Posts

The Traveler and the Cook: Christmas Market In Vienna

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about the nostalgia she feels around the holidays, particularly for the joys of the ‘holiday market’…

The holiday season is a time when we seem to be especially prone to nostalgia for childhood, for the magical time of hope and anticipation that brought light into the darkest part of the year. Nostalgia magnifies moments from childhood and leads to reminiscing about positive experiences. I miss the Christmas seasons of my childhood. No matter who hard I try to recreate the feeling of ‘Christmas’ every year, the holiday never seems to be the same as it was when I was a kid.Adults, do you remember snow globes? Those heavy glass (or plastic) spheres with a winter scene? When they are shaken, snow starts quietly coming down on the town or the landscape encased in the glass. Did you ever hold one as a child and feel mesmerized by the miniature world where snow was just one shake away? I always imagined myself being part of the scene. As the soft snow slowly came down inside of the glass-covered world, I was transported into the kingdom of imagination and dreams. How delightful! But seeing a snow globe as an adult, it seems more tacky than enchanting. I had to remember all the magic it brings, when my daughter asked for one few years ago.

As a child, I loved the Christmas market. I remember a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts warming my hands and the aroma of roasting chestnuts filling the town square. Enjoying the spirit of the holiday in a market is a nice way to spend a weekend day with children. For those who happened to be in Central Europe during the holiday season, Vienna is an excellent choice. Although I never went to a Christmas market in Vienna as a child, I had been to many others that provided a similar experience.

Vienna’s famous Christmas markets were likely the first place where snow globes were sold (and are still sold). Like many other inventions, the first snow globe was an unintended byproduct of a quest for something else – in this case, for a surgical lamp. The snow globe (Schneekugel) was patented at the end of the 19th century by Erwin Perzy, an Austrian surgical instruments mechanic. The hand-painted, manually assembled glass globes encasing a miniature St. Stephens Cathedral were a hit. The Perzy family continues to make a variety of snow globes to this day, and the family business still operates in the same house in Vienna.

Of course, there is no Christmas market without food and holiday treats. In a Christmas market in Vienna, this means stalls with grilled sausage, pretzels, sandwiches, roasted chestnuts and almonds, potato wedges, donut-like sweets (Krapfen), apples covered in red sugar glazing, cotton candy, and marzipan. Some stalls sell nothing but gingerbread decorated with colored frosting; hearts and stars with inscriptions of Christmas wishes.

For the sake of childhood nostalgia, I had to have a Schaumbecher which is an ice cream cone topped with marshmallow cream dipped in chocolate when I last visited a market. As children, we called them ‘winter ice cream’. It was nice to taste one again, although as a child, I had not been a big fan because they failed to deliver the taste of real ice cream.

Possibly more than by food, children at a market in Vienna will be enchanted by old-world wooden toys like pine cone animals, wooden birds, porcelain bells, and especially wooden figures that jump or fly (without batteries) when a string is pulled. And don’t expect to meet Santa in Vienna. In Austria and the Central European region, Christmas gifts are brought by the Christkind (Christ-child or Little Jesus).

In Central Europe, there is no Christmas without what the Austrians call vanilla kipferl (vanilla crescents). We decided to make a batch with my daughter recently. As we were baking, suddenly the wise-woman-persona of my nine-year-old daughter came to life and spoke, “You know, it is the small things that matter in life, like baking cookies or being with your family.” After my initial shock, I had to acknowledge that she was perfectly right. I hope she feels the wonder of the holiday, and one day she will yearn for the magic of her childhood Christmases.

Vanilla Kipferl or Vanilla Crescents Recipe

These are typical Austro-Hungarian Christmas cookies. In Austria, they are usually made with almonds, whereas in Hungary, ground walnuts are preferred.

Vanilla sugar is available at European grocery stores, or you can made your own by burying a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar. Let it sit for about two weeks until the vanilla releases its flavor into the sugar. Nicely packaged home-made vanilla sugar also makes a good gift!

2 cups flour
1 cup finely ground almonds or walnuts
2 sticks unsalted butter
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar (for the dough)
1 egg yolk
½ vanilla sugar (to coat the bake cookies)

Beat the butter until smooth. Gradually work in the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla sugar. Add the egg yolk. Stir in the flour and the ground almond or nuts. Make a stiff dough. Divide the dough into two parts and form two large rolls. Refrigerate the dough for about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 35 degrees F. To form the crescents, cut about two teaspoons of dough. Gently roll the dough to form a rope with tapered end. Form the rope into a crescent. Put the cookie on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough. This batch will make about 50 crescents. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until the cookies are light golden around the edges. Cool the cookies on the sheet for about two minutes. Roll each cookie in the vanilla sugar to coat. Enjoy!

