In the Mood for Christmas Food: Gluhwein and Gingerbread

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I’ve been visiting Christmas Markets the past few weeks and am enjoying the lebkuchen, plank-roasted salmon, candied fruits, and mulled wine that’s been on offer.  But it’s clear that the mulled wine is the beating heart at the center of these markets. The promise of a warm tipple is what brings many people out to German Christkindlmarkts after the sun has dipped low and cold blankets the town.   Gluhwein stands abound, and the people stand around!


It’s always nice to warm your hands and your spirits with gluhwein–and to come home from the markets with a gluhwein cup in hand.  I’m a fan of the homemade stuff too–a simmering pot on the stovetop makes the house smell great and keeps you warm as you cook or sit around your Christmas tree.   There’s no recipe, per se, that I use, but what I toss in looks something like this:


a bottle of red wine (I prefer dry)

2-3 cinnamon sticks

about 4 whole cloves

a sliced orange

sugar  (maybe 1/2 cup–but this is very subjective, do this according to your taste and the sweetness of the wine you use)

late additions: (if wanted) 1 star anise, a dash of rum, water (up to one cup) if you want to dilute or smooth out the taste

Put your ingredients on the stovetop and simmer for 10-20 minutes.  You may add the rum and star anise in the last 5 minutes.  (Personally, I like just a hint of star anise, that’s why I add it late–otherwise I find it overpowering.)

And, if you want “gluhwein light,” you can cut the wine with some ratio of cranapple juice and sip all holiday long without getting drowsy.

Gingerbread is another favorite at holiday markets.  The Germans have their lebkuchen, and the French have their pain d’epices.   Today, however, I’m bringing you a wickedly good gingerbread recipe from the Brits.

Nigella Lawson’s Guiness Gingerbread recipe is hard to beat. (Of course, you knew this before I told you, because Guinness + gingerbread has to = yummy!)  (That’s the extent of my mathematical proficiency, by the way.) nigella_christmas_cookbook

This gingerbread is at its best when it’s warm–maybe 10 or 15 minutes out of the oven.  The top is moist, the sides are gooey, the full ginger aroma is in play.  Just thinking about it makes me hungry.

I’ll reprint the recipe below, or you can find it at the food network link here   ( )

  • 1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) butter, plus some for greasing
  • 1 cup golden syrup (such as Lyle’s)
  • 1 cup (packed) plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup stout (such as Guinness)
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/4 cups sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 rectangular aluminium foil pan or cake pan, approximately 13 by 9 by 2-inches

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. Line your cake pan with aluminium foil and grease it, or grease your foil tray.

Put the butter, syrup, dark brown sugar, stout, ginger, cinnamon and ground cloves into a pan and melt gently over a low heat.

Take off the heat and whisk in the flour and baking soda. You will need to be patient and whisk thoroughly to get rid of any lumps.

Whisk the sour cream and eggs together in a measuring jug and then beat into the gingerbread mixture, whisking again to get a smooth batter.

Pour this into your cake/foil pan, and bake for about 45 minutes; when it’s ready it will be gleamingly risen at the centre, and coming away from the pan at the sides.

Let the gingerbread cool before cutting into slices or squares.


Guten appetit and Merry Christmas!!


In the English Kitchen: Steak and Ale Pie

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We lived in North Yorkshire for 4 years, and, despite what people like to say about British food, some of it is VERY good.  Granted, top of that list is the Indian food you get there.  But if you haven’t tried a really good sticky toffee pudding or a gourmet steak and ale pie, you’re missing out.  And even “tired old” mincemeat pies and Sunday roast can be a revelation with the right ingredients and in the right person’s artful hands!

Marks & Spencer Mince Pies
Marks & Spencer Mince Pies

I’m about to bring you a recipe that is divine–but first, a rudimentary primer on  food in England.

The Markets:   Here I speak for my old home town of Ripon, N. Yorkshire, especially.  I love the vibrant market squares and market days in British cities, towns, and villages.   I love walking home with baskets of fresh produce, hearing the fishmonger call out his wares, seeing what the pottery merchant has found to carry in on any given week (and hoping he’s stocking my favorite Blue Willow), and scanning the candy stall for my children’s favorite bits and bobs.

Nigella:    If you’ve never been a fan, open up one of her cookbooks and go for a leisurely read.  I’d start with Nigella Christmas–because it’s almost the season, it’s a good read, and it’s where I started.  If you’re not smitten with her prose, then whip up her Guinness Gingerbread.  If you’re still not besotted. . .I just can’t help you.

betty's teaTea:   If someone invites you over for tea, don’t imagine (as most Americans do) that you’ll be drinking Twinings at a table with Paddington Bear.   The invitation is likely for dinner, not a tea party.  “Cream Tea” often indicates tea and scones or sweet pastries in the afternoon, but “Tea” is dinner.

