Friday, February 23, 2018

About that last blog post...

I'm in NC, and S just phoned from Germany to say his mom really liked the idea of that lemon cake we made, so could I give him the recipe; and I told him where to find the recipe and didn't even think to say "WTF dude. PIE. It's called PIE." Sigh.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Coming to terms: Torte, Kuchen, and pie

Big news: after 29 years of loving S and learning about him and Deutsche Kultur, I finally understand the difference between Torte and Kuchen, and why certain Germans insist on calling American pie Kuchen (even though they shouldn't).

The epiphany actually came last July, while we were visiting H in Steinebach. I was too busy hiking to blog then, but we finally had an opportunity to take up the question again this past Sunday, when we hosted Kaffee und Kuchen [und Torte und pie] for the neighbors on our block. Guests arrived at 3:45 p.m. We defined terms at 4:00 p.m., then ate the evidence.

Distinguishing Torte from Kuchen: an introduction

We started baking on Saturday afternoon. I asked S if he had a good recipe for Biskuitteig (no, not biscuit dough--sponge cake). He responded, "What are you making? Kuchenboden oder Tortenboden?"

Kuchenboden is cake base (literally, cake floor); Tortenboden is torte floor. Kuchenboden is often a layer of Murbeteig--shortbread dough--topped with a layer of Biskuitteig--sponge cake batter. In Obstkuchen, that Kuchenboden is topped with delectable fruit, often with pectin or gelatin or melted jam on top of the whole shebang to make it shiny.

Here are two photos of non-shiny Obstkuchen I made last summer in Steinebach. There's a layer of vanilla pudding between the cakes and the fruit, and maybe a thin layer of jam too, but I can't remember. There is not any Murbeteig under either Biskuit, but they're both clearly still Obstkuchen.

Thus our definition of Kuchen begins with Obsthkuchen. You use Kuchenboden for Obstkuchen.

Tortenboden, in contrast, is the Biskuit that you would put at the bottom of a Torte--and in the middle of Torte, as many times as you want, and on the top of Torte, if you want it there too. That is what make Tortenboden fundamentally different from Kuchenboden. (If you are thinking that the big difference is Murbeteig, think again; our Bavarian Kochbuch recommends Murbeteig under both Kuchen and Torten.)

Torte is almost always made with layers of sponge cake, with filling in between and optional stuff on top. Kuchen is just one layer of cake--sponge cake if you want, but any other kind of cake is fine too, including Murbeteig all by itself--with optional stuff on top.

Did you catch that?
Torte: layers of cake with stuff in between and optional stuff on top.
Kuchen: one layer of cake with optional stuff on top
In between, Kuchen. On top, Torte.

For Americans, layers of cake with stuff in between is called "layer cake." A layer of cake with stuff on top is also cake. It's all cake. Torte is fancy cake.

So in the context of making Obstkuchen and Torte, the question "Kuchenboden oder Tortenboden" is a weird cultural thing--a sort of cake phoneme--because the cake parts of both Böden are THE SAME THING. Bake a batch of Biskuitteig for Obstkuchen, and voilà (or schau hier): Kuchenboden. Layer those babies, and voilà/schau hier: Tortenboden. Indeed, the recipe we eventually chose for the Kuchen describes the result as Luftigt-leichter Kuchen, perfekt für Torten--"light-as-air cake, perfect for Torte."

I double checked with S. "Did you really say 'Kuchenboden oder Tortenboden'?" "Yes," he said, "because they're different."

Perhaps he was thinking ahead to the Nusstorte (nut torte) I was going to bake. While you probably wouldn't add nuts to Biskuitteig for Obstkuchen, they're certainly fair game in plain ol' non-Obst Kuchen (which remains Kuchen forever and a day unless you layer it--then BAM, Torte).

Here's a photo of a hazelnut-almond Torte I made in Steinebach last summer (and a photo of H helping). The four layers were laced with Kirschwasser and filled with cherry jam, chocolate cream, and sour cherries, then covered with more chocolate cream.

