Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Recap & Marzipan Pigs

No big story this week, just an anecdote about pigs (with a tasty project) and few shots from this year’s Christmas celebration.

Happy Holidays!

My maltese Rasco (3) and my schnauzer Penny (15 in February) on Christmas Eve. 


The delicious Gluhwein (my dad made it this year).

Christmas Eve dinner: Beef Rouladen, Sauerkraut, Sauerbraten, German Potatoes, Blaukraut and veggies. 

This year's Christmas Day Schnecke. It just keeps growing every year!

A combo platter of tale and taste: Marzipan Pigs
A German delicacy that’s too cute to eat …

In Germany, a marzipan pig is a symbol of good luck in the New Year … It’s also pretty delicious.

For those of you unfamiliar with marzipan, it is a traditional European candy made from almond paste.  Though it is generally considered German, other countries hold the confection dear.  I first fell in love with marzipan coated in chocolate, but the treat is famous for being twisted into a myriad of shapes and colors.

I got a book for Christmas about how to shape the paste into flowers and figures.  In lieu of New Year, I will explain how to make a pig for good luck.

-       Plain marzipan for baking/decorating
-       Red food coloring
-       Sprinkles or chocolate

Flatten the marzipan and place a couple of droplets or red food coloring to dye the marzipan pink.
Knead the marzipan to spread the color, until pink throughout.  Do NOT overdue the coloring, or you’ll have a red pig!
Roll two cylindrical pieces. (These will eventually be the pig’s legs.)
Make a pear shape for the body. Try to create a plump belly. 
Wrap cylinder shapes near the top of the pear and at the base.
Create a pig head by making a ball with a conical shape protruding. Flatten the point into a nose.
Make triangle shapes for ears.
Use sprinkles or chocolate for the eyes.

Here is what my pig looked like ... A third grade crafts project: a little messy but still cute:

Here are what store bought pigs (Oma buys them every year) look like ... art:

Best of luck!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Schnecke & Glühwein

The Story: Schnecke
A German children’s game my grandmother played as a girl and taught to American children as an adult.

Schnecke [sh-nek-ah]
1) the German word for snail.
2) German children’s party game where everybody wins.

The game is called Schnecke because there is a spiral shaped line of prizes, starting with candy and toothpicks on the outermost layer, and larger toys in the center coil.

You roll two dice in the beginning, and the number you roll is the prize you pick up.  You may get the glitter lip balm or a toothpick, but you always win something. 

But when the prizes get bigger, as you loop in toward the center of the spiral, other rules apply. For example, only even numbers may get a reward — but this only lasts a turn or two.

And before the grand prizes, there is a bumper.  A bumper keeps all the players equal.  No one can collect a grand prize until all of the smaller trinkets are won.  Let's say you roll a five ... You count 1, 2, 3, hit the bumper (4), go in the opposite direction one prize (5).  This round sucks by the way if you’re the birthday girl.  My mom never let me play because I was "getting enough toys already." Try using that logic on a four-year-old in a tiara ...

In the end, everyone trades winnings.

I know, it makes no sense on paper; but, I swear, it’s awesome.

This game was taught to my mother by her mother (Oma), but it became a popular Christmas tradition on my father’s side of the family.

Last year's schnecke.  My cousins, sister and I played the same game we have for two decades, just with a grown-up twist.  
I should note that I, at 22, am the baby of the family on my father’s side — The Caboose, as my grandma Gammie calls me. And, we still play schnecke, but with a twist.

Instead of a Tonka truck or Barbie grand prize, we now play for a bottle of red or lotto ticket.  But, most of our treasures are still innocent.  We play for candy, face paint, glitter and old family photos. It’s all very nostalgiac of Christmases and Schneckes past.

Inside last year's snail.  In addition to our new, grown-up prizes, we still play for toys, candy, pictures and Mr. Bubble. 

The Drink: Glühwein 

Glühwein, or mulled wine, is a German holiday drink from my Oma’s 101-year-old cookbook.  It once belonged to my great-grandmother, or Uroma, and is written in old German script. 
A page from Oma's 101-year-old cookbook.  This week's recipe is at the top of the page, but written in Old German.

The poor book has seen better days, it is no longer bound and is covered in pictures doodled nearly 90 years ago by my great-uncle Albert (remember him from my St. Nikolaus post?).
This cookbook has been through a lot.  It even survived Albert!  His doodle of a train is still visible on the book's century-old pages.  

