Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Cafe Society

One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by. You are never hassled to move on, they serve breakfast all day long and usually have an array of freshed baked cakes. German cafes tend to have a handy stash of magazines and newspapers, so if you happen to leave your book at home, there’s always something to read.

Writing at home is fraught with booby-traps: the laundry, the phone, members of my family, so I have spent large chunks of the last three years writing in Heidelberg cafes where I have no alternative but to knuckle down. I thought that over the next few weeks, I’d introduce you to some of my favourites.

The first candidate is my newest find, the Literature Cafe. On arriving in Heidelberg, the first thing we did was join the library, a lovely glass building overlooking a small park in the centre of town. It is light-filled, groaning with books and scattered with cushions for readers to lounge on. My family and I felt immediately at home.

Attached to the library is the Literature Cafe and yesterday, without my small attendants and in need of a quiet hour to face my novel revisions, I went there. The cafe is glass-walled, like the library, so even on a gloomy, rain-bespattered day, it was light. There is a terrace that will come into its own in a couple of months time.

The cafe has a small menu of hot and cold drinks, breakfast items, sandwiches and cakes, which are apparently baked by the owner herself. There is a short daily specials menu, and since I was there at lunch-time, I ordered the spicy vegetable coconut soup, which was delicious and an extremely reasonable €3.50. Along with a large Milchkaffee and a mineral water, my bill came in at €7.50. The service was polite and efficient, and in the German manner to which I have grown happily accustomed, not over-friendly. On Sunday, the Literature Cafe does a brunch for €6.50 per person, which is a bargain. There is a selection of 50 newspapers from around the world, which customers are welcome to pick up and read with their coffee.

For me, the Literature Cafe’s biggest selling point is its proximity to  the library. You can get your books and head straight for the cafe to start reading. The clientele yesterday were mainly people on their own, either reading or writing. Those in couples or groups spoke quietly, as if in deference to the library next door, and the only person who broke the quiet was a four-year-old who had a spectacular melt-down but was quickly removed by his mother. I could still hear his screams of  ‘Mean Mummy! Mean Mummy!’ going down the road as I smugly returned to my personal oasis of coffee and words.

Heidelberg’s Literature Cafe can be found at Poststrasse 15. It is open Tuesday to Friday from 10am till 8pm, Saturdays from 10am till 5pm and Sundays from 10am till 3pm.

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Carrot Cake Muffins

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Here, by popular demand, is the carrot cake muffin recipe I mentioned last week. It comes from a book called Muffins und Törtchen, Einfach und Schnell by Susanna Tee, and this recipe is both simple and fast. It also happens to be delicious, and the marscapone frosting is a new level of heavenly. I far prefer it to the traditional cream cheese frosting used for carrot cakes – it’s more subtle and flavoursome. It’s the cream cheese frosting’s grown-up sister, who’s moved away to university and come home with a new sheen of sophistication. And in the German style, neither the frosting nor the muffins are overly sweet. It calls for brown sugar, which is great if you have it, but I have used plain white caster sugar to no noticeable ill-effect. If you don’t live in Germany and can’t get gingerbread spices, use a mixture of ground cinnamon and ground ginger.

Ingredients:

125g softened butter

125g brown sugar

Zest and juice of one unwaxed orange

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

175g of grated carrot

5 tablespoons of walnuts, chopped

125g flour

1 teaspoon of gingerbread spices

1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder

For the frosting:

280g marscapone

4 tablespoons icing-sugar

Zest of one unwaxed orange

Method:

Preheat oven to 180 degrees, and put muffin cases in a muffin tray.

Cream the butter, sugar and orange zest. Add the beaten egg bit by bit, and stir well. Dry the grated carrot on a kitchen towel and then add to the mixture along with the walnuts and the orange juice. Stir well. Fold in the flour, baking powder and spices with a metal spoon. Divide between the muffin cases.

Bake the muffins for 25 minutes until they are golden brown and feel springy to the touch. Cool on a baking tray.

Stir the marscapone, icing-sugar and orange zest.

When the muffins have cooled, ice them.

Decorate with marzipan fruits or whole walnuts or a smattering of orange zest or leave plain.

Enjoy!


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Welcome to the Tea Party

I’ve decided that if I don’t crack it as a novelist, I’m going to offer my services as a professional tea party organiser. I love it all: the baking of delicious goodies, choosing and arranging flowers, sourcing decorations, using objects I already own to prettify the room and table. It’s a silly lot of fluff really, but a ridiculous amount of fun. The Headmistress of the young ladies’ college I once attended would have been proud that I am finally putting my skills to good use. (I actually considered creating a category called “Entertaining” to describe this post, but managed to restrain myself for fear of sounding too much like a Fifties housewife.)