Exceptions to the rules

Rules wouldn't be rules if there weren't exceptions. Here are four:
  1. Tiny Obstkuchen are called Obsttörtchen, because why the hell not? The -chen ending is a diminutive suffix--little fruit tortelets--and because adding -chen changes the German o to an ö, let's change the vowel in English too and call them tartlets. This is allowed only because they're cute, and probably necessary because Obstkuchenchen is too hard to say (but Obstkuchlein isn't, and it's not like being difficult to pronounce stops other German words from existing). Note that chen in Kuchen is not diminutive--it's Kuch-en, not Ku-chen. I'm going to take a stab at a pun by observing that a diminutive cow might be a Kuhchen--but no German would ever pronounce Kuchen (coo-hen) and Kuhchen (coo-hyen) the same way, so no German would ever find that pun remotely funny.

  2. Linzertorte, already controversial in its own right, is actually Kuchen, according to the in between / on top rule. It's also Kuchen according to the Torte-is-usually-sponge-cake rule. It made me very happy to discover, browsing through the index of our Bavarian Kochbuch, that the Bible of Bavarian cooking calls it Linzerkuchen.

  3. Sometimes Kuchen can have an extra layer of Teig on top--e.g. a layer of Murbeteig on the bottom, with apples on top, and then another layer of Murbeteig on top of that. This is called gedeckter Apfelkuchen--covered apple cake--rather than Apfeltorte, because it lacks the sponge cake that is essential for all Torte (except Linzertorte, which is really a gedeckter Kuchen, and Obsttörtchen, which are diminutive.) I hope you are following the logic here.

  4. Finally, S says there is Bodenlose Kaesekuchen--bottomless cheesecake--which, as you might guess, has no base layer of cake and is entirely made of the optional stuff on top. To confirm, we looked it up in the Kochbuch, where it is called Quarktorte ohne Boden--cheese TORTE without bottom. S says "this is a dumb cookbook."
Why certain Germans insist on calling pie "Kuchen"

Pie has its very own word in English, because unlike Torte and Kuchen, pie is NOT cake. Even assuming all pies had double crusts--which they don't--pie is NOT gedeckter Kuchen, because pie crust is neither cake nor shortbread.

Pie does consist of a base layer of non-sponge flour-based dough, with stuff on top, so it is more akin to Kuchen than to Torte--but that does not make pie "cake" any more than saying humans are "birds" because humans are more akin to birds than to boulders. If German can borrow words like Spaghetti, Toast, and Computer from other languages, it can borrow Pei.

One more rule

Our Bavarian neighbor F arrived on Sunday eager to talk definitions. He suggested that Torte filling almost always involves cream. This would explain why gedeckte Apfelkuchen can never be Torte, even though it's layered. It might squeak past the "usually sponge cake" rule, but the lack of cream keeps it out of the realm of Torte. This might also explain why bottomless cheesecake might be considered Torte, given the creamy dairy content.

Well, you might think that. But if you Google gedeckte Apfe..., oh dear: the search brings up both Apfelkuchen and Apfeltorte, and the photos look identical. To that, we say, "perhaps it's a regional difference" (which is our way of saying "uncle! We give up!").

Test your understanding

After lengthy discussion and Q&A with our neighbors, we gave them a quiz. Can you tell what's what? Answers and recipes are below.

A (left); B (right)



A: Pie. This is pie. It is not cake. It is pie.
B: Obstkuchen.
C: Pie. Why is this so difficult for you?
D: Obstkuchen.
E: Trick question. There's visible cream and there's presumably cake underneath that, but you can't tell if it's Torte or Kuchen without cutting it open. But by process of elimination in this particular context, you know it has to be Torte. (If this question were on the ACT/SAT, the test-writers would call Torte the "best answer," which would annoy teens who understand nuance and complexity.)

