Recipes inspired by musicals: White Christmas

Saturday, December 24, 2011

You probably know the story already: Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is part of a two-man entertainment act with Phil Davis (Danny Kaye).  Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney) is part of an act with her sister, Judy (Vera-Ellen).  They all end up at the same inn in Vermont; great music and romantic hijinks ensue.

What isn’t there to love about this movie?  Here are my top five favourite things about White Christmas:

5. The dancing.  Vera-Ellen was a former Rockette, and she lights up the screen every time she performs, from the perfectly titled “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing” to “Mandy”.

4. The scene where the General walks into the dining room on Christmas Eve and – well, if you’ve seen the movie, you know what happens.  If you haven’t, watch it.

3. Mary Wickes as housekeeper Emma.  Even if you think you don’t know her, you do.  She made several appearances on I Love Lucy.  She played Bette Davis’s nurse in Now Voyager.  She played Aunt March in the 1994 version of Little Women.  She even had an ongoing role in TVs The Father Dowling Mysteries.  (Yes, I watched The Father Dowling Mysteries.  If there’s any sentence I could type that would make me less cool, please don’t let me know.)

2.  The musical number “Sisters”.  It’s sweet when the Haynes sisters sing it and funny when Bing and Danny sing it.  My sister Gwen and I still sing it sometimes, without the props.

1.  I watch it every December.  I make my family watch it with me, and there’s generally an assortment of complaints as we make our way downstairs to the family room.  Then the movie starts and, for two hours, they are as enraptured as I am.

You’re wondering how this relates to food? 

Betty and Bob meet in the inn one evening, both unable to sleep, and Bob offers to serve her a sandwich.  She tells him that she doesn’t care what kind he makes:

Bob: Tell me what you want to dream about and I'll know what to give you.

Betty: What's that?

Bob:  I got a whole big theory about it.  Different kinds of food make for different kinds of dreams. If I have a ham and cheese on rye I dream about a tall cool blonde.  Turkey, I'll dream about a brunette.

Betty: What about liverwurst?

Bob: Oh, I dream about liverwurst.

When I made these chicken salad sandwiches, I’m pretty sure I dreamed about chicken salad.  Many of my favourite recipes come from The Barefoot Contessa and this recipe, simple as it is, is up there with the best.

Later in that scene, Bob went on to sing “Counting My Blessings Instead of Sheep”:

“When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep. 
I fall asleep counting my blessings.”

To my family, friends, and faithful readers, I wish you a very happy holiday season, and a New Year full of blessings.

Chicken Salad Sandwiches

4 split (2 whole) chicken breasts, bone in, skin on
good olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup good mayonnaise
1 1/2 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1 cup small-diced celery (2 stalks)
8 to 10 slices seven-grain bread
1 package mesclun salad mix

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the chicken breasts, skin side up, on a sheet pan and rub them with olive oil.  Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.  Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.  Set aside to cool.

When the chicken is cool, remove and discard the skin and bones and cut the chicken into 3/4 inch cubes.  Place the chicken in a bowl and add the mayonnaise, tarragon, celery, 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper and toss well.

To assemble, spread a little butter on half the bread slices, top with the chicken salad and mesclun mix, and cover with the remaining slices of bread.  Cut in half and serve.

Thursday's Child: December at The Beach

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Admit it: when you read the title, you thought I was taking you to the Bahamas, didn’t you? 

No, this week I’m writing about the Beach in Toronto, admittedly not the first Christmas destination that comes to mind, but a great local area for a beautiful walk and some shopping.

If we’d visited this area in the summer, we’d have battled crowds.  The Beach is justifiably popular when the weather is warm, with volleyball players, dog walkers, cyclists and sunbathers all looking for space.  But in December we had the boardwalk almost entirely to ourselves.  The sun sparkled on the water and the sand stretched out untouched as far as we could see.

After a brisk walk we made our way up to Queen Street.  There were a lot of cute independent stores, but we had our hearts set on one – The Nutty Chocolatier.  They have the most amazing selection of specialized chocolates and imported food I’ve ever seen.  Homemade chocolate bark, Star Wars Pez dispensers, British chocolate bars that one of us recognized from her childhood, German marzipan, tinned goods from Marks and Spencer – the hardest part was making a decision.

What did I buy?  I can’t say until after the stockings have been opened!

Recipes inspired by Musicals: Yellow Submarine

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Most of the musicals I’ve written about are from the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of Hollywood musicals.  Singin’ in the Rain, Oliver!, and Guys and Dolls fit into that time span. They also sounded the way people expected a musical to sound.

This week’s entry is a little outside the norm.  Although it was released in the same year as Oliver!, Yellow Submarine blazed its own path.  The plot is equally as psychedelic as the animation, and the Beatles’ music shocked traditionalists.  I can’t say it’s one of my favourites, but the girls loved this movie.  What child wouldn’t be amused by the Blue Meanies or thrilled by the idea of travelling in a submarine?

The words to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” may or may not have been inspired by drugs (Paul said yes, John said no).  But to me they always sounded like a beautiful daydream in a stunning landscape, from the “marmalade skies” to “cellophane flowers of yellow and green”.  And didn’t you envy those rocking-horse people who ate marshmallow pies?

I loved this lime marshmallow pie.  The lime filling was so good that another time I’d make more (maybe increasing the recipe by one half, or even doubling it).  And the marshmallow topping was delicious enough to tempt even the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

Lime Marshmallow Pie

Graham cracker crust:
1/3 cup butter
1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 Tbsp sugar

Filling: (for even more lime flavour, double this!)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Grated zest of 2 limes

1 envelope unflavoured gelatin
1/4 cup cold water (first amount)
1/3 cup cold water (second amount)
1/3 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup sugar
3 large egg whites
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

To make the crust, melt 1/3 cup butter.  Add graham cracker crumbs and 1 Tbsp sugar, and stir to combine.  Press firmly into a 9” pie plate.

To make the filling, combine the lime juice, 1/2 cup sugar, salt, eggs, egg yolks, 6 Tbsp butter and the lime zest in a medium saucepan.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and the edges just barely begin to bubble. Pour the mixture through a mesh strainer into the crust.  Bake for eight minutes, until the filling is just set.

Remove the pie from the oven.  Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees.

To make the topping, in a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the 1/4 cup cold water and allow it to soften and swell for 5 minutes.

In a small saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the remaining 1/3 cup water with the corn syrup and 1/2 cup sugar over medium-high heat.  When the sugar syrup reaches about 210 degrees, start whipping the egg whites.  When the egg whites are frothy and the syrup temperature has climbed to 245 degrees, remove the pan from the heat. Increase beater speed to high and, with the mixer running, slowly dribble the syrup into the whites, being careful to avoid pouring hot syrup on the beaters or side of the bowl.

Scrape the softened gelatin into the still-warm saucepan used to make the sugar syrup and stir until melted.  With the mixer running, slowly drizzle the gelatin into the egg whites.  Add the vanilla and continue to beat until the mixture is cooled to room temperature, 5 to 10 minutes.

Using a spatula, spread the topping over the foiling, creating swirls and billowy peaks. Bake until the topping is golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes

Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Thursday's Child: The Toronto Christmas Market

Thursday, December 15, 2011

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that last December I wrote about the wonderful Christmas markets in Europe and how I’d love to visit them someday.  But we’re lucky to have our own Christmas market in Toronto.  It doesn’t have the history of the European markets but, only two years in, it’s one of my favourite things to do in December.  This market features everything you’d want in an old-fashioned Christmas – an enormous tree, choirs singing Christmas carols, and several small streets lined with stalls featuring gifts and food from around the world. 

I visited on one of the few cold days we’ve had this winter, but the hot apple cider kept me warm.  (Another time, a visit to the Beer Gardens might do the same.)  Artisan cheese, poutine and Oktoberfest sausage were just a few of the many delicious food items for sale.

The stalls were adorable with a great choice of gifts and personal items.  I loved the carved wooden ornaments and fabric decorations.  Another stall sold beautiful Christmas greenery, any of which I’d have gladly brought home.  I couldn’t resist the soft wool mittens made from old sweaters, and they’ve kept me warm ever since.

I visited last week when my friend’s daughter was singing with her choir.  These super-talented teenagers gave a short but brilliant performance of Christmas music.  Their lovely voices brought shoppers from all directions to hear their Christmas message: "Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy".

Recipes inspired by Musicals: Singin' in the Rain

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I think everyone would agree that Singin’ in the Rain is Gene Kelly’s movie. There isn’t a song and dance routine more iconic than “Singin’ in the Rain”.  I could watch it every day and still be charmed.  Gene Kelly was a notorious perfectionist who pushed himself and his fellow actors to give the best performance possible.  According to, Kelly had a temperature of 101 degrees while this number was being filmed, but kept going until it was perfect.

However, there are four minutes in the middle of the movie that belong to costar Donald O’Connor.  In the amazingly energetic “Make ‘Em Laugh”, he does just that as he pays homage to comedy in the movies:

“Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite,
And you can charm the critics and have nothin' to eat,
Just slip on a banana peel, the world's at your feet,
Make 'em laugh,
Make 'em laugh,
Make 'em laugh.”

“You start off by pretending you're a dancer with grace,
You wiggle 'till they're giggling all over the place,
And then you get a great big custard pie in the face,
Make 'em laugh,
Make 'em laugh,
Make 'em laugh.”

These lyrics could only have inspired a banana cream pie.  Which is why it's fortunate that my mom was here recently, and brought with her a determination to turn me into a pie crust expert.  Although I make the occasional pie crust, I do so seldom and reluctantly, and it's her fond wish that I live up to a long-standing family tradition of excellent pie-making.  Four pie crusts later, some small progress may have been detected.  In the meantime, with my mother's able assistance, I was able to bake this pie. 

I’m delighted to say that I neither slipped on a banana peel nor got the pie in my face at any time in its making.  And my family was far too busy enjoying the pie to laugh at anything I may have been doing.

Banana Cream Pie
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours)

For the custard:
2 cups whole milk
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup packed brown sugar, pressed through a sieve
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
3 ripe but firm bananas
one 9" pie crust, fully baked and cooled

For the topping:
1 cup cold whipping cream
2 Tbsp confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 Tbsp sour cream

To make the custard:

Bring the milk to a boil.  Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, whisk the yolks together with the brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and salt until well-blended and thick.  Whisking without stopping, drizzle in about 1/4 cup of the hot milk (this will warm the yolks so they won't curdle).  Then, still whisking, add the rest of the milk in a steady stream.  Put the pan over medium heat and, whisking constantly, bring the mixture to a boil.  Boil, still whisking, for 1 to 2 minutes before removing from the heat.

Whisk in the vanilla extract.  Let stand for 5 minutes, then whisk in the bits of butter, stirring until the custard is smooth.  Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the custard to create an airtight seal and refrigerate until cold.  

When you are ready to assemble the pie, peel the bananas and cut them on a shallow diagonal into 1/4" thick slices.

Whisk the cold custard vigorously to loosen it, and spread about one quarter of it over the bottom of the pie crust (it will be a thin layer).  Top with half of the banana slices.  Repeat, adding a thin layer of custard and the remaining bananas, then smooth the rest of the custard on top.

To make the topping:

Beat the cream until it just starts to thicken.  Add the confectioners' sugar and vanilla and beat until the cream holds firm peaks.  Gently fold in the sour cream.

Spoon the topping over the filling and spread it evenly to the edges of the custard.

Thursday's Child: St. Jacobs, Ontario

Thursday, December 8, 2011

St. Jacobs, Ontario is a village about an hour outside of Toronto, worth a trip any time of year but especially festive at Christmas. St. Jacobs was originally settled by Mennonites in the mid-nineteenth century and their influence is strong, from the horses and buggies that we passed, to the quilt shops throughout town.  I wasn’t sure of the ethics of photographing a local driving a horse and buggy and posting it online, so instead I'm sharing a road sign that’s common in St. Jacobs:

In town, a set of silos has been restored to hold a pottery shop and other studios.  Along the main street, businesses include antique shops, a stained glass purveyor and a corn broom maker.  And regardless of whether you’re visiting in December or in June, you can drop in at the Christmas shop.

One of the loveliest attractions was a mural painted on the side of a gift shop, portraying the Mennonite way of life.

We ended our visit with a visit to the Stone Crock bakery.  We did ask about photographing the bakers here, and were granted permission.  In addition to running a wonderful café, these women were hard at work baking mince tarts and fruitcake, among other sweet Christmas treats.  We knew the food had to be great judging by the number of locals sitting in the café, and we weren’t disappointed.  The beef and vegetable soup was almost chunky enough to be a stew, and the meat and vegetables were absolutely delicious.  And it was only through strict will power that we didn’t come home with a dozen cinnamon buns or lemon meringue tarts.

Andrew and I loved our peaceful, midweek visit to this village.  Although it turns into a bustling little town on the weekends and in the summer, it has retained enough of its heritage to be an appealing place to visit.    

Recipes inspired by musicals: The Wizard of Oz

Sunday, December 4, 2011
Back by popular demand, it’s a month of recipes inspired by musicals!  I first did a musical month in July, when I wrote about meringues inspired by the show Wicked, and four other recipes from musicals that I love.  I'll be starting this month with one of the most beloved musicals ever.

Did anyone else watch The Wizard of Oz every year at Christmas?  That movie had it all – an orphan hero, a quest to return home, fantastic sidekicks and an over-the-top evil villain.  No matter how many times I watched it, there was always something new.  Thanks to Judy Garland's lovely voice, Roy Bolger's graceful dancing and Margaret Hamilton's amazing portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, it really has stood the test of time. 

Despite all the great songs from this show, the one everyone remembers is "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".  When Dorothy wistfully sang about travelling over the rainbow, she spoke to all of us who wanted to make our dreams come true:
“Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.”

These dreamy lyrics inspired me to bake Lemon Drop Cookies.  I love lemon desserts, and these cookies are one of my favourite new finds.  If you bake them, your troubles truly will melt away.

