Thursday's Child: Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Beijing's Temple of Heaven, originally built in the fifteenth century during the Ming Dynasty, was an important religious site in Chinese culture. The emperor visited the Temple of Heaven once a year to pray that the following year's harvests would be fruitful.

Traditional Chinese lore held that the earth was square and heaven was round. Thus, the Temple of Heaven was built according to those rules: the buildings are round, but the layout of the complex is linear. Because the emperor was considered to be the divinely-appointed Son of Heaven, the Temple was the site of important religious rites connecting the earthly and the divine.

The main and most impressive building in the complex is the three-tiered Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Not a single nail or beam was used in its construction; the entire building is supported by a series of intricately-painted wooden pillars. A set of marble stairs leads to the entrance to the hall, and the blue tiles in the roof are meant to echo the colour of heaven.

Once a year, the emperor and his staff moved from the Forbidden City, his usual residence, to the Temple of Heaven. Here, an elaborate ceremony of rituals was carried out, deviation from which would threaten the balance between heaven and earth. The prayers the emperor offered were designed to guarantee a good harvest the following year.

Interior of Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Gates leading to the Temple of Heaven
The entire complex is over 3.4 million square yards, four times as large as the Forbidden City. One of the most impressive sights on the grounds is the 500-year old grandfather tree. It is also known as Nine-Dragon tree, because it looks like nine dragons are wound around its trunk, each with his tail wrapped around another. This cypress is just one of 60,000 species of trees that populate this vast and lovely park.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Most of you know that I’m a book lover. I’ve published three children’s books and continue to work on other projects.

Even before I was a writer, though, I was a reader. I don’t use an e-reader, and one of the joys of reading actual books is going to a bookstore to buy them. Ever since I was a university student who rewarded herself for finishing big projects with a new book, I’ve gravitated to small, independent bookstores. There’s nothing like getting to know the staff personally, and having them recommend books based on what they know I’d love.

That’s why I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be participating in the first Canadian Authors for Indies Day. This celebration lets authors thank independent booksellers for both their hard work and their passion for the written word. We’ll show our support by working in their stores for an hour or two, and by talking to customers about some of the books we love.

If you live in the Etobicoke/Toronto area and would like to join me, I’ll be at A Novel Spot bookstore at 270 The Kingsway between 2:00 and 4:00 on Saturday, May 2. I’m looking forward to recommending some of my favourite books, and to meeting the other great authors who will be there.

And if you love to read but don’t live in Toronto, please visit your favourite local bookstore on May 2 - or on any day!

On the topic of books, I hosted my book group this past week. We had a great discussion about a terrific book. (If you haven’t read Station Eleven, why don’t you pick it up on May 2?) And I served these two delicious, make-ahead appetizers.

Camembert and Fig Skewers with Balsamic Sauce

8 ounces (225 grams) Camembert cheese or Brie cheese
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
12 dried figs, quartered
2 tsp granulated sugar

Cut cheese into 48 cubes and thread 1 piece onto each of 48 skewers.

In small saucepan, heat orange juice and balsamic vinegar over medium-high heat. Add figs and simmer until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer figs to sieve set over bowl.

Bring orange juice mixture to boil; reduce heat and simmer until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 20 minutes. Stir in sugar. Transfer to serving bowl and let cool.

Thread fig pieces onto skewers alongside cheese. Serve with sauce for dipping.

(Make this up to six hours ahead. Cover and store in refrigerator.)


Eggplant Rolls with Goat Cheese and Mint

2 large eggplants
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
10 ounces (280 grams) soft goat cheese
1/4 cup whipping cream
16 fresh mint leaves

Cut eggplants lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick slices, discarding outermost slices with skin. Sprinkle all over with salt and arrange in single layer on baking sheets.

Brush both sides of eggplant with oil; bake on parchment-paper lined baking sheets in 400 degree oven, turning once, until golden and softened, about 25 minutes. Let cool. Remove skin with a sharp paring knife.

Meanwhile, in bowl, mash together goat cheese and cream; set aside.

Place 1 Tbsp filling at one end of eggplant strip and top with a mint leaf. Roll up to enclose stuffing. Skewer rolls with toothpicks. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

(Make up to 24 hours ahead. Cover and store in refrigerator.)

