Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Anzac biscuits: Two world wars and 1,898 world cups

The longer I’m out of Australia the more I’m adopting northern hemisphere vernacular. What starts out as a simple word exchange (in Britain, your undies become ‘pants’ and your pants become ‘trousers’), with enough practice, becomes automatic. Suddenly ‘biscuit’ really does sound like something dry and savoury that that soldiers eat in trenches, and hillbillies eat with dripping and gravy. ‘Cookie’ I have a real problem with, though. Not the word’s American etymology, but the fact it conjures up images of triple choc Frisbee-sized items that you buy from shopping centre food courts. Lately I’ve really warmed to the German word for cookies/sweet biscuits: kekse. It actually sounds like Australian food slang. It actually *is* British slang for undies. I feel we’ve come full circle just in this opening paragraph. We’re so international.

Anzac biscuits are the only antipodean culinary contribution to the world that can most easily be explained to non-English speakers who have not, and probably will not, ever visit Australia or learn anything about Australia’s history before and after colonisation. Trust us: pavlovas are really difficult to describe/translate, and sound Russian, which leads to conversational confusion. Sweet biscuits, cookies and kekse are a universal treat that everyone appreciates with a hot drink in the morning or afternoon, so you’re halfway to selling it.

But Anzacs' origins have more in common with the modern-day breakfast bar: oats bound together with golden syrup and flour and baked into hard dry snacks, with no egg or dairy to spoil. HTML history websites tell us the biscuits were baked back home by wives and mothers of ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers. The biscuits were then distributed to soldiers to keep in their packs, and eat in lieu of three square meals. Which is kind of how my hausmates and friends consumed them when I baked a double batch of these beauties last week. (Swap ‘trenches’ for the WG’s lounge, populated with dossing mattresses, hi fi equipment and musical instruments.) We found two of these and a pot of earl grey tea would keep you sustained from 11am to 4pm, and one after lunch or dinner was equivalent to pudding.

This recipe is adapted from the one in Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery. These should turn out crunchy rather than chewy – as long as the sugar’s not too coarse, you don’t overdo on the coconut, and you flatten the biscuit dough balls nice and flat while they’re baking (doing this 2 mins into baking time worked better than flattening them before they went in the oven… go figure). As is often the case in Berlin when you need some specific Anglo-centric ingredients, it took three supermarkets to find the right oats, golden syrup and brown (‘light muscovado’) sugar for this recipe. In lieu of sugar beet syrup (Zuckerrübensirup) – which I nearly bought for the sheer novelty factor of its label illustration (above) – I opted for honey and some brown sugar, melted into butter. It worked fine, and the golden buttery colour was reminiscent of honey joys – that other great Australian snack made with corn flakes and honey.

1 cup flour/weismehl (plain flour, not self-raising)
1 cup rolled oats (you *can* get these in a regular supermarket, you don't have to get exxy ones from the biomarkt)
3/4 cup desiccated coconut
1/2 cup brown (‘light muscovado’) sugar
125g of butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 dessertspoon brown sugar (for the honey/butter mix)
1.5 teaspoons bicarb soda ('natron', look for the the green sachets by Dr Oetkel)
2 tablespoons boiling water

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius, line baking tray with baking paper.
2. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl: sift flour and sugar, and add to coconut and oats.
3. Melt the butter, honey and brown sugar and stir until sugar dissolves.
4. Mix bicarb soda and hot water (this will fizz like berocca), add to butter mix (this will froth up like a science experiment), and while still frothing pour into dry ingredients.
5. Mix wet and dry ingredients thoroughly, then shape dough into walnut sized balls, and space out on baking tray.
6. Place in oven for 10 mins, but after 2 mins open oven door and quickly flatten balls into biscuit shapes with the back of a spoon. Watch like a hawk because they cook really quickly. Remove when golden brown.
7. Allow to harden on wire racks (they’ll be really soft and fragile straight out of the oven; lift them all off on the baking paper onto the wire racks).
8. They'll take about 20 minutes to cool, at which point they'll be nice and crunchy. WAIT.
9. Store in airtight container when completely cooled.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kaffee und kuchen with lashings of street cred

Some call currywurst the great social leveler in Berlin, because you’ll see suits and labourers standing side by side, scoffing their fried sausage and sauce at any time of the day or night. However, a far more civilized and indulgent tradition is embraced by people of all ages and ethnicities every day. Kaffee und kuchen – coffee and cake – is held in the same regard as the Brits with their afternoon tea. It should not, however, be confused with the Melbourne convention of “going for coffee” which is strictly flat whites or long blacks (and a couple of Styvo blues, if you’re an arts student). As the name suggests, it’s expected you’ll have your cake and eat it too (none of this asking for one plate and two forks). The fact that there are multiple categories of ‘cake’ in German suggests its socio-cultural significance: ‘kuchen’ is the more homely, baked variety while ‘torte’ might involve a fruit filling in a shortbread case, or ostentatious layers with lashings of whipped cream.

The best place to have kaffee und kuchen on an autumnal afternoon is from the footpath infront of Kreuzberg bakery Mr Minsch (pictured above), around the corner from Meringdamm U-bahn. This neighbourhood is a hot spot for cheap eats – including Curry 36 and Mustafa’s – so, theoretically you could sample the best of Berlin in one afternoon (you might need your stomach pumped to enjoy all three though). It’s a lot more leafy and relaxed amongst the outdoor furniture on Mr Minsch’s patch of Yorckstraße. There’s no café or table service, just an open window from the street into the bakery kitchen, where gigantic freshly-baked and rapidly disappearing cakes lie across bench tops and behind glass-door refrigerators. You can eat on the footpath, or the smiley servers will package your kuchen to take away.

Neurotic/greedy foodies will be familiar with the various streams of order anxiety: standing in line to order and seeing the last few serves selling like… uh… hot cakes; furiously attempting ESP over your server so they prepare you a bigger-than-usual slice; and the post-order panic when you see better options plated up and yours looks distinctly stale and plasticky. None of these will be an issue at Mr Minsch. All cakes are €3 per slice, and serving sizes are perfectly judged so that, no matter how sweet and filling your cake is, you’ll hit the skids at about 85% completion. Pacing yourself is top priority; you’ll definitely need some companions (so you can try more cakes, obviously) and you might need a second coffee (€1.50).

Choosing a fruit-based kuchen is no less decadent than the chocolate (Schoko Schoko) or Blackforest (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) options. The plum and almond tart (Zweitschgen Kuchen), blueberry and marscapone torte, and apricot marzipan torte are constructed upon a shortbread base that’s sneakily rich but not sickly sweet. An inferior baker might render the cinnamon cake (Zimtkuchen) dry and doughy like a stale croissant, but Mr Minsch combines the cinnamon swirls of an artisan coffee scroll with the custardy sponge of a bread and butter pudding. We didn’t even make it to the cheese cakes – Käsekuchen mit sauerkirsch is currently top of the ‘to do’ list – or the frankly terrifying Eierlikör torte (there’s something egg-noggy going on there), during our research trips. Not yet, at least – we need to squeeze in a few more Mr Minsch dates before Berlin gets too cold for al fresco eating.