Friday, December 23, 2011

a mid-winter baby


I love the long nights of winter. It really is pretty cool to be able to mark the turn of the seasons by the length of the days. In summer the days are gloriously long and in winter, the nights get a turn. It just feels right to snuggle up - with a loved one, to the fire, in a soft blanket - and simply let it be dark outside. And breath. 


Somewhere along the line I became aware of summer and winter solstice and although we never formally mark either, I always note both. A simple little personal recognition of that turn of seasons, the rhythm of nature. Now I have a significant reason to mark the point of mid-winter, the time when the world turns toward rebirth, after which each day is incrementally longer. We have been blessed with another sweet and beautiful grandson - Isaac Stefan was born December 21, Mid-winter's Day. He is so very welcome and already dearly loved. Congratulations Mark and Tiffany.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

wrapping




For a long time I pretended to myself each Christmas that next year I would get my presents wrapped earlier - earlier than Christmas Eve. Finally I have realized that I like the last minute wrapping frenzy. Almost as much as I like the activity of wrapping presents. And I do honestly love it. I like selecting the paper and box, the ribbon or string, the tag, the embellishments, and then making it all come together in a beautiful package that says 'I love you'. A beautifully wrapped gift is an affordable luxury, one that is within the reach of anyone with the patience to take a little care and use the tiniest bit of imagination. 

I don't think gift wrapping needs to be over the top to be wonderful. It just needs to be neatly executed. Quality ribbon goes a very long way. As do cool tags. Some years I have spent more time than I should have crafting tags of one sort or another (always a ton of fun), other years I have purchased shipping tags or even price tags. This year I decided to use nothing but brown kraft paper or white newsprint paper to cover my boxes, red or black baker's twine, 'ribbon' strips torn from a piece of black cotton, bits of faux Christmas greenery, and velvet ribbons from my ribbon collection*. The tags (which I love) are from here and here

Simple. Beautiful. Done.  (Well..... almost. Just four left to wrap. And that is a record for me!)


*Every year I use, save, and re-use 'real' ribbon. I have a large plastic bin full of the glorious bits. It may be a bit eccentric (or maybe just plain weird) but my loved ones accept and even anticipate the collection and saving of ribbon. I like to think of it as being green.


Monday, December 19, 2011

'speculoos spread' - homemade


Have you had this stuff?!! It tastes like Christmas in a jar and although I have heard that it is meant to be a spread for toast and such, the only way that I really have experience with eating it is straight off the spoon. That is likely the way my experience will stay and I know that I am not alone. It is addictively good and sadly not available for purchase (as far as I can tell) anywhere in North America. Those two realities motivated me to try a knock-off version. This is pretty good....no, actually it is amazing. What I am not sure of is how closely it follows the inspiration since I tasted the 'real' Speculoos Spread in October and it is now December but even if it isn't a dead-ringer for the real deal it is still delicious. And you don't have to go to France to get it. (But I would if I could....)

My original intent was just to give it a whirl on my own but then I thought about re-inventing the wheel and all that, and went to google to see what might be there. Sure enough I am not the only one with a yen for this spread and no plans for a trip to France. I took what was offered, messed around with it a bit, and this is the result.

I used extra-virgin coconut oil as the base for my spread. I know that many do not view it  as a healthful oil because it is a saturated fat. Please reconsider if that is your view.  Coconut oil contains large amounts of the medium-chain triglyceride lauric acid. Lauric acid has been shown to be antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral! Additionally it has the great virtue of killing the 'bad' bacteria while leaving unharmed the friendly bacteria that is needed for healthy digestion. The absorption of calcium, magnesium, and amino acids has been shown to increase when infants are fed a diet using coconut oil. And populations that consume coconuts as a major part of their diets rarely develop osteoporosis. These and many more healthy advantages have convinced me that the saturated fat component of coconut oil is something that is misunderstood - not to be confused with trans fats which are to be avoided for sure!  (the fats found in fast foods and much processed food) - and is actually a source of much that is healthful. With the information I have have at hand right now I have decided to enjoy those benefits. If you are not convinced but want to try this spread you could use another type of oil.