Thursday's Child: Artisans of Guatemala

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The potter's house
Totonicapan, Guatemala is known as a city of skilled artisans. It was our pleasure to visit two such craftsmen, to hear them talk about their artistry and watch them each create one of their pieces.

We began by meeting Julio, a third-generation potter who worked in a small, open-air studio. He explained that he uses a lower temperature to bake his ceramics (and even hopes to patent this idea). Unlike many local artisans, he uses lead-free glazes on his products so they can safely be used to serve food.

From the pottery studio, it was a short distance to visit Miguel Hernandez, a weaver. Miguel works with two looms. The first is a traditional Mayan loom built by his grandfather, which he uses to produce traditional patterns and simple modern pieces. He built the second fifteen years ago, and that one allows him to create more intricate designs.

Miguel graciously let me try weaving. If it looks like I'm working painstakingly slowly, you are correct.

Miguel worked a little faster than I did
Miguel's wife Rachel served us a wonderful lunch of chicken, potatoes, and carrot soup. Just like the farmhouse meal we ate in Xetonox, this simple fare was one of the best meals of our trip.

Artisan at work
My finished design
Local musicians performing in the town square

Good things come to those who wait

Sunday, April 19, 2015
I find a lot of recipes I'd like to make, in magazines, in cookbooks, and on other people's blogs. It's great for inspiration, but it means a lot of them eventually fall by the wayside. Every few months I go through my bookmarks and eliminate any that I don't realistically think I'll get around to.

In other words, if a recipe has survived two and a half years of bookmark cullings, it's got to be pretty amazing.

That's what happened with this one. Joanne posts my kind of recipes: healthy entrees and decadent desserts.  I'd wanted to make this barley risotto since the day she posted it in October 2012. How long ago was that? The first presidential debate had been held the previous week, and Mitt Romney was looking good.

This risotto was more than worth the wait. I loved it so much the first time I made it, I tried it again a couple of weeks later. (Sadly, I didn't get a great photo either time. Sorry about that.)

This recipe is a keeper. And if I didn't keep them online now, I'd add this one to my binder full of ... recipes.

Barley Risotto with Butternut Squash and Kale
(adapted sightly from Eats Well With Others)


1 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 cup uncooked barley
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup vegetable broth
4 cups water, divided
1 butternut squash, cubed and peeled (4 cups)
1 bunch kale, chopped (3 cups)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh sage
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated


Heat a Dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat. Add oil to the pan and swirl to coat.

Add the onion to the pan and sauté for 5 minutes or until tender. Add the barley and garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Stir in the vegetable broth and cook until evaporated, stirring constantly.

Add 1 cup water. Cook until absorbed, about 8 minutes, stirring constantly, until nearly absorbed. Repeat this twice (so that 3 cups of water have been added). Stir in the remaining 1 cup water with squash, kale, sage, salt and pepper. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes or until squash is tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in the cheese. Serve immediately.

Thursday's Child: Whale Watching, Twillingate, Newfoundland

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Of all the outdoor adventures we've had as a family, one of the most memorable for the girls was our whale-watching expedition in Twillingate, Newfoundland.

We visited Twillingate in early August of 2007, in prime whale-watching season. Many whales spend their summer in the rich waters surrounding Newfoundland before heading south to the Caribbean for the winter. The province is summer home to the world's largest population of humpbacks, and Twillingate is one of the best places to see them. There are 22 species in the area, but the humpbacks are the most popular.

The afternoon we went out, only two tourist boats were on the water. We both quickly migrated to the same area when it became clear where the whales were.

We were dazzled by our proximity to the whales. And when one swam directly under our boat, then reappeared on the other side, we tried not to think about the size of an average humpback - up to 50 feet long, and weighing 30 tons or more. We were relieved he gave himself plenty of clearance.

A humpback's tail is as distinctive as a fingerprint is for humans. Although we weren't savvy enough to distinguish between the whales we saw that day, we were grateful for the chance to see such spectacular animals from a very close vantage point.

Photo taken before our whale-watching expedition.
We were a little more windswept on our return!


