Baking with the girls

Sunday, February 26, 2012

When the girls were small one of our favourite activities, not surprisingly, was baking together.  I’d pull a couple of chairs up to the kitchen counter so they could see what was going on and help out.  Chocolate chip cookies were always their favourites because a) it was fun to measure and pour chocolate chips, and b) who can resist chocolate chip cookies?

I know from personal experience that kids enjoy baking.  Starting when I was about eight, I made an annual batch of fudge to enter in the Baking Competition at Rodney Fair.  Most years the competition called for chocolate fudge, and those years I used my dad’s recipe (see Paul’s Fudge).  Once or twice the rules specified vanilla fudge, and my mom and I searched her cookbooks to find a recipe for Opera Fudge.  We found a great recipe in her copy of Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, which she received as a gift in July 1969.  Maybe someday I’ll post it here!

Desserts are a fun way for kids to start baking.  I became comfortable in the kitchen making fudge, cookies and squares, and that has led to a lifetime of cooking enjoyment.  Most of the time I’d really rather cook a meal and eat in, than go out to a restaurant.  And I hope my girls will feel the same when they’re adults.

Even now that they’re busy teenagers, we still bake together sometimes.  Yesterday, my oldest daughter and I pulled out the recipe for Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits, which I’ve been meaning to bake for weeks.  This recipe was a perfect one for us to share in so many ways.  My daughter loves baking bread and these biscuits, which don’t require yeast, take no time at all to make.  And they’re delicious, one of those rare recipes that everyone in our house raved about.
Beetter Homes and Garden New Cookbook
Still available for purchase, 43 years later!
Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits
(from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics)

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some to coat the cheese and flour the cutting board.
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced small
1/2 cup cold buttermilk, shaken
1 cold large egg
1 cup grated extra sharp Cheddar cheese
1 egg beaten with 1 Tbsp milk (this is the egg wash)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl.  Add diced butter and stir to combine.

Combine buttermilk and egg in a small glass measuring cup and beat lightly with a fork.  With a mixer on low speed, quickly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and beat only until moistened.  In a small bowl, mix Cheddar with a small handful of flour and add to the dough.  Stir until just combined.

Place on a well-floured board and knead lightly about six times.  Roll the dough out to a rectangle 5 x 10 inches.  (Note: another time I might roll it slightly larger and cut twelve biscuits from the dough.)  Cut the dough lengthwise in half and then cut each section in quarters, making 8 rough rectangles.  Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the tops with the egg wash, sprinkle with sea salt and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.  (If making 12 biscuits, they’ll be done a little sooner.)  Serve hot or warm.

Thursday's Child: Charles Bridge, Prague

Thursday, February 23, 2012
Photo used courtesy of Commons

The Charles Bridge links two of the most beautiful districts of Prague, The Old Town and Mala Strana (Lesser Town).  It is one of eighteen bridges that span the Vltava River, which winds its way through the city.  But the Charles Bridge is one of the loveliest bridges I’ve ever seen for one reason: the stunning statues that stand guard along both sides of the bridge. 
This bridge is probably the most popular sight in Prague.  It’s also a way for pedestrians to travel from one part of the city to the other. For that reason it’s almost always busy with tourists.  When we visited one evening it was downright crowded, although still charming with its mix of street performers and artists.  My favourite time to visit was just before breakfast on our final day in Prague, when the rising sun and handful of visitors lent it a solemn, pensive air. 
More than any other place in the world, Prague was a city that I dreamed about visiting.  From the time I first read about it, twenty years passed before I actually got there.  And thanks in part to these glorious statues, it was worth every minute of the wait. 

Family Day

Monday, February 20, 2012
Many of my readers are celebrating Presidents' Day today, but here in Ontario (and in several other Canadian provinces) we're celebrating Family Day.  We've only observed this holiday in Ontario since 2008, but already we anticipate it as if we've celebrated it for years.  And what's not to love?  Family Day helps break up the sometimes-endless month of February, and it's a great excuse to spend time with our loved ones.  For many families, it's a chance to establish a new set of traditions.

Traditions, both new and old, can provide some of the best family memories.  I thought about some of my favourite food traditions that our family has shared, not specifically on Family Day, but throughout the year:

- burgers at Webers.  We've driven one or both girls home from camp every summer since 2002, and every year we stop at Webers Hamburgers on the way.  We always move one of the picnic tables into the shade, and share cheeseburgers and fries while the girls tell us about another great camp experience.

- barbecuing in the back yard.  Living in Canada, we take advantage of the short summer season by eating outside whenever we can.  It's even more special when we share it with our friends.  Whether we're serving chicken or steak, salmon or veggie burgers, we make the most of our long days by eating, laughing and talking in the back yard.

- dinner out on New Year's Eve.  This is a newer tradition, but for the past few years the four of us have had dinner out in a restaurant on New Year's Eve.  We go around the table and talk about some of our favourite memories over the past twelve months.  I can't think of anyone else I'd rather close the year with.

What are some of your best family food memories?

In the meantime, I'd like to share this recipe for Toblerone Shortbread cookies.  My family loved them, and I'm sure yours will too.

Toblerone Shortbread cookies
(adapted from Anna Olson)

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp icing sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
One and a half 100 gram Toblerone bars

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat butter until light and fluffy.  Add icing sugar and beat again until fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl often.  Add cornstarch and blend in, then add all-purpose flour and salt, and mix until dough comes together.  (Dough will be soft.)  Stir in vanilla.

Chop Toblerone bars into smallish chunks and stir them into the batter.

Spoon large teaspoonfuls of cookie dough onto a cookie sheet, leaving two inches between cookies.  Bake for 16 minutes, then remove from cookie sheet to cool on a rack.  

Thursday's Child: Street Art in Valparaiso, Chile

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Valparaiso, Chile is a city that's seen both highs and lows.  In the eighteenth century, it was a thriving town serving as a major port for ships travelling from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean via the Straits of Magellan.  But a serious earthquake in 1906 badly damaged the city's infrastructure. And when the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, eliminating Valparaiso's usefulness as a port, the city fell into long-term decline.  It has recently begun to revive, though, after being granted UNESCO World Heritage Site protection in 2003.

Built over a series of hills, Valparaiso really is a unique city.  Pedestrians often travel between levels using one of a series of funiculars.  Streets meander in a maze-like pattern, and are both cobblestoned and steep.  An afternoon's walk delivered more than an adequate workout.

Despite the difficult walking conditions, Valparaiso was one of the most beautiful cities I've walked in, the reason being the street art.  The city is known for its colourful murals, hundreds of which cover public space throughout the city.  Some were personal statements, some were political, and yet others were whimsical (see the ladder and sofa below).  But in total they delivered an ongoing sequence of art that meant our afternoon was a constant set of discoveries.  Every time we rounded a corner, we hoped to find a new and unusual mural, and we were seldom disappointed.

Sweet potatoes

Sunday, February 12, 2012

On Valentine’s Day, many of us will be baking or buying sweets for our loved ones.  And I’m no different.  Andrew, the girls and I will have dinner at home on Tuesday (somewhere between a piano lesson and theory class), and I’ll make sure I end the meal with something sweet to make everyone happy.

But earlier in the day I’ll be serving a sweet that no one but me really likes.  At lunchtime, I usually eat on my own, so it’s a good chance to make something that only I enjoy eating.  And on Valentine’s Day, that will be sweet potatoes.

True, Andrew doesn’t mind sweet potatoes in small doses.  For example, as a modest side dish to whatever the main course is.  But he has never made a meal out of a sweet potato and a little salt, like I have.  And he isn’t the one who wistfully reads sweet potato recipes and dreams of a day when her family will love them as she does.

I didn’t like them as a kid, which is why I still hope to convert my girls. Now, knowing all the health benefits and wonderful taste of sweet potatoes, I can’t imagine feeling any other way.

So for Valentine’s Day lunch, I'll make these delicious sweet potato rounds to enjoy by myself.   And if my family is reading this post, I promise the most romantic thing of all – I won’t serve any of the leftovers to you.

"What's in a name? That which we call a yam
By any other name would taste as sweet."
(with apologies to Juliet Capulet)

Sweet Potatoes with Pecans, Goat Cheese and Celery
(adapted from smitten kitchen)

1 1/2 pounds sweet potato, scrubbed, unpeeled, in 3/4" coins
4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1/4 cup toasted and cooled pecan halves
1 1/2 stalks celery
1 Tbsp dried cranberries
2 ounces firm goat cheese
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp smooth Dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Coat a large baking sheet generously with 1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil.  Lay sweet potatoes in one layer on the oiled sheet and sprinkle with salt.  Roast, without disturbing, for 15 to 20 minutes.  Carefully flip each piece.  Sprinkle with additional salt and return the pan to the oven for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the salad.  Chop the pecan halves and the celery and mince the cranberries. Crumble the goat cheese and combine with other ingredients.  In a small dish, whisk together 2 Tbsp olive oil with red wine vinegar and Dijon.  Mix with the salad.  Scoop a spoonful of salad over each sweet potato round and serve.

Thursday's Child: Duncan, British Columbia

Thursday, February 9, 2012
This month I’m writing about outdoor art that we’ve seen on our travels.  One of these wonderful displays appears in our own country.

We won’t forget the totem poles in Duncan, a town on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia.  We visited in March 2002, on a trip to take the girls to visit their grandfather (my father-in-law) who was living in Nanaimo.  The trip was memorable for several reasons.  It was our younger daughter’s first airplane trip, and it was the first time either of the girls had seen the Pacific Ocean.

We stopped in Duncan on our way to Nanaimo and were rewarded by this amazing town dedicated to the art of the totem.  With over eighty on display, Duncan is known as the Town of Totems. Some of them were carved by local native artists, such as the widest totem in the world, Cedar Man Holding Talking Stick, by First Nations artist Richard Hunt.  Others have been purchased from elsewhere in Canada and across the world, coming from as far away as New Zealand.  One totem was carved specifically in honour of Rick Hansen, the Man in Motion.

The day was uncharacteristically cold, so our trip was brisk.  Andrew bought a duck hunter’s hat from a local outdoor shop in an attempt to keep warm, and perhaps to audition for a future totem.  My youngest daughter insisted on leading the way for our family along the city’s yellow-footed path.
It's hard to believe that this visit happened ten years ago next month.  Where does the time go? The little girls in this photo are now teenagers, and they've been on a number of plane trips.  But no matter where their future travels take them,  I'm sure they'll always remember the wonderful totem poles of Duncan, British Columbia.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

I had lunch with an old friend this week, for the first time in twelve years.

It’s hard to say why it’s been so long.  Ruth’s been pursuing a demanding career on one side of the city, and I’ve been raising children and writing books on the other side.  When she left her job to start a consulting company this month, I suggested we meet for lunch.  What was it like to see her after all those years? The time flew by, we didn’t stop talking, and we promised ourselves the next lunch would be much sooner. 

Ruth and I met in Europe, both of us between university degrees and both on a Contiki tour for travellers between 18 and 35.  Although I went by myself, so did many of the others and meeting people was incredibly easy.  I kept a journal on that trip, and my first mention of Ruth was when a group of us went dancing one night in Rome.

Here’s what else Ruth and I shared on that trip:

1. She taught me one of my most important life skills ever – how to French braid my hair.
2.  While we were in Munich, we shared strawberries from the market (cool) and caramel sundaes from McDonald’s (not so cool).
3. We sang “Tales From the Vienna Woods” while we passed through those woods, likely to the annoyance of the rest of our tour group.  (I’m aware that “Tales From the Vienna Woods” has no actual lyrics, but that didn’t stop the performance.)
4.  We sang songs from The Sound of Music on our way to the photo op at the von Trapp gazebo.  Amazingly, no one kicked us off the bus.
5.  We posed for a picture together in the Netherlands wearing traditional Dutch costume.  Ruth looks adorable.  I look like a tourist posing in an ill-fitting Dutch costume.

I’m not posting that photo, but we’re both in the photo above, in a loft in Switzerland.  (I’m third from the left, Ruth is second from the right, and Jennifer, who lives in B.C. is on the far left.)  And here’s a photo from this week.

The other thing we’ve always shared is a love of sweets.  Ruth, I’m dedicating these Skor Bar Squares to you and to memories of Europe!

Skor Bar Squares (Caramel Crunch Bars)
(From Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours)

For the base:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 ounces premium-quality milk chocolate, finely chopped

For the topping:
6 ounces premium-quality milk chocolate, finely chopped
3/4 cup toffee bits or chopped Skor bars

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Lightly butter a 9 x 13” pan or line with parchment paper.

Whisk together the flour, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl.

Beat the butter at medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.  Add the sugars and beat for another 3 minutes, or until the mixture is light and creamy.  Beat in the vanilla, then turn off the mixer.  Add dry ingredients and stir by hand, just until they are almost incorporated.  Add the chopped chocolate and mix only until the dry ingredients disappear.  You’ll have a heavy, sticky dough.  Scrape the dough into the prepared pan and spread it into a thin, even layer.

Bake for 20 to 22 minutes.  Remove from oven and turn off the heat.  Scatter the 6 ounces chopped chocolate evenly over the hot base and put the pan back in the (still warm) oven for about 3 minutes, until the chocolate is soft.  Remove from the oven and immediately spread the chocolate over the bars, using the back of a spoon.  Sprinkle the toffee bits over the chocolate and press down lightly with your fingertips.  Let cool to room temperature, then remove from pan and cut into bars.

Thursday's Child: Vigeland Park, Oslo

Thursday, February 2, 2012
We've visited some great museums on our travels, but we've also seen beautiful art in unexpected places.  This month I'm going to share some of the wonderful outdoor art we've seen.

Perhaps the photo I led with today can't be described as beautiful.  Angry Boy is just one of the dozens of sculptures that populate Oslo's Vigeland Park, the world's largest sculpture park designed by a single artist.  In the 1920s, noted sculptor Gustav Vigeland was granted a studio in exchange for his promise to donate all of his future work to the city, and Vigeland Park was the result.

The bridge that leads from the main gate to the fountains is lined by nearly sixty sculptures.  Angry Boy is the most famous, his hand honed to a shine by the passersby who touch it for luck. (Anyone who has known a two year old is likely familiar with this pose.)  Two of my favourite sculptures were Little Laughing Girl and Man Lifting Girl With One Arm, both pictured below.  In this section of the park, Vigeland depicted people in relationships and showing emotions.

But the bridge was just the beginning.  Once we crossed it, the park opened into an enormous fountain surrounded by more sculptures depicting the stages of life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age.

The monolith behind the fountain is a 57 foot (17.4 metre) high statue carved from a single granite block.  Vigeland took a year to carve a full-size replica in clay before tackling the granite.  This sculpture depicts a writhing mass of humanity, all apparently struggling to get to the top.  No Happy Little Girl here.

Almost as striking as the sculptures were the gardens and small fountains scattered throughout the park.

We spent a couple of hours strolling through this glorious park, admiring Vigeland's artwork.  It was truly one of the highlights of Oslo!