Easter chocolate

Sunday, April 20, 2014
In my house, there couldn’t be an ingredient that’s more quintessentially Easter than chocolate.

This year, as with most years, my youngest daughter gave it up for Lent. When I suggested that forty days without chocolate wasn’t bad compared to forty years of biblical wandering in the desert with nothing to eat but manna, she reminded me that manna may, in fact, have been available in chocolate.

When Lent was over, I wanted to serve the choclatiest dessert I could find. That’s what led me to bake these Oatmeal Cookie Magic Bars. It’s pretty much over the top, and that was the intention. Whether you’re breaking a Lenten fast with these bars, or just looking for a decadent dessert, it’s a sweet way to celebrate any family occasion.

Oatmeal Cookie Magic Bars

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups rolled oats (not instant)
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup Reese’s Pieces (or pecans, or Skor bar pieces)
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9” x 13” pan with parchment paper.

Cream butter and sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add flour, baking soda and cinnamon, and stir in by hand. Stir in rolled oats to combine.

Press dough into pan. (The dough will be sticky, and will form a thin layer on the bottom of the pan.) Bake for 10 minutes.

Remove hot pan from the oven and sprinkle evenly with toppings. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over the top so it’s all covered. Return to oven and bake for 25 – 30 more minutes until the edges are browning and the top is partially set. Cool completely before cutting.

Thursday's Child: A Walk through Central Park

Thursday, April 17, 2014
"Imagine" memorial outside the Dakota

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one.

- from "Imagine", by John Lennon

The seasons of Central Park:

The statues of Central Park:

I've never been anywhere that feels both as familiar and as ever-changing as Central Park. We try to visit every time we're in New York City, and every time we see something new. We've seen it in the sunshine, on overcast days, and in the pouring rain. We've seen it in the cold of December and in the blazing heat of July. 

Some of our memories of Central Park: Watching kids swarm over and around the Alice in Wonderland sculpture. Identifying statues that honour Robbie Burns, Christopher Columbus and William Shakespeare, to name just a handful. Witnessing story hour beside the Hans Christian Andersen sculpture. Walking through Strawberry Fields, dedicated to the honour of John Lennon who was shot at his home beside the park. Meeting the "Butterfly Lady" beside the lake, who knew how to say 'butterfly' in 68 languages (and taught us a few). Street musicians, horse and carriage rides, skateboarders practicing tricks and runners - always runners. Central Park is the centre of the city by more than name and geography, and New York wouldn't be the same without it.

"Everything you look at can become a fairy tale, and you can get a story from everything you touch."
- Hans Christian Anderson

Thursday's Child: Skating at Rockefeller Center

Wednesday, April 9, 2014
This has been a long, hard winter, and I can't welcome spring quickly enough. But before we got too far into April, I wanted to take a look back at one of my favourite winter activities this year - skating at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

We travelled to New York as a family between Christmas and New Years. Andrew and I have been there a few times, but it was the first visit for the girls. So we wanted to cover some of the basics of the city: Central Park, Broadway, FAO Schwarz, the Shake Shack. And right up there was Rockefeller Center.

Andrew and I had never skated there before, although I remember visiting once and watching the skaters from the level above. (It was on that visit that we saw Regis Philbin and Il Divo setting up next to the rink, for a Christmas special appearance.) But with a family visit, donning skates seemed like the perfect way to spend an afternoon. And we were right. In the midst of a very busy trip, spending a couple of hours skating on a perfect winter day was one of our most memorable activities in New York City.

"It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on."

- from "River" by Joni Mitchell

Springtime Pasta

Sunday, April 6, 2014
It's officially been spring for a couple of weeks, but today felt like the first day of spring in Toronto. And it's been a long time coming in Toronto. It's probably hard to understand unless you live here, or in Michigan, or in Minnesota, or in Calgary … never mind, I'm sure you understand exactly how long it's been.

Today was the day when we saw many of our neighbours for the first time in months. At least, for the first time when they weren't bundled so deeply against the cold that we didn't know who we were waving to.

