip over our feet.

There were so many large bands:

The floats were even more impressive close up than on TV since it was really obvious how many flowers were on these large constructions:

My favorite floats were the the ones with strong colors that popped against the bright blue sky and seemed to vibrate in the sun:

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Downton Abbey Float – Public Broadcasting Company

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“Treasure Life’s Journey” from Donate Life – all people on the flat actually received donated organs

Other details that the TV broadcast usually does not show is that many floats that are very high actually have to lower some of their parts to fit under the freeway and some of the floats break down and have to be pulled by a tow truck, which also leads to some delays towards the end of the long route:

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The large tower in the back had to be lowered to fit under a freeway.

Another detail is that the poop-scoopers walking behind the groups of horses in the parade actually get more applause than the bands and floats (I forgot to take a picture of them though – they are dressed in white and push a garbage can for the over five-mile walk). The parade is unique and more exciting in person than on TV even though it does take hours; this year’s parade featured 95 different participants: floats, marching bands, and horse groups. It is a New Year’s tradition just as the New Year’s Concert of Strauss waltzes in Vienna is an Austrian New Year’s tradition.

And there was even room for some political comments during the parade:

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Sky writing during the parade

Stockings

Stockings are another Christmas tradition that I am not used to from Austria. The gifts from Santa supposedly arrive overnight and will be in the stockings while gifts given by people have actually been under the tree potentially for weeks by the time Christmas morning arrives. Even though it sounds like there would be more gifts overall in comparison to the Austrian way where all gifts are brought by the Christkind and appear under the tree, I have never really adopted the stocking idea/tradition. But it is cute to see in other homes all the stockings hanging over the fireplace for weeks before Christmas and ready to be filled by Santa. And every family member gets his/her own stocking:

Stockings

Everyone in the family – including the dogs – gets a stocking.