Saturday, April 21, 2012

the coveted pastry

I fingered the money in my pocket, just a few bills and some coins, but enough to have a couple of Marks left over.  I smiled in anticipation.  I knew exactly what I would buy with those extra Marks.  I headed up my street and turned down a narrow road that led me up a hill towards the town square.  My shoes made a satisfying tromping noise on the cobblestones as I wove through the old buildings to the small bakery tucked at the edge of the square.  I looked up at the tall houses to see window boxes snuggled in between old shutters, overflowing with bright, red geraniums. Their long tendrils hung lazily over the sides, crowded with bright, green leaves.

Looking ahead, I could see the open square: an empty gathering place with picnic tables, always crowded on weekends in the fall when Oktoberfest was in full swing.  Along the edges of the square were all of my favorite stops: the Gausthaus that served spicy goulash soup and huge cuts of breaded schnitzel paired with fluffy, handmade spaetzle; the gelato shop shining with rows of aluminum bins, packed with a rainbow of creamy colors; the narrow gift shop crowded with stickers, cards, pens, clips and desirably useless gadgets of all sorts.

And then there was the bakery.

The storefront was lined with windows just begging to be leaned upon by passers-by who fell into a food trance at the sight of golden apple strudels, stacked chocolate cakes, twisted egg breads, pyramids of sweet buns, creme-filled pastries, dark loaves of sturdy rye and almond tarts loaded with homemade jam.  Once inside, the counter of glass cases revealed an endless array of pastries, while shelves on the wall behind were stacked with fresh loaves of bread - some hearty and crusty to sop up the juices of a good roast and others delicate and sweet to nibble on with a cup of strong coffee.

Mom sent me to get a nice loaf for dinner - something with a good personality that's soft inside with a crust that will crack and flake when you tear into it.  As an added bonus, she gave me a little extra to get something sweet.  Now you may be thinking that with such an overwhelming variety of options, I might agonize over which pastry or tart to choose.

You would be wrong.

I coveted one pastry over all others. 

I anxiously searched through the glass cases.  And then, I found it.  Light, fluffy chocolate cream slathered thickly between two triangular pastry cookies - piped choux paste baked to golden perfection.  But wait - there's more!  Each corner was then dipped in bittersweet chocolate to create the perfect pastry: creamy, crunchy, chocolaty heaven.  My mouth watered at the sound of the thin, waxed paper crinkling around the large sandwich cookie.  Fortunately, I remembered my task and selected a fresh, round loaf with a dark brown crust as well.

I barely stepped out of the bakery before I reached into the bag.  The first bite stopped me in my tracks.  I had to stand still to savor each layer and catch each precious crumb.  If I had the willpower to make it home, a glass of cold milk would be the perfect companion.  But it never happened.

I remember the look, the smell, the taste of that sandwich cookie as if I devoured one just yesterday, but, in reality, my last trip to the bakery was in 1989.  My father was stationed in Germany, which brought us to the town of Oppenheim, right along the banks of the Rhine River.  One of many food memories of our three year stay in the country, this one remains one of the most vivid.  I don't know if that bakery is still there, nestled into the corner of the small town square, but I often dream of returning to get just one more chocolate cream triangle cookie, dipped in bittersweet goodness...who am I kidding?  I would get at least a dozen to tide me over until my next trip....the next day.

Monday, April 9, 2012

the seed of an idea

What is food to me?

It seems like a simple question, but the answer has filled pages of my journal and I've barely begun to answer it.

Smells and tastes evoke vivid images of their origins. Food is the tag for each life experience; it's the way my mind catalogs memories.  Bright tags with texture, color and smell hang from each memory.  They're all tucked into towering, wooden bookcases that line the walls of a cozy, circular library - the type with rolling ladders to reach high shelves, and tight, spiral staircases.  An oval skylight nestled into the dome roof high above showers warm sunshine into the room, with the help of several tall, skinny windows, reminiscent of any descent medieval tower.  Ivy and other climbing vines wind around banisters from great earthen pots on the ground floor.  Each level boasts a wooden window box overflowing with herbs and happy wildflowers from thyme and lavender to black-eyed susans and rosemary.  There are nooks that beckon: window seats lined with cushions, hammocks hanging with handmade quilts, plush grandmother chairs, antique rockers with soft pillows and knit afghans - all for me to lounge in once I've settled on a memory to savor.  A warm mug of tea in one hand with a soft, spiced ginger cookie or maybe a warm double chocolate brownie and a cold glass of milk that day to keep my company as I open the sturdy cover of a chosen memory to reveal the well-worn pages.

The walls melt away and I'm in my own memory, hearing, smelling, seeing, touching and TASTING it - I can feel the texture of the foods in my mouth, the mix of herbs and spices, savory or sweet, hot or cold, creamy or crunchy, salty or tangy - and the soundtrack snaps on: conversations, laughter, the wistful scrape of a fork on an empty plate, the rustle of the paper at the bakery as the pastry is pulled from the tray, the buzz of fat bees in my ear...

And that's where the seed began to grow.  These memories have gone from rustling to whispering to shouting from the shelves to be heard!  And at the same time, recipes and stories from my roots are bubbling up to the surface.  So I've started digging for more.  And all along, I've been cooking, baking, mixing, tasting and experimenting with wild abandon in the kitchen.  So this blog is a mix of memories - mine and those of my family - woven into recipes, food travels, and other tasteful stories.  I hope it inspires you to share your own food memories and family recipes with those you love.
Eat well-