And thus it seemed appropriate that I'd post Crunchy Pappardelle today, which seemed like a spring recipe the first time I made it on the coldest of winter days. It wasn't just the light cream sauce with the lemon flavour, it was the fact that it used pappardelle, which I was certain was associated with the spring. In fact, I googled it before writing this post, only to find that "pappardelle" means "gobble up". That's appropriate too, since that's exactly what we've done to this recipe every time I've made it.

In the end, I'm not sure what I was thinking of. Perhaps papillon, which is French for butterfly? Whether or not it was meant for the spring, I can't think of a better way to bid adieu to winter than by gobbling up this pasta before heading outside with the rake.

Crunchy Pappardelle

3 Tbsp olive oil
3 1/2 cups button mushrooms, halved
7 Tbsp white wine
2 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs, leaves chopped and stems discarded
1/2 tsp sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
salt and black pepper
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 Tbsp chopped parsley
3 Tbsp panko
1 bunch, 3 – 4 cups, broccoli (or broccolini)
9 ounces dried pappardelle

Bring a large pot of salted water and a small pot of salted water to a boil. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan and sauté the mushrooms until they start taking on colour, stirring occasionally. Add the wine, bay leaves, thyme and sugar. Bring to a boil and reduce the liquid by two-thirds. Remove bay leaves, add the cream, and stir to mix. Taste and add plenty of salt and pepper. Keep warm.

Mix together the lemon zest, garlic and parsley. In a pan over medium heat, toast the panko until golden, stirring occasionally.

Pick any leaves from the broccoli, then cut into individual florets. Blanch in the small pot of boiling water for 2 minutes and drain.

Add the pasta to the large pot of boiling water. When the pasta is just ready, add the broccoli to the cream sauce to reheat. Drain the pappardelle, reserving some of the cooking liquid, and stir with the cream sauce. Add half of the parsley mix. If the sauce seems dry, add some of the reserved cooking liquid.

Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl. Stir the rest of the parsley mix into the panko and sprinkle generously over the pappardelle. Serve immediately.

Thursday's Child: Lenten Procession in Guatemala

Thursday, April 3, 2014

We were recently in Guatemala, where we had the privilege of witnessing a Lenten parade in the colonial city of Antigua. Lent is a very important time in the Guatemalan church calendar, and every Sunday during this time, a procession enters from the outer city into the city centre. We were fortunate enough to see one such procession.

Work starts early in the day. Every week, the parade comes into town from a different outlying district, and each district accepts the holy responsibility to make the route as beautiful as possible. Groups of people gather in the streets, making temporary murals from flowers, plants and dyed sawdust. The beauty of this artwork is astonishing, and even more so knowing it will be destroyed as soon as the procession walks over it.

As so often happens in Lent, the purpose behind the ritual is one of penance. That's why I, and many of my friends, give up something we enjoy for the six weeks prior to Easter. Here, the penance is in the form of carrying the float that depicts Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. Pilgrims pay for the right to take their turns carrying it for several blocks; many do so multiple times over the course of the day.

Thus it was that Andrew and I found ourselves standing on the steps outside the cathedral, by the main city square in Antigua. The occasion was solemn, but the crowd was family-oriented: children, parents and grandparents mingled, laughed and spoke. A sense of excitement and anticipation filled the square.

Darkness fell. Several musicians and banner carriers proceeded into the square, alerting us that the float was close behind. Volunteers handed out Spanish-language pamphlets describing the ceremony, and each person in the crowd was given a candle. We passed the light from one person to the next until the crowd was full of hundreds of tiny beacons.

And then the float entered the square. It was almost impossible to look away. Illuminated by its own lights, the float swayed from side to side with the movements of those who carried it.

We stood and watched as the procession slowly proceeded past us and wound its way around the square. As the crowds began to disperse, we weren't ready to leave yet, and we walked around the square, sharing the view with those on the other side and looking back at the beautifully-lit cathedral. As the procession came to an end, we returned to our hotel, grateful to have participated in such a heartfelt and holy spectacle.

Recipes Inspired by Musicals: La Boheme

Saturday, March 22, 2014
I wasn't sure if I could count La Boheme as a musical. It is, after all, an opera - possibly the most tragic and romantic opera ever written. But I'm including it here because Andrew and I saw it performed on Broadway, and because it was nominated for seven Tony Awards in 2003 (including Best Revival of a Musical). And mostly because I set the rules on this blog, and I'm calling it a musical.