Sunday, April 12, 2015
"April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."

- from "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot

"In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me --
Met Stetson and gave him an earful."

- from "The Waste Land: Five Limericks" by Wendy Cope
Contrary to Eliot's dire prediction, today is the loveliest April day you could imagine. I don't know whether the rest of the month will be cruel or cheerful, dull or depressing: spring is a notoriously fickle season, and we'll probably get a bit of all those things.

Regardless of the weather, I do know that the leeks that make this fusilli so wonderful are at their best right now. You've probably noticed that I post more recipes by Susie Middleton than anyone else. It's because every recipe I've ever tried of hers is loaded with vegetables, and over-the-top delicious. She uses the freshest of each season's ingredients - in this case, leeks - and adds the flavours that will keep you coming back for more.

Now I'm off to enjoy this beautiful April day - dry stones, sun, dust and all.

Fusilli with Leeks, Baby Spinach and Mushrooms
(from Fresh & Green Table, by Susie Middleton)


2 Tbsp freshly-squeezed orange juice
2 Tbsp heavy cream
kosher salt
2 Tbsp unsalted butter (first amount)
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups thickly-sliced leeks (white and light green parts only), from 3 – 4 large leeks
8 ounces (225 grams) cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
1 1/2 cups dried fusilli, or other small corkscrew pasta
1 Tbsp butter (second amount)
2 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp minced peeled fresh ginger
5 ounces (140 grams) baby spinach leaves
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano


Combine the orange juice and cream. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Put a colander in the sink and place a measuring cup next to it.

Meanwhile, in a large nonstick stir-fry pan, heat 2 Tbsp butter and the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add the leeks, mushrooms, and 1 tsp salt. Cook, stirring occasionally at first and more frequently when browning begins, until the leeks are very soft and the mushrooms are browned, about 16 minutes.

Add the fusilli to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Take the pasta pot off the heat and before draining the pasta, pour 1/3 cup of the pasta water into the measuring cup. Drain the pasta and let sit, loosely covered. Add the pasta water to the orange-cream mixture and stir well.

Reduce the heat under the stir-fry pan to medium and add the remaining 1 Tbsp butter, garlic, and ginger. Stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add spinach and cook, stirring, until the spinach is wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Add orange juice mixture and bring to a simmer (this will only take a few seconds). Remove pan from the heat.

Add drained pasta to the pan and season to taste. Add parmigiano and stir until well-combined.

An end to Lent

Sunday, April 5, 2015
You may remember, six weeks ago in this space, I shared that I was giving up sweets for Lent. I'm happy to say that I stuck to it faithfully, although it seemed to get more challenging as we approached Easter. I must admit that this week, I googled "when is Lent over" so I didn't accidentally give up sweets for a day - or an hour - too long. One of my ministers confirmed that Lent extended to sundown on Saturday. (I may have eaten a celebratory blondie at the stroke of sundown last night.)

The only way I can bid farewell to Lent properly is to post a dessert recipe worthy of a six-plus week wait. I received my Easter issue of Canadian Living in the mail around the first of March, and have been waiting ever since to make these Mini Carrot Cake Trifles. I served them for our Easter dessert tonight, and in so doing, found a new classic.

A poem to celebrate Easter, and spring, and new beginnings:

"Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies
and trip over the roots
of a sweet gum tree,
in search of medieval
plants whose leaves,
when they drop off
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they
plop into water.

"Suddenly the archetypal
human desire for peace
with every other species
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,
queen of the weeds, revives
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt
there is a leaf to cure it."

- "In Perpetual Spring", Amy Gerstler

Mini Carrot Cake Trifles
(from Canadian Living magazine)
Makes 12 servings

Cream Cheese Custard:
 6 egg yolks
1/2 cup milk (first amount)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 1/2 cups milk (second amount)
1 package (250 grams, 8 ounces) cream cheese, cubed and softened
1 tsp vanilla

Carrot Cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3 eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups grated peeled carrots (about 2 large)

1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp butter
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups walnut halves
1 can (400 mL) pineapple chunks
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 cup whipping cream (35%)

1. For the Cream Cheese custard:

In large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, 1/2 cup milk, sugar and cornstarch. In heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 1/2 cups milk and three-quarters of the cream cheese over medium heat, whisking, just until smooth and bubbles form around edge. Gradually whisk into egg yolk mixture. Return to saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring, until thick enough to mound on spoon, 6 to 8 minutes. Strain through fine-mesh sieve into clean bowl; stir in vanilla. Place plastic wrap directly on surface. Refrigerate until chilled, about 4 hours. Make up to 24 hours in advance.

