School Newspaper

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's been a few years since my daughters have attended the same school.  So what a blessing that, with one in her final year of high school and one in her first, they're finally together again.

I didn't know how they'd react to being in the same school.  They get along well at home, but it might have played out differently in front of their friends.  Would their friendship make the transition? I told them I didn't want either of them telling me every time she saw her sister talking to a boy, and I (mostly) meant it.

I needn't have given it a second thought.  Not only are they getting along great, they're both part of the school newspaper.  My oldest daughter joined in ninth grade, and since then the Beacon has been a big part of her high school memories.  My youngest daughter appears to be following in her footsteps.

This past Wednesday was Production night.  They stayed after school into the evening to get the papers ready to hand out Thursday morning.  The students ordered pizza for dinner, and the girls took in a batch of cookies to nibble on.

So I'd like to dedicate this week's post to my lovely daughters, who work hard in their classes and their extracurriculars.  They love these cookies and, with the combination of chocolate and toffee bits, I can't think of anyone who wouldn't.

Chocolate Toffee Cookies
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt or sea salt
16 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup (half a stick) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups packed brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
6 - 7 chocolate-covered English toffee bars (Skor or Heath), coarsely chopped

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in small bowl; whisk to blend.  Stir chocolate and butter in top of double boiler set over simmering water until melted and smooth.  Remove from over water.  Cool mixture to lukewarm.

Using electric mixer, beat sugar and eggs in bowl until thick, about 5 minutes.  Beat in chocolate mixture and vanilla.

Stir in flour mixture, then toffee pieces.  Chill batter until firm, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment or waxed paper.  Drop batter by spoonfuls onto sheets, spacing two inches apart.  Bake 12 to 15 minutes, then let cookies cool on sheets.

Thursday's Child: Bavarian Music

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Five years ago, we spent a night in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, Germany. Partenkirchen originated as a Roman town almost 2000 years ago, and it amalgamated with Garmisch in anticipation of the 1936 Olympics.  Partenkirchen is a beautiful old town with frescoed buildings, one of which was the Gasthof Fraundorfer where we stayed the night.

It wasn’t just the physical beauty of the building that encouraged us to stay there.  The hotel restaurant offered local specialties like sauerkraut, dumplings, and schnapps served on a plank.  And to complement the food, local Bavarian entertainers performed throughout the evening. 

The entertainment started with an accordion player.  The accordion has a fabulous trajectory in North America, from Lawrence Welk through Weird Al Yankovic and Arcade Fire.  It’s more of a mainstream instrument in Bavaria, and was clearly fuelled by the large glass of beer on the table in front of the musician. 

Next up were the Bavarian Slap Dancers, who did exactly what their vocation promised.  The action consisted of a fast-paced dance that involved slapping their thighs in rhythm to the music.  In the picture below, note the beautifully-embroidered lederhosen, and the complete lack of interest accorded the dancer from the patrons at the table behind.  I guess if you’ve seen one Bavarian Slap Dancer you’ve seen them all.

And finally, how could an evening of Alpine music be complete without a yodeler?  This is everything I know about yodeling: a) My sister and I used to laugh ourselves silly at Slim Whitman album compilation ads on TV; b) the first time I remember seeing yodeling was in “The Silly Song” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; and c) the best yodeling song ever is “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music.  (Did you really think I was going to write about Alpine music and not mention The Sound of Music?)

At the end of the evening, we were all invited to join in the yodeling.  Let’s just say that was a short, uncomfortable exercise in activities that bystanders should never try.  Yodeling, like Bavarian Slap dancing and accordion-playing, is best left to the experts.  And after watching the experts perform, we felt very fortunate to have witnessed this exceptional group of entertainers.


Sunday, November 20, 2011
My youngest daughter is getting confirmed today.

In our congregation, confirmation is a year-long process that begins in the winter of eighth grade and finishes the following November.  In addition to two weekend retreats and bimonthly group meetings, an important part of the process is being matched with a mentor.  The mentor is an adult member of the congregation who enhances his or her partner’s spiritual experience, by being both a sounding board and a spiritual advisor.

Our daughter was fortunate to be paired with our friend Catherine.  Together, they’ve prepared meals for our two families and met on several other occasions.  Their discussions have ranged from international politics to music to, of course, their faith.  Catherine’s friendship and guidance played a big part in my daughter’s enthusiasm about joining the church.

We all met at the church on Friday night – teens, their families, mentors, and Michael, the youth minister – to celebrate the end of the program and the beginning of our children’s membership in the church.  We marvelled at how tall they were and recalled when they were small children getting to know each other in the Sunday School.  And we celebrated with that great church tradition of a pot luck meal. 

In addition to taking a plate of cookies (it seems I rarely leave the house without a plate of cookies in my hands), I made a couple of salads that Catherine could eat.  She can’t eat wheat flour, so I wanted to ensure that some of the food would be safe for her.  That gave me a great excuse to make this recipe again.

I try a lot of new recipes, and this dish is one of my favourites.  It’s so easy, and so beautiful, and so delicious, that it’s hard to believe it’s healthy, too.  This salad came from The Brick Kitchen blog, where I find lots of great, healthy food ideas. Don’t let the ordinary name of this recipe fool you into thinking that it’s anything less than sensational.

Have a great week!

Warm Brown Rice Salad
(adapted from The Brick Kitchen)

1 cup dry brown rice
1 Tbsp olive oil (first amount)
2 medium carrots, in small dice
1 stalk celery, in small dice
1 medium zucchini in small dice
1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
kosher salt
1 tsp oil (second amount)
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

Cook brown rice according to package instructions.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbsp oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add carrots and celery and cook for 3 – 4 minutes.  Add zucchini and cranberries, season with a pinch of salt and continue to cook for another minute or two, or until vegetables are tender.  Remove from heat, and stir in prepared brown rice, vinegar and remaining tsp of oil.  Serve warm.

Cooking with Peanuts

Sunday, November 13, 2011

We aren’t a family who likes a lot of nuts in our baking.  We all agree that chocolate chip cookies and brownies are much better when they’re chewy throughout, with no crunchy nuts in the mix.  And when I bake for others, I’m always worried about nut allergies.  So if I’m taking food out for a group, or if I’m baking for a family whose allergies I’m not familiar with, I would never make anything that contained nuts.

At first glance, then, this recipe might not seem like a natural choice.  But for some reason, these Honey Peanut Wafers jumped off the page at me.  Andrew and the girls love peanut butter in their baking, and honey-roasted peanuts are just a small step away from that.  The recipe looked quite easy, but the honey-roasted peanut base was unusual enough to pique my interest.  Plus, the recipe was from Nick Malgieri’s book The Modern Baker, where I discovered one of my new favourite recipes, Caramel Crumb Bars.  (Seriously, if you haven’t made Caramel Crumb Bars yet, do it right now.  They are amazing.)

I’m thrilled that I tried this recipe.  We all loved these cookies, whether I served them plain or with a little drizzle of chocolate on top.  They just might be enough to change the minds of a family who thinks they don’t like nuts.

Honey Peanut Wafers
(from Nick Malgieri's The Modern Baker)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 large egg
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 1/3 cups honey-roasted peanuts, finely chopped but not ground
semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Stir the flour and baking soda together and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar, honey and egg together until just mixed, avoiding making a foamy mixture.  Then whisk in the melted butter.  Stir in the flour mixture and the chopped peanuts.

Drop tablespoon-sized pieces of the batter onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper, keeping them about 4 inches (10 cm) apart on all sides.  Moisten a fingertip with water and slightly flatten each mound of cookie.

Bake cookies for about 10 minutes, or until they have spread and are evenly golden.

Optional: melt a little semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate to drizzle over cookies.

Classical Music in Mont St Michel

Thursday, November 10, 2011
Before we visited France a couple of summers ago, I had no idea what a big tourist attraction Mont St Michel was.  I had seen photos and knew it looked glorious.  We specifically drove that far west, just so we could see this beautiful abbey on an island.

Basically built on a mountain of rocks that juts out of the water, MSM was built in the eleventh century and served as an abbey for hundreds of years.  And over that time, it was often used as a pilgrimage site by the wealthy until the abbey was closed during the French Revolution.  Converted to a prison, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that a group (which included writer Victor Hugo) petitioned the government to declare it a national monument. 

What I also learned is that it’s an incredibly popular tourist site.  In France, only the Eiffel Tower draws more visitors.  The difference is that the Eiffel Tower is in the middle of an enormous city, is served by a number of local Metro stops and can easily be walked to from any number of places in the city.  MSM is in the middle of the countryside, on an island that can only be reached by a single causeway.  So yes, it’s busy.  In fact, the advice that I kept reading was, don’t even try to visit during the daytime.  Plan your visit for earlier than 8 am or after 5 pm, and you’ll minimize the elbow-to-elbow nature of your visit.  You’ll also get a parking spot without a one hour wait.

True to form, we showed up a little past 5:00.  The car traffic reminded me of Disneyland.  The line-up to get one of those parking spots was only surpassed by the stream of cars passing us on the way out.  It was hard to believe that there were that many people in France, let alone at the abbey. 

But we found a parking spot and started the half-hour walk across the causeway.  It rises so imposingly from the water that we were constantly stopping to take another gorgeous photo.  When we arrived at the island, it was still packed with tourists.  Rather than rushing to the abbey, we decided to meander through the crooked streets, check out the shops, and have dinner first.

So by the time we arrived at the abbey at the top of the mount, we were doubly blessed.  Yes, the daytime crowds had thinned out.  We didn’t have it to ourselves, but rather than marching in lockstep from room to room with a legion of determined tourists, we could enjoy the serenity with just a few others.

