Thursday's Child: Ephesus, Turkey

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ephesus was one of the great cities of the ancient world. A Greek city located in what is now Turkey, Ephesus lies mostly in ruins. Over the past 2000 years the port has silted up and the city has lost its importance as a place of culture and knowledge. But a visit to the ruins is evocative of what it must have looked like at its most influential.

Detail on the Domitian Temple, named for a Roman emperor

Stone carving of the Greek goddess Nike
Ephesus was one of the key centres of Christianity in the ancient world, and the city is referred to numerous times in the Bible. Paul's journeys there are detailed in the book of Acts. Later, the Letter to the Ephesians was written by Paul to encourage and support its Christian community.

Memmius Monument

Pollio Fountain
Although there is some dispute about the population at its peak (estimates run from 35,000 to 225,000), it was unquestionably one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. At various times it was under Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Turkish control.

The Temple of Hadrian is one of the best-preserved buildings. Erected in honour of the Emperor Hadrian, it exhibits a stone carving of Tyche, the goddess of luck or fortune, at the top of the marble arch. Directly behind, the face and body of a woman (believed to be Medusa) are carved over the door opening.

The most awe-inspiring building in the area is the facade of the Celsus Library. It was destroyed by earthquakes, and rebuilt from the rubble in the 1970s. This reconstruction also included rebuilding the statues that sit in the exterior niches, honouring four of the ancient virtues - valour, wisdom, intelligence and knowledge. Originally, the library was built to hold over 12,000 scrolls, which were stored in cupboards in the interior walls. Double-layered walls protected the scrolls from heat and humidity.

The Great Theatre is enormous by modern standards. It's hard to believe that it was built in the third century BC, and enlarged by the Romans in the second century to hold 25,000 patrons. One of these patrons might occasionally have been an emperor, as an Emperor's Box was found in the lower area.

All that remains of the Temple of Artemis are these ruins, but it was once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Built completely of marble, it was twice as long and twice as wide as the Parthenon in Athens. The Greek writer and mathematician Philon of Byzantium visited most of the wonders, and wrote, "When I saw the Temple at Ephesus rising to the clouds, all these other wonders were put in the shade."

"Fellow Ephesians, doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?"

- The Bible, Acts 19:35


Sunday, May 17, 2015

This week I made my annual road trip to the Stratford Festival with a few of my girlfriends. On the way there, we noticed a church hosting a "Baking and Plant Sale" in nearby Shakespeare (yes, that's the actual name of the town). As we drove by, I saw big bunches of rhubarb for sale on a table in the parking lot. We talked about pulling over to buy some, but realized that leaving the rhubarb in a warm car for the day wouldn't do it any favours. So we decided to wait and see if there was any still for sale when we drove home.

After strolling the streets of Stratford, having lunch, and seeing The Physicists, we drove back through Shakespeare. The table had moved inside the church. While there were still plants and baking available, the rhubarb was all gone. Seeing my disappointed face, the woman behind the table said, "We've got loads at home! I can get you some more."

I laughed and said it was all right, but she told me she lived only a block away. And before I knew it, she had her husband on the cell phone, asking him to cut some rhubarb and bring it to the church. "I could have asked him to bring what we cut yesterday," she said, "but that wouldn't have been as fresh."

And so it was that ten minutes later, her husband approached the church with a heavy plastic bag in his hand.  She asked me for $2, possibly the least expensive personal delivery of produce since William Shakespeare picked up his first fountain pen. (I convinced her to accept a little extra.)

That's why I'm posting this delicious rhubarb crisp recipe today. I've put the rhubarb I didn't use in the freezer, and I'll enjoy this dessert again sometime when it's out of season.

Rhubarb Apple Crisp


3 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2” pieces
3 cups cored, peeled and sliced Golden Delicious apples, 2 – 3 large
1/2 tsp orange extract
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour


1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp grated orange rind
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup rolled oats (not instant)
1/4 cup finely-chopped (not ground) walnuts
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of ginger
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup cold butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 2-quart baking dish and set to the side.

Measure the rhubarb, apples, orange extract, sugar, and flour into a medium bowl. Toss until combined and pour in the baking dish.

Place the brown sugar and orange rind in a separate bowl and combine until the sugar is scented with the orange rind. Add flour, oats, walnuts and spices, and stir to combine. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle over the fruit mixture and press down gently.

Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes, until the fruit filling is bubbly.

Thursday's Child: Chicago

Thursday, May 14, 2015
Springtime on Chicago's Riverwalk
Last week, my oldest daughter and I helped my mom celebrate her birthday with a few days in Chicago. We may have chosen the most beautiful week of the year to go: it was that perfect time in the spring when everything was coming to life.
Flowers on the Magnificent Mile
The first thing we did when we arrived was visit the Art Institute. Last fall Tripadvisor named it the world's best museum, and it's not hard to see why. Here are some of the many, many works of art that were standouts for us:

Matisse's beautiful Daisies
Chagall's transcendent America Windows
If you recognize this painting, you're a fan of either
pointillism or Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Maybe both.
Hipster studies hipster

It's been said that Van Gogh painted the things that people take pictures of today - their food, and themselves. It was probably inevitable that I'd channel my inner Van Gogh in Millennium Park:
Picnic lunch by Millennium Park Monument
Three-generation photo at The Bean
Later, we timed our trip to the Hancock Tower so we could see day turn into night, and it couldn't have been more spectacular.

