The Snook Talks Coffee

I’ve been promising for a while now to get the Snook to write a blog post about his new coffee machine, and I also recently realised that I left coffee out of my cost of living post. So rather than continue to nag him (he hates writing), I decided the easiest thing to do would be to just interview him! We spoke for nearly an hour, and I’ve transcribed the relevant bits below for you. Enjoy…

Okay. You have a lot of different ways of making coffee. Let’s start with the obvious…

We had an espresso machine back in Australia – a Gaggia Classic. I bought it around 2008, and I had it serviced a few times. I had the insides completely replaced at least once because I didn’t descale it properly. And we used that with a Sunbeam Cafe Series conical burr grinder.

So what did you like about those? Why did you pick that combination?

Price, mostly. I had bought a cheaper grinder from Kmart – I remember it had a tagline: “Grinds perfectly from French press to finest Turkish coffee” or something. And I got it, and it couldn’t even grind fine enough for an espresso machine. So I called Customer Support. They said, “Oh, yeah, we know, take it back; we’ll give you your money back.” So I did, and I got the Sunbeam. It was basically the cheapest decent conical burr grinder that you could get.

As for the Gaggia, I got a good deal on that. The main thing I wanted was the commercial size group head, the 58mm basket. I always make double shots. We’d mainly buy beans from Toby’s; occasionally from a few other places like Mecca, or Campos, or Coffee Alchemy.  We also bought supermarket beans occasionally, and there are some that are not too bad. The Aldi ones in Australia are quite well regarded; they’re roasted by Veneziano in Melbourne. I tried the Dark Roast and it was a bit too oily, but they had some Medium and some Single Origins that were very decently priced.

But you didn’t bring that machine to Munich…

No. I was thinking about upgrading it anyway, so I figured it was a good time. We’ve passed it on to our friend Rory.

Okay. So we’ll get on to the new espresso machine in a bit. But in addition to the espresso machine, the other method you used most frequently was the AeroPress, right?

Yeah, AeroPress was pretty much the backup if the espresso machine crapped out or needed to go in for a service. Did you buy me the AeroPress?

I feel like your mother did… I’m the one that broke your AeroPress.

Well, you lost a piece. I’d take it to work occasionally, and I think you took it to work a few times, and that’s when you lost a piece. Yeah, AeroPress is great. Mum bought me the Able steel filter disk for it as well, so I didn’t have to buy new paper ones. Yeah, I like that a lot and I brought that with us here; we were using that for a while. It’s light and portable. And it does pretty well with different grinds of coffee; it was doing all right with the supermarket coffee here.

I also bought a very cheap plastic drip cone filter on one of my trips to the US because I needed some decent coffee and I found a place in San Francisco and bought it. You get the filter paper and you pour through that. And I like that one sometimes for different coffees, or if you have a light roast coffee. I feel like it gives a slightly different character of coffee to the espresso, even when you water down the espresso as a long black. The filter makes it a little different. There’s a few different types of the conical filter: there’s flat bottom ones, but I think the one I have is most like a “V60”. I travel with that one because it’s extremely light and basically indestructible. You do have to buy filters for it, but they’re very cheap and pretty much universal. It’s very forgiving of the grind as well. With the filter, if there are a lot of “fines” in there, it doesn’t go into the cup.

Also in Sydney I left behind the moka pots. We had at least two; maybe three. I had a little tiny one-cup one with a spout to take camping but I think I lost that years ago. I also had the small Vev Vigano moka pot, which I used to use quite a bit, an aluminium one. And I also ended up with a large one that was my grandmother’s. My grandfather picked up the habit of drinking coffee in America or Canada and so they always had the stovetop moka pot.

A moka pot is basically a stovetop espresso machine, right?

Sort of. It doesn’t get anywhere near the pressure of an espresso machine; just the pressure required to push the the water up through the coffee. It’s very popular in Italy as a substitute for espresso that you can make at home with cheap equipment. But the problem with that is we got an induction stove. The ones I have are all aluminium, and so they don’t work on induction. They do sell little steel plates so you can use them, and you can get stainless steel pots too. They’re great for camping because they’re fairly robust and self-contained, and they work well over gas flame or a fire. And they don’t require a separate kettle. If you take an AeroPress or a pourover filter, you still have to carry a kettle.

We also had a French press which we rarely used…

I’ve never been a fan of French press. I don’t know if I’m doing it wrong, but I always end up with too much mud in my cup. There’s this guy on YouTube, James Hoffman, all the Redditors love him. He’s the guru of modern home coffee making. And he has a special technique for the French press where you don’t press it. Pressing forces the grinds through the filter, whereas if you just let the water flow there’s less pressure against the sieve and it’s less likely to leak coffee grinds into the cup. He also brews for a very long time, I think. It’s nice, I think, for like an after dinner coffee, when you bring it to the table for a group. It’s also another one that’s useful for travel, like if you’ve got a place where there’s hot water, like a Zip Tap or something like that, and you’ve got a group of people, it’s easy to make a big pot. With AeroPress, it only makes a couple of cups at a time.

All right, so we came Germany, and we needed to buy a machine…

Yeah, so we were using the pourover and the AeroPress for a while, but I wanted to buy a new espresso machine.

Why not a pod machine? Everybody’s got the coffee pods now. I think you have a problem with the pod machines, right?