Pudding:  When we first moved to England (in 2005), we were amused at how often we were offered “pudding” in restaurants.  I mean, we like pudding, but couldn’t figure out what the national obsession with it was all about.  Turns out, “pudding” means dessert.  We quickly learned to say “Yes, please,” to any offer of pudding!

Meat Pies:  Today, I’m focused on a fabulous, piping hot Steak and Ale pie (recipe below).  But Brits also love cold meat pies.  A cold steak pie from a deli counter is doable for a quick lunch, but not great.  And pork pies?  Don’t get me started.  Okay, I don’t do pork, so this may be a little unfair, but cold, gelatinous meat in a cold, blah pastry case– I don’t get it.  Except in a Dickensian way–I mean, I suppose it has a certain bit of atmosphere:  a cold, tired chimney sweep might ‘ha a ‘litl bit o’ da pie fur lunch.   (Yes, I overindulged in  Mary Poppins as a kid.)  But, truth is, I have plenty of friends, and one husband, who seem to like a bit o’ the cold pie, so to each his own.

Let’s launch into the reason you are here: the world’s greatest Steak and Ale Pie recipe.  It comes from Williams-Sonoma.  (I know it should come from a British source, but this really is the best I’ve found. . .even if it is from California.)   And one more disclaimer–please listen, because this is important–this will take you most of the day.  Only start this on a rainy weekend day when you want to hang out at home for hours.  And, yes, you will begin cursing halfway through this and saying, “Never again!”  But then the pie will smell soooo delicious as it cooks that you’ll start to drool as it comes out of the oven.   You’ll dig into the flaky pastry and lift a fork to your mouth.

Angels will sing, devils will dance, and you’ll be in love.

Oh, you’ll make it again.  And again.    (Hint:  if you cook a very large recipe, you can freeze half of the filling and turn it into a pie at a later date with minimum effort.)

Here’s the recipe, also available at

This hearty beef stew is slowly simmered on the stovetop, then topped with Stilton pastry and finished in a hot oven.
*My note: I usually skip the Stilton pastry and use a puff pastry.  The Stilton is good, but very rich, and this is already a rich pie.
  • 7 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 lb. white button mushrooms, quartered
  • 2 cups frozen pearl onions, thawed
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 3 1/2 lb. beef chuck roast, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 2 1/2 cups Irish stout
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 lb. carrots, cut into chunks
  • 1 lb. red potatoes, cut into chunks
  • 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh thyme
  • One 16-inch round Stilton pastry (see recipe link below)
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 tsp. water


In a 5 1/2-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm 1 Tbs. of the olive oil. Add the mushrooms, onions, salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
Season the beef with salt and pepper. Dredge the beef in the flour, shaking off the excess. In the Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm 2 Tbs. of the olive oil. Add one-third of the beef and brown on all sides, about 7 minutes total. Transfer to a separate bowl.
Add 1/2 cup water to the pot, stirring to scrape up the browned bits. Pour the liquid into a separate bowl. Repeat the process 2 more times, using 2 Tbs. oil to brown each batch of beef and deglazing the pot with 1/2 cup water after each batch.
Return the pot to medium-high heat. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Add the beef, stout, broth and reserved liquid, stirring to scrape up the browned bits. Add the mushrooms, onions, carrots, potatoes and thyme and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beef and vegetables are tender, about 3 hours.
Preheat an oven to 400°F. Brush the rim of the pot with water. Lay the pastry round on top, allowing it to droop onto the filling. Trim the dough, leaving a 1-inch overhang, and crimp to seal. Brush the pastry with the egg mixture, then cut 4 slits in the top of the dough. Bake for 30 minutes. Let the potpie rest for 15 minutes before serving. Serves 8 to 10.Stilton Pastry recipe can be accessed at||NoFacet-_-NoFacet-_-Feature_Recipe_Rule&cm_re=OnsiteSearch-_-SCHBillboard-_-SEARCH_FEATURELIST
Williams-Sonoma Kitchen.

Not just any old pub food!
Not just any old pub food!

Bernkastel-Kues on the Mosel River– A Perfect Monday


Let’s file this one under “How to Play Hooky–European Style.”

It’s a school day.  It’s a work day.  It’s a Monday.  But with a little inspiration, you pack your kids off to school, your husband takes the day off of work, you scoop up a friend who is visiting from the States, and Day Trip!   The perfect destination needs beautiful scenery and good wine–so off to Bernkastel-Kues on the Mosel River and surrounded by vineyards.

