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.

faschingskrapfen

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.

red-currant

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.

mushroom

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).

Impressions of Austria

It has been over a month since I last posted; time flies – especially when I am back in the classroom and papers waiting to be graded are  piling up. I also needed to take a break from posting since my blog postings could have easily turned into a rant about missing Italy  in particular and Europe in general. And since the semester has started again and I have met a new group of students, I am once again the oddity – the Austrian teaching in the US. Of course, this also means that I hear a version of the question “So what is it like – this Austria?” Well, how can one describe a whole country in a couple of minutes?

I try to avoid the well-known impressions of Vienna and Salzburg and of course Sound of Music (which very few Austrians know about; I learned about Sound of Music from a Scot on my semester abroad in Scotland, and this knowledge has come in handy when talking with Americans about Austria – but that is a story for another time). Well, so what is Austria?

Austria is centuries-old castles and grand palaces.

Schloss Parz

Courtyard of the Castle in Parz

Lambach Abbey

Interior of Lambach Abbey

 

Austria means rugged mountains hugging crystal-clear lakes.

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Traunsee in Upper Austria

 

And since Austria is small, these sights are compressed to have castle, and mountains, and lake all in one view.

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Lake Traunsee and the Castle Ort on an Island in the Lake

 

Austria is orderly.

Hearts in Gmunden

Padlocks on a Specially Designed Strcuture on the Banks of Lake Traunsee

 

And most of all, Austria is colorful; it is rich greens.

Danube

Schloegener Schlinge of the Danube – The Danube Loop by Schloegen

 

It is ultramarine and chartreuse in lively contrasts.

Countryside

Austrian Countryside

 

And when the skies are grey, the buildings stand out in vibrant orange, burnt sienna, and playful pinks.

Melk

Orange-Yellow Facade of Melk Abbey

Austrian House

Rust-Colored Townhouse in Obernberg am Inn

Staircase Melk

Pink Staircase Inside of Melk Abbey

So most of all, Austria for me is color; that is the five-second answer to what Austria is like.

Interacting with Art

I love art museums, and over the last few months of visiting Italy, Austria, and Germany I have visited plenty of them. But even though I am a fan, I have to admit that visits can quickly become monotone and especially lesser-known or eye-catching pieces are easily skipped, overlooked, or at least not remembered. Another issue with museums is that I love to “look” with my hands, which usually is not an option; indeed, most places  do not even want one to stand too close to the art to see the brushstrokes for example, and of course that is understandable, but the problem still is that it is difficult to become fully engaged – even visually.

Sunflowers

Detail of “Sunflowers” 3rd Version by Vincent van Gogh in Neue Pinakothek Munich, Germany  – no flash or touching but the guard was not happy with me

Sure some visitors are more active in museums and sketch and/or write, but this active appreciation of art usually is not created by the museum and the art; the visitor decides to sketch or write or maybe as student is required to complete an assignment or in need of extra credit. So the motivation for interacting comes from the visitor and is not created by the museum displays.

Student in Bargello

Visitor writing about/drawing the art in the Bargello in Florence, Italy

 

Sure, museums catering to children and focusing on science usually include interactive displays, but very few art museums do, so I am always excited when a display invites me to interact and I am no longer a passive observer. A recent example was a display of modern art at the K-hof museum in Gmunden, Austria. One of the sculptures, for example, came with sticky notes and visitors were encouraged to react to the piece and to other comments already left on the wall. These comments changed my perception of the piece as I started to react to the comments stuck beside it. The piece was not famous but it was memorable because of the interaction.

Christ Sculpture

Christ Sculpture by Ferdinand – One note mentions that the artist does not want a God who suffers with him but a God who laughs with him.

 

Notes

Notes responding to the piece of art: “Laughing about what? About me? [Without interest in my suffering?] No, thanks!” Another note responds: “Laughs WITH me (not about). Therefore I am also allowed to laugh about myself.”

Another example of interaction were the hobbyhorses depicting famous horses in art at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria. There was Marengo, the stallion from the painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Loius David; the horse’s description includes the achievement of galloping 129km in five hours.