I have a list of problems with the pod machines. Firstly, the wastefulness of the packaging. I think some of them are starting to address this with, like, biodegradable capsules. I’ve also seen little mesh K-cups that you can refill with your own coffee, but I haven’t seen anything like that for Nespresso. A lot of them are proprietary. There is a generic style that you can get from different brands, but I’m pretty sure that at least one of the manufacturers got in trouble for producing a version of their machine that was DRMed so you couldn’t use a third party or reusable cup in it.

Another thing that’s wrong with them – not enough coffee. I think the most any of them have in them is about 7 grams, whereas I use 18g, and your average cafe is going to use 18-20g. So to get a decent cup of coffee you’ve got to use two of them anyway, which makes them obscenely expensive per cup compared to supermarket ground coffee. Also, with those machines if you ask for the “long coffee,” all they can do is push more water through the coffee which overextracts and tastes bad. If I have to use one, I use the smallest setting possible and then top up with hot water separately.

What about the coffee itself? The freshness of it?

I think that’s the one thing they got right. By single dosing and sealing in with nitrogen, you do keep the freshness of the coffee better than other methods. It’s certainly better than having a jar of pre-ground coffee in your cupboard that you spoon out into your machine every day, which gets stale the day after you open it.

What’s that little rubric you used to tell me about coffee beans?

Green coffee beans are good for three years. Roasted coffee beans are good for three weeks. Ground coffee is good for three minutes. And an espresso shot should be drunk in 30 seconds.

For the new machine and grinder – how much research did you do? Did you know ahead of time that’s what you wanted?

I did a bit of research and knew what features I wanted. The r/espresso subreddit has a spreadsheet that basically lists all of the more popular machines by what features they have. I went with the simpler end of what I wanted.

The things that I was missing from the Gaggia that I particularly wanted were: PID temperature control. So instead of just a simple thermostat, it’s predictive. It basically means that thing predicts that, “Oh, the temperature is dropping. I’m going to have to turn on my heating element now to make sure it doesn’t drop below the threshold.” So not like a bang-bang thermostat.  It’s slightly cleverer, and it holds a more steady temperature.

Also, the Gaggia Classic is notorious for having quite a small boiler. And the temperature would fluctuate, and so people do things like “temperature surfing” when you turn on the steam function which boosts the temperature up, and then turn it off and wait, to try to trick it into keeping a consistent temperature. And the main point of that is mostly about consistency, especially if you’re making two coffees in a row, that they come out the same. And I was noticing that with the old one – I’d make our coffees in that morning, and I’d do yours first and then do mine, with the same grind and everything, but they would pour very differently. So I wanted that temperature control.

And the other thing is a pressure gauge. The standard for espresso is nine bar (nine atmospheres of pressure). Having a pressure gauge lets you know that the machine is right, and that your grind is right, because the pressure will go higher if you choke up the machine. The way these machines work is they have a pump which can produce a certain pressure at a certain flow rate. Then they have a valve – and the Gaggia Classic has this, and I did try to twiddle mine but without a gauge it’s very hard to get right – and once the pressure goes above a certain amount, it actually starts to bleed off pressure by bleeding water off back into the reservoir. So it caps out the pressure, which is a safety feature to keep it from blowing out somewhere. But if you don’t put enough coffee, or you grind it too coarsely, it can’t build up enough pressure and the water just flows through the coffee. And so if your gauge needle doesn’t go high enough, you know you’re not doing it right. You can use that to spot problems with the grind. Sometimes the water will channel through the puck, and you’ll see the needle drop suddenly. It’s just another input that you can watch.

So those were the two features that I particularly wanted. There’s a few other considerations, like whether you have a boiler or a heat exchanger. And there are a few things that I ruled out. You can get home machines that have a built-in grinder. I’m not a fan. It saves some space perhaps, but the problem with anything where you’ve integrated two functions is, what happens if part of it breaks, or you want to upgrade part of it?

What about a milk frother?

They all come with a milk frother (or steam wand) these days. There’s basically a couple ways of doing it. The Gaggia Classic, as well as the first one that I considered, the Lilet Victoria, are single boiler. They have a water tank which goes into the boiler, which gets to a certain temperature. And they have a switch which you can flip and it goes from the coffee brewing temperature (which is a little below boiling) to the steam making temperature (which is above boiling, because you need to get pressure of steam). So you can’t do both at the same time. If you want to switch backwards and forwards, you have to wait. The other way to do it is with a second boiler, but we don’t really drink steam milk coffees, so I didn’t initially consider it. That wasn’t really a feature that I was particularly looking for, to have two boilers.

There is a third way, which is for machines with a heat exchanger, where they don’t actually store a reservoir of water. They just have a block that heats to a certain temperature and then you run the water through it. You still have to switch those between the two modes, but they are much quicker because you don’t have the water. There’s a few machines like this – Lilet make one called the Mara X; it’s very fancy and retro-looking with all the knobs. I prefer the midcentury styling of the Lilet Victoria that the Gaggia Classic has as well. It’s brushed stainless steel; it’s fairly smooth on the outside; it fits in a cubic footprint without pipes hanging off the sides; it doesn’t have knobs to turn. I’m not a huge fan of the look of the machines with all the bits hanging off them.

