Saturday, July 13, 2019

Oven-Baked Ratatouille - July Cooking

Traditionally Ratatouille is a French Provençal dish, originating in Nice, sometimes referred to as 'ratatouille niçoise'. It's a slow-cooked dish of eggplant (aubergine), tomatoes, peppers and zucchini (courgettes) that is usually served as a room temperature side dish. It dates back to the 18th century when it was a sort of 'coarse stew'. Nowadays it can be considered as a wonderfully healthy and simple way to enjoy the summer’s best produce, and makes the best leftovers. Sometimes I adapt it for my version of Summer Ratatouille Pasta.

And then there is this Oven-Baked Ratatouille, this recipe is one not original to me, but this is my summery version and I love the ease with which it can be prepared. It is a dish of layered vegetables baked in the oven until tender. Basically, like a gratin. There is nothing fancy about it at all. But it can look very pretty when the vegetables are thinly sliced and laid with care. This method of preparation certainly makes the most of such humble humble of ingredients as summer tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant.

The overlapping, melting vegetables look very special and effortful but is easy enough to do as a weekday meal, especially if you already have a thickish homemade tomato sauce on hand.

This dish works great as a main meal or a side and depending on and how large your skillet is, you may not end up using all of the vegetables in this recipe but then again you might – just make sure to keep any leftover veggie bits for that Summer Ratatouille Sauce.

Oven-Baked Ratatouille

  • 2 zucchini (courgette), medium size
  • 2 yellow squash (summer squash),  medium size
  • 1 eggplant (aubergine), medium size
  • thickish homemade tomato sauce (enough to cover the base of your baking dish), about 350g OR use a good-quality store-bought Passata di Pomodoro or Tomato Passata (an uncooked tomato purée that has been strained of seeds and skins)
  • a few sprigs of lemon thyme, thyme or rosemary or whatever strikes your fancy
  • 50g shredded mozzarella NOTE: the cheese is optional, you could also opt to add some Ricotta Salata (a salted and dried cheese, providing a texture similar to feta cheese) to the finished dish
  • fresh basil (to serve) - try to change things up here and maybe use purple basil with that slightly spicy flavor as well as your regular basil 
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a good fruity olive oil for brushing the vegetable and for serving

  1. Prepare your veggies: thinly slice all your veggies – this is best done using a mandoline but you can also slice each vegetable with a sharp knife, aim for thin slices.
  2. Preheat your oven to 180° C (350°F).
  3. Heat your homemade tomato sauce over medium-high heat. Once warmed, taste one more time for seasoning and then pour sauce into the base of your chosen baking dish (go with a pie or glass baking dish or use a cast iron pan).
  4. Next, layer the sliced vegetables in a spiral pattern around the dish and on top of the tomato sauce until the entire pan is covered.
  5. Brush with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Layer a few sprigs of herbs on top of the veggies.
  6. Cover the dish first with baking parchment, then tightly wrap with foil. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes covered. Check to make sure that the veggies have taken on some color, are soft and the sauce is bubbling around them.
  7. Remove the foil and the baking parchement, then the sprigs of herbs, then add some shredded mozzarella on top and return to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes until the veggies are nice and soft, slightly charred and the cheese has melted.
  8. Very carefully remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before eating warm or at room temperature.
  9. Scatter a few basil leaves on top (optional), add a few drops of a fruity olive oil and some freshly ground black pepper (to taste).

Enjoy summer veggies at their peak. This Oven-Baked Ratatouille is a delicious, easy lunch to enjoy in the summer sunshine, just serve with fresh bread, a crisp salad and an assortment of herb-marinated olives.

July cooking is delicious.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Sacristains & Summer Vacation Vibes

Sacristains are a puff pastry specialty from Provence (Département Vaucluse) in the Southeast of France, to be exact. These crunchy puff pastry twists are generously filled and sprinkled with pearl sugar and slivered almonds. They can be found in most bakeries (boulangeries) and many markets (marchés) throughout Provence.

The origin if the name ‚Sacristains‘ is not entirely clear but the French word ‚Sacristains‘ means ‘parish clerk‘  in English, hence, an official designated to carry out various duties for a church parish. The twisted shape of the Sacristains is said to represent the shape of a parish clerk’s walking stick or the rope that was tied around said walking stick. Now, whether that is exact or not, it is a fun and interesting way to explain their name and one fact remains undoubted, namely, these Sacristains taste absolutely heavenly.

