Strangely, one of Liesel's favourite distractions was Frau Holtzapfel. The reading sessions included Wednesday now as well, and they'd finished the water-abridged version of The Whistler and were on to The Dream Carrier. The old woman sometimes made tea or gave Liesel some soup that was infinitely better than Mama's. Less watery.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
I have recently left my flat, the one that had been my home for the past five years. It was tiny, the roof leaked for more than two years, and I lived in the living room. But it was home. The kitchen space (including a full-size fridge/freezer) made up for the absence of a door between my hob and my bed. And although they would essentially have to sit in my bedroom, I loved having people around for a meal. This will all happen again soon, of course, in my new Liverpudlian abode. In the meantime, however, I am jumping between people's houses, dragging a suitcase full of my clothes, cake tins and as many books as I can carry. And reminiscing about the meals I made in my kitchen over the years.
This was one of the last meals I served there. My furniture was mostly gone, it was cold and wet outside, and I was painfully aware that each box we taped up was taking me closer to saying goodbye to London. More upsettingly, it was also taking me further away from the friend who was helping me out, whose couch I am now staying on as I write this. So I made soup, the most comforting dish I could think of. Comfort, before stepping into the unknown.
I manage to go off soup every summer, wondering at the logic of blitzing up vegetables, when they're so much better roasted, or in a salad. But then November arrives, with its grey skies, and carpet of leaves, and cheek chilling winds. And all of a sudden, I want soup. I want soup, and books, and long socks and a wood-burning fire (thrillingly, the new home will provide me with this last one).
There are countless references to soup in Zusak's The Book Thief. It is the dish most often shared in the Hubermann's home, made with sparse ingredients, and served with potatoes or a loaf of bread. But l chose the quote above, as it's the one that has stayed somewhere in the recesses of my memory, the 'less watery' comment immediately drawing me to it. I enjoy a broth, especially with noodles, but a soup (in my humble opinion) should have body. If you can afford it, that is, which the Hubermann's couldn't. So the recipe below is for the dream soup, the infinitely better version: simple ingredients, but in rich quantities. A soup that can't possibly be described as watery.
Soup and Rye Bread
Serves 4 (with leftover bread)
400g rye flour
400g strong bread flour
20g fresh yeast
560ml body temperature water
1tbsp caraway seeds
1 large leek
800g waxy potatoes
2 medium brown onions
1tsp rapeseed oil
1l vegetable stock
1tsp caraway seeds
2 bay leaves
Pinch of salt and pepper
1. Tip the flours and salt into the mixing bowl and combine with your hand. Put the fresh yeast in a measuring jug and pour in the water. Mix with a fork. Leave the yeast water until it is foaming slightly on top.
2. Tip the water into the flours and combine with your hands. Add the caraway seeds and then knead the dough for ten minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Try not to add any more flour to the dough while you're kneading, but if it is unmanageably sticky, lightly flour your bench and your hands. Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave in a cool, draught-free place to rise until doubled in size.
3. After an hour or so, tip the dough back onto the bench and flatten the ball with gentle hands. Reshape it into a ball; pulling each edge into the middle, then flipping it over. Keep pulling the sides underneath the ball with your palms, forming a tight ball. Place the ball on the lined baking tray. Sprinkle liberally with flour and place the tea towel back on top. Leave it to prove until doubled in size again. Preheat the oven to 240C.
4. To make the soup, finely chop the onions and leek, and cut the potato into 2cm dice. Warm the oil over a medium heat and then fry the onions and leek until soft and translucent. Add the potatoes, caraway seeds, bay leaves and seasoning. Pour in the stock. Simmer over a low heat.
5. When the dough is ready, transfer it to the oven. Drop the temperature to 200C after ten minutes and bake for a further 35 minutes. The loaf should be brown on top and should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Leave it for ten minutes before slicing it.
6. Allow the soup to simmer for twenty minutes before removing the bay leaves and attacking it with a potato masher. Obviously, you could also blitz it in a blender, but I doubt the Hubermanns would have had one, and I like the not-quite-smooth texture. Continue simmering until it reaches the texture you want, then serve with the bread.