So I was looking at the Lilets and the Victoria, and I made a post on Reddit asking what people thought about it, and I did some more reading. One thing I found was, they have an option for pre-infusion, which is where it gives a little bit of water into the coffee before it really engages the pump and makes the drink. Again, it’s mostly about consistency. It lets the coffee get evenly wet, so when you turn on the pressure it’s less likely to channel through or not fully extract the coffee. Some machines – the E61 Group Head ones – do this with a lever; you can let some water in and engage the pump. It’s very traditional to have pre-infusing with espresso, and the very first machines would kind of do it automatically. The single boiler Victoria uses the pump to do this, and I saw some videos showing that the pressure would jump right up to the full 8-9 bar and then drop down, and people were kind of worried that this would create a suction effect that could mess up the surface of your coffee puck. Whereas the two boiler machines use the steam pressure, which is about about 4 bar, to push a little bit of water from the steam boiler into the coffee, and then switches over to the coffee boiler to finish the job. And these Lilet machines have a microcontroller in them so you can set the temperature, the pre-infusion time, and other parameters. So you have a lot of control, and I thought that might be fun to fiddle around with.

The other feature of the double boiler sort that kind of sold me on it was that it has a hot water dispenser, like the machines in cafes. We drink a lot of long blacks – that’s my favourite – and it means you don’t have to boil the kettle separately. Here in Munich the water is very hard, and so the kettle chalks up very easily. And so you can feed demineralised water into the coffee machine, and only have to worry about that in one place. That sold me on getting a double boiler model.

So which one did we get?

The Lilet Elizabeth. The style is nice – it’s got clean lines. It has some upsides and downsides. One thing that I like that it has over the Victoria is auto shut-off. They both have a timer to time a shot. But on the cheaper one, it’s just a countdown. You have to turn it off. On this one, if I set it to 30 seconds, it will turn off after 30 seconds. Once it’s dialled in, I can put the cup, hit it, and then walk away and finish making my breakfast. I’m lazy and I like automation, so I’m a big fan of that feature.

Another thing – it’s a cute gimmick, but the group handle is designed in such a way that when you sit it down on the table, it’s flat. Most of them have prongs, and the handle comes out the side, so if you sit it on the table, it’ll tilt backwards. And when you want to tamp it to get it straight, you’ve got to use a holder or hold it straight. But on this one the handle kind of slopes away a little bit as well, so if you just put it on the table flat, you can tamp straight down and know it’s not going to be uneven. Like I said, it’s a cute gimmick, but I like it.

The microprocessor controls are very good, and the coffee that it makes is very nice. So I’m very happy with the Elizabeth so far.

You mentioned the hard water here. How do you handle that?

The machine came with an ion-exchange cartridge that you can put into the reservoir and attach to the end of the hose, and it just sucks through that. You can get replacements of those; I think with our water here the cartridge would do about 35 liters before you have to change it, maybe even less. And they’re not cheap. Someone pointed out that Brita filters in Germany, and Europe anyway, in hard water areas, they sell one that does de-ionising. The ones you normally get in Australia I don’t think do. But the Brita MAXTRA+ ones you get here can demineralise like 100L of water and it’s much cheaper per liter than the built in one. So we do that. People here have told me they use the Brita filtered water in theirs and they’ve never had to descale it!

You got a new grinder too. What did you get there?

The old Sunbeam grinder was a conical burr grinder. A burr grinder is basically a mill that has two pieces that are held a certain distance apart which you can adjust. You can get conical burr and flat burr. Flat burrs are bigger so tends to be more commercial use; most home ones are conical because you get more grinding surface in less space. One thing I didn’t like about the old one was that it retained a lot of coffee. So the beans come into the cone, and then they had to go out to the side, and a lot of them would get caught up along the way, and so you’d have to whack the machine to get the coffee to come out. Obviously it also keeps a lot of stale crap in there from the day before. It also generated a lot of static electricity and the coffee would often fly around all over the kitchen. And it was getting old – the hopper didn’t come off any more without spilling beans. It also wasn’t super adjustable, like it was getting to the point where between two clicks it would be too coarse or too fine. It had about 20 “steps”. It wasn’t a bad grinder; it had these little shims or washers if you disassembled it where you could adjust the static offset so that the steps would cover a different range. It served us well for many years.

There are a few trends in espresso grinders at the moment. There’s one that’s very, very popular at the moment called the Niche Zero. It’s this ugly looking alien thing, but it’s supposed to be very good, and the price is not too bad as far as fancy grinders go. It’s set up for only single dosing. You weigh the beans for one cup and grind all of them. It doesn’t have a hopper. A lot of people like this because it means you can know how much coffee is going in and out; and you can try different types of coffee very easily from day to day, or between morning and afternoon, or if different people have different tastes or one wants decaf. But the Niche Zero only has the single dosing; you can’t put a hopper on it. And I thought the idea of having to weigh out the beans every time might get a little tedious. So I was looking for something that could do automated dosing.

The other one I looked at was the Baratza Sette, which contrary to what the name might suggest, is an American grinder. It’s called “sette” because the body is kind of a “7” shape. The hopper sits on the top of the seven and it basically grinds straight through to the void underneath. The idea there is that because the coffee goes straight through instead of going out to the side, it retains very little. Everything falls through. It’s also very fast; it has a larger burr, so it can grind your 18g of coffee in just a few seconds. I heard though that it’s also extremely loud. It’s fast, but because the burr is kind of out of the open, it’s very loud. It does have some fancy features; one of the models has some computer-controlled machine learning based  weighing mechanism where you tell it how many grams you want and it learns how long to grind to get to that exact weight. Which is very fancy, but you pay a lot for the privilege. It is very adjustable; there’s one that has 270 steps(!). It has 30 clicks and then each one has, like, nine subranges for very fine adjustment. I was very keen on that one, but then I was asking around on Reddit and someone suggested the one that I ended up buying, which was the Eureka Mignon Specialita.

