Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Béatrice vs. Martine

(I'm about five days behind on life due to an 800-page manuscript that needs tending, but let's pretend all of the following just happened today instead of last week. Ok?)

I have been looking for a non-meat-centric, non-baking-centric French cookbook since I arrived. I have picked up some cookbooks here and there, but have mostly regretted leaving my copy of Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking back in New York. The closest all-natural cookbooks I've seen here are full of salad and soup recipes. Let me tell you something: salads and soups have their place, but I do not live on them alone. Also, it's hard to read through recipes coupled with tidbits on how to grow my own vegetables. I am fairly committed to urban dwelling at this point in my life. I accept that I will not be digging in the dirt to turn up the raw ingredients for my next meal. 

Enter La Tartine Gourmande by Béatrice Peltré. Béatrice is a French-born, Boston-living woman with a passion for food and an adorable young daughter. She mentions Whole Foods a fair amount in her book and said book is even blurbed by none other than Heidi Swanson and David Lebovitz (whose charming memoir/recipe book on Parisian living won me over despite my initial skepticism). Such a perfect find for me already, and to boot, her recipes are written with side-by-side measurements for both an American and a French kitchen. I can use my Matriushka-shaped measuring cups or tell the farmer's market folks exactly how many grams I need of something. I quickly promoted this volume to "most treasured cookbook ever" status, before I'd even cooked a single recipe out of it.

So, I was all set to bake some chocolate-tahini cookies when my sous-chef Malanga Girl questioned why I needed to listen to this Béatrice woman at all. Didn't I realize that Martine was the only French girl worth emulating, experienced as she was in such admirable and diverse activities as ballet dancing, horseback riding, taking care of her baby brother AND cooking? Oh yes, it's true, long before La Tartine Gourmande came out, Martine had her own cookbook. Béatrice Peltré even mentions dear old Martine in her own book!

But did I listen to Malanga Girl at first? No, I overrode her and went off to the health food store. I searched for all the special flours Béatrice calls for in her chocolate-tahini cookies: brown rice flour, millet flour, and quinoa flour, plus quinoa flakes. I tossed a neat little jar of tahini sauce and the perfect tablet of chocolate into my panier (basket) and headed to the downstairs flour section. There was the millet flour, mercifully also called millet in French since I had forgotten to look it up, and there were two bags of what could be brown rice flour if I could just figure out why the names were slightly different. But, the shelf that was labeled with "quinoa flour" was empty. Well, no matter, surely I could ask for some from the back. I headed to the register.

Now, I should mention that for months and months, I was greeted at the health food store by the same wonderfully pleasant woman who always chit-chatted with me, asked about Malanga Girl and recommended new recipes. Sadly, she went back to school this fall. (But not before telling me she was leaving and exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses with me!) Her replacement is not nearly as charming. Actually, she borders on rude. So when I asked her about the quinoa flour and received a mildly sarcastic response indicating that if I didn't see it on the shelf, then they clearly didn't have any, my dreams of baking chocolate-tahini cookies were crushed. I like to think my refusal to buy everything in my panier would show that rude clerk that she should perhaps offer a cheery "I'm sorry we're out of that right now" to the news of no quinoa flour, but I am mostly certain she could care less.

So what's a Malanga Mama to do when she craves chocolate cookies and has no quinoa flour? That's right, I turned to Martine's recipe for chocolate-chip cookies, using regular old flour, chocolate chips, butter, sugar an egg and pecans. The recipe even has a little note about the origins of pecans and how they grow in North America, a factoid that Malanga Girl was very excited about.

We ate the cookies too quickly to photograph them at all. But they were delicious!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Oh, Lusitania!

In case you haven't noticed, I spend a lot of time planning the trips I take with Malanga Girl. Even when it's just a whirlwind-we'll-only-be-there-for-two-days kind of trip, I want to know if there's some amazing park or museum or puppet theater we should check out. It helps when we have a local friend to show us around, but I'm not shy about emailing everyone I know to ask for recommendations or about poking around the Internet to get ideas. I found way too many suggestions for our recent jaunt to Lisbon, one of my very favorite cities anywhere. If you don't know my friend Miguel, who was a brilliant host when I went to Lisbon for a quick work-related visit this summer, then check out this page for a full line-up of kid-friendly activities.

