Thursday's Child: Atacama Salt Flats, Chile

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Near Antofagasta
the whole
saline plain
it is a
a song filled
with sorrow."

- from "Ode to Salt", Pablo Neruda

This month, I've been writing about some of the spectacular places we've seen, and I'll end where I began – in Chile.

The Atacama desert in the north of Chile is home to a number of salt plains, one of which is the Chaxa Lagoon.  Craggy mounds of hardened salt thrust up from the earth for miles and miles, extending to the border of the distant mountains.

These salt crystals were left behind after the evaporation of underground water. The scarcity of rainfall in the region, and the absence of a place for water to drain, have enhanced the strange beauty of these saline formations.

Thanks to the microscopic life in the lagoons, the flats are home to a wide variety of birds, some of which are endangered or vulnerable.  The area is particularly known for the flamingoes that live there, and has been designated a nature reserve.

But all these facts pale next to the otherworldly beauty of this stark, white terrain. And no one could describe it more beautifully than the brilliant Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda:

"Then in its caverns
the gem salt, mountain
of a buried light,
transparent cathedral,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves."
- from "Ode to Salt", Pablo Neruda

Infinite Zest

Sunday, June 24, 2012
If you're a regular reader, you'll know I love fruit in my baking.  I’ve made these simple muffins many times, and they’re always great.  The first time I made them, I used blackberries, and it’s now my favourite recipe that uses blackberries.  But I’ve made them many times since with raspberries – fresh or frozen, depending on the time of year. 

It’s a simple recipe, and it’s the lemon that makes them special.  Just the zest of half a lemon each in the topping and muffin enhances the berry and makes the muffins unforgettable.  This is the kind of comfort food I love best.

Do you ever wonder what I do with all the food I bake?  Baking is a passion for me, and it’s easy to end up with much more than our family needs.  I’ve made these muffins for several friends lately who are going through difficult times.  I can’t always lessen their pain, but I can show them a physical manifestation of my caring by taking them food.  And hopefully at the same time, I’m honouring their request to listen to their pain, whether or not it is spoken.

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
- David Foster Wallace

Raspberry (or Blackberry) Muffins


1/3 cup sugar
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
zest of one half lemon
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup pecans, finely chopped


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
grated zest of one half lemon
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg, beaten
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups fresh blackberries, or 1 1/2 cups frozen raspberries

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line 12 standard muffin cups with paper liners or use a silicon tray.

To make the topping, stir together the sugar, flour and zest in a small bowl.  Stir in the melted butter then add the pecans and stir to combine.  Set aside.

To make the muffins, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, zest and salt.  Make a well in the centre and add the egg, melted butter and buttermilk.  Stir just until evenly moistened.  The batter will be slightly lumpy.  Sprinkle with the berries and gently fold in just until evenly distributed,.  Take care not to break up the fruit.  Do not overmix.

Spoon the batter into each muffin cup, filling it to a bit above the rim of the cup.  Top each muffin with the topping, dividing it evenly.

Bake 25 – 30 minutes.  A toothpick inserted into the centre of a muffin should come out clean.  Let the muffins cool for 10 minutes before removing from the tray.

Thursday's Child: The Pitons, Saint Lucia

Thursday, June 21, 2012
Photo credit: My St. Lucia
I haven’t written at all about our recent holidays to Saint Lucia.  It’s a gorgeous island from top to bottom, but the island is identified most strongly by its Pitons, the two mountains that stand side-by-side along the west coast.  Together they form the biggest part of Saint Lucia’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We had planned a family hike up one of the Pitons when we visited in March.  A certain level of commitment is required to do this, not the least of which is being ready to leave the resort at 6:30 am.  (Due to the heat, climbing has to be done early in the day.)  I’m usually more than eager to set off on adventures, no matter how early.  However, I slept poorly and wasn’t feeling well, and was disappointed to have to cancel.  (I did enjoy beautiful views of the Pitons from my yoga class on the beach.)

A view of Petit Piton, taken from Gros Piton
Gros Piton (literally translated as Large Peak) is the only one that the government of Saint Lucia permits tourists to climb.  Although it’s taller than Petit Piton (at over 2600 feet), it’s less steep, and therefore accessible to the casual hiker.  The rest of my family tackled the mountain with an able guide who has climbed it hundreds of times. 

On the way up and at the summit, the hikers were rewarded with stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and the island. The climb was arduous (they were gone until 1:00) and the day was hot.  I applauded their resolve when they returned, and I tried not to mention the beautiful views from my yoga class on the beach.

Final exams

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Most of you know that I have one daughter in her first year of high school and one in her last.  So this is the only year I’ll have two girls writing exams at the same time.  Last week, cumulatively, they wrote French, English (grade 12), Functions, Chemistry, Bio, Math and Science.  Teeth were gnashed, brows were beaten, cookies were eaten.

I remember using cookies to help me through exam stress too.  While in university, my friend Sandra and I once ate an entire bag of Fudgee-Os while preparing for a third year Advanced Microeconomics exam.  (All these years later, even thinking about that course makes me feel like reaching for a bag of Fudgee-Os.)

I made these s’mores cookies in an attempt to cheer the girls in the midst of a grim week, and it worked fabulously.  It also cheered me immeasurably, in a week made busy with driving girls to and from exams, and organizing last-minute camp, travel and university plans.  What we didn't eat ourselves were taken to a Science study session at my younger daughter's friend's house.

Next week, cumulatively, the girls will write Calculus, English (grade 9) and Health.  Do you think another round of cookies will be required?

Make these cookies if anyone in your house is writing exams, or if you’re busy planning for summer, or if you just like cookies.  Because the world always needs another cookie recipe, but never more so than when you’re studying for finals.

S’mores Cookies

1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup mini marshmallows (approximately; I used three mini marshmallows per cookie)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk the graham cracker crumbs, flour, baking soda and salt together.  

In a large bowl, beat the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy, about two minutes.  Beat in the egg and vanilla.  Add the flour mixture and stir until combined, then add the chocolate chips.

Drop heaping tablespoons of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing about two inches apart.  Bake for 9 minutes, then remove from the oven, and quickly but gently push three mini marshmallows onto the top of each cookie.  (I baked one tray at a time to make this step a little easier.)  Return the cookies to the oven and bake for an additional 2 – 3 minutes. 

Makes 20 – 24 cookies.

Thursday's Child: Valle de la Luna, Chile

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Last week I wrote about The Great Wall of China, and promised that I’d post about other breathtaking sights we’ve seen on our travels.  One place that I’ll never forget for its haunting beauty is Chile’s Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley.

We visited Chile’s Atacama Desert in March 2009, and it was one of the most beautiful and diverse places I’ve ever seen.  Every day we went on one or two excursions in the San Pedro area, and every day was a new adventure. On our first day in the Atacama region, we visited Valle de la Luna.  This valley is one of the driest places in the world; some parts haven’t received rainfall in over a hundred years.  It’s well named, for the bleak, red landscape seems lunar in its beauty and remoteness. 

The diversity in this single valley is incredible. Red craggy hills give way to endless stretches of flat sandy plains.  Jagged stone outcrops have been carved by the wind over centuries.  Salt crystals cling to the stones and, in places, a veil of crystallized salt coats the flats.  The desert is ringed by volcanoes, some of which are still active, and in the distance the Andes soar to the sky.

This valley, barren and inhospitable to the eye, is actually a sanctuary of serenity.  When we visited, we apparently had the miles of desert to ourselves.  Something about this solitude made us feel like time had stopped.  Our guide invited us to close our eyes, and in the silence – no animals, no insects, no other people – we felt like we were wrapped in a cocoon of tranquility.

The Church Musical

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Twice a year I have a feature on this blog about recipes inspired by musicals.  Today I’m writing about a musical very dear to my heart – the one my youngest daughter’s youth choir performed in church. 

The musical was called Once Upon a Parable, and my daughter played the role of Judas Iscariot.  (For those of you who don’t know the story, that’s not the good guy role.)  But she was the sweetest, prettiest Judas ever, and my heart burst with pride as I watched her and her friends perform.  From the Pharisees dressed in red choir gowns to the embrace of the prodigal daughter and her mother, from the irrepressible Simon to the lively Palm Sunday crowd, it was a show full of energy, beauty and depth.

A successful musical calls for a celebration, and I can’t think of any better way to celebrate than with these carrot cupcakes.  I must admit, I’ve never really fallen for the cupcake craze of the last few years.  I enjoy the occasional cupcake, but they wouldn’t be my first choice to bake or to eat.   I often find them too sweet – yes, even for my notorious sweet tooth.

These cupcakes are the exception to my stance.  Carrot cake is unbeatable, and served in miniature format they’re just a delight.  I can’t think of a better way to honour a young actress!

Carrot Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
(adapted from smitten kitchen)

Makes 12 cupcakes

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups grated peeled carrots
3/4 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line twelve cupcake molds with papers, or butter and flour them.

Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and ginger in medium bowl to blend.  Whisk sugar and oil in large bowl until well-blended.  Whisk in eggs one at a time.  Add flour mixture and stir until blended.  Stir in carrots and raisins.  Divide batter among cupcake molds, filling each 3/4 full.