Eureka is an Italian brand and they make several different types of grinders. They’re pretty traditional – hopper on the top, goes through a conical burr, coffee shoots out the front. It’s what’s called a “stepless,” so there aren’t clicks. There’s a little screw you can adjust as much or as little as you like. It’s quiet, as much as a grinder can be. It’s also remarkably fast. The 18g shot I do takes about 10 seconds with the coffee that I have at the moment, which is pretty good. It also has a nice holder for the portafilter (the basket on the handle). You can put it in and it’ll just stay there and it’ll grind straight into that. It’s a very solid traditional style of grinder, but cubical, like a square prism, a bit modern. It comes in fun colours so I got a red one to match our kitchen back in Australia.

The machine has timer based dosing, with two presets and a free running mode. (The espresso machine has two presets as well you can program.) So far I’ve found it works pretty well. It does what it says. However, it’s pretty limited to making espresso. I think you can get a little container to catch the grind, but it doesn’t come with one. They expect you to grind straight into the basket. Also, because of the way the stepless adjustment works – the screw will rotate multiple times, and it’s got numbers 0 to 10, but you might need to turn multiple times to get between settings – so switching backwards and forwards between two settings is kind of difficult, to remember how many times you’ve turned it. So once you’ve got it dialled in, you don’t want to adjust it too much.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it can do single dosing very well. If the hopper’s empty and you just pour one dose of beans in, it works well. The retention is very low; what you put in, you pretty much get out every time. There’s also a thing called “popcorning” where the beans have a tendency to fly up in the air instead of going through the grinder. The old grinder would definitely do that a lot, and this one is much less. It also has a little a little gate you can shut off to close the hopper, like if you needed to remove the hopper. But you could also use that to kind of cap over them – as the level of the beans drops below the gate, you close it and that stops them from bouncing. It does take a little longer to run a single dose of beans – it takes about 12 seconds, as opposed to 10 when the hopper’s full.

What do you think about the quality of the coffee beans in Germany so far? Were you worried about it?

A little bit. But I figured Munich is a bit of a hipster city – maybe not as much as some of the other cities in Germany – but I figured there’d be some decent local roasters. And Germany is a coffee drinking country, rather than tea, so there’s a lot available. We were drinking the supermarket coffee for the first few weeks and it was surprisingly good, better than American supermarket coffee.

Prices varies a lot here. There’s a place here called Man Versus Machine that a lot of people recommend. It’s extremely hipster. It’s also eye-wateringly expensive. But we’ve tried a few local places. There’s a place ten minutes’ walk from here called Gang und Gäbe that’s a cafe with a roaster in it. They’re doing a couple of blends which are reasonably priced and quite tasty. In Australia at Toby’s we could get 200g bags of beans for $12.50 (though other places would be 250g bags); or their 400g deal of two bags for $20. During lockdown when we were going out less, I was buying their bigger 500g bags for $28, I think.

And so how does the price compare here?

Well, it varies. I found another place run by a Colombian family that does mostly Colombian beans, but they also source from other places as well. Their beans are very reasonable. I bought a kilo from them to tide us over the Christmas and New Year’s period and it was something like €18-19,  freshly roasted there in the shop. That’s about $28 AUD, so half the price of Toby’s (if you buy by the kilo). There are also some larger local roasteries that you can get that supply the local cafes. The supermarket here has one roasted in a neighbouring city and that’s like €12-13 for 500g. We’ve bought that a few times because it’s convenient, and it’s mostly been okay. We had one bag that seemed a bit too dark for your taste, and I tried one of their single origin lighter roasts and I didn’t care for it much.

Okay, we’ve talked about coffee and water and machines… There is one final adjustment you made to your machine. You made it “smart”!

Well, that’s right. So there’s a few things about the new espresso machine that are maybe less than satisfactory. The water tank is small, and I have to fill it fairly frequently. It probably could have been bigger. That’s partly because we do the long blacks so I’m pulling two cups of boiling water out every day. It’s also quite noisy. The pump is quite noisy, and when you use the water dispenser, the pump that refills the boiler runs for a very long time. If you take five or six seconds to dispense the water, the pump will run for like 20 seconds to fill it up again. It’s obviously pulling water in a lot slower than it can pump water out. And the other thing is, it does take a while to heat up. This style, I think, heats up more quickly than other styles, and it probably heats up just as quickly as the Gaggia did, but this one won’t let you make coffee until it’s decided that it’s hot enough. Whereas I suspect that I was making coffee with the Gaggia before it was ready. The light would go out saying it had reached temperature, but it would oscillate on and off because it was a fairly simple thermostat. This one is a little bit smarter. The gauge will get to 95 degrees, which is what I have the temperature set to, but it will still wait quite a while. It basically  takes about 10 minutes to get to full temperature. So especially in the morning, you want your coffee right away. That means I needed a way to turn it on remotely.

