Blueberries

Sunday, June 28, 2015

"When I see the bright clouds, a sky empty of moon and stars,
I wonder what I am, that anyone should note me.

Here there are blueberries, what should I fear?"

- from "Here, There Are Blueberries" by Mary Szybist

I spent the day at a family reunion at my cousin's farm near Iona, Ontario. The drive there and back was through pouring rain, but our time together was a great chance to catch up on family news. (So great, in fact, that I took no pictures at all. Whoops!) Among us, we have four children heading off to university in the fall – one to Princeton, one to McMaster, and two to Trent. It doesn’t seem like sixteen summers ago that my daughter was learning how to walk by navigating between lawn chairs with the same group of relatives.

Today there were six desserts to choose from, and three of them featured blueberries. I can never say no to my Aunt Lois’s Blueberry Delight, and it was, in fact, delightful. When I told her how much I loved it, she generously insisted on sending me home with another piece, which Andrew and I (mostly me) polished off for dinner.

It reminded me that I made a blueberry pie last month, and that I need to post the recipe today. It tasted like the best of summer – juicy, sweet, and intense. Here there are blueberries, indeed!



Blueberry Crumble Pie

One unbaked pie crust (preferably homemade)
1 egg, beaten to blend

2/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
5 cups blueberries
3/4 cup all purpose flour
3 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch salt
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line pie crust with parchment paper or foil, and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake until the crust is set, about 15 minutes. Remove the paper and beans, then brush the crust with the egg glaze. Bake until light brown, about 20 minutes. Cool completely.

Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and lemon zest in a large bowl. Add the blueberries and lemon juice, and toss together until combined. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes, or until berries start to release their juices.

Whisk together the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Mix with the melted butter, using your fingertips to blend.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Pour the blueberry filling into the crust and top with the crumble topping. Bake 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until filling is bubbling and topping is golden.

Thursday's Child: Faulty Towers

Thursday, June 25, 2015
La Merced Bell Tower, Granada, Nicaragua
Based on today's title, you might think I'm writing about towers that were built wrong - the Leaning Tower of Pisa and its ilk. But the only faults in these towers were in the people trying to climb them.

You see, my family has an issue with towers. One of us doesn't like steep flights of stairs. One doesn't like stairs with no handrails. One of us gets claustrophobic. And the fourth doesn't like towers one bit, for all these reasons.

And yet, that's rarely stopped us from climbing them.

Every city in Europe has at least one. The bell tower, the church tower, the city hall tower - each promising a breathtaking view. And in every new city, we think, "This time will be different. There will be a sturdy handrail all the way up, and the steps will be of uniform height. Maybe there's even enough room on the stairs for people walking up to pass those going down."

Ah, optimism.


Views from St. Vitus 
We've climbed the 343 steps of St Stephen's in Vienna, and the 287 steps of Prague's St. Vitus Cathedral. The tower in Segovia's Alcazar was a mere 152 stairs, but only three of us were willing to make the trip, and we took turns at the bottom with The One Who Wouldn't Climb.
Alcazar view

Me, with The One Who Would Climb
Earlier I mentioned the Tower of Pisa. I climbed it in the days when there was no safety barrier at the top. Andrew visited the Cologne Tower on his own, and said it's by far the tallest (533 steps) and hottest he has ever climbed, with some steps replaced by scaffolding. We both climbed Berlin's Siegessaule in the pouring rain - but that's a story for another day.

The most difficult ascent, however, was the Bell Tower in Granada, Nicaragua. It hit the trifecta of difficulty - crowded, steep and impossibly narrow. As we climbed the stairs, we stopped dozens of times, backs pressed against the wall, to let descending tourists pass. It was a hot day, and the rising temperature did nothing to encourage us. When we finally got to the top, my youngest daughter announced she wasn't going back down.

I was beginning to picture us rappelling back to earth, when she came up with her own solution. She wasn't going to walk down, but she wouldn't mind sitting, and bumping her way down the stairs on her backside. She received a few odd looks, but those on the way up were happy to make room for her. We reached the base in no time at all, a mere 72 bumps down.


Father's Day

Sunday, June 21, 2015
Me at one month old
Andrew and I celebrated Father's Day today by watching one of the most dramatic ballgames we've been to. The Blue Jays made it entertaining by rallying from a 7 - 0 deficit to take a 9 - 7 lead, although they eventually lost 13 - 9. An afternoon at the ball park is always fun, especially when it's with Andrew, one of the two best fathers I've ever known.


My own dad was a huge baseball fan, playing it for years and watching a televised ball game every Sunday afternoon. The first game I remember watching with him on TV was in 1975, when the parents of major league pitcher Luis Tiant were granted a special visa from the Cuban government to visit the United States to watch their son play. I knew nothing about baseball at the time, but I remember thinking what a big deal it was - Tiant hadn't seen his dad in fourteen years.


I only went to a handful of ball games with my dad, but they were games that mattered. He took me (and my mom and sister) to my first ball game on August 28, 1983. We went to Detroit, to watch the Blue Jays play in Tiger Stadium. Gwen and I bought Blue Jays' pennants, polished off a tub of popcorn by the second inning, and sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with gusto. Although I had a vague preference to see the Jays win, I didn't think I cared all that much. But then the Jays, who held a 2-1 lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, lost when relief pitcher Joey McLaughlin gave up a home run to Chet Lemon. My sister and I were outraged, and insisted on flying the Jays' pennants out the car window until my dad made us pull them down. That began my love affair with baseball, and it gave my dad and me our biggest shared connection. We rooted for different teams (he cheered for the Indians), but whether it was our mutual disgust at the Tigers' 1984 series victory, or the Don Denkinger call in the 1985 World Series, our special bond was baseball, and it lasted for the rest of his life. He died twenty-nine years ago, and I still wish I could call him to talk about baseball.
Proud dad at my graduation

Thursday's Child: Lost in Translation

Thursday, June 18, 2015
The girls with favourite stuffed animals, in Essaouira, Morocco
We’ve been lucky in our travels. Considering the number of planes, trains, and automobiles we’ve taken, we’ve rarely lost anything. Other than the luggage that went missing for a week after our never-ending journey back from Morocco (that one merited its own post), the things we’ve lost on our travels are generally those that have been taken from us.

This is the story of those things, and they tell a lot about each of us.
 
Confiscated at Orly airport, replaced in Toronto
Knowing how I love to spend time in the kitchen, you won’t be surprised to hear that my confiscations were of the culinary variety. Returning from France, I had an adorable Pylones dog-shaped pie server taken by security officials. And recently, coming back from Chicago, I had to part ways with a hazelnut spread that I’d bought as a gift for Andrew. Yes, I know the rule about liquids – I just didn’t know the confectionary corollary.

My oldest daughter was a crafter extraordinaire as a child. Every day could be made better with the addition of scotch tape, pipe cleaners, and construction paper. It was a wonderful trait at home, but problematic when we travelled, particularly since she was fond of multiple-pocket pants. When we were packing for the airport, it never occurred to me to ask, “Did you check your pockets to see if you took your scissors out?” Airport security being a little more thorough than her mother’s, the scissors in question were found and confiscated. And a tearful young lady needed to be consoled, partly from embarrassment, and partly because she couldn’t cut and paste for the rest of her holiday.

You might think we’d have learned our lesson. But the following year, we were stopped on our way through the metal detector to visit the House of Parliament in Ottawa. Sure enough, when she emptied her pockets, out came another pair of scissors. I don’t know how much damage can be done with blunt-ended pinking shears, but fortunately it was never put to the test.


My youngest daughter was devoted to her precious stuffed animals, and several of them joined us on every trip. Every trip, that is, until the year we took a cruise, and her (light-grey) stuffed manatee was accidentally scooped up with our (white) linens to be washed. It’s difficult to convey how devastating this loss was, perhaps on par with one of her parents being accidentally scooped up with the linens. We spoke to our hard-working cabin attendant, but what was the chance that, among bedclothes for 1500 cabins, one missing manatee would be found? Magically, he was returned several days later, one shade paler but otherwise intact. The following year, the stuffed animals decided to stay at home. 

My husband, devoted musician that he is, once took a harmonica on holidays. If you know Andrew, you’re probably saying, “Why would he do that? He doesn’t play harmonica.” To which I would answer, “I don’t know” and “You’re right, he doesn’t.” He’d been given the harmonica as a gift, though, and was determined to learn it while we were in Costa Rica. We were challenged by security on our way through the airport, and Andrew was asked to prove it was a functional instrument by playing it. This was more difficult than it sounds, because he’d never actually tried, and didn’t know the finger positions. Gamely, he channeled his inner Elwood Blues and tunelessly played a few notes. The security officer smiled his thanks for the impromptu concert and waved us through.

We were all relieved that Andrew didn't bring his accordion on the trip.

Poster holidays

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Spring brightly traveling, summer half awake,
Here the afternoon city plays at being
A dream of summer's: gaiety in repose,
Lazily festive as poster holidays,
A dream."

- from "Urban Pastoral" by Babette Deutsch

If every end is also a beginning, then my lovely youngest daughter is at that junction between twelfth grade and the rest of her life. The end of high school is the beginning of university. The end of adolescence is the beginning of adulthood. And I couldn't be more proud of the wonderful young woman who I see before me.

Life at this moment feels like a breath being held. The space between the inhale and the exhale, when the world lies suspended, and anything might happen. The last of the exams have been written, the prom has been attended, a summer working at camp awaits. And now, when the world lies between inhale and exhale, when the summer is half awake, when school is done and the summer job not quite begun, I am happy for every moment.


Saucy Strawberry Cake

I loved this recipe! The only thing I might change is adding another cup or two of berries, and increasing the sugar and cornstarch in proportion, so the dessert is even more loaded with fruit.

For berries:

4 cups hulled strawberries, quartered (or more; see note above)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp cornstarch

For cake:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 Tbsp grated orange zest
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
2 eggs
1/3 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp cider vinegar
1 tsp orange extract or vanilla extract (I happened to have orange extract on hand and loved it. The original recipe called for vanilla and that would be great too.)

In saucepan, bring strawberries, granulated sugar and 1 Tbsp water to boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until berries begin to break down, about 5 minutes. Whisk cornstarch with 2 tsp water; stir into berry mixture. Cook, stirring, until thickened, about 20 seconds. Scrape into greased 8-inch square (2 quart) baking dish. Set aside.

While strawberries are cooking, in large bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, orange zest, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In separate bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, butter, vinegar, and orange or vanilla extract. Stir into flour mixture just until combined.

Pour batter over strawberry mixture, spreading evenly. Bake in 375 degree oven until centre of cake appears dry and no longer jiggles, about 35 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.



Thursday's Child: Chicago Foodie Tour

Thursday, June 11, 2015

When my mom, my daughter and I recently visited Chicago, one of the highlights of our trip was taking in the tastes of the city. Not only did we enjoy some of the best food Chicago has to offer, we did so while learning how the city has developed, from the fire of 1891 through the World’s Fair, Prohibition and beyond.

Our guide was the lovely Annalynn from Taste Bud Tours, who took us to six eating establishments that are woven into the history of this city.


More than a few restaurants claim to make the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago, and Pizano’s is one of them. Since this was our first stop, I’d planned to pace myself by just taking a bite or two. Then Annalynn emerged from the kitchen with two slices for each of us – one sausage and one cheese. The sausage pizza was especially excellent; the sausage was sweet and juicy, and the crust was crisp and buttery. Despite my best intentions, I finished it. (I also ate half the cheese slice, leaving the rest on my plate for decorum’s sake.)

It’s often said that the best pizzas in town are made by Pizano’s and Lou Malnati’s, which is ironic because the chains were founded by brothers. I can’t vouch for Lou Malnati’s, but Pizano’s makes one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten.



A short walk took us to the Palmer House Hotel. The original Palmer House was a wedding gift from Potter Palmer to his wife, and was reputed to have been lovely. However, it was open for just thirteen days before being destroyed in the Chicago Fire. Since then, it has been rebuilt and restored several times, but each time they’ve maintained the style of the first restoration. Their guest list over the years is impressive: a small sample of their patrons includes Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Mark Twain, Nat King Cole, and at least four presidents of the United States (Harry Truman, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield and Grover Cleveland).

Including the Palmer House on this tour was not only historically interesting, it also fit the theme perfectly. During the World’s Fair of 1893, the hotel was the birthplace of the chocolate brownie. We enjoyed our fudgy brownies in the stunning second-floor lobby, feeling like royalty.


Al Ferrari developed his original Italian Beef Sandwich recipe in 1938, preparing the sandwiches in his kitchen and selling them at a local food stand. They became so popular, he and his family later opened a store and increased the number of sandwiches available. Al’s makes a terrific (if slightly messy) sandwich, piled high with shaved beef and nostalgia. Served with gravy for dipping and sweet peppers on the side, it's best eaten while employing The Italian Stance, explained above. The company spokesman is another Chicago institution, Mike Ditka.



Although there’s no food connection for the Chicago Cultural Center, we were thrilled to see it. The Cultural Centre was originally built as the first Chicago public library before being converted when the collection outgrew its surroundings. With its wall mosaics, stained-glass windows and the world’s largest Tiffany glass ceiling, it’s hard to imagine a lovelier library anywhere. We arrived during one of its free classical music concerts and were completely impressed by this stunning building. It was easy to see why it’s such a popular location for weddings and parties, and why it is sometimes booked years in advance. If we hadn’t been on the tour we probably wouldn’t have stopped here, and it was one of the highlights of my day.

My mom, Teresa Ging, me, my daughter
Cupcake heaven!

With all the history we were witnessing, it was a pleasure to visit the Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, a modern addition to Chicago’s food scene. Teresa Ging was working in Finance before leaving to pursue her dream: studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, and returning to Chicago to open a cupcake shop. She spent eight months developing and testing cupcake recipes as she prepared to open her business. (Possibly the best homework assignment, ever.)

Sugar Bliss began as a catering service, and a few years later Ging opened the retail store. It was awarded the prize for Best New Business in Chicago in 2010, and she was invited to the White House by Barack Obama. Annalynn gave us each a mini-cupcake, which were as delicious as they were adorable. These barely-bigger-than-bite-size treats packed enough flavour to make it feel like we were dreaming in chocolate and buttercream.

It’s hard not to love a place that sells breakfast cupcakes, not to mention frosting shots. And just when we thought we couldn’t love it any more, Teresa Ging came from behind the counter to pose for a photo with us.


Clearly, we hadn’t eaten enough sweets, and so Fannie May Chocolates was our next stop. This Chicago institution was founded in 1920 to make handcrafted chocolate. Refusing to compromise his integrity, the first owner sometimes closed the shop during the Second World War when he couldn’t get the high-quality ingredients he needed. Today Fannie May’s is owned by a large corporation, but the quality of the chocolate is still exceptional.

I saved my samples for a time when I was a little less full. I loved the pecan caramel Pixies, and the mint meltaways that I brought home for the rest of my family were a huge hit. And Annalynn swears by the coconut and dark chocolate Trinidads.


By this point in the day, I didn’t think I could eat anything else, and our only remaining stop was at the Berghoff, a German restaurant. This family of brewers made their name by selling Berghoff’s beer at the World’s Fair. It was such a hit that they opened a cafĂ© in the city, selling beer for a nickel and giving sandwiches away for free. They thrived until Prohibition, and managed to stay afloat during that time by developing an iconic root beer that remains popular today. Berghoff’s was the first restaurant in Chicago to get its liquor license back after the end of Prohibition, and its #1 Liquor License still hangs on the wall of the bar.

We weren't particularly hungry by this point in the day, but after a couple of sweet shops, the tangy German flavours on our plates were more than appealing. The bratwurst served with sauerkraut and potato salad was so good that not one of the stuffed travellers could resist!
Annalynn, bearing cupcakes






Thursday's Child: The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Thursday, June 4, 2015
Last week I wrote about the Reichstag, one of the symbols of the reunification of East and West Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate is another powerful icon of a divided city that became one.

The Brandenburg Gate was originally built in the late eighteenth century in what was then Prussia, as a symbol of peace. It lies at the western opening of Unter den Linden, the lovely boulevard that translates as Under the Lindens. The wide street and linden trees that line both of its sides made it an appealing home for a gate.

The sculpture on top is known as a quadriga, and it depicts the goddess of victory being pulled in a chariot by four horses. Shortly after the gate was built, Napoleon's armies invaded Berlin, and he took the quadriga as a symbol of his victory. However, it ended up in storage, and was discovered a few years later when Paris was captured by the Prussian soldiers. It was returned triumphantly in 1814, the only difference being the addition of an iron cross to symbolize the victory over Paris.

Ironically for a tribute to peace, the gate suffered extensive damage in the Second World War. And it has also been used as a rallying point for shows of power. In 1933, a parade of Nazis processed through en route to the presidential palace. After the city was split in two by the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Brandenburg Gate became almost unreachable, since the wall was mere inches away. For that reason, it became a powerful symbol of the separation of the two parts of this city.

The gate was the site of Ronald Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech in 1987. At reunification in December 1989, the West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, walked through the newly accessible gate to shake hands with the East German Prime Minister, Hans Modrow. After reunification, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were just two of the leaders who used the gate as backdrop to oratory.

The gate continues to be a powerful gathering point for the city. Last July, hundreds of thousands of Berliners gathered there to watch the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina. After the German victory, the players paraded through the gate and down Unter den Linden in front of 400,000 cheering fans.

As a North American who hadn't visited Berlin before last summer, the Brandenburg Gate nonetheless had a huge place in my imagination. I remember hearing Reagan's words to Mikhail Gorbachev and thinking the wall would never come down. But then the unexpected happened, and the wall fell. Some of the most powerful photographs I've ever seen depicted the citizens of East and West Berlin embracing each other as they stood on the Berlin Wall in November 1989, with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.