The sacrifices we make for the sake of cultural understanding

Another view of the sacrifices we make

Aha! Layers! Torte!
Appendix: Recipes

We had a gluten-intolerant guest, so we made everything gluten-free. We used gluten-free flour for pie A and Obstkuchen; we purchased gluten-free pie crusts for the pies; and we used ground hazelnuts and no flour in the Nusstorte.

A. The recipe for this lemon custard pie is here. Until last year, it was the only lemon custard pie I had ever made (and I had only made it once.) It's silky-creamy and lemony-tart, with a nice lightness.

B and D: Here's the Biskuitteig recipe I used for the Obstkuchen. This recipe is enough for two Obstkuchen: bake all of the batter in one springform pan and then slice it in half to make two discs. The recipe calls for Speisestärke (starch). In Germany, that would be potato starch. We used cornstarch, but next time I'd probably just add a little more flour. We thought the cake was too sweet, so next time we'll reduce the sugar. S and E were in charge of the topping: a thin layer of jam, a layer of vanilla pudding, artfully arranged fruit, and a pectin glaze on top.

C. Oh my. Oh oh my. This is "Shaker Lemon Pie." Images kept popping up when I was trying to locate the recipe for pie A. Shaker Lemon Pie is stunningly beautiful, startlingly delicious, and super tart--but beware the sugar high. I found assorted recipes online and combined them into this: 5 unpeeled organic lemons (recipes ranged from 2 large to 6 small; some specified Meyer lemons, but we used Eurekas), sliced very thinly with a mandoline, and seeds picked out; toss gently with 1.75 c. sugar, and macerate until sugar dissolves (this takes only a few hours--recipes all said 24-hours or overnight). Stir in four beaten eggs and pour into an unbaked pie crust. (A few recipes said pre-baked. We tried pre-baking the gluten-free crust and it cracked, so that the filling oozed under the crust and glued parts of the crust to the pan. We didn't pre-bake the crust for A and it tasted fine, so next time we'll skip the pre-baking.) Bake at 325oF for 50-60 minutes. (Recipes said 450oF for 15 minutes and then 375oF for 20 minutes, but we had another pie to bake at the same time that required gentler heat. Slow baking worked beautifully.)

D. See B.

E. Here's my version of Nusstorte, adapted and honed over several years from a base recipe by H. Despite all the steps, it's easy to make if you have an electric beater.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time still flies

We're a few months late for the photo shoot we scheduled back in 2010, but fortunate to have fit it in before the end of 2017. We'll call E & K back for another in 2024.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Dressing pots

The 4th annual Durham County Pottery Tour is this coming weekend (Nov. 4-5, 2017). This year, instead of buying cut flowers to dress up my pots, I went for assorted air plants. I didn't realize until googling them just now that they're Bromeliads; their forms and flowers suddenly make sense. I like how the plants and pots interact.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The elusive Scotch Bonnet and the elusive kitchen-gadget pot

Several years ago, reading up on seashells for a trip to Ocracoke, I found multiple websites that mentioned the "elusive Scotch Bonnet." The Scotch Bonnet is a kind of sea snail, and the adjective "elusive" regularly accompanies the shell online--as though "the elusive Scotch Bonnet" is an actual subspecies rather than simply a rare find. Thus, when we go to Ocracoke, I scan the beaches not just for Scotch Bonnet shells, but for the Elusive Scotch Bonnet in particular. I've never found a whole one, for obvious reasons.

A broken Scotch Bonnet shell reveals interesting information. Unbroken shells continue to elude me.
I've been thinking of the elusive Scotch Bonnet lately as I quest the elusive Swoosh/Zigzag. I know what I'm looking for, but I can't always tell if I've found it.