The Traveler and the Cook: At the Airport

In her new series, our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about airport experiences that went beyond the expected…

At the Airport

For the weary traveler, airports are rarely fun. Usually, we don’t think of airports as places where the real travel experience happens. They are just the unavoidable necessary steps toward our travel destinations, where all the fun and experiencing is supposed to happen. If time spent at an airport becomes memorable, it is usually for the wrong reason: a missed plane, hours of delay, lost luggage…

That being said, I’d like to share two very different airport-related experiences that don’t fit this equation.

One of them happened years ago in Paris Orly Airport. As I was absent-mindedly hurrying through the airport, I suddenly became a witness of a tiny moment in some strangers’ story and felt deeply touched by it.

I had very little time to catch my connecting flight. Navigating the corridors as a little piece of an anonymous moving crowd, the only thing on my mind was to get to the right gate on time. But then, suddenly, I had to stop. We all had to stop, and readjust our minds, our perception of the world—because the following happened: The column of people in front of me stopped moving.  Something was wrong. I could see the escalator at the end of the narrow corridor—the only available exit route in front of us. The escalator was running and there was a crowd of people seemingly waiting to get on, but the steps of the escalator continued their rhythmic ascent without carrying any people.

The group at the very front seemed to be traveling together. Their clothing stood out. They weren’t dressed for the cold Parisian winter day. Rather, some wore short-sleeved T-shirts; others wore traditional African clothing made for a warm climate. They seemed scared and indecisive. The older members of the group were discussing something. Suddenly a teenaged boy stepped out of the group and turned back as if asking for the approval of the elders. He then stepped onto the escalator and went up. Shortly after, the others hesitantly followed the young boy. I realized that escalators were not part of their experience prior to this moment. Confronted with one for the first time, they did not know what to do until the curiosity of the young boy grew stronger than his fear, and he showed the group the way…

I do not know what was to follow for these families after they arrived at the top of the escalator. Perhaps they were on a vacation, or perhaps they were fleeing their homeland. I have often wondered how their lives unfolded since that cold day in Paris. I hope they found their way and their place.

The other very different and cheerful story involves travelling with my children and their perception of a country, based solely on its largest airport. We were changing planes in Zurich, Switzerland. This time, I didn’t have to worry about not making it on time to the connecting flight, as we had a five-hour layover. I was worried about having too much time. Spending hours in transit after an overnight flight is usually not fun.

I had prepared. We had plenty of snacks packed to fight hunger and also serve as a distraction. There were a few small toys, books and activity booklets in my backpack, ready to provide a little entertainment. But, in the end, we never took them out. The children vastly enjoyed the airport. The sleepiness was gone and the boredom was lifted as they looked out of the airport windows and past the runways. As far as the eye could see, there was forest, and only forest. We were at the largest airport in Switzerland and it wasn’t surrounded by an urban or industrial landscape, but rather, endless trees. The children noticed it right away. They pointed it out, and they loved it. They appreciated how clean everything was, too. We enjoyed the view for a while, and then it was time for lunch. We chose a deli that imitated the looks of a rustic small town bakery. The soft pretzels with ham a cheese looked so good and tasted even better. A piece of Swiss chocolate for dessert followed. We learned and experienced that there is such a thing as a good airport food – at least in Switzerland. Of course, one pays the price, as Switzerland is anything but inexpensive.

The natural question for my children to ask was: “Why don’t we live in Switzerland?” This country, experienced only through its airport, somehow made so much sense to them. My children now often talk about Switzerland. Since spending five hours at the airport in Zurich, this country has become one of their dream destinations. My daughter started learning Italian, and explained her decision among others things with: “It could be useful in Switzerland”.

So we keep saving for a ‘real’ trip to the country of the majestic Alps, delicious chocolate, and yummy airport sandwiches.

Airport Pretzel Sandwiches

This is a recipe for the sandwiches we enjoyed at the airport in Zurich. Butter, ham, and cheese are a combination typical for Germany and German speaking regions of Europe.

If you are in the mood, you can start with baking soft pretzels from scratch. Pretzel dough is basically yeasted bread dough with a bit of butter in it. The Internet is a good source for pretzel recipes and instructions on how to properly form them. Compared to baking bread or rolls, making pretzels involves an extra step: immersing the formed pretzels in boiling water before baking. This process creates the typical chewy texture of pretzels (and bagels too).

Making pretzels from scratch at home requires some time and a bit of patience, but it can be done, especially if you have helpers interested in playing with dough.

  • For each person/eater, you will need:
  • 1 soft pretzel
  • some butter
  • 1 slice of good quality ham
  • 1 slice of Gruyere cheese

Slice your pretzel in half. Butter both sides. On the bottom part, layer the cheese and ham. Cover with the top half on the pretzel. Enjoy for lunch or pack for your next road trip.