Initially I was a trifle disappointed that the spread separates a tiny bit when it sits for several hours, but hey! so does my almond butter - and to a much greater degree.  However it does emulsify nicely with very little stirring - which my almond butter does not. The texture is lovely and smooth, and everyone needs something to have a spoonful of when the mood strikes. It would be a great little food gift .... if you need something like that.

'speculoos spread' knocked-0ff

160 gm anna's almond cinnamon thins*
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp water
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 Tbsp dark brown sugar

In a food processor, process the cookies to a fine powder. Add the vanilla, coconut oil, cinnamon, sea salt, and brown sugar and process until well mixed and smooth. With the motor running add the lemon juice and water in a thin stream. Keep processing for a minute or two - until the spread is a very smooth, silky paste.

Store in a clean jar in the fridge. Because the oil is coconut oil it will be pretty firm immediately after coming out of the fridge so allow about 30 minutes before you want to eat it for it to warm up and soften a little. Give it a quick stir and dive in!


(In order to compare my spread is the top pic, the original is the one immediately above)

*Anna's Almond Cinnamon Thins taste almost exactly like Speculoos biscuits and are readily available at IKEA all over the place and in Canada at many supermarkets including Safeway. The original spread lists Speculoos biscuits as the main ingredient.

This post is dedicated to Graeme and Allie - who love Speculoos and  (like me) -sadly have no plans for a trip to France in the foreseeable future.

Friday, December 16, 2011

salted deep chocolate caramels



There are chocolate caramels and then there are chocolate caramels. These are the latter. Deep and richly chocolate with the loveliness of a sprinkle of Malden salt. Eye-rolling, deep-sighing, mouthfuls of goodness. You. must. try. 

Must!

That's all I will say. All I can say.

salted deep chocolate caramels
(from Gourmet December 2006)

2 cups heavy cream
10.5 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup golden syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
flaky sea salt** - I used Malden's

Line the bottom and sides of a 9X13-inch metal baking pan with two long strips of crisscrossed parchment paper.

Bring cream just to a boil in a 1 qt saucepan over medium heat, being careful not to scorch, then reduce heat to low and add the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 1 minute, then stir  until the chocolate is completely melted. Remove from heat and set aside.

Bring sugar, syrup, water and salt to a boil in a 5 or 6 quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, uncovered, without stirring (but swirling pan every minute or so) until sugar is deeply golden - about 10 minutes. Tilt pan and pour in the chocolate mixture ( this will bubble and steam a bit alarmingly). Continue to boil over medium heat, stirring frequently, until mixture registers 255 F on a candy thermometer*. This may take about 15 minutes - I always stay very close to the boiling pan, usually reading a book or magazine to while away the tedium because this does get tedious. I also stir more or less constantly but you can gamble with burning if you choose. Remove from heat, add butter and stir until the butter is completely melted and fully incorporated. Pour into the prepared pan and DON'T scrape any caramel clinging to the sides or bottom of the pan. Let the caramel stand 10 minutes, then sprinkle evenly with sea salt. Cool completely in pan then carefully lift the caramel out of the pan with the aid of the parchment. Use a large heavy knife to cut into strips and then into squares. Wrap in 4" squares of cellophane or waxed paper.

*Check the info on using a candy thermometer in yesterday's post.

**Two notes here: I am a salt-lover. That should perhaps all be written in caps. Anyway, I  sprinkled the salt quite generously. It was good. Second note, I think it is the salt that really makes these caramels extra special. The chocolate is amplified, underlined, just somehow better because of it.



Thursday, December 15, 2011

black licorice caramels




I have a passion for black licorice. And caramel. The two together are simply brilliant. I know that not everyone shares my passion for black licorice but I really do think that if you are in the black licorice-hating camp, and you were bold enough to give this a try, you just might begin to be persuaded. If not, well.... as my dad used to say "All the more for me!!" 