When I first started making zigzag pots, I found the designs pretty exciting, in part because I hadn't seen them anywhere else, and because the spirals told a fascinating (at least to me) story about the physics of the making process, involving torque, friction, stretching, spin handedness, homeomorphic transformation. Making them better meant honing the most basic of throwing skills while focusing intently on form and proportion. Sometimes I managed to make what I thought was a particularly pleasing piece, e.g.:

2013 or thereabouts
I remember liking several things about the pot in the above photo. I liked that it was stretched so thin that, given the volume, it seemed to hardly weigh anything. I liked the balance between slipped and unslipped clay, and that the slipped layer was thin enough and the slices shallow enough that the zigzag stripes barely stuck out above the surface of the pot. I liked the curve of the bottom, the slight inward tilt of the neck, and the proportion between the neck and the base. Looking back at it now, I appreciate the openness of the stripes at the bottom, since it's hard to spread the zigzags apart at the base.

I'm becoming either more aware of what I'm aiming for or more obsessively nit-picky; I'm not sure how to recognize the difference. I suspect it isn't in my best interest to write this publicly, but I see now-familiar defects in that pot that I don't remember noticing before. Or perhaps "Defects" isn't the right word. The phrase "artifacts of the making process that I may or may not eventually avoid" is more accurate. What do I want to change, and why? What should I just learn to accept--or possibly, to embrace? Is an unbroken Scotch Bonnet necessarily more beautiful or interesting than a broken one?

Kitchen gadget pots are still among my favorite pots to make, because they're continually challenging, and every stretch-torque-transformation yields a one-of-a-kind surprise. But what's the difference between an exciting process and an exciting pot?

In trying to evaluate some recent work, I poked around online for info on self critique. I found this article by Simon Levin particularly helpful: Focusing on what I'm aiming for helps me to evaluate the pots I end up with, to recognize fortuitous detours, and to think about what I might try differently the next time--because the quest for kitchen-gadget pots that are just right never ends. (I'm certain that if I ever find an Elusive Scotch Bonnet, my immediate next step will be to start looking for another one.)

Here's my review of three recent pots:

Exhibit A:

Things I like about the pot: the gently rolling belly swoosh; the narrowness of the white slip lines compared to the wider black spaces; the way the lid mirrors, on top of the pot, the slope of the curve at the base; and the diameter of the base being roughly the same as the diameter of the unslipped clay at the top of the pot. I also like that I can see the end of the sweep of the cake-decorating comb toward the top right.

Things to improve next time: the change in groove angle about a third of the way up from the bottom, which creates a darker section between the brighter middle and bottom; the mismatch between the straightish swoosh in the the top sixth of the pot and the wavier central swoosh. (This reminds me that I should experiment with intentional mismatches--if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.)

Things I don't know yet if I mind or don't mind: the white slip swoosh line in the middle that disappears into a wider stripe of unslipped clay. Maybe that's just the way it is sometimes--an organic look--and I should embrace it--although I know I'm going to keep working on it.

Here's the same pot from a different angle:

I like the vertical line where the starts and ends of the swooshes meet--although the changes in groove angles makes this meeting look unintentionally sectioned and busy. I like the curve and proportions of the pot both with the lid off and with the lid on.

I'm not sure what to make of the bubble that stretched out and popped about halfway up the pot. At first, I didn't like that it disrupts the flow of the swoosh, but I love that it popped without making holes in the pot, that it simply shoved the swoosh lines out of the way rather than ripping across them, that it hugs the surface, and that it records what happens to a bubble as a pot is thrown and stretched without the surface being compressed. It derives from an actual defect (a bubble), but the result is pretty cool, and I probably couldn't replicate it even if I tried. Does that make it fortuitous, yet still a defect? Or simply fortuitous?

I can't fit my hand through the neck, which is potentially impractical for a functional pot. At the same time, it sure is fun to make narrow-necked pots.

Exhibit B:

I think this pot is fine, if a little heavy (which you can't see) and not very dramatic. I like the proportions, and that the lid extends the form by roughly mirroring the bottom of the pot. When I make these pots, any unevenly thick spots in the cylinder get pushed out into lumpy bulges on the exterior, especially at the base; I can see a slight bulge bottom right. I'd prefer the lip to be a little thicker, with a more intentional finish. Overall, I'd like shallower grooves and more black showing through the white. In part, this means making the white stripes narrower, but I'm wondering if the depth of the grooves goes part and parcel with how this particular clay body holds together/stretches; I can't stretch it anywhere near as thinly as the speckled brown clay shown in the first photo above.

