Thursday's Child: The Grand Canyon

Thursday, April 28, 2011
This month I’ve been writing about beautiful outdoor destinations we’ve visited.  I’ll end it with one of the closest, yet most spectacular, sights we’ve ever seen – the Grand Canyon.

I had a hard time both writing commentary for this post and choosing pictures to accompany it, for the simple reason that neither words nor pictures do it justice.  Before we went, I had seen hundreds of photos of the Canyon.  It looked beautiful, and I was looking forward to seeing it.

But nothing prepared me for the spiritual nature of this visit.  If you’ve been there, you probably know what I mean, and if you haven’t, you’ll just have to go yourself.  The depth of the gorge, the reach of the canyon to the horizon and beyond, the striking and ever-changing colours – and still it adds up to much more than the sum of all these parts.

We were thrilled to visit the Canyon with our daughters when they were 10 and 7, and I wouldn’t have changed that for the world.  We listened to a ranger talk about the history and geology of the area, we hiked into the gorge twice, and we watched the sun both set and rise over the canyon.  But if I ever get back, I’ll set aside the time just to sit, and to watch, and to take it all in.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

For those of you who have followed my blog over the last few weeks, you’ll know about my giving up baking for Lent.  I had no idea what an important part of my life it was until I had to quit.  From Ash Wednesday through this morning, I didn’t bake a single sweet good.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult.  It truly felt like forty days fasting in the desert.  I queried the spiritual leaders in my congregation to find out precisely when I could start baking again.  (The consensus was sundown on Saturday, but as I was at church until 10:00 last night, it was a moot point.)

My commitment also meant I was mostly giving up dessert, too, as store-bought sweets just don’t cut it for me.  Twice I broke down and begged my oldest daughter to bake a batch of cookies. I also found myself wondering what would happen if I googled “wild honey and locust dessert”.  But only if I could find an unbaked version. 

More than a few of you asked what my first dessert would be when I started baking again. Whatever I made would please my husband, who had heroically given up my baking for Lent.  But it had to involve a lot of chocolate to placate my 13-year old, who gave up chocolate. And it had to be something my whole family would love.

In the end, choosing the first dessert was the easiest part of my resolution.  I’ve been eyeing the Peanut Butter Brownie recipe on Smitten Kitchen for a while, and this was the perfect dessert to break my fast. 

By the way, I now plan to bake up a storm to make up for those lonely, barren Lenten weeks.  I’ve already made promises to my youngest daughter’s classmates, to my church’s hospitality committee, and to my neighbour’s church fundraiser.  My work is cut out for me – and I couldn’t be happier.

Peanut Butter Brownies

For brownies:
2 sticks (one cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 ¾ cups sugar
1 cup creamy peanut butter
2 large eggs plus one egg yolk
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups semisweet chocolate chips

For ganache:
1 ½ cups semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 13 x 9 inch pan and line with parchment paper.

Beat together butter and sugar until mixture is light and fluffy, then add peanut butter and beat until mixed.  Beat in whole eggs, egg yolk and vanilla.  Stir in flour until just combined.  Mix in 1 ½ cups chocolate chips, then spread batter in baking pan, smoothing top.  Batter will be quite thick.

Bake until brownies are golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes.  Cool completely in pan on a rack.

To make ganache, put 1 ½ cups chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl.  Bring cream to a boil in a small saucepan, then pour over chocolate chips.  Gently stir in butter until it is incorporated, chocolate is melted and a smooth mixture forms.  Spread ganache on cooled brownies and let stand until set, about 15 minutes.

Thursday's Child: Zip Lining for the Terrified

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I don’t like heights.

I don’t like speed.

So what was I doing zip lining in Costa Rica?

From the time we booked our trip, my husband talked about how important it was that we go zip lining.  I was surprised, because he doesn’t like heights or speed either.  But I thought if Andrew could overcome his fears, so could I.

En route to the expedition, he overheard our daughters chatting about what an adventure it was going to be.  He frowned.  “Do these things go really fast?” he asked.

“I think that’s why they call it a zip line.”

And a few minutes later, upon seeing our destination, “We don’t actually go all the way to the top, do we?”


Many of our fears were allayed when we arrived at the zip line centre.  A full set of safety instructions was followed by a lovely gondola ride to the top of the canopy.  A local naturalist guide explained everything we were seeing, and kept us relaxed with his friendly banter.