For me, Lisbon is a wonderful place to just spend hours sitting in a cafe in the Chiado, sipping coffee, reading a book and nibbling on a pastel de nata, or two, as the sun shines down on me. Malanga Girl's enthusiasm for pasteis de nata rivals my own, but she has little desire to sit still for long. (Incidentally, if you're ever looking for a pastel de nata in Paris, I highly recommend Comme à Lisbonne on Rue du Roi de Sicile.) So, off we went to explore. A full day was spent running around the towns of Cascais and Sintra with my parents, whose quick trek through various towns in Spain and Portugal prompted our decision to fly to Lisbon in the first place.

In Sintra, the Museu do Brinquedo was just as quirky and charming as I remembered from a very long-ago visit with Malanga Papa (pre-Euro days, that's how long ago it was). Malanga Girl spent a long time on the third floor devoted to bonecas (dolls) of all shapes and sizes while her grandfather looked at all the miniature tin soldiers, Red Cross ambulances and other WWII-era toys. He happened upon quite a few things that he claims he hadn't seen since his own childhood. In short, the Museu do Brinquedo was the perfect multi-generational family outing.

A large part of our only full day in Lisbon was spent at the Marionette Museum, a museum Malanga Girl now claims is her favorite in the world. I'm not sure if any pictures do it justice as you can't quite feel the awe and magic of the dimly-lit puppet-filled rooms. Nonetheless, above is a sweet one to give you a sense of the museum.

One of Malanga Girl's enduring Portuguese obsessions now has to do with the unscripted moments of TV-watching while on vacation. At home, I am not a big TV person, but I do find it fun to flip through the channels on foreign TV to see what's popular in another country. Not only did I find plenty of Brazilian telenovelas airing on Portuguese TV (my guilty pleasure), we also found a kids' channel broadcasting Portuguese acts like Xana Toc Toc and Os Caricas. Malanga Girl found Xana Toc Toc's A Mala Cor de Rosa  to be positively addictive. Perhaps you will, too.

Monday, September 3, 2012

72 Hours in Berlin

I was an idealistic thirteen-year-old when I saw images of the Berlin Wall coming down, broadcast on TV in our U.S. living room, with my parents chanting "Cuba's next!" next to me on the sofa. I still remember Schwester Irene, our high school German teacher, and her excitement about the events unfolding in Germany in 1989. She brought in newspapers with big, bright pictures of people just a few years older than us standing atop the Wall or at the Brandenburg Gate, arms raised, faces caught in mid-yell. And so Berlin had lived in my imagination since then, despite my best efforts to visit it properly on previous European trips.

Malanga Girl and I made the two-hour flight to Berlin on a Wednesday afternoon last week, with a long list of sights to see, parks to visit and things to eat before our return flight on Saturday (thanks, KP, whose German experiences are artfully chronicled here). I had no idea how immense the city of Berlin is nor how much living in compact, walkable from end-to-end Paris has skewed my ability to manage my time in other cities. We quickly learned how to navigate both the S-bahn and the U-bahn, and learned that you can ride it for a long, long time and still be in Berlin proper. There's a lot we didn't do. Let's get that out of the way first, so I can refer back to this list in case I get to Berlin again anytime soon.

We didn't get to visit Checkpoint Charlie or the Museum there or any of the last remaining pieces of the Wall at Mauer Park or East Side Gallery; we missed out on the German Museum of Technology (supposedly fantastic for smaller visitors), the Legoland Discovery Center at Potsdamer Platz and on the more pedestrian pleasures of tasting Currywurst or a Berliner (jelly doughnut). We walked past the lovely and inviting Cafe im Literaturhaus, but Malanga Girl wasn't too interested in making a pit-stop there. I am also disappointed to report that I discovered upon arrival in Berlin that I'd left my camera's battery in Paris, so I have no pictures of our journey or of Berlin's majestic, tree-filled parks. I am inclined to call them mini-forests instead of parks. We did get our fill of those and you will have to believe my description, in lieu of pictures.

