August 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
Yesterday I tried ice cream for the first time in the Czech Republic, arguably one of their main food groups (alongside bread, meat and potatoes). It was light and fluffy, unlike any other ice cream I have tasted. It has the texture of whipped cream in a frozen state and came in flavors such as whiskey cream and sour berry. A single scoop cost 20 crowns, just over a dollar.
Later in the day, we walked a couple more blocks to the Mysak pastry shop. After a bit of fussing around with the guy behind the counter — who we are certain now, was attempting to ask us back for coffee sometime, but couldn’t quite phrase the question correctly and then got nervous when we didn’t understand — we made our (single) order: a white sponge cake topped with a layer of fluffed cream and a tall layer of jellied sour berries, all covered in a sheet of marzipan. It got wrapped up so extensively that we stood on the sidewalk for a good five minutes, spoons at the ready, battling sheets of paper out of the way to get at the slice.
Standing on the street, I realized this was probably the first real food adventuring I have done in Prague, not counting the first time I tried fried Camembert with cranberry relish. Here, I’ve been more obsessed with the people, the people from all over the world (though mostly Europe) that flock here. Not the people that are scrambling into pictures on the Charles Bridge, but the people who have come here and somehow ended up staying. The people you find sitting on the curb in the middle of the night, tying their metallic gold kicks, who jump at a conversation when you compliment their shoes. The French tourists you can convince from going to one of the snazziest clubs in town to one of the grungiest, and they don’t even bat an eye. The Dutch kids, and oh there are a lot of them — I think I’ve heard “I’m from Holland” more than any other country combined in the past few weeks — who arrive in huge packs (think 11).
Which is sort of how I came here. But it’s funny now, as I am talking to a bunch of Czech youth for an article I am finishing up, how similar the atmosphere here is, at least politically — the frustration with feeling like the government rarely does what it promises on the campaign trail, the apathy of the youth towards voting because they feel it will not make a difference, the feeling that the country’s money is not going where it should. The article has been a reminder that a lot of political and economic problems traverse national and cultural borders, that a lot of the world’s issues are the same no matter where you go. So while I may talk a lot about food, and what you can learn about a culture through it, nothing really beats getting out there and talking to people.
Bonus points if the talking occurs over a bowl of this ice cream.
I followed this recipe to a tee, except I used these instructions for making ice cream by hand. Yes, you read that correctly. You do not need an ice cream maker. Get in the kitchen and make this, your view of ice cream will never be the same again.
July 3, 2011 § Leave a comment
The other day I was sitting on our rooftop balcony, overlooking the grassy area between the houses on our block, wearing Ray-Bans, book in hand, wanting for a friend to arrive. This cake was sitting on a heavy wood cutting board on the table and places were set for two people. The plates may have been a bit chipped, but this cake came out of the pan perfectly intact; so perfectly in fact, that I still like looking at the pictures of it in awe at how pretty it was.
Upside-down cakes make me really nervous. Actually, cakes made me nervous in general. I always, always manage to skip a step in the recipe and never wait long enough for them to cool and end up with a cake that needs significant patching up. Add to that the stress of having to flip something upside down, and I’m left with that brief but sickening moment wondering if I’m going to end up with a picture perfect slab of cake or a gooey, broken lump of cake and cooked fruit. But that queasiness was gone in a flash when this cake overturned beautifully.
We ate some for lunch that day, some for breakfast the next day, some with a glass of Slivovitz the next night. Basically everyone I know if this city ate some of this cake, which is a very good thing because there was quite a bit of it. The other point of triumph is that I finally found some produce that was more than just edible here. In the states, I would never pick up a basket of cherries at a corner store, from a table right next to the liquor shelves. But I will say that the apricots I purchased here were the first fresh apricots I have ever enjoyed eating in my entire life.
How’s that for eating in the Czech Republic?
Apricot-Cherry Upside Down Cake
Adapted from David Lebovitz
Makes one 13 x 10 inch slab cake
For the fruit layer:
6 tablespoons butter (90g)
1 1/2 cups packed (270g) brown sugar
About 20 apricots, quartered
2 cups of cherries, halved and pitted
For the cake layer:
8 tablespoons (115g) unsalted butter
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (210g) flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (125ml) plain yogurt
In a saucepan, melt the 6 tablespoons of butter. Add the brown sugar and stir constantly until the sugar is melted and begins to bubble. Remove from heat and pour into the baking dish. When the caramel mixture is cooled, top with rows of cut fruit. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F (190C).
Cream the 8 tablespoons of butter and sugar until fluffly. Add the vanilla, then the eggs, and beat until smooth.
Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Fold in half of the flour mixture, then the yogurt, then the remaining dry ingredients. Mix until the flour is just incorporated.
Spread the batter over the fruit layer and bake for about 40 minutes. The center of the cake will be set and the fruit may bubble around the edges when it is done. Remove the cake from the oven, let cool for about 20 minutes and flip the cake out onto the plate.
June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
I think the rain follows me. It catches me at the most inopportune moments. Like now when I went out to a café to write in a sundress and then the downpour started. The café is connected to one of the English speaking bookstores for all the expats who still want a taste of home; I don’t mind, I like real espresso instead of instant coffee and the red velvet lounge chairs are comfy enough to wait out the storm. Yesterday the dark clouds came in as fireworks spontaneously rose up over the river. There was never really any explanation of what we were celebrating, which I am learning seems to be the norm here. But we ran to the living room window anyway, which overlooks the town to the west, and watched the lights rise and fall in the distance. I could get used to that.
What is harder to get used to is the food here — displays of dense, heavy dumplings and strange animal body parts (have you ever eaten a pig’s knee before?). The closest I have gotten to eating well here is getting an Italian guy to offer to make dinner for me. Which I don’t think really counts as eating well in the Czech Republic. I am also not going to get used to the produce selection in the supermarket nearest me — vegetable choices range from tomatoes to lettuce to bell peppers…and, that’s about it. In order to survive, I am making huge batches of cashew-berry-papaya granola and eating it with yogurt at all times of the day. The yogurt here is rich and creamy enough to never even think of added sugar. And there is just enough space in my new kitchen to want to spend some time in it.
The church bells are usually ringing as I come back from my run. The butter cuts easily into the flour for savory piecrust. The water boils on the counter. The tea is creamy, because I still haven’t found skim milk. The light streams in through the window, the trees in the backyard garden below are damp with last night’s rain. As I step out the door and onto the metro, I remember to smile and nod when people talk to me. Act like you understand what they’re saying, and no one will ever know the difference. The best part is running down the street and not knowing what the guys are saying to you. It’s like living in a bubble, where you can make up the reality around you.
In the center of town, other languages fly in every direction. The Charles Bridge teems with visitors and reminds me of the Rialto Bridge in Venice. I get frustrated winding through the crowd with the cameras flashing, before realizing, wait, I actually know where I am going! I haven’t taken out a map since my second day here, it seems impossible to get lost. Meanwhile, the winding side streets, with old wooden doors and graffiti decorations, are captivating. The cobblestones are rough on the feet but I know the streets would look barren without them. Small groups of musicians wait around the corner, laze by the river, strumming guitars and blowing into long horns. A climb in a park means looking out at the rowers and sailors on the river as they disappear off into the horizon.
If other cities I have been to have been detailed and ornate, here, walls looks like they were made by hand. The rusticity makes the streets all the more beautiful. That might be one of the main reasons why I love my kitchen here. I feel perfectly in place rolling out a rustic dough on the wooden table, filling it with ground nuts and butter and plopping a few dried plums right in the middle.
The recipe for this tart, fittingly, comes from the book Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli.
June 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’m sitting on the balcony patio of our apartment in Prague, on the top floor of an old yellow building surrounded by tiled red rooftops. It’s not quite six in the morning but I’m wide awake and finally, for the first time since arriving here a couple of days ago, processing actually being here. I have been awake for every sunrise and sunset since my arrival. I have climbed the 287 stairs to the top of the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral at the Prague Castle on two hours of sleep the night before. I have watched the Canucks lose the series with the expats and sat in a smoky hookah bar with the locals, where you pay however much you feel like paying on the way out. I’ve tried zero of the Czech specialties, though have had some of the best frites of my life. I’ve discovered the hard way that beer is really cheaper than water here. We’ve eaten Hungarian poppyseed cake, made by a Couchsurfing visitor, and made pizza instead of ordering from down the street, and I’ve brought over caramelized onion quiche for the morning after. Not bad for a couple of twenty-somethings in a new city.
I love looking out the window at the colorful, lacey rooftops, interrupted every so often with two rising cathedral towers. The rooftops remind me of the brightly colored Victorians back home. The wind rattles the open windows, just like the storms at home. The clouds that part briefly to give way to the sun, only to come sweeping back in a couple of minutes later. Unlike in Paris, I am acutely aware of being in a foreign country, as all I can manage to do in an everyday exchange with the grocer is smile in response to her talking. But without the romantics and the hype, and if you’re excluding that time I got caught in a torrential downpour in four inch heels walking to the closed metro station, it’s a very homey place. I feel like I have been here forever already.
If I believed in love at first sight, Prague might be it.