Thursday's Child: Neva River, St. Petersburg

Thursday, April 24, 2014
One of the most interesting aspects of travel is the connection it gives you with the places you visit. I've written before about how I felt when I stood in Tiananmen Square and in the Roman Colosseum; I've also written about how it felt seeing the riots in Istanbul's Taksim Square a few years after we'd been there. Having visited Chile a year before the devastating 2010 earthquake, I worried for the people we'd met and their families. Once I've visited a country, that connection persists forever.

And thus it's with feelings of sadness that I read about Russia in the news. Of course it's frightening to think about the tensions escalating in the Crimea region of Ukraine, but it's even more complicated than that. I remember our wonderful guide and driver in St. Petersburg (Elena and Max). I remember the people who served us borscht in one restaurant and blinis in another. I remember the people we rubbed shoulders with in the beautiful St. Petersburg subway as they went about their everyday lives.
"Floating, lyrical, miraculous Petersburg … beauty built on bones, classical facades that cradled revolution, summers that lie in the cup of winter."
- from The Siege, by Helen Dunmore

St. Petersburg seemed to be beauty and sorrow wrapped up together. Founded at the mouth of the Neva River in 1703, St. Petersburg has persevered through one tragedy after another. It has survived high death rates among the workers who built it; many attempted and successful assassinations of its rulers; the Russian revolution; ongoing executions of thousands of citizens; the siege of Leningrad; and further executions and imprisonments under the rule of Joseph Stalin. It's not surprising that the national emotion of Russia seems to be sadness.

And though it all, the Neva persists as the major artery, the main street that holds the city together. Spanned by dozens of bridges as it meanders through the city, the Neva represents commerce and tourism, past and present, fear and hope.

"I love you, Peter's great creation,
I love your view of stern and grace,
The Neva wave's regal procession,
The greyish granite - her bank's dress,
The airy iron-casting fences,
The gentle transparent twilight,
The moonless gleam of your nights restless."

- from "The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale" by Aleksandr Pushkin

Perhaps the quotation that best describes the darkness in St. Petersburg, and in all of Russia right now, was written by Vladamir Nabokov in his autobiography Speak, Memory:

"The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black."

Easter chocolate

Sunday, April 20, 2014
In my house, there couldn’t be an ingredient that’s more quintessentially Easter than chocolate.

This year, as with most years, my youngest daughter gave it up for Lent. When I suggested that forty days without chocolate wasn’t bad compared to forty years of biblical wandering in the desert with nothing to eat but manna, she reminded me that manna may, in fact, have been available in chocolate.

When Lent was over, I wanted to serve the choclatiest dessert I could find. That’s what led me to bake these Oatmeal Cookie Magic Bars. It’s pretty much over the top, and that was the intention. Whether you’re breaking a Lenten fast with these bars, or just looking for a decadent dessert, it’s a sweet way to celebrate any family occasion.

Oatmeal Cookie Magic Bars

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups rolled oats (not instant)
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup Reese’s Pieces (or pecans, or Skor bar pieces)
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9” x 13” pan with parchment paper.

Cream butter and sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add flour, baking soda and cinnamon, and stir in by hand. Stir in rolled oats to combine.

Press dough into pan. (The dough will be sticky, and will form a thin layer on the bottom of the pan.) Bake for 10 minutes.

Remove hot pan from the oven and sprinkle evenly with toppings. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over the top so it’s all covered. Return to oven and bake for 25 – 30 more minutes until the edges are browning and the top is partially set. Cool completely before cutting.

Thursday's Child: A Walk through Central Park

Thursday, April 17, 2014
"Imagine" memorial outside the Dakota

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one.

- from "Imagine", by John Lennon

The seasons of Central Park:

The statues of Central Park:

I've never been anywhere that feels both as familiar and as ever-changing as Central Park. We try to visit every time we're in New York City, and every time we see something new. We've seen it in the sunshine, on overcast days, and in the pouring rain. We've seen it in the cold of December and in the blazing heat of July. 

Some of our memories of Central Park: Watching kids swarm over and around the Alice in Wonderland sculpture. Identifying statues that honour Robbie Burns, Christopher Columbus and William Shakespeare, to name just a handful. Witnessing story hour beside the Hans Christian Andersen sculpture. Walking through Strawberry Fields, dedicated to the honour of John Lennon who was shot at his home beside the park. Meeting the "Butterfly Lady" beside the lake, who knew how to say 'butterfly' in 68 languages (and taught us a few). Street musicians, horse and carriage rides, skateboarders practicing tricks and runners - always runners. Central Park is the centre of the city by more than name and geography, and New York wouldn't be the same without it.

"Everything you look at can become a fairy tale, and you can get a story from everything you touch."
- Hans Christian Anderson

Thursday's Child: Skating at Rockefeller Center

Wednesday, April 9, 2014
This has been a long, hard winter, and I can't welcome spring quickly enough. But before we got too far into April, I wanted to take a look back at one of my favourite winter activities this year - skating at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

We travelled to New York as a family between Christmas and New Years. Andrew and I have been there a few times, but it was the first visit for the girls. So we wanted to cover some of the basics of the city: Central Park, Broadway, FAO Schwarz, the Shake Shack. And right up there was Rockefeller Center.

Andrew and I had never skated there before, although I remember visiting once and watching the skaters from the level above. (It was on that visit that we saw Regis Philbin and Il Divo setting up next to the rink, for a Christmas special appearance.) But with a family visit, donning skates seemed like the perfect way to spend an afternoon. And we were right. In the midst of a very busy trip, spending a couple of hours skating on a perfect winter day was one of our most memorable activities in New York City.

"It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on."

- from "River" by Joni Mitchell

Springtime Pasta

Sunday, April 6, 2014
It's officially been spring for a couple of weeks, but today felt like the first day of spring in Toronto. And it's been a long time coming in Toronto. It's probably hard to understand unless you live here, or in Michigan, or in Minnesota, or in Calgary … never mind, I'm sure you understand exactly how long it's been.

Today was the day when we saw many of our neighbours for the first time in months. At least, for the first time when they weren't bundled so deeply against the cold that we didn't know who we were waving to.

And thus it seemed appropriate that I'd post Crunchy Pappardelle today, which seemed like a spring recipe the first time I made it on the coldest of winter days. It wasn't just the light cream sauce with the lemon flavour, it was the fact that it used pappardelle, which I was certain was associated with the spring. In fact, I googled it before writing this post, only to find that "pappardelle" means "gobble up". That's appropriate too, since that's exactly what we've done to this recipe every time I've made it.

In the end, I'm not sure what I was thinking of. Perhaps papillon, which is French for butterfly? Whether or not it was meant for the spring, I can't think of a better way to bid adieu to winter than by gobbling up this pasta before heading outside with the rake.

Crunchy Pappardelle

3 Tbsp olive oil
3 1/2 cups button mushrooms, halved
7 Tbsp white wine
2 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs, leaves chopped and stems discarded
1/2 tsp sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
salt and black pepper
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 Tbsp chopped parsley
3 Tbsp panko
1 bunch, 3 – 4 cups, broccoli (or broccolini)
9 ounces dried pappardelle

Bring a large pot of salted water and a small pot of salted water to a boil. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan and sauté the mushrooms until they start taking on colour, stirring occasionally. Add the wine, bay leaves, thyme and sugar. Bring to a boil and reduce the liquid by two-thirds. Remove bay leaves, add the cream, and stir to mix. Taste and add plenty of salt and pepper. Keep warm.

Mix together the lemon zest, garlic and parsley. In a pan over medium heat, toast the panko until golden, stirring occasionally.

Pick any leaves from the broccoli, then cut into individual florets. Blanch in the small pot of boiling water for 2 minutes and drain.

Add the pasta to the large pot of boiling water. When the pasta is just ready, add the broccoli to the cream sauce to reheat. Drain the pappardelle, reserving some of the cooking liquid, and stir with the cream sauce. Add half of the parsley mix. If the sauce seems dry, add some of the reserved cooking liquid.

Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl. Stir the rest of the parsley mix into the panko and sprinkle generously over the pappardelle. Serve immediately.

Thursday's Child: Lenten Procession in Guatemala

Thursday, April 3, 2014

We were recently in Guatemala, where we had the privilege of witnessing a Lenten parade in the colonial city of Antigua. Lent is a very important time in the Guatemalan church calendar, and every Sunday during this time, a procession enters from the outer city into the city centre. We were fortunate enough to see one such procession.

Work starts early in the day. Every week, the parade comes into town from a different outlying district, and each district accepts the holy responsibility to make the route as beautiful as possible. Groups of people gather in the streets, making temporary murals from flowers, plants and dyed sawdust. The beauty of this artwork is astonishing, and even more so knowing it will be destroyed as soon as the procession walks over it.

As so often happens in Lent, the purpose behind the ritual is one of penance. That's why I, and many of my friends, give up something we enjoy for the six weeks prior to Easter. Here, the penance is in the form of carrying the float that depicts Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. Pilgrims pay for the right to take their turns carrying it for several blocks; many do so multiple times over the course of the day.

Thus it was that Andrew and I found ourselves standing on the steps outside the cathedral, by the main city square in Antigua. The occasion was solemn, but the crowd was family-oriented: children, parents and grandparents mingled, laughed and spoke. A sense of excitement and anticipation filled the square.

Darkness fell. Several musicians and banner carriers proceeded into the square, alerting us that the float was close behind. Volunteers handed out Spanish-language pamphlets describing the ceremony, and each person in the crowd was given a candle. We passed the light from one person to the next until the crowd was full of hundreds of tiny beacons.

And then the float entered the square. It was almost impossible to look away. Illuminated by its own lights, the float swayed from side to side with the movements of those who carried it.

We stood and watched as the procession slowly proceeded past us and wound its way around the square. As the crowds began to disperse, we weren't ready to leave yet, and we walked around the square, sharing the view with those on the other side and looking back at the beautifully-lit cathedral. As the procession came to an end, we returned to our hotel, grateful to have participated in such a heartfelt and holy spectacle.