Saturday, October 27, 2012

Vaihingen (Stuttgart)

One of the original reasons why I started this blog was to be able to share with my family and friends about my life, where I am at any given moment, and what it all looks like. Today's post is simply sharing some of the images from Vaihingen, which is the neighborhood in Stuttgart where I'm living. These photos have been taken over several months and give you an idea of what the architecture of the neighborhood looks like. As much as possible, I've tried to include people in the photos but it's tough as the neighborhood is somewhat suburban and finding people walking around during the day can be difficult.

Vaihingen, pronounced roughly "fie'ng-gen" with a small pause after the "e" and before the "n", is a neighborhood in the southwest corner of the city of Stuttgart. They say that it has a population just under 50,000 but I have no idea where all the people hide (it's exceptionally quiet here). It's home to Stuttgart's largest university, the Universität Stuttgart, which is the reason why we chose to live in this area. For people from the United States, Vaihingen might be known as the home of the Patch Barracks, which serves as the headquarters for the U.S. European, African, and Special Forces (Europe) command. Actually, it's pretty amazing how many Americans there are around here. I could have gone weeks in Spain without hearing an American accent!

A view up the street I live on and, yes, it rains here quite a bit:

I took a lot of these photos walking to and from the center of Vaihingen where the supermarket and other stores are. Some multi-family houses:

There's quite a bit of different architectural styles in the neighborhood partly owing to the fact that it's over 500 (!!!) years old. It's mostly multi-family houses with some apartment buildings and a few, older, single-family houses. While reading about Vaihingen for this story, I came across one old document from the early 1800s that talks about how it's about 1 1/2 hours away from Stuttgart. I laughed because it's probably more like ten minutes away with modern transportation. A little father down the same street as the photo above:

A grade school and the town church on the left. The school reminds me of the "old" building at my grade school in Philadelphia as they were both built post World War II and have a similar style.

The street below runs between the church in the photo above and the Rathaus (city hall) and has a few older, half-timber houses like the one on the right:

The other end of the above street where it ends at a pedestrian-only plaza in front of the Rathaus (behind me in this photo):

These two old houses are located right on the Rathaus plaza. The brown and white one was built in 1556 and the one on the right, which is now a Turkish restaurant, is much newer, from 1586:

The Rathaus and Rathaus plaza as seen from across the street (the two houses in the photo above are to the left of the Rathaus in this photo):

This area serves as an informal town center as it's surrounded by lots of little shops and is anchored by the modern Schwaben Galarie mall. The weekly farmers' market is held in Rathaus plaza. The above photo was taken in front of the Schwaben Galarie, which where the supermarket is:

The rest of these photos are taken at random locations in the center of Vaihingen. Just to the right and out of the frame of this picture is one of the Holocaust-memorial Stolperstein locations that I wrote about not too long ago.

More older buildings down the street from the Rathaus:

I'm not sure if this house is very old, I'm guessing it is, but I like it either way:

An unusual but cool brick house a few blocks away from the Rathaus towards the university:

This building is from 1756 and is, I think, an amazing German Fachwerk, or half-timbered, building:

Some more older buildings. I have no idea what the wood tower was/is for. You'd never know that this street is one block from the super-modern, multistory Schwaben Galarie:

It's not quite as crowded or exciting as Barcelona and the weather's not quite as good as California, but Vaihingen is a pretty cool place to happen to end up living. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then I believe the way to understand a culture, in addition to learning the language, is to go to as many local festivals as possible. I recently went to the Markgrönigen Schäferlauf, which is a shepherd-themed festival and definitely the best German one that I've been to so far. Since then, I've been on the hunt for more like it. Well, about two weeks or so ago, my roommate told me about a local Krautfest. What? A festival about kraut, as in sauerkraut? That would rock for sure.

The Filderkrautfest happens every October and celebrates the area's agricultural heritage and as well as the Filderkraut (Filder = the large agricultural plateau south of Stuttgart city and kraut = cabbage). Before this, I always thought that "kraut" meant "sauerkraut" and didn't know that that sauerkraut is just one way to prepare a "Kraut", or cabbage.  The pointy cabbage that's in all the photos is called a Spitzkohl, which means, yes, "pointy cabbage". The two-day festival happens in the twin-villages of Leinfelden and Echterdingen, which are cute little towns about a 1/2 hour south of the center of Stuttgart near the airport.

As with the Schäferlauf, there were a bunch of different activities planned during the weekend including the celebration of the festival king and queen. Below is the Krautkönigin (kraut queen), the Krautkönig (kraut king), and a local Bierkönigin (or beer queen). I'm not sure why, but the Krautkönigin and König remind me a little of my friends from Oceanside - Chuck and Gail. Maybe it's the beard but, in spite of their not-overly-excited looks in this photo, seemed to be a pretty rockin' choice. Oh, and I'm guessing that the Bierkönigin was chosen as a way to celebrate her recently-completed M.I.T. PhD.

Oh, you might notice that the photo above is leaps and bounds better in quality than my normal photos. That's because it's not mine but rather my friend Armando's, who's actually a pro. More about that in a bit.

As opposed to the disappointing Pretzelfest from earlier this year, the Krautfest had plenty of its namesake items available. Every other booth seemed to be selling at least one kraut-related food item. These folks are cooking up Krautschupfnudeln, a local kraut-and-pasta combo in giant woks. I love the pasta that they use in the dish and think it's a great combo.

Berat talked about Krautkuchen (kraut cake) during the two weeks leading up to the fest so the four of us stopped and picked up a piece to split. It was surprisingly good and way better IMO than the similar onion cake that they make here but that could be just because I HATE onions!

I think that the surprise of the day was seeing this booth for the York Pennsylvania Leinfelden Echterdingen Club. How random and crazy is it that there's a club for folks from York, which is not too far from where I grew up in Philadelphia, and folks from the Stuttgart area? Oh, and by the way, they were selling doughnuts for some reason.

There were two events the day we were there that I wanted to see. The first was a kraut weigh in of some local politicians. They assembled a large balance in the plaza in front of the Rathaus (city hall) and had the mayor, the governor of Baden Würtemberg and another guy who I didn't know on one side. Firemen then loaded the other side with Filderkräuter. It took 67 cabbages to equal the weight of three politicians. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. It did remind me of the scene in Monty Python's The Holy Grail where they compared a woman's weight to a duck and, when she was the same, decided to burn her for being a witch. These guys seemed to get off easy by just signing some of the cabbages, which were then sold off auction style to people in the crowd to raise money for a local school.

The next big event of the day was billed as the The World Kraut Pentathlon. This Olympic-style event pits teams of three against each other in five kraut-themed events including the kraut (running) relay race and the kraut sled race:

The final event was involved holding a Filderkraut at arms length for as long as possible. It took about three or four minutes for the last contestant (far left in the photo below) to put down his arm but only after he took a big swallow of beer from the glass of one of his teammates.

Yes, that's another of Armando's photos. I need him to show me a thing or two for sure!

Diana and I recreated the challenge. Next year we're hoping to compete against Stuttgart's finest.

So, by now, you're probably familiar with our roommate Berat but who's this Armando guy? Believe it or not, I met him through this blog. During the summer, Armando decided that he wanted to leave his native Guatemala and study German in Stuttgart. Being the modern fellow he is, he googled for German schools in the area and my post about my German classes was the first result (who'd have known?). He told me that he read my stories for a couple of hours and then wrote to me. We quickly became friends and planned on meeting once he got here, which we've done a few times. I've met others through the blog but Armando's the first that I've ended up hanging out for more than a short time and it's been great. As I mentioned above, Armando's quite the photographer. You should check out his site as well as his travel photos (under "Viajes"). Probably my favorites are his recent visit to Dachau.

Family photo from the Leinfelden-Echterdingen Filderkrautfest:

...and, of course, the mandatory self portrait:

Thanks to Berat for telling us about the festival and to both him and Armando for coming along and making it such a fun-filled, culturally-interesting day!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Baking The (Almost) Perfect Buttercake

Buttercake. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Some of my earliest childhood memories of baked goods include my mom's Christmas-cookie-baking marathons, pretzels (duh!), and good-ole' Holmesburg buttercake. What I didn't know before moving to Stuttgart was that buttercake, or as it's called here, Butterkuchen, comes from Hamburg, up in northern Germany. I've eaten a fair amount of the stuff in the last seven-or-so months but nothing's really come close to my Holmesburg bakery favorite. Combine that with not getting back to Philadelphia often enough, and you've got a recipe (too punny!) for disaster.

My sister's stepped in to save the day, though, with her own version of our favorite. It's not exactly the same but it does the trick when I'm not back in the "hood". I've used her recipe maybe like ten times in the last few months and enough people have asked so I figured I'd make it available here. Coincidentally (or "ironically" if you're grammatically challenged like Alanis Morissette), the cake's based partly on Philadelphia cream cheese, which doesn't actually have anything to do with Philadelphia...

As the name implies, there's quite a bit of butter in the recipe as well as lots of sugar and a few eggs.

I've taken my sister's recipe and modified it through repeated testing in my high-tech lab (my kitchen). The goal, as with Holmesburg's version, is to have a runny top while the crust is properly cooked. The prepped crust and topping still living separate lives:

The first time I made the recipe, I followed it exactly as my sister had sent it to me but it turned out way over cooked. It still tasted pretty good, for a cookie, but it wasn't what I was shooting for.

I found out that my sister wasn't even following what she had sent me. She just "knows" what to do while she's making them. After learning this, my next attempt resulted in a much better cake. Five minutes less in the oven and about 2/3's of the sugar the recipe called for made it look and taste better...but it was still "too cooked":

I was even closer the next time. For that one, I first cooked the crust without the topping for about 15 minutes, then added the topping, and cooked the whole cake for another 15 minutes. It tasted even better and this time it was a little bit gooey...but, alas, still not right:

It was time to call in the expert, my sister, again, and ask for advice. She told me that she cooks her buttercake like she cooks her brownies. If you've ever had steak in France, you'll have a pretty good idea what that's like. Not wanting to get Salmonella poisoning, I cut the initial cooking time to 13 minutes and the second to 12 minutes. The result was even better but I still wasn't happy.

By the way, not one person complained about the quality of any of the prototypes but I knew I could do better!

Finally, on try #6, I got what I was looking for but using a way-too-complicated method. First, I cook the crust at 300F for 13 minutes, add the liquid topping, and then cook the whole thing again at 350F for another 10 minutes. The result was a base that was cooked, but not too much, and a topping that was slightly crusty but still liquidy on the inside:

So, you want to try it? It's really good. Your family and friends will love you (again)! The recipe is below but you can also download the pdf file from this link. Let me know in the comments below if you try it and what you thought. Enjoy!

Darren's Butterkuchen

4 ounces (115g) butter + small quantity for greasing pan
1 box of plain yellow (or white) cake mix (~517g – less is okay)
3 eggs
8 ounces (230g) cream cheese
½ teaspoon (2.5ml) almond extract
2 ½ cups (325g) confectioners’ (powered) sugar

1. Heat oven to 300f (150c) – you many have to adjust this up/down
2. Butter (grease) a 9”x13” (~229x330mm) cake pan
3. Melt butter. Make sure to not “cook” the butter.
4. Stir melted butter and 1 egg into the boxed cake mix and mix into dough.
5. Press dough evenly into bottom of buttered pan.
6. Bake crust for 13 minutes at 300f (150c) then remove from oven.
7. Optional: Change oven temp. to 350f (175c) after removing crust.
8. While baking crust, mix cream cheese, almond extract, confectioners’ sugar, and the remaining 2 eggs in a large bowl. Beat for 3 minutes with an electric mixer set on medium-high speed.
9. Spread liquid mixture over top of partially-baked crust.
10. Continue to bake for 10 more minutes at 350f (175c) - 13 minutes if 300f (150c). The goal is to have a somewhat runny/liquidy center remain after the cake cools.
11. Allow cake to cool before cutting and serving.
12. Send my sister a note thanking her!

Oh buttercake, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

(Not) Oktoberfest - Cannstatter Volksfest

I think that I've clearly and frequently enough announced that I don't like beer. I don't like the smell. I don't like the taste. Yes, I've tried everyone of those beers that people say "oh, this one's different, it's:

chocolate/coffee/pumpkin/micro-brew/dark/light/white/Guinness/wheat/shoe leather/whatever-flavored

so it's good - you'll like it". Well, I'm sorry. I still just don't do beer.

Due to this "defect" of character, it's probably not necessary to mention that Germany's annual beer-drinking Lovefest, Oktoberfest, isn't really very high up on my bucket list. I'm sure that a visit to Munich to worship at the drunken altar of beer worship is on your list, but, alas, I won't be going this year. But...........I was interested in going to Stuttgart's own version of Oktoberfest, the Cannstatter Volksfest. Hell, it's local, it's one of the city's biggest events of the year, and, best of all, it's freeeeeeeee!

Just when you though leather pants were only for gay dudes in the Castro, you've got TONS of them right here in southern Germany. Actually, here, they're the new cool. Look at this photo below and notice how many dudes are in leather shorts with suspenders AND how many dudes are cruising around arm-in-arm with two cute chicks. Yep, exactly one. He's the shit!

Just like its big brother in Munich, people come together at the Volksfest to drink beer, people watch, drink beer, eat chicken, drink beer, go on carnival rides, drink beer, and hang out with friends.

While we're talking about it, the "traditional" clothing, Lederhosen for the guys and Dirndls for the ladies, is originally from nearby Bayern, which is the state where Munich is located. From what I understand, it became (much) more fashionable in Stuttgart to wear the trad duds over the last four or five years because the beer tents were getting too full. The event organizers decided to put a rule in place where you could either make a reservation for a table or you could wear the traditional clothing. Without one or the other, or both, there was no getting in to the event. What's a beer drinker to do, right?

Some traditionally clothed guys outside one of the beer halls at the Wasen (Schwäbian-German for "meadow" from the days when the event was held in an open field):

The outfits have gotten so popular that you can even buy a Dirndl at the local Kaufland supermarket for 50 Euros (~$65 U.S.). Diana modeling what's hot:

My first visit to this year's Volksfest was on the first Saturday night of the two-week-long event with Diana, Ying from my German class (center below), her husband (red jacket), and a couple of their other friends. I'm quite proud of my self-portrait photo skills now that I can fit SIX people in the photo and have it turn out fairly well:

So, you might ask, was the most interesting thing that I saw that night, other than guys in leather pants and chicks with their cleavage pouring out of the top of their Dirndls? How about ketchup, mayo, and mustard dispensers that seem to have been based on dairy cows? Oh, and note that they use Pennsylvania's own Heinz!

Oh, so back to the title of this story. Oktoberfest, like Champagne or Superbowl, is a trademarked name that can only be used by the owner. So that's why you have names like Cava, "The Big Game", or, in this case, "Volksfest" when everyone really knows what you mean but you can't say it. People in Stuttgart are very proud of "our fall festival that takes place at the same time where people drink the same beer and eat the same food" and I think they should be. They've done a nice job putting together an event that people enjoy and the area can be proud of.

Speaking of things with names different from the commonly used one, each day the big beer companies have their horse teams on display in front of their respective beer hall. These horses, often called Clydesdales (but in this case called Kaltblüter or, in English, Draft Horse) were used for many years to transport the breweries' beer around town.

I went with people from my German class to the fair on our last day of level B1. One of the guys, João from Brazil, is a horse guy back home. I know that every day of his six months in Germany he missed his horses so I think he was the happiest one of the group to get his photo with the horses.

By the way, João is one of the "German savants" from our classes. Some of the people in the class have been able to kick ass with learning the language. While I'm pulling my hair out struggling with how to say "nice to meet you" or something simple like that, people like João and Alex (in the photo below) are joking in the local Schwäbische Dialekte.

Bumper-car action at the 2012 Stuttgart Volksfest with peeps from class:

After our bumper car rides, we went for some well-deserved drinks at the Dinkelacker beer hall. The hall is probably about 400 feet long and 200 feet wide with maybe 26,000 tables inside. They've got a big stage along one of the long walls where a traditionally-dressed band was playing classic-rock tracks. I was hoping for some trad Oom-pah music that would go along with the band's look or something but apparently this is what you get on a Monday afternoon. There were still way-too-drunk people dancing on the tables, which, along with the company, made it quite entertaining.

Some of my classmates celebrating the successful end to another class. João and Alex who shame me with their German abilities, Ying (or at least half of her), whose German is at about the same level as mine, and another friend of hers waiting for our first round:

Even though I'm not a beer drinker, Volksfest was quite fun. Now that it's pretty much over, next up on the must-do-festival list is the Weihnachtsmarkt, which is the annual outdoor Christmas market in the city center. I am verrrrrrrrrry afraid of how cold it'll be as it's been over 20 years since I've had a real winter!

One last thing, I don't really have any other place to put this so it'll go here. Our roommate went to the real Oktoberfest in Munich on its opening day a couple of weeks ago. He's such a rockin' guy that he bought and brought home all the required ingredients for a nice, traditional, Münchener breakfast. Oh, and he even cooked and served it for us! Love! And yes, I did try the Weißbier - white beer - and it wasn't that bad - could it be the start of something???

Happy Oktober from Stuttgart from our family to yours!

(Thanks to Berat and Katharina for the history lessons.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Buttercake Long Way Round

Yes, another butter-cake-related story... Yes, I know, I'm obsessed with butter cake.

This past weekend we got invited to a barbecue Friday evening as well as to a sushi-and-dumpling-making party Saturday afternoon. I wanted to bring something so I figured that I'd make one big butter cake, split it in half, and bring half each day. What I didn't know at the time was that the two days would be the butter cake journeys from helllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll! Let me explain...

But first, a little background. I've mentioned before about the Long Way Round and Long Way Down motorcycle-travel documentaries that were done by Ewan McGreggor (the guy from the new Star Wars movies) and Charley Boorman (famous, I think, because he's friends with a famous guy). Both are epic motorcycle adventures that basically go across the world. The trips are long, challenging, and, for the two guys, seeming like they'll never get to their destination. In the end of both, though, they overcome the challenges and recognize how great the journey was...and...

So, after school on Friday afternoon, I fired up the Electroherd (German for electric oven) and made an almost-perfect butter cake (or at least as best that I can do). I cut it in half as planned and came up with an ingenious, if I do say so myself, way to protect and carry each half to its respective event. It looked a bit like this as we went...

Friday evening's barbecue took place at the top of one of the wine-growing hills not too far from the center of Stuttgart called Kappelberg. We had to arrive at 5:30 pm and I didn't want to get there late so we left around 3:30 pm, which, at the time, seemed like a crazy amount of extra time. Being late for something in Germany is, like my dad says, akin to farting in church - you just don't do it - ever!

We arrived at the bottom of the wineries, which are lovely and loaded with grapes this time of year, via the metro and a bus. From there, we followed the signs towards the direction of Kappelberg, which is where the BBQ was happening.

Unfortunately, there were no sidewalks or even space for pedestrians to walk along the road so we followed another sign that took us through one of the vineyards. No problem - at least it's beautiful. Check out this view of the Mercedes Arena (left) and Volksfest (right) in the valley beyond the vineyards:

Along the way, we may have stopped and tried pretty much every wine grape variety grown in the area. It was very interesting to taste the difference between them. For some reason, I've always pictured wine grapes being less sweet than "table" grapes. Well, that was wrong. They're, umm, sweet and delicious just like what you buy in the store, and really, actually more tasty.

Some Späteburgunder grapes growing in the Kappelberg area of Stuttgart:

Well, lovely so far, right? Yes, it WAS. For the first hour! Remember that the sign at the bottom of the hill said 1km (about 1/2 mile). Even crawling along and eating every available grape, we should have arrived in less than 1/2 hour for sure. The problem was that it was getting late and I was starting to worry...and I was carrying a butter cake the whole way... It looked, again, like the photo below (the scenery was better, though):

We walked, and walked, and walked, and walked, and walked. Diana, who stayed calm and positive the whole time, called our hosts to let them know that we were "there" but that we couldn't find the picnic area. Finally, a couple on mountain bikes, yes, mountain bikes, led us in the right direction and we eventually found the party...a little less than TWO-AND-A-HALF HOURS after we had left home.

The picnic was very nice and we had lotsa' fun. Once again, I was amazed at the level of everyone's English and the fact that EVERY SINGLE PERSON at the BBQ spoke English the ENTIRE TIME because of the two of us! Crazy. Thanks Alfred for the invite and great time! (Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, there was potato salad.)

Like I said, we also had an invite on Saturday afternoon to make (and eat) sushi at a friend from my German class' house. So, once again, we headed out with butter cake in hand...sort of like this...

Again, we left with plenty of time to get to where we needed to go. This trip involved taking the metro to the city center and switching to another metro line then taking a bus to our final destination. All was good until we got to the city center. We waited for the connecting metro but nothing was coming; actually, none of the metros going to the north of the city were coming. For about 30 minutes or so we waited, and waited, and waited. I checked the transit system's app on my phone but it just kept saying the metro was coming.

I ended up calling our roommate after about 40 minutes to ask him about alternatives to get to where we were going. He managed to figure out that there was a train derailment north of the city, which took half the metro system offline. He suggested an alternative routing (involving a tram, another metro, and a bus) and we followed it. Remember the butter cake??? Yeah, after about 2 1/2 hours of traveling, we finally arrived at our destination and got to help at the tail-end of the sushi-and-dumpling-making process:

Let's just say that the food was pretty damned good. Thanks to Ying and her husband for hosting us and for sharing some amazing food with us.

Let's recap. Two afternoons. A total of seven hours travel time, seven metro trips, one tram trip, a couple of bus trips, and LOTS AND LOTS of walking...with a butter cake! But, great endings for great journeys for sure. Ewan and Charlie'd be proud.