But, the recipe for Glühwein remains and is a staple at Oma’s Christmas Eve dinners.

-  ½ bottle of red wine (Oma suggests a sweet one)
-  100 grams of sugar (For us Americans, that’s ½ cup)
-  1 stick of cinnamon, about two inches
-  2 whole cloves
-  ½  of a lemon peel, but ONLY the yellow from the peel. 
    Oma says, “Don’t use the white! That’s bitter!”

Combine the ingredients in a pot.
Let it sit until the point of boiling, BUT DO NOT BOIL.
Strain, as Oma says, "You don’t want anything swimming in it."
Immediately Serve Glühwein,” this century-old book doesn’t mess around.  

 *Like the beef rouladen, this is a recipe my family will prepare in a few days for Christmas.  So, I did not make it today. I will post an image of Oma's Glühwein after Christmas

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christkind & Beef Rouladen

The Tale: Christkind, Bavaria, Germany ~1934
How an angel annually made a special stop in the New Orleans area for two little girls and their Oma.

My very first Christmas Eve.  My big sister Julie is the cute, developed one. I look like a potato. (1989)
Like I said in my last post, Christmas Eve was the most magical part of my childhood.  Growing up, we always celebrated a traditional German Christmas with Oma on the 24th. Because, in Bavaria, Christmas Eve is the biggest part of Weinachten.

We would go to Oma’s and have a German meal with potatoes, red cabbage and beef rouladen.  I literally just drooled on my keyboard.  Most of these foods have a common ingredient: bacon.  Tender, delicious bacon …

But, I digress. (See the succulent, Bavarian recipe for beef filled with bacon below.)

We would fill our bellies and the smell of potatoes and meat would linger throughout a warm house.  My mom and Oma would sip coffee at the kitchen table after dinner, while my dad, sister (Julie) and I would watch a special Christmas episode of a sitcom on TV.  Seriously, how many fictional characters have been visited by three ghosts after midnight?

My mom would suggest that Dad take Julie and me to look for Santa, and the women would meet us after they finished their coffee.  I usually was angry at first. I wanted to know how the show ended.  Would Clarence get his wings? But my tantrum would subside as we drove by houses lit up with twinkly lights.

We would eventually stop near Lake Pontchartrain, or on the Lakefront itself, and Dad would point out different constellations while holding me or Julie — all the while, looking for Santa’s sleigh. One time, Julie and I were convinced we saw it.  

Oma and Mom would eventually meet us. And we’d spend a few more minutes admiring lights and looking for Santa before going back to Oma’s for lebkuchen and marzipan. 

Walking into the warm house, we would notice a cool Christmas air snaking through. The back door was open, and gold packages now sat below the tree. Christkind had arrived.

Christkind, was the angel present at the birth of Jesus, and she is a little girl who brings presents to good Bavarian children on Christmas Eve. She made a special stop in the greater New Orleans area every year for Julie and me. 

She doesn’t come down the chimney, but through a door or window. Oma says she caught Christkind coming into her home in Augsburg as a little girl.

Here is an image I found online of Christkind, the fair-haired little girl angel present at the birth of Jesus.  Some claim she was the angel or star that acted as a guide to the manger. 
When Oma was about nine, and called Lottie, she went for a walk to look at Christmas decorations with her family.  She arrived back at home, feeling the winter air tunnel through the house.  She saw the window, which opened outward, was wide open.  And, she was convinced she saw the white angel floating near the gable of her home.

“To this day, I really don’t know what it was … I assumed it was Christkind,” Oma said with a little laugh.  But then she paused and said something simple and charming, as if she were recalling all of our Christmases with Christkind, “Ja ... That’s a nice time for children.”

The Recipe: Beef Rouladen by Oma
Rouladen is very rich and will easily serve 6 – 8 people.

My mother patiently sat with Oma and went through the steps of making her famous rouladen. She sent me the following recipe.  Oma is in the process of making it now for Christmas Eve, so I will not be attempting it at this time.  I will post an image for now as a placeholder, so you can see what rouladen should look like. But it will be replaced with a picture of Oma’s dish after Christmas.

