Faber: The Secretary - a collaboration

In which the talented Mr. takes a photo of mine and writes a bit of story to go with it.  This week’s post is part of a larger story, previous chapters of which you can read here and here. Faber is in Germany investigating the final years in the life of Charles D. Thornton, an American ex-pat detective author.
*        *        *

He moved slowly along the cobbled street. The scrap of paper in his satchel bore an address printed in the Poet‘s neat handwriting, an address that Faber had been hoping to uncover since his arrival in Germany.
The small apartment was situated in the so-called Karoviertel of Hamburg and occupied the third floor of a large square cement building on Falkenstrasse. It was the last known residence of Helga Schnatterer, Thornton’s private secretary for nearly twenty years and the only living person to have spent any significant time with the ex-pat writer during his final years in Berlin.
Brown paint accented the windows of every building on the street, the identical and finely adorned houses speaking to the difference between Berlin and Hamburg. The latter, a uniformly prosperous north German city, seemed to Faber foreign by comparison to the patchwork aesthetic of the country’s capital. He almost missed the haphazard arrangement of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln, the miniature diasporas within each community. Eventually he came to a door, indistinguishable from all the others on the street except for a tall 23 painted above it.

A thin, wispy cloud of rain hung in the air, the nucleus of each drop surrounded by a ball of humidity. North German summer. He scanned the buzzers on the right hand side of the door looking for the name Schnatterer, but it wasn’t there. From top to bottom, the four buttons read:

W. Schneider
Theodor Hasse


His eyes stumbled over the English name several times. He backed out of the doorway, looked up at the windows enclosed by brown parentheses. Finally, he stepped back in and pressed the fourth buzzer.

A moment passed in silence, then static hiss accompanied a distinctly male voice: “Ja, hallo?”

“Guten morgen,” Faber choked. “Ich suche… Frau Helga Schnatterer.”

He considered formulating a second sentence, but was interrupted. “Are you American?”

“Oh. No, I’m English. I…”

“Helga is my wife. What do you want?” The accent was mid-Atlantic, stern. For a moment, Faber imagined Thornton, decrepit with age, standing at the buzzer three stories above.

“I have some questions for Mrs. Schnatterer. About Charles Thornton.”

A sigh, then: “Come in.” The door hummed against its hinges, and Faber stepped truculently through.

*        *        *
The narrow hallway had given way to an apartment that, if not palatial, was at the very least prosperous. The Poet had told him that Thornton’s inheritance had been significant, and Faber wondered whether, unlike the Poet, Helga had been lucky enough to make it into Thornton’s will.

“Good morning, Mr….?”

“Faber.” The man was eying Faber cautiously.

“Mr. Faber,” he said. “I’m Lionel Watson, Helga’s husband.” He held out his hand and Faber completed the handshake. Watson was not as old as he had expected, though he did have powder-white hair that was strangely offset by deep, suntanned grooves in his forehead.

“Is Mrs. Schnatterer here?”

“She’s Mrs. Watson these days,” the man said. “And no, she’s at work.” Watson gestured Faber into the apartment, and offered him a seat on a sofa opposite the entrance. Watson reclined in a leather chair across from Faber and crossed one leg over the other. “So what do you want to know about the venerable Charles DeForest Thornton?”

Faber explained why he was in Germany, why he had felt that Helga might be the only connection left to Thornton and the only person who could shed some light on why the author had moved to Berlin in the late ’50s.  When he finished, Watson chuckled and said: “Good Lord. You have an academic interested in Thornton?”

The sarcasm rang loud. “You think academics are interested in genre literature? I thought I was way off the beaten track with this little… search of mine.” He laughed awkwardly.

“Maybe in England. Here it’s de rigeur to write a master’s thesis on Charles’ books.” He leaned forward in the chair and a smile forced deeper grooves into his face. “I suppose I should explain. I’m a lecturer at the university here. Hamburg is an Americophile city, and they’re badly in need of washed up academics like myself to teach American Studies.”

Faber considered asking how he and Helga had met. The pairing did seem unlikely. “In any case, Helga might be an eyewitness, but I don’t think she will be of much help,” Watson continued. He rose and walked through into the kitchen, Faber trailing behind and trying to instill some confidence into his voice.