I ended up getting some smart plugs from IKEA. They’re Zigbee based ones and quite good, fairly inexpensive. So basically, I leave the switch on the coffee machine on, and it’s controlled by the smart plug. The smart plug actually comes with a little wireless mechanical switch which is magnetic. So that sticks to the body of the coffee machine quite nicely so I can actually still turn it on and off with a switch on the side, just not the main built-in one. And more importantly, I can turn it on remotely in the morning when I wake up. The IKEA system has an optional base station that bridges it to wifi and has an app. I think theoretically it could’ve worked with the Zigbee base station in the Amazon Echo Plus, but that would lock us out of controlling it with the Google Home too. Instead I’ve integrated it into our Home Assistant instance which is running in a Docker Container. It was super easy to add to Home Assistant. It’s a totally open protocol, and Home Assistant now sees all the IKEA devices as its own devices. And then you can add in support for Google Home or Alexa, and you can turn on the coffee machine by voice.

Is it time for a coffee?

Okay Google. Turn on the coffee machine!

Uses This

Three years ago, I got an invitation from Daniel Bogan inviting me to be interviewed for his site Uses This. This is a site where various nerdy people (lots of Aussies, but also international folks) answer some questions about the tools they use for their work and their hobbies. Unfortunately I got waylaid by life and job changes and lots of other things, but Dan reached out again last month and I was finally able to participate. Go here to read about all the equipment I use on a daily basis!

Uses This

Thinking.

Spent ten minutes debating with the Snook today whether we should go back to low-carb eating… and then I read this Twitter thread, and it stopped me dead in my tracks.

Video: Weaving in Ends in Knitting

I noticed the other day that a few of the craft technique videos I put on YouTube as a lark have started attracting lots of views, so there’s clearly an appetite for “how to” content. With that in mind, I’m going to try to make a few more this year. I recorded the first one last night, which was how I weave in ends in knitting (using the recently finished Lanatus jumper as the example). Please let me know if there are any other specific techniques you’d like to see demonstrated!

The Cost of Living

Photo by Annette Fischer on Unsplash

It’s the end of the year, which means the Snook and I have both been diving deep into our financial accounts for 2020. While we have combined finances, I tend to track the month-to-month micro expenses and budget while he looks after the long-term retirement planning and investments. (If you’re interested in how we track everything, there’s a bit at the end of this post.) We’ve also now been in Germany for four months, which means we can start to get a comparison for the cost of living here vs. in Australia. I figured some of you are probably curious about how it works out. (All amounts below have been converted to AUD for comparison’s sake.)

The tl;dr: We didn’t move here to make money. While our income is roughly the same, the cost of living is higher (especially as we’ve gone from a house we own outright to one that we are renting). We are also paying a lot more in taxes, and for health insurance. That said, we don’t have kids; we don’t have cars; and we were already saving a lot of our income. We’re just not saving quite as much as we would’ve been otherwise. So why do it? For a new experience and adventure, and getting to travel all around Europe. While we’ve definitely been enjoying the experience, Covid has rather put a damper on the travel. I’m optimistic for 2021 though… 🤞

Income: In terms of salaries, both of our companies made us offers in line with the going rate in Munich. For the Snook, that worked out to a slight pay increase from Sydney. For me, it was a slight decrease. (However, I changed job families at the same time so I’m not sure whether that would have been the case if I’d stayed in the same role.) We kept our existing stock grants. We also received relocation grants to offset the cost of packing up our lives and moving halfway around the world, and given that we did a lot of that work ourselves, we were able to save some of that.

Accommodation: Based on quick search of comparable units in Sydney, we are paying 1.3x that for our place in Germany (including rent, utilities, and Internet). However, the apartment we’re renting is fully furnished, centrally located, and bigger than our place in Sydney. We could definitely save money by getting a smaller place farther away from the city center, but we made a conscious decision that the expense was worth it (especially as we are under Covid lockdown and working from home). We are also renting out our house back in Sydney, which helps to offset some of the added expense.

Groceries: I did a comparison of January to August 2020 (living in Sydney) against September to December 2020 (living in Munich). In Australia, we were spending about $520 AUD per month, and in Germany that’s gone up to $640 AUD. I suspect we cook a lot more than most folks and probably make more elaborate meals, so we were probably already spending a lot by Australian standards. One factor for the increase here is that we aren’t able to buy in bulk the way we were before. That’s partly because we don’t have the storage space (in our pantry or freezer), and partly because the supermarket quantities are just smaller in general here. We also had some added expense here in that we needed to build up our pantry staples (spices, baking ingredients, etc). We definitely eat less red meat here than we did in Oz, and we’ve only had lamb once. (We just found a Turkish grocery though with decently priced lamb, so I expect that will go up a bit!) In both places, we get a veggie box delivered every two weeks.

Health insurance and medical: In Australia we paid the Medicare levy plus a contribution to the Snook’s employer, and we were both covered under their plan. That amounted to about 2.3% of our gross income. The model in Germany is slightly different, in that health insurance is private but mandatory. We are with Techniker Krankenkasse, and the cost is about 4.5% of our income. That includes a special surcharge because we don’t have children (presumably because we’ll be a bigger drain on the system someday! 😳). That said, there are different options here and we suspect we’re paying at the top end, so we may end up switching to something cheaper in the future. I’ve also got no idea how much optical/dental is covered, so that may affect it as well. I stocked up on contact lenses before  I left Australia, but I need to find us a German dentist…

In terms of medical expenses, it’s too early to tell really. We’ve both had initial check-ups with a GP here, and while the appointments were free, we paid out-of-pocket for a few different tests and treatments. (For example, my blood test didn’t show evidence of my last measles vaccination, so I paid to get one. We’re also both now on Vitamin D supplements.) As far as I can tell, basically no drugs are sold over the counter here – not even paracetamol! – and you have to speak to a pharmacist for everything. I stocked up my prescriptions before I left Oz, so it remains to be seen what they’ll cost me here. I can tell you that a box of 80 tampons costs €2.80 in the supermarket here, which is about $4.40 AUD. This is massively cheaper than in Australia, where that would only buy you a box of 16 or 20 at most!