An image, found online, of rouladen.
Oma's dish will be posted after Christmas.
-       2 ½ pounds beef: top round steak, or sirloin, thinly sliced by butcher to 1/4 inch thickness
-       12 slices of bacon, halved
-       3 large onions, finely chopped
-       Yellow Mustard (Oma actually recommends American)
-       Salt and Pepper
-       2-3 Tablespoons Flour
-       1 1/4 cup Beef Broth, Mushroom Soup or Water
-       3 Tablespoons Bacon Fat and Butter
-       1 large onion, finely chopped
-       ½ cup sour cream, optional

Selecting the beef for a successful roll-up:
“Start with an experienced butcher.  Have the butcher show you his top round, not bottom round steak.” - Oma
The pieces must be large enough to wrap up with the filling: 6-8 inches long by 3-4 inches wide. 
Have the butcher slice the top round thin, like for scaloppini or schnitzel, about ¼  inches thick.
If the butcher shop does not use a tenderizing machine, you will have to pound the meat to 1/8 inch thickness at home. (A good butcher can run your cut of round, or sirloin, through the tenderizer without perforating the meat.)

Fry the bacon until limp not crisp.
Remove bacon from the drippings.
Add chopped onions to the frying pan and carefully sauté until golden brown, and watch closely so they do not burn. (The onions burn easily, and one burned onion ruins the flavor you are seeking for the rouladen, according to Oma.) *If there aren’t enough bacon drippings, add butter to finish the sauté.
Process the onion and bacon together in a finely chopped blend. Don’t over-process!

Filling the Beef:
Lightly flour a clean food preparation board. Lay out a tenderized piece of beef on the board.
Apply a thin spread of yellow mustard to the beef.
Sprinkle it with salt and pepper.
Take 2 tablespoons of filling and gently pour it along one edge, about 1 inch from all of the borders, so it won’t leak after folding.

Folding & Rolling:
You should have a 4 by 8 rectangle of meat, with a line of filling one inch from the edges.
Fold it like a burrito, initially.
Fold over the filling on the left, then on the right, and from the nearest long side. Then start to roll it away from you. 
Some recipes call for tying them up with string. Oma likes to use, plain, un-dyed, round toothpicks to hold her rolls together.

Cooking the Rolls:
In a small bowl, whisk 2-3 tablespoons of flour and 1 ¼ cup broth, and then place in microwave on high for 30 seconds. 
Whisk, and repeat until very hot and smooth BUT DO NOT let it come to a boil.  (If you need more gravy, double this broth mixture.)
Dredge each roll very lightly in flour just before cooking.
Use the sauté pan with the bacon drippings.
Add butter if needed to brown the rouladen.
Brown and turn the rolls on all sides.
Remove the rolls. 
Add the fourth minced onion and sauté until golden brown.
Add rolls and the broth mixture to the sauté pan.
Bring to a boil, then QUICKLY reduce heat and simmer 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. (Add broth if needed.) Check the rolls to see if they are tender.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bad Santa & Cut Out Cookies

The Story: Bad Santa, Weinachten (Christmas) in Bavaria, Germany ~1930
If you think a lump of coal is bad, try drowning in a river …

In America, St. Nick is portrayed as a jolly fellow — a rosy-cheeked grandfather who can shake his belly like a bowl full of jelly.  But in Bavaria, Nikolaus is a little, well stern.  His red suit is a bit more formal and I doubt his beard is full of cookie crumbs — definitely the German Felix to the American Oscar. 

And, instead of traveling with eight tiny reindeer on Dec. 25, Nikolaus takes to the streets the first week of the month accompanied by Pelznickel — who is anything but endearing. Let’s put it this way, Pelznickel eats the claymation villains from American Christmas specials for breakfast. 

On Sankt Nikolaus Tag (December 6), Nikolaus brings the good boys and girls gifts. And the bad children ... get thrown in a sack and drowned in the river by Pelznickel.  

A lump of coal doesn’t seem so bad now, does it? 

I haven’t had family in Germany for years, so after some googling I don’t think Pelznickel is as popular anymore, and some versions now depict him as a giant alien-like rabbit.  One site suggested this is more like how he was described during pagan times.  Any way you slice it, he is just horrifying.

This is an image of Pelznickel, or Nikolaus in furs, I found online.  He and Sankt Nikolaus are the dynamic duo on Saint Nikolaus Day in Germany that reward good children and drown the bad.

Well, Oma had an encounter with Pelznickel when she was about five, more accurately, her brother Albert did.  

“Albert was such a rascal at that age,” Oma said with a laugh about her 10-year-old brother. “But, actually all the time.”