Marengo

Ride the Hobbyhorse Marengo at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria

Napoleon

Painting by Jacques-Louis David [Public Domain} via Wikimedia Commons

And then there was also the much calmer looking hobbyhorse Pferdinand created by Franz Marc. The description of the horse lists a talent for expressive art.

Pferdinand

Ride the Hobbyhorse Pferdinand at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria

marc2c_franz_-_blue_horse_i_-_google_art_project

“Blue Horse I” by Franz Marc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These were just two of nearly a dozen famous hobby horses that were ridden by children in the courtyard of the exhibit, and even though no adults were playing when I visited, I could not see a sign that limited the activity only to kids.

More and more places also include replicas of the art that not only can be touched but is meant to be touched. These are geared especially towards visitors with vision impairments, but since my natural instinct is to touch, these replicas keep me entertained as well. I also realized that they help me notice details that I did not see before but now felt, and I could go back and look for them in the piece itself. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan includes one such replica, which is usually overlooked by visitors as it rests on a side wall. Read more about the artist who created this replica and many others in Italy in this article.

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Touchable Replica of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

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Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan, Italy

Art museums could still do much more to encourage more active enjoyment of the pieces, but these examples show that change is coming.

Reposing with Jewels: Bejeweled Skeletons of Saints in Austria

Statues of saints in Catholic churches aren’t anything surprising; skeletons of Saints adorned with precious stones and pearls, however, are quite a lot rarer and also much more fascinating. These bejeweled skeletons can be found in churches throughout Austria, Bavaria, and Switzerland and while they were rather common in the 17th century, many were taken down, looted, or lost in the 18th and 19th centuries. I am always amazed and amused by any bejeweled saint I come across; most of them nonchalantly repose on cushions and seem to try to make eye contact with those who meander down the side aisles of a church (most bejeweled saints are by side altars).

Interior Melk

Interior of the Church of Melk Abbey

Saint Clemens in Melk

Saint Clemens in Melk Abbey – A Gift to the Abbey in 1772

During my last trip to Austria and Bavaria, I was lucky enough to see quite a few of these bejeweled saints (without actually looking for them). They are so-called Catacomb Saints and meant to personify the glory of afterlife – which explains the relaxed poses and the over-the-top jewels; I guess there is no stress and plenty of riches. The Catacomb Saints are skeletons that were found in catacombs in Rome, Italy in May 1578. During road construction, an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 remains dating back to the first three centuries of Christianity were found. Based on the amount and age of the remains found, the conclusion was that some of these remains must be the relics of early Christian martyrs. Perfect timing – during the Protestant Reformation in Europe many relics (the physical remains or personal effects of saints or venerated persons) had been destroyed or lost, and now new relics had been found. It was an opportunity to “restock” so to speak.

Relic San Feliciano Medici Chapels

Relic of San Feliciano in Capelle Medicee at the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy

 

 

The Catacomb Saints of course came without labels or a resume, so names were invented for them after they had been declared saints by the Church. Thus, many of the saints have very German-sounding names to fit the place where they were going to be housed. Catacomb Saints were often gifts by the rich and famous to a church, such as Saint Friedrich, who was presented to the Abbey of Melk by Austrian Empress Maria Theresia.

 

Fine mesh gauze covers the bones and jewelry; precious stones and pearls are sown to the fabric. The elegant clothes and fancy jewelry were often donated by the rich of the parish. Most of the work was usually preformed by nuns but also by monks. While I am fascinated by the poses of the skeletons and the artistry of placing the jewels, many visitors are rather put off by the display.

