The Compromise

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while knows that, while I’ll happily bake anything, my true love is a fruit dessert.  Apple crisps, cherry cobblers, lemon bars – they’re what I dream about.

Not everyone I love feels the same way.

Last week, I told my youngest daughter I was going to do some baking.  Expecting a smile, I was surprised to see a long face. “What’s wrong?” I asked. 

“You’re making a fruit dessert, aren’t you?” she said glumly.

Ahem.  Mothers are supposed to read their kids’ minds, but sometimes it happens the other way around. Or maybe she just knows me that well. 

So I decided to make the least fruit-filled dessert I could think of – Ina Garten’s wonderful chocolate cupcakes.

I made half the cupcakes with the peanut butter icing below (which was delicious), but in the end I couldn’t help myself.  I iced the other half with this orange cream cheese frosting.  Because chocolate is great, but adding fruit, even in the form of icing, makes it even better.  

Chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter icing


12 Tbsp (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, shaken, at room temperature
½ cup sour cream, at room temperature
2 Tbsp brewed coffee (I omitted this)
1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cocoa powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt
Kathleen’s peanut butter icing, recipe follows) OR Orange Cream Cheese Frosting
Chopped salted peanuts, to decorate


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line cupcake pans with 15 – 16 paper liners.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and 2 sugars on high speed until light and fluffy, approximately 5 minutes.  Lower the speed to medium, add the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla and mix well.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sour cream and coffee.  In another bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt.  Add the buttermilk mixture and the flour mixture alternately in thirds to the mixer bowl, beginning with the buttermilk mixture and ending with the flour mixture.  Mix only until blended. 

Divide the batter among the cupcake pans.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool for 10 minutes, remove from the pans, and let cool completely before frosting.

Frost cupcakes with peanut butter icing and sprinkle with chopped peanuts.

Kathleen’s Peanut Butter Icing

1 cup confectioners’ sugar (icing sugar)
1 cup creamy peanut butter
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ tsp pure vanilla extract
¼ tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup heavy cream

Place the confectioners’ sugar, peanut butter, butter, vanilla and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Mix on medium-low speed until creamy, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as you work.  Add the cream and beat on high speed until the mixture is light and smooth.

Thursday's Child: Chartres Cathedral

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Chartres cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th centuries and has had only minor architectural changes since then.  Even most of its stained glass windows remain intact.  The cathedral is perhaps best-known for its ancient labyrinth, which was carved directly into the floor.  Traditionally, labyrinths were built to represent a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Today, they can be used as a spiritual tool, for prayer, meditation or simply peace.

Although our church doesn’t have a permanent labyrinth, every year we borrow a portable one for a week and invite all to walk it.  Whenever I do, I will myself to keep my eyes on the part of the path I’m walking, rather than looking ahead to see where the next bend is or how close I am to the centre.  I think there’s a good metaphor for life in that exercise.  Walking this labyrinth has always been a meditative experience for me.

Last summer when we traveled to France, we had the privilege of visiting Chartres cathedral.  The labyrinth area is often covered with chairs, so I was thrilled to see that the area was clear the day we went.  On our arrival, I reminded my family that I’d like to walk the labyrinth and invited them to join me.  To my delight, both of the girls said they’d accompany me.  (Although Andrew didn’t join us, he took the opportunity to meditate on the stunning stained glass windows that fill the sanctuary.)

What an amazing experience to walk the labyrinth with the girls!  It was probably the most spiritual family experience I’ve had.  In one way it differed from my walks at our church, which I usually do either by myself or with one other walker.  Chartres was full of pilgrims, and we often had to step aside to let others by.  It also wasn’t a silent experience!  But the spiritual movement of taking one step after another, heading toward an inner circle, was exactly the same, and walking the path with my girls made it truly special.  
The labyrinth at Chartres.  Photo used courtesy of

Confirmation and the Stephen Ministry

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It’s been a busy year for the Pollock family at our church.  My youngest daughter will be confirmed in November, and she’s currently taking a ten-month preparation course to learn about our church and her personal faith. Each confirmand is working with a mentor from the congregation, who discusses his or her faith journey and encourages their young partner in their own journey.  My daughter is blessed to be mentored by our lovely friend Catherine, who practices music therapy with the elderly.  She is a gentle, thoughtful woman who has many spiritual gifts to share.

She also has many culinary gifts to share!  The two of them teamed up in our kitchen yesterday to make brunch for our two families.  The gorgeous food pictured at the top of this post was part of the delicious meal they prepared.  I know that Rachel is in great hands as she and Catherine get to know each other on many levels this year.

It has also been a busy time for me, as I’ve been studying for the past six months to become a Stephen Minister. This program is a lay caring ministry, which provides Christian care to people who are in crisis or facing a life challenge.  I had been thinking about joining for years, but this year I knew the time was right. My friend Carrie and I have been in classes since November learning to care for those we’ll have the privilege of serving.  And last Sunday we were commissioned as new Stephen Ministers.  I was honoured to offer members of the congregation a blessing after communion, including Andrew and the girls.

The day before we were commissioned, Carrie and I met at the church with the rest of the Stephen Ministry team.  As a group, we baked a dozen loaves of bread which were served in the following day’s communion. Bread is featured in many Biblical passages, from the Feeding of the Five Thousand to the Last Supper.  And Gandhi has said, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”  I’m happy to share this simple bread recipe with you.

Irish Soda Bread
(from The Spirituality of Bread by Donna Sinclair)

1 ¾ cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 tsp baking soda
3 tsp baking powder
1 ¼ tsp salt
2 cups unbleached white all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup raisins (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl, including raisins if you want them.  Beat buttermilk and egg together and stir into the flour mixture.  Turn out onto lightly floured board or clean counter and knead briefly until smooth.  Divide the dough in two, shape into flattened rounds, and place on baking sheets.  With a very sharp knife, slash an X across the tops.  Bake 35 to 40 minutes.

Visiting Qing in Beijing

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Although we like to travel independently, when we visited China we wanted to hire a guide.  We can figure out the basics when we’re reading street signs in French or a city map in Italian, but we have no point of reference in Mandarin. 

We used a different guide in each area we visited: Guilin, Xian and Beijing.  They were all terrific in their own way, but Qing, our guide in Beijing, was truly special.  She was the modern face of an ancient country, a young woman in her twenties whom our girls adored.  She took us to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Night Food Market.  But the highlight of our time in Beijing just might have been the visit to her family home.

On the final afternoon of our trip, Qing graciously invited us to her home in one of the hutongs, or tiny alleys running through Beijing.  Many of the residences in these areas are built around courtyards.  Hutongs are truly unique to this city, and we were honoured to be invited to one.

Qing’s family of five lived in a small four-room residence.  Although no one in our family speaks any Mandarin, and Qing was the only English speaker in her family, we couldn’t possibly have been given a warmer welcome.  Her mother served us a delicious snack of chocolate cakes, persimmons and flower tea.  Her grandmother spent much of the time cheerfully chatting with me in Mandarin, convinced that “Canada” was a northern province of China.  And Qing showed us around her home – two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen overlooking the lovely courtyard.
Attempting to communicate in Mandarin is even
harder with a persimmon in your mouth.
As a North American who lives in a generously sized house, it was an amazing experience to visit a family with such a small footprint.  And once again I was reminded how incredibly lucky we were to meet this wonderful family who lives halfway around the world from us.

Mother's Day

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My father, Gwen, me and my mom.

This year, my mother’s birthday fell on Mother’s Day, and we were delighted to have her come and spend a few days with us. 

So what’s my mom like?  Let me tell you some things we share and one thing we don’t:

  1. She loves to travel.  I guess you know that I do, too.  My mom’s favourite trip was the one she took to Greece with her sister, my Aunt Barbara.  But she also loved our family trip (in the tent trailer) to the Canadian Maritime provinces when I was about eleven.
  2. My mom loves to read.  She recently told me that she bought my first books before I was born.  (I know that’s common now, but much less usual in the 1960s.)  With her help, I learned to read before I started school.
  3. She loves to bake.  When she came to visit us this weekend, she brought some of her own baking to share.  I definitely inherited her sweet tooth.
  4. We both grew up on farms.  I think that's helped both of us recognize the importance of hard work, especially in pursuit of a goal.   
  5. My mom loves jigsaw puzzles, and we usually pull out at least one when she’s here.  This time she brought a 500-piece puzzle, which is currently spread out on our dining room table.  I’m not particularly good at jigsaws – I lack both the patience and the good eyesight they require –  but I gamely helped solve the edge pieces before giving way to my mother and youngest daughter, the true puzzle champions.

Something else my mom loves is nuts in baking.  Anything with pecans, macadamia nuts or walnuts are her biggest temptations. I loved baking these for Mother’s Day for my mom, Joyce Baker.

And this morning I received the most amazing gift – the girls wrote a song for me!  They both sang it while my oldest daughter played the guitar.  Beautiful!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Walrus Bars

Shortbread base:
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup corn starch
½ cup icing sugar
½ cup cocoa
½ tsp salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened

½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup brown sugar, firmly packed
¼ cup honey
¼ tsp salt
2 Tbsp heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla or rum extract
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line an 8” x 8” pan with parchment paper.
Shortbread: In a large bowl, whisk together flour, corn starch, icing sugar, cocoa and salt. Add softened butter and mix, using hands, until mixture is moist and crumbly. Press firmly over prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes.
Filling: Combine butter, brown sugar, honey and salt in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and continue cooking for 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Once bubbling stops, stir in heavy cream and vanilla or rum extract. Stir in walnuts. Pour over shortbread base, spreading walnuts evenly. Pack firmly. Turn down oven temperature to 300°F and bake for an additional 20 minutes. 
Remove carefully from oven (filling will be very loose, but will set as it cools). Let stand at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Once completely cooled, lift out of pan, cut into squares or triangles and serve. Store in an airtight container, in the refrigerator, for up to one week.

Thursday's Child: Kick-birdie in China

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Trip planning is serious business.  When we’ve chosen our destination, I sit down with a travel guide and my internet resources, and try to find the most interesting activities and hotels.  But no matter how much I plan, there are always moments of serendipity.  Moments that couldn’t possibly be scripted, but that happen because we were in the right place at the right time, and were open to the possibility of something different.  This month, I’ll be writing about some of those wonderful, unplanned moments we’ve experienced.

One of my favourites occurred when we visited our friends, the Jay family, in China.  Colleen had been transferred to Guangzhou, and it seemed the perfect time for us to see the country.  By the time we visited, they’d been there a year and a half and knew the city well.  Although it isn’t a major tourist destination, it’s a significant commercial city and has many interesting places to visit.  And while we were there, Garth took us all over, from the busy markets to the Western Han Nanyue King's Tomb.

One afternoon, he guided us through a maze of alleys that was way, way off the beaten path.  I remember walking down a narrow passage filled with tiny shops and balconies where clothes hung out drying.  We bought sugar cane to try, and a couple of young vendors were thrilled to have their photos taken so they could view them on our digital camera.

We neared the end of the alley and reached an open square.  A group of older women was playing a game of what we called “kick birdie”.  Just like you might imagine, this sport involves using knees, ankles and feet to keep a birdie aloft.  It’s a popular local pastime and is often played in groups.  Garth and the Jay girls had taught us how to play the day we arrived in Guangzhou and we’d already enjoyed a couple of spirited matches.

We stood beside the game and cheered as these talented women deftly kept the birdie from dropping to the ground.  Then Garth, with a smile and a few arm motions, let them know that he’d love to join in.  They smiled back and opened a place in the circle for him.  One by one, the rest of us joined in, lack of language skills no barrier to a shared activity.  The high point of the game was the women’s laughter as Garth used his head to bump the birdie, soccer-style.

This moment represented the true China to me.  Everywhere we went, the Chinese were incredibly proud of their country and thrilled to show it to the rest of the world.  And nowhere was this more true than in a small square in a tiny neighbourhood of Guangzhou, where we joined in a game of kick-birdie.

Scones fit for a king

Sunday, May 1, 2011
After my post of two weeks ago, when I made scones for the first time, you probably guessed what I’d be posting this week.

The morning of the Royal Wedding, I wasn’t going to serve anything other than scones and tea (or hot chocolate where requested).  I made the batter for the scones the evening before, and baked them during the pre-wedding festivities on the 29th.  And if they look a little well-baked, I can only blame my eagerness to see Kate’s dress for my missing the oven timer when it went off.

I enjoyed every second of the coverage.  I sang along with “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” and I thrilled to the majesty of “Jerusalem”.  I held my breath as William struggled to put the ring on Kate’s finger, and I sighed in relief when Prince Philip got through the occasion without a single faux pas.  In short, the wedding was perfect.

My youngest daughter and I got up at a quarter to 5 and watched it throughout.  My husband joined us just in time for the ceremony.  My oldest daughter only ventured into the room to eat a scone, but spent the day talking to her friends about Kate’s look (thumbs-up), the Queen’s look (pretty great for an 85-year old) and William’s look (no one had any idea what he wore).

The basic scone recipe that I used is here.  For our festive breakfast, I made two flavours, based on the ingredients I had on hand.  Half of the batch was fashioned into chocolate orange scones, while the rest were white chocolate and ginger.

Take a look at the music I’ve posed the scone beside.  It’s from a piano book that’s so old (1947), the music was “God Save the King”.  Elizabeth didn’t become queen until six years after the book was published.  My dad picked up the music book at a yard sale about 35 years ago and it’s become a family staple.

I hope these scones become a family staple for you!

Royal Scones
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home To Yours)

Make scones as directed here, through to the part where you stir the dough with a fork.
Omit the ¾ cup raisins.
In half the dough, add ¼ cup chocolate chips and the grated rind of one orange.  In the other half of the batter, add ¼ cup white chocolate chips and two tablespoons of finely minced candied ginger.
Finish the recipe according to the directions.