SPENDING YOUR vacation over a hot stove might not be your idea of a good time.
But Julia Child recommends it, especially if the stove is in someone else's kitchen and off in Europe, the Middle East or Asia.
She insists two great ways to expand a culinary repertory are to travel abroad and to visit cooks on their home turf. So when Friendship Force an international travel program, announced a cultural exchange program with northern Germany, I packed a clean apron and was off for 11 days of shopping, cooking and eating with a family in Hamburg.
My hosts, a couple in their early 20s, were Thomas Baur, who works in his father's shampoo and bath oil manufacturing plant and moonlights as a rock record reviewer, and his wife, Barbel, a kindergarten teacher, who explains apologetically that as a career couple, their fare on week nights is strictly fast food. But she promises me some time in the kitchen of her mother-in-law, a northern German cook in the old tradition.
Even though American fast-food franchises have come to Hamburg, including all-beef patties with special sauce, her interpretation of "fast food" gains something in the translation: sauteed pork chops with boiled, buttered potatoes; salami and ham cold cuts with pickles; marinated herring and onions; smoked "aal" (eel), served with black bread, sweet butter and apples.
At least one involves that American tradition -- take-out service. Barbel knocks twice on the kitchen door of the Aal-Kate Restaurant (Old House of Eel). A cook pops out with two glistening, smoked eels (at $15); enough food for three.
The day Barbel and Thomas introduce me to his mother, Ingrid Baur, 45, I realize they neglected to mention she doesn't speak a word of English. Fortunately, cooking is an international language. (Another point from Julian Child.) So I just watch what Mrs. Baur does and write it down:
By 10:30 a.m., on a typical weekday, Mrs. Baur has walked the five blocks to the open-air market to select fruits and vegetables, visited the butcher, the bread baker, the flower mart, picked up dairy products at the supermarket (a Safeway!) and a new cake tin at the 5 & 10 (a Woolworth's).
A chocolate cake is already in the oven, a pot roast is in the pressure cooker; cucumber and green peppers are julienned for salad.
Mrs. Baur makes a horseradish sauce (thin white sauce with bottled white horseradish). When the roast is done, she slices it and drops the meat into the sauce.
She makes the salad dressing, sweet with sugar, sour with vinegar. As is the European way, she places the dressing in the salad bowl before tossing in the julienned vegetables.
Ingrid Baur's kitchen is barely bigger than a beer stein, dangerously close with two cooks. The stove is narrower than its American cousin. There is one short work counter on which sits the food processor. The refrigerator is only three feet high; there is no freezer. A pet boxer is the food disposal.
Ingrid Baur doesn't find the compact kitchen a culinary handicap. She buys produce fresh daily and meat or fish the same morning she will cook it. She serves meals formally in her dining room, so she doesn't miss a kitchen table.
That day, Mrs. Baur prepared so much food, you might have thought she was entertaining for lunch. The Baurs, like many families in Europe, eat a big dinner at noon. They go to work at 8 a.m., take off at noon then work from 2 until 6 p.m.
Mrs. Baur's husband, Hans, and Thomas come from the manufacturing plant. Second son, Andreas, and Barbel come from their jobs across town. Young daughters, Christiane and Dorothy, arrive after elementary school. Grandma comes from her small house down the block.
Barbel has a time schedule more like that of American working women. Since she is away from home all day, she shops nightly. Like Ingrid Baur, she believes good meals begin with fresh ingredients.
While her mother-in-law prefers the open-air markets and specialty purveyors, and enjoys the exchange of news and gossip, Barbel zips through a modern supermarket in less than 30 minutes. The food is prepacked, weighed, priced; there is no occasion for small talk.
She pays 97 cents per quart for milk; $1.50 per quart for orange juice; Golden Delicious apples are 15 cents each; grapefruit, 26 cents; a head of iceberg lettuce is $1. Her husband buys beer, wine and mineral water by the case on Saturday.
Because Hamburg is near Scandinavia, there are certain similarities with a great emphasis on smoked, salted and pickled fish. The cucumber and other salads are predominantly sweet and sour. Boiled potatoes, enhanced with melted butter and chopped, fresh parsley, are the big vegetable. Sauerkraut is beloved.There are 1,400 varieties of marvelous sausages, both fresh and smoked, in Hamburg.
Denmark's ground pork meat balls, frickadels, are on menus as are open-faced sandwiches with an extraordinary choice of breads -- 200 varieties.
Cake time comes at 4 p.m. The cheesecake is splendid, Hamburg's whipped cream cakes are wickedly caloric; three-inch layers of thick cream alternated with chocolate or golden cake, meringue or marzipan. weight-watching tourists cave in at the sight of these cakes but local citizens much prefer the plain pound cakes or fruit-filled coffee cakes.
German wines line the wine cellars, but beer is taken equally seriously as the mealtime beverage. It is served at room temperature. If you ask for water, you get bottled mineral water.
Thomas's sisters introduced me to "cold coffee" -- half cola, half lemonade.
During my visit, Barbel had the kindergarten draw pictures of their favorite home-cooked meals.
Many of them draw. I ask whether the students have copied each other.
"Oh, no," she replies, a smile broadening into a chuckle. "Everyone eats a lot of fish. Hamburg has a big seaport."
Barbel and Thomas take me to the fischmarkt, Hamburg's popular Sunday tourist hangout. Boats line up by 6 a.m. with their trout, eel, pike, sole and turbot.
The fishermen are only a small part of this market scene. Vendors queue along several blocks with flowers, toys, records, T-shirts, fruits and vegetables.
The "banana man" draws the biggest crowds with his novel sales approach. He sells a bunch. He throws a bunch. It makes for a festive mood, but slippery walking.
We return to their house to clean, cook and eat fish.
Barbel's kitchen isn't much bigger than her mother-in-law's. She counts as essential: an electric bread slicer (since there is greater variety in unsliced breads), coffee grinder, drip coffee machine and vegetable peeler.
Barbel, married five years, doesn't think she is a good cook because her preparations are simple -- grilled, potroasted, pan-sauteed, seasoned with chopped, fresh herbs.
If the American test of being a good cook is getting a meal on the table, timed to perfection, she's made the grade.
Barbel shops and cooks with an eye to good nutrition. She reads labels carefully and keeps away from artificial flavors and colors, but she expresses no concern about the sugar and salt content of food.
Like many other German cooks, she adds sugar to salads and cooked vegetables.
Salt is also used freely; a couple of dashes even go into the freshly ground coffee beans.
All vegetables are peeled. I tell her that American nutritionists believe vegetable skins are rich in vitamins and minerals.
"No! You are kidding?" she asks in disbelief.
"Vegetable skins are good only for one thing, animal feed," she assures me.
Barbel, size 8, worries about her weight and rarely touches dessert, but says a slice of her mother-in-law's chocolate cake is her downfall.
You won't find the recipe in any American cookbook. Like other cooks in northern Germany and Scandinavia, Ingrid Baur combines corn starch with white flour in her cake-baking. The resulting texture is firm, heavy. The glaze, while optional, makes it quite a beauty. Cooks who appreciate authentic recipes will like it.
The Friendship Force program, which introduced me to the Baurs, began with a cultural exchange between Georgia and Brazil in 1973 arranged by then-Gov. and Mrs. Jimmy Carter. Information is available through Dr. Wayne Smith, president, Friendship Force, 575 South Omni International, Atlanta, Ga. 30303. The phone: (404) 522-9490.
I'm tempted to sign up again, but my waistline tells me I've had enough cultural broadening for one year.
INGRID BAUR'S CHOCOLATE ALMOND CAKE 2 1/2 sticks sweet butter, room temperature 1 1/4 cups sugar 4 large eggs, room temperature 1 cup all-purpose flour, measured, then sifted 1/3 cup corn starch 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa (don't substitute cocoa drink mix) 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 3 tablespoons rum (Ingrid used golden) 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup slivered, blanched almonds
Cream butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add sugar. Thoroughly blend; then beat in eggs, one at a time.
Combine flour, corn starch, cocoa and baking powder. Sift together; then add to bowl alternately with rum and vanilla, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Beat 3 minutes.
Now add almonds; blend in.
Grease loaf pan 12-by-4 3/4-by-3 inches deep. Pour in batter. Bake 325 degrees for 75 minutes, or longer until cake tests done, but do not overbake. If you use a shorter, deeper loaf pan, recipe may require additional baking time. Let rest 20 minutes or longer in pan after baking.
Serve plain or top with chocolate glaze: Melt together 2 tablespoons butter and 2 ounces (2 squares) unsweetened chocolate. Beat in 2 tablespoons boiling water, 1 cup confectioners' sugar, dash salt and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla. If glaze is too thick add 2 more tablespoons boiling water. Sprinkle more slivered almonds atop cake to create nut border. put row of maraschino cherries or canned cherries soaked in rum down center of top. Store overnight wrapped tightly in foil on kitchen counter before glazing, and slicing for best results.