Saint2 Engelszell

A Bejeweled Saint in the Monastery Engelszell

Saint Engelszell

Close-up of a Saint in the Monastery Engelszell

 

Saint Sandal

Another Fancy Sandal of a Saint in the Monastery Engelszell

This repulsion by some  may be one of the main reasons why so many of the saints are not displayed to their best advantage: the glass cases are often old, dusty, and badly lit, so it is hard to see the details clearly or take a picture; few of the saints have clear descriptions beyond their names on labels; signage that could also explain their history and importance at one time is non-existent usually; and most of them are placed in side niches cordoned off by rope, so it is easy to overlook them. Guidebooks and even leaflets about the history of the building and parish found in the church rarely if ever mention the saints. This meant that I usually came to see a church and “stumbled” across a Catacomb Saint, so if you are interested in seeing some of the saints, do some research ahead of time to look for the churches that still display these amazing examples of sacral art.

Saint Author in Aldersbach

A Bejeweled Saint who also Seems to Be an Author the Church in Aldersbach

 

Close-up of Saint in the Monestary in Reichersberg

Close-up of Saint in the Monastery in Reichersberg

Note: Details about the Catacomb Saint are mostly from the signage at some of the churches that I did find as well as an article by CNN, which has some pretty amazing photos of the saints as well. I visited the churches in Engeslzell, Reichersberg, and Melk (all in Austria) and in Aldersbach in Bavaria.

The Beauty of a Toilet: Toilet Museum in Gmunden, Austria

“For many people, having a toilet is an afterthought, one of the easy-to-take-for-granted amenities of living in the modern world. But for 40% of the world’s population that lives without sanitation, having a toilet is a luxury, and one that can often make the difference between life and death” explains a posting by the American Red Cross. I would argue that for many Americans easy and free access to a bathroom is nearly seen as a fundamental human right, which explains the surprise of many American tourists in Europe when they figure out that public toilets often require a fee and receipts are checked consistently to ensure that really only customers use an establishment’s bathroom. And do not even think about hoping to find a bathroom in a supermarket. Bathrooms – and especially clean bathrooms – are not a certainty. This became clear for example on Mount Vesuvius, where no free bathrooms existed. The toilet I ended up paying for (I think it was one Euro) had no water to flush but was not designed to be a waterless porta potty and it had been used a LOT throughout the day. Let’s just put it that way: what cannot go down must pile up. At that point, I really wished for a lot more bushes on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius…

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View over the Bay from Mount Vesuvius in Italy

Considering the impact of toilets and our dependence on them, it is rather surprising that they are not more celebrated or talked about. So it was a nice surprise to find a museum dedicated to toilets in Gmunden, Austria. Sure, the museum is definitely not the main attraction of the town. Rather, the main draw are the panorama of the magnificent lake Traunsee with the tall mountains in the background, castle Orth on an island in the lake, and maybe the ceramic manufacturer established in 1492.

Lake and Boats

Lake Traunsee and Sailboats in Gmunden

 

Schloss Orth

Schloss Orth in Gmunden on a small island in the lake (Photo by Ibokel from Pixabay)

 

Saint Orth

Saint Nepomuk Statue on the Bridge to the Castle Orth near Gmunden

On my last visit to Gmunden, I finally visited the toilet museum in the center of town near the lake. The toilet museum (its official name is the sanitation museum) is one of five rather small museums housed in the so-called K-Hof. The other four museums focus on geology, salt and tourism, nativity sets and sacred art, and current art (it seems this exhibit changes throughout the year). It is a very eclectic/odd mix as one floor houses the nativity sets and the next one the toilets. The museum even includes a chapel. The toilet/sanitation museum focuses on sanitation objects from the 19th and 20th century even though the first water closet was already invented in the 16th century.

 

The museum has some interesting pieces with the majority of the exhbits from Central Europe, but it does lack an international or intercultural aspect. Would not this be the place to show and discuss the differences in toilets and the impact of the toilet on everyday life around the world? I expected the exhibit to be more informative and in-depth. But it does have some extremely beautiful toilet bowls that put the common current and very boring toilet bowls to shame. You won’t be able to find anything close to these in your local store I think. Here are some of my favorite toilet bowls (hmm  – what an odd and unexpected sentence to use):

The exhibit also includes other items associated with the bathroom such as toilet pulls and sinks and even an outhouse.