The Traveler and The Cook: Visiting Familiar Places

In her new series, our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about visiting her childhood hometown with her children, and about the fruitful discoveries they make along the way…

Traveling with children usually results in a very different experience than getting on the road with adult company. It is not only that when children come along we adjust the pace and the activities to meet their needs and interests. What is truly unique is that we get to see our travel destinations from a different angle, with the refreshing eye of a child. The whole travel experience takes on one more extra layer when we decide to take our kids to places that have a special place in our personal history; when hometowns, college towns, broader areas of our childhood become destinations. We are hoping to include the children in our story, one that is the precursor to their own.

We traveled to Central Europe last fall to visit family, friends, and participate in a harvest in the vineyard (the first one ever for my children). On most of our day trips, we kept crossing paths with the Danube. For me, the Danube is ‘The River’. I was born in a town on the Danube, learned to swim in its waters, and I spent my college years in two cities on the Danube. The river had been part of everyday life, just as it was part of those moments that stood out. There was no New Year’s Day during my childhood without a family walk to the Danube. I always saw it as a New Year’s pilgrimage to experience the cleansing effect of chilling wind carried by the river.  So naturally, encounters with the Danube were part of our recent trip.

With the children, we strolled on the banks of the river; they threw pebbles, watched ships. We talked about history: times when these parts of the world were the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. “Wait, what? Romans here?” the children wondered. So we went to a museum to see some artifacts and to learn more. Turkish invasion was the next subject….

From my hometown, we walked through a bridge over the Danube and crossed to another country. As history has redefined borders, one town has turned into two: one on each side of the Danube and each in a different country. Luckily, both countries are now part of the European Union, so we were able to enjoy ice cream on the other side of the river without needing a passport.

During our trip we stood on several castle hills, all overlooking the Danube. The children imagined themselves to be knights watching the approach of the enemy. They felt lucky to be strategically well positioned and protected in their castles. They were enjoying themselves. But I kept wondering during the whole trip: Are they unimpressed? Does this experience really sink in? Or are these only fleeting moments of fun that will be soon forgotten?

After many day trips came the long anticipated day of the harvest in the vineyard.  The harvest of vine grapes has a special place in my personal mythology for a simple reason: I was born on the day of harvest in my grandfather’s old vineyard.

The bulk of the grape harvest in that area happens around Saint Michael’s Day (September 29th). The exact time is determined by the skilled eye and taste buds of the grower/vintner. The right levels of sugar, tannin, and acid are the first step to a good wine.

On the day of the harvest, the grapes were plump, ripe, and ready. Probably like my mother’s belly on that day many harvests ago. I was happy that we were there, that my children get to see the vineyard in its full autumn beauty, that they will savor the many tastes of different grape types, all of them so distant from the supermarket varieties.

Grape harvest is quite a sensory experience. It is not only the smell and taste of the berries, but how aware we become of our hands. The super ripe berries are no longer able to contain their juices. With each picked cluster, the hands of a picker get more and more sticky from the sweet juice that, like a magnet, attracts dirt, resulting in a gray sugary second skin.

Like everything else, grape harvest has its traditions. As for lunch, we had the traditional: roasted duck prepared on the day before (because who has time to cook on a harvest day?) with pickles and bread, and sweet bread for dessert—the perfect food to eat while sitting in the grass at the edge of the vineyard or under one of the peach trees dotting the rows of wine grapes.

The life span of grape vines is 50-100 years. Although the vineyard where harvest took place on the day of my birth no longer exists, we went to visit the place where it oncegrew. We looked around in the trees, and there they were: old, woody vines climbing up the tree trunks in search of light, and still bearing grapes. We picked a basketful of this surprise fruit for my grandparents, so they could taste and remember their lost vineyard.

My grandfather is fond of grape vines. He made sure his descendants would have no lack of them in the decades to come.  At the age of 90, he decided the time had come to plant a new vineyard. And that’s what he did.

There is one single grape vine growing in my garden as a fill-in for a vineyard. I bought the plant four years ago in an Italian gardening center without being aware of its variety.  The plant bore fruit for the first time this season. With great expectations, I picked a plump berry, and to my surprise, I tasted something very familiar. I recognized the cultivar right away: sweet, aromatic with a thick slip skin. Isabella: one of the varieties that had grown in grandfather’s old vineyard.

Eva’s Recipe for Traditional Braised Cabbage

On the day of the harvest in the vineyard, roasted duck is eaten picnic-style with only bread and pickles. When served properly on the dining table for a fall Sunday lunch, roasted duck and goose are often accompanied with a side of braised cabbage. Braised cabbage is also a nice side dish to be served with pot roast, roasted ribs or any other roasted meat, including game.

1 head of cabbage (3-4 pound), shredded
1 medium onion, sliced
3 tablespoons canola oil or lard
3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
½ cup water

 

Sprinkle the shredded cabbage with 1 ½ teaspoon of salt and let it stand for 30 minutes. Squeeze out the cabbage and discard the liquid.