Here's everything we did see, hour by hour.


5 p.m.
1) Charlottenburg

We arrived at Zoo Station via train from Schönefeld Airport. It was a very easy ride, during which I couldn't stop thinking of U2's Achtung Baby, another strong high school memory. After checking in at the Grand City Hotel and realizing it was the biggest hotel room I'd ever been assigned in Europe, Malanga Girl and I wandered up to Savigny Platz. There were tons of sidewalk cafes and restaurants inviting us to sit down for a meal. Hesitant of my German language skills, I chose Anda Lucia, the Spanish tapas restaurant where the entire waitstaff spoke Spanish with accents from Southern Spain. Minus two points for not pushing my comfort zone, but at least I asked the waiter to teach me how to say "check, please" in German.


11 a.m.
2) Tiergarten

We walked past the Zoo, at the request of Malanga Girl (who was not in a zoo-visiting mood this day), and entered the vast Tiergarten, a veritable forest in the very center of Berlin. I had to consult one of the large maps posted by Strasse des 17 Juni (the main road that cuts through the Park) to find the Spielplätze (playgrounds) hidden within the dense lot of trees. We went to two different playgrounds, although there were several more dotting the Tiergarten map.

2 p.m.
3) Bus #100

My French guide book said this was the bus to take to get a full tour of Berlin's greatest sites. When I realized we were only 1/3 of the way through the Tiergarten and that it might take us much longer than I anticipated to reach the Brandenburg Gate on foot, I jumped on the #100 bus that stopped as we were waiting to cross the street. Too bad I got on in the wrong direction. Instead of taking us through the rest of the Tiergarten and then to the Brandenburg Gate, up Unter den Linden and eventually to Alexanderplatz, the bus took us back to the Zoo. We jumped on the U-bahn at Zoo Station to fix this mistake. It is extremely handy that a public transport ticket is valid for a full two hours no matter which combination of buses, S-bahn and U-bahn trains you take and not just valid for a single ride (take a lesson there, Paris).

3 p.m.
4) Unter den Linden (Mitte)

We stopped for an Apfelstrudel at Cafe Einstein. Malanga Girl accompanied hers with Erdbeer Eis (strawberry ice cream), even though the menu suggested Vanilla ice cream. One Apfelstrudrel would have sufficed for the two of us since it was rather large. The strawberry ice cream threw Malanga Girl over the top and she had no interest in eating anything again for several hours.

We wandered into Berlin Story bookshop, where there were many novels set in and about Berlin, available in English, as well as dozens of guidebooks, post cards, and children's books. I consulted more guide books with lists of child-friendly sites, just in case I could cram any more into my 72-hour window. I am compulsive like that. Two doors down from Berlin Story, we popped into the Nivea flagship store, because I can't resist gawking at beauty products. Too bad I wasn't checking luggage on the flight back as there weren't really any travel-sized containers to be had.

5 p.m.
5) Monbijou Park

This park is across the bridge from Museuminsel, the island home to many of Berlin's important museums. Malanga Girl and I made a deal that she would accompany me to a museum if we went to one more Spielplätz. The Berlin sky drizzled some rain on us, but Malanga Girl didn't mind at all as she climbed all over the playground equipment. Meanwhile, I studied the map once again in awe of how much ground we had covered with our feet already and how much of Berlin was still left unexplored.

6:30 p.m.
6) Pergamon Museum

Museums are open as late as 10 p.m. on Thursdays. Some are free after 6 p.m. According to the sign on the door, the Pergamon is not and hasn't been since 2010. Happily, admission is free for kids. This museum was quite magical, with its Greek altar and Gates of Babylon. The Museum of Islamic Art, on the second floor, also housed a beautiful collection and included a domed Moorish ceiling from Granada, Spain.

