Monthly Archives: November 2009

Krumkake and on being Norwegian

I have mentioned before that my grandmothers were both first generation American-born, one was Dutch and the other Norwegian. As a result, I had the opportunity to grow up in America but in a family in which European languages were spoken and in which European holiday foods were the norm. I have a very special cookbook that was a gift at the time of my marriage in the 90s, and which is a photo album with recipe cards in which many family recipes were captured in the handwriting of my beloved grandmothers.

Christmas was always the dominant season for being linked back to the mother-land, and my Norwegian grandmother still makes a great bounty of old-world treats for the holiday season. When I first got divorced (although I don’t know why I waited that long) I bought a krumkake baker, the implement required to make the classic Scandinavian Christmas cookie in our household. And yes, these are cookies cooked lovingly one (or two) at a time in a waffle-iron-like device, and not baked in an oven. There are two sorts commercially available (at least in the American midwest, where the Norse expat community dominates proceedings), the traditional stove-top model:

or the more modern electric, non-stick variety:

Admittedly my grandmother has gone over to the non-stick electric model with the dual cookie process, but when I bought mine, I was feeling nostalgic for my childhood and I got the stove-top single-cookie model. And it sat in the box for many, many years. Eight-ish. As is made clear by the fact that I got divorced in 2001 and I have just used the thing for the first time.

I am having a holiday party for my team, and as part of our recent bake-off, I promised them Norwegian Christmas cookies. So on the weekend, I broke down and opened this krumkake baker box for the first time. This particularly well-travelled krumkake iron (MN to VA to MN to England) now had the chance to spring into action. I checked in my recipe book, and found to my shock and horror that I had not a single family krumkake recipe in the archives. Picked up my iPhone and called Grandma, who was busy playing Scrabble with one of my cousins, but indulged me in taking a quick break to reveal the family recipe. Which was nothing like the recipe in the krumkake baker package, nor the recipe on Let this be a lesson to anyone who thinks the classics are readily available on the internet!

A grave concern of mine was that I would not have a proper wooden roller for making the cookies, which cook flat, into cone shapes. I searched my English town, bought a thin wooden rolling pin at John Lewis, only to discover when I finally opened the krumkake baker packaging that the roller was included. Whoops.

I ‘seasoned’ the baker on Saturday, by cooking it with vegetable fat to make the surfaces non-sticky. And last night I broke down and made krumkake. The most challenging aspect of the ingredients list was cardamom. Cardamom is one of the key ingredients in Indian cooking, being a crucial component of Garam Masala seasoning, but also is the critical element in Norwegian baked goods. And I have no idea why! I was able to find cardamom in pods, but not ground, in my local grocery store, so I had to shell and grind it myself:

I did not add nearly enough, in the end, and now I know this for future attempts at krumkake. But overall, the process worked remarkably well, especially for someone who was channelling her childhood as concerns when to flip the krumkake maker over the heat. The first try along with a later attempt:

And the eventual successes, looking and tasting like actual krumkake even though I can clearly see now that this is best a two-person process:

Lessons learned: I should not have waited so many years to do this, it was remarkably cathartic to try something from my childhood as a 30-something. I only had to make minor adjustments to deal with a British stove and burner size. The results are totally worth standing at the stove for two hours. But I need to up the cardamom levels.

My slightly unusual T-day

I have quite a few, perhaps too many, good American friends in the UK. But the sad fact is that it was impossible for me to participate in any traditional Tofurkey day rituals. There are many reasons for this. One of my good American friends is back home in America for the week, for obvious reasons. Two of my good friends have babies less than six months old. Another (Kat from 3bedroombungalow) was celebrating, but inconveniently located over 20 miles away and NOT on a major train line. My living in an urban center and having no car makes this a bit tricky. Especially since I had to work straight through until after 5 pm, so no big ‘dinner at 2 and the Lions on television kind of day’.

So my T-day feast ended up looking more like the meal Peppermint Patty shuns in the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. (And props to fellow expat rheaj for Twittering the YouTube link for the Charlie Brown special, made my expat holiday.) I had a team meeting this afternoon. My team is a bit of a mini-United Nations and we’ve been having a bake-off. Today was Italy’s turn to provide treats, which meant amazing hard cheese with crackers, and some positively sinful bite-sized chocolate treats made with ricotta cheese and coconut. So my big T-day meal was Italian snacks around a table with my team, while I spoke on using web 2.0 features for engineering, including using blogging software to make simple websites and Twitter to gather technical information.

After that I went to the gym (which was open, since no one here seems to think it’s a holiday!) and grabbed a bite on the way home. I know I’ve ranted about sandwiches before, but this is different: no soggy factor since it’s made fresh to spec, and frankly something American seemed appropriate for the day. A subway veggie patty (toasted) sub:

Happy Tofurkey day to expats and natives, where ever you are. And if you have kids in the car, I hope they sing a rousing chorus of “Over the river and through the woods” which we definitely always sang en route to Grandma’s house. Happy memories of Thanksgiving from when I was a kid. This one will perhaps be memorable in a different way.


This week Americans will mark Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving. I love it for many reasons. I love that it is a celebration, a big family holiday that involves a feast with no religious overtones. I think there should be more of these. Gatherings of friends. Opportunities to meet around a dinner table. Groups of people, larger than you would normally have at a dinner party if it wasn’t a holiday. I live in a tiny one-BR flat in the UK, so I’m a bit paralyzed when it comes to hosting a big T-day dinner. (Where T in my world stands for Tofurky, not turkey. Yeah, that does interfere with the whole turkey day thing a bit.)

I’ve had various experiences as an expat in the UK. It turns out that the English are actually reasonably pro-Thanksgiving. There’s a T-day service at St. Paul’s in London. I’d go, but it would interfere with the other things I have to do that day, sadly.

It’s funny, how the American holidays take on new meaning when you’re not in America anymore. At this precise moment, I’d give anything for green bean casserole. Brits may think it’s disgusting, but I’d take some if it was offered to me. I’d give my right arm at the this time for a vegetable casserole based on Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and French’s fried onions. I know it’s not logical to like these things, it’s like how I love Velveeta and Cheez-its. It’s not rational. It’s tradition. (Cue the guy from Fiddler on the Roof singing.) I’m unabashedly American and my life is complicated. And I miss American holiday food.

Unexpected Celebrity Sighting

I was walking in an English town today, wearing jeans and a red hoodie and carrying a very large cup of Starbucks coffee (i.e. looking as much the hapless American as is humanly possible) when I saw something up ahead. A police motorcycle, blue lights flashing, was waiting in a zebra crossing. I looked up the road and saw more blue flashing lights. Several more police. They started moving towards me. Then a fancy black car. Funny, it had a flag on top. I peered in the large car window (not even frosted–perfectly clear) and saw an elderly couple sitting there in the back seat. She had on quite the outfit, a peach hat and matching jacket. No, it couldn’t be… yes, yes it was.

I had accidentally stumbled on the Queen’s motorcade.

A few more cars, a few police, and it was over. And I was shellshocked. I had a stupid grin on my face for at least the next five minutes. The locals I spoke to later in the day were impressed, none of them had seen her in person before. (Contrary to popular belief, not all Brits actually know the royal family.) And yet there I was, minding my own business, walking down a random street being all American, blissfully ignorant of what the royals were up to. (I now know that there’s a website where you can find out where they are and what they’re doing.)

Of course, when I emailed my sister with the “you won’t believe what I just saw” news, her retort was almost as incredible:

I ran afoul of Obama’s motorcade in Seoul today. Good day for us.

The blogosphere abuzz

Actually it was probably more the Twitterverse. Regardless, either way the breaking news earlier this week was that sex-blogger and author ‘Belle du Jour’ was a PhD scientist about my age. Not a professional writer. Suddenly the lines about how it was so well-written make sense–in this business, doing science or research is only a small piece of the pie, we have to communicate our results both in person and in print. So I’m not terribly surprised that she is an academic type in the sciences, we have to be able to construct sentences.

Overall, my interest in the story should be obvious: blogger, female, PhD, similarly-aged, in the UK, etc. Although I confess now, I am not, nor do I ever intend to be, a sex-blogger OR a prostitute. There we go, you’ve heard it first. I promise that my semi-anonymity on this blog has nothing to do with a secret life as a lady of the night.

What interested me most about the ‘breaking news’ was the apparent contradiction that I saw in how Belle du Jour, now Dr Brooke Magnanti, was described. In the above-linked article, she was in one paragraph “an obscure research scientist” and a few paragraphs later “a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology in a hospital research group in Bristol.” Surely there’s a contradiction in being both obscure and respected? In order to be respected, someone must know of your work (and I mean the science kind, not the other thing) and thus by definition one could not be obscure,

relatively unknown: as a : remote, secluded b : not prominent or famous

Although when I entered her name into the search engine for finding academic publications (the mark of respect vs. obscurity in the research world) alas there were only a few, which tends towards ‘obscure’ in the general community (although perhaps respected by immediate colleagues).

The obvious mind-game that an expat in this situation must play is to imagine what would happen had the same thing transpired in your own country. Here in the UK we saw lots of press and a great deal of publicity for bit-players related to Dr. Magnanti (her father was apparently not happy, but I don’t link the story here as it reeked of spotlight-gathering). Other ousted sex bloggers took to the ether in the form of twitter, blogs, and daytime chat shows. There was commentary about the glamorization of prostitution. Apparently Dr. Magnanti is supported by her employer and work colleagues. And here is where we see the big difference between England and America.

If anyone, as a PhD and engineer/scientist with a good job in research, were to come out as a former prostitute while living in America, they would not be in the position of Dr. Magnanti. They would be in hiding. They would not have supportive colleagues or a job anymore. They would most likely have ruined their professional careers for life. Now some time will have to pass before we can ascertain whether Dr. Magnanti does or does not go on to have a fulfilling and productive career in research (and given the leaky pipeline we can guess that the odds are against her). Regardless, the fact that this is even an option is what makes England different from America, and makes me happy to be here in the UK as this story unfolds.

Guest post–The accidental expats

I have answered some questions about my strange expat life in an interview on ‘The Accidental Expats’ site. Please do go read the link and see some interesting factoids about how I ended up here as a stranger in a strange land! And note, thanks to Twitter I am finding intriguing expat blogs faster than I can add them to the listing, so please do not stop checking and please do remind me if you need to be added!

Dear So-and-So, Friday the 13th edition

Dear Anish Kapoor,

You rock. The exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last weekend totally blew my mind. Too bad about the poorly behaved little kids running around unaccompanied, though. Hopefully they’re not doing too much damage to your amazing sculptures.

Glad to be an art lover, NFAH

Dear Gordon Brown,

That thing where you pandered to the xenophobes and explained your plans to cut skilled worker migration really sucked. Believe me, we net contributors to the British economy (paying taxes and with no access to public funds) are NOT the problem.

Feeling like an unwanted expat, NFAH

Dear Person from yesterday,

Just because you’re a girl doesn’t make it okay for you to be checking out my breasts the whole time I was talking to you. My eyes are about 8 inches north of where you were staring, ok?

Not sure what to wear in public anymore, NFAH

Dear Everyone,

Do pop over and wish Mid-Atlantic English a happy 40th birthday today!

I’ll be 40 before you know it, NFAH

On crackers

The word ‘crackers’ means different things in the US and the UK. In the US, it’s my favorite snack food, much better than potato chips (crisps) and often either cheese flavored or used as vehicles for cheese or other nice savory foods. Here in the UK this meaning is mostly the word I find confusing, ‘biscuits’ which can can be either like crackers or can be sweet and essentially like cookies. I am well-known on this blog for being obsessed with the American crackers called Cheez-its, which are my favorite snack food ever. They are amazing on their own, or are even better in a double-cheese configuration when dipped in cream cheese. This was the subject of my recent shock contest win from another blogger in the US, where I won a box of boxes of crackers mailed to me. The resulting bounty of snack foods are pictured here:


Yum. I’ll be busy for a few weeks with these, although as they arrived more than a week ago, I am already down one box of Wheat Thins and one of Cheez-its. Crackers don’t last long in my carb-craving household.

But as I was walking home from work today, I saw the seasonal British crackers in a shop window. I actually experienced this for the first time in Australia last Christmas, and there are pictures of me wearing a paper crown hat. Thank goodness for semi-anonymous blogs, as I have the perfect excuse not to post the image. But you can get the idea at the ‘Christmas Cracker Shop’ website. I looked downright silly. I can see how this is one of those holiday traditions that one retains from childhood, and I thank my Aussie friends for sharing their tradition with me last holiday season. Maybe I’ll even buy some this year to acknowledge my increasing adaptation to my adopted country. But on the balance, I think I prefer Cheez-its. And thank goodness I have another box yet to go.

Good things about England v2

Following up on the previous post of good things about England (buskers) I bring you the latest installment: the British weather. I love the British weather. I know, it’s normally not something that gets complimented about this country. But let me try to explain. When I lived in the US, both in Minnesota and Virginia, I had to check the weather forecasts all the time. Daily. I had bookmarked, and I don’t have bookmarked here. Why? I just don’t need to. It is relatively mild here year-round, and the daily changes don’t require nearly as much planning as the 20-30 degree swings I’m used to experiencing. I notice that it starts to get gradually colder as fall proceeds, but I don’t find myself in a dire situation if I haven’t been memorizing the five day forecast. I do try to keep an umbrella in my bag at all times for the infamous English rain, but I don’t otherwise think much about the weather. It’s one thing I can count on. And when it does get ‘cold’ here, it doesn’t get Minnesota cold. And with the rare exception (which this summer I missed, as I was in Singapore in the one week it was hot in England) it does not get Virginia hot here either. Overall it stays relatively mild and unchangeable. Which leads me to wonder, as ever, why the Brits are infamous for talking about the weather–talking about something that is reasonably uneventful and not worthy of the extra words. Kate Fox claims it’s just the universal ice-breaker here, but I can imagine better ones. Regardless, the weather is definitely one of my favorite things about my adopted country.

I love Paris in the Fall

I have returned from my third ever weekend trip to Paris, all of which have taken place in either October or November. Just the way things have been. I would like to go in the springtime, but so far it just hasn’t happened.

But ah, Paris. What a great place to spend a weekend. First of all, you can take the Eurostar from London, and there’s nothing better about living in England than being able to take a train to France. Especially given how painful flying has become. And how much I have no choice but to fly to places like America and Australia for which trains aren’t an option. But the best thing about Paris isn’t Paris per se. One of my good friends lives there. My only expat friend who I knew back in the states. We moved abroad about 18 months apart, first me to England, then her to Paris. And in both cases, we were doing something that seems relatively unusual in the expat community: we moved as single women, solely for the purpose of jobs. We weren’t going to meet up with British men and live happily ever after. We weren’t moving with American partners to keep us company abroad. We are both living in 1BR apartments alone, working too much, and experiencing a slightly different sort of expat life.

I arrived at her metro stop in the 16e at 6 pm Friday, and we stayed up until 6 am talking. We did stop off at the Halloween party at the Australian embassy, but we only stayed for two drinks and then went to find food. The Aussies were only offering up sausages, and neither of us eat sausages (I’m a pescetarian and she’s a Muslim). So no go on the sausages. We ended up at an Italian place run by a Sri Lankan in St. Michel. And then back to her house for wine and gossip.

Saturday we rolled out of bed at about noon and got ready for ahem brunch, which ended up being coffee and omelets at a cafe at about 3 pm. We wandered through the Jardin des Tuileries, which was full of fall colors and I was a sleep-deprived idiot who had left my camera back at the apartment. Next we were off to the Louvre, where instead of going to the museum, we went to the museum shop and the other shops in the adjacent mall. This is part of our typical style; when she came to visit me in England, we got as far as Pizza Express and John Lewis. The point of these weekends is for us to talk, not for us to be tourists. Saturday night we walked up the steps at Sacre Coeur and then sampled some food and drink on the way back down. Again back to her place for more wine and gabbing. Again past 6 am. We really outdid ourselves this trip, 5 am had been our previous record.

After sleeping in again, Sunday noonish we did exactly what we had done the last time I was in Paris, and ran out to the market in Passy for fresh bread and cheese for brunch. I had to take the train out at 5 something, so it was one last trip on the metro before checking in for the Eurostar.

It was an amazing weekend for many reasons. We had so much fun talking about our expat existence. It was great for me to see and discuss with her the pros and cons of our very simple apartments. While she has a shower, I have an oven. She’s just in the process of getting a toaster oven-like thing that apparently is about the best that can be done in her kitchen. We both have washers but not driers, and we discussed the fact that after some time abroad, we are nesting and buying nice things to make our homes feel more like home. We’ve both been buying artwork. But the basics of the expat life are the same. We have to both do our jobs and enjoy our surroundings. As she said, “I may have to pick up my dry cleaning today, but I get to pick up my dry cleaning IN PARIS!” It was a good reminder of the things that expat life can hold. Admittedly she has it spectacularly well, her office has a picture window looking out on la Tour Eiffel.

The other funny thing that happened, and that was a big difference from my last visit to Paris a year ago, is that her French has become really proficient. Whereas last time we were two clearly American girls in Paris, this time she was a local. Her confidence had increased to the point that she spoke en Francais all the time, and even asked to speak in French when waiters or store clerks did switch over to English after hearing us chatting. She kept doing the “J’habite ici” thing, which then had a funny side-effect. I started listening to the French, and suddenly a few years worth of high school French kicked in. I really did not realize how much I had picked up, and never used, after so many years away. I laughed at a waiter’s joke without thinking. I chimed in with “moi aussi” (me too) at one point. Baby steps, for certain. But really, really fun. So I have a new expat life resolution: to start working on my French, so that the next time I get to visit my dear friend in Paris, I’ll be able to play along.