 

Outhouse

Old-fashioned Outhouse

The museum is entertaining enough but not worth a special trip; however, it is an interesting addition to a visit already planned to enjoy the panorama and the castle, which are worth a trip.

Gmunden is in Upper Austria, about an hour’s drive from Salzburg and nearly three hours from Vienna. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10AM till 5PM and during the summer (June-August) Tuesdays through Sundays from 10AM till 5PM. Check the museum’s website for changes in the opening hours and other details.

Themed Christmas

Themed Christmas trees seem to have become more popular, and if you can think of a theme, you can be sure that it has become the basis for Christmas decorations. Shopping for ornaments can be pretty overwhelming without a clear theme in mind. Every large Disney movie or actually any classic movie or movie franchise has its own line of Christmas ornaments, and then of course all major sports teams do as well.Recently, I was fascinated by a tree with a mermaid theme, another with a Disney theme, and another based on the Wizard of Oz (and all three trees were actually in the same home).

The ornaments based on an international theme in a store actually highlighted what stereotypes a country can be compressed to: Ireland is all about clovers, leprechauns, and beer; Italy is represented by a Vespa, Chianti, and a gondolier; England has its bulldog, red phone booth, and teapot.

 

Windmills, wooden shoes, and a Dutch boy represent Holland while a pretzel (or some boxes actually had a Bratwurst instead), beer, and lederhosen sum up Germany.

 

The symbols for Germany are really more about Bavaria than all of Germany, so I am wondering what the manufacturer/designer would choose for Austria (I did not see any Austrian ornaments in the “international collection”). Since beer and lederhosen are already taken by Germany, what would Austria have? Mozart, the Lipizzaner (white dancing horse), and a snow-topped mountain? A waltzing couple, a coffee cup, and St. Stephen Cathedral? A skier, a girl in a traditional dirndl, and a cow? What would make the cut to represent the typical Austria?

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A Lipizzaner Performing in Vienna (photo found on: http://www.srs.at/en_US/vorfuehrungen-en/ which also lists performance dates and prices)

Krampus as Movie Star

Over the last few weeks, I have seen the trailer for the new Krampus movie on TV and it seems that Krampus is starting to get more well-known in the U.S. I am not into horror movies in general, so I have not considered watching this one (although the reviews have not been as bad as I thought they would be based on the trailer, and it seems that it was the most popular movie based on ticket sales on Friday).

I am worried what Hollywood has done to a traditional figure I have grown up with. Also, it is difficult for me to understand how this figure can be so fear-inspiring to base a whole movie on it – after all, even as a I kid I knew that Krampus was just a dressed up teenager/man. Even more common than the wooden masks with horns, fangs, and long tongue are the much more adorable renditions of the Krampus image on ginger bread, as pastry, or as hollow chocolate figurine.

Krampus Cookies

A Collection of Krampus Cookies on Sale at a Seasonal Market in the US

It is hard to fear something that is not only delicious but also cute with only the slightest mischievous look as most edible renditions of Krampus are. I have always thought that the unknown is much scarier than anything well-known, and I am sure I have eaten more Krampus sweets in my life than I have seen the costume version. So it seems odd to me to choose Krampus as the main concept of a horror movie; now ghosts and possessions à la The Exorcist are a different story but not the grumpy side-kick of St. Nikolaus.

 

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A Pastry Krampus – More Cute than Scary (found on www.ichkoche.at which also includes recipe for these cute guys)

PS: I am curious to see how popular this movie will be in Austria.

Food Stamps

Austrian Stamps Celebrating Austria's Beer Culture

Austrian Stamps Celebrating Austria’s Beer Culture

Stamps have long been involved in the history of nations and highlight the nation’s culture and its values. Many stamps show important historical figures, current rulers and other political figures, and famous landmarks. Stamps also celebrate holidays and highlight plants and animals. Current stamps on sale in the U.S. show Paul Newman, Elvis Presley, Maya Angelou, Wilt Chamberlain, the forget-me-not, and the battle of New Orleans.

