December 21 is the shortest day of the year, and it would follow that its night is the longest. But it was longer than ever this year, because we were without electricity for most of it.
A prolonged bout of freezing rain that began on Saturday morning threatened to wreak havoc in Toronto and the surrounding area. And indeed, we woke up on the morning of December 22 to a very cold house. When I went outside to salt the steps, I made a detour for the car radio, and heard that over 250,000 people in the city were without heat and warmth, and we were four of them.
Our family was scheduled to light the Advent candle in church yesterday, and we had a huddled conference about whether we should try to drive on the icy streets. I think it appealed to the pioneer spirit in all of us and, with Andrew behind the wheel, we set off, not even knowing whether there'd be a service.
When we arrived, the building was in darkness, but the sanctuary was full of light, thanks to our lovely stained glass windows. The decision was made to go ahead with the service for whatever numbers showed up. And it was very much an improvised affair. My youngest daughter and her friends, who sing in the Youth Choir, were asked to help out the three Junior Choir members who showed up. She also gamely took on one of the parts in the bell choir, never having played in the bell choir before. The numbers were small and the church was cold (as the mother of a performer, I attended both services), but the love and joy that were generated filled the building with a different kind of warmth.
(We have been very lucky. Our power came back on at about 3:00 this morning, and our house is starting to feel livable again. According to news reports, it may be Christmas day or later until power is fully restored in Toronto.)
I wanted to share our Advent reading with you, because it seemed particularly fitting for a city that is struggling with darkness:
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We are easily distracted by the darkness of isolation and fear.
We light this candle as a symbol of Love.
Source of light, shine in our lives and in your world with your everlasting love."
Wishing all of you a Merry Christmas, and may you receive whatever kind of light you need most.
Yesterday we had our first big snowfall of the year in Toronto. It snowed all day without stopping, and that had its usual impact on traffic and life in the city. We went to Andrew's boss's Christmas party last night and it took us nearly two hours to get home. The blue light of a snow plough led the line of cars ahead of us, and we snaked behind in a snowy procession until we reached the highway.
From the looks of it, we got about six inches of snow. I spent close to an hour clearing the driveway and cars this morning, and greeted my neighbours who were doing the same thing. I had been inside about twenty minutes before I looked out and noticed it was snowing again. Such is life in Toronto in the winter.
On a day like today, there's only one kind of recipe to post, and that's soup. This mushroom barley soup is perfect if you're looking for something to warm you after hanging up your snow shovel.
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced (I used a mix of cremini and button mushrooms)
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
4 cups low-sodium beef broth
3/4 cup uncooked barley, rinsed
kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with 2 cups of boiling water. Allow them to soak for an hour. Strain the mushrooms into a bowl, reserving the liquid. Coarsely chop the mushrooms and set aside.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until softened and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Add the fresh mushrooms, celery, carrot and sauté until mushrooms are golden and the celery and carrots are beginning to soften, about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour until well-blended. Stir in the mushroom soaking liquid, soaked mushrooms, beef broth, and 4 cups of water. Stir in the barley, salt and pepper to taste.
Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the barley is tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. If the soup is too thick, add a little more water. Adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper if necessary.
Andrew typically takes the first week of December off work, and during that week we take a day trip somewhere in or near Toronto. Two years ago we travelled to St. Jacob's, and this year we spent the day at Alton Mill Arts Centre in Caledon, Ontario.
Alton Mill was built in the late nineteenth century to house a knitting factory. The building survived both The Great Alton Flood of 1889 and a serious fire nineteen years later. The mill was sold upon the death of its owner in 1915 and, under several other owners, remained functional until the early 1980s.
Bought by a developer, the mill remained dormant for a number of years until the owner was approached by a local artist. He was looking for a place to house a studio and wondered if they'd consider leasing space to him and a few other area artisans. The project was so successful that they decided to convert the entire building into an arts and heritage centre.
Now the main floor contains gift shops and a cafe, while the upper floors host studios for photographers, potters, and artists in a variety of media. A dedicated space in the basement houses literary readings and arts performances. We loved checking out the individual studios and talking to the artists about their work.
We visited when the building was decorated for Christmas, and it's hard to imagine a lovelier time of year. But I'd like to go back sometime when it's a bit warmer; the property leads directly to the Bruce Trail, and it would have been great to spend a couple of hours hiking.
Can't believe we missed the chance to pose with the Grinch.
And a trip to Alton wouldn't be complete without lunch at Ray's 3rd Generation Bistro Bakery, with great food and live music.
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. I have much of
my shopping done – and wrapped! – and our evenings are filling up with visiting
friends and loved ones we don’t see enough of the rest of the year.
Part of the pre-Christmas fun is observing the same
traditions every year, like watching White
Christmas and reading A Christmas
Carol out loud as a family. But this year we did something different – we
attended a production of A Christmas
Carol, put on by my friend Sara and her theatre company. The story
is a true classic, and relates the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from
money-hungry miser to a man imbued with a spirit of generosity and love. We
shivered at the sound of Jacob Marley’s chains and surreptitiously wiped our eyes
over Tiny Tim’s predicted death. After the show, the girls gamely posed with
the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. We loved this fun, energetic performance
and may just have started a new Christmas tradition.
Yesterday was also Andrew’s fiftieth birthday. Rather than
celebrating with a party, he chose to spend a quiet day with us. Our oldest
daughter gave him song lyrics as a gift (more about Andrew’s music in another
post!) and we had dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, Salt. We
celebrated with dessert at home. I had offered to make whatever birthday
dessert he wanted; like me, he isn’t really a cake person, and asked for this
Berry Crisp. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t posted this recipe yet. I’ve made it
for years and we always love it.
Combine berries, sugar, 1/4 cup flour and lemon juice. Mix
well and transfer to greased glass or pyrex dish. Combine remaining 3/4 cup
flour, oats, brown sugar, spices and salt in medium bowl. Add butter and
combine. Sprinkle over berry mixture and pat gently into place.
Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour. Let stand 15 minutes before
serving. Can be served warm or at room temperature.
Today was the first Sunday in Advent, and we celebrated by attending our church's annual Light Up the Night service. There's no better way to start December than by singing carols, hearing the Christmas story, and watching as the outdoor tree has its lights turned on for the first time. Now I'm truly ready to start thinking about Christmas.
We've been going to Light Up the Night since the girls were pre-schoolers. One year, Andrew was asked to accompany the carols on a keyboard that had been carried outside. The plan was sound in theory - what could be lovelier than singing carols around a lit tree? Two minor complications prevented the plan from being perfect: the keyboard had been placed in total darkness; and it was about minus thirty degrees outside that night. The lighting issue was overcome by a quick-thinking worshipper who held up her Blackberry to illuminate the sheet music. The temperature issue was a little tougher for a bare-fingered pianist, and our carol sing was shorter than usual that evening.
Since then, we've gone back inside for carols, and tonight our minister of music accompanied us on the piano in the sanctuary. Both of our girls joined us this evening, as did some of their church friends. It was a perfect first day of Advent.
We ate homemade mac and cheese at the church tonight, but these hearty migas would have been equally perfect. They're warm and filling enough to fill up a group of carollers, whether the temperature is minus thirty or just above freezing.
one half of a leek, green ends removed, halved lengthwise
and sliced thin
1 clove minced garlic
3/4 cup shredded manchego cheese, lightly packed
To prepare the corn strips, slice the tortillas in half,
then cut into 3/4 inch strips. Heat the vegetable oil, then fry the strips
until medium-brown in colour on both sides. Remove tortilla strips from the pan
and allow to cool.
In a medium bowl, combine eggs and heavy cream, stirring to
mix well. Add salt and set aside.
Return the vegetable oil to the heat and sauté mushrooms for
3 minutes. Add leeks and sauté for an additional two minutes. Add minced garlic
and sauté 1 minute. Pour in the egg mixture and combine until set. Add cheese
and stir until melted.
Serve immediately with tortilla strips on the side.