I’m back! I have bid adieu to the jet lag and recovered (somewhat) from 48 hours of constant eating. As I look ahead to 2007, and all the plans I have for my blog, I cannot move forward without sharing some of the wonderful experiences that I enjoyed on my 11-day trip through Berlin, Prague and Vienna.
When I left Toronto on a cold yet sunny Friday afternoon, I was filled with nervous anticipation. Having never flown by myself, I was anxious to arrive in Berlin. But more than that, I was eager to begin this trip that I’d been dreaming of for so long.
I landed in Frankfurt on Saturday morning with a little more than an hour to go before my connecting flight to Berlin. After disembarking, I literally wanted to kiss the ground as my flight across the Atlantic had been less than comfortable. For almost three hours we were confined to our seats as a result of the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. It didn’t help matters when the pilot ordered the crew to be seated for a significant amount of time due to the shaking plane.
That can’t be good.
Turbulence aside, I made it to Frankfurt with enough time to make it through all the security checks, get lost twice and window shop before my flight to Berlin. But before I knew it, I’d landed in Germany’s capital!
My initial impression of the city, or at least as much as could be impressed upon me during the cab ride to the hotel at which we travelled at warp speed, was that it looked a lot like some of the Italian cities I’d seen. Lots of low-rise apartment building with balconies, wide streets with boulevards down the middle and Smart cars.
Comfortably settled into the hotel, I began the process of meeting my fellow tour buddies. In all, our group numbered 49, most of whom were Australian. Can I just say Australians are FUN people!!! Greetings aside, we were now ready to begin this journey into the heart of Berlin.
But how to describe it?
I saw so many incredible things. The Berlin Wall served as one of the first stops on our tour and perhaps one of the most profound for me personally in that I am old enough to remember some of the brutal history that lies at the foundations of what was once an ugly barrier between so many. In 1989, when the Wall fell, I was 16 years old. I can remember very well the scenes broadcast around the world. Too young then to realize what it’s like to witness history, standing at the Wall brought a renewed sense of that moment.
People really did bring that Wall down! That horrible place where so many had lost their lives trying to escape to a better one was really taken apart, piece by piece. Today, parts of the Wall still stand as a reminder of what must never happen again. These remaining stretches of the Wall are covered in graffiti, some of truly beautiful.
Moving from the Wall, such a visible reminder of how Berlin and Germany were once divided, it was surprising to find myself walking through a city that in many ways is so elegant. I’ve often heard Berlin described as gritty and a bit faded, and it’s true there were sections of the city that looked a bit worn. But I found that appealing. It speaks to history and character, something that’s difficult to find in some of our more modern, cookie-cutter cities.
One of my favourite spots was the square right in front of the library of the Humboldt-UniversitÃ¤t zu Berlin. Made infamous for the book burnings that took place there after Hitler came to power, I found it inspiring that the very same spot is regularly filled with students. Called the Bebelplatz, this spot is the site of a memorial called The Empty Library. There is a glass door in the middle of the square that looks down into an empty room. At night, the room is lit from within to reveal a small room lined with empty bookshelves.
If you are ever in Berlin, I urge you to visit this spot!
Beyond the numerous and worthy memorials around Berlin, there are so many layers to this city that you can uncover. Museum-hopping, the view from the glass dome at the Reichstag, walking through the Brandenburg Tor, all of these activities reveal a city of art, music and literature.
As I explored the city, I was impressed by the amount of green space. It seemed there were small parks everywhere filled with joggers and people walking their dogs. Germans like their sport and of course I could not pass up the opportunity to photograph the Olympic stadium, site of a certain country’s World Cup victory this past summer.
Perhaps the most eye-opening and sombre part of my time in Berlin was our visit to the site of what was once the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, located just outside the city limits. We were given the option of going to Sachsenhausen and at first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. After some thought, I decided to act on the words of our tour guide who put it in very real terms when she said that as difficult as some of these sites may be, they are a part of the history of the place we were in.
It was a very emotional place, filled with heart-breaking stories of innocent people who lost their lives. But at the same time, I was glad that I went to honour those very people. Many people have asked me if I think it’s a good idea to visit such a place and my answer is simply this: it’s a personal decision. For me, it was the right decision to go.
Back in the city core, we turned our attention to Berlin’s Museum Island and other important sites like Checkpoint Charlie. And of course, to my favourite part of Berlin, the Unter den Linden. The Unter den Linden is one of Berlin’s most beautiful streets. The Unter den Linden starts right by the Berliner Dome and ends at the Brandenburg Tor. At night, the trees lining the boulevard down the centre of the street were lit in honour of the holidays. It was such a beautiful sight to behold!
A number of people asked me what my impression was of Germans after having visited the city. I found almost everyone to be friendly and outgoing. Almost everyone I met spoke English (although I did try my hand at some of the more basic German phrases). I had no difficulties whatsoever communicating with people whether it be in stores, on the subway or just walking about.