U.S. Stamp in Honor of author Maya Angelou (found on usps.com)

While Austrian stamps celebrate famous sights and people as well, they also show how important food is in its culture (I wrote about food in my last posting). I was excited to see that the Austrian postal service is paying homage to beer and food. Of course the Wiener Schnitzel is famous enough and important enough to get its own stamp!

Schnitzel

Austrian Stamps Celebrating Food – The Wiener Schnitzel Is the Stamp in the Upper Left Corner

Who Consumes the Most?

Cake Buffet at an Austrian Potluck after Several Other Courses

Cake Buffet at an Austrian Potluck after Several Other Courses

Which nation consumes on average the most calories per day per person? The first guess will most likely be the U.S., known for fast food, large portions, and unfortunately obesity. And the guess is not far off as U.S. Americans have consumed on average 3,733 calories per person per day from 2004 till 2013 according to a study. So who eats more? Austrians!

So-called "Bratl" or Roasted Pork with Two Types of Dumplings and Potatoes (meant to be enough for about 5-8 people)

So-called “Bratl” or Roasted Pork with Two Types of Dumplings and Potatoes (meant to be enough for about 5-8 people) – for a recipe, go to this site

Austrians consume on average 3,769 calories, and based on how much we love deserts, beer, and fat, I was not completely surprised. Germans are only in 8th place. Even though Austrians consume more calories, the obesity rate is lower than in the U.S. According to the study, Belgians consume on average the same amount of calories as U.S. Americans, but only every tenth person is considered overweight in Belgium while in the U.S. every third person is. The difference is linked to the quality and price of food in the article and study. The higher the cost and quality of food, the lower the obesity rate even if the amount of calories is the same.

Bratwurst and sauerkraut; the drink is a pint of white wine with sparkling water

Bratwurst and sauerkraut; the drink is a pint of white wine with sparkling water

Dumpling with chanterelle mushrooms in sauce

Dumpling with chanterelle mushrooms in sauce

The article reminded me of how much I love and miss Austrian cuisine and how much food is part of the culture and tradition. I like that it is normal to have a mid-morning snack (often also with beer) and an afternoon coffee and cake break in addition to the regular three meals a day. Many of the dishes call for heavy cream and butter, and every cook knows that a reduced-fat version of the dish will not taste the same. I was surprised when I moved here by how few people ate butter and that a completely fat-free milk version existed, which in my opinion is no longer milk but white water. In contrast, I grew up with the idea to avoid margarine, that milk that is “drinkable” is whole milk, and that lard is a perfectly good (albeit rich) bread spread.

Lard with pork skins as spread on bread; the white "fluff" is salted and cut daikon radish

Lard with pork skins as spread on bread; the white “fluff” is salted and cut daikon radish

A cheese snack and beers for a little pick-me-up midmorning.

A cheese snack and beers for a little pick-me-up mid-morning

Many of the dishes are mostly carbs and fat since plenty of main dishes are a version of sweet dumplings or something along these lines. A Bauernkrapfen, a version of a donut, comes in at 45g of carbs, 22g of fat, and overall 421 calories for example. Thinking about the calories and eating habits of Austrians led to reminiscing about all the Austrian dishes that I would love to eat right now, but I had to stop making my list; it became just too long.

Bauerkrapfen - an Austrian type of doughnut (no filling, just dough fried in oil)

Bauernkrapfen – an Austrian type of doughnut (no filling, just dough fried in oil)

Austrian Fruit Dumplings: Marillenknoedel

Marillenknoedel Open

Austrian cuisine has a dumpling for any occasion and season. At this time of the year when pounds and pounds of fruits such as apricots and plums all seem to turn ripe at the same time, my favorite dumpling is a fruit dumpling – either apricot or plum. But there are also dumplings with strawberry, chocolate, poppy seed, nougat, and more and that without considering the many savory versions. Even though most cookbooks list sweet dumplings as a dessert, I am used to eating them as an entrée. Yes, meatless (Fri)day did not usually mean fish or a vegetable casserole but Mehlspeisen (literally “Flour Dishes”) with such favorites as sweet dumplings, sweet crepes, Apfelstrudel, and more in Austria. If it is not called a cake or pie, it can be eaten as an entrée; this is one of my favorite traits of Austrian homecooked meals.