This recipe is really just a tiny adjustment to the Caramels with Mediterranean Sea Salt that I posted in February. 

Disclaimer: I am not any kind of an expert candy maker. I have made caramels for more years than I care to share and although they are about the most fool-proof candy out there, there are a couple of tips best kept in mind.

The first tip is that a candy thermometer is a minimal investment and worth every penny. Everybody's grandmother probably tested candy done-ness with a cold water bath and you can too but it takes a bit of trial and error to figure out exactly what a soft ball is as opposed to a hard ball (and we are not talking sports here). If you want to go that route, knock yourself out but you will probably also ruin more than one batch of candy while you are learning. So save yourself some grief and get a candy thermometer. A good one will still be under 10.00. 

Second tip: Proof that new (or old) candy thermometer. What? How? Remember back to grade school science? We learned that water boils at 212 F (or 100 C). That is true but it is also true that it is true at sea level and elevation makes a difference. Way up here in the foothills of Alberta water actually boils at 202 F (according to my thermometer) so unless I want to overcook my candy and have a tooth-pulling mess, I need to account for the difference when making candy. What this means for you is - when you get your candy thermometer put a pan of water on the stove, clip your thermometer on the side, and note at what temperature the water boils. If it boils at 202 F,  when your recipe says to cook the candy to 245 F, you know that you only need to cook it to 235 F.

black licorice caramels

1 cup butter
2 1/4 cups brown sugar
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 cup corn syrup
1 15-oz can sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp anise oil (sometimes called extract)
1/2 tsp black food coloring paste - optional


Melt butter in a heavy 3 quart saucepan. Add the sugar, salt, corn syrup, and condensed milk.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. Stir. And stir. And stir some more. At some point in the stirring clip your invaluable thermometer onto the side of your pan so that you know when you have gotten to the firm ball stage (245 F). It may take a while - or it may not be more than 12-15 minutes. (You can see the advantage of the thermometer, right? When you have a bit of experience making caramels it is easy to see from the color of the cooking candy, and the thickness of the syrup that you are close to where you want to be - but as I say, experience is the critical thing here.)


Remove the pan from heat and stir in the anise oil and food coloring if you are using it. Pour into a well- buttered 9x13-inch pan. Cool.


When thoroughly cooled, turn the candy out onto a cutting board and cut into squares using a large sharp knife. Wrap in 4" squares of waxed paper.


And December 15th has flown by. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

kokeshi nativity


When I was a child I was fascinated with the tiny figures of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Really, what child does not want to play with such adorable dolls? Factor in the wonderful story and they become absolutely irresistible - at least they were to me. When I became the person in charge of Christmas whatnots I therefore determined that any nativity figures in our home would be able to withstand touching and as much as possible be totally play-worthy - it hurt my heart to look and not touch the delicate figures.

These beautiful Japanese kokeshi dolls fill the requirement. I must admit that I don't really encourage play with them but I do allow touching. When we left Tokyo in 2007 one of my dearest friends knew that I had fallen in love with this set and sent them to me as a gift the first Christmas we were back in Canada.  I love them - special on several levels. Satin-smooth to touch, traditionally made, reminiscent of much that I love about Japan, a token of friendship - these special tiny figures.

One more day marked off the calendar.



Monday, December 12, 2011

excitement


Excitement is a HUGE part of the Christmas fun. When I was a child I would be so excited that I really could not sleep on Christmas Eve. I must admit that my extreme excitement was entirely selfish - the anticipation for what was in the packages under the tree and what Santa might have included in his sleigh for me.....well, it was just too much for my self-centered little self. Happily, I can honestly say that although I still find Christmas full of excitement it has been many years since that was motivated by what I might be receiving and is completely focused on my hope of the gifts I give conveying the love I feel.

Today I am very excited because the second issue of KINFOLK magazine is available. And Eden is one of the contributors!!!! I am so proud of her. Really. You cannot imagine how thrilled I am. I think it is even better (way better in fact) than if I had been the one involved in the publication. Another one of the perks of being the mom of a wonderfully talented and wonderfully wonderful woman.