Albert’s rap sheet included being hit by nearly every mode of transportation, crafting a tomahawk and throwing it at my grandma’s forehead (you can still feel the indent 80 some years later) and letting Oma loose on an ice flow!

Obviously, Albert was on the naughty list.

Oma, was a sweet child, then called Lottie, who received an apple and some nuts that morning from Sankt Nikolaus. Albert, did not.

(Please read the following in a sweet, elderly Bavarian accent, there are no “th” sounds and the “w’s” are “v’s.”)

She said she remembers Pelznickel coming up the stairs and into her house.  The best part of hearing this story for the thousandth time, is how my Oma still tells it to me like I am eight.  She describes the scary Pelznickel, or Nikolaus in furs, wearing “inside out lambskin” and threatening to throw Albert in the Lech River! 

This is the point where she reminds me, in case the story is too scary, that the Jolly Santa is the only real one. 

“[Pelznickel] really doesn’t exist, you know,” she says comforting me.
Well, Lottie began to cry at the prospect of her brother drowning. And, her mother asked the scary Santa to leave.  Albert was given a warning that he wouldn’t be so lucky next year. 

Little-girl Oma and Albert shared a moment of relief.  He could see that Lottie was still shaken. He comforted his baby sister, telling her he had a plan all along.  He pulled a small knife from his pocket and said if Pelznickel had put him in the sack, he would have slit his way out. I am fuzzy on the details on whether he intended to slit the Pelznickel as well.

Oma carried on many traditions of Weinacthten with my mother, and then me.  But, Pelznickel was not one of them.

My father was not as lucky with his German grandparents. 

My dad grew up in the Ninth Ward, and so did his father and grandfather; before that, his family was in northern Germany. What many people don’t know about the Ninth Ward is that it was once a cluster of immigrant boroughs, so the German traditions stuck. 

Long story short, my dad’s grandfather would dress as Nikolaus and hit the children with a yellow stick.

I asked my dad if his pappy was supposed to be Pelznickel, and my dad answered laughing that he didn’t know his grandfather was supposed to be. He only remembers a scary red suit and possibly a mask. 

But German Christmas isn’t always stern or scary.  In fact, celebrating German Christmas Eve with Christkind, the Bavarian jolly gift-giver, was the most magical part of my childhood.  And, that is my story for next time …

The Sweets: Christmas Cut-Out Cookies
These treats are not a German recipe. In fact, when I went to Germany a couple of years ago, I don’t think I saw one cookie. They are all about cakes there, and I promise I will share some Bavarian cake recipes one day.   But, these cookies mean German Christmas to me, because I baked them with my Oma every year. 

Cut-Out Cookie Station at Oma's house!
This recipe was first introduced to my family in the ‘60s when my mom discovered it as a pre-teen.  So, think of it as retro Americana.

1 cup of oleo or butter (Trust me, Oma uses butter)
3 eggs
1 cup of sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla

3 ½ cups flour
2 tsp. cream tartar
1 tsp. soda

Refrigerate 1 hour, it helps with texture.
Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown for 7 - 10 minutes. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tabouli Salad & Visitors From Mexico

 The Food:  Lebanese Tabouli Salad
A dish my German Oma made for her Lebanese-American husband.  My mother sent me the recipe:

Bulgur Wheat:
There are three kinds of bulgur wheat: fine, medium and coarse.  For a nuttier texture, use medium Bulgur for Tabouli. 
The wheat must be prepped first by soaking it:  For every 1 cup of wheat, bring to boil 1-1/2 cups water. Put the wheat in a pot and pour the boiling water over the bulgur. The grain should be covered by about 2 inches of water.  Allow the wheat to soak 45 minutes.  Drain the water from the bulgur.  Then wring the bulgur (don’t just drain it) a handful at a time, until the excess water is expressed. Now, the wheat is ready to use.  Set prepped bulgur wheat pot aside …

-       1 ½ cups bulgur wheat (soaked and pressed)
-       5 firm tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
-       2 bundles green onions, finely chopped
-       1 cup extra virgin olive oil
-       1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
-       pinch salt
-       pepper (preferably, fresh ground black peppercorns) to taste
-       1 tsp. Cumin
-       3 bunches finely chopped flat leaf parsley
-       1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh or dried mint

