Thursday's Child: Normandy

Thursday, September 30, 2010

One of our most pleasant surprises was our visit to Etretat.  I knew very little about the area before we arrived, other than the beach that the girls were looking forward to.  We expected it to be picturesque because it was one of Monet’s favourite subjects.  But the photos we saw in advance didn’t do it justice.  Etretat’s small beach is sandwiched between colossal rocky cliffs, and we walked from one end of the escarpment to the other.  Between the natural arch and the tall bluffs, it was a photogenic town and a great place to relax after busy Paris.

We spent two night in Bayeux, visiting the D-Day beaches and seeing the breathtaking Bayeux tapestry.  We stayed at Clos de Bellefontaine, an elegant bed and breakfast on the edge of the historical district.  The rooms and gardens were lovely, but what made the B&B so special was the service.  Carole speaks perfect English and helped us plan our sightseeing in the area.  And when one of us left a stuffed animal there, she mailed it to us in Canada at her cost!

Our best food in France came courtesy of the wonderful Villa Fol Avril.  Located in the tiny village of Moutiers au Perche, this villa was our home for our last three days in Normandy. 

In some ways, this was our favourite part of the trip.  After a week and a half of busy sightseeing, it was a joy to stay put for a few days in an area that had no huge attractions but many small delights.  We spent each day seeing local sites and relaxing by the pool, and each evening in the restaurant at the inn, eating food so fabulous it nearly brought me to tears.  The fixed price meal we enjoyed on our first night was one of the best I’ve ever eaten.  The shrimp and avocado hors d’oeuvre was an incredible mélange of flavours I’d never think to put together.  And the frozen nougat dessert was a delightful blend of meringue and fruit.  Given Andrew’s shellfish allergies, I won’t be attempting to recreate the shrimp dish, but I’ve already scoured the internet for frozen nougat recipes.  Once I find one that’s worthy of the original, I’ll post it on this blog!

Next month:  Four hotels that are worth the challenge to get there!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Carry-On

Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Dog cake server

Those of you who have been following my Thursday’s Child posts know about my beautiful cake server that transforms into a dog.  Chosen lovingly at Pylones in Paris, he was my faithful companion until the plane ride home, when he was ruthlessly plucked from my carry-on by a customs official at Orly airport.

But here’s where the power of social networking kicks in.  After I wrote about it, Sheila, my friend and fellow book club member, said, “I’m sure you can buy Pylones products at Write Impressions.”  Write Impressions is a store that’s less than ten minutes from where I live, and I’ve shopped there before.  They stock a wonderful collection of stationary and cards – and merchandise from Pylones!

They didn’t have one in stock.  That would have been too easy.  But they called another location then phoned me a few days later, and now I’m once again the proud owner of a canine cake server.  Hopefully, this time for good.

Having been through an adventure like this, I really think the poor dog needs a name.  So I send it out to my faithful readers – any suggestions?

Cake server resting belly-up

The Hardest Part of Baking

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I’ve been baking since I was a little girl working beside my mother and grandmother in their kitchens.  By the time I was twelve, I was an expert at everything from fudge to bread, but inexplicably I couldn’t make a decent cake from a mix to save my life.

Since then I’ve tried many more recipes.  I’ve discovered things I’m good at and things that challenge me.  Having made roughly 50,000 batches of chocolate chip cookies, I think I’m pretty good at that.  In fact, I’d say cookies and squares are my specialties.  I love taking a Tupperware container of treats to a church gathering or my younger daughter’s football games.

Things I’m not great at?  Making pastry.  Making caramel.

And hiding sweets from my husband.

Andrew has a sixth sense for when there’s baking in the house.  Yes, sometimes he smells it, but sometimes he just knows when I’ve been busy in the kitchen.  This sixth sense is particularly acute when the baking is intended for someone else.

I’m as resourceful as they come. I’ve camouflaged Nanaimo bars behind the still-unused relish dishes I received for my wedding.  I’ve stashed blueberry muffins behind the box of All-Bran. Once I even considered hiding a batch of ginger snaps in the washing machine – no one but me ever looks there – but given my poor memory, the potential for disaster was just too great.

Sometimes I even bake a set of decoy cookies to throw him off the scent of the real thing.

It doesn’t matter. He’s found them all.

This is my favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe ever.  No wonder Andrew always tracks these down.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from Bonnie Stern Desserts)

14 Tbsp butter (one cup minus two tablespoons)
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
 2 cups flour
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
5 squares semi-sweet chocolate, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  
In large bowl, cream butter with both sugars until light.  Add egg and vanilla and beat well.
In separate bowl, sift flour with salt and baking soda and add to batter.  Stir in just until batter comes together.  Stir in chocolate chunks.
Shape cookies into 2” balls and arrange on cookie sheets.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes.
Hide them well.

Thursday's Child: Literary France

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On our first morning in Paris, we visited Notre Dame cathedral, where one of us had a slight brush with vertigo after a warm-weather climb up the tower.  Although the views were spectacular and I fell in love with the gargoyles, not everyone was having fun.  Throughout the climb and descent, unhappiness ensued.  When we reached the ground, I knew I had to come up with something to brighten her spirits, and revive all of us.

Shakespeare and Company

Fortunately for my book-loving family, we were only a few steps from the iconic Shakespeare and Company bookstore.  The girls immediately fell in love with the book-lined walls and narrow aisles, and each quickly found a book and a little cubbyhole to browse in.  Andrew discovered the piano upstairs and entertained customers with a sprightly Bach.  And I relaxed in that way that mothers can when we know everyone in our family is happy.

The best madeleines in France

Full disclosure:  I did not eat every madeleine in France.

When I found out we’d be staying half an hour from the summer home of Marcel Proust, my first thought was “I should read his collected works.”  After counting the number of pages in his collected works, my second thought was, “I should visit his hometown and eat a madeleine.”  Even non-Proustian scholars like me know about the madeleines that Proust so lovingly depicted in Swann’s Way.  Showing remarkable restraint, we stopped at just two patisseries in Illiers-Combray, including the one pictured above.  Fresh out of the oven, these delicately-flavoured little cakes melted in our mouths.  Surely the best madeleines in all of France!

The toast of Illiers-Combray

To my disappointment, after searching at shops and the home of Proust’s Tante Leonie (now a museum), I wasn’t able to find an English copy of Swann’s Way.  But the next day in Chartres I found a fantastic graphic novel version that I had to buy.  My first Proust!

Reading Proust in French!  Are you impressed?

The famous madeleine scene

Next week: The best of Normandy

Level Three Muffins

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In the annals of baking, there are three levels of errors.  Level One errors are minor mistakes.  A Level One error would be putting slightly too many chocolate chips in your chocolate chip cookies.  Level Two errors are medium-sized flubs, like baking your cake in an 8” pan instead of a 9” one.

And then there are the Level Three errors.  The mistakes that are so egregious, so horrifying, that you can only avert your eyes and hope that you didn’t really see them.  The mistakes that you can’t believe someone would actually blog about, leaving a permanent online record.

These muffins were a Level 3 error.

It started so well.  Oatmeal Breakfast muffins are a Dorie Greenspan recipe, which meant they were guaranteed to be delicious.  I have never made a recipe by Dorie that wasn’t superb.  I was baking them for my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don who were arriving from Los Angeles on the red-eye flight.

The muffins were in their liners, the streusel about to be poured, when a small alarm went off in my mind.  Something wasn’t quite right.  Something was missing.  I gazed at the naked little muffins, and they gazed blankly back at me.

And I realized that in my Oatmeal Breakfast muffins, I had forgotten to add … the oatmeal.

Now here’s where my luck started to change.  The batter had made 16 muffins.  The recipe calls for 1 cup of oatmeal, which is 16 tablespoons.  So I poured one tablespoon of oatmeal into each muffin liner and lovingly stirred it in.  Maybe not the most efficient way of combining ingredients but, hey, it worked.

If you are still reading, I can only assume it’s for my sparkling prose rather than my ability to teach you anything about baking.  So you won’t even flinch when I tell you I substituted almonds for the walnuts, right?

Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don, I am very fond of you, and please don't be offended by my serving you Level Three muffins.  The fact that these still tasted so great is a testament to the quality of Dorie's recipe, and the affection with which I baked them.

Oatmeal Breakfast Muffins
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours)

For the topping:
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup chopped almonds (or walnuts)
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

For the batter:
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup buttermilk or whole milk
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves
1 cup raisins
1 cup old-fashioned oats

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Place 16 muffin liners in muffin tin.

To make the topping, toss together the brown sugar, nuts and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Set aside.

To make the batter, whisk together the eggs, applesauce, oil and buttermilk until well blended.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and cloves.  Remove 1/2 tsp of the mix and toss it with the raisins, just to coat.  Set aside.  Stir the oats into the bowl.  Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry and, using a large rubber spatula, stir just until everything is evenly moistened.  Scatter the raisins over the batter and stir to blend.  Scrape the batter into the pan and sprinkle over the topping, tamping it down very lightly with your fingers so it sticks.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out clean.  Cool to room temperature before eating.

Muffins can be frozen for up to 2 months.

Makes 16 muffins. 

Thursday's Child: Shopping in Paris

Thursday, September 16, 2010

This title is probably confusing to those of you who know I don’t like to shop.  Why would I shop when I’m on holidays?  Well, for one thing, there are other people in my family who love shopping.  And Paris such a great shopping city that even people who don’t like shopping will be converted.

There is no store in the world like Pylones.  That’s where I bought the Eiffel Tower cheese grater in the photo above.  (I couldn’t resist – could you?)  Everything they sell combines function and beauty, or at least whimsy.  Whether you fall in love with the tropical-bird-shaped butter knives, the squid egg whisks, or the cake servers that flip over to transform into a dog, trust me – you’ll fall for something.  Oh, and if you visit, could you pick me up a cake server that transforms into a dog, to replace the one confiscated at airport security? 

Thanks to Suzy Gershman’s shopping book, we found the cute boutiques just north of the Tuileries on rue 29 juillet and rue St. Roch. We were especially drawn to Dominique Denaive, a jewelry shop just north of rue de Rivoli. Denaive works with resin, precious metals and other materials to create a completely unique look. I couldn’t resist the August sales. I picked up this stunning necklace at 75% off, and was thrilled to have such a lovely reminder of Paris.

But our favourite shopping experience was at the Puces de Vanves.  When we told the girls we’d be visiting France, the first thing my oldest daughter said was, “Can we go to one of the flea markets?”  So our first weekend in Paris, we took the metro down to the southernmost border of Paris to visit the Puces de Vances.  I could have stayed there all day.  One booth sold boxes of old photos, every one of them telling its own story.  Another vendor sold silverware and ceramic dishes.  I fell in love with the ostrich feather boa at a vintage booth but, unable to picture myself wearing it to the girls’ soccer games, I passed on it.  My favourite booth sold old letters and postcards, including one addressed to someone living in Asia Minor.  It wasn't sent to Alexander the Great, but it looked nearly that old.  And I still regret not buying that pile of letters.

Next week:  literary France.

The Holy Grail of Blueberry Desserts

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Late last month, I wrote about picking blueberries at my mom’s place.  In addition to the muffins that I love so much, I made one more recipe before I consigned the rest of the berries to the freezer.  But it wasn’t just any recipe, it was the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I have no idea where the recipe for Blueberry Buckle came from, other than my mother’s recipe box. It’s like an upside down berry cobbler with streusel on top, and is served with a warm lemon sauce.  When you eat it, if you close your eyes you can taste summer.  It is perfect.

I think the reason I love fruit desserts so much is they remind me of my childhood.  Growing up on a farm, my sister and I spent a lot of time outside – playing when we were small, and helping in the fields as we got older.  All that activity meant that we were hungry by dinnertime, and many of our meals were served with dessert.  Fruit was plentiful – we grew our own raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb, while blueberries, peaches, apples and cherries were all available locally.  Strawberry pie, apple crisp, peach cobbler and, yes, blueberry buckle, were as good as it got.

For those of you who love berries, I present the most awesome blueberry dessert ever.

Blueberry Buckle

(adapted from my mother’s recipe box)


¼ cup shortening
6 Tbsp sugar
1 egg, beaten
½ tsp almond extract
1 ½ cup flour
2 ½ Tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup milk
3 cups blueberries


½ cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
¼ cup soft butter
½ tsp cinnamon

Lemon sauce

2 Tbsp cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar
2 cups cold water
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

For the cobbler, beat the shortening, 6 Tbsp. sugar, egg and almond extract until fluffy.  In a separate bowl, blend 1 ½ cups flour, baking power and salt.  Add shortening mixture alternately with milk, stirring until blended.  Spoon batter into a well-greased 9” x 9” pan and cover with berries.

Mix topping ingredients in a small bowl and sprinkle over blueberries.  Bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, to make lemon sauce, mix cornstarch and sugar.  Slowly add water and stir.  Cook until thick and clear.  Then add butter and lemon juice.

Serve the blueberry buckle warm with a generous portion of lemon sauce.

Thursday's Child: Sightseeing in Paris

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When I was a kid, a popular way to entertain other families was to invite them over to watch slides of your most recent trip.  I realize I’ve just lost everyone under the age of thirty five.  But for those of you still reading, do you remember being invited to Aunt Betty’s house to see 600 slides from her trip to Florida?  Me too.

I promise my travel posts won’t be like that.  A couple of photographs, a short description, and on to the next photo.  With the added benefit that you can switch to another blog at any point without hurting my feelings.

With no further delay, I present: “What we did this summer in Paris”.  Cue up the slide projector.

The Eiffel tower probably gives Paris the most recognizable skyline in the world.  Whether you have a view from the top or the bottom, it’s spectacular, and you’ll soon understand why Paris is called “The City of Lights”.  A word of warning: I am the queen of avoiding line-ups, and I couldn’t figure out how to spend less than two hours (and four separate lines) getting up and down the tower.  It’s worth it anyhow.

Who started the rumour that Parisiens are rude?  I met some of the most wonderful people while we were in Paris.  And they had every excuse to be rude to me because I was speaking French extremely poorly.  My accent is what you would expect from someone who grew up in southwestern Ontario, with a tin ear.  My vocabulary is acceptable, but my grammar is atrocious.  And I can only speak in the present tense.

If Parisiens really were rude, they would have laughed me out of town.  But most of them, like our desk clerk Akeem at the wonderful Hotel Le Sainte-Beuve, actually encouraged me to keep using my French.  This, despite the eloquent English I heard him speak to the customer ahead of me.  Akeem spent over ten minutes patiently listening to my hesitant questions (all posed in the present tense) and answering them in a way that even I could understand. 

Our hotel was just a block and a half from Jardin du Luxembourg.  But it wasn’t until day four that we had the chance to spend some time in the gardens.  We stopped at Amorino en route, for what is possibly the best ice cream in the world, and spent the next two hours walking, relaxing and reading in the gardens.  Surrounded by French-speaking families and couples, for a short time we were on the path less traveled.

After spending a week in the countryside, we returned to Paris for one last night.  This allowed us to visit the Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe in the pouring rain.  It also permitted us to sample Laduree’s famous macaroons.  We stood in line for twenty minutes to buy them, and it was raining so hard on the way back to the hotel that I had to protect the box under my windbreaker.  And the macaroons were totally worth it.

Next  Thursday:  the best shopping in Paris!

Read For The Cure

Sunday, September 5, 2010
"West Side Stories" book club with Doug O'Neill,
author of Canadian Living article.

Five years ago, several of the women in my book club were struggling with cancer, either their own or a family member’s.  They realized that, although there were many wonderful cancer fundraisers involving athletics, there was nothing for the many people who might not complete a half-marathon but who love to read.

And then they did something about it.

RFTC team 2009: Cathy Kostyniuk, Emily Babiak, Christine Biggar,
Avalon Neale, Susan Culver, Sara Street,  Jan Chepesiuk

Sara Street, Emily Eayrs Babiak and Christine Biggar, with the help of Patty Staite and several other friends, started a charity themselves.  Calling it “Read For the Cure”, they solicited the help of Random House Canada and several donor companies.  RFTC allows avid readers and book club members to hear their favourite authors speak, and to receive copies of their books.  It's now entering its fourth year, and the authors who are involved in the three evenings will be amazing!  The delightful and hilarious Catherine Gildiner will be speaking, as will Ian Brown, the author of one of my favourite books, The Boy in the Moon.  And what can I say about the magnificent Margaret Atwood?

RFTC 2009: Ian Brown, Alison Pick, host Carolyn Weaver and Wayson Choy.

When I asked Emily why she thinks these evenings are so much fun, she said, "They allow book clubs to go to a special venue to share in each other's company while listening to authors that they've read, along with new and exciting authors.  Many of the authors share their moments of triumph and struggle, and there is a sense of intimacy between the writer and the reader.  In addition, the opportunity to ask questions and meet the author makes for a memorable evening, all in support of very worthwhile cancer research."

Now Canadian Living magazine has written an article about Read For the Cure and our book club!  It’s in the October issue, which has just appeared on the newsstands.  Look for the article entitled “West Side Stories” – yes, that’s the name of our group.

Last year RFTC raised $70,000 for cancer research. I am bursting with pride that my friends made this happen.  And I can't wait to see Catherine Gildiner, Linden MacIntyre and Annabel Lyon on October 20.

Thursday's Child

Thursday, September 2, 2010

“Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go …”

Those of you who have met me know there are a few things that I value above all others.  My family and church are at the top of that list.  Writing has always been an important means of self-expression for me.  And ever since I was a 16-year old working on a tobacco farm, I’ve saved every penny I could spare for my travel fund.

I came by this love honestly.  When I was a kid, my father spent the spring and early summer poring over pamphlets from the local CAA (the Canadian version of AAA, for my American friends).  Every August we hooked up the car, hitched up the tent trailer, and hit the road for our holiday. I’ll never forget visiting the homes of my favourite authors, Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, and meeting the real-life Maria Von Trapp at the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont.  (My sister and I were speechless with excitement; she was incredibly gracious.)

For me, there’s nothing as exciting as starting to plan a trip, reading and researching a destination. Hopefully I can share some of that excitement with you!  I’ll be blogging about places I’ve been and places I’d like to go.  I’ll be sharing funny stories and anecdotes about my adventures.  I’ll write about the delicious, and not-so-delicious, food we eat on holidays.  Occasionally, I hope to invite a guest blogger to write here too.

I hope you’ll take this journey with me!