Sunday, September 25, 2011

We’ve had kids in soccer for years.  My oldest started playing thirteen years ago when she was four, and just hung up the cleats a couple of years ago.  And my youngest has been playing for ten years.  With all those collective soccer teams, all the hours spent on the playing field (them) and the sidelines (us), our family had never brought home a trophy.

Until yesterday.

The soccer teams are named by country, and this year my youngest daughter was playing for Team Spain.  Following a rocky start in the early season, the team slowly strengthened with great coaching and hard play.  Two weeks ago, they took on the challenging Brazil team and won with a goal in the last ten minutes for a nailbiting 1 – 0 win.  Last week they bested the dynamic Italy team, making an early goal count as they played through a rainstorm that would have made Noah seek cover. The result was a nailbiting 1 – 0 win.

Note the trend.

Yesterday’s game was played on a sunny, warm day against Team America.  Athletic and obviously well-drilled, USA took control of the ball early.  They were a force to be reckoned with, having one of the best goalies in the division as well as a forward whose prowess made us gasp.  (Fortunately, our defense, including my daughter, shut her down brilliantly.)

But Team Spain hung in bravely until halftime.  I don’t know if our coaches brought Knute Rockne in for an inspiring halftime speech, but the tides turned in the second half and suddenly we were in control of the play.  But one potential goal after another was turned away by their goalie, and we watched the clock tick down, knowing that we were within minutes of having the final go to a shootout. 

With thirty seconds to go, a sudden flurry around their net brought all the parents to our feet.  And remarkably, this time the ball went in.  Joy on the field, joy on the sidelines!  And the Pollock family brought home their first soccer trophy.

Whether or not you’ve had a recent win in your family, if you make Dorie Greenspan’s Snickery Squares everyone will feel like a champion.  They’re a little bit of work, from caramelizing the nuts to making the dulce de leche (if you choose to use homemade rather than store bought).  But they are fabulously decadent and well worth the extra time.  Just cut them into small squares, and promise yourself you won’t eat the whole pan. 

Snickery Squares
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From my home to yours)

For the Crust
1 stick (8 Tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp confectioners’ sugar (icing sugar)
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten

For the Filling
1/3 cup sugar
3 Tbsp water
1 1/4 cup peanuts
1 cup dulce de leche (either store-bought or using the directions posted here)

For the topping
3 ounces semi sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate coarsely chopped
1/2 stick (4 Tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter an 8-inch square pan or line with parchment paper, and put it on a baking sheet.

To make the crust, beat the butter until smooth.  Add the flour, sugar, confectioners’ sugar and salt, and beat or stir just until smooth.  Add the yolk and beat just until mixed.  Turn the dough into prepared pan and press it evenly across the bottom.  Prick the dough about a dozen times with a fork.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, then remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature before filling.

To make the filling, have a parchment-lined baking sheet beside the stove.  Put the sugar and water into a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sugar dissolves.  Keeping the heat fairly high, continue to cook the sugar, without stirring, until it just starts to deepen in colour.  Throw in the peanuts and immediately start stirring.  Keep stirring, to coat the peanuts with the sugar.  Within a few minutes, they will be covered with sugar and turn white.  Keep stirring until the sugar turns back into a caramel colour.  Remove the pan from the heat and turn the nuts out onto the baking sheet, using the wooden spoon to spread them out as best you can.  Cool to room temperature.  When they are cool enough to handle, separate into small pieces.  Pour the dulce de leche over the baked crust, then sprinkle about 2/3 of the nuts over the dulce de leche.

To make the topping, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water.  Remove the chocolate from the heat and gently stir in the butter.  Pour the chocolate over the dulce de leche.  Finely chop the remaining nuts then sprinkle them over the chocolate.  Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

Thursday's Child: The Trip Journal

Thursday, September 22, 2011

This month I’ve been writing about some of our traditions that relate to travel.  Today I’m going to share one of my favourites – our family trip journal.

We started keeping a trip journal the year the girls were 6 and 3 and we spent a week in New York state.  We’ve taken it on every trip since, and it’s a wonderful way to both record our trip memories and measure our changes in artistic prowess. 

For example, here’s some artwork from an early trip to Vancouver Island, British Columbia to visit my father-in-law:

This illustration is from the same trip.  My youngest drew the picture of a totem pole.  On the page beside (not photographed), I wrote a description of the totem pole that she dictated to me.

Their artwork has matured to these recent entries:

Even their dad is an amazing artist, as witnessed by this portrait of a day in St Petersburg: 

 No need to photograph my entries as they are text-heavy. Does that surprise anyone?

Goodbye to Summer

Sunday, September 18, 2011
I love the summer and everything associated with it.  Barbecues, swimming, camp for the girls and a family trip for all of us – it doesn’t get better than that.