So this weekend, I hosted a baby shower for a friend who happens to be having a baby boy. I once attended a baby shower where the mother-to-be had to “apple-dip” for a chocolate bar floating in a child’s potty full of orange juice while her arms were tied behind her back. With that horror in mind, I did some research as to the kinds of things people do at baby showers, and these were three suggestions that cropped up:

* Squash different kinds of chocolate bars into disposable nappies and then pass around the room for people to sniff and guess which nappy holds which chocolate bar. The winner is the one with the most correct answers.

* Each person gets a jar of baby food and a plastic spoon. The winner is the person who can eat their jar the fastest.

* Divide into two teams and equip each team with a roll of loo paper. See which team can construct a nappy on one lucky individual without using glue, tape or pins.

Having digested these, I decided a tea party was in order. Something dignified, pleasant, with good things to eat, champagne for those who could, punch for those who couldn’t, lots of tea and coffee. No apple dipping or chocolate bars in sight.

Instead, there was bunting:

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I am hysterical about bunting. I love it. I was quite sad when after a few days my family requested that I took the bunting down because it was “embarrassing”. I looked on Etsy and there are a few people making bunting, but there’s a big gap in the market for lots more of it. I would prefer to use it for children’s parties than the plastic rubbish I buy at the supermarket and then throw away after three hours.

Want a close-up? Here it is again:

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There was cake:

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Victoria sponge with lemon curd

Lots of it:

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Lemon cake

My personal favourite, carrot cake muffins with marscapone icing:

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Rose-scented macaroons:

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And champagne:

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There were also some savoury snacks brought by friends, because I like to focus on the sugar. However, when I have my fantasy tea-party company, there will also be cucumber sandwiches and very fine slices of rare roast beef.

Need any catering done?


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New York, New York

I thought I’d better write about New York before the last blister heals. It’s taken me a week to process the cacophony of images from my seven days in the city that never sleeps, but I am about ready to say something. I’m going to distill it under headings otherwise my post would read something like this: “Ooh, shops! BARGAINS. New shoes, see friends, meet bloggers. Shops! Drink red wine this instant. BIG buildings. Where’s the sky? Oh, the Park, lovely. Shops! Mani, pedi, wax and go. Shops! Flashing lights! Bring on the entertainments. I want the finest wines, $10 a GLASS?! …. no, sorry, just the cheapest will do. Shops!”

New York – The Literature

43% of poll respondents voted for One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell as the book I should take to New York, and I was secretly hoping it would be so. Unfortunately, it contained on page 23 the line “That was the defining moment of great sex – when the penis met the vagina” which I found unbearably irritating. So I packed The Age of Innocence instead, a lovely book where there are no penises and no vaginas and very few defining moments. Afterwards I read Chasing Harry Winston by Lauren Weisberger, which was the mix of humour, chick-lit and Sex and The City wisecracking I had been expecting from the Bushnell book.

New York – The Bloggers

On Day Two I met Emily, the Hobgoblin, Dorothy, Cam, Becky and Zoesmom at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam. There was the usual five-minute dissonance between the person and the blog that I am learning happens when I meet people off the Internet (including remembering to call people by their real names), and then that faded and we got on with having a lovely day: eating pastries, book shopping at The Strand on Union Square followed by a late and boozy lunch at Chat ‘n Chew, which is much better than it sounds. I had a fabulous Caesar salad. Then I started swaying on my feet, so pleaded jet lag and headed home while the others proceeded to another bookshop. I was really thrilled to meet everyone, and touched by how far some had travelled to be there – Americans have no fear of distances. It’s that pioneer spirit.

New York – The Shopping

Oh my God, how I love Macy’s. I could move in there – make myself a little nest in the handbag department and fall asleep every night to the comforting smell of leather. I have brought home a Macy’s handbag just to remind me of my spiritual home. Apart from the shopping, I love their pick and mix salad bar in the basement, where the salad associate created a bacon, avo and feta salad on baby spinach leaves for me. I am also in love with Anthropologie, a shop where I could own everything, but from which I have one fabulous T-shirt. We had a morning in Century 21, a downtown discount store full of designer bargains. My best shopping blow-out happened at the Designer Shoe Warehouse on Union Square, where I bought three pairs of utterly fabulous shoes. On Fifth Avenue I entered many shops – Tiffany’s, Harry Winston’s, Bendells – and just looked, but at Bergdorf Goodman’s I had a make-up accident at the Bobbi Brown counter.

