Sunday, January 30, 2011
I try to be grateful on a daily basis for the many blessings in my life.  Two wonderful children, a supportive husband, a great church community, a career doing what I love most, the ability to travel and see the world, and good health for all.  

But sometimes it’s good to reflect on the small blessings too.  You know, the little things that add grace to your day.  The person who holds the door for you when your arms are full.  The parking spot that miraculously opens up when you’ve been circling for ten minutes.

Yesterday I was grateful for good customer service.

Too often, I get the other kind.  A cashier who shrugs when I ask for help finding something.  Or two clerks who stand around discussing – honestly, you don’t even want to know – while I search the shelves a foot away.

But I’m not here to complain about them.  Yesterday I went to Crate and Barrel at Yorkdale Mall.  A woman by the name of Barb helped us.  She saw us from across the store and walked over to greet us with a friendly smile. She knew the products and graciously walked us around the floor pointing out what I needed.  Not only did she answer my questions, she anticipated questions I hadn’t even thought of.

In short, it was a delight shopping with her, and I was thrilled to give her –  and the store – my business.

(It goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyhow – this is a completely independent opinion.  Crate and Barrel hasn’t offered me anything to post about my experience.  In fact, Crate and Barrel doesn’t even know about my experience.  But they will next week when I write them a letter telling them how great Barb was.)

What little things have you been grateful for this week?

I was also grateful to find this recipe for Caramel Crumb Bars.  This is the kind of bar that you could easily overlook in favour of flashier ones, but don't do that.  It's completely wonderful and satisfying.  Nick Malgieri has said that it’s his favourite.  High praise indeed.

Caramel Crumb Bars
(adapted from The Modern Baker by Nick Malgieri)

16 Tbsp (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 – 2 ¼  cups flour (first amount)
¼ cup flour (second amount, optional)

4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp corn syrup
¼ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened, condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 9 x 13 x 2” pan with parchment paper.

For the dough:
In an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter with the sugar and salt until soft and light, about 2 minutes.  Add the vanilla.

On the lowest speed, beat in the first amount of flour (2 to 2 ¼ cups), mixing just until the flour has been absorbed.

Place ¾ of the dough into the prepared pan, using the palm of your hand to press it down evenly.  Chill.  In the meantime, work the remaining ¼ cup flour into the remaining dough to form crumbs.  Set aside at room temperature.

For the filling:
In a medium saucepan, bring the butter, corn syrup, brown sugar and condensed milk to a simmer, stirring occasionally.  Allow the mixture to boil gently, stirring often, until it starts to thicken and darken slightly, about 8 – 10 minutes.  Pour into a stainless steel bowl to cool for five minutes

Remove the dough-lined pan from the fridge and scrape the cooled filling onto the dough, spreading evenly.  Scatter the crumb mixture on top.

Bake until the filling is bubbling gently and the dough is baked through, about thirty minutes.

Cool in the pan until lukewarm.  Lift the dough out of the pan and onto a cutting board before it has cooled completely.  Cut into 2-inch squares.

Thursday's Child: Passage by Rowboat

Thursday, January 27, 2011
Bled Island.  Photo used courtesy of Sava Hoteli Bled

This month I've written about our forays via car, airplane and raft.  But our most romantic means of transport was taking a rowboat across Lake Bled in the Julian Alps of Slovenia.

I wish I could tell you that ‘Bled’ is Slovenian for ‘fairy tale’.  It seems impossible that such a prosaic name could be given to such a picture-perfect location.  A glacial lake, surrounded by tree-covered mountains, with a tiny island in the middle.  You could easily believe that once upon a time Rapunzel was held in the church tower on the island.  And that only by rowing across the lake could the prince release her.

In truth, the voyage to the island wasn’t nearly full of the perils that would be required for a prince to prove himself.  It was a short twenty minute trip from dock to dock.  We all took turns rowing, although Andrew was the only one capable of steering the boat toward a destination rather than taking us in circles.  But the day was warm, the breeze was mild, and we were in no hurry.
Master oarsman
Bled Island was as lovely a destination as we had hoped. We climbed the stone stairway of ninety-nine steps that leads from the dock to the church. We admired the views back to the alps on the mainland.  We visited the church and rang the wishing bell, which guarantees that our wishes would come true.  As we took in the beauty around us, we felt as if they already had.
Departing Bled Island
The lake is small enough to walk around in a few hours, which is what we did the following day.  We climbed a steep pathway to reach the medieval castle that overlooks the lake. (Set on a high, rocky cliff, it’s a more likely place to have imprisoned Rapunzel.)  On our walk, we fed the swans, and stopped for lunch at a little restaurant with a perfect view of the lake and the island.  But for sheer fairy-tale beauty and tranquility, nothing beat the rowboat trip to Bled Island.

Piano exams

Sunday, January 23, 2011

My youngest daughter took her Grade 6 piano exam on Friday.   And it took me back to my own piano lessons when I was a kid.  Now if this was Andrew’s blog, he’d write about taking lessons from a nun, who made liberal use of ruler to back of hands when necessary.  But I had two kindly teachers, neither of whom believed corporal punishment had any place in piano lessons.

I took lessons for years, eventually getting my grade nine piano, and I have mostly good memories of my exams.  When I took my first one at the age of eight, my mother tells I came skipping out of the room with a grin, saying, “That was fun!  Can I do it again?”

The best part was always the treat afterward.  We lived on a farm in a very small town, and taking an exam meant a half-hour drive to the nearest city.  Not only would I miss a day of school, my mom always gave me a treat afterward – my choice between a new book of popular music or an ice cream sundae.  As I got older, I went for the music book.  (Barry Manilow Live, anyone?)  But the first few exams were always celebrated with a banana split, while I told my mom about every minute of the exam.

My tastes have changed a little.  I’ve never lost my sweet tooth, but an ice cream sundae is a bit too rich for me.  Now I’d go for vanilla frozen yogurt with either chocolate or butterscotch sauce.  And since this is the weekend after her exam, I gave my daughter the choice.  She chose chocolate.  This makes a small batch, so feel free to double the recipe – if you can withstand the temptation!

Hot Fudge Sauce
(adapted from my mother's recipe box)

3 1/2 Tbsp cocoa
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla

Melt cocoa and butter over low heat.  Add half and half, sugar and vanilla.  Increase heat to medium and stir until thick and smooth.

Thursday's Child: River Rafting in China

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I’ve written before about China, and how one of my favorite traits of the country was the comfortable coexistence of the ancient and the modern. This was seldom more apparent than the day we went river rafting.

We were staying in the Yangshuo area, in rural southern China.  While there, we hired two rafters to take us down the Meeting Dragon river.  Rafts are built in the traditional style, using a series of logs lashed together.  The only modifications were the lawnchairs we sat in, and the plastic bags they placed on our shoes to keep our feet dry. 

As we drifted down the river, we were astonished by the beauty of the limestone karst mountains we passed.  The only sound came from one of the boatsmen, who whistled music that sounded as if it had been passed down for a thousand years.  If I closed my eyes, I wondered if I’d open them again in the 12th century.

We passed over a small set of rapids, and the rafts were steered to the shore.  Upon getting out, we were led to a couple of tents nearby.  I was puzzled – our guide had clearly said we’d travel to the bridge, and I could still see it ahead.

This was just a stop, and it was their one concession to technology.  The people in the tents had taken our photos with digital cameras as we traveled over the rapids, and were now ready to show us the images on their computer screens.  For a small sum, they would be happy to print them out and laminate them for us!

And now we have a very modern memento of our very ancient ride down the Meeting Dragon river.

Winter in Toronto

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Finally, the snow we’ve been waiting for has arrived!  Although we technically had a white Christmas, there’s been little snow on the ground this winter.  Until this week.

I’m not saying I like winter.  In fact, I’d more or less say I don’t like winter.  You’ll never hear me complaining about the humidity in the summer or the shortening days in the fall, mostly because I’m so grateful for the humidity or the darkness instead of icy sidewalks and fourteen layers of clothes.

But even a non-winter fan like me appreciates the beauty of a fresh snowfall.  I loved being one of the first ones outside in the morning, when the sun was just beginning to rise.  The snow was still undisturbed and lay in soft mounds, undulating like ocean waves frozen in place. Later in the day, my teenagers went tobogganing, and I greeted them back here with hot chocolate topped with bobbing marshmallows.

Still the beauty doesn’t compensate for those icy sidewalks, and for the slushy roads and needing extra time to scrape the ice off my windshield.  For wet boots leaving puddles in my front hall, and finger-numbing temperatures.  And (for long-suffering hockey fans) for the dreary ennui of the Toronto Maple Leafs losing yet another game.  January and February usually find me longing for warmer days.

And I think that’s why this dessert appealed to me.  These lime cheesecake squares taste like summer.  No, they are summer.  When I closed my eyes and bit into them, for a few minutes I wasn’t in Toronto in a snowstorm, I was in ancient Persia, reclining in a hammock in a palace courtyard.  Not bad, for an investment of a few minutes in the kitchen.

Lime cheesecake squares
(adapted from Modern Comfort Food)

1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 tsp sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
1 14-ounce tin sweetened, condensed milk
8 ounces cream cheese
2 egg yolks
9 Tbsp lime juice, about five small limes (the original recipe calls for key lime juice, but I can’t find key limes in Toronto in January, and I like fresh limes much better than tinned key limes)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 9 inch square baking pan with parchment paper.

Combine the graham cracker crumbs and sugar, then stir in the melted butter.  Press the crumb mixture firmly into the bottom of the prepared baking pan.  (Optional: save a tablespoon or two of the crumb mixture to decorate the tops of the finished squares.)

In a mixing bowl, whip the condensed milk, cream cheese, egg yolks and lime juice until smooth.  Pour filling over the crumb crust.

Bake for 25 - 30 minutes.  Chill for at least 4 hours before serving.  If desired, top with remainder of crumb mixture.  

Thursday's Child: Airplanes

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Photo used courtesy of Aviation News

Did you ever have one of those trips where you thought you’d never get home?  Where it seemed as if fate was toying with your travel plans, conspiring to take you anywhere except your intended destination?  That’s happened to us only once – the time Andrew, our two daughters and I flew back from Morocco.

Our journey home consisted of two flights:  Marrakech to London, and London to Toronto.  The Moroccan part of the trip was smooth and problem-free. But when we arrived at Heathrow, the line for security stretched beyond eyesight. By the time we made it to the desk, the British Airways agent told us we wouldn’t make our connecting flight to Toronto. There was also a terrible winter storm over much of northeastern U.S. and Canada, and airports were starting to shut down. She couldn’t get us to Toronto, but could fly us into Boston, with an Air Canada flight from Boston to Toronto the following day.

We took it, and ran to make the flight. The plane was about an hour outside of Boston when they announced that Logan airport had been shut down, and they were rerouting us to Montreal. Good news for us – right? Montreal is much closer to Toronto, and maybe we could get a connecting flight that night! However, when we arrived, the flight attendant said no one could get off the plane unless everyone did. After an hour and a half sitting on the tarmac, another announcement was made that Logan airport had reopened and we were flying back to Boston!

When we arrived, it was past midnight – sometime the next morning in Moroccan time. A worker in security told us every hotel in the city was sold out, both because so many flights had been cancelled, and because it was St Patrick’s Day, an already-busy time in the city of Boston.  Undaunted, we decided to double-check at the Hilton, which is directly connected to the airport. The check-in clerk said that indeed they were sold out, but I decided to appeal to her sympathy.  Gently pulling my exhausted daughters (then 12 and 9) up to the counter, I said, “We’re on our way home from Africa.  We’ve already been traveling almost 24 hours.  Is there any way you could find something for my children?”  Her eyes grew big, and she huddled in a back room with a colleague.  And happily, they were able to find half a suite that wasn’t being used. It had no bed, but we were delighted for the pull-out sofa and the extra cot they wheeled in. 

The next morning we woke early, thrilled for the night that we didn’t spend on an airport floor.  As we went to breakfast down the hall and watched the TVs that were turned to CNN, we realized the gravity of the situation.  The lead story was the weather in the northeastern U.S, and video coverage showed people camped out on airport floors across the region – including in Boston.  We quickly made our way back to Logan to check in. Word in the lineup was that the first flight to Toronto had been cancelled that morning, but the second one was expected to go.  We jauntily stepped up to the counter, secure in the possession of our tickets home.  The Air Canada worker took one look at them and said, “These aren’t guaranteed; they’re only a promise for a ticket on the next available flight.  That’s sometime on Tuesday.”  This was Saturday morning.

It worked once – would it work again?  I gently pulled my daughters up to the counter.   (Did I mention that they were exhausted?)  Her eyes grew big, and she huddled in a back room with a colleague.  Discussions were held, arms were waved, heads were shaken.  And still we waited.

Finally she came out with a document in her hand.  “I’ve managed to get you four seats on this flight,” she said.  “If this one doesn’t leave Boston, you’re back to Tuesday.  And if I need to put anyone else on the flight, you’ll be the first ones bumped.”

We took it.  And we spent the next two and a half hours with our backs to the wall, both literally and figuratively.  It was surprisingly pleasant, as people were made friendly by their shared misfortunes.  Telling our story to others seemed to cheer them up.  And we were buoyed, too.  Until we ran into the fellow passenger who told us that they needed to get four flight attendants back to Toronto and would have to bump that many passengers off the flight.

I still don’t know how we held onto those seats.  I don’t think I breathed until we got into them, until we took off, and until we landed in Toronto an hour later.  Of course none of our luggage showed up for a week.  It was a small price to pay for actually getting home. 

And the amazing conclusion is this:  arriving home after spending the last day and a half in five airports, four countries and three continents, I read the email from a publisher saying that she loved my manuscript and wanted to publish my first book.

Life is indeed stranger than fiction.

Classrooms and cookies

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Many of you who know me personally probably already know this.  One of my favourite things about being a writer is getting the chance to give school presentations.  I’m often invited into classrooms to talk about writing to students, and I just love it.  I get so much energy from the kids, and hopefully I give them ideas for their own writing in the process.

This week I did something a little different.  I visited the classroom of the child of a friend of mine, not to instruct, but to talk about being an author.  Throughout the year they have invited adults in to talk about their jobs and Thursday was my chance. 

My favourite part of class presentations is the question and answer period.  Sometimes the kids ask me if I liked writing so much, why I went into banking at all.  (Good one, and I’m not sure I know the answer.)  Sometimes – and this must be the J.K. Rowling factor – they ask me if I get rich from writing.  (Uh, no.)  Once I was asked if people ask me for my autograph all the time.  (Not unless you count the cheques I write to the phone company, the gas company, …)

More than anything, I hope what the kids heard was a story of second beginnings – of changing your career in mid-life, and in the process making your dreams come true.  I was talking to a writer friend yesterday, one who has won the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year award.  (And yes, that’s as prestigious as it sounds.)  We agreed how incredibly blessed we are to be writers. 

For me, baking and writing go together well.  Thursday morning, while I was thinking about what I’d say to the students, I baked a batch of World Peace Cookies.  While I was beating the butter, I thought about how I loved to write as a kid, but took sensible courses in university to prepare me for a job in banking.  While I was stirring in the chocolate chips, I remembered how, when I left my job to become a full-time stay at home mom, I decided to take up writing again.  And when I rolled the batter into logs to store in the fridge, I thought about the writing courses I took, the rejections I received from publishers, and the many wonderful writers I met en route to getting my first book published.

World Peace Cookies
(from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From my Home to Yours)

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 stick plus 3 Tbsp (11 Tbsp in all) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup mini chocolate chips

Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.

In a separate bowl, beat the butter until soft and creamy.  Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla and beat for 2 minutes more.

Stir in the dry mixture, then add the chocolate chips, mixing only to incorporate.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half.  Shape each piece into a log that is 1½ inches in diameter.  Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  (Dorie says to refrigerate for 3 hours.  I made half the batch after one hour and the other half after three hours, and didn’t notice a difference.)  The dough can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for up to three months. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.    Using a sharp knife, slice the logs into rounds that are ½ inch thick.  If the dough cracks as you cut it, just squeeze the bits back into place.

Bake the cookies for 12 minutes.  Let them cool until they are warm, at which time you can remove them from the baking sheet.

Thursday's Child: Rental Cars

Thursday, January 6, 2011
We wouldn't have made it to our remote Pyrenees hotel
without a rental car

Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, "Life is a journey, not a destination".  And many of our most vivid vacation memories are from travelling from one place to another.  We've journeyed in planes, trains, and automobiles, and used funiculars, ferries and our own feet. This month I'll focus on some of the interesting ways we've gone from point A to point B.

We’ve always believed that part of seeing a country means getting out of the cities, and over the years we’ve rented many a car to do just that.  Our first rental experience was before the girls were born.  Andrew and I had flown to England a year into our marriage to meet his English relatives, most of whom hadn’t been able to attend our wedding.  Andrew gamely mastered using a stick shift with his opposite hand and my role was to chant “left, left, left” every time we started the car, to remind him to stay on the left side of the road.  Our biggest challenge on that trip, however, were the one-lane roads in Wales, where we competed with local sheep for supremacy of the street.

As much as I love to travel, I am stunningly poor at reading maps.  Over the years, Andrew has developed saintlike patience in interpreting my cryptic directions.  It doesn’t matter how much I peruse them before we set off.  The map always looks different in the hotel room than it does in the passenger seat.  This summer, as we headed north from Paris in our little rental car, Andrew remain unflustered as I shouted, “Oh no!  We’re on the road to Rouen!”  (This line is funny only if said out loud, in a poor French accent.)

As a result, you’d think we’d be fans of using a GPS on holidays, but our experience proved otherwise.  A few years ago we drove from Munich to Prague, and missed the correct entrance to the autobahn.  Although we quickly recovered and found the next entrance, the GPS spent the rest of our trip telling us to drive back to Munich and take the correct turnoff.  Three hours later, she was still barking at us – in German – to drive all the way back and do it correctly.  We felt like four-year-olds with our hands in the cookie jar.

We’ve recovered from all our rental car experiences, but the most eloquent one came courtesy of someone else.  Upon leaving Mont St. Michel in France this summer, we were reminded of the importance of always reading road signs, particularly when they refer to changing tides:
Mont St Michel parking lot, high tide

Prints in the Sand

Tuesday, January 4, 2011
My husband’s day job is in marketing, but his true love is music.  Andrew has earned his Associateship in Music in piano performance, and still loves to relax making music.

A few days before Christmas, he went into a recording studio to make some of his music into a CD.  Our talented friend Laura McAlpine accompanied him on vocals.  We know Laura from the time they played together in the church rock band at Islington United.  She has a glorious voice, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for her talent – and her friendship.

Together they recorded three original compositions and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.  I think the finished results are so amazing that I wanted to share them with you.  The most polished piece in the collection is “Prints in the Sand”, based on the well-known poem “Footprints in the Sand”.  Andrew and Laura played this many times in the past and everything just clicked in the studio.  I think this version sounds absolutely perfect!  You can listen to it here.

But the song I’m proudest of is “Bouquet”.  That’s because my 16-year-old daughter wrote the lyrics for it!  At Andrew’s request, she gave him lyrics for his birthday gift, and he composed the music to go with it. I may be slightly biased, but I think it’s sensational!  Here’s the link.

Christmas Traditions

Sunday, January 2, 2011

One of the best parts of the holidays is spending time with family and friends.  And between Christmas and New Years', we were lucky to spend a couple of days at the cottage of our friends, the Jay family.

After living in China for three years, the Jays were back in Cincinnati for all of twelve months before moving to Switzerland.  With all this traveling, you’d think we’d lose touch with each other.  But we see them at least three times a year, on their visits to Canada in the summer and at Christmas.  And each time, our girls and theirs pick up their friendship as if they’d never been apart.

This trip was full of traditions, as we went tobogganing, sang Christmas carols and made stone soup over a campfire.  And we enjoyed our first annual tournament of Tailgate Toss – a tournament won by Andrew and me!  This victory owed much more to Andrew’s good hand-eye coordination than my, uh, good sportsmanship.

Chocolate Oatmeal Almost-Candy Bars were the perfect squares to take along to the Jays’.  There’s nothing pretentious about them; they’re full of great things like chocolate and peanuts with an oatmeal base.  They were as fun to eat as they were to bake.

This recipe comes courtesy of Dorie Greenspan’s wonderful cookbook, Baking: From my home to yours.  A wonderful Christmas was made even better because my sister bought me my very own copy. Thanks, Gwen!

Chocolate Oatmeal Almost-Candy Bars
(from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From my home to yours)

For the oatmeal layer

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 cups old-fashioned oats (not instant)
1 cup salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

For the chocolate layer
1-14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup raisins (I didn’t use these, due to family preferences)
¾ cup coarsely chopped peanuts, preferably salted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

To make the oatmeal layer:

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.  In a separate bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until it is soft and creamy.  Add the brown sugar and beat for 2 minutes, then add the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each egg is added.  Beat in the vanilla. The mixture should be light and fluffy.  Add the dry ingredients and stir to mix, then stir in the oats and chopped peanuts.

Divide the mixture into two bowls, setting aside 1 ½ to 2 cups of it until later.  Turn the remaining dough into the buttered pan, evenly pressing it down.  Set aside while you prepare the next layer.

To make the chocolate layer:

Set a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.  Put the condensed milk, chocolate chips, butter and salt in the bowl and stir occasionally until the milk is warm and the chocolate and butter are melted.  Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the vanilla and peanuts (and raisins, if you’re using them).

Pour the warm chocolate over the oatmeal crust, then scatter the remaining oatmeal mixture over the top.  Don’t try to spread it, and don’t worry about getting the topping even.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes.  Transfer the baking pan to a rack and cool for about two hours.

Run a blunt knife between the edges of the cake and the pan, and carefully turn it out onto a rack.  Turn right side up and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before cutting.  Cut into 32 rectangles and serve.