But there’s one great thing about the end of summer, and that’s the beginning of fall.  As much as I love the fresh fruits and vegetables that I buy all summer, I love the flavours of autumn at least as much.  Apples, pears, pumpkins and squash are just the beginning.

But how do you make the seasonal transition?  Do you go from Raspberry Buttermilk Cake one day to Apple Pear Cherry Crisp the next?  You could – and I’d never argue with that – but if you’re looking for a more gentle transition, try this recipe for Upside Down Peach Gingerbread.  It sounds like a bit of a mismatch; gingerbread is perfect for fall and winter, while peaches are the epitome of summer.  But please don’t let that prejudice you against it.  I can’t tell you how awesome this dessert is, or how often I went back for just another quarter-inch slice.  The peaches and ginger played perfectly off each other, like the beautiful September day that has August’s bright sun and October’s cool, clear air.

Upside Down Peach Gingerbread

4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp water
3 cups peeled, pitted, sliced fresh peaches

6 Tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup molasses
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup buttermilk or yogurt

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9" square cake pan.

To make the topping: Melt the butter with the sugar and water, until butter is melted. Spread into the prepared pan. Top with the peaches, placing the slices side by side in a neat single layer.
To make the cake: Beat the butter, brown sugar, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and salt together until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until smooth. Beat in the molasses. Gently stir in both flours, then the buttermilk or yogurt. Spoon the batter (it will be thick) into the prepared pan, atop the peaches. Gently spread it to reach the edges of the pan.  Bake the cake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove it from the oven, wait 1 minute, then invert it onto a rack. Lift the pan off, and place any peaches that remain in the pan back atop the cake. Serve warm or at room temperature, with ice cream, whipped cream, or just as it is. 

Thursday's Child: Christmas Tree Ornaments

Thursday, September 15, 2011
Although we don't shop much when we're on holidays, there's one item that we search for every time we travel.  One of my favourite parts of any trip is choosing a Christmas tree ornament to bring home with us.

It's added new joy to the Christmas tradition of decorating our tree.  As I unwrap each ornament and hand it over to be hung, we talk about where we bought it and our memories of that trip.  Remember when we visited The Mouth of Truth in Rome?  We'll never forget it, but it's fun to have the ornament to remember it by, too:

Sometimes we search and search, and end up with something different than we expected.  When we couldn't find an ornament commemorating the entire Von Trapp clan in Salzburg, Austria, we had to settle for a rocking horse:

Like many of the best traditions, this one was handed down from my parents.  When we visited Santa's Village in Jefferson, New Hampshire in the 1970s, my parents were clever enough to pick up two elf ornaments.  Now Gwen and I each have one on our tree!

First Day of School

Sunday, September 11, 2011

And now I am the mother of two high-schoolers. 

My oldest is in her final year.  The next few months will be full of applications, and campus visits, and decisions.  Next fall, her first day of school will be celebrated on a university campus yet to be determined.

My youngest is in her first year.  Her next few months will be full of meeting new friends and getting used to a challenging new routine.

For one last year, I had two girls bursting in the front door to tell me about their first day of school.  So it’s no surprise that I marked the occasion with a plate of fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies.    Unable to decide which was a better back-to-school choice, chocolate chip or peanut butter, I settled on both.  These peanut butter and oatmeal chocolate chipsters were a perfect way to ease into the fall.

I remember first days of school when either of them had missing front teeth, and when I held their hands to meet their teachers.  I remember my oldest daughter’s first day of grade one, when she marched confidently into the school without looking back.  I remember my youngest daughter’s first day of junior kindergarten, when she proudly walked onto the playground, finally one of the big kids.  Her JK teacher, retired for five years, attended her grade eight graduation in June to watch her former students graduate.

Whether or not you have kids, and no matter how old those kids are, these cookies are perfect for the first day of school, first day of a new job or first day of the rest of your life.

First day of school, September 2005

Chunky Peanut Butter and Oatmeal Chocolate Chipsters

Note: This is the recipe for a half-batch of cookies; the original recipe can be found in her cookbook.

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup chocolate chips or 4 1/2 ounces chopped chocolate

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Whisk together the oats, flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.

Beat the butter, peanut butter, sugar and brown sugar on medium speed until smooth and creamy.  Add the egg, beating for one minute, then beat in the vanilla.  Stir in the dry ingredients, just until blended.  Mix in the chocolate.  If you have time, cover and chill the dough for about two hours.

Form the dough into balls and place on cookie sheets.  Bake for 13 to 15 minutes.

Thursday's Child: The Trip We Didn't Take

Thursday, September 8, 2011

I always enjoy writing about the trips I’ve taken and sharing them with you.  But in honour of the upcoming tragic anniversary, I’d like to write about a trip we didn’t take.