“She’s the best person to go to,” he said. Watson poured two glasses of water, placed one on the granite counter top and handed the other to his visitor.

“Maybe. But we’ve been married for nearly eight years and she’s mentioned Thornton a half dozen times at most.” Why did you marry her? Faber thought. The personal unknowns would, he supposed, have to remain unknown for now.

They parted having made dinner plans, Watson promising nothing more than an informal meeting with his wife under the pretense of her charming a visiting colleague over sushi and sake. Faber doubted that Helga would be any more forthcoming than she had been with her husband of eight years.

Exiting Falkenstrasse and walking in the direction of the Sternschanze train station, the air around him was lighter, the humidity having abated a little. Rain still soaked lifelessly into the pavements, while drops speckled each bicycle that Faber passed, their wheels or frames chained to lampposts or street signs. Pulling out an mp3 player, he unwound the earphones – picturing simultaneously the reels of magnetic tape that lay in his apartment back in Berlin – and plugged the buds into his ears. Scrolling through the Thornton recordings, he found the tape that he had last been listening to, labelled Apr. 94 and pressed play.
My dear Hans,

Firstly, and in response to your eruditely-composed English question: No. [A cough sputtered into the Dictaphone] I no longer think of any individual location, its inhabitants, topography, and cultural artifice, as home. Patriotism is at home neither in my bones nor in my heart. Neither, I believe (not that you asked), is it in Mr. Delaney’s character.  In his latest excuse for an adventure, the intrigue comes in large part due to his surrounding himself with foreignness. The book will be set here in Berlin. (You and your promotional people will, I’m sure, be glad to hear this. The cultural translation will be so much easier).
Cars skated past Faber and the recording gave way to static. The gentle rush of rainfall against tyres complemented the hiss of dead air around Charles Thornton.
*        *        *
Watson and Helga stood as Faber reached their table. Helga was in her late fifties, but like so many German women she possessed the air of someone much younger. Her hair was carefully bobbed and dyed a deep red, her skin pale and flat. In many ways a negative image of Lionel Watson, though Faber.

She shook his hand, smiling and squinting her eyes as she did so. Her clothes were overly elegant, making Faber self-conscious in his plain black t-shirt.

As they sat, she said: “You are here to research with Lionel, yes?” The two men exchanged glances and Faber nodded.

“Yes, I’m a postgrad at Warwickshire University. I’m studying American literature, and Lionel -” he stumbled over the name. “Lionel offered his help.”

“What do you research?” Helga said.

“Well, my thesis work is on detective literature.” She stiffened a little, leaned back as a waitress placed a glass of sake in front of her. Faber had come this far. He took his chance and, while she was distracted, said: “on Charles Thornton, specifically.”

A pause fell across the room like a smothering pillow.

“Mr. Faber,” she said as the server withdrew. “Charles died eleven years ago, and though he did teach me some wonderful turns of phrase, and saw fit to pay me rather too much for my services as a secretary, I really have nothing more that I can give to the academic community or to his supposed estate in America that I haven’t already given.”

Faber nodded and tried to appear contrite. “I have no letters or manuscripts, no amazing revelations about his life in Berlin. I’m sorry.”

“But he was working on another novel, wasn’t he?”

“Look, Mr. Faber,” Watson interrupted. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

Helga raised a hand. “Yes, he was. But I don’t have a copy of it. He only had one copy, and that had been sent to Lichttrager, his publisher, several weeks before he died.”

Faber knew that the publisher would never give him access to the manuscript. Helga was his only chance. “The last Ray Delaney novel, Mrs. Watson. Even a glimpse at it would help me more than you could imagine. Maybe a phone call from Helga Schnatterer would help to loosen Lichttrager’s filing cabinets?”

“A brand new turn of phrase.” Helga looked rueful. She asked: “How long are you going to be in Hamburg?”



Banana Cupcakes

It's a little late in the month, I know, but it's time for our June Cake Craze. 

If you're my Facebook friend (or real life friend, for that matter), you know that my mom and dad have gone into business baking and selling cupcakes at a couple of local farmers' markets (in Indiana, alas, or I would be getting in on that action).  Anyway, seeing the gorgeous things they've been turning out has been really inspiring, so I thought I'd make a batch of cupcakes instead of a big cake for this month's cake feature. 