8:30 p.m.
7) Fernsehturm- the TV Tower

Just when I was looking for Bus # 100 to take us back to our hotel area, Malanga Girl spotted the TV tower and wanted to go inside. We walked until Unter den Linden meets Alexanderplatz and rode all the way up to the top of the tower. (It's open until midnight, in case you were wondering.) I enjoyed the view of the Brandenburg Gate at night, but couldn't quite make out the Soviet-style buildings of Karl Marx Allee. Surprisingly, this ended up being Malanga Girl's favorite sight in all of Berlin, even though she wondered why we couldn't go all the way up to the skinniest point of the tower.

9:30 p.m.
8) Bus #200

We got tired of waiting for Bus #100, so hopped on Bus # 200 instead. The end of the line is Zoo Station as well, but it goes through Potsdamer Platz instead of through the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten. Several train lines stop at Alexanderplatz, but  I actually love seeing cities from the windows of its public buses.


11 a.m.
9) Viktoria Park (Kreuzberg)

Another veritable mini-forest in the middle of the city. I had to ask three different people, "Wo ist die Spielplätz?" to find the playground. I believe there's actually more than one playground in this park, but the one we found is by the tennis/raquetball court on the western edge of the park. I marked it with an "x" on my physical map of Berlin, like a treasure spot.

4 p.m.
10) Zoo

It took a long time to get out to Kreuzberg in the morning and back to the Zoo area, which is a shame since the Zoo closes at 6 p.m. Nonetheless, we got a nice taste of what a wonderful Zoo this is. The giraffes mesmerized both of us and Malanga Girl was also quite taken with the lions. In addition to the almost 14,00 animals, there are also small playground areas in the Zoo, as well as, you guessed it, many, many trees. I would go to Berlin again just to spend a full day at the Zoo with Malanga Girl.

6:30 p.m.
11) Ka De We

This is the big department store in Berlin- Kaufhaus den Westens. According to one of my guide books, it's also continental Europe's largest department store. Ka De We is a short walk from the Zoo and is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays, so it seemed like a good place to stop before dinner. The gourmet food hall on the top floor satisfied my usual curiosities about food-shopping in other countries (and had some deliciously ripe peaches that we ate on the spot). The toy floor, however, was where we spent most of our time. Playmobil, Haba, Gotz dolls, Steiff stuffed animals and various non-German brands of toys all share space here in neat rows that afford opportunity for hands-on play. It was the vastest toy selection I've seen in a long time (in Europe, at least) and the prices were very reasonable considering that Ka De We is an upscale department store. We left with a few new Playmobil figures, including a flight attendant from the Playmobil "Special Plus" collection, a collection I haven't seen in France at all. I also grabbed a German Playmobil catalogue and have since been agonizing over the price difference (compared to France) and the availability of play sets in Germany that I didn't previously know existed. Maybe they'll come out here soon?


10 a.m.
12) The long subway ride to Kollwitz Plaza

I thought I was planning efficiently by choosing a playground spot right by a much-raved-about farmers' market on the same side of town as the airport, where I had to be by about 12:30 p.m. Little did I know that the journey from Charlottenburg to the neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg would take almost an hour, leaving us just a precious 30 minutes or so to take in the market (well worth the hype) and play in the playground (also quite nice). There was no time left at all to walk just the few blocks or so on to Mauer Park before heading to the airport, but I'm glad Malanga Girl was able to get a final taste of Berlin's Spielplätze.

12 p.m.
13) Weltzeituhr- Alexanderplatz

Our last ground-view glimpse of Berlin was of the Weltzeituhr, the World Time Clock, on Alexanderplatz as we ran from the U-bahn station to the big train station for our airport-bound line. This futuristic-looking clock shows the time in different cities around the world. It gave me pause for thought that this clock was at the heart of East Berlin back in the day, and that most people there were never allowed to visit any of the cities listed on the clock.