Why Valentine’s Day Is A Good Thing – Happy Birthday T!

Most people don’t think twice about it. It’s a fixture, just like Christmas, or Easter. Think of your loved ones, write a card, hit the candy store or flower shop, move on. It’s not quite like that in Europe. We don’t have a long Valentine’s Day tradition. When I was young, nobody would have bothered with it, and as adolescents we would sneer at it, as we did at most traditions, for they were evil, especially when profit was involved. I think the first time I ever found Valentine’s Day acceptable was when I met my coworker and partner T, whose birthday happens to be on February 14th.

T is one of the most exceptional people I know, a tall, dark and very handsome guy with a big heart, huge smile and a head full of crazy. He has this remarkable, deep, rumbling voice, and he was wearing bespoke suits, three-piece no less, when we were only 30 years old. He is a brilliant graphic designer with a love for typography, a keen eye for photography, and a true passion for music. I think he has 5 or so iPods. He was one of the very few gentlemen I ever met at an ad agency (I may have married the other one ;-)). Have a good one, my friend!

As you know, I have a family now, and Valentine’s Day is always a welcome occasion to spoil them with Little Things, most of them heart-shaped. These days, I do buy flowers, just like everybody else, and chocolates, and, miraculously, so does my husband. Here’s a few pics of this year’s V Day:

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A sick kid that still needed to eat (incidentally the reason for my current, unusually frequent presence here, in case you were wondering), flowers, yummy heart-shaped Valentine Buns, a granny-square-patched-up pair of Little Miss Jeans, a very pretty picture and a sweet caramel and marzipan surprise our son made for us – way too awesome to eat!). All in all it was a good day, despite the 40 °C fever. I don’t mind the commerce now. And I’d hate to miss a good opportunity to make my loved ones smile, whose little faces lit up when they saw the heart-shaped toast that was for breakfast last Saturday. My son invented the ‚Heart-Shaped-Raspberry-Nutella-Sandwich‘, instantly posted and liked on Instagram. Gotta love teenagers ;-).

Hope you had a lovely one too, wherever you are!

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The Sweater of 13 Years

Once upon a time, when I was a younger woman, I knitted my boyfriend a scarf. It was to match his cool long overcoat from prestigious designer Thomas I Punkt aka OMEN – those of you who have been to their flagship store on Gänsemarkt in Hamburg will probably know what I’m talking about. The scarf was almost 2 m long, made with 3 mm needles and thin black merino yarn. The one-by-one pattern was definitely a Zen exercise (knit, purl, knit, purl …….). But that was OK, because my boyfriend loved it.

Then, I got pregnant. My boyfriend and I got married, and I, as most other pregnant ladies, started doing that weird thing called nesting. One symptom of this was the impulse to knit my new husband a brioche sweater. Now G is a very tall man, and he likes his clothing loose rather than tight. I knew before I even started that sweater was going to be a BIG project. But being pregnant also means you get time off, you don’t go out at night that much anymore, and you do your fair share of waiting in a variety of practitioners‘ offices. How better to use that time but for doing crafts ;-)?

So, I bought about a ton of the yarn I had used for the scarf, got out the needles, and went for it. I had decided on raglan sleeves, and after a few trials and errors, I got the raglan in synch with that brioche stitch pattern. I was a bit proud of myself. And I managed to keep the project secret too, because my husband was working out of town at the time. Yarn over, slip stitch, knit 2 together, yarn over, slip stitch, knit 2 together … again, a meditative rhythm that, once you get your fingers to do their muscle memory thing, you’re good!  I remember watching a lot of Ally McBeal reruns while working on that project, and regularly giving myself a kink in the neck from knitting while on the phone with my best friend who happened to also be pregnant at the time.

The sweater made progress as my belly grew, and I finished the back, the front and one sleeve. I was doing well timing-wise, too. My husband’s birthday is end of December, and I had only half of one sleeve to go when the sh… hit the fan. What happened was a symptom those of you who have had babies may be familiar with – it usually happens in the third trimester, and it’s called edema. It makes you look like a water-logged corpse, and it’s highly uncomfortable as well as unattractive. My fingers were that swollen that I had to take off my newly acquired wedding band because it physically hurt wearing it. I had one pair of trusty, well worn New Balance sneakers that my feet would still fit into, and that was it for shoes. (Crocs weren’t around then.)

Anyway, on top of being such a pain in the butt, the edema effectively put a stop to my knitting – that close to finishing the beautiful thing I was making – it was sooo frustrating. Just to be thorough, I wrote down how I had done those sleeves, I even drew a diagram with stitches counted and everything. I was going to have my baby and then finish that darn sweater, or so I thought.

Then that giving-birth-near-death experience happened, and I was in bad shape for a few months. When my body was finally my own again, after I had lost the excess weight which actually mostly consisted of water, and the fog surrounding my sleep-deprived, blood-drained brain began to lift, I made a pair of baby socks. With 2,5 mm needles and a very fine yarn. Yay! My fingers were working again. Then I made a baby hat, and a few other things I don’t remember.

Finally, I took a good long look at my notes, and sat there staring at my 3 quarters finished sweater. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t remember a thing, and I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do. I was at a complete loss. I tried something. It looked wrong. I ripped it back up. I tried again. And failed. And after a while, I decided I’d give it a rest and try some other time. Maybe once I’m sleeping through the night again, I thought.

Fast forward to 2015. What can I say? This is how it’s been ever since. I would look at the work, try to make sense of my notes, and give up again. And then, last Christmas, I was suddenly done with that. My son and I started ripping up that whole beautiful brioche knit. I’ll admit it hurt. But it was also liberating. I did take a picture to prove I’m not making this stuff up ;-).

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In the end, we had a heap of neatly wound up balls of black, thin merino yarn. It looked a bit dusty after 13 years, and it also was a bit curly. But it had potential, and I gave my husband the promise to make him a new sweater – not brioche, but something entirely different, and equally gorgeous.

It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with used yarn, and it’s a bit odd to think it has been hiding in a drawer for so many years. But that’s what millions of knitters over thousands of years used to do, right? It’s only our generation of thank God over 60 years of no war on our soil that isn’t used to that kind of saving-every-little snippet-pilgrim-mothers thing anymore.

But let me show you what the New Sweater will look like.

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It’s a simple diagonal rib of knit 3, purl 3 and repeat, moving the pattern one stitch sideways each row as you go. I was a bit bored with it at first, but now the first piece is finished, I quite like it. You do need to pay attention, but it’s definitely doable, and I’m enjoying the work. I’m going for a cut not unlike the OMEN sweaters my husband likes, loose and square with a wide neckline. Fingers crossed I’ll get to finish it this time around. At least it’s not like I’ll get pregnant again. I had my son 13 years ago at 34, you guys do the math …

Thank you for taking this walk down memory lane with me. It sure feels like closure to have written it all up here. In fact, it feels really good. So, what about you? Do you have any skeletons like this one in your closets? Let’s hear about them!

Cupcake Frosting, Yikes!!!

At my kids‘ schools, moms get to bring cake for their children’s birthdays, for the class and teacher(s), as we’ve been doing at the kindergarten, so I have 11 years of baking for kids under my belt now. I’ve made marble cakes, coconut cakes, cinnamon rolls, apple cakes, plum cakes, cherry cakes and cookies. I’ve made brownies, crumbles and waffles. And muffins, more times than I can count. Apple cinnamon muffins, banana/chocolate muffins, blueberry muffins …

In fact, muffins were the first baked goods I learned to make, back in the day when I was single, working my butt off in advertising and never really home. Then, I considered it an early night if I made it out of the agency before the grocery stores closed at 8. My cupboards held my kitchenware, tea and coffee, and maybe pasta, canned tomatoes and rice. I certainly wouldn’t have had any of the things you need for baking at my house. Things like flour, sugar, baking soda …

How things have changed ;-). But my good old muffin tray does date back to those ad agency days, and it has served me well. Of course, now it doesn’t make any coworkers happy but my two excellent sous-chefs, who will know their way around baking way better than I did when I first moved out at 18. And muffins are a great way to learn :-).

In recent years, these said sous-chefs have, along with every other kid in Berlin, discovered CUPCAKES. You might call them decadent, you might hate their über-richness, you might even consider them sneaky, dangerous, artery-clogging time bombs. But you know what? To heck with that. A decent cupcake can hold its own against the best petit-four, macaroon and tarte in the world. A great cupcake is a work of art, it melts on your tongue, and it can bring you true happiness, at the cost of risking a little weight gain, I’ll admit.

I’ve tried inferior cupcakes I shudder to think of, I’ve eaten mediocre ones that I was too polite not to finish, and I’ve savored true masterpieces. The latter made me want to learn how to make them myself. Unfortunately, they also made my son want some for his own birthday.

So I wasn’t worried about the cake part. I can do cake in my sleep now, and even if I’m probably a bit too lazy with the measuring, my stuff usually turns out well. The frosting though, not so much. Frustratingly. I mean, how hard can it be? Cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar, flavor of your choice … piece of cake…? Or not…

I have a ginormous batch of lemon and vanilla frosting sitting in my fridge as I write this, for the simple reason that it wouldn’t set, no matter how much powdered sugar I added. The bowl kept filling up, the lemon flavor got less and less intense, and the stuff became sweeter and sweeter … At the end of the night, I was close to tears. I was out of powdered sugar also, and had used almost a whole pound of butter. I really really hoped the frosting was going to firm up over night, and I set my alarm to half six to be able to put the finishing touch – aka pretty frosting peaks – on the little cakes for my son to take to school with him.

To make a long, sad story short: this is what he took with him yesterday morning:

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I called them Liquid Lemon Cupcakes to make myself feel better, he didn’t give me a hard time for them , thank God, and as far as I heard, the kids actually enjoyed them. 2 classmates have even asked for the recipe, can you believe it?

Now I’d really appreciate any advice you can give on how to make a true frosting with structure and stability out of that – pudding, for lack of a better word – I have on my hands. There’s too much good stuff in there to toss it, and I’m sure you’ve got a trick or two up your sleeve. Save the frosting! I say. And do get back to me, pretty please with lemon icing on top ;-)))!

J in Washington, if you’re reading this, please help!