As apricots and plums are ripe for the picking in California, I finally decided to try making these sweet dumplings from scratch. I have seen my grandmothers and my mother all make them plenty of times when I grew up, and it never seemed that complicated or time-consuming. Well, the first problem I ran into was that some of the ingredients listed in the handwritten recipes I found from my mom were hard to find. One recipe called for semolina and two of the supermarkets near me did not have any or did not even know what it was. Since I had the fruit already picked and on the verge of becoming overripe in my kitchen, I did not have time to order online and wait for delivery, so that recipe was a no-go. Another recipe called for Topfen, but dictionaries and online users even disagreed on how Topfen would be translated into English, so how would I know where to buy it? Many called it farmer cheese; others called it curd cheese. Online postings seem to agree that whatever you call it, it is hard to find and they recommend to shop in a location with plenty of German or Austrian immigrants. So I discarded that recipe as well. I ended up with a very basic recipe that worked out but did not create a very fluffy dough. However, my husband asked for seconds (after I nearly begged him to try the first dumpling), so that is a good sign.

Apricots and Plums

These dumplings are either Marillenknoedel (apricot) or Zwetschgenknoedel (plum). Side note: Germans do not use the word Marillen or Zwetschgen for these fruits but Aprikosen and Pflaumen.

The following recipe works well for apricots and plums; if you have access to semolina and/or Topfen, I would recommend trying a different recipe though.

Recipe for about 15 dumplings:

  • 500 g (1 lb) of cooked and peeled potatoes
  • 250 g (1/2 lb or 1 cup) of flour
  • 5 tbsp. of softened butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • pinch of salt
  • 15 ripe apricots and/or plums
  • 15 cubes of sugar
  • 3 tbsp. of butter
  • ½ cup of bread crumbs
  • powdered sugar

I used whole-wheat flour and the recipe worked but the dumplings were much darker and a little doughier than they would have been with white flour. Also, the original recipe did not call for any butter for the dough, but the dough seemed to form more easily with the butter, so I added it.

  1. Force the cooked potatoes through a ricer or use a masher. Add the flour, butter, yolks, and salt and form into a smooth dough.
  2. While you let the dough rest for a few minutes, prepare the fruit. Carefully remove the pit/stone from the fruits (by cutting a slit halfway around the pit and then sliding it out from the fruit); replace each pit with a sugar cube and close each fruit.
  3. Form dough into a thick roll; cut off slices to form into dumplings. Place one piece of fruit onto one slice and cover the fruit completely. Try to keep the dough cover as thin as possible without rupturing the dough. You are aiming for a dough cover that is ¼ inch. Make sure that seams are closed.
  4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and carefully add 4-5 dumplings into the water. The dumplings need to have room to move and must not be layered.
  5. Cook for 10-15 minutes (do not let the water bubble too much as dumplings may fall apart). You know the dumplings are done when they rise to the top and start to turn in the water.
  6. In the meantime, melt 3 tbsp. of butter in a skillet and add the breadcrumbs, stirring and cooking until golden brown (I like mine a little darker).
  7. Remove the dumplings with a slotted spoon. Cover/sprinkle (depending on how many breadcrumbs you prefer) with breadcrumbs and with powdered sugar. Enjoy while warm.

Apricot Sugar

Marillenknoedel Closed

The uncooked dumplings can also be frozen; I wrapped each one individually in foil and then stored them in a plastic bag so I could cook even just one if I wanted to. To cook, put the frozen dumplings into boiling water without defrosting them first. I would make the breadcrumbs fresh (I have never tried to freeze the breadcrumbs). I also warmed up some cooked dumplings in the microwave and they were alright but not as good as the freshly cooked ones.

Verdict: It took much longer than I thought (close to an hour) and the dough was not quite the same as I was used to, but the dumplings were good and I used up all the ripe fruit. Once I figure out how to get semolina and/or Topfen, I will try another recipe though. I did enjoy making a dish that brought back memories of eating lunch at my grandmother’s after we had picked plums or apricots for most of the morning.

