Thursday's Child: The Reichstag building, Berlin

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The view from Berlin's parliament building, the Reichstag, is one of the best in the city, and that was the main reason we visited. In the end, the views were lovely, but what stayed with us longest was the tour of the building, in which we learned its difficult history and how it symbolized the downfall and rebirth of Germany.

The Reichstag first opened in 1894 and was home to the German government until February 27, 1933, when it was burned in a mysterious fire. Although the arsonist was never identified with certainty, the Nazi party blamed it on the opposition Communists, and used that to detain and arrest anyone who had opposed their government. The Reichstag Fire Decree was passed the next day, limiting the right to freedoms of press, speech and assembly. It was soon followed by the Enabling Act, which effectively gave Hitler the powers of a dictator.

Fast forward a dozen years. Near the end of the Second World War, when the outcome was certain, the Allied Forces were independently racing to reach Berlin. The Russian soldiers arrived first, and began by plundering what remained of the Reichstag. Graffiti covered the inside walls of the building. To this day, several walls have been left as they were, to preserve a historical record of that graffiti. (With the cooperation of Russian translators, the most offensive messages were removed.)

Because the destruction of the Reichstag featured so prominently in Germany's downfall, it's fitting that it was also a symbol of its reunification. Bonn had served as the working capital of Germany in the post-war years, but when the country reunified, Berlin once again became capital.  The Reichstag was repaired, and was once again home to the country's parliament (the Bundestag). The dome was beyond repair, however, and a new glass dome was built as a symbol of transparency in the government, and of freedom among the people.

The plenary chamber sits directly under the dome. We sat in the visitors' gallery directly behind the chamber.

After the tour of the building, we climbed to the rooftop to walk the spiral ramps around the interior of the dome. The dome itself was utterly impressive, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors that reflect sunlight to help heat the building, and the 360-degree view of the city was breathtaking. This building that rose like a phoenix from its own ashes is truly the symbol of the modern Berlin.

Thursday's Child: Ephesus, Turkey

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ephesus was one of the great cities of the ancient world. A Greek city located in what is now Turkey, Ephesus lies mostly in ruins. Over the past 2000 years the port has silted up and the city has lost its importance as a place of culture and knowledge. But a visit to the ruins is evocative of what it must have looked like at its most influential.

Detail on the Domitian Temple, named for a Roman emperor

Stone carving of the Greek goddess Nike
Ephesus was one of the key centres of Christianity in the ancient world, and the city is referred to numerous times in the Bible. Paul's journeys there are detailed in the book of Acts. Later, the Letter to the Ephesians was written by Paul to encourage and support its Christian community.

Memmius Monument

Pollio Fountain
Although there is some dispute about the population at its peak (estimates run from 35,000 to 225,000), it was unquestionably one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. At various times it was under Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Turkish control.

The Temple of Hadrian is one of the best-preserved buildings. Erected in honour of the Emperor Hadrian, it exhibits a stone carving of Tyche, the goddess of luck or fortune, at the top of the marble arch. Directly behind, the face and body of a woman (believed to be Medusa) are carved over the door opening.

The most awe-inspiring building in the area is the facade of the Celsus Library. It was destroyed by earthquakes, and rebuilt from the rubble in the 1970s. This reconstruction also included rebuilding the statues that sit in the exterior niches, honouring four of the ancient virtues - valour, wisdom, intelligence and knowledge. Originally, the library was built to hold over 12,000 scrolls, which were stored in cupboards in the interior walls. Double-layered walls protected the scrolls from heat and humidity.

The Great Theatre is enormous by modern standards. It's hard to believe that it was built in the third century BC, and enlarged by the Romans in the second century to hold 25,000 patrons. One of these patrons might occasionally have been an emperor, as an Emperor's Box was found in the lower area.

All that remains of the Temple of Artemis are these ruins, but it was once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Built completely of marble, it was twice as long and twice as wide as the Parthenon in Athens. The Greek writer and mathematician Philon of Byzantium visited most of the wonders, and wrote, "When I saw the Temple at Ephesus rising to the clouds, all these other wonders were put in the shade."

"Fellow Ephesians, doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?"

- The Bible, Acts 19:35


Sunday, May 17, 2015

This week I made my annual road trip to the Stratford Festival with a few of my girlfriends. On the way there, we noticed a church hosting a "Baking and Plant Sale" in nearby Shakespeare (yes, that's the actual name of the town). As we drove by, I saw big bunches of rhubarb for sale on a table in the parking lot. We talked about pulling over to buy some, but realized that leaving the rhubarb in a warm car for the day wouldn't do it any favours. So we decided to wait and see if there was any still for sale when we drove home.

After strolling the streets of Stratford, having lunch, and seeing The Physicists, we drove back through Shakespeare. The table had moved inside the church. While there were still plants and baking available, the rhubarb was all gone. Seeing my disappointed face, the woman behind the table said, "We've got loads at home! I can get you some more."

I laughed and said it was all right, but she told me she lived only a block away. And before I knew it, she had her husband on the cell phone, asking him to cut some rhubarb and bring it to the church. "I could have asked him to bring what we cut yesterday," she said, "but that wouldn't have been as fresh."

And so it was that ten minutes later, her husband approached the church with a heavy plastic bag in his hand.  She asked me for $2, possibly the least expensive personal delivery of produce since William Shakespeare picked up his first fountain pen. (I convinced her to accept a little extra.)

That's why I'm posting this delicious rhubarb crisp recipe today. I've put the rhubarb I didn't use in the freezer, and I'll enjoy this dessert again sometime when it's out of season.

Rhubarb Apple Crisp


3 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2” pieces
3 cups cored, peeled and sliced Golden Delicious apples, 2 – 3 large
1/2 tsp orange extract
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour


1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp grated orange rind
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup rolled oats (not instant)
1/4 cup finely-chopped (not ground) walnuts
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of ginger
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup cold butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 2-quart baking dish and set to the side.

Measure the rhubarb, apples, orange extract, sugar, and flour into a medium bowl. Toss until combined and pour in the baking dish.

Place the brown sugar and orange rind in a separate bowl and combine until the sugar is scented with the orange rind. Add flour, oats, walnuts and spices, and stir to combine. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle over the fruit mixture and press down gently.

Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes, until the fruit filling is bubbly.

Thursday's Child: Chicago

Thursday, May 14, 2015
Springtime on Chicago's Riverwalk
Last week, my oldest daughter and I helped my mom celebrate her birthday with a few days in Chicago. We may have chosen the most beautiful week of the year to go: it was that perfect time in the spring when everything was coming to life.
Flowers on the Magnificent Mile
The first thing we did when we arrived was visit the Art Institute. Last fall Tripadvisor named it the world's best museum, and it's not hard to see why. Here are some of the many, many works of art that were standouts for us:

Matisse's beautiful Daisies
Chagall's transcendent America Windows
If you recognize this painting, you're a fan of either
pointillism or Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Maybe both.
Hipster studies hipster

It's been said that Van Gogh painted the things that people take pictures of today - their food, and themselves. It was probably inevitable that I'd channel my inner Van Gogh in Millennium Park:
Picnic lunch by Millennium Park Monument
Three-generation photo at The Bean
Later, we timed our trip to the Hancock Tower so we could see day turn into night, and it couldn't have been more spectacular.

"And the embers never fade in your city by the lake."
- from "Tonight, Tonight" by the Smashing Pumpkins

Mother's Day

Sunday, May 10, 2015
"I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard."

- from "The Lanyard" by Billy Collins

The beginning of May is always a busy time in our family. My mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day usually fall in the same week, and they did again this year. That calls for double the celebration. 

I wanted to make a cake for her birthday, but it was complicated by the fact that she, my oldest daughter and I were out of town until just before dinnertime on her birthday. (More about that in Thursday’s post.) I made this cake ahead of time and froze it, which meant I just had to frost it when we got home.

I was thrilled with the results. This is the best vanilla cake I’ve ever eaten. (And it freezes beautifully!) The frosting is lovely, too, but a touch rich; I used jam between the layers instead of using all the frosting, and would definitely do that again. 

Happy Mother's Day!

Vanilla Birthday Cake
(adapted from That Skinny Chick Can Bake; refer here for instructions on making  two 8” cakes)

For cake:
1 cup milk, at room temperature
6 egg whites, at room temperature
2 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla paste or vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 sticks butter (3/4 cup), at cool room temperature

For buttercream frosting:
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) butter, at room temperature
1 Tbsp vanilla paste or vanilla extract (first amount)
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar (icing sugar)
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla paste or vanilla extract (second amount)
2 Tbsp heavy cream

Peach jam or apricot jam (optional)


Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter two 9-inch pans and line with parchment paper.

Make sure milk and eggs are at room temperature. Pour milk, egg whites, almond extract and 1 tsp vanilla paste into a medium bowl, and whisk to combine. Set aside.

Measure cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on the slowest speed, just until combined. Cut 1 1/2 sticks butter into small pieces and add to the batter. Beat for a couple more minutes.

Add half of the milk mixture to the flour mixture, and beat at medium speed for a couple of minutes. Add remaining milk mixture and beat for about one minute.

Pour batter evenly between two prepared cake pans. Bake until toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, 23 to 25 minutes. Allow cake to cool to room temperature.

To make buttercream, beat 2 1/2 sticks of butter at medium-high speed until smooth. Add 1 Tbsp vanilla paste and beat until combined.

Add powdered sugar and salt; beat at medium speed for a minute. Scrape down the sides and beat until mixture is fully incorporated, another minute. Add 1 tsp vanilla paste and heavy cream and beat for 4 minutes at medium-high speed, stopping to scrape down sides as required.

Frost cooled cakes. If you like, spread a thin layer of peach or apricot jam between cake layers instead of vanilla frosting.

Books, Volume 2

Sunday, May 3, 2015
By the book table with one of my own books (The Witch of Bloor Street) and one
of my favourite recommendations (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things)
Photo Credit: A Novel Spot
Last week I told you I'd be supporting Authors for Indies Day by appearing at my wonderful local bookstore, A Novel Spot. What an amazing experience! I made four new author friends, talked to some loyal customers, and had an awesome excuse to spend two hours in one of my favourite places. I came home with some new books, too.

Here are some of the highlights:

With fellow writers Mary Rose Donnelly and Kim Echlin

Joined by Sarah Pietroski, owner of A Novel Spot
My books!
A Novel Spot - an awesome bookstore
And fittingly, I have one more recipe from my book club meeting left to post today. These appetizers are a delicious addition to any appetizer tray!

Baked Asparagus, Leek and Goat Cheese Bites

2 1/2 tsp unsalted butter (plus butter for greasing muffin tins)
6 spears asparagus, tough ends trimmed
1 leek, halved lengthwise, white and light green parts finely chopped
2 ounces fresh goat cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Generously coat the cups of a 12-cup miniature muffin pan with butter.

Thinly slice the asparagus spears crosswise, keeping the tips whole. Set the asparagus tips aside.

In a saut̩ pan oven medium-low heat, melt 2 tsp butter. Add sliced asparagus and leek and cook gently, stirring often, until softened slightly, about 2 Р3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool.

Crumble the goat cheese into a bowl. Add the ricotta cheese and egg, and mash together with a fork until well combined. Mix in the cooled vegetables. Divide the filling evenly among the prepared muffin cups. Bake until puffed and lightly golden on top, 20 – 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining 1/2 tsp butter in a small frying pan over low heat. Add asparagus tips and sauté just until tender, about 1 minute. Slice each tip in half lengthwise and set aside.

When the bites are done, transfer the pan to a wire rack. Run a table knife around the inside of each cup to loosen the edges and then let cool slightly. Invert a large plate or tray over the muffin pan, invert the pan and plate together, and lift off the pan.

Arrange the bites on a platter and top each with an asparagus-tip half. Serve warm or at room temperature.