Too bad every Monday can’t be like this.










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Trier, Germany: The Romans, the Nuns, and the Wine Barge


So a Roman and two nuns walk into a wine barge. . .

Oh, no, no–this is a serious post about a day trip we took some weeks ago, and I’m just now getting around to writing this.   We loved the day we spent in Trier, and this fabulous city deserves a closer look than I’m giving you here, but I wanted to get some impressions down before they fade from my addled brain.

I’ll focus on just a few things from our  trip: the fact that Trier is an ancient Roman town (and plenty of its Roman heritage is still a vibrant part of daily life in the city), the beautiful churches and religious heritage here, and the wine culture that abounds in the region and town.

But not in that order.  Let’s start with the wine.  All the best parties start with the wine, right?  Besides, our approach to Trier was through the winding roads of the Mosel Valley, flanked by beautiful green vineyards, and our walk into the old section of the city lead us past an intriguing first site:

DSC_0464The Wine Barge and its Rowers:   We entered the pedestrian zone of the Town Center close by Weinstube Kesselstatt (a wine garden).  Of course, I had to stop and take a photo.  Not because the wine garden was picturesque, although it was.  (And serene, as you might guess from my sleeping son in the foreground.)  But because of the large Roman stone carving out front:  a Roman barge loaded down with wine barrels and oarsmen.

It’s enchanting both for the reminder of how deeply ensconced in its wine culture this region is, and also for the quality of life in its faces.  The oarsmen’s excertion is so vivid that a moment’s pause will have you pulling out a hanky to wipe the beads of sweat from their foreheads.  (It did appear there, didn’t it?  I could swear I saw it…)


And, to be sure, these oarsmen should be breaking a sweat.  The Romans planted vineyards along the Mosel and the Rhine  to produce wine for their many garrisons. . .and production hasn’t stopped since.  I’ve read somewhere that the Mosel region is Germany’s third largest wine producer, but first in terms of presitige.  Reislings from this area are quite good!

The wine country in the Mosel:    As you drive toward Trier, you’ll wind through the lovely Mosel wine region.  Both sides of the road and the river are flanked by vineyards.  It’s absolutely beautiful country, and the trip would be worthwhile even if you did nothing but amble around and enjoy the scenery.  I can’t offer much insight into the individual wineries here–I’ll have to research that on a more liesurely trip–but the drive is heaven!

Vineyards along the Mosel River
Vineyards along the Mosel River

The Nuns:  I’m sure that few people would consider a superfluity of nuns to be a tourist attraction.  But they did add atmosphere, and more than a little gravitas, to the cathedral.  Coupled with the fact that the cathedral was mostly closed off for a service when we were there, they also served as a reminder that we were visiting a living place, not just a tourist attraction or an historical artifact.  That always breathes some life and enchantment into a place.

I wasn’t able to capture the nuns on film, as they were surprisingly quick footed and I was busy explaining the concept of a nun to my son.  But I found this fabulous photo of nuns in Trier on Flicker.  After Maria von Trapp, we always knew that nuns were up for a little fun.   And here they are browsing the market in Trier, pausing at a flower stall and headed toward the carousel. (Anyway, I’d like to assume that they’re headed to the carousel.)

Nuns in town square,

Nuns in town square,

trier cathedralThe Cathedral and Chapel: Because there were services going on, I didn’t pull out my camera for many photos, but the Trierer Dom and the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady)  are exquisite, and boast the title of oldest cathedral in the country.  It was built upon the foundations of an older Roman structure.    The structure sits only a few blocks from the Roman basilica (the Aula Palatina–the old throne hall of the emperor), a structure that  impresses by virtue of both size and beauty.  But the cathedral seems larger and more beautiful still–I’m sure the Roman Emperors would roll over in their graves at that comparison.

The Romans:   If you Google Trier, one of the first things you discover is that it is an ancient Roman town–perhaps the oldest city in Germany.  The Romans called the town Augusta Treverorum, and it was an important economic center–surely because of the river and a Roman road that came through the town (including a bridge over the Mosel).

The most dramatic reminder of this history is the Porta Negra gate (photo below).  It may no longer guard the city walls, but it’s certainly still a focal point for those who visit.  Although my son knows a little Roman history–largely thanks to the British Horrible Histories series  and its treatment of the Rotten Romans–he was more intrigued by his ability to find odd shapes and “pictures” in the walls of the stone structure than by the structure’s powerful mass, architectural prowess, or historical import.  Puts those Rotten Romans in perspective, doesn’t it?