While Dan and I were home earlier this month (picking up our puppy!),Wh my mom made some incredible banana cupcakes with peanut butter icing and I really wanted to have about six dozen of them while we were there.  I did a little googling around and found that Martha Stewart has a banana cupcake recipe online, and isn't she supposed to be the authority on all things sweet and cute and cupcake-shaped?  Dan isn't a big peanut butter fan, so I was thrilled to try out the suggested Honey-Cinnamon Frosting.  So very delicious!

I don't have a great many photos of these things because I ate them far too quickly.  I also attempted to make my own tulip cupcake cups, but that was only marginally successful.  I suggest buying them, if you're into that sort of thing.  Oh, also, I didn't change the recipe at all, except to add a little more vanilla extract, so just click on over and use Martha's instructions.  They work like a charm.


Strawberry and buttermilk tart

I'm terribly afraid that we're nearing the end of strawberry season around here and I'm still hoping to find myself a cheap and tasty flat of berries out of which to make preserves, but just in case, here's what happened at the beginning of strawberry season.

When I high-tailed it to the first farmers markets of the season a few weeks ago and saw beautiful strawberries mounded up and just begging to be bought, I thought briefly about making another brown butter tart or maybe learning how to make classic pastry cream for a traditional tart, but when I looked in the fridge, I didn't have anything useful at all. 

I did, however, have some buttermilk leftover from yet another loaf of brown bread and thought I should google around for something resembling a fruit tart that involved buttermilk instead of cream or milk.  I landed on this website (which is a little odd, for sure, but the recipe sounded good).

I was more than a little skeptical when I put this tart in the oven.  I didn't quite believe that the very, very liquidy filling could possibly firm up in the oven (though with a whopping 3 TABLESPOONS of cornstarch, I should have had faith) and the texture was deeply strange.  When I pulled it out of the oven, though, it looked like angel food cake, but had a lighter texture and more delicate taste.  Its subtle sweetness coupled with the tart fruitiness of the berries was simply delicious.  We ate the tart at room temperature at first, but when I went back for seconds (and thirds) after it had been refrigerated, the texture had improved and the tastes had married. 

Also, a note on the crust:  this is a really, really special crust.  It resembles nothing as much as a buttermilk biscuit, but the compression and long baking makes it get all crispy and delicious.  Any other crust would work (regular 3-2-1 pie crust or store-bought), but you should give this one a try.  It's sensational.  Oh, and in case the strawberries are already all gone where you live, I think this would be delicious with blueberries or blackberries or (if you must) raspberries.

The recipe was a little more complex than I thought at first, so I'll give you this bit of advice: be sure you read the whole thing and prep everything in advance or you might get a little muddled or behind.  I did tweak a little, here and there, as is traditional.

Heavenly Strawberry Buttermilk Tart
adapted from The LoveBite

For the crust:
  • 1 1/2 c flour
  • 6 oz cold butter (1 1/2 sticks)
  • 4 T sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 t baking powder
  • 2 T buttermilk
For the filling:
  • 2 c buttermilk
  • 1 c milk
  • 3 oz butter (3/4 stick or 6 T)
  • 3 eggs, separated (reserve the yolks, whip the whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form)
  • 3 T corn starch / cornflour
  • 3 oz sugar
  • 1 t vanilla
  • pinch salt
  • zest of 1 lemon, grated
  • piles of fresh strawberries (I used 1 qt)
  1. To simplify matters, use the food processor to make the crust.  
  2. Combine flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder and pulse to mix well.  Cut cold butter into cubes and add one at a time while processing until everything looks like sand. 
  3. Add the egg and buttermilk. Pulse a few times until the pastry forms a ball.  At this point you can either chill the dough for 30 minutes and then roll it out before fitting it to the spring-form pan OR you can do what I did and simply push it into the pan, patting and squishing it until it's evenly smooshed into the pan.  Then cover it and stick it in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  4. Pre heat the oven to 350.  Line the crust with parchment and fill with dried beans or pie weights and then blind bake for 20 minutes. 
  5. Pull the crust out of the oven and remove the parchment and weights.  Use a fork to punch holes in the bottom of the crust to deflate.  Bake for an additional 10 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, make the buttermilk filling.
  7. Combine the milk and butter in a saucepan on low heat until the butter melts.  Do not let it boil.  Remove from heat when the butter has melted.  While this is happening, beat the egg yolks, cornstarch, sugar, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl.
  8. While whisking constantly (and rather aggressively), pour the hot milk in a slow and steady stream into the egg yolk mixture. 
  9. Whisk the buttermilk into the milk/yolk mixture. Add the lemon zest. 
  10. Spoon about 1/4 of the egg white mix and fold it into the yolk mix by strirring from the bottom and up and over in a circular motion. Add the rest of the egg whites.  Do not beat the batter.  You want to retain the air in the meringue as it will make the filling very fluffy and light.  This is the point at which the filling looks really really weird.  Fear not.
  11. Pour the batter into the tart shell and sprinkle some brown sugar on top. 
  12. Bake about 45 minutes at 350 or until golden on top.  The custard will still jiggle a little and be just barely set in the center.
  13. Top with fresh sliced strawberries and enjoy!


Saturday Clip Show

Just a few photos today from another cross-processed roll. 
Fig. 1. Lilies of the Valley.
Fig. 2. Dress form.
Fig. 3. Bar Stool.


Welcome home, baby boy!

Apparently I've been on hiatus for a while.  That was unintentional.  Anyway I'm back now and have a little news!

As you know, I'm pretty crazy about dogs, especially a little fluffy white one named Lucy.  She's been the pride and joy of my little domestic sphere since she joined my family in December of 2006.  Now she's getting ready to turn four and acting more like an adult dog than a puppy and Dan and I have been thinking about adding to our brood.  Maybe it's because I miss the puppy stage or maybe it's because EVERYONE I know has had a baby lately, but I wanted to do a little nurturing of my own and I thought that a puppy would be a good idea to help keep Lucy spry (she does love playing with other dogs).

Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of introducing the new member of our household!  Meet Calvin:
He looks a little droopy here, but it's very difficult to get an un-blurry photo of a twelve week old puppy unless he's sleepy.  And it turns out that when he's sleepy (or sleeping) is when he's cutest anyway.  When he conks out (my family always called that 'pulling a Lucy') he goes completely, utterly limp and snores these tiny little snores through his big schnoz.  He's pretty cute.  I might gush if I continue. 

Anyway, we've all been occupied non-stop with taking Calvin out for walks every hour, constantly reminding him to chew on bones instead of laptop cables, and keeping him from biting Lucy's ears and vice versa.  So far, everything's going pretty well, despite Lucy developing an upset stomach and a little case of envy, but it has been busy.

To welcome the little guy into the family and to remind Lucy that she's still top dog, I baked up some treats.  I found this recipe over at Simmer Till Done a few months ago and thought this was a good chance to give it a try.  We didn't have any brown rice flour, so I improvised and just used white rice flour.  It worked fine.
Oh, and both Lucy and Calvin LOVE them.  On a whim, we also tried them out on my parents' puppies, one of whom is the world's PICKIEST eater, but even she gobbled these things down.

Very impressive recipe, indeed.

Cleo’s (and Lucy and Calvin's) Pumpkin Dog Biscuits 

adapted from Simmer Till Done
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 c canned pumpkin
  • 2 T dry milk
  • 1/4 t kosher salt
  • 2 1/2 c brown rice flour *
  1. Pre-heat oven to 350.
  2. Whisk together eggs and pumpkin.  
  3. Stir in dry milk and kosher salt.  
  4. Add white rice flour gradually, stirring at first with spatula then with hands to form a stiff, dry dough. 
  5. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and if dough is still rough, briefly knead and press to combine.
  6. Roll dough to 1/4" thick and use biscuit or other shape cutter to punch shapes, gathering and re-rolling scraps as you go. 
  7. Place shapes on cookie sheet, no greasing or paper necessary. If desired, press fork pattern on biscuits before baking, a quick up-and-down movement with fork, lightly pressing down halfway through dough. 
  8. Bake 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully turn biscuits over, then bake additional 20 minutes. Allow to cool completely on rack before feeding to dog.