This recipe is easy to make and a delicious and rather decadent sweet treat. Use a roll of ready-made, all-butter, good quality puff pastry (pâte feuilletée)  that you buy at the grocery store near you or were lucky enough to have bought in France OR go all the way and make these Sacristains a real treat and make the puff pastry from scratch – believe me when I say that agreeable wheather (meaning cooler temperatures) is helpful when making these from scratch.

No matter whether you make the puff pastry yourself or not, just remember that to be true Sacristains, these treats have to be filled AND topped with sugar and almonds.

Personally, I like them to be elegant and long but you can opt for shorter versions too. Serve them alongside a fresh summer fruit salad, ice cream or milk shake. Come cooler temperatures, these are lovely alongside a steaming cup of coffee, tea, hot chocolate or a tall glass of milk. If you are looking for a bit more of that French flair, why not opt to serve them with a glass of ‚Sauternes‘ (that French sweet wine from the Sauternais region), much like you would serve Italian Cantuccini (Biscotti) dipped into Italian dessert wine called ‚Vin Santo‘ (from Tuscany).

Sacristains - Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks
(makes about 10 to 11 sticks)

  • 1 roll all-butter puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) – around here a roll of ready-made puff pastry weighs about 275g (if you chose to use store bought, make sure to get the fresh kind, as frozen puff pastry tends to un-roll less well) OR use homemade puff pastry
  • 1 egg yolk (M), free-range or organic 
  • 60g pearl sugar (divided into 40g and 20g)
  • 8g pure vanilla sugar (or use homemade vanilla sugar)
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon (I like to use Ceylon cinnamom)
  • 60g slivered almonds (divided into 40g and 20g)
  • a bit of icing sugar for dusting (optional)
In addition
  • a bit of regular flour for working the pastry
  • rolling pin
  • baking sheets and baking parchment

  1. Preheat the oven to 200° C (180° C convection).
  2. Line a large baking pan/cookie sheet with baking parchment and set aside: Depending on the size of your baking sheet, you may need two sheets and bake them off one after the other).
  3. Roll out the puff pastry. Using a sharp kitchen knife, straighten the sides of the pastry. Then cut the pastry in half.
  4. In a small bowl whisk the egg yolk with a bit of water (eggwash) and brush one side of the puff pastry (keep a little for the rest of the procedure).
  5. Top the half that you brushed with the eggwash, with 40g of the pearl sugar, then 4g of the vanilla sugar, a tad bit of cinnamon and then 40g of the slivered almonds.
  6. Fold the other half of the dough over and flatten the two halves together with a rolling pin to press in the ingredients.
  7. Brush the top of the surface with the rest of the eggwash.
  8. Sprinkle the top with pearl sugar (remaining 20g), 4g vanilla sugar, cinnamon and finally the remaining slivered almonds (20g).
  9. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut 10 to 11 (2cm) stripes and twist them against each other.
  10. Place the Sacristains on the baking sheet(s).
  11. Reduce the heat to 180°C (160°C convection).
  12. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until they become golden brown and crispy.
  13. Remove from the oven and pull them with the baking parchement onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
  14. Dust with icing sugar.
  15. Serve fresh from the oven, if possible. These taste best the day they were made but can be kept in a cookie tin for a few days. If you want to store them in a cookie tin, make sure to do so between layers of parchement and keep the tin in a cool room.

These Sacristains are great served as nibbles with a little French flare. Just think summer vacation in the Provence.

They are also very easy to make and while the traditional almond-pearl-sugar-version is my favorite kind, it is fun and equally easy to experiment with different fillings and flavors. I have seen them filled with a ‚Crème pâtissière‘ (a sort of vanilla custard), or a 'Ganache au chocolat‘ (chocolate ganache) or a ‚Crème fragipane‘ (almond filling) – much like the filling for my ‚Galette des Rois‘ (recipe and post here) – also with marzipan or homemade fruit jam. You can also opt to add a hint of orange or rose blossom water to their filling. But whatever be the filling of your choice, make sure to fill AND top them. And just let your taste buds and your imagination be your guide.

(Ad/Werbung): my recipe for French Sacristians from Provence is part of my series for a 'local' (meaning across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia) radio station, where, throughout the year, I talk about different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a listen (in German) HERE.

The various recipes can be found here:

  • in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE); 
  • for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE); 
  • for Good Friday (Karfreitag) Hot Cross Buns (HERE); 
  • then for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE); 
  • and today, with respect to the beginning of the summer vacation, I talked about these lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Elderflower Bread (Holunderbrot)

The elderflower season is short, if you have access to elder trees, which bloom from about April to the end of June, rush to pick those little white flowers from the elderberry bush while you can. The large, flat-topped clusters grow along urban roads, in parks and gardens, in countryside lanes, woods and hedgerows. Elderflowers smell floral, creamy and summery. Now is the time to make elderflower champagne, cordial, jelly, whatever takes your fancy.

At this time each year, I like to make elderflower cordial. With its sweet, delicate flavor of muscat, homemade elderflower cordial is so much better than anything you can buy. Serve the cordial with cold sparkling water for a refreshing drink or sparkling wine (maybe even from a wine grower in your area) for a delicious cocktail. A couple of years ago I posted the recipe for homemade Elderflower Cordial HERE. If elderflower fritters are your thing, go ahead, indulge while you can, I posted the recipe HERE.

Apart from using my elderflower cordial for drinks or fritters, I use it in a variety of ways including my baking. Sometimes I make a lemony sponge cake that I infuse with elderflower syrup. Or I will mix some elderflower cordial into icings for cakes and muffins.

This year I’m into baking a sweet yeast bread that I call Elderflower Bread (Holunderbrot). It has ground almonds and elderflower blossoms as well as elderflower cordial in the dough . Basically, this is a so-called 'enriched yeast dough', meaning that there is butter, milk, sugar and an egg added to the simple yeast dough. And just before baking I like to place a sprig or two of the flowers on top – for looks and for taste.

Elderflower Bread (Holunderbrot)

  • 200g strong white bread flour (around here ‚Type 550‘), plus some to flour the pan
  • 50g almond flour 
  • 3g fine salt
  • 50g superfine baking (caster) sugar
  • 50g butter, unsalted, room temperature
  • 10g fresh yeast
  • 60ml lukewarm whole milk
  • 2 eggs (M), free-range, 1 for the dough, 1 for the eggwash
  • 2 tbsp elderflower cordial (homemade OR good-quality store-bought)
  • 2 tbsp freshly picked elderflower blossoms (you can sub dried elderflower blossoms OR leave them out)
  • 1 small sprig elderflower blossoms (you can bake the bread without)

  1. In a large bowl, combine the flours, salt and sugar. Form a well. Add the butter to the well.
  2. Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, pour the milk mixture into the well, add the egg and the elderflower cordial.
  3. Using the dough hook(s) of your mixer, mix until you have a soft, somewhat shaggy dough, then knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes more.
  4. Place in a greased bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
  5. In the meantime grease and flour a small loaf pan (mine is 21.5cm x 11cm) OR double the recipe and use a large loaf pan.
  6. Turn the risen dough out onto your work surface. Knead briefly and add in the elderflower blossoms.
  7. Roll up the dough containing the flowers inside and place it into the floured loaf pan, place this in a warm place and let it rise again for about 1 hour or until it has visibly risen.
  8. In the meantime pre-heat your oven to 180° C (160°C convection oven).
  9. Brush the risen bread dough with eggwash and place two small elderflower sprigs on top of the loaf.
  10. Bake in your pre-heated oven at 180° C for 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown and risen. NOTE: If your bread darkens too quickly, cover loosely with aluminium foil towards the end of the baking time.
  11. When finished baking, take the bread out of the pan and place on a cooling rack. Serve warm OR at room temperature.

The taste of the elderflower cordial as well as the elderflower blossoms is subtle but it's there and is complimented nicely by the sweet almond flour. Plus there is a bit of crunch from the elderflower sprigs on top, which is very nice. And very pretty too.

It‘s best eaten the day it was baked. We love it with fresh butter and homemade strawberry jam but local honey is nice here as well.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Pretty little Carrot Cake in June

The other day (well, maybe a few weeks ago) I posted pictures of this carrot cake on Instagram and promised that the recipe would follow soon - well, that was a little ambitious on my part but today, only three months later, here it is, the recipe for what I claimed 'is the only carrot cake recipe you'll ever need'. The added pistachio nuts make all the difference to this pretty little carrot cake recipe. As does the presentation - like pretty flowers (the edible kind, please) and pretty cake plates (I suspect we all have a few of them in our cupboards).

And, yes, I have posted many Carrot Cake recipes before, like the (also very pretty) Gâteau aux Carottes inspired by a recipe from Pierre Hermé, the famous French pastry chef and chocolatier (HERE). Or the European-style Springtime Carrot Cake (HERE). Or Nigel Slater's Carrot Cake (HERE). So, basically, I am a carrot cake lover and believe that there is no such thing as having too many carrot cake recipes. Not only do I find them irrestible but also very versatile - one or two layers, with or without frosting, fancy, torn into small pieces, elegant or rustic - love them all.