New York – The Tourism

Immediately after our Bobbi Brown makeovers, V and I got on the Sex and The City tour bus, which visits 40 locations from the show (thanks for the hot tip, Ms Make Tea!). Most of the locations you see from the bus, but we got off at the three places – the Pleasure Chest, where Charlotte buys her Rabbit; the Magnolia Bakery, where Carrie and Miranda eat a cupcake; and Steve’s bar Scout, where we finished off the tour with a Cosmopolitan. For mild to strong SATC fans, I can really recommend this tour – it gives you a great idea of the city and the neighbourhoods you might want to go back to, it’s a lot of fun (the atmosphere gets very giggly after the visit to the Pleasure Chest), and the tour guides are actresses with a good line in patter. The cupcakes and the Cosmopolitans are thrown in too.

Some out-of-town friends fed me wine on the Sunday and got me up to the top of the Rockefeller Centre (70-something storeys). I didn’t want to go, because I’m not one for heights, but I was glad I did as the view was wonderful and my internal Manhattan map clicked into place up there. Later, we visited Grand Central Station to admire the ceiling, had a brief altercation with the Angriest Cop in New York, got on the subway and headed for the Village where we spent the afternoon strolling the streets and looking at everything.

I went to MOMA. It was amazing, and very digestible, I found. I didn’t get overload, which often happens to me in museums. I particularly enjoyed the Van Gogh exhibition, which focuses on the artist’s depictions of the night.

New York – The Cakes

Low carb, what? I had cheesecake at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, pecan pie at downtown Cipriani’s, sachertorte at the Neue Galerie and a cupcake at the Magnolia. They were all good, but I think I have become German in my baked goods tastes because I found them all far too sweet. V and I decided that our own cupcakes are better than those of the Magnolia Bakery, which have just too much frosting. Sickly. On the way uptown in the bus, I won an extra cupcake in the SATC trivia competition and I Left It On The Bus. Perhaps I have finally grown up.

New York – The Three Top Meals

Vegetarians, avert your eyes – I had to have a steak at Morton’s. It was unbelievable. We put on our cocktail dresses and went to the China Grill for an Asian fusion feast. The only downer was an extremely disgusting apple martini, which we quickly exchanged for a Cosmopolitan, because we were being very, well, cosmopolitan. We also had a fabulous late and boozy lunch at downtown Cipriani’s, which was seasoned with some flirty French waiters.

New York – The Pampering

We had a mani-pedi on Fifth Avenue, late one afternoon after shopping, and it was a mistake! Far too ridiculously expensive! We got the giggles, because they offered us the champagne spa, not to drink, but for our feet. I did enjoy see all the New Yorkers getting their weekly polishings on Sunday evening in the Village before the working week – men and women alike. I met the wax for the first time, and let me just say I’d take childbirth any day. The pain! The agony!

New York – The Shows

We saw the Rockettes in the Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, which was just that, spectacular. We also saw Billy Elliot, which has just started on Broadway after a successful season in London. I cried, I laughed, I watched in awe.

New York – The Characters

We met the J Sisters – wicked wielders of the wax, the Angriest Cop in New York, Rickshaw Man, the Flirty French Waiter, the Undercover Cop to whom we tried to give our leftover Asian-Fusion and who told us that he didn’t “eat just anything”, sundry Grumpy Taxi-drivers, the Fifth Avenue Rip-Off Artists. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a single celebrity, though the Hobgoblin claimed to have seen Julia Stiles outside The Strand, and Denzel Washington had apparently eaten at downtown Cipriani’s two months before us. I loved the witty New York sense of humour, and the way everyone in America is an “associate” – the salad bar associate, the elevator associate, the till operating associate. I found almost everyone we met charming and helpful and though Germans love to claim that Americans are not sincere, I found the interchanges we had extremely pleasant compared to the Germans’ more businesslike style.

New York – New York

New York is exuberant, bold and flashing. I’d go back tomorrow. I never left Manhattan, but next time I will take to the river, cross the Brooklyn Bridge and try to see more shows. I also need to drink more Cosmopolitans. When you are forty, that is what you do.


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10 Things My Kids Love About Germany

One of the posts that consistently gets hits here is 10 Things I Love About Germany. It contains reference to cake, walking, coffee shops and great holidays. Today, while sitting in a coffee shop and eating Schwaebsiche Apfelkuchen, I asked my children what they love about Germany, and this is what they came up with:

1. Berlin. The best city in the world, even better and prettier than London (where two of them were born).

2. Swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter.

3. The coffee shops serve very LARGE slices of cake.

4. Being able to speak two languages.

5. Lots of Italians live in Germany, so you get really good pizza and extra good ice-cream.

6. Having lots of friends who speak different languages (English, German, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Greek).