Using a large heavy-bottomed casserole, heat the oil or lard and sauté the onion until limp. Add the sugar, stir and let it lightly caramelize. Add the cabbage and seasonings. Pour on the water, bring to a simmer, and cover. Gently simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 3 hours or until tender. Great fresh, and even better reheated the next day.

 

 

 

The Traveler and the Cook

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, introduces her new series in The Dirt, writes about a breathtaking blueberry farm, and shares a recipe for a frozen blueberry treat…

Who doesn’t sometimes dream about faraway places, thrilling escapes, change and new experiences, about being a stranger in a welcoming place?

Most of us probably do here and there. Although partly for different reasons, the idea of travel excites children as well. And that is why we travel, and why we take our kids along. We cultivate their curiosity; we want them to see and experience; we give them the possibility for learning, for transformation and for reevaluating their self-concept. Travel suggests hope, things to discover and find, change, and a new perspective.

As we say farewell to summer, we are also leaving behind the season of vacation and travel. Wanderlust might stick around though, and we have to cope with it. Having good food is always helpful and comforting. Enjoying food that evokes faraway destinations is an even better remedy for a traveler who must stay put! The traveler can become a cook. With a little imagination, the cook (and their helpers) can go places without ever leaving their kitchen. The traveler/cook may know the desired destination and reach it, or they might be on a wonderful journey without ever arriving…

In the upcoming issues of The Dirt, we will travel through cooking. The road will take us to countries, towns, and villages that I have visited or that I, along with my children, dream to see someday.

The Traveler and the Cook in Maine

It took us more than eight hours to get to Downeast Maine. It was a long car drive – uneventful in a good way. A flight of a similar length could have taken us to Rome, Italy; Helsinki, Finland; or Lima, Peru. But we didn’t leave our continent, our time zone, and not even the country. We did, however, leave behind some of the summer heat and our everyday life.

Not too much planning went into this trip. We wanted to take the children to Acadia National Park, to see some friends, to visit a goat farm we have been to once before (because their cheese was simply unforgettable), to relax and do whatever felt best on a particular day.  The minimalistic plan seemed to work well. The children were the most happy engaging in unplanned simple activities like seeing a harbor seal (well, just its head) or a starfish, collecting shells on the beach, looking for sea glass, jumping the cold waves, petting goats and kittens on the farm, harvesting blueberries with an old-fashioned blueberry rake, or watching fisherman unloading their catch. They enjoyed the beach, which was so different from their idea of a beach or the familiar Jersey Shore: rocks instead of sand; no palm trees or grasses, but tall, dark conifers. These were not the balmy waters of the Caribbean but the rough and raw northern coastline. The space seemed so big, so stretched out. Even in the midst of the tourist season, it wasn’t hard to find a beautiful beach that we could have just for ourselves.

It was mid-August, and it was blueberry season in Maine. We couldn’t miss a visit to a blueberry farm. Our journey took us to a quite unusual one. The farmer was a former New Yorker who, I suspect, decided to trade the unpredictability of markets and corporate life for the unpredictability of nature and its elements. He was not only a farmer but also a sculptor. He cultivated his fields, and gave form and meaning to enormous pieces of basalt rock. After all, in both capacities, he was taming the nature.

Even more unusual than this man was his field of organic wild blueberries. I would have never identified that piece of landscape as a cultivated land. I saw a mild slope full of rock and some boulders. In a way it looked ordinary, but there was something breathtaking in it: a feel of sacred space. I imagined a place of ancient rituals, not a crop producing field. This was land formed by a receding glacier, the farmer explained. That made sense, but the explanation did not fully satisfy me – there was something there that simply could not be explained…

We left the farm with several pounds of wild blueberries. Some got eaten fresh and we froze the rest. The frozen ones made the trip back to New York with us and became part of our winter provision.

Every time we will take some out of the freezer to make a sweet treat, they will remind us of Maine and the mysterious field that gives life to wild blueberries.

Frozen Blueberry Treat

Recipes will be the maps on our imagined journeys. With the addition of common sense and a little bit of imagination the

results will surely be yummy.

This is a quick frozen (or almost frozen) dessert for a warm autumn day.

The recipe is so simple, even your six-year-old could prepare a treat for the family.

For 4 servings:
2 cups frozen wild blueberries
1 cup vanilla yogurt
nuts , fresh fruit or whipped cream (optional)

In a mixing bowl, combine the frozen blueberries with vanilla yogurt. Work fast and make sure the berries get covered in yogurt. (The yogurt will freeze over the blueberries.) Fill four small dessert bowls with the mixture. Decorate with fresh fruit, nuts, or whipped cream. Serve and enjoy immediately before the blueberries get defrosted.