2. For the Carrot Cake:

While custard is chilling, in large bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, baking soda and nutmeg. In separate bowl, beat together eggs, granulated sugar, brown sugar, oil and vanilla; stir into flour mixture just until moistened. Stir in carrots. Scrape into 2 parchment paper-lined 8" x 4" loaf pans. Bake in 350 degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until cooked through. Make up to 24 hours in advance, wrapping in plastic wrap and storing at room temperature.

3. For the Assembly:

Cut carrot cake into 3/4 inch cubes.

Cook brown sugar, butter and cinnamon over medium heat, stirring, until melted. Stir in walnuts. Cook, stirring, until walnuts are toasted and coated, about 4 minutes. Reserve 12 pieces for garnish; coarsely chop remaining walnuts. Reserving 1/2 cup of the juice, drain pineapple and coarsely chop.

In each of twelve 12-ounce glasses, add scant 1/2 cup of the cake; drizzle 1 tsp pineapple juice into each glass. Top each with scant 2 Tbsp pineapple and 2 tsp chopped walnuts. Spoon rounded 2 Tbsp custard over each. Repeat layers once. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours, or up to 24 hours.

Just before serving, beat remaining cream cheese with 2 Tbsp granulated sugar until fluffy. Slowly beat in cream until stiff peaks form. Spoon over trifle and top each with a reserved walnut.

Thursday's Child: Wawel Hill, Krakow, Poland

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Wawel Hill is home to a castle, a cathedral, and (according to legend) a ferocious dragon who terrorized the city before a brave young shoemaker saved the day.

A royal castle was first built on Wawel Hill in 1038, when King Casimir the Restorer moved the capital of Poland to Krakow. Over the centuries the castle was rebuilt and enlarged, but when it was destroyed in a fire, King Zygmunt began construction on a new castle and courtyard that still stand today.
Castle courtyard
When the capital moved to Warsaw in 1596, Wawel lost some of its importance, but was still used for ceremonial purposes. In the years that followed, the castle was sacked by one army after another. It was looted: by the Swedes in the Swedish Invasions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; by the Prussians and Austrians following the Poland Partitions; by the Germans in the Second World War. 

Restorations to the castle began after the war, and the treasures that were shipped out of the country prior to the German invasion were returned.

Christians have worshipped at the site of Wawel Cathedral for over 900 years; the current cathedral was built in the fourteenth century. Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II, was ordained here in 1946. In addition to its stately exterior and beautiful interiors, it hosts St. Leonard’s Crypt, burial site for Polish kings since the fourteenth century, and other Polish luminaries. Although the famous Polish composer, Frederic Chopin, is not buried here (his remains reside at Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemetery), a memorial was built in his honour.

We left Wawel Hill by a steep set of stairs, to visit the Wawel Dragon sculpture. (Although we didn’t catch it on our camera, the dragon actually breathes "fire".)

According to legend, in the twelfth century Krakow was demonized by a terrifying dragon that destroyed property and killed residents. The king offered his daughter in marriage to anyone who could kill the dragon or drive him from the city. Many knights attempted, but every one of them failed in his quest.

One day a young shoemaker approached the king and promised to rid the city of this fire-breathing menace. Since Krakow was falling into ruin, the king decided he had nothing to lose, and encouraged the young man to do his best. The shoemaker took a lambskin, stuffed it with sulpher, and stitched it up with his tools so it resembled a live sheep. When the dragon next emerged from his lair, he pounced on the lambskin, ate it in one gulp, and then exploded from the sulpher. The young shoemaker married the king’s daughter and - presumably - they lived happily ever after.

View from Wawel Hill