Finely chop the green onions and place them in a large mixing bowl.
Sprinkle the onions with the salt, pepper and cumin, set aside.
Blanch the tomatoes quickly in a pot of rapidly boiling water to make them easy to peel and seed. Express the seeds and chop the tomatoes into coarse chunks. Add tomatoes to onion mixture.
Cut the thick stems from the parsley bunches. Wash the parsley tops thoroughly and pat the leaves dry.  Coarsely chop the mint and parsley leaves into the cup of a large blender. 
Add 1/3 of the liquid ingredients, lemon juice and olive oil, to the blender cup and pulse the blender to finely chop the parsley mixture.  Add the rest of the liquids slowly as the blender is pulsed. The parsley mixture should end up very finely chopped and be thoroughly blended with all of the olive oil and lemon juice.  Empty the parsley mixture from the blender into the green onion and tomato mixture in the large bowl. 
Stir the ingredients together. 
Spoon the bulgur wheat into the parsley and green onion mixture until all ingredients are thoroughly blended.
Adjust the seasoning by adding more oil or lemon juice as needed. Refrigerate until completely chilled.
Tabouli is served chilled as a salad on a bed of washed, "pat-dried" leaves of romaine lettuce.   

My tabouli experiment during finals week. 
My Kitchen Experience:
Full disclosure:  I am a cheater, cheater pumpkin eater! (I do have a delicious pumpkin spice cookie recipe, but that’s for another time.)  I am the genius who started blogging during finals week.  But I wanted to share holiday recipes, at least that was the logic.  Anyway, I have three finals this week, so I used a shortcut.  While I seasoned everything as my Oma directed, I did not soak and press the bulgur. I KNOW I AM A BAD PERSON! I used the Near East taboule kit (that's how the brand spells it) — just for the bulgur wheat.  It is super easy, and I do recommend it for others in a jam.  It took 30 minutes to soak and one hour to chill with the additional ingredients. 

So I skimped on the main dish, but I have a great side of lore!

The Fable: Visitors from Mexico, 1930s 
This familytale calls for one part Sulphur, Louisiana, a dash of Mexico and a hint of Lebanon. 

My grandfather, John, was Lebanese-American, raised in the very small, rural town of Sulphur … and he was the oldest of five children. The John family (yes John was his first and last name, but that is another story for another time) was an attractive group, especially the three daughters with striking dark hair— which my mother recalls glimmering auburn in the sun. 

So beautiful, that the news travelled across the world.  Well, at least to Mexico. There, a very wealthy Lebanese-born man heard of the beautiful John women and traveled to find a wife for his son. But, as not to intimidate the young ladies, he left his son at home and brought his daughter. And to Sulphur they went.

Enter my grandfather.

He went to Sulphur High School and was the Norman Rockwell image of a football hero — just with a darker complexion.  He was walking home when he stumbled upon a very strange scene: his father Joseph was chasing a man out of the house and into the street.

Well, it was that man from Mexico.  He arrived, daughter in tow, and decided that my great-aunt, Esma (the eldest daughter), was just the right age.  Apparently, he sent Esma to the movies with his girl, to befriend the family.  At the theater, Esma recalled, the girl showing her a photo of the brother in Mexico.  Esma did not think much of it, but understood the significance years later.

Well, the Man from Mexico was much less subtle.  He asked Joseph if he could bring Esma back to Mexico as a bride for his son. Great-grandpa Joseph disagreed, physically chasing the man off his property. 

I would like to say that the John women are still just as beautiful.  Frankly, I can see what all the fuss was about.

My cousins, sister and me last summer.  While only one of us still has the surname John,  that pretty, dark hair is still a dominant gene.  Well, for most of us.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Welcome to the Old Country!

As a journalism major and history minor, I have a passion for both writing and historic conservation.  I also love to bake and am lucky to have grown up very close with both of my grandmothers. Thus, the creation The Old Country Blog! 

As a child, I heard family lore from my German grandmother (who married a tall, dark and handsome Lebanese man) about the old countries.  And, food was often a major plot point. Fables and cuisine are the essence of culture, and it is my goal to record my family's heritage.

Here, I want to preserve authentic recipes from my motherland and yours, by providing dishes and tales from across the globe! I am compiling recipes and stories from my family and friends to bring the Internet the most authentic ethnic dishes!

My Oma (German for grandmother) and her Lebanese husband on their wedding day, October 15, 1949.  My sister and her husband share this anniversary. 

If your grandma has a good story, or recipe, email me at
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