And the Winner Is…

Photo found on http://www.orf.at

…Sweden – which was not a big surprise. A bigger surprise was that Austria (and also Germany) did not get a single point at the Grand Finale of the Eurovision Song Contest. Really??! The song was not that bad, and should not we have gotten a couple of points just for hosting the event (think hostess gift)?

I watched the live online stream of the ORF, and the Austrian host had plenty of good ideas to make the viewing of this annual singing competition amongst European countries (see more about the competition in my previous posting) more interesting.

A surprising amount of songs were in English, which I found rather sad. Even Israel’s entry was for the first time in the competition not in Hebrew. Half of the fun of watching this competition is listening to the lyrics in different languages, such as Armenian, and trying to figure out what they are singing. From the few non-English songs, Italy’s entry, “Grande Amore,” was definitely my favorite and placed third overall.

Italy’s Performance (www.orf.at)

Here are some additional trophies that should have been awarded:

Most doves used in the background – France

Best lit-up costumes – United Kingdom

UK’s Performance – Best Lit-Up Costume (www.orf.at)

Best marching “army” of animated people – Sweden (with France a close second)

Sweden's Performance - Best Army of Animated Men

Sweden’s Performance – Best Army of Animated Men (www.orf.at)

Best fire in a piano (and also best fire on the stage) – Austria

Austria’s Performance – Best Fire in a Piano (www.orf.at)

Best singer performing while perched on someone’s shoulder – Spain

Spain’s Performance – Best Performance while Perched on a Shoulder (www.orf.at)

Most time spent with the butt to the audience – Germany

Most Gothic costume – Georgia (which also won for best use of feathers in a costume)

Georgia's Performance - Best Gothic Outfit

Georgia’s Performance – Best Gothic Outfit

Most unusual dancers that distracted from the singer – Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan's Performance - Most Distracting Dancers

Azerbaijan’s Performance – Most Distracting Dancers

Most fake machine guns – Hungary (which also won for best machine-gun tree)

At some point, it was pretty clear that Sweden would win, and then the competition was more about whether Austria or maybe even Germany would get a point, and we would be all alone in last place (success – Austria shared the last place with Germany as neither received any points). And even though Austria did not move out of last place, I learned that Austria has a world-famous percussionist (who knew there were any famous percussionists, let alone world-famous ones).

Even though the Eurovision Song Contest is not supposed to be about politics (just like the Olympics), the audience often booed when Russia’s representative was on screen, and the Austrian commentator pointed out the irony of Russia singing a song about peace.

All in all, no big surprises but mildly entertaining – but voting for more categories definitely does help.

Fabulous May

Maypole at the Main Square in Linz, Upper Austria

Maypole at the Main Square in Linz, Upper Austria

In many regions of Central Europe, May is the month with its own decoration – the maypole, also called the Maibaum. In Upper Austria, it consists of a large tree trunk (usually a birch or fir tree) without bark but still the green tree top; several wreaths with colorful ribbons decorate the top. The Maibaum is usually erected in the main square of the village/town and stays up for the whole month. Plenty of sites and sources list 1466 as the year in which the tradition is first mentioned in writing. In Upper Austria and many other places, the maypole may be stolen by residents from neighboring villages and thus must be guarded for the first three days of the month. If the Maibaum is stolen even with all these precautions, it can be “bought” back from the thieves – usually with the currency of beer.

The Maypole Is Set Up in Linz, Upper Austria (Image by Stadt Linz via Facebook: Linz Veraendert)

Traditions connected with the Maibaum include maypole dances/ribbon dances and climbing the maypole. Climbers usually prep their bare feet with tar to stick to the trunk more easily. No other help is allowed to reach the top of the 10-15 meter high and slick tree trunk; at the top awaits a pair bratwurst for the successful climber.