The true gift, though, was that during summer evenings, Mont St Michel engages a few young classical musicians to play their instruments.  Not only were we seeing this gorgeous monument when it was less busy, but the music of Bach and Vivaldi made it truly magical.  As we walked through the ancient corridors, we would first hear faint strains that gained in strength as we neared the musician.  We approached each room to find a soloist on the flute, harpsichord, cello or violin.

We paused in one room, watching the light magically stream through the side windows.  The thousand-year-old stone walls were cool to the touch, belying the heat of the day.  The music was simple and haunting, as if it had been written for the abbey itself.  And the pensive melody wafted through the air, filling our hearts with the miracle that is Mont St Michel.

Let's Bake Bread

Sunday, November 6, 2011
I planned to start baking bread again this fall.

I used to love baking bread.  I started when I was a twelve-year-old in her first 4H club.  If you aren't familiar with 4H clubs, the H's represent head, hands, health and heart, the four ways in which we could serve our families and our community.  I remember waiting impatiently until I turned twelve; with a birthday late in the year, I had to wait an extra term until I could join my older friends in the club.  There were two clubs a year, one each in the spring and fall, and they generally alternated between cooking clubs (which I loved and excelled at) and sewing or craft clubs (not so much).

That fall when I turned twelve, the club was based on the theme "Let's Bake Bread", and that's when I started my first recipe file.  I still have the member's pamphlet that I received when I joined, and I was surprised at how well it stands up over time.  It's full of common sense advice:
- "To make dishwashing easier, soak pots and pans immediately after use."
- "Avoid touching hair or face when working with food."
- "Recipes should be selected carefully and only those which the club member and her family would enjoy, or which are popular for entertaining, should be included in the recipe file."

My love of cooking and baking first came from being in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother, but being a 4H member helped me branch out and learn new recipes and techniques. And none have stayed with me longer than the first club I took, when I learned to bake bread.

Having said all this, I haven't been baking yeast bread this fall.  For one thing, I've been back at my writing, and I really want to focus on that.  But I did discover this easy recipe for bread that doesn't require yeast or risings, and that tastes absolutely wonderful.  Savoury Cheese and Chive Bread is so simple and quick to make that it's hard to believe how great the flavour is.  It would do any 4H alumnus proud!

Savoury Cheese and Chive Bread
(from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table)

1 3/4 cups flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 generous cup (about 4 ounces) Gruyere or cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
2 ounces Gruyere or cheddar cheese, cut into very small cubes (1/2 to 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup minced chives

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease an 8" x 4 1/2" loaf pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl.

Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl for 1 minute, until foamy, then whisk in the milk and oil.

Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and gently mix until moistened.  Stir in the grated and cubed cheese and the chives to form a thick dough.  Transfer to the loaf pan and spread to make the dough even on top.  Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is golden and a slender knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 3 minutes, then run a knife along the edges of the pan to loosen the loaf.  Turn it out and let it cool right side up before cutting and serving.

Thursday's Child: The Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo

Thursday, November 3, 2011
When we travel, we come home with a camera (and eventually an album) full of gorgeous photos that remind us of what we’ve seen.  But sometimes our most vivid memories are those that we don’t see, but that we hear.  This month I’ll be sharing some of our musical memories from our trips.

One of the first overseas trips we took with the girls was to Scotland.  They were ten and seven at the time, and we liked the idea of visiting an English-speaking country.  With activities that ranged from seal-watching to visiting a scotch distillery, there really was something for everyone.

But we’d all agree that one of the highlights of the trip was our last night in Scotland, when we were fortunate to hold tickets to the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo.  The Tattoo is a musical celebration held in the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle for three weeks every summer. 

According to the Tattoo website, the word "tattoo" comes from the Dutch phrase "Doe den tap doe", or "turn off the taps".  When the British army was fighting in the Netherlands in the 17th century, drummers would signal that it was closing time for the pubs by marching through town drumming. This developed into a skill display, which then turned into a mass event featuring performers of all kinds, for entertainment purposes.

We joined other festival-goers in the late afternoon in a huge crowd outside the castle, waiting to get in.  We took our seats with great anticipation and, when the show began, we were treated to a wonderful display.  Military regiments from around the world and, of course, bagpipers filled the stadium with gorgeous music.  As the evening went on and the sky darkened, the sturdy castle in the back was illuminated by floodlights.

Toward the end of the show, all of the performers (numbering about a thousand) returned to the esplanade for a massed performance.  Then the crowd hushed, and everyone’s eyes were drawn to the Lone Piper, spotlighted atop the castle, playing a haunting number.

And just when we thought the evening couldn’t be topped, it concluded with a group singing of Auld Lang Syne.  Not from the performers on the field, but from the nearly 8000 attendees in the stadium.  We all held hands with our neighbours as we sang in unison.

And as we marched out of the stadium to the strains of Scotland the Brave, we knew we’d been part of a very special evening.

Photo used courtesy of Best of Edinburgh