December 18, 2011

Hänsel & Gretel Huus or how to make a gingerbread house

"Happiness is the smell of Gingerbread baking in the oven"

My father was American, my mother is British, I have travelled half way across the globe, I speak different languages and married my Italian Amore but at heart I'll always be Swiss. At home we trick&treat at Halloween, we celebrate Thanksgiving, Samichlaus leaves goodies by the chimney on December 6th, we have Christmas crackers along with struffoli for Christmas and the Befana accompanies Los Reyes Magos at Epiphany. That's why when Advent comes along I will religiously reserve a weekend to bake Wiehnachtsguetzli (Swiss Christmas biscuits) with my children.
This year we went the whole nine yards. We skipped the Zimtsternli, Brunsli, Chräbeli and Mailänderli and decided to make a Hänsel & Gretel Huus (Gingerbreadhouse) from scratch.

Here is the result:

Following is the recipe:

Gingerbread dough
You will need 4 portions of dough. Prepare 2 portions at a time. One half will serve as base. The other half should be enough for all cut-outs.

Ingredients for 1 portion:
300g flour
1 tbl spoon mixed spices (Lenkuchengewürz)
5 tbl spoon white sugar
150gr of honey (melted and cooled) or molasses
2 tea spoon of ammonium carbonate (Triebsalz) or baking soda
3/4 dl cold milk
milk for brushing

Place flour in a bowl, add spice mixture, sugar and honey. Disolve ammonium carbonate in the cold milk, pour into flour/sugar mix and knead quickly to obtain a soft dough. It should not stick to your fingers. Covered the dough and let stand, preferably over night.

- the gingerbread rises better if the dough has rested for the night
- you can even prepare dough several days in advance, in order for dough not to dry out put it in a plastic bag without tightening it or just slide the bowl directly into the bag
- remove dough from refrigerator half an hour before rolling and knead quickly

- roll out dough on a floured surface until it is 0,5cm thick
- cut the gingerbread very carefully according to drawing and place on parchment paper.
- double check dimensions are correct after having placed pieces on tray. The more precise you cut and bake, the easier it is to assemble.
- brush with milk

Cooking time:
10 to 15 minutes 180°C in pre-heated oven

Icing Sugar
120gr powder sugar
1 fresh egg white

beat, fill into a pastry bag and use as “glue” and for decoration. The thicker the mixture the better it sticks. Patience is needed when holding pieces together.

Roll out about half of dough as base. On top of base place walls and stick together with icing mixture. Hold on to walls until they stick together. A loose rubber band could do the trick as well. (Cut off elastic band carefully before you add the roof). Then stick the two roof bits on top of walls. Hold it until dry. This is the very important! Remember, you’ll be sticking lots of sweets on the roof. It needs to be solidly stuck to the walls. Cut the base of chimney in order to fit the roof. When dry stick some cotton wool in it for smoke.  Stick on door, shutters and decorate to your hearts delight.

December 13, 2011

Christmas shopping in Paris

“The quickest way to know a woman is to go shopping with her.”
Mercelene Cox

Paris boasts some of the world's most breathtaking department stores, where visitors can browse the latest trends in designer fashion, enjoy a meal on dramatic terraces, browse gourmet food shops, or attend free fashion shows.

The city's historical department stores are not just shopping shrines, but architectural treasures and peddlers of plenty of exclusive clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, home furnishing, and gourmet items, making them ideal stops for holiday shopping if you can withstand the crowds.

This past week I have been enjoying the always-colorful and creative holiday window displays at Paris' department stores. Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Le Bon Marché, BHV, you name it....I've been there!

There has been quite some hype about the ongoing Christmas decoration competiton between Galeries Lafayette and Printemps which are located side by side. I must admit Printemps takes the cake this year with its Chanel lights and Lagerfeld window displays. Not even Jean Paul Goude with his 10 years of experience as the Galeries artisitc adviser with his "Rock n' mode" featuring Iggy Pop managed to top this year's Printemps "Chanel extravaganza" inaugurated by Karl Lagerfeld personally along with Vanessa Paradis, Johnny Depp's French wife.

Take a look for yourself:

You decide!

December 8, 2011

A big disappointment

Today I finally got round to visiting the new Marks&Sparks shop on Champs Elysées. I suppose it is part of my heritage being half-British? I have never actually lived in the UK but nevertheless I thoroughly enjoy British retailing.

Like the Parisians, I was quite pleased with the announcement of Marks & Spencer return to Paris. M&S had left in 2001 closing 18 stores in France. They had a wonderful store located right in front of the Galeries Lafayette. All the bigger was the disappointment upon walking into the new store.

I am not sure what the Brits favourite M&S products are but abroad M&S is highly appreciated by locals and foreigners for the food selection: party treats, Christmas delicacies, childrens' birthday food. Sometimes, you went and bought something just to spoil yourself.

Thanks to M&S the French forgot to count the calories. The streaky bacon sizzled merrily on the Sunday breakfast farmer's egg. The tea was organic, which in those days was difficult to find in Paris. The biscuits and cakes were, it seemed, entirely made of food additives, refined sugar and chemical dyes approved by the European Commission.