If you have an iPad (and a moment) you can check it out online. Otherwise you can order a hard copy and patiently wait.


Another day closer to Christmas! and December 12 is counted.

(As is December 9, 10, and 11. The weekend passed in a flurry of snow, shopping, church, music, and wrapping - great Christmas-y things all! )

Thursday, December 8, 2011

heirloom quilt snowman




Some of my earliest and dearest memories are of my grandmother's house. I loved to be there. It seems that it was always bustling with happy people and fun. There were cousins to play with and beds to jump on (not allowed but shamelessly done) And quilts galore to make forts with. Often there was a quilt "on" (a frame to be quilted) and that meant even better fun when we were allowed to play under the work being done by busy hands above. The products of those quilting bees covered the beds in our home and warmed me at night. I was shocked when I became aware that not everybody had quilts - what did they sleep under then?! 

My Aunt Carma made this wonderful snowman out of the tattered remains of my Grandma Bradshaw's wedding quilt - the quilt that was made for her when she was a new bride in 1931. It is one of my most treasured Christmas decorations and a very special keepsake. The fabric in the quilt is threadbare and fragile. I was one of the lucky few to get a snowman because there was so little usable material. Every year when I unwrap the tissue paper from her (it must be a her because what respectable snowman wears pink? and it is from my grandmother) I think it is such a cool thing to have made with that well-loved and much used quilt, and I am grateful that Aunt Carma thought to do so instead of discarding it as a used up old thing. Every stitch on her is by hand - the old and the newer. My snowman's hat comes off, and her twig arms come out (one has gone missing). She is adored by my grandkids and treasured by me.

Even if you don't have an heirloom or vintage quilt to use, it would be a simple and fun project to make.

December 8 is counted down with this sweet treasure.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

cumin fried rice


One of the very best things that my wonderful Japanese neighbours taught me was how to make fried rice. It is a super meal for busy nights or the times when you haven't really planned and there isn't much in the fridge or pantry for fixin's. For years I made one variation or another on the Japanese fried rice I was shown by my lovely friends in Osaka (where, by the way, they pride themselves on their cuisine) but I kept it pretty close to an Asian profile. 


Last night I had planned quite well but as often happens at this time of year, my day - although wonderful and fun - did not go exactly as I had planned and I was left with far too little time to work my plan. On to Plan B. Which really means standing in the open fridge and wondering what to do, what to do..... There was a bit of left-over roast beef from Sunday dinner, the bare minimum of boring vegetables, hmmmmmm and sigh.....  and then (I must honestly say - based on how incredibly yummy this was) inspiration struck. Fried rice with a Mediterranean flair! Fast, easy, and so, so good. 


Another of my plans - as I perhaps somewhat foolishly announced last week - was to count down the days to Christmas with a Christmas-themed post per day. Try as I might I can't find a way to spin this as a Christmas thing. The closest I can come is to simply suggest that everyone still needs to eat, preferably something yummy and healthy, and since the days are full and busy perhaps others might want something like this in the idea bank.


I realize that chances are pretty good that everyone doesn't have a little left-over roast beef waiting to be used in fried rice. If you don't I would think that a bit of whatever you like (chicken, beef, or turkey) whether already cooked and waiting, or quickly stir-fried would work just as well. Since our stays in Japan we are committed converts to Japanese short grain rice - it works particularly well in fried rice and is what I prefer.


cumin fried rice


2 cups Japanese short grain rice, cooked
1 cup roast beef, chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp dried sage
1/2 tsp cumin
4 cups baby spinach, washed
1 tsp sea salt (or to taste)
freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Heat olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Saute the onions and carrots until the onions begin to soften. Add the garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, sage, and cumin and cook for another minute or two. Toss in the beef and cook for a minute or until hot. Sprinkle the spinach leaves into the pan and quickly stir-fry until they wilt, then add the hot cooked rice and quickly but gently stir the rice into the mixture. Be careful not to over-stir otherwise the rice can get a bit gummy - not good! Season with salt and pepper and dig in!