Ten years and one month ago, Andrew and I were scheduled to travel to Vienna and Prague, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary.  I’d seen Vienna as a backpacker in my early 20s and was looking forward to showing Andrew one of my favourite cities in the world.  And seeing Prague had been a dream for years. 

And then the unthinkable happened.  Many have written eloquently about the horrible events of September 11, and there is little that I can add.  I’ll simply say that I was at home with my then-four year old, and I couldn’t turn on the TV with her there. I relied on phone calls from my mother and Andrew to tell me what was happening.  Despite their updates, when I finally watched the coverage at lunch, I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

And so we cancelled our trip.  The idea of being an ocean away from our children that fall was unthinkable.  Some of our friends asked if we were disappointed to miss out on our holiday; I could only answer that other people’s losses were so enormous that any disappointment on our part was trivial.

Today and this weekend, my prayers are with the families and friends of the victims of September 11, 2001.

Late Summer

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labour Day weekend is often a time of melancholy.  A time when people lament, “Where did the summer go?” and “How can it be fall already?”  A time when people close their cottages, and line up at the mall for back-to-school clothes.

Here’s my big secret: I actually love this time of year.

Not because the girls are going back to school and our schedule is about to ramp up again.  I’ll miss the quiet days of summer when we just hang out.  But at this time of year, I’m grateful for every warm day, for every minute of sunshine, for every fruit or vegetable I’m still able to buy at the farmers’ market. 

When I picked up my blueberries on Friday, the vendor told me it was the last week they’d be available.  So there was no question that I’d be making individual peach and blueberry cobblers again.  I’ve already made them twice in the last two weeks and will make them again today to take to a friend’s house.  These cobblers are the best way I can think of to use the juicy peaches and tart berries that are still available in September.

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t take a photo of a partially-eaten cobbler so you could see how great the fruit looks inside.  What can I say?  The minute I started eating it, I apparently went into a trance from which I didn’t awaken until I was done.  Despite my best photographic intentions, the same thing happened every time I ate one (including one mortifying episode when I ate one for breakfast).  You’ll just have to make them yourself to find out.

Individual Peach and Blueberry Cobblers
(adapted from Martha Stewart)

4 ripe peaches, cut into eighths
1 cup blueberries
2 Tbsp sugar (first amount)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp cornstarch
1 large egg
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/4 cup heavy cream (whipping cream)
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 Tbsp sugar (second amount)
1 Tbsp sugar (third amount)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Combine peaches and blueberries in a bowl.  Whisk together 2 Tbsp sugar, cinnamon and cornstarch.  Add to fruit and toss to combine. Set aside. 

Combine egg, melted butter and cream in a bowl and whisk with a fork.  Set aside.

Sift together flour, salt, baking powder and 1 Tbsp sugar.  Make a well in centre of dry ingredients, and pour egg mixture into well.  Slowly draw dry ingredients into wet ingredients, and work dough until just mixed together.  (The dough will be quite sticky.)

Divide fruit mixture amount four 8-ounce ramekins.  Divide dough into four sections and gently spread each section over the fruit in a ramekin.  After placing, sprinkle dough with remaining 1 Tbsp of sugar.  Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake 15 to 17 minutes.  Serve warm.

Thursday's Child: What I've done on my Summer Vacation

Thursday, September 1, 2011

With my sister Gwen, by our tent trailer.  I'm the one wearing the groovy pants.

Given the family I was born into, it was almost a foregone conclusion that I’d love to travel.

My mother journeyed to Europe with her sister and best friend in 1958.  In those days you didn’t fly to Paris for a week; you sailed there and back and spent two to three months seeing the continent.  Not only did she save for this trip on a secretary’s budget, she also drove out west with a friend in 1956, and later visited Jamaica with my aunt.

As a young man, my father drove to Florida with his soon-to-be best man.  Although that was the extent of his travel, he longed to see more of the world.  One of the things he loved about my mother was her spirit of adventure and interest in visiting new places.

Once my mom and dad got married, they realized that they wanted to make travelling a key part of their lives, and of their family’s life.  Early on, they bought a tent trailer, and most of our family trips were taken by trailer.  Every August we took two weeks' holiday and saw a new destination – generally in central and eastern Canada and the U.S.  What a dream childhood to have visited both the Anne of Green Gables house in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island and Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, Massachusetts!  (Really, how could I have become anything but a writer?)

And my dad was always the trip planner.  He spent hours in the basement, poring over maps and guidebooks that he picked up at the Automobile Association.  It was from him that I learned the importance of having something for everyone in the family to look forward to.  The year we visited Ohio, for example, he may not have enjoyed the doll museum, but he certainly loved the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So now when I sit hunched over the computer, poring over reviews on, trying to find a holiday that everyone will like, I know that I’m following in very distinguished footprints.
Paul, Gwen, Beth and Joyce Baker