What's past is prologue

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My oldest daughter was home from university for a mini two-day break earlier this week. She was busy studying and working on essays, but we carved out a little time to bake together.

I've been baking with the girls since they were young enough that they both needed chairs to work at the counter. Our favourite recipe was chocolate chip cookies - in those days, "equal division of labour" meant one girl poured the chocolate chips into the batter and the other stirred them in. My daughter remembers being proud the day I decided she was old enough to crack the egg by herself.

Now, of course, she's taller than I am and stands by my side when we bake together. I've been wanting to try these biscuits for a while, and it was a perfect time to try the recipe. I thought they were wonderful as an accompaniment to soup. And my daughter loved them so much that when she went back to school, she asked me for the recipe, and baked them for a potluck on Thursday night.

Bacon Cheddar Green Onion Biscuits
(adapted from Brown Sugar Kitchen by Tanya Holland)

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
1 1/2 cups buttermilk (or less)
1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2 slices cooked bacon, chopped
3 green onions, white parts only, chopped
heavy cream for brushing

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Combine flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add chilled butter and cut in until the butter is pea sized or smaller. Drizzle in enough buttermilk to moisten the dough (I used about 1 1/4 cups) and mix until it just forms a ball. Divide the dough into thirds.

In a small bowl, combine the cheese, bacon, and green onions.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out one piece of dough to an 11” x 8 1/2” rectangle and sprinkle with half the cheese mixture. Roll out another piece of dough and layer on top of the first piece. Sprinkle with remaining cheese mixture. Roll out the remaining piece of dough and layer it on top. Gently roll out the dough layers to make a 12” x 10” rectangle. (Note: all sizes are approximate. My shapes were imperfect, to say the least.)

Using a 2” cookie cutter, cut out biscuits and set them on the prepared baking sheets. Brush the tops with cream. Bake until they just start to turn golden but before the bottoms start to brown, about 15 minutes. Let cool slightly and serve warm.

To make ahead, store in an airtight container at room temperature for a day and reheat in toaster oven.

Thursday's Child: Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, Toronto

Thursday, November 20, 2014
I've been to the Royal Winter Fair as a kid, both with my parents and as part of a school group. Andrew and I have taken our own girls many times through the years. But with both girls busy a couple of weekends ago, and Andrew and I looking for something to do, we decided to visit the Royal on our own.

We stopped first to watch the goat judging. (I don't know anything about goats. But if you're looking, you can find drama anywhere.)

Yup, "Overall Best Udder" is actually a category.

When I think of livestock at the fair, I think of the beef and dairy cattle competitions that are held throughout the week. But in addition to cattle (and goats), there are contests for poultry, sheep, rabbits and pigeons.

Young 4H members were proud to show off their cattle.

When I was in 4H, girls usually joined cooking and sewing clubs while boys joined agricultural clubs. Now, of course, the fair is full of young men and women showing the animals they raised.

We enjoyed watching the many art students sketch livestock with their classmates.

Produce and fresh baking are probably my favourite part of any fall fair. (When I was a little girl, I was the junior division fudge champion at Rodney Fair more than once. I'm sure that comes as a surprise to no one.)

We came across a cow standing patiently in the middle of a hall. This photo is begging for a great caption. Any suggestions?

Thursday's Child: The Berlin Wall

Thursday, November 13, 2014
Last weekend marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the most moving elements of our trip to Berlin this summer was seeing the places where the Wall used to stand - because most of it, of course, has been removed. A few sections remain throughout the city, as testament to the 28 difficult years when the city was divided in half.

Following the Second World War, Berlin had originally been divided in four. One of those zones was assigned to each of the triumphant war powers: Britain, USA, France, and Russia. In the post-war years, millions of eastern Europeans escaped to the west through Berlin. By 1961, Soviet authorities decided to stop that flow by erecting a wall around their zone.

On the night of August 12, 1961, barriers and fences were built around East Berlin. In the morning, inhabitants of both sides of the city woke up to a new world, in which movement to the other side was prohibited.

It's sometimes easier to make sense of a tragic situation by reading about individual cases. Hundreds of children were cut off from their parents for political or medical reasons, and sometimes it was many years until they were reunited.

There were a number of checkpoints that permitted movement between the two sides. The most famous was checkpoint Charlie, which separated the American and Russian sectors. Typically, it was difficult and time-consuming for westerners to cross to the east, and the process required visas and special payments to secure approval. Of course, residents of East Berlin were prevented from travelling to the west in all but the most extreme circumstances.

Many easterners attempted to escape to the west and, despite the security, thousands were successful. One young man rebuilt his car so it was low enough to pass under the wall, then hid his girlfriend from East Berlin on the floor of the passenger side (and her mother in the trunk). Other creative refugees found their ways to the west via tightrope or hot air balloon.

Most of the wall has been destroyed. In areas where it has come down, it's still commemorated by plaques that lie along its path.

However, in a few spots the wall still stands. The top photo shows a section of the wall that looks much like it did at the time (save the hole punched through it). The photo above depicts the beginning of a mile-long section of wall called the East Side Gallery. It's been allowed to stand, and has been decorated to become the world's longest open-air mural collection.

Birthday Rituals

Sunday, November 9, 2014
I just celebrated another birthday - or, as Andrew jovially calls it, my "birthweek". It's true that I've had a few days of celebrations with family and friends, and dinner out tonight to look forward to. But that doesn't mean I stayed out of the kitchen.

There are a few things you should know about my birthday:
- I will ask my daughters for the gift of time;
- I will eat arugula salad;
- I will bake my own dessert.

For most bloggers that birthday dessert would be a cake, but I celebrated with a less traditional birthday pavlova. Because I've already posted that recipe, I'll share the recipe for my birthday lunch, a stuffed portobello mushroom. It's surprisingly filling and rich; served beside a salad, it makes a perfect meal, birthday or otherwise. Especially when that salad is arugula.

Today's poem doesn't really have anything to do with birthdays or mushrooms, but I'm hoping you'll indulge me anyhow. I love villanelles, and most of them (Mad Girl's Love Song, One Art) are far too gloomy to post without my friends worrying about me. So let me share this beautiful poem, one that reminds me of the dwindling days of fall every time I read it.

Time will say nothing but I told you so
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reason why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

- "If I Could Tell You", by W.H. Auden

Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms with Taleggio cheese
(adapted from Plenty)

5 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed
olive oil
1 small (or half a large) fennel bulb
3 Tbsp sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 Tbsp parmesan, grated
75 grams taleggio cheese (mozzarella is fine too), sliced
2 Tbsp fresh basil, shredded coarsely (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an oven tray with baking parchment. Place four of the mushrooms on the tray, open end down, drizzle with a little oil, and bake for about 15 minutes, until mushrooms begin to soften. Remove from oven and flip so open end is facing up.

Meanwhile, finely dice the remaining mushroom. Trim the fennel and chop it into fine dice. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a sauté pan and add the fennel and chopped mushroom. Cook on low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft but have not browned. Add sun-dried tomatoes and garlic. Cook a few minutes more, then remove from the heat and leave to cool down.

Once cool, add parmesan to the mixture. Pile the fennel filling on the whole mushrooms and top with slices of taleggio. Return to the oven bake for about 10 minutes, until cheese melts and mushrooms are hot.

Garnish with basil, if desired, and serve with a salad.

Thursday's Child: Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Holocaust Memorial, also called The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is a collection of  2711 concrete slabs built in honour of the Jewish people slaughtered during the Second World War. Located on a five-acre plot near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, it resembles a field of tombs when seen from a distance. But as we entered the memorial, the unmarked stones gradually grew from a height of several inches, to towering over our heads. The architect has explained that he hoped to create a sense of imbalance and disorientation for visitors. He chose the number 2711 at random, to help depict the senselessness of the killings. As Andrew and I walked quietly through the paths created by these stones, it was difficult not to feel overwhelmed, even claustrophobic at times.

The adjacent Place of Information contains the names of all known Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Over 3 million victims are named.

The following poem was written about the loss of innocence brought on by the First World War. I can't help but imagine there was a similar loss of innocence when the extent of the horrors of the Second World War were revealed.

"Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

"And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoas and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

"And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

"Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word - the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again."

- "MCMXIV" by Philip Larkin

Learning to Like Brussels Sprouts

Sunday, November 2, 2014

It’s days like today that I’m grateful for my cache of unposted recipes. I spent most of the week assisting at the annual Humber Writers’ Workshop. It was a great experience – as a writer, there’s nothing more powerful than being surrounded by other writers, sharing experiences and advice. The instructor I worked with, Valerie Martin, was both insightful and generous, and it was a joy to spend a week assisting her in the classroom.

It did, however, mean I had no time for either blogging or cooking this week.

In a way, that was a good thing, because I’m overdue on posting this salad recipe. I received a copy of Donna Hay’s Fresh and Light cookbook from Simone about a month ago, and I promised myself I’d post this recipe the first chance I got.

I’m a big fan of roasted vegetables, but until recently I’ve avoided brussels sprouts, after an ancient and indelible memory of eating boiled sprouts. That all changed when I tried roasted sprouts in my new favourite restaurant earlier this fall, and realized how delicious they could be. So when I got Fresh and Light a couple of weeks later and saw this recipe, it was inevitable that I’d try the technique myself. The outcome was terrific – a mix of strong and mild flavours that capture the essence of fall, served on my beloved arugula.

If you, too, have an ancient and indelible memory of eating sprouts, give them one more try with this delicious fall salad.

Roasted Brussels Sprout and Pear Salad
(from Fresh and Light by Donna Hay)

500 g (18 ounces) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 firm brown pears, cut into thick wedges
1 red onion, peeled and cut into wedges
8 sprigs sage
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp brown sugar
sea salt and cracked black pepper
150 g (5 ounces) arugula
150 g (5 ounces) firm goat’s cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the sprouts (cut side up), pear, onion and sage on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper. Mix the oil, vinegar and sugar, and spoon half the dressing over the vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast for 30 – 35 minutes or until the sprouts are golden. Divide the sprouts, pear, onion, sage and arugula between serving plates. Sprinkle with the goat’s cheese and spoon over the remaining dressing to serve.

Thursday's Child: Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Thursday, October 23, 2014
I’ve written before that travel makes the world smaller. That when tragedy occurs in a place we’ve been, we feel the story more personally than if we’re simply reading newspaper headlines.

That’s still true, but those tragedies don’t usually happen as close to home as they did on October 22, 2014.

A lone gunman shot and killed a soldier, Nathan Frank Cirillo, who was standing guard at the National War Memorial. The gunman subsequently entered our Parliament building with a rifle. After exchanging gunfire with police, he was killed before any more lives could be taken.

After a tragedy, our first response is to disbelieve it. To think, things like that don’t happen here. But, of course, they can. They can happen anywhere, even in a country that thinks of itself as peaceful, and that takes pride in the openness of its Parliament building and the surrounding area.

Ottawa is just a few hours drive from Toronto, and we took the girls there over the 2006 Christmas holidays. We did the things many families do when they visit Canada’s capital city. We went to the National War Memorial, we had our pictures taken outside the Parliament buildings, we toured the House of Commons and Senate. On our way into Parliament, we passed through metal detectors. My oldest daughter, then 12, set off the alarm by accidentally carrying her craft scissors in her pocket. We’ve laughed about it for years, but today it just makes me sad.

Cirillo was killed yesterday at the National War Memorial. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier now has a name and a face.

Sending prayers to the family of Nathan Cirillo.

Nathan Frank Cirillo; photo credit The Toronto Star