Phone and internet: Our internet cost is included in our rent here, but the Snook has done some research and concluded that home internet plans look to be cheaper in Germany. (“What we paid $100 for there, you’d get for like €35 here.”) On the flipside, it looks like mobile plans are way more expensive in Germany. A 40GB plan from Telstra will set you back $55, but the equivalent here is like $95. However, the German plan does include 5G as well as roaming across Europe. (We’re fortunate in that work covers our mobile phones.)

Dining out and booze: This has been such a weird year because of Covid. During April to August in Sydney, we spent around $243/month on dining out or takeaway food, and $158/month on booze. In Germany, it’s been $265 and $190 respectively. I’m actually a bit mystified by the dining amounts, as I don’t feel like we’ve gone out or had delivery much at all! I guess the few times we have, we’ve splurged and gone for something nice. Restaurant food is definitely more expensive here, but booze in general is cheaper. Most of the booze bill was in building up the cocktail bar supplies, so our actual monthly cost here will be far less.

Grooming: I’ve only managed to have one visit to the salon since I’ve been in Germany, and a colour & cut set me back €125. That works out to just about $200 AUD, which is slightly less than I paid for a visit to my hipster stylist in Newtown. So I reckon it’s going to work out about the same.

Transportation: We’ve barely gone anywhere in the last nine months, but just for the sake of it, let’s pretend we were commuting daily. Back in Sydney, I’d take the bus to and from the CBD to my office and it was $2.24 each way. That’s $22.40 AUD per week. If I were taking a train though, it would be minimum $3.61 each way for a total of $36.10. In Munich, my commute (four stops on the train) would cost me €2.80 each way, which works out to about $44.60 per week. So public transportation is a bit more here. That said, one of the advantages of our apartment is it’s an easy walking/riding distance to both of our offices. If I ride my bike, I can get to the AWS office in about 15 minutes (on a route that is mostly on separated cycleways and completely flat, so a big advantage over Sydney).

How we track everything: For our daily spending, I use YNAB and do a weekly reconciliation of all our accounts. I’ve been using this since 2014, but I’ve actually got monthly spending data for us going back to 2010. (Referral link if you want to sign up.) YNAB is nice because it syncs to our phones and we can record any cash payments instantly. At the end of each month, I have a shared Google spreadsheet that I update with our income, spending (on needs, wants, and charity), net worth, and graphs showing our progress towards retirement. For tracking our retirement and investment accounts, the Snook really likes Sharesight. (Referral link if you want to sign up.) He also has a Google spreadsheet he uses for planning.

Banking: The most pain-free way we could get a bank account here to get paid was through N26, a German neobank. We were able to get free accounts set up in minutes, and they provide a Mastercard debit card as well as Apple & Android Pay. However, we’ve found that some smaller merchants will only accept girocard, which you can only get through one of the traditional banks. So we’ll probably end up setting up a joint account at one of those eventually. We also set up Transferwise accounts before we left Australia, which make it easier if we need to send money back and forth.

Tax services: Ugh, don’t even ask. I’m going to end up filing in three different countries next year! Fortunately our employers pay for a tax agent to assist for the first year, but after that we’ll be on our own. Yeah, it’s going to suck.

I hope that answers some of your questions! Let me know if you want any more info and I’ll share what I can.

Bûche de Noël

The Snook is a big fan of Stella Parks’s recipes, and at some point in the last year, I bookmarked her Classic Chocolate Yule Log with the idea of challenging him to make it for Christmas. Folks, I didn’t think he’d actually do it. I throw out these ridiculous schemes and he’s usually game for an attempt, but I figured with this one, he’d roll his eyes and settle for something simpler. Instead he blew me away. I mean, look at that! THERE’S A PISTACHIO PASTE FROG. This is literally 200% better than I expected, and I knew he was a good baker. I’m still amazed, and we’ve already eaten most of it. Lucky for you, he documented a great deal of the preparation.

This was a multiple day endeavour, and it all started with him making the homemade pistachio paste. We ended up ordering the pistachios from Amazon.de, because they were the only ones we could find that weren’t already roasted and salted. We couldn’t find orange flower water at all, so he just left it out.

Toasted Sugar

The next day, he toasted sugar in a skillet in the oven. He took that photo to show the difference in the toasted sugar vs. untoasted.

Making buttercream

The next step was to use the pistachio paste to make pistachio buttercream frosting. He ended up doing a lot of complicated math to adjust the quantity of the recipe, but all you need to know is: he had to separate some eggs, mix them with the toasted sugar, and add booze. Then he cooked the mixture over a makeshift double-boiler until it reached the appropriate temperature. Then he whipped it in the KitchenAid, added loads of butter, and then eventually the pistachio paste. The end result looked a lot like guacamole!

