Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Category: Travel

Schneeball in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a medieval town built “above the Tauber” River.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber features a walkable medieval wall, St. Jakobskirche’s phenomenal carved wooden altar, a surprisingly interesting medieval torture museum, Germany’s largest teddy bear store (according to our highly credible shopping bag), castle gardens, and more than we could get to in a single day.

And something called the Schneeball.

Rothenburg gate

One of the many enthralling Rothenburg gates, which give the town an almost Disney-like feel.

Here’s what Rick Steves has to say about Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s famous sweet creation:

“Unworthy of the heavy promotion they receive, Schneeballen are bland pie crusts crumpled into a ball and dusted with powered sugar or frosted with sticky-sweet glop.” (Rick Steves’ Germany 2011)

I remained intrigued.

Rothenburg cafe

A Rothenburg cafe, modern and cozy inside, with delectable treats under glass.

Schneeballen are in the windows of bakeries all around town, some coated in chocolate, others plain. I liked the snowy look of the ones powdered with sugar.

We found an elegant cafe by the Market Square and settled in to try one for ourselves.


A Schneeball, dusted with powered sugar.

And, well. If you are a pie-crust fanatic, you will be in the land of bliss.

But otherwise: Rick is right. It’s rather crisp and dry, not very tantalizing. I wouldn’t order one again.

Maybe the chocolate variety. Just to be sure.

The best use I found for the pastry bits, once broken apart, was to dunk them in tea like a springerle cookie. Most every hard and purportedly sweet German treat is better softened in tea, warmed up and dreamy.

Croissant and springerle cookie

A cheese-ham croissant and a springerle cookie, imprinted with an elegant bird.

But even then, the schneeball is not truly ideal. This cafe also sold its own springerle cookies, which were beautifully imprinted with detailed animals. And even better dunked in hot tea.

Rothenburg clock man

Rothenburg clock man, at right, just downed his mug of beer to save the day.

Outside the cafe, in the Market Square, the Meistertrunk story is re-enacted regularly by the figure on the square’s clock tower. Legend – apparently unfounded, but a nice tale fit for tourists – has it that in 1631, the mayor saved the town from invaders by meeting an army general’s dare and drinking an entire three-liter mug of beer in one gulp.

And so, on the hour most hours starting at 11 a.m., the mayoral figure lifts his beer mug to the delight of the watching crowd.

About as exciting as a ball of pie pastry.

Rothenburg in the snow

Rothenburg in the snow, a fairytale town.

Still, I wouldn’t skip these little tourism routines. Each town has its own scripts and props, an adorable formality of hospitality on the travel circuit. The oddity brings a light thrill of its own.

And altogether, Rothernburg ob der Tauber was enthralling, a fortress in snow white high above the rushing river. Visiting out of season means watching the museum/church times closely and missing the night watchman’s tour. But what you get in return is a mystical stillness, like walking through a storybook setting, where the only snowballs are edible.


Cafe Spanjola, Croatia


By Friday, I’m ready for an escape. Here’s a place I’d like to beam myself back to … sipping coffee at a fort on Hvar Island, Croatia, on a breath-taking October afternoon.

The view from Spanjola fort on Hvar Island, Croatia

The view from Spanjola fort on Hvar Island, Croatia

We spent one afternoon in October last year climbing to the fort that overlooks Hvar Island, off the coast near Split, Croatia. The view was spectacular, and as we were in Europe, espresso awaited us at the top.

The path up to the fort switch-backs past spiky plants and vendors selling local lavender sachets. The terrain felt a bit like Arizona, until I would look back down to the glimmering Adriatic Sea.

Walk up to Spanjola fort, Hvar Island Croatia

Walk up to Spanjola fort, Hvar Island Croatia

At the peak, along with cannons and a museum …

Cannon overlooking the Adriatic Sea

Who would ever fire at such a serene scene?

… you’ll find a cafe …

Spanjola fort coffee shop

Spanjola fort coffee shop

… where you might consider stretching out into a chair and ordering a coffee. I’d recommend with cream, which might be a sweet surprise.