Pretty little Carrot Cake


For the Cake
  • 250ml (8fl oz) sunflower oil (or use other neutral tasting vegetable oil suitable for baking)
  • 250g caster (superfine) sugar
  • 8g pure vanilla sugar (or use homemade vanilla sugar)
  • zest ½ orange, organic or untreated 
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • 3 eggs (L), free-range or organic
  • 250g (8oz) self-raising flour, sifted
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • 250g (8oz) carrots, organic, grated (you will need about 3 large carrots)
  • 100g (3½oz) unsalted pistachio nuts, coarsely chopped

For the Cream Cheese Frosting (optional)
  • 300 (10oz) cream cheese 
  • 75g (2½oz) icing sugar, sifted
  • zest ½ orange (untreated and/or organic)
  • 1 to 2tbsp orange juice, freshly squeezed

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C° (356°F).
  2. Grease a shallow 20x30cm (8x12in) baking pan and line the base and sides with baking paper, extending the paper 5cm (2in) above the pan.
  3. Place the oil, sugar, vanilla sugar, orange zest and a pinch of salt in an electric mixer bowl and mix on a medium speed until well beaten. Reduce the speed of the mixer and gradually add the eggs, one by one, mixing after each addition.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon and ginger.
  5. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and gently fold in until smooth.
  6. Fold in the grated carrots and half the chopped pistachio nuts. 
  7. Spoon the batter into the pan and smooth the surface.
  8. Bake for 35 to 40 mins, or until golden and firm to the touch. 
  9. Cool in the pan for about 10 mins, then, with the help of the overhanging baking paper, turn the cake out onto a wire rack to cool completely. 
  10. To make the icing, use a handheld electric beater to mix together all the ingredients until smooth and light.
  11. Either: spread over the top of the cake and sprinkle with the remaining nuts OR cut the cake into small (12) squares, dollop a bit of frostimg over each piece and decorate with pretty edible flowers and then sprinkle with the chopped pistachios.

Serve this pretty little carrot cake at your next afternoon tea party. Be it May or June or whatever month. It's always delicious.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Pentecost (Whitsun) Celebrations, Allgäu Bread Birds & A Visit To The Flax Market at Linn Castle

Pentecost (Pfingsten) has been celebrated in the Christian church since the third century, always on the 7th Sunday after Easter (Ostersonntag). The English word ‚Pentecost‘ and the German ‚Pfingsten‘ are both derived from the Greek ‚pentecoste‘, fifty, hence it’s celebrated the 50th day after Easter.

In Germany, Pentecost is a high church holiday and is celebrated on two successive days, Whit Sunday (Pfingstsonntag) and Whit Monday (Pfingstmontag), as they say in Britain. Churches often hold open-air services on these two days. People come together to celebrate outdoors, because summer is on its way. The celebrated date changes each year depending on what date Easter Sunday falls on, but is typically observed in late May or early June. This year, the feast day of the Holy Spirit, as it’s often referred to, falls on June 9.

This holiday commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.  Since Pentecost is so firmly rooted in Germany’s Christian traditions, the second day of Pentecost is a public holiday in all German states. Post offices, banks, stores and other businesses are closed.

In contrast to Christmas or Easter there are only few traditions at Pentecost. However, there are a number of charming local and regional customs tied to this springtime feast. Already during the Middle Ages, noble and royal marriages, knights’ jousting tournaments, riding competitions and aristocratic events were held with great pomp on Pentecost.

Celebrations vary depending on what part of Germany you visit. It’s not uncommon to see areas of the country decorated in beautiful red flowers to signify the fire of the holy spirit, as well as birch branches, with birch often associated with both the planting of the Pentecost tree as well as the Pentecost wreath. Churches are often decorated with young birch twigs (Pfingstbaum) and a lot of families like to go for a walk or extended hike. In some parts of Germany they light large bonfires (Pfingstfeuer).

In rural areas, Pentecost was when the cattle were led out to the fields for the first time after the long winter. There would often be a specially decorated ‚Pentecost ox‘ (Pfingstochse) leading the cattle herd into the hills. Some of these traditions have already died out or become rare. Yet as a celebration of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost is still a festival of hope, joy and the beginning of summer.

In past times, popular superstitions about Pentecost revolved around certain herbs, plants and even flowers.  For example, the calendula (Ringelblume) was believed to have curative powers if picked on Whitsunday morning at sunrise – or that face-washing with Pentecost dew would prevent freckles. It was also hoped that water (Pfingstwasser), scooped up from wells or brooks at this time would heal the sick, or that lighting one’s candle from a Pentecost bonfire (Pfingstfeuer) would dispel evil spirits.

There is one tradition, a culinary one, that I particularly like, it it the so-called ‚Allgäu Bread Birds‘ (Allgäuer Brotvögel). The Allgäu is one of the most popular holiday regions in Germany, it stretches from the Danube to the Alps and its attractions include Neuschwanstein Castle in Southern Germany.  As children we used to spent all our summer holidays there - this particular region is still very close to my heart. And it is home to one very lovely and fun Pentecost tradition.

It was customary to bake so-called Bread Birds (or Doves) for Pentecost. They are akin to sweet rolls shaped like birds  – the tradition was to bake the birds around Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) when they would be pulled through a hatch in the nave of the church, they remained there until Pentecost, when the hatch was opened and the bread birds were sent flying from the nave onto the congregation. Obviously, the birds were meant as a symbols of the Holy Spirit descending upon the churchgoers.

However, it seems that the somewhat unruly behaviour of the worshippers, when they tried to catch one of the treasured birds, caused irritation and therefore was officially prohibted in the year 1803, as a ‚mindless and inexpedient ceremony‘. Nonetheless, this wonderful tradition has not only been kept alive in some regions of Bavaria but has been revived in some Parishes that nowadays distribute bread birds to children attending mass on Pentecost.

I have come across sweet as well as savory (bretzel dough) versions of these birds and while both are delicious, I will present the sweet version today. Do keep in mind that these birds were originally meant to represent doves and that the following recipe is a good-mannered interpretation of the original, but steeped in a fun tradition nevertheless.

Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel)
(for about 12 birds)


For the Dough
  • 500g strong bread flour, plus some to work the dough (around here 'Type 550')
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt
  • 75g superfine baking (caster) sugar
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1/2 cup warm milk (I use whole milk 3.5%)
  • 1 egg (L), free-range or organic, lightly beaten

For the Decoration (optional)
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with a bit of cold water
  • a few rasins or currants (cut in half if too large)
  • some pearl sugar (available at bakeware stores or online)

  1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Form a well. Add the butter to the well.
  2. Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, pour the milk mixture into the well, add the egg. Using the dough hooks of your mixer, mix until you have a soft dough, then knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
  3. Place in a greased bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
  4. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. Turn the risen dough out onto your work surface. Knead briefly and divide into 12 pieces.
  6. To shape birds, roll each piece into a 30cm rope.
  7. Tie each rope into a knot. Cut one end a few times with scissors to form tail feathers. Tuck in the other end of the nose to form the beak.
  8. Brush with egg wash and insert raisins or currants for eyes. Add some pearl sugar (optional).
  9. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Cover loosely and let rise again, about 15 minutes.
  10. Bake in your pre-heated oven at 180° C (160°C convection oven)  for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown (depending on the size of the birds).
  11. These are best served the day they were made.

Who knows, these Allgäu Bread Birds might become a tradition in your house around Pentecost. They are quite delicious, all warm and soft, fresh from the oven – maybe with a bit of good butter and local honey or homemade jam slathered all over them. After all, tradition lives on in our interpretations.

The above pictures were taken today at the Krefeld flax market at Burg Linn ('Linn Castle') where at Whitsun well over 300 exhibitors (I believe there were 313 today) present their guilds and craftmanship. The history of the flax market dates back to the 12th century, to the lord of the castle, Knight Otto von Linn. Even then there was a lively market - not only for flax - that quickly developed into one of the most important markets in the region. Merchants sold and traded flax and linen, iron, wood, leather and wicker goods, stones, pottery, textiles, horse harness, grain and later, also meat and bread. 

Today if you visit the market, you can watch fossil grinders, barbers and blue printers, turners, falconers, felters, flax processors, glass blowers, hand weavers, ceramists, leather punchers. Ropes and soap boilers. Stick maker, bag maker, weaver and cylinder maker. And many more. A must see, if you are in the area. For more info on the market, pls take a look here.

Happy Pentecost! - Frohe Pfingsten!

(Ad/Werbung): my recipe for Allgäu Bread Birds is part of my series for a 'local' (meaning across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia) radio station, where, throughout the year, I talk about different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a listen (in German) HERE.

The various recipes can be found here:

  • in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE); 
  • for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE); 
  • for Good Friday (Karfreitag) Hot Cross Buns (HERE); 
  • then for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE); 
  • for the beginning of the summer vacation, lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.