The great Baz Luhrmann brought La Boheme to Broadway after a popular run in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The story is simple. Rodolfo and Mimi, poor bohemians living in Paris, fall in love. They decide to live together, but are torn apart by Rodolfo's jealousy. Mimi moves out and becomes terminally ill with consumption. She and Rodolfo are reunited one last time; they remember their happy moments, and she dies. The show ends with Rodolfo calling her name in grief and throwing himself upon her dead body.

Even by operatic standards, that's a lot of sorrow.

Leek and potato soup is a French classic, and it's as beloved by the wealthy (who might call it vichyssoise) as the poor (for whom the ingredients would be simple and affordable). Whether it's eaten warm or cold, this soup will appeal to the bohemian - or the aristocrat - in all of us.

Leek and Potato Soup
(from Around my French Table, by Dorie Greenspan)

2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 large onion, preferably Spanish, chopped
2 garlic cloves, split, germ removed, and thinly sliced
3 leeks, white and light green parts only, split lengthwise, washed and thinly sliced
1 large russet potato, peeled and cubed
6 thyme sprigs
2 fresh sage leaves (optional)
4 cups chicken broth
3 cups milk

Optional toppings: minced fresh parsley, sage, tarragon or marjoram; grated parmesan; grated gruyere

Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or soup pot over low heat. Add the onion and garlic and stir until they glisten with butter, then season with salt. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft but not browned.

Add the remaining ingredients, along with a little more salt, increase the heat, and bring to a boil. As soon as the soup bubbles, turn the heat to low, mostly cover the pot, and simmer gently for 30 to 40 minutes. Taste the soup and season generously with salt.

You can eat the soup as is, or puree with a blender until smooth or semi-smooth. (If you choose to do the latter, I highly recommend using an immersion blender. There are few tragedies worse than a soup-in-the-blender tragedy.)

Recipes Inspired by Musicals - A Little Night Music

Sunday, March 16, 2014

When Andrew and I visit New York, we almost always end up at the half-price ticket booth in Times Square, looking for same-day tickets to a Broadway show. Most of the time we get tickets to hidden gems, shows that we haven't heard of starring fabulous actors that aren’t household names.

That wasn’t the case when we visited in July 2010. When we got in line, we checked the board to see which shows were available. Unbelievably, there were still tickets left for A Little Night Music by the great Stephen Sondheim, featuring two of the greatest legends of musical theatre, Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters. “There’s probably just two tickets left, behind a column at the back,” I thought, and quickly chose second and third choices.

When we got to the front of the line and tickets were still available, we snatched them up, not believing our luck. The show was in previews, which probably explains why we got in. But, preview or not, I thought the performance was perfect. And hearing Stritch and Peters perform was an unforgettable experience.

A Little Night Music is named for Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (if you think you don’t know that piece of music, you probably do). And it features the well-known song “Send in the Clowns”. Only a true professional could make such a well-known song sound like you’ve never heard it before. That’s exactly what Bernadette Peters did in her magnificent performance. Seeing this show was truly an exceptional experience.

This show of missed opportunities and second chances is set in Sweden. (It was originally inspired by an Ingmar Bergman movie.) When I was looking for Swedish recipes, I came across this lovely Swedish Apple Pie. Baked without a pie shell, it’s topped with a crust that reminded me a bit of my German grandmother’s apple pies. This is one of the easiest pies I’ve ever baked and, based on the enthusiastic reviews, I’ll make it again.

Swedish Apple Pie
(adapted slightly from Stacey Snacks)

5 – 6 medium apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup sugar (first amount)
2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cloves

1 cup sugar (second amount)
1 cup flour
3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill a pie pan with sliced apples and walnuts. (I used 6 apples in my 10” pan, but if you’re using a 9” pan, 5 apples would probably be enough.)

Mix the 1/4 cup sugar with the cinnamon and cloves. Sprinkle over apples, coating them well.

Brown the butter (for instructions on how to brown butter, see these instructions). Add 1 cup sugar and the flour, and let the mixture come to room temperature for about 10 minutes. Add egg and stir well. Spread the batter over the apples with a rubber spatula or a spoon.

Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden.