Steamed Apple Pudding (& trying to learn German)

The women’s toilette at Nopi is all mirrored, the door, the walls, everything. When you wash your hands and look at your reflection in the mirror you see yourself (obviously and hopefully) but behind your reflection, is another smaller you and another and another. I feel my brain’s mental eye expand until what it perceives is so large the edges of the picture wobbles, the picture implodes and then contracts into a tunnel, me hurtling through it into the tiny pinprick at the end before resetting to normal leaving an unsettling shadow of what just happened, in a fraction of a second.

I think German is having the same effect on me. Like a never-ending deck of cards, each with an answer, all furling out and laying on their backs, information bared as far as my eye can see and then just as quickly, *thup*, they get sucked back in, into a neat stack, contents impenetrable.When I say it’s hard to learn German people say, “Yes, the verb is at the end.” But where the verb is hanging out equates to a little Chihuahua nipping at my ankles, when the real problem is that I am locked in a cage with a hungry tiger.

Before melodrama overtakes me completely, let me explain (and also say to you all who have learned German as a 2nd language - hell even as a 1st language: RESPECT!).My grievances can be outlined in 3 main points:

1. The words are long. You will no doubt say to me “Ah yes, but they are mostly made up of words strung together, like ‘kugelschreiber’ which means pen - and could be translated as ‘ball writer’ because of the little roller ball in ball point pens. And I will answer back to you ‘Gänseblümchen’ which means ‘daisy’ but translates as ‘goose flower’.

And also,that my ability to stay concentrated is much like my ability to hold my breath under water, finite. So when I am confronted with something like this: ‘Verständlichwerweise, denn der Vogel war schon von Generationen von Köchen, die hier ein-und augegangen waren, getriezt worden -…”* my brain gives up and goes out for a smoke after the first word, which I think might mean ‘understandably’.

2. The capitals in written sentences are totally distracting, like visual Stolperstein (Stumbling Stones) without meaning. Equivalent to a news reader wearing a bright red clown nose. Anyone prone to distraction (me) will immediately think WTF? and not hear the news. Spoken German has a lot of consonants bunched up together (Someone help that man! He’s choking! Oh, no - my bad, he’s just speaking German), dipping down into vowels and then back up again. So that if I do manage to utter a sentence, I end up feeling like one of the Von Trapp kids crossing the Alps. It’s physical. Olivia Newton John would have not trouble working out to it.

3. Articles. It’s a bitter pill that there are 3 genders to learn. Masculine, feminine and neutral. And that unlike French, they are so distinct sounding (‘Er’-m, ‘Sie’-f, ‘Es’-n) that my strategy of slurring the ‘le’ and ‘la’ in French doesn’t have a shot in hell of working. So I think “Ok, well I will just mess up the articles sometimes and suffer incessant corrections from well-meaning people.” Except no! The gender is the key I need to get out of the room so to speak. I can’t say ‘my bag’ without knowing the gender, or ‘your bag’, or ‘no bag’. I always need to know the gender. Crap! It’s like finding out that your husband is cheating on you. It hits you in waves of awful realization. And you think, “Well how on earth am I ever going to manage that?”

Then it transpires that there’s even more. There’s actually more! Not only was he having an affair, he was doing it with…your best friend. Wham. Stunned silence. Or in the case of the German language and me – plural. So not only do I need to know if a bag is a he, she or it but if I want to say my big bag, or my white bag, the word big might have a different ending to the word white.

“Where do I look that up?” I ask.

My teacher pauses and looks at me with gravity “You don’t look them up, you learn them.”What?


Seriously!?!? I know I will never remember. My brain doesn’t work like that. Things spill out of it all the time and seep into grates and cracks. I don’t even know I’ve lost them most of the time. That and my brain is a total misfit in conventional teaching environments. To try to penetrate my grey matter, knowledge has to adopt stealth behavior.

A disguise is useful; think Ruth Reichl get ups when she was the food critic for the New York Times. Then and only then, it gets stuck in which means that if someone wonders out loud about something my subconscious will rummage around and miraculously come out with a dusty fact, polish it off until you can see your reflection in it and offer it up – much to my and everyone else’s amazement. If however there is even a murmur of traditional teaching, a feeling that the brain and I are on a mission to learn something, it rebels. It takes on subversive tactics, starting with something as innocuous as say, the tufty nose hairs of my teacher and then leading me by the hand in a vivid fantasy where somehow I’ve imagine the most elaborate story– and Oh! Look at that, a full half hour has passed and I missed out on the pivotal nugget of information that means I will never be able to do fractions as an adult.

Ugh. ROCK! – me – HARD PLACE!

Because not speaking the language is not an option. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always spoken the language. It’s a matter of pride and of respect. But I am really struggling.

(*Excerpt taken from Tim Raue’s ‘Ich Weiss Was Hunger Ist’)

Steamed puddings are fine to make as long as you follow some rules and are patient. Which you should be very good at doing if you’ve learned German.

Apple Steamed Pudding (Adapted from the Leiths Technique Bible)
(Serves 4-6)

3 apples, peeled, cored and cut into small dice
25g golden syrup
135g butter + extra for preparing bowl
110g self-raising flour
55g soft brown sugar
55g caster sugar
2 medium eggs beaten
pinch of salt
½ a teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Parchment paper (baking paper) two sheets
Kitchen string or a large rubber band

1.Take two pieces of parchment paper, fold them so that there is a 5cm crease in the middle. Butter one side of the parchment in the center. Put aside.
2.Prepare a 1 liter pudding basin or sturdy bowl by smearing it with butter. Find a pot large enough to accommodate the bowl and which will also allow you to put a lid on once the bowl is inside.
3.Place a trivet or a small heat proof ramekin or plate on the bottom of the pot to keep the bowl from touching the bottom of the pot. Fill with enough water that it will come up halfway up the sides of the bowl as it sits on the trivet, ramekin, plate –whatever. Bring to the boil.
4.Melt 25g of butter with 25g of golden syrup in a pan, add the apples and cook out for 5 minutes on a medium-high heat.
5.Cream 110g butter with 110g sugar until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs slowly.
6.Fold in the flour, spices and milk.
7.Put the apples in the pudding basin (bowl) followed by the batter. Smooth it out.
8.Secure the buttered parchment on top of the bowl with some kitchen string. It is essential you get it as tight and secure as possible so no steam or water gets in. Trim off any dangling pieces of parchment so you have a neat and uniform lip of parchment. On top of that put a piece of tin foil.
9.Lower the whole thing into the pot. Put on the lid and just forget about it for 1 hour and 15 minutes. After which, you can make a hole in the tinfoil and parchment, poke it with a skewer and see if it comes out clean. If it doesn’t, leave it another 10 minutes and check again. Enjoy warm with custard or ice cream.

Steamed Pudding Rules:

  • Have the water simmering before starting on the cake
  • Once the cake is ready, turn it into the pudding basin, cover and start to steam it as quickly as possible because the raising agents have started to work.
  • Ensure the water comes at least halfway up the sides of the pudding basin but does not touch the greaseproof and paper foil covering.
  • Do not remove the lid from the steaming pan for the first 30 minutes of cooking. A sudden drop in temperature might make the pudding collapse.
  • Do not allow to boil dry. Top up with boiling water from a kettle taking care not to pour the water on to the pudding.
  • Do not remove the greaseproof paper and the foil covering from the basin until just before ethe pudding is done.

32 Responses to Steamed Apple Pudding (& trying to learn German)

  1. Oh God, I know exactly what you mean! I know it is all perfectly logical, but really, how is it sensible for a language to have 16 different ways of saying “the”?

    In case you’ve not already had the pleasure, may I introduce you to Mark Twain’s thoughts on “The Awful German Language”:

    “…after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect…”

    Full text here.

  2. What a wonderful, funny and poignant post! Kudos to you for trying (and, no doubt soon succeeding!), I agree with you: it’s a matter of pride and respect to speak the language, period.

  3. Andrea says:

    Everyone who learns German as a second language has my respect. It must be a pain in the posterior.

  4. Katie Needs says:

    Just moved to Berlin, am having the same problem with German. It’s next to impossible to remember all these things! Good luck.

    In solidarity,

    PS: Apple Cake looks delish!

  5. Luisa says:

    Oh honey! What a tough thing to try and put in words - and you did it beautifully. I think it is great that you are trying to learn, even if it is hard. X

  6. WOW…….great photo!

  7. Giulia says:

    You made me laugh…and now imagine Swiss German where there are no written rules, but you must abide by these non-written rules - I am very glad I was immersed as a child, but kudos to you for trying.

  8. leigh says:

    I feel your pain! Except hats off to you because you’re obviously being far more studious about learning than I was while living in Berlin. I got stuck at the never ending words. Sure, they’re made up of smaller words, but that doesn’t help when you don’t know the smaller words either!

    I’m often find myself wishing that Berlin weren’t in Germany. :)

    • Yes the not knowing the smaller words is a problem.
      When I watch German TV, I keep turning up the volume because I think I can’t hear, then I remember it’s that I can’t understand.

  9. “I’m often find myself wishing that Berlin weren’t in Germany.”


  10. Kelly says:

    Ahhh! This is so true. I’ve been a silent follower of your blog for a few months now since I moved to Berlin - and absolutely love it. But have to say, this last post sums up my current sentiments to a tee. German is an evil, evil language! Thanks for the laugh!

  11. Sasa says:

    And, goddamn cases to hell. To hell!

  12. P.S. Of course you and the mirrors at NOPI

  13. This reminds that the toilet at NOMA was unisex. Skandinavians……….

  14. Giulia Pines says:

    This sums up my first year of experience with the German language, but…it does get better. And (little secret) lots of Germans don’t know their own grammar either, and speak terribly. You CAN slur your beginnings and endings and no one will notice or care. Even the Germans know their language is impenetrable, and they’ll be so happy you’re trying they won’t care that you are not perfect. (Unlike the French, I might add.)

    In reference to the first comment, by the way, about the Mark Twain text on the German language: get far enough along in German class and your teacher will actually whip out this text TRANSLATED into GERMAN, and then chuckle quietly to himself thinking how ironic and meta and whatever-long-word-exists-in-German-for-that he is.

    • It’s true actually. I am always amazed at how nice people are as long as I try. And trust me, what comes out of my mouth can hardly be classed as German.
      Not sure I will ever be far along in German to be able to read Mark Twain translated into German but that would be nice…
      I can look up this post then and laugh.

  15. Bori says:

    Don’t give up! I am Hungarian, I learnt English first (since the age of 9), then a little Italian, and now German… I have been learning German for 2 years now and it is definitely not easy, but it gets easier every day. Plus you have the advantage of actually being IN Germany, which means people speak German all around you, 24*7 if you wish. Try going to libraries, starting with easy books, or watching German movies, TV shows, preferably with subtitles, they all help a lot. Also, I agree with one of the comments above, you can manage to “slur your beginnings and endings and no one will notice or care” :-) Good luck with your German, I think you’ll soon find that you are actually enjoying it :-)

    • I tried to watch the Matrix Reloaded in German last night. The conversation between Neo and the Architect left me pretty stumped… But at least there is a lot of action in the film…

  16. Maria B. says:

    I always admire people trying to learn German. I am so glad I will never ever have to as it is my first language. But I find myself wishing I did not understand a single word, just so I can hear what it sounds like when you don’t understand. Always wanting what we don’t have :D
    Good luck with learning, hang in there and know that we admire you for trying :)

  17. Good luck with the continued learning. My brain has already switched to Spanish mode which for me is like my mither tongue. Mel is already learning Spanish and I am hoping that by me speaking every day to her it will accelerate her learning. Language is important for a deeper understanding of the culture. I gave up on German, I think, even before I had began. Just not meant to be I guess.

  18. Annika says:

    I love your description!
    Learning Arabic was similar for me at the beginning except it absolutely does not help to slur your endings and beginnings. On the contrary.
    And as German Arabic has cases in Standard Arabic too. But natives simply use them not think about why it’s den not dem. It drove my Arabic teacher nuts.

    When I taught German I made it a point of pointing out the gender of a thing by explaining why it had to be that gender, e.g. flowers are delicate therefore female, trees are male because strong, houses are neutral because they are for all of us, so are windows.
    It’s not perfect, of course, and has its hangups but it might help?!

  19. I always feel really glad that German was my first language, so I never really had to learn it as such (and if it helps, when I did have to learn about Grammar properly at school I sucked), but hang in there it’ll just click one day. I’ve seen it happen many a time! Viel Glueck!

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