As I look over what I have written for this recipe it looks too .... simple? like I must have missed something but I really think that's it. It really is fast and easy and good. I have learned that making fried rice is not a science but a very forgiving art. Just about anything works and often the simpler the better. Like most good food.


So I mark off December 7. One day closer to Christmas!





Monday, December 5, 2011

the music

As I bake and make and plan and play there is a soundtrack to the Christmas fun and games. On December 1st (and not before) I pull out and dust off the cd's and playlists of my favourite Christmas music. The songs of Christmas go way back - when I was a child in grade school there was carol singing in the gym before school every morning for those who wanted to come early, and you can be sure I didn't miss a morning even though I don't sing well. As I learned to play the piano, playing carols was a huge motivator to practise and I loved to play them while the family stood around the piano and we all sang together. 


Jonathon always had a special love for music - when he was three years old the only item on his Christmas Wish List was a music stand (so he could pretend to lead a choir or orchestra), when he was four the item was a trumpet (toy trumpet that is), and when he was seventeen I was overwhelmed when he sang "O Holy Night" and "I Wonder As I Wander". He has been blessed with more than a love of music - he has a beautiful singing voice and the willingness to share it. From the first time I heard "OHoly Night" as a child - and I do remember the occasion well - the song touched my heart. When Jonathon started singing it it became an even more tender and very special part of each Christmas for me. Now he is a man and sadly he rarely sings publicly anymore. It has been a few years since I have heard him sing that special Christmas song but still whenever I hear it, I think of him singing - and it makes my heart happy.


This year I am loving the new Michael Buble "Christmas" album as well as my old friends. A few old favourites:
Harry Connick Jr "When My Heart Finds Christmas"
Handel's "Messiah"
Nat King Cole "The Christmas Song"
Jewel "Joy: A Holiday Tradition"
Michael MacLean "The Forgotten Carols"


and of course Tchaichovsky's "The Nutcracker".


December 5th is counted down with music in the background.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

pumpkin cranberry bundt cake




I think the world of sweet-lovers can easily be divided into two camps - those who will choose chocolate, hands down, anytime, and those who will choose cinnamon. When it comes to dessert or anything sweet I will always go for the cinnamon. Don't get me wrong - I love chocolate and anyone who knows me at all can vouch for that. But when there is a choice, cinnamon wins the day every time. 


This cake is so delicious that we (all of us) find as many excuses to eat it as possible. It shows up pretty frequently any time after the leaves turn in the fall (pumpkin= fall, right?), fits right in with Thanksgiving (pumpkin and cranberries), and is perfectly in tune with Christmas-y food. The warm spices are wonderfully inviting and the sharp tang of the cranberries is the perfect counter-point to that warmth.


With the fresh snow that fell (and fell and fell) last night and the smell of this cake baking, it feels like Christmas! 



pumpkin cranberry bundt cake
(a recipe from my sweet sister-in-law Sonja)


2 1/4 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup oil
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1 cup chopped fresh (or frozen) cranberries


Mix dry ingredients together. Add eggs, oil, pumpkin, and cranberries. Mix until the dry ingredients are incorporated. Bake in a buttered and floured bundt pan for 50 minutes at 350 F. Cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely on wire rack. Dust with icing sugar before serving. (whipped cream is perfect with this)


Notes: I used coconut oil as my oil for this cake today. And fresh cranberries are a little easier to chop than frozen but both tend to hop around. Since that is the hardest part of making this cake I consider it well worth the minor frustration.


The smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves marks December 4.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

the tree


The tree is decorated. We don't have a decorator kind of tree. It doesn't make a design statement or have a theme. It is just filled with tiny little pretty things that hold precious happy memories and somehow it all works and feels just right in my home. I love it.