And now, M & S is back.

Boy, what a shock to see the food department which is more like a cave (120m2!!!), relegated to the back of the store, no larger than your local kiosk. In fact, food was added almost at the last minute. Originally, the store was supposed to establish the reputation of M&S in fashion. In Paris? You have got to be kidding? What reputation, I am wondering when they have H&M, Promod and Massimo Dutti just to name a few fashion houses that are located literally next to them. (Louis Vuitton is opposite!) It was only after a sort of spontaneous campaign by email that the company freed up space for food. Which represented already 35% of sales in the first week instead of 10% forecast.

Inside, most visitors were in line for the food department. Not one customer purchased clothing while I was standing in line at the ladies department for 1/2 hour with my mince meat pies because the food dept could not cope with the floods of people emptying the food shelves.

Whichever retail guru set up the M&S France development strategy should be relocated back to the UK fast or else improvise and remodel his 1400m2 "flagship" shop fast. Every weekend, about a million people invade the Champs Elysées. For all the rent I am sure they cashing out, it is a pity that neither the image, the quality nor the shopping experience is worthy of M&S label.

Even if it means selling hot cross buns in December!!!!

December 5, 2011

Parisian macarons

"While most people think it's our brain that controls our actions, it's often our heart that gets the biggest workout."
Gossip girl

What could better represent the French patisserie nowadays than a macaroon. Ladurée, Pierre Hervé and Fauchon have become household names. The maracon name is derived from an Italian word "maccarone" or "maccherone". This word is itself derived from ammaccare, meaning crush or beat, used here in reference to the almond paste which is the principal ingredient. It is meringue-based: made from a mixture of egg whites, almond flour AND it is Italian. Don't tell the French though!

The macaron's origin isn't clear, but it may have been brought to France from Italy as early as 1533 by Catherine di Medici and her pastry chefs. Macarons gained fame in 1792 when two Carmelite nuns seeking asylum in Nancy during the French Revolution baked and sold macarons in order to support themselves, thus becoming known as "the macaron sisters."

I am a firm believer that the French are mounting an amazingly efficient marketing campaign around this little delicacy in order to ward off the quintessential American cupcake that is becoming more and more popular in France. However, the French could never admit that an American invention could invade their local cuisine.

With all this in mind I decided to enroll Expat girl and myself in a cooking class to discover the secret of Parisian macaroons. We were not disappointed. Within two hours we had whipped up the most delicious orange pineapple-coconut macaroons followed by pink raspberry-white chocolate macaroons. Trust me it is worth trying and it is NOT impossible, no matter what the French tell you. You can do it!!!

La cuisine is in the basement...

...very romantic setting eventhough you can hear the metro running by every now and then!

The secret are the ingredients...

a light handed application

an ounce of patience

et voilà

December 1, 2011

Ventes privées à Paris

“The quickest way to know a woman is to go shopping with her.”
 Marcelene Cox

Paris is officially the capital of luxury. No Nation beats France when it comes to top-market luxury retailing. It is in the French business DNA. Les francais have managed to find the perfect mix of elegant chic, intriguing design, innovative technology and retail presentation. Add good quality raw material and amazing marketing skills et voilà!

Naturally a stroll down Avenue Montaigne is not in everybody's budget but there is an alternative... sometimes!

Les ventes privées (private sales) were invented a few years back by the big brands in order to diminish left-over stock at super discounted prices. Nowadays it seems to be a National sport practiced to perfect coordination by the Parisiennes who wish to look their absolute best without taking up a morgage. Private sales are a little world of luxury at the fingertips of the privileged and usually reserved for customers of the brand.

Now, the luxury brands and their devoted clients might not like the idea because after all luxury SHOULD remain exclusive by definition. However, world financial situation, shopping habits and people's attitude towards fashion has changed and everybody is trying to keep up with the ever faster changing trends. One well-invested purchase a year used to take you a long way. Today fashion houses present four collections a year introducing new tendencies, designs and colours. These collections are then copied and reproduced by mainstream fashion multinational chains within a week.

But you just can't beat the qualiy of a proper brand article. The solution therefore are les ventes privées which are held during spring and fall throughout Paris.

A good connection to a person working in the world of fashion will get you the famous invitations to access to the holy grails of fashion. Once you're in the loop newsletters should keep you updated.

My friends know that I am by no means a "fashionista". I have been to these personal sales and have come out empty handed something une parisienne would never even dream of. However, once in a while I will find the perfect piece - usually a pair of shoes.

Half the fun of this kind of shopping is the places I discover. From La Grande Arche de la Defense to remodeled paper factories. From downtown showrooms to halls in the suburbs.

Next week I am off to browse John Galliano's vente privée. I am wondering if there will be  millions of people to catch a last bit of his glory or will I be the only shopper of a designer who fell into disgrace?!?

In any case: Paris without shopping wouldn't be Paris!
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