"And the embers never fade in your city by the lake."
- from "Tonight, Tonight" by the Smashing Pumpkins

Mother's Day

Sunday, May 10, 2015
"I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard."

- from "The Lanyard" by Billy Collins

The beginning of May is always a busy time in our family. My mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day usually fall in the same week, and they did again this year. That calls for double the celebration. 

I wanted to make a cake for her birthday, but it was complicated by the fact that she, my oldest daughter and I were out of town until just before dinnertime on her birthday. (More about that in Thursday’s post.) I made this cake ahead of time and froze it, which meant I just had to frost it when we got home.

I was thrilled with the results. This is the best vanilla cake I’ve ever eaten. (And it freezes beautifully!) The frosting is lovely, too, but a touch rich; I used jam between the layers instead of using all the frosting, and would definitely do that again. 

Happy Mother's Day!

Vanilla Birthday Cake
(adapted from That Skinny Chick Can Bake; refer here for instructions on making  two 8” cakes)

For cake:
1 cup milk, at room temperature
6 egg whites, at room temperature
2 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla paste or vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 sticks butter (3/4 cup), at cool room temperature

For buttercream frosting:
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) butter, at room temperature
1 Tbsp vanilla paste or vanilla extract (first amount)
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar (icing sugar)
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla paste or vanilla extract (second amount)
2 Tbsp heavy cream

Peach jam or apricot jam (optional)


Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter two 9-inch pans and line with parchment paper.

Make sure milk and eggs are at room temperature. Pour milk, egg whites, almond extract and 1 tsp vanilla paste into a medium bowl, and whisk to combine. Set aside.

Measure cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on the slowest speed, just until combined. Cut 1 1/2 sticks butter into small pieces and add to the batter. Beat for a couple more minutes.

Add half of the milk mixture to the flour mixture, and beat at medium speed for a couple of minutes. Add remaining milk mixture and beat for about one minute.

Pour batter evenly between two prepared cake pans. Bake until toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, 23 to 25 minutes. Allow cake to cool to room temperature.

To make buttercream, beat 2 1/2 sticks of butter at medium-high speed until smooth. Add 1 Tbsp vanilla paste and beat until combined.

Add powdered sugar and salt; beat at medium speed for a minute. Scrape down the sides and beat until mixture is fully incorporated, another minute. Add 1 tsp vanilla paste and heavy cream and beat for 4 minutes at medium-high speed, stopping to scrape down sides as required.

Frost cooled cakes. If you like, spread a thin layer of peach or apricot jam between cake layers instead of vanilla frosting.

Books, Volume 2

Sunday, May 3, 2015
By the book table with one of my own books (The Witch of Bloor Street) and one
of my favourite recommendations (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things)
Photo Credit: A Novel Spot
Last week I told you I'd be supporting Authors for Indies Day by appearing at my wonderful local bookstore, A Novel Spot. What an amazing experience! I made four new author friends, talked to some loyal customers, and had an awesome excuse to spend two hours in one of my favourite places. I came home with some new books, too.

Here are some of the highlights:

With fellow writers Mary Rose Donnelly and Kim Echlin

Joined by Sarah Pietroski, owner of A Novel Spot
My books!
A Novel Spot - an awesome bookstore
And fittingly, I have one more recipe from my book club meeting left to post today. These appetizers are a delicious addition to any appetizer tray!

Baked Asparagus, Leek and Goat Cheese Bites

2 1/2 tsp unsalted butter (plus butter for greasing muffin tins)
6 spears asparagus, tough ends trimmed
1 leek, halved lengthwise, white and light green parts finely chopped
2 ounces fresh goat cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Generously coat the cups of a 12-cup miniature muffin pan with butter.

Thinly slice the asparagus spears crosswise, keeping the tips whole. Set the asparagus tips aside.

In a saut̩ pan oven medium-low heat, melt 2 tsp butter. Add sliced asparagus and leek and cook gently, stirring often, until softened slightly, about 2 Р3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool.

Crumble the goat cheese into a bowl. Add the ricotta cheese and egg, and mash together with a fork until well combined. Mix in the cooled vegetables. Divide the filling evenly among the prepared muffin cups. Bake until puffed and lightly golden on top, 20 – 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining 1/2 tsp butter in a small frying pan over low heat. Add asparagus tips and sauté just until tender, about 1 minute. Slice each tip in half lengthwise and set aside.

When the bites are done, transfer the pan to a wire rack. Run a table knife around the inside of each cup to loosen the edges and then let cool slightly. Invert a large plate or tray over the muffin pan, invert the pan and plate together, and lift off the pan.

Arrange the bites on a platter and top each with an asparagus-tip half. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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.)