Back to school, the prequel

Sunday, September 14, 2014
Last Sunday, I shared back-to-school photos of my daughters. This week I thought I'd show you one of my mom's school pictures. It was taken in the school year 1945-46, in her one-room schoolhouse. My mom, Joyce Bustin (now Joyce Baker) is wearing a white bow in her hair, and sitting three from the back ahead of the teacher. Her sister, my aunt Barbara, is directly ahead of her, and their best friend Frances is at the back of the row.

I'm not the only one in my family who loves to write. My mom has written a history of her life for my daughters and their cousin Lexy. Here are a few memories of school and friendship:

"At Croton school we played Ante-I-Over (throwing the ball over the woodshed roof and then running around to the other side before the ball could be caught and we could be tagged out). We played baseball at noon and recess. A school window was often broken and we all had to chip in to pay for a new one. There were woods beside the school. In the fall, we'd rake many leaves to a corner of the fenced-in yard. The girls would build a leaf hut in one corner and the boys would build one in another corner against the fence."

"The first morning [at their new school, after they moved]: Our clocks at the house were slow and we had arrived late. We sort of slunk into the classroom with everyone staring at us. We had about a two-mile walk to Croton School."

"Barbara and I often played with Frances Morgan from next door. The Anne of Green Gables books were a big hit with us. Morgans didn't have electricity. We were intrigued by the idea that Anne and Diana signalled messages to each other's homes. Barbara and I would go upstairs to one of the bedrooms that faced Morgans'. We would pull the cord on the ceiling light to turn it on and off. Frances signalled by walking into or out of her bedroom carrying a lamp. Our signalling was rather limited for meanings and this procedure didn't last long."

"Our school, like others, grew a Victory Garden. We planted, hoed and watered these vegetables and they went to the war effort. Mother would give us each 25 cents a week to buy a stamp to go into a war savings certificate which was kept at school. This was a piece of paper with squares where we licked the stamps and stuck them on. When 20 stamps had been affixed, another $5.00 had been saved to help with war expenses."

In the Second World War, Victory Gardens were common all over North America. Transporting food was expensive, and commercial canned goods were being set aside for the troops. Rationing often meant there wasn't enough food to go around. Victory Gardens solved those problems in several ways. They were a source of both food for local communities and money for the troops. They also helped civilians, especially schoolchildren, feel like they were contributing to the war effort.

I'm sure some of the carrots grown in these gardens were tossed into soups, since that would have been an economical way to feed a family. This soup recipe might be a bit fancier than those served in wartime and post-wartime households, but it was delicious - and filling enough to power a game or two of Ante-I-Over.

Carrot Soup with Crisped Chickpeas and Pita Wedges
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)


2 Tbsp olive oil
2 pounds carrots, peeled and diced or thinly sliced
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 regular or 6 small garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp kosher salt or sea salt
Pinch red pepper flakes
4 cups vegetable broth

Heat olive oil in large pot over medium heat. Add carrots, onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper flakes, and sauté until they begin to brown, about 15 minutes.

Once vegetables have begun to brown, add broth, using it to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cover with lid and simmer until carrots are tender, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Puree soup with an immersion blender until smooth. Ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with crisped chickpeas and serve with pita wedges.

Crisped chickpeas

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and patted dry on paper towels
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp kosher salt or sea salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Toss chickpeas with olive oil, salt and cumin until they’re all coated. Spread them on a baking sheet and roast until they’re browned and crisp, approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Toss them occasionally to make sure they’re toasting evenly.

Pita wedges

A few large pitas, cut into 8 wedges each
Olive oil, to brush pitas
Za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice-herb blend) or sesame seeds and sea salt, to sprinkle

Spread pita wedges on a second baking sheet and brush lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with za’atar or a combination or sea salt and sesame seeds. Toast in the oven with chickpeas until brown at edges, about 5 minutes. 

Serve soup with chickpeas on top, and pita wedges on the side.