The little rocking unicorn joined our collection when we lived in Osaka in 1991. It is pretty and delicate - hand blown, one of a kind. When I unwrap it each year I remember five sweet fresh little faces, just the way they were that year. It survived the disaster of the falling tree (at about 3:00 AM one year there was an awful crash - the tree just....fell over. What a mess!!!), magically our little unicorn was unscathed. It is such a Japanese Christmas decoration but we love it more because of that. Why Japanese? A rocking-horse is a reasonably typical Christmas theme but honestly, do you think unicorn and Christmas in the same breath? and then rockers on it? There you go! 


December 3rd is marked by the memories I take out as I decorate the tree.

Friday, December 2, 2011

helping


I had planned to decorate our Christmas tree this morning. I started last night but due to my ridiculousness it takes hours (yes hours with an 's') to just get the lights on the tree. A pre-lit tree would save tons of time but I love our tree and so every year, despite swearing each previous year that I will not be so weird about the lights ever again, I find myself (with no-one but myself to blame) wrapping each branch carefully with lights so the cords are as invisible as I can contrive. I am a prisoner of my own obsession but finally last night, after trying to convince myself that it would be just fine to walk around the tree stringing lights in my wake, I have decided to embrace my weirdness (re: lights at any rate) and I actually enjoyed the process. That still left me with all the rest of the beauty to bestow on our Christmas tree this morning.

Sadly - for my tree-decorating plans - David had a flat tire on his way home last night. He was obliged to do the entire changing-of-the-tire-in-a-business-suit routine at the side of a busy artery in glaggy, ugly, traffic-y slush. Poor guy. And this morning greeted him with a heavy list of things that had to be done asap. But the tire needed to be fixed or at least attended to. That is where these two stories meet.


The concept of reaching out to others at Christmas is pretty embedded in the season. After all, we are celebrating the birth of Christ. As those who profess to follow Him it should really be all about what we give rather than lists of what we hope to receive. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of making lists of shopping to do (for the gifts we want to give), wrapping, baking, parties, decorating, making, and whatever else makes up Christmas for us. And in that trap forgetting (or turning a blind eye) to simply help others. To perform small acts of service that will make life a little better for someone around us. Sometimes we even do something big or bigger - the gift to charity (which is wonderful to be sure), the trip to the homeless shelter to help prepare or serve a meal - but charity does not need to be something that can be quantified on a tax return or signed up for somewhere. Most significantly it occurs where it is all too often harder to give. At home. There are always small acts of kindness that can be offered. Little sacrifices that can be made. Often at such an insignificant cost to the giver that it seems churlish not to give. But it does require a desire to love unselfishly and a willingness to put aside personal agendas for a moment or two. That is something that I am always reminded of at Christmas time - a yearly prompting to recommit to being a better, more loving, genuinely kind person. To be Christ-like as much as I can be.


So, my tree is still un-decorated but the tire issue is taken care of. I hope it helped relieve a little of the load for David - I know it helped me. On the 2nd day of December, my advent activity was just a little loving help. A good part of Christmas.



Thursday, December 1, 2011

advent calendaring


The summer that Eden was a year old (go ahead, do the math, and yes it was a long time ago) I saw a pattern for an advent calendar in the Vogue Pattern Catalogue. I saw it and knew that I had to make it. I burned to have one for my little family. I do not exaggerate my desire. As David was still in university (read: we were poor students) I had to cut a few corners and be a bit creative on a couple of fronts in order to accomplish my goal but I did it. I drew my own version because I just could not afford a piece of felt large enough for Vogue's true vision but I tried to make up for that by embellishing the ornaments that count down the days with sequins and beads - something that Vogue's designers had somehow overlooked. Every afternoon during the precious hour or so of nap-time for my two toddlers I would pull the bag of felt and bits out and sew, then hastily stuff it back in the bag and under the sofa when I heard the first stirring child. It took months of hand-stitching - every stitch sewn with love and the anticipation of how much my kids were going to enjoy this special tradition. I don't think I could have ever guessed how well-loved this advent calendar would be. If I were to die tomorrow, this could well be the most ardently desired item.  