Two coffees at Cafe Spanjola

Two coffees at Cafe Spanjola

“Cream” in Croatia often translated to whipped cream. We sat and sipped and marveled at the fort, the view, the beauty of the Dalmatian Coast, while the sun blazed down on the canopy above us. I’d love to go back …


View from Hvar Island, Croatia

5 foods I loved in Venice at Christmas

A quiet Piazza San Marco during Christmas week 2012

A quiet Piazza San Marco during Christmas week 2012

We spent our Christmas this year in Venice, a beautiful, misty old city I immediately loved. I’m convinced now more than ever that off-season is the way to travel. The Venice of my guidebooks – crowded streets, lines for Saint Mark’s Basilica, packs of people pushing by you – was nothing like the Venice of Christmas time. The streets are easily passable; the main square is only scattered with tourists posing like scarecrows with the pigeons; and there are no lines at all, except for Midnight Mass. With cars forbidden, Venice felt like a city of long ago, cloaked with a quietness that is so rare today.

A little Christmas touch in Venice, 2012

A little Christmas touch in Venice, 2012

The food was also wonderful. Here are five foods I’m still thinking about.

1. Seafood risotto

Rice spotted with bits of mussels, fish, shrimp, and other swimmingly good things. In Venice, surrounded by water, seafood risotto is sublime. We had it twice. Once, the rice had a satisfying bite in the middle. Once, it was softer throughout, nearly a porridge. Both times, we lapped it up. I’m dreaming now how to make it myself, maybe with a shrimp stock. (I’ve read that simmering leftover shrimp shells in water is the easiest way to make a seafood stock. Has anyone tried that?)

Seafood risotto in Venice

Seafood risotto in Venice

2. Cuttlefish

Anything cuttlefish. I thought this seafood might be chewy and oddly shaped, like octopus, but it was cut into tender bite-sized pieces and draped in a thick jet-black sauce, savory and warm and as comforting as a crackling winter fire. (Though not as fun to look at …) We tried it a few times – once with polenta on the side (which almost made this list; we ate polenta over and over again in Venice, and I grew more curious about the corn-based dish I had thought was bland and boring) and once in a risotto. Delicious.

Cuttlefish in ink sauce with polenta, at Vino Vino in Venice

Cuttlefish in ink sauce with polenta, at Vino Vino in Venice

3. Sgroppino

We had Christmas dinner at Taverna Ciardi, a cozy traditional restaurant a winding kilometer or two from Piazza San Marco. We thought the fixed-price menu in Italian listed two choices for a starter, a first course (in Italy, pasta or rice), a second course (meat/seafood), and dessert. Oh no. We were served two plates each for each course! We had cuttlefish, octopus salad, risotto, spaghetti, fish … and just when we couldn’t imagine ever putting a fork in our mouths again, the waiter brought out glasses filled with a thick fizzy whiteness. What was it? Oh, lemon sorbet, vodka, Prosecco, the waiter said. He had me at lemon sorbet. We toasted and sipped and felt our fullness dissipate into a clear citrus happiness. Oh my. A web search with results like this and this makes me think it must have been Sgroppino. I’m very happy to have met you, Sgroppino!

4. Panettone

The first night we arrived, tired after taking a train, two planes, a bus and a waterbus, we almost didn’t have dinner. But somehow, we pulled ourselves up and walked a minute to Vino Vino. After risotto and cuttlefish and feeling like a person again, I ordered a dessert that came with muscato, a sweet wine. The waiter, a kind Italian gentleman, said they had replaced the regular option with pan-ah-TOE-nay. Which was? A Christmas dessert, a holiday cake. It’s good. Okay. Let’s do it. We would have panettone two more times before we left, once as part of our Christmas feast and once left in a complimentary little carton in our hotel room. It can be made many ways, but the kind we had in Venice was yellow, airy cake, sometimes dusted with powdered sugar. We also saw locals in the grocery store buying panettone in natty angular boxes with a cord to carry on top.

Panettone with custard and muscato wine

Panettone with custard and muscato wine

5. Sarde in Saor

I must be my father’s daughter, because I’m in love with sardines and anchovies. Fresh or fried or plucked from a jar and sauteed with olive oil and garlic and chili flakes and tossed in pasta – but let’s not too get carried away, Brianne. Sarde in saor is a Venetian specialty, sweet-sour fried sardines. I’ve since seen recipes with pine nuts, raisins, cloves, sugar, bay leaves, white wine. I have no idea what was in ours, but they were fantastic, scrumptious little fish. Dad, you would have loved them!