Next up were the meringue mushrooms. For these he had to mix egg whites with toasted sugar and vanilla (we couldn’t find cream of tartar so he used a tiny bit of vinegar) and then again cook this mixture on the double-boiler. Then he whipped it up, put it in a piping bag, and piped out dozens of mushroom caps and stems. He used his finger to smooth the points, and they cooked in a low oven for the better part of a day. He finished them by rubbing on cocoa powder to look like dirt.

On the final day, it was time to bake the cake. He used one of our oven trays and spread the batter, and then baked it for only 12 minutes (because it’s so thin). He took it out and let it cool to nearly room temperature. Then he spread on the pistachio buttercream and rolled it up. He left it rolled up to set for a short time, and we were amazed to see that it didn’t crack at all! He cut off a bit to fashion the branch…

…and then it was time to decorate! He made chocolate ganache (with cream, melted chocolate, and sugar) to ice the log and to glue the mushrooms together, and he used fork tines to sculpt the “bark”. He dusted the whole thing with cocoa and pistachio dust, and he used some of the leftover pistachio paste to fashion a tiny tree frog. Isn’t it AMAZING? The best part is that it tastes so good – like the chocolate cake of your dreams. He’s the best. ❤️ Thanks, Snookums…

Finished Yule Log and proud chef

Sticks!

Not long after we moved to Germany, I started noticing people power-walking with ski poles in nearly every park. I looked on in envy. “I want sticks too!” Finally for Christmas, I got my very own sticks (aka trekking poles)! 😂

Streaming and Knitting (and Sewing)

So this is a thing that I’m doing now. It was partly inspired by the fact that I’ve had to do some Twitch streaming in recent months for my new job, and I’ve been learning more how it works. It was also partly inspired by the fact that we’re in lockdown in Germany, and I think I’m really, really missing having people around. (Besides Rodd, of course, who is great, but this extrovert needs a crowd, right?)

And so I decided to stream myself knitting, live on Twitch, and I’ve kept it up at least once a week since. I generally go for about an hour at a time, and some days I’ve done an extra session in the evening (which works out better for the folks in the US). If you haven’t ever used Twitch before, it started nearly ten years ago as a platform where people live-streamed themselves playing video games, but nowadays there’s all sorts of creative content on there. It’s one-way – not a video-chat like Zoom or Hangouts – and the only way you interact with the streamer is through text chat. You don’t need an account to watch a stream, but if you sign up, you can subscribe to different channels and get a notification when they go live.

My stream

Here’s what the end result looks like when I stream, but in the photo at the top of this post you can see what it looks like on my end. I have two cameras set up – a webcam sitting on my monitor pointed at my face, and then my iPhone pointed down at what I’m knitting. (I’ve used a small flexible tripod to attach the iPhone to the end of my microphone arm, which works well for getting it in the right position.) I have some LED lights set up on either side of the monitor so you can see what I’m doing. I wear headphones with a microphone so I can talk. I use software called OBS to pull everything together and send the stream to Twitch. Before I start, I set up some “scenes” with different layouts of cameras and images so I can switch to different views. I keep the Twitch site open on the other screen so I can see the chat and respond to any messages that come through.

Things that have worked well: Using the iPhone with the OBS Camera app to show the actual knitting has worked great! It’s got good resolution and I’m able to position it just right thanks to the microphone arm. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many folks have watched the stream and joined in the chat. It’s never more than a few at a time, but it’s early days and I’m sure I’ll build up an audience as I go. Lastly, I’m surprised each time I do this by how quickly the hour passes by. I thought that it would be torturous sitting there talking into the void by myself, but I find that I actually really enjoy it! Maybe I should’ve been a deejay. 😂 Videos on Twitch only last for maximum two weeks, so I’ve been archiving each “episode” over to a playlist on my YouTube channel and I’ve picked up some additional views there.

What hasn’t worked well: Because I’m using the microphone arm to hold the iPhone in position, I haven’t been able to use my fancy microphone for audio. I tried mounting my iPhone on the ring light and pointing it down, but the view wasn’t as good. I feel like the video is more important, so I’ve accepted the trade-off with only having the headphone mic for narration. I’d also love to be able to play some music on the stream, but Twitch Soundtrack is thus far only for Windows 10.  Also, my MacBook Pro is due for an upgrade and doesn’t have a lot of memory, so it struggles sometimes and the fan runs constantly when I’m streaming. I tried sharing my desktop to show off a pattern on Ravelry and it really didn’t like that, so now I restrict my OBS scenes to just webcams and static images. I also suspect our home internet connection upload speed isn’t great, and on a couple of occasions I’ve had the stream die in the middle and then reconnect. Not much I can do about that though…

Sewing with Kris

And because I was having such fun with the knitting streams, I decided to have a go with sewing as well! I was able to reorient everything around to point at my sewing table where I live-streamed myself over two days making the Peppermint Mag Ruffle Sleeve Top. It took me about eight hours all up, which I did in four separate streaming sessions. That included assembling the pattern, doing a Full Bust Adjustment, cutting the pieces, sewing the shirt, making continuous bias binding and attaching it to the neckline (rather than using facings), setting in the sleeves, and hemming the shirt, all while using French seams throughout. The fabric is some leftover quilting cotton, and I think it turned out pretty great!

Peppermint Ruffle Sleeve Top

Cocktails and Pizza

As part of my team’s Christmas festivities, we held a virtual Cocktails and Pizza making competition. I knew that my pizza wasn’t going to win any awards (#teampineapple), so I decided I had to go all-out on the drink. Since there were points for creativity, I felt like I need to go SEASONAL and SPECTACULAR. After some research on the Internet, I settled on the aptly named Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. 🌰🔥

Drink ingredients

I did run into some problems with the recipe though. First hurdle – chestnut syrup. We couldn’t find any! So I had to make my own using this recipe. First step – roast the chestnuts.