Since that time I have wished that I had used white felt instead of red for the background, occasionally decided that perhaps we could use another idea for an advent calendar (always vetoed), have backed the original with supporting fabric to prolong it's sagging life, lost and found ornaments that have been squirrelled away by tiny hands, and refereed more squabbles than I can count over exactly who's turn it is to put up the ornament for the day. (With five kids it was always a race since everyone wanted to do it every day. lol)



I have made several other advent calendars in an attempt to give more hands an opportunity to mark off the day. They have each been lovely, or cool, or fun, but none has reached the status of the calendar.

Counting down the days to Christmas Day is something that I have always loved. We did not have an advent calendar in our home when I was growing up but I always drew my own version and religiously marked off each day with mounting excitement. Now that there are no little ones running to mark the passing days with my (now nearly vintage) calendar a lot of the fun is lost but I still find myself drawn to the concept of this activity. I have intruded myself on my kid's families and made sure that they each have an advent calendar of some sort (whether they want one or not) and would probably make a new one for each family every year if I only could get myself organized early enough to do so! (somehow I never think about starting it in August anymore.) The red calendar goes up on December 1st here - even though I am now a bit embarrassed by some of the work on it - because of the sweet memories it stores. 

For my personal countdown this year, I am planning hoping to mark each day from now to Christmas by sharing something here. Something that I love about, or do, every Christmas. Seems like a fun way to count the days of this wonderful season.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

elf stuff




The last day of November! Tomorrow the Christmas fun begins in earnest - and toward that end I present my version of the 'elf on a shelf'. It is truly not that I think I need to one-up the book and packaged elf (does that sound patronizing? hope not) but I just kind of like a handmade product over a mass-produced one. And I like to make things. Hopefully our littles will be enchanted with these elves - one for each family - and have just as much fun with the tradition as many others have.

Years ago David used to tell his little brother Reid stories about Greeny the Elf. Greeny kept an eagle-eye on Reid during December and truth be told (from the stories I have heard) I think poor little Reid was a bit afraid of Greeny. But it was a lot of fun for David, and Reid was a very good little boy for at least a month. Clearly the concept for an elf on a shelf has been around and waiting for ages.

Elf on a Shelf is a cute story and has garnered quite a following. If you google 'elf on a shelf ideas' you can find long lists of elf activities, from simple to elaborate. Many of them way more elaborate than I would be willing to undertake but if that's your thing, that's your thing. Me? I just like to make elves.

These little guys were very simple, fast and fun. I used some old wooden spools, some lovely wool felt, a sharpie to draw the eyes and nose, and a bit of wool I pirated off a fluffy/curly wool pillow that sits in my sewing room. One short seam to sew up the hat and a line of fabric glue to secure the "clothes" and ta-da! done! (Since the elves are not to be touched by childish hands - a rule of the tradition - they don't need to be terribly tough child-proof. Makes making one a lot simpler.)

I printed a set of "Rules" to go with each Elf Scout along with some suggested activities for parental eyes only. Can't wait to deliver these little guys and watch the fun!


(to give credit where credit is due I was inspired by a simple craft idea in Canadian Living magazine. Their elves were made with toilet paper roles and filled with candies or small toys. 24 of the little guys and you have an adorable advent calendar. I found them totally charming and since I had already determined to make my own elf on a shelf, I just tweaked the idea a tad and had a blast.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

hummus adventures - otherwise known as spinach, feta, and almond butter hummus


When my kids were little and my days were filled with the busyness that little ones bring, I decided one fine autumn day to make my fortune by creating hand-made dolls and selling them at a local craft market. Good thing that I was feeling pretty fulfilled with mothering because the fortune was never realized. I ended up being quite disgusted with the number of people that would stop by my table, carefully examine my wares, and then proclaim that they could make it themselves. Gah!!!! Or, they would try to bargain me down to 5 - 10.00 per doll - which was totally offensive to me given that the materials alone amounted to a fair bit more than that, never mind the 30 or so hours involved in the creation. And to be honest (and not immodest) they were beautifully made dolls. I really doubted that many, if any, of the self-proclaimed artists could go home and make one. ahem...sorry, I will step off my soap box and contain the rant. I still get a bit hot after all this time. Anyway, the purpose of this long story is I must admit that I am guilty (almost) of the same offence. 