And then we got to the top.  It was really, really high.  Our path back down would be via ten zip lines.  The first run was short and shallow, perfectly designed to boost a zipper’s confidence.  But they grew longer and deeper, and by the time we reached the fourth run, I looked into a chasm that was seemingly as deep and as wide as the Grand Canyon.  (With a few more trees to break a fall, if necessary.)

I took a breath, turtled into position, and stepped off the platform.

Probably the most relaxing part of zip lining is the zipping itself.  Flying through the air is a pleasant, breezy sensation.  And for anyone who has the nerve to look into the chasm below while in mid-air, I’m sure it’s a lovely view.

On our tenth and final run, a photographer stood at the opposite end taking photos.  My youngest daughter was sufficiently poised to spot the photographer and make faces for the camera.  My oldest daughter floated down as gracefully as a ballerina in mid-pirouette.  My photo shows me grimly clutching the lines as if I was defeating gravity single-handedly.

You've probably noticed that there are no pictures of zip-lining here.  That's because Andrew and I were too nervous to do anything but hold on for our lives.  These photos are of the beautiful Alma del Pacifico where we had a very relaxing vacation when we weren't scaring ourselves to death zip-lining.

Guest blog II: The Sequel

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
I wanted to let you know that my second guest post has been put up on the i-escape blog.  I’ll be posting it on my blog on Thursday, but if you want a sneak peak, take a look here!

The Royal Family

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I love the English monarchy.

I’ve loved it since the first time I visited England.  I had just left my job at the bank, and was spending ten weeks traveling around Europe (mostly by backpack) before going back to school for my MBA.

On one of the last days of my trip, I went to watch the Changing of the Guard, when a bobbie told me it had been cancelled due to a parade.  “You can see the queen,” he said.

To my everlasting shame, I gaped, “You mean the Queen of England?!!”  To his everlasting credit, he answered in the affirmative without a grimace or a rolling of his eyes.

I was traveling on my own, and could change my schedule at a moment’s notice.  So I made a quick change of plans and grabbed a front row viewing space.  Two hours later, the Queen (of England) rode by in a carriage, accompanied by the King of Morocco.  I saw her for about three seconds and I was hooked.

After I graduated from business school and was working, my mother and I traveled to Charleston for a week. I noticed in the local newspaper that Prince Charles was in town for an international meeting of business leaders.  But he was taking a break that day for a public walkabout.  “Can we go?”  I breathed.  My mom agreed, and off we went.  This time, two hours at the fence meant that I got to shake his hand!

I haven’t seen Prince William and Kate Middleton in a parade, nor have I shaken their hands.  But that doesn’t prevent me from looking forward to their wedding.  I can’t claim that I baked these scones in their honour, as the photos were taken in late February.  But if I had known how easy it was to bake scones, and how delicious homemade scones were, I would have made them to celebrate every royal event, big or small. 

I’m a little disappointed in the tradition of morning English weddings, which will require me to get up ludicrously early to watch it.  Perhaps I’ll bake some fresh scones on the morning of April 29th to accompany my cup of tea as I watch the young royals wed.

Cream Scones
(from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home To Yours)

1 large egg
2/3 cup cold heavy cream
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
3/4 cup currants or raisins

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Stir the egg and cream together in a medium bowl.

Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl.  Drop in the butter and toss to coat the pieces of butter with flour.  Cut and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is pebbly.

Pour the egg and cream over the dry ingredients and stir with a fork just until the dough (which will be wet and sticky) comes together.  Don't overmix.  Stir in the raisins, then gently knead the dough by hand in the bowl or turn it with a rubber spatula 8 to 10 times.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour and turn out the dough.  Divide it in half.  Working with one piece at a time, pat the dough into a rough circle that's about 5 inches in diameter.  Cut it into 6 wedges and place it n the baking sheet.  (At this point the scones can be frozen on the baking sheet, then wrapped air-tight.  Don't defrost before baking; just add about 2 minutes to the baking time.)

Bake the scones for 20 to 22 minutes.  Cool for 10 minutes before serving, or wait for them to cool to room temperature.

Thursday's Child: El Tatio geysers, Chile

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Being on holidays can sometimes be a great chance to catch up on the sleep you've missed the rest of the year.  To stay in bed luxuriously long, then gracefully rise to greet the day.

So if you’re setting the alarm for 4:30 in the morning, it must be for something really special.

In the case of the El Tatio geysers in the Atacama desert of Chile, the early hour was more than worth it.  The geysers were about a two-hour drive from our hotel, and they’re most spectacular in the cold air of dawn before the air warms up and the mist disperses.  Thus, the early morning wake up call.

This is the kind of adventure you hire a guide for.  The roads to the geysers are terrible, and the idea of navigating them at night is unimaginable.  As we slowly climbed the winding roads, some of us slept, but I gazed into the impossibly black sky that was punctuated by the brightest stars I’ve ever seen.  The geysers lay at an altitude of 4200 metres, and I could almost feel the air getting cooler and thinner as we traversed the hairpin turns uphill.

El Tatio is home to 8% of the geysers in the world. And it was amazing to walk from one geyser to the next – gingerly, because the ground is fragile in places.  If there’s one thing you don’t want at 7:00 in the morning, it’s a geyser bath. 

When we arrived, our guide Veronica put some tetra packs of chocolate milk into one of the geysers, which we later enjoyed as hot chocolate with our breakfast.

From some vantage points, it felt like we were watching the fountains at Versailles, except these were bursts of hot water and steam gushing into the air.  Some of them erupted, some bubbled, but being in the midst of this field of geysers felt ethereal, like we had stepped into a land of our imaginations.  A land where a variety of heavenly beings might emerge from behind the next column of steam.

Surrounded by the misty air, drifting from one geyser to the next, we could have been in the middle of a Monet landscape.  And as the sun rose, we witnessed an ever-changing view of these wispy miracles.
Veronica at El Tatio geysers

Blogger appreciation

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
For someone who doesn't normally win a lot, I've been very lucky lately, receiving a few gifts from fellow bloggers.  Some of these thanks are overdue, but I'm very grateful!

I received this gorgeous sugar dish from Carolyn at All Day I Dream About Food.  Carolyn modifies many of her recipes to reflect her low-carb, gluten-free lifestyle, and I've learned a lot about healthy cooking from her.

With the Amazon gift card that I got from Erinn at Something Else to Distract Me, I bought these books.  They've all been highly recommended and I can't wait to start reading them. Thanks, Erinn!

And finally, I won this set of stacking bowls from Madelyn at La Petite Pancake.  When I start baking again (after Lent is over), I'll be mixing up a storm in these!


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Having given up baking for Lent, I’m four weeks in and still have lots of recipes left to post.  (I wish I still had lots of baked goods left in my freezer.  Alas, they are long gone.)  The biggest question now is this: which of them will I post in the few weeks left before I’m baking again?

There was no question about which recipe I was posting today.  Spring has finally come to Toronto.  The kids on the street had an extended game of road hockey yesterday.  My oldest daughter went to the park to write, and my youngest went to the park to hang out with a friend.  (They would like me to tell you that they went to different parks.  I’m not sure why this is important, but apparently it is.)  As my neighbours and I start to venture out of our houses after a long winter, we see each other for more than that fleeting moment between house and car.  We can chat without the background sound of shovel on driveway.  And when we do chat, our words aren’t muffled by our scarves, nor are they muted by the hats over our ears.  The warm weather always brings a greater sense of community, and I love it.

I’ll happily eat lemon desserts any time of year, but they’re especially perfect in spring.  These lemon poppy seed muffins are easy to make and, although they’re delicious unadorned, the lemon icing really takes them up a notch.  And if you share them with your neighbours, they’ll definitely add to your sense of community, too. 

Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins
(from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours)

2/3 cup sugar
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
¾ cup sour cream
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 stick (8 Tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 Tbsp poppy seeds

For the icing:
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 – 3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Line muffin pan with paper liners.  Place muffin pan on a baking sheet.

In a large bowl, rub the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and the fragrance of lemon strong.  Whisk in the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  In a large glass measuring cup or another bowl, whisk the sour cream, eggs, vanilla, lemon juice and melted butter together until well blended.  Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and gently but quickly stir to blend.  Do not overmix.  Stir in the poppy seeds.  Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a thin knife inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out clean.  Cool muffins for 5 minutes before removing from the tin.  Cool muffins completely before icing them.

To make the icing:

Put the confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl and add about 1 ½ Tbsp of lemon juice.  Stir to moisten, then add enough additional lemon juice to get an icing that is thin enough to drizzle from the tip of a spoon.