Chestnuts

I’d never actually done that before. You have to cut an X on the curved side so they A) don’t explode and B) are easier to peel after. Once they popped open, I peeled the skins off and then mixed up the syrup.

Chestnut syrup

There’s a lot of spice in there! After letting it simmer, I strained it and we stored it in a bottle in the fridge.

The next hurdle – eggnog! It turns out that it’s not available in Germany. Undaunted, I decided to make my own using Alton Brown’s recipe. First step was to beat egg yolks with sugar in the mixer…

Egg Yolks

At the same time, I began heating the milk, heavy cream, and nutmeg on the stove.

Milk and cream

Then I had to bring them together by “tempering” – pouring just a tiny bit of the hot milk into the egg and sugar mixture while the Snook whisked like crazy to avoid making scrambled eggs. I added more milk until we were past the danger point and then we combined them fully. Then it went into the fridge to chill (along with a bit of brandy). Once that was cold, I whipped up the remaining egg whites with sugar and then we folded that into the cold nog.

Mixing the egg whites

Okay, so with all the prep done it was finally time to make the drink! I started by filling a rocks glass 3/4 of the way full with egg nog. Then I added another shot of brandy for extra kick and a few bar spoons full of the chestnut syrup. After a stir, it was time for the FLAMES. I poured a tiny bit of Stroh 80 (a 160-proof Austrian spiced rum) over the back of the bar spoon to float it on top of the drink, and then I lit it on fire. 🔥 After blowing it out, I garnished with a sprinkle of cinnamon…

Finished drink

I’m happy to say that all my hard work won the Best Cocktail award! Also, it’s very taste and festive, and I will be working my way through the rest of that nog over the next few days. ❤️🏆

As for the pizza… I went very, very quick and easy.

Pizza ingredients

That’s a packet of pre-made German pizza tough. I also bought a big handful of salami pretzels to go on top, along with canned pineapple. I mixed up a fresh sauce from canned tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, oregano, garlic, and olive oil, and I had some leftover grated Emmental cheese. I also couldn’t resist cutting up some of the salami-kabel-trommel to put on top.

Ready for the oven

Here it is ready for the oven! And fifteen minutes later…

Pizza

Hey, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. 😜 #teampineapple

Craft Project: Beard Mask

Subtitle: Why is your face like that?!

You will recall that earlier this year I trialled several different free mask patterns, and I had some trouble finding one that the Snook deemed comfortable. We ended up just going with the ragmask for him, but it does smush his beard and leave him with unsightly Mask Face whenever he takes it off. Since then, I’ve seen several examples of BEARD MASKS, and now that my sewing machine is here (and we’re going into more lockdown), it seemed like a good time to try one.

Sewing station

I selected this pattern from German designer Christiane Hübner, which seemed simple enough. For fabric, I ordered a pack of paisley samples from Amazon and used those for the outer layer, with some scrap blue fabric for the interior. Feeling confident, I printed out the pattern and whipped up a pair of masks… only to run into disaster.

Bad fit

WTF. It’s standing way up off his nose. I was perplexed. “It’s like your ears are too high or something?” Even with a wire inserted for the nose, it refused to sit properly. It was also too long for his particular beard length, and if he lowered his chin even a little, it pushed the mask up into his eyes again. We pinched and prodded, and it seemed like maybe some additional darts in the cheek area would help?

Okay, back to the drawing board. I started by completely unpicking both masks and ironing the fabric. The easy change was to shorten the pattern by folding it up to take about an inch of length out. Then I recut the pieces for the first mask and made two additional small darts about an inch to either side of the nose. Once it was all back together, I took it down to the client for a fitting.

Mask v2

That’s better! The v2 mask is definitely fitting better around the nose, though there’s some pooching from the darts. It’s also a better length for the beard. Verdict: the v2 mask was deemed Acceptable.

Beard pocket

For the other mask, I decided rather than add darts, I’d try to adjust the existing one for the nose. (The Snook doesn’t like the fabric to sit too close to his mouth.) So I kept the point in the same place but sliced the dart a bit wider…

Adjusted pattern

In that photo you can see where I cut across the top dart, and where I folded it across the middle. Once this one was put together, I brought it down for another fitting…

Mask v3

Hey, that’s pretty good! With a wire in, it fits fairly well around the nose without the extra fabric we pinched out in v2. The dart also makes it stick out quite a bit from his mouth in a sort of beak-like shape, which he likes. Again, verdict is Acceptable.

Beak

If you want to make the same pattern, there are a couple caveats I’ll mention. In Step 4, I didn’t quite understand the instructions for attaching the nose tunnel. The descriptions just mention pinning it on, but in the subsequent photo for Step 5, you can clearly see it’s been attached. So I pinned it on and then sewed across the bottom edge. The top edge gets attached when you sew the whole thing together.

I was also slightly confused by the description for Step 9, but once you do it, it makes sense. The trick is to turn the mask inside-out, flatten the darts to either side of the chin, and then sew across. The softens that curve along the chin. You can see my version here, with my sewing line indicated in white.

Sewing across the darts

Two more masks that won’t give him Mask Face! That should see him through the holidays… 😷