Bake cupcakes 20 to 22 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the centre of one comes out clean.  Let cool in pans for about five minutes, then remove from tray.  Let cool completely before frosting them.

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

One 8-oz package cream cheese, softened
1/2 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ (icing) sugar
2 Tbsp pure maple syrup

Beat all the ingredients on medium until fluffy.  Chill the frosting for 5 to 10 minutes, if necessary to spread smoothly.  Frost cupcakes and enjoy.

Thursday's Child: The Great Wall of China

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How is it possible that I’ve been writing about our travels for nearly two years, and I haven’t written about the Great Wall of China?  This month, I’ll be telling you about some of the breathtaking sights we’ve seen around the world.  None are more staggering than the Great Wall.

I never imagined I’d travel to China.  But that was before our dear friends, the Jay family, moved there in connection with Colleen’s job.  Suddenly, a destination that had seemed out of the realm of possibility was at the forefront of our imaginations.  In March 2008, we flew into Hong Kong and spent a couple of days there, then took the train to Guangzhou and visited the Jays before tackling the rest of the country.

According to this plan, we ended up in Beijing last, which meant that we saw the Great Wall on the second-last day of our holidays.  That’s probably a good thing, because it might have overshadowed everything else we saw.  As much as we loved the rest of the country, I haven’t seen many sights in my life that could compete with the Wall.

We arrived at the Mutianyu section of the wall – a little further from Beijing, but much less crowded – with our adorable guide, Qing.  She took us up the gondola and we stepped off onto the wall.  Sections of the walkway were divided by watchtowers (the wall was originally built to protect China from invaders from the north).  We looked at the miles of wall that snaked ahead of us, and behind us, as far as we could see in every direction.

A picture really is worth a thousand words, and any words I could use to describe the Great Wall of China could only sound like a thesaurus definition for the word “stunning”.  I will only say one thing: there are a few places on earth that you can see pictures of, but not really understand, until you are there.   And the Great Wall is one of them.

Great team meets Great Wall


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Reverend Ted Grady

What a busy week, with so much to be grateful for!

-       My oldest daughter performed a Hamlet monologue as part of her English class requirement.  She chose the passage that ends “The play’s the thing/wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”  That passage is 59 lines long.  Where does she get that memory from?  I can’t even remember a five-item grocery list.
-       Andrew and I celebrated our twenty-first wedding anniversary on Friday.  Our wedding day was about 33 degrees Celsius (over 90 Fahrenheit) and very muggy.  Twenty-one years later, it was 15 degrees (59 Fahrenheit) and my hometown got about 2” of rain.  Luckily, we celebrated our love, not the weather, with a beautiful dinner out.
-       We attended two weddings of our dear friends.  We don’t go to many weddings at this stage in our lives – most of our friends are already married, and our friends’ children aren’t there yet.  What’s the chance we’d be invited to two in the same day?  We loved sharing our best wishes with the brides and grooms, and dancing at the end of the evening.  (And the mother of one of the brides asked that I bring my chocolate raspberry cake to the dessert table!)
-       And this morning, we heard the first sermon given by the Reverend Ted Grady.  Ted grew up in our church, and we’ve known him and his wonderful family ever since we started attending.  Ted’s parents, Jack and Isla, are absolute blessings to our church, and it was an honour to celebrate their joy by their sides.

Factor in last weekend’s visit to my oldest daughter’s future university campus, and preparations for my youngest daughter’s church musical performance next weekend, and it feels very much like we’re in a time of transitions. 

When life is super-busy, sometimes it’s hard to find time to eat, let alone to prepare a meal. This recipe is quick to prepare and tastes delicious, and you can feel virtuous about all the vegetables in it.  And whether you’re celebrating weddings, anniversaries or new beginnings of any kind, that’s definitely something to take pride in. 

Tuscan Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

3 large red peppers
3 onions
3 medium zucchini
3 Tbsp oil, divided
3/4 tsp salt, divided
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp lemon zest
1 Tbsp lemon juice
4 chicken breast halves, skinless and bone-in
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh chopped rosemary leaves and 1 tsp dried rosemary

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cut the peppers and onions into large chunks.  Slice the zucchini in half crosswise, then cut each piece in half lengthwise once again.  Cut each strip into three chunks. 

Put the vegetables in a large baking pan, and toss them with 2 Tbsp oil and 1/4 tsp salt.  Arrange the chicken pieces in the pan with the vegetables.

In a small bowl, combine 1 Tbsp of oil, 1/2 tsp of salt, garlic, lemon zest and lemon juice.  Rub the mixture into the chicken in the pan.

Roast in the oven for 30 minutes, then stir the vegetables and add the rosemary.  Cook for about another 20 – 30 minutes more until the chicken is done and the vegetables are tender.