7. Going ice-skating in winter.

8. Our friends P and M who are kind and funny and let us sleep over at their house.

(Please note that the grown-ups love P and M too, for exactly the same reason.)

9. Kika – the children’s TV channel.

(The grown-ups love Kika too. It is advert-free and age-appropriate.)

10. There are lots of different sports you can do – cycling, walking, skiing, swimming, gymnastics.

Germany – the land of outdoor living, great food, wonderful friends and big cake. How can you not love it?


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Things To Do Instead of Writing

You can spend time with friends, with old friends, who because you haven’t seen them for so long, seem like new friends, and with new friends, who because you feel so strangely at one with them, seem like old friends. You can drink wine with them in the afternoon, share your kids with them, wander new streets with them, and make extravagant promises to babysit their kids, once they have some.

You can spend an entire afternoon in Berlin looking for the perfect dress. You can look for something whimsical and floaty, with tea roses and cleavage, that looks like Jane Austen wore it to a party where there was croquet and Indian tea, but finally buy a twenty-first century dress, a little edgy, a little sharp, but with its curves in the right places. Also with cleavage.

You can drive long distances, to places you never dreamt of visiting, take trains where your children press their noses against the windows, ride bikes around the city of your dreams, bump into pedestrians and mutter sorry in two languages. You can float down a river, or down a leafy path in the Tiergarten and hear the white wolves howl at the daylight in the Zoo.

You can read A Quiet Flame and imagine the encroaching horror of Nazism in Thirties’ Berlin, and then read No one belongs here more than you and be swept away into an imagination and a sensibility that leaves you shell-shocked, war-wounded, but glad to be alive.

You can eat the best ice-cream outside of Elba in a glass palace of shops and elegance, merguez sausages and couscous in a leafy beer-garden, white asparagus with hollandaise sauce in an achingly hip urban square and the best rhubarb cake you can imagine in the courtyard of an Italian restaurant where you are introduced to the chef and the hostess by name.

You can climb with your children to the top of the Siegesauele, admire them hanging upside down and learning to swing and slide by themselves in playgrounds, watch them falling in love with your friends and weeping when they part, and see them take part in their lives with such spirit and joy that you want to shed tears of your own.

Instead of weeping, you shout, “Who loves Berlin?” and hear them yelling back, “Me Mummy! I love Berlin! I love it! I do!”


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Celebration Cake

Today, I celebrate two years of blogging. My blog is a toddler, and like all toddlers it likes a bit of cake. Over the years, I have written about love, friendship, AIDS, apartheid, feminism, family, parenting, children, books, writing, living in Germany and cake. My post on Lemon Drizzle Cake is still one of the most popular, at over 1500 hits.

To celebrate today’s anniversary, I’m doing a food meme, ruthlessly stolen from Emily and Susan, but in honour of today, it focuses on cake.

Five Random Things about Me and Cake:

1. The last cake I made was Nigella’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake, which I served as a dessert with creme fraiche and pomegranate seeds liberally doused in rosewater. Nigella says this cake is as “damp and sticky as gingerbread and quite as aromatic” and it is. My husband, who does not have a sweet tooth and is not desperately keen on cake, had two slices.

2. The next cake I’m going to make is something for Easter. I’m torn between Nigella’s Easter Nest cake which is chocolately, gooey and luxurious and her Rosemary Loaf cake, which is more restrained. I think I’m heading for the rosemary cake, because there’s going to be enough chocolate around this coming weekend, and the herb will provide a pleasant counterpoint. And I have a special fondness for loaf cakes.

3. Nigella is not my only reference point for cake, but almost. I have made Delia’s Victoria sponge cake and Jamie’s shortbread, but when I’m in the mood to bake a cake I always start with Nigella. Her recipes are fail-safe, delicious and seasonal. One of my raging successes was a chestnut cheesecake for Christmas. It was nutty and heavenly. I could have eaten the whole thing all by myself. Come to think of it, I probably did.

4. For birthdays, I am a traitor to Nigella. I always bake my mother’s stove-top chocolate cake, which contains buttermilk, cocoa and oil, and turns out fudgy and scrumptious. I once posted the recipe here.

5. I am intimidated by icing, and tend to prefer cakes that are icing-free or icing-light. My mother’s chocolate cake is wonderful because you pour the icing on while the cake is still hot, and it melts into the just-cooked cake, making it even fudgier. I admire people who can ice and decorate complicated cakes. Mine tend to be more rustic, but in a delicious kind of way.

One of my blog friends, Dorothy, shares a blog birthday with me. Happy Blog Day, Dorothy. It’s been fun being your twin. Would you like to share my cake?

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