Lemon Drop Cookies
(adapted from One Lovely Life)

1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
zest of 2 lemons
1 egg
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cup four
1 cup lemon drop candies, crushed (some bigger pieces, some smaller)
1/4 to 1/2 cup powdered sugar


In a large bowl, combine sugar and lemon zest.  Cream sugar mixture with butter.  Beat in egg, lemon juice and vanilla.  Stir in flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda.  Add crushed lemon drops and stir until just combined.

Chill dough in the refrigerator about 30 minutes.

Place powdered sugar in a shallow bowl.  Form cookies by rolling heaping teaspoonfuls of dough into balls and rolling in powdered sugar.

Place cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  (Note: these cookies spread, so don’t crowd the cookie sheet.) Bake at 350 degrees for 9-10 minutes, or until edges are set and centres are just slightly soft.  Allow cookies to cool on cookies sheets for about 3 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

Makes 24 cookies.

Thursday’s Child – Montgomery’s Inn, Toronto

Thursday, December 1, 2011
Often in my Thursday posts I write about locales that are far away.  But sometimes I like to remind myself of the amazing places close to home.  So for the month of December, I’ll be writing about the city where I live, Toronto, and some fun Christmas activities in the area. 

Montgomery’s Inn is a local museum that was not only an inn, but also a bar, a farm and a homestead.  Established in a rural area in 1830 by Thomas and Margaret Montgomery, it’s now a busy city intersection. From the kitchen through the bar and ballroom, the curator has compiled enough information to keep any history student fascinated.  For example, tenants generally shared their room with strangers, and those rooms would have been unheated. The most popular drinks in the bar were beer and whiskey, but Montgomery also sold meals, cheese, crackers, tobacco and pipes.  And according to the inn brochure, “chairs were occasionally broken” in the bar.  Sounds like a lively place.

Although staff doesn’t decorate the inn itself (at the time, Christmas decorations weren’t in vogue), the tearoom is decorated.  And the range of activities over the next month is unbelievable: Visitors to the inn can take part in gingerbread workshops or participate in an evening of singing 19th century carols.  "A Christmas Carol" is being performed later this month.  And if you want a more mobile activity, the Twelfth Night Dance Party on January 7 is not to be missed.  (No chairs will be harmed in this activity.)

Montgomery’s Inn has been targeted for possible closure by the city to save funds. In addition to being a great landmark (and possibly the best place ever to attend a Twelfth Night Dance Party), it’s a true part of the community.  We have friends who rent the dining area every year to host a community potluck and when we go we’re reminded of how fortunate we are to live in a city that celebrates its history.  Let’s hope this history isn’t forgotten, and Montgomery’s Inn is saved.

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

A week in review

Sunday, October 30, 2011

As I wondered what to write about today, I drew a blank.  Although I had a great week, nothing seemed big enough to base a blog post on.  So instead, I decided to write a quick recap of the past seven days.  It was a week full of blessings:

n     We attended the wedding of my youngest daughter’s church choir leader, a beautiful small wedding at our church.
n     With my friend Trish, I went to an International Festival of Authors event on Monday night that featured Governor-General nominees reading from their books.
n     I took my oldest daughter to a university open house, the third that we’ve visited this fall.  It’s hard to believe that in a few months she’ll be committing to one of them.
n     I watched game 7 of the World Series with my husband.  Is there anything better than Game 7 (even if Game 6 was the one no one will ever forget)?
n     And, best of all, I’m writing again!  After spending most of this fall with no ideas and little motivation, I’m finally feeling inspired. 

I’m also blessed to have discovered another Pear Crisp recipe that I love.  Those of you with long memories will remember that last fall, not only did I publish an Apple Pear Cherry Crisp recipe, I actually called it The Ultimate Fall Dessert.  But when it comes to food, I never leave perfection unchallenged.  When I tried the new recipe, I knew I’d found another winner.  The crystallized ginger gives this dessert a gentle warmth that plays beautifully against the cool pears.  Although Bon Appetit calls this dessert a crumble, to me it’s a crisp all the way.

How was your week?

Pear Crumble with Crystallized Ginger

For topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant)
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
dash of kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

 For filling:
3 pounds firm but ripe pears, peeled, cored, cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup sugar
2 Tbsp minced crystallized ginger
1 1/2 Tbsp unbleached all purpose flour


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Butter a 13” by 9” glass baking dish (mine was a bit smaller and it worked fine). 

To make the topping, mix first five ingredients in a medium bowl.  Add butter and incorporate until moist clumps form.

For the filing, combine pear slices and lemon juice in a large bowl.  Add remaining ingredients and toss to blend. 

Transfer filling to prepared dish.  Sprinkle topping on top, and bake crumble until pears are tender and topping is golden brown and crisp, about 45 minutes.  Cool at least 20 minutes.  Serve warm or at room temperature.