I can't fit my hand inside this one either.

I think this pot looks more energetic in person than in the photo.

Exhibit C:

I like the narrowness of the blue stripes and the variation in the width of the black spaces; I especially like that some of the blue stripes resisted pulling apart (something I used to see as a negative but now enjoy).

As in Exhibit B, I could have given the rim here a more intentional finish. The unslipped foot is a little uneven. The diameter of the base and the lip match nicely when the lid is off, but the lid itself looks a little wide relative to the base. I like the shape of the cap lid, but it could fit more snugly.

Aaaaannd...I can't fit my hand inside this one either.


I wrote this post a few months ago, but didn't want to publish it then, because I had submitted all three pots for consideration in a national juried show. Two were rejected. The one that made it in won an award. Which of the three was the Elusive Scotch Bonnet?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Total eclipse roadtrip 2017

On Sunday, we drove to the mountains in western NC to view the total eclipse. We camped with friends on a hillside between Black Balsam Knob and Sam Knob. Here's a view from early Monday morning:

In the morning, C, S, and I hiked down into the meadow below our campsite...

...and then up Sam Knob to scope out the view, thinking it could be a good spot for all of us to watch the eclipse. There were already lots of people on Sam Knob--hiking up, hiking down, camping, picking huckleberries, setting up telescopes, and enjoying the views.

Then we hiked back down to the meadow, and around the knob to Flat Laurel creek.

There were already lots of people at Flat Laurel Creek, hiking east, hiking west, camping, picking huckleberries, setting up telescopes, and enjoying the views.

See the ukelele slung over the hiker's shoulder?

I asked him if he was heading up to Black Balsam Knob to join the band, and he looked at me like I was from outer space. There were already lots of people up near Black Balsam Knob, playing guitars and drums and smoking weed and otherwise preparing their spiritual musical selves for the eclipse. One of the vans parked in the lot had the Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" rainbow prism painted on it.

Ultimately, we decided the best spot for viewing the eclipse was our campsite. Here's a view of the easy little tent S and I shared. My, tent technology has changed since the six-person tenting days of my childhood. See that thing floating in the air in the top left corner of the photo?

That's a butterfly. They were plentiful, thanks to abundant thistle blossoms. To pass the time between hike and eclipse, I took a couple hundred photos of butterflies and bees. Here are a few:

Note the hovering bee!

Of course, because we recreational eclipse-watchers can't spend all of the time during an eclipse watching the eclipse, I took more photos of butterflies and bees during the eclipse too.

Traffic jam

My favorite

Here are some scenes from our eclipse-watching experience. It had been on-and-off cloudy most of the morning, and the eclipse started with clouds...

...but they cleared away about 30 minutes in, giving us excellent views.

As the eclipse neared totality, the clouds closed in--as though materializing from thin air.

I like to think that we were experiencing eclipse-induced weather--i.e. that the drop in temperature changed the dew point in our humid corner of the world. That would help me feel not quite as sad that we missed seeing the Sun's corona. (I sent a message to one of the local TV weather casters to ask if that could have been the case, and will update this post if he responds.)

Then, approaching totality:

And totality: sunset colors all around the horizon, and much glee among the many viewers on our hillside. We were near the northeast edge of the totality zone, so only had about 45 seconds of night-in-day, but what an amazing 45 seconds they were!

Post totality, we enjoyed the strange light and views of the crescent Sun through the clouds:

And then the butterflies, which had disappeared as the light left, were back:

Thanks for joining us, C, E, J, R, J, J, M, and Z!

(Camping with that many friends, one might expect the occasional conversation to get a little heated. I will simply leave this here-- a reminder that I will bake a cake--or Torte--there's a forthcoming Wadlstrumpf blog post about the difference--if one of those conversationalists can come up with a pun in German that's actually funny.)