I found Berliners to be stylish and very social. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Christmas markets set up throughout the city. Beginning in the early afternoon, the markets began to fill with people who all seemed to stop by for a beer, something fried and rolled in sugar and to greet a friend. I found it heartwarming to watch as Berliners all seemed to enjoy the simple activity of raising a glass and spending a few hours walking about. Unlike a packed shopping mall, I could sense a genuine feeling of Christmas in the air.
As I walked through the markets, it was hard to focus on any particular thing for a long time. Your attention is demanded by beautiful ornaments, the smell of GlÃ¼hwein (mulled wine) and fried food begging to be rolled in sugar and the sounds of Christmas are everywhere from people laughing to music playing. I passed children playing on a make shift ice rink and buildings lit up so beautifully.
Even though I was not a Berliner, I somehow felt so linked to that place at that time. It felt good and right to walk through the markets. I helped myself to lots of good German beer and yes … a pretzel or two (maybe … possibly even three).
One of the sights that intrigued me, but that I could never quite get close enough to see, were stalls overflowing with beautifully decorated and packaged cookies. Upon returning home, I did some research and found out that they are in fact called Zimtsterne or Cinnamon Stars. I also found out that there was a recent scare about the effects of the cinnamon in the cookies. Scare aside, I decided to try my hand at recreating the cookies as a tribute to Berlin, and the special time that I had there.
I found a wonderful web site called Germany Info which listed a recipe for Zimtsterne. It didn’t sound all that arduous so I decided to give it a try. The original recipe posed some problems for me, namely that the cookie dough was much too sticky to be able to cut out cookies. I adapted the recipe to make a firmer dough and I did so by adding flour. It made the dough much easier to work with.
These are pretty cookies, but they do require some patience and effort. After cutting out the star shapes, some of the meringue (set aside when first making the cookies) has to be spread on the unbaked cookies. Once that step is complete, the cookies need time to dry out at room temperature. And even after baking them, it’s best to leave them for a few days to harden a bit.
In a number of the recipes that I came across for Zimtsterne I noticed that the cookies were topped with a rum glaze. I decided to add a glaze to my cookies as well even though the original recipe does not require it. The glaze adds a nice visual touch as well as flavour element to these lovely little cookies.
As I glazed them, I couldn’t help but think of the Christmas market in Berlin and all the lovely things I’d seen.
Berlin … you were beautiful!
Zimtsterne (Cinnamon Star Cookies)
Adapted from the original recipe at Germany Info.
- 2 cups blanched almonds
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour (you may need more)
- 5 egg whites
- 2 cups icing sugar, sifted
- 2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tbsp. Kirschwasser
- 7 oz. (200 g.) icing sugar, sifted
- 1 tbsp. dark rum
- 2 tbsp. hot water
- In a food processor, finely grind the almonds. They should resemble fine bread crumbs.
- Place the ground almonds in a bowl with the flour and combine.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites at high speed (with a stand mixer or hand mixer) until stiff (3 to 4 minutes).
- Gently fold in the sifted icing sugar.
- Remove 1 cup of the egg white/sugar mixture and set aside.
- Gently fold the almond/flour mixture, the cinnamon and the Kirschwasser into the remaining egg white mixture.
- Once combined, you will have a very sticky dough. Refrigerate the dough for 2 hours.
- Generously flour a work surface and turn the dough out onto the surface. With your hands, pat the dough into a circle that’s roughly half an inch thick. If the dough sticks to your hands, sprinkle generously with flour.
- Using a 2-inch star-shaped cookie cutter, dip the cutter in a bowl of flour and then begin cutting out star shapes.
- Transfer the stars to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Gather up the scraps, sprinkle with more flour and pat into a circle again. Cut out more stars. Continue these steps until you’ve used all the dough.
- Once you’ve cut out all the stars, take the reserved cup of egg whites and icing sugar and carefully spread the mixture over each cookie. Leave the cookie sheets out overnight so that the cookies can dry out. There’s no need to cover the cookies.
- When you’re ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, for 5 minutes.
- Let the cookies cool for about 30 minutes before removing them from the cookies sheet.
- While the cookies are cooling, prepare the rum glaze by combining the icing sugar, the rum and the hot water in a bowl. If the glaze is too thick, add a bit more hot water.
- Once the cookies have cooled for 30 minutes, drizzle the glaze over the cookies and let sit for another 30 minutes so that the glaze can set.
- After the glaze has set, place the cookies on a wire rack to cool completely. If you can, leave the cookies on the wire rack for several hours to give them a chance to dry out even further.
- While these cookies will harden on the outside, they will remain soft in the centre. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Note: Depending on the size of your cookie cutter, you should get anywhere from 20 to 30 cookies from this recipe.