Maypole Climbing in Bad Hofgastein, Austria (photo from meinbezirk.at)

May also has its own beer – the so-called Maibock, a stronger beer with 6-7% alcohol but always a golden color and rather hoppy. With its many traditions, its own beer,  plenty of official federal holidays in Austria (four working days off in May 2015) and the weather finally warming up, May is truly a fabulous month in Austria.

The Grinch

The Grinch, a fictional character created by Dr. Seuss, is known by most in the U.S. but an exotic import strongly associated with American culture for Austrians. Most know of him only through the movie or TV show and not the book. In general, Dr. Seuss’s work is not as popular as it is in the U.S. For example, Amazon.de showed the German version of the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas on rank 284,780 in books sold and that during Holiday season when the book can be expected to be more popular than throughout the rest of the year. Amazon.com, however, listed it under rank 161 for all books and number 1 for children’s books on the same day I checked the German site. The Grinch, by the way, keeps his name in the German translation although the spelling is awkward. I do not understand the popularity of Dr. Seuss’s work, but I guess one had to grow up with his books and be introduced to them as a child to really “get” or like the books.

One Grinch next to Another

One Grinch next to Another

I knew about the Grinch before I moved to the U.S. and would think of a green character in a Santa suit when I heard name, but I never knew the details of the story. I assumed he stole or tried to steal Christmas based on the title; based on the illustrations of the book cover in stores and the poster for the movie with Jim Carrey, I also assumed that the Grinch was anti-Christmas and in general not in the best mood and was dressed just like Santa. But when I see green combined with a Santa suit, I do react the predictable way and associate the colors with the Grinch. Thus, I was fascinated by the idea of creating a Grinch out of fruit for potlucks and other meals this season, and it was usually recognized as a portrayal of the Grinch by those who ate them.

Ingredients for Fruit Grinch

Ingredients for the fruit Grinch: green grapes, strawberries, banana slices (soaking in lime Juice so they do not turn yellow, and small marshmallows. Use toothpicks to create the Grinch.

Christkind vs. Santa

The Christkind, “Christ Child” (found on http://www.rosenheim24.de)

For Austrians, Santa is an import that has become well-known through Hollywood movies, American T.V. shows, and Christmas songs in English. We understand his job and his importance to American kids, but traditionally we do not believe in him or ask him for presents; he is obviously not real, so what would be the point. Instead, we have Christkind, who is so different from Santa.

American Santa with my Two Greyhounds

American Santa with my Two Greyhounds

First, Christkind is female and is an angel while Santa is male and rather human looking. Since Christkind is an angel, she has wings and thus flies from household to household and does not use reindeers or a flying sleigh as Santa does. Because Christkind means Christ child, she is also rather slim and definitely not “fluffy” like Santa. She is dressed usually in a white or silver or gold dress and wears a crown or halo. She does bring gifts but does not come through the chimney, and she also helps decorate the Christmas tree (see yesterday’s post). Even though it is important for Austrian children to be nice to receive the gifts they wished for, Christkind does not bring coal; that is associated with St. Nikolaus and December 6.  The history of Christkind is supposedly connected with Martin Luther, the church reformer; he wanted to shift the focus from the saint celebrated on December 6 with gifts to the birth of Christ; since most had a hard time associating Christ with gifts, the gift-giver morphed into a child-like angel. Children do send a letter with their wishes to the Christkind, but in Austria, the Christkind has its own address; letters are sent to the town Christkindl, which is a real town. In Bavaria, children send their letters to Himmelstadt, “Heaven Town.”

However, Santa Claus is becoming more and more well-known through the media and advertisements, and this upsets quite a few. So there is actually a kind of fight going on between Christkind and Santa it seems, and the Christkind has plenty of supporters on the web. There is for example, a site named “Santa-Claus-Free Zone.” I grew up with Christkind, but since I am now living in the U.S., our household has adopted both figures: Christkind brings the big gifts under the tree in the evening of December 24 and also decorates the tree, and Santa stuffs the stockings in the early morning of December 25. No fighting for dominance here.

“Santa-Claus-Free Zone,” a German site (http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de)