Thursday's Child: Destination Montreal

Thursday, September 11, 2014

“All the kids have always known
That the emperor wears no clothes
But they bow down to him anyway
Cause it’s better than being alone.”
- from "Ready to Start", Arcade Fire

Destination: Montreal, Quebec

When we visited: August, 2014

Why to go:

There are many great reasons to visit Montreal. It's one of the most European cities in North America, the architecture is lovely, and the food is terrific. Our reason for visiting was perhaps less common - we had tickets to see one of our favourite bands, Arcade Fire, play the last concert on their Reflektor tour. 

What to see: 

Given how close we live to Montreal (five hours by train), I’m embarrassed at how long it’s been since I was last there. (To give you an idea, the second-last time I was in Montreal was for the 1976 Olympics. Ouch.)

Although we were in town only one night, we packed a lot into our visit. We admired the lovely Notre-Dame Basilica and the adjacent Place d’Armes. We walked the cobblestoned streets of Vieux-Montreal and basked in the energy of pedestrian-only Place Jacques Cartier with its restaurants, boutiques and buskers.

If you like to shop, visiting Marche Bonsecours is a must. This beautiful heritage building is home to about a dozen boutiques that specialize in products made and designed by Quebecois artisans. Whether you’re looking for art, fashion, jewelry or souvenirs, you’ll find it all here, at every price level – and you won’t find anything else like it. I’m not usually an avid shopper, but walking through the Marche Bonsecours was like walking through an art gallery.
Pre-concert family selfie
And, yes, we attended an Arcade Fire concert in Parc Jean-Drapeau. With the girls working at camp all summer, this trip was their only summer holiday, and a fun way to spend family time together. The concert was brilliant, one of the best I've been to. 

I asked my youngest daughter what her favourite song at the concert was, and she answered, aghast, “Picking just one would be sacrilegious.” As for my favourite? Probably “Normal Person”, with strong consideration to “Rebellion”, “Afterlife”, “Wake Up”, “The Suburbs” … never mind, picking just one would be sacrilegious.

Where to stay: 

Because we were in Montreal such a short time, we wanted to stay in a hotel that was close to everything. Auberge Bonaparte was a perfect choice – it was a short commute to the concert, and its location in the old city meant we could walk almost everywhere.

Where to eat: 

Montreal is known for its fine dining, but because of the nature of our visit, we only had the chance to eat casual meals. (A good reason for us to go back!) We enjoyed our meals at Café Veritas and Jardin Nelson, both in the old city, and had a wonderful three-course breakfast at our inn, included in the price.

And if I can recommend a restaurant that we didn’t eat at, Burritoville (owned by our friend Steve and two business partners) is a fabulous Mexican restaurant that’s unfortunately closed on Sundays – another good reason to go back.

I do not cheer for this hockey team

“Is anything as strange as a normal person?
Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?
Waiting after school for you
They want to know if you
If you’re normal too.
Well, are you?”

-       “Normal Person”, Arcade Fire

The Last of the Firsts

Sunday, September 7, 2014
September, 2001. The girls were on their way to the first day of school, in grade 2 and junior Kindergarten. It was the first time they'd gone to the same school and they (especially my youngest) couldn't wait. She'd been pretending to read for years, and now she was finally one of the big kids. Their first day of school was just a few days before an event that would make us all hold our kids a little closer, but on the day this was taken, the world still felt like a pretty safe place to be.

September, 2014. The same front yard, but they're both a little taller. This is probably the last time we'll have a traditional "first day of school" photo. My youngest is in twelfth grade this year, and we'll find out in due course what school she'll attend next fall. Because my oldest daughter hadn't started classes at her university yet, we were able to get one last photo of them on the first day of school. I'm still holding them as close as they'll let me. Whenever they're around, the world still feels like a pretty good place to be.

Spring, 2014. I made these bars to universal acclaim from my family, then set them aside to post later. That time has arrived. I hope everyone had a happy and safe journey back to school, whether it's your first time or your last. And if you serve these bars, you'll make your world a little sweeter place to be!

Peanut Butter Crispy Bars
(adapted slightly from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito)

Note: the original recipe makes 9 bars. Because they’re so rich, I cut them much smaller (I got 20 bars from mine).

For the Crispy Crust

1 3/4 cups Rice Krispies
1/4 cup sugar
3 Tbsp light corn syrup
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

For the Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter layer

1/2 cup milk chocolate chips – 2/3 cup
2/3 cup creamy peanut butter – 1 cup

For the chocolate icing

3 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp light corn syrup
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1. To make the Crispy Crust:

Line an 8” square baking pan with parchment paper. Put the cereal in a large bowl and set aside.

Pour 1/4 cup water into a small saucepan. Add the sugar and corn syrup and use a small wooden spoon to stir the mixture until just combined. (Do not let any sugar or syrup get on the sides of the pan.) Put a candy thermometer in the saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat and bring to a boil; cook until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 235 degrees F.

Remove from the heat, stir in the butter, and pour the mixture over the cereal. Working quickly, stir until the cereal is thoroughly coated, then pour it in the prepared pan. Use a little butter to grease your hands, then press the mixture into the bottom of the pan. Let crust cool to room temperature while you make the next layer.

2. To make the Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter layer:

In a large nonreactive metal bowl, stir together the chocolate and the peanut butter.

Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan and stir for about 30 seconds to cool slightly. Pour mixture over the cooled crust. Put the pan in the refrigerator for 1 hour, or until the top layer hardens.

3. To make the Chocolate Icing:

In a large nonreactive metal bowl, combine the chocolate, corn syrup, and butter.

Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until the mixture is completely smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan and stir for 30 seconds to cool slightly. Pour the mixture over the chilled milk chocolate peanut butter layer and spread until even. Put the pan in the refrigerator for 1 hour or until the topping hardens. Slice into bars while cold.

Thursday's Child: Neues Museum, Berlin

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Last week I wrote about the first destination Andrew and I visited on Museum Island, the Pergamon. I was almost as excited about visiting the Neues Museum, a wonderfully rebuilt structure that's home to a fabulous collection, starring the most beautiful woman in Berlin.

The wonderfully preserved bust of Queen Nefertiti still bears the bright colours it was designed with. For the purposes of protecting those colours, we weren’t permitted to photograph it, so I’ve included a picture of the postcard featuring the bust. As way of contrast, the bust of her husband Akhenaten is shown below, in much worse condition.

The best estimate is that Nefertiti’s bust was made around 1340 BCE. And it's stunning, not just because its colours were preserved, but because it’s a finely rendered depiction of a mature woman. Royalty or not, no attempt was made to hide the signs of her age (such as small folds under her chin and bags under her eyes). Nefertiti is thought to have assumed an equal role to her husband, as they ruled the country together.

This stunning piece of art is at the centre of a debate over whether it belongs in Egypt or Germany. I won’t weigh in on this argument, other than to say I’m lucky to have seen it.

The Berlin Gold Hat is one of the most mysterious items in the Neues collection. One of four golden hats that have been found in Europe, this one was part of a private collection that was sold to the museum with no background information. No one knows where the Gold Hat was found, whether other artifacts were found nearby, or who discovered it.

Equally mysterious is why a tribe of Bronze Age people, who likely lived at a subsistence level, would have had the aptitude or the time to create such a stunning artifact. And although the purpose of the hat is unknown, it’s believed to have been designed for more than its beauty. The intricate markings along the sides would have helped the people of the time (approximately 1400 – 800 BCE) measure solar and lunar cycles.

In other words, while the Gold Hat reminded us of Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat, its true purpose was probably equally magical.

Neues’ collection of papyrus documents and ancient manuscripts looked for all the world like a series of secret codes to be deciphered. This room is referred to as a library of the ancient world, and its amazing collection is even more impressive than it sounds. Imagine seeing Egyptian fairy tales from 1700 BCE, a scrap from Homer’s Iliad, and a selection from an ancient funerary book (Book of the Dead). Although many of the pieces are written on papyrus, the collection also includes manuscripts written on leather, textiles and parchment. And in addition to hieroglyphs, languages ranged from Persian to Greek, from Ethiopian to Latin.

Neues was almost completely destroyed by bombing in the second world war, and sat in ruins for decades. An extensive rebuilding project led to it being reopened in 2009.

The Egyptian courtyard pictured above is a restoration of the original that was destroyed in the war. While this fresco and others like it aren’t original, they evoke a feeling of grandeur as they perch above the collection of Egyptian sarcophagi. This sense of grandeur is unmistakable throughout the wonderfully reimagined Neues Museum.

Thursday's Child: Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Museum Island. That’s the kind of phrase that makes my culture-geek heart sing. “Museum Island” appeals to me in the same way “secret clubhouse” did when I was ten.

Museum Island is located in the middle of Berlin, connected to the mainland on either shore by a series of short bridges. It’s home to five museums, settled side by side like a bookcase of culture. Given the opportunity, I could have visited every one of them. But mindful of a short time in a fabulous city (and a husband who perhaps wanted to do a few other things in Berlin), I settled on the two I longed most to see, the Pergamon and the Neues.

This week I’ll be writing about what we saw in the Pergamon Museum. I was so excited to see this collection that I ordered tickets online about a minute after I’d bought our flights. This was complicated by the fact that the website was in German, a language which I do not speak. Every stage of the ticket purchase (and there were many stages) had to be processed through Google Translate, so I knew I was buying tickets to see the exhibits, and not, for example, the exhibits themselves.

The challenge paid off amply. The majesty of these exhibits was undeniable, and their sense of poetry was breathtaking. Every one of them had a story to tell:

The Ishtar Gate is one of the most magnificent things I have seen, anywhere. It was built by King Nebuchadnezzar as one of the gates to the city-state of Babylon, and was named after the goddess Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love. The gates were erected in 575 BCE to impress and intimidate visitors to the city, and no doubt they did both. Nebuchadnezzar was intent on beautifying Babylon, and also commissioned the Hanging Gardens, one of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World. The Ishtar Gate was originally one of the seven wonders, but was later replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

The gate on display is actually the smaller, front part at nearly 50 feet high. The taller rear portion was too large to display and remains in storage.

Almost as impressive as the Ishtar Gate is the Processional Way. This work of art spanned the avenue that led to the Ishtar Gate and is estimated to have been half a mile long, with walls up to 50 feet high. The Babylonian New Year’s celebration ran along this corridor, as statues of different deities were carried. The lions that decorated the Processional Way were thought to symbolize power and royalty.

The Market Gate of Miletus is the largest reconstruction in any museum in the world. It is believed to have been built in the second century in what is now Turkey, under Roman Emperor Hadrian. Miletus was known for its philosophers and artists, and at that time was an important port city. The gate was destroyed in an earthquake in the tenth or eleventh century, and only recently restored for display. Over 50 feet tall, the marble gate bears columns and is decorated with friezes and inscriptions.

The mosaic floor is also from Miletus, and features tales of Orpheus.

The Aleppo Room is part of a home that was located in Aleppo, Syria. Between the years 1600 and 1603, a wealthy Christian citizen commissioned craftsmen to design this entrance to his house. It includes Christian themes from the old and new testaments, as well as Persian secular themes and Islamic motifs. The impression is of a serene coexistence of various cultures and religions.

Qasr Mshatta was a winter palace in Jordan, built in the eighth century. The Mshatta Façade, on display at the Pergamon Museum, was the most ornate part of these palace walls. At sixteen feet high, the façade wraps around the display room in two distinct parts: those that decorated the secular parts of the palace display carved animals and other motifs; those that are believed to have been nearest the mosque bear rosettes and designs only, because sacred Islamic art prohibits representing living humans or animals.

Next week, I’ll write about what I saw in the Neues Museum.

Morning Glory

Sunday, August 24, 2014
I've written before about our 25 year friendship with the Jay family. Garth and Andrew started working together at Heinz Canada in 1989. His wife Colleen and I soon met, and hit it off immediately.

We have a long shared history. Garth was master of ceremonies at our wedding. We travelled to New York with them in March, 1994, when I was pregnant with our oldest daughter. Our family travelled to China to visit them in 2008, when Colleen was posted there for three years. Within Canada, we've travelled back and forth to each others' houses and cottages.

But we've never had a visit like we did on Monday.

The Jays have lived in Cincinnati, China and Switzerland over the past fourteen years, but they come back to Canada for the summer and at Christmas, and they always generously invite us to their cottage. But this summer, it just wasn't going to work. Our girls were working at camp from mid-June until the end of August, and the Jays were fitting the cottage in between trips to Halifax, Cincinnati, Brazil, and Panama. Garth and I did our best to match up our calendars, with no luck.

Then in the final email, Garth said, "Well, it looks like the only way we can work in a visit is if I swing by after I drop Colleen off at the airport on the 18th. Ha! Just kidding - I'm dropping her off at 5 a.m."

To which I responded, "We'll host you, as long as I can blog about it."

Given that you're reading this, you can probably guess his answer. His girls were good sports, and they all decided to come along, as long as they could go swimming.

And in the interests of complete disclosure, I have to tell you that it's the first time I've invited guests for 5:30 a.m, and had them show up early. (5:28, if you're counting.)

We swam, we ate, we talked. We played pool games, we laughed. We did all of this super-quietly, because presumably our neighbours were still asleep.

Garth's favourite sentences start with, "Do you want to have a contest…?" which is how pictures like this happen:

(Garth was a willing participant in this photo, and was conscious both before and after it was taken.)

We had a wonderful time, and the only disappointment was the absence of three family members - Colleen, who was en route to a meeting, and our girls. I've promised everyone that the next time we get together before the sun is up, no one will have a silly excuse like "I'm working."

So what do you serve your guests for a really early meal? Anything you can prepare in advance. I tried two new recipes: granola, which I made the afternoon before; and a breakfast casserole, which I assembled the night before and put in the oven as soon as I got up on Monday. I loved them both, and will definitely make them again.

Just not at 5:28 a.m.

Homemade Granola
(from Ina Garten; I halved her recipe and still got a huge batch, but if you're serving a crowd, see her original recipe.)

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup sliced almonds
3/8 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup good honey
3/4 cup small diced dried apricots
1/2 cup small-diced dried figs
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted cashews

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss oats, coconut, and almonds together in a large bowl. Whisk together the oil and honey in a small bowl. Pour liquids over the oat mixture and stir until all the oats and nuts are coated. Pour onto a 13” x 18” sheet pan. Bake, stirring occasionally with a spatula, until the mixture turns a nice, even golden brown, 25 - 30 minutes.

Remove the granola from the oven and let cool, stirring occasionally. Add the apricots, figs, cherries, raisins and cashews. Store the cooled granola in an airtight container.

Asparagus and Gouda Bread Pudding
(from Canadian Living)

1 Tbsp butter
1 bunch asparagus (approximately 1 pound), cut in 1" pieces
3 shallots, thinly sliced
10 cups cubed day-old bread
2 cups shredded Gouda cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
10 eggs
4 cups milk
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

In skillet, melt butter over medium heat; cook asparagus and shallots, stirring occasionally, until asparagus is tender-crisp, about 6 minutes.

In lightly greased 13" x 9" baking dish, toss together asparagus mixture, bread, half of the cheese and the parsley.

Whisk together eggs, milk, mustard, salt and pepper; pour over bread mixture, pressing to submerge. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour, or up to 24 hours.

Uncover and bake in 350 degrees oven until puffed, golden and set enough that centre does not jiggle when gently shaken, about 1 hour. Let cook for 10 minutes before cutting into squares.