Thursday's Child: Fairy Chimneys in Cappadocia

Thursday, April 7, 2011

This month, I’ll be writing about four amazing outdoor adventures we’ve enjoyed on our trips.  One of my favourite aspects of traveling is seeing the natural beauty in many places around the world, and Cappadocia was one such highlight.

Cappadocia is a region in central Turkey that possesses a landscape that could have come straight from the moon.  These freestanding rocks have been eroded by centuries of flowing rivers and flood waters to resemble rocky spires.  Could it be that they really are the fairy chimneys that they’re known as?

It’s easy to imagine that King Oberon and Queen Titania of A Midsummer Night’s Dream dwelt in a palace as regal and unusual as one of these.  Living here really might make a fairy king perform magic that would make his queen fall in love with a donkey.

These photos were all taken the day we flew into Cappadocia from Istanbul, and if it wasn’t quite like visiting Fairyland, it really was a mysterious and unrecognizable landscape.  We felt as if we’d been transported to another realm where, after you’ve left, you wonder if it really was a dream after all.

Food in literature

Sunday, April 3, 2011

What are your favourite descriptions of food in literature?

There are some great books that have a food theme.  You might choose Chocolat by Joanne Harris. It’s the story of a woman who opens a chocolate shop during Lent, across the street from the church.  (“Chocolate curls, white buttons with colored vermicelli, pain d’epices with gilded edging, marzipan fruits in their nests of ruffled paper … I sell dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints crash-crash-crashing among the hazels and nougatines…”)

Or maybe you’d go with non-fiction.  Laurie Colwin’s wonderful Home Cooking gives recipes along with chapter-length anecdotes about her life. (“Soup embraces variety.  There are silken cream soups that glisten on the spoon and spicy bisques with tiny flecks of lobster.  There are broths in which float tiny tortellini and bouillons served in teacups on cold days or, in the case of my great-aunt Julia Rice, ladled from silver punch bowls and served in punch cups to the conductors on the old Fifth Avenue streetcar during snowstorms.”)

Maybe you’re thinking of a great food scene from a book.  When I asked my daughters for their ideas, one of them mentioned the chocolate frogs that Harry Potter loved.  Or how about the mince and slices of quince that the Owl and the Pussycat served at their wedding?

Two food scenes really resonate with me.  I loved Little Women when I was a girl.  I’ll never forget Jo March sitting in the garret eating apples while she cried over “The Heir of Redclyffe”.  (Didn’t you want to be Jo March?  I did.  And it wasn’t until I saw the 1994 movie that I understood why she chose Professor Bhaer over Laurie.)

The second scene is from a book that I loved along with my girls when they were learning to read.  Poppleton, by the wonderful Cynthia Rylant, is the first in a series of books about a pig and his friends, written for beginning readers.  Poppleton’s friend Fillmore the goat is sick, and needs to take a pill.  He asks Poppleton to hide it in a slice of cake.  Poppleton does, but Fillmore keeps eating the pieces that don’t have the pill in it.  When he finally gets to the last piece, Poppleton asks him if he’s going to eat that, too.  “No,” said Fillmore.  “It has a pill.”

So if I could combine these two food scenes into one perfect food, it would have to be Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for apple cake. The April issue of Canadian Living magazine featured an interview with Dorie and four recipes from her newest book Around my French Table.  When I saw that one of those recipes was Marie-Helene's Apple Cake, I knew I had to try it.  Loaded with apples (four different varieties), it's full of flavour, and even the people in my house who don't usually care for fruit desserts loved this one.  

Give this recipe a try … and don’t forget to leave a comment telling me your favourite food scene in literature!

Marie-Helene's Apple Cake
(From Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table)

¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
4 large apples (if possible, choose 4 different kinds)
2 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
3 Tbsp dark rum (I used rum extract)
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Centre a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.  Generously butter an 8-inch springform pan or line with parchment paper.

Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl.

Peel the apples, cut them in half and remove the cores.  Cut the apples into 1 to 2 inch chunks.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until foamy.  Pour in the sugar and beat for a minute or so to blend.  Whisk in the rum and vanilla.  Whisk in half the flour and, when it is incorporated, add half the melted butter, followed by the rest of the flour and the remaining butter, mixing gently after each addition so you have a smooth, thick batter.  Fold in the apples, turning the fruit so it’s coated with batter.  Scrape the mix into the pan and pat down until it’s even.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.  Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 5 minutes.  Remove from pan, and allow cake to cool until it’s just slightly warm or at room temperature.