At the farmer's market last weekend I sampled some very delicious hummus. Spinach and feta hummus. It was not unreasonably priced but I can make my own for far less, and knowing how very easy it is to make, I sampled, loved, and decided that I could make something similar at home - for less. And walked away. At least I didn't say "I can make this at home myself." ....but I still feel a tiny bit bad.

Not terrible though. Because this hummus is incredibly yummy. And easy. It is just a riff on the peanut butter hummus I posted about a while ago. Try it yourself. At home. You can indeed make yourself for less. I won't be the least bit offended at this - in fact I would be thrilled.

spinach, feta, and almond butter hummus

1 396gm can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small garlic clove, peeled and crushed
5 Tbsp natural almond butter
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground cumin 
scant 1/8 tsp ground cayenne pepper
3 cups lightly packed fresh baby spinach leaves, washed
2 oz (or about 60 gm) feta cheese, crumbled

Put all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and give it a whirl. When it is all nicely pureed, you are done. Simple.

Enjoy with pita bread, crisp flatbread, veggies - or all of the above.



Sunday, November 27, 2011

barley salad with squash and broccoli


Eden and I made this salad for a dinner party she hosted last weekend. She reported that it was well-received by all and that Daylan in particular loved it. She recommended I make some for the people living here (that would be just David and I now) and so I did. Now I recommend the same recipe to you. It is delicious and healthy and pretty. Can't want more than that, right?

The recipe is from Everyday Food. The only change I would make to the recipe as they printed it is to use regular pot barley instead of the quick-cooking barley called for. I did try the quick-cooking and although it is indeed a quicker route I prefer the taste and texture of the regular grain. It is easy enough to cook and just requires a very tiny bit more time. And it is a lot easier to find at your local grocers.

Barley is an ancient grain with a very impressive list of health promoting benefits. It has roughly 4 times the dietary fibre of oats and twice the protein. Many of the potential health benefits are associated with the fibre - regularity, lower cholesterol, & intestinal protection (how's that for sexy?). Barley is a rich source of magnesium - a mineral that has a vital role in bone health and is a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes. Barley may protect against Type 2 diabetes, post-menopausal breast cancer, gall-stones, childhood asthma, and hormone dependant cancers. The copper in barley can benefit those suffering from arthritis. And the phosphorus in barley aids in the development and repair of body tissue. Sold yet? In addition to these and many more (but potentially yawn-inducing) attributes barley is just plain yummy.

This recipe makes what Martha's writers allow for four people. We had large servings and it easily served at least 3 more. It saves very well for a day or two. We had it with salmon, Eden served it with roast turkey breast and sweet potatoes. It would be wonderful on its own for lunch.

barley salad with squash and broccoli
(tweaked from Martha Stewart Everyday Food mag - November 2011)

1 medium acorn squash, halved, seeded, and cut into 1/2" slices
4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
6 cups broccoli florets
1 1/2 cups pot barley 
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp minced shallot
2/3 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup raisins
shaved Parmesan

Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss squash with 2 tsp olive oil and arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and roast for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile toss the broccoli with another 2 tsp oil and arrange on another parchment-lined sheet. Add that to the oven and continue roasting both vegetables for another 15-20 minutes, or until tender. Watch the broccoli as the flower bits can crisp past the point of yummy pretty quickly. Let cool slightly and cut the squash slices in half.

Meanwhile cook the barley in 4 cups water. (Bring the water to a boil , add the barley and reduce the heat to simmer until the barley is tender - about 40 minutes.) Drain any remaining water from the barley and rinse under cold water. Drain well.

In a large bowl whisk together 3 Tbsp evoo, lemon juice, and shallot. Season with salt and pepper. Add squash, broccoli, barley, almonds, and raisins. Toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve topped with shaved parmesan. (We passed the wedge of Parmesan - wrapped in a cloth napkin - and a vegetable peeler so each person could add the cheese to their personal preference. