My husband and I try to get away together for the weekend at least once a year, so this September we went to Berlin. It’s where my husband spent his year abroad at university and he has been talking about taking me there ever since we met. I’ve only ever driven through Germany so I had no idea what to expect. What I did know was that this weekend was going to be special from the start as it was not just us. We went with two very good friends of ours, one of whom my husband actually met in Berlin during that year out. It was lovely for them to reminisce and tell us about all the fun they had whilst living there. Glen (our friend) took these roof top view photos from our apartment, and very kindly said I could use them in this post. He’s an amazing photographer if ever you need one. Berlin is an incredible city. I knew a little bit about the history of it but compared to what I found out whilst I was there, I really knew nothing. We stayed in the former east Berlin in a spacious and modern apartment. Newly refurbished like many of the apartments in that area with a fresh, minimalist style. I felt at home there though, it was soft around the edges with fluffy rugs and a comfortable cosy bed.
We had the usual tourist adventures, and covered most of the main landmarks and historical buildings on the first day by hiring bikes. Something I would totally recommend. It helped that both hubby and our friends knew their way around, but the city is pretty flat so cycling is actually quite a pleasure with lots of cycle lanes to make it a bit easier.
I was like a sponge soaking up all the sights and history. Asking lots of questions, and in most cases hardly believing my ears when I was told the answers. One of the hardest things for me to comprehend was that the wall was up for 13 years of MY life time. I was surprised by the strong emotions I felt when thinking about what people must have been through. Maybe, it was simply because I had the space to really imagine what life must have been like, when normally my mind is taken up with the next school run or what to put in the lunch boxes. On reflection though I have realised that my emotion is partly because I could not rationalise what I was hearing in my head like I usually do with other tragic historic events. Normally I would think, it was so long ago and we all know better now, but quite simply the story of Berlin is too recent for that.
And this is the haunting thing about Berlin, everywhere you look there is evidence of it’s history. Pictures on walls, memorials, plaques, iron bars where the wall used to be and sculptures to depict tragedy and endurance. The picture below taken by photographer Peter Leibing brings a tear to my eye. Even a German solider wanted to run away from it all! After 23 years of reunification the difference between the east and west is still stark. But things have turned around some what as now it is the east which is becoming uber trendy and the place to be. Old architecture has been lovingly restored to house funky shops and cafes. Hidden in between are modern developments like the apartment block we stayed in. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal. A favourite for families to settle and make their home. In comparison, the west has a much more ‘business like’ feel. The Ku-damn (main street) has more traditional shops along with a few high street favorites.
One of the things that has really captured my imagination, is the notion of ‘ostalgie’. This is a term used to refer to nostalgia for life under a socialist system. A famous example of this is the green (and red) man that helps Berliners to cross the road. In east and west Berlin this little man is different, but it’s the east Berlin green man, known as Ampelmann who has been propelled into stardom due to his nostalgic qualities. There are even shops devoted to Ampelmann memorabilia, and it is in one of these that I could not resist some Ampelmann cookie cutters.
So in true German style, I decided to make some German Spekulatius biscuits with my Ampelmann cutters. These biscuits are a variation on the Dutch specaloos shortcrust biscuit which is traditionally baked at Christmas time. Only 11 weeks to go folks, so maybe this is a recipe to bookmark. They are sweet and spicy with a definite crunch. The distintive warmth of freshly crushed clove and cardamon seeds mixed with vanilla made for a comforting and mellow biscuit. I loved it so much in fact that these might just have taken the crown as my all time favourite. A stunning alternative to gingerbread if you fancy a change.
My spekulatius biscuits were easy to make and could easily be a rainy day activity with a child. Anything that requires rolling out and using cutter shapes is normally a winner. As you can see I decorated mine with red and green royal icing, using a slightly stiffer icing to pipe round the edges first and then filling in with a more fluid royal icing known as flood icing. Both of these icings are made with the same ingredients, they just have different consistencies depending on the amount of water added. I used spinach and beetroot powder to colour my icing which is why the green is not as bright as I would have liked. Still it’s green enough for us and much better for my kidlets.
Makes roughly 25 spekulatius, depending on the size of your cookie cutter
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 tsp almond oil
100g cold butter, cubed
50g ground almonds (you can also use hazelnuts)
1/4 tsp cardamom seeds crushed
1/4 tsp cloves (crushed)
1 tsp cinnamon
- Pre-heat the oven to 180c, and line a couple of baking trays with non stick paper
- Mix the flour and baking powder into a bowl, then add all of the remaining ingredients
- I used my freestanding mixer to then mix everything together into a dough. I was worried that there was not enough liquid to turn it into a dough, but sure enough after a couple of minutes of mixing a dough formed
- You can also do the mixing by hand but it will take slightly longer. If you end with a sticky dough because it is a bit warm, pop it in the fridge for 15 mins to cool down before you rollout
- Use a piece of non stick paper to roll the dough out to a 5mm thickness and cut out your shapes
- Cook on the baking tray in the middle of the oven for 10-13 mins. After 10 mins take a look and if you think the need a bit longer, do so but keep your eye on them as they will burn easily if left in too long
- Leave to cool on a wire rack
- I covered mine in royal icing but I also did a couple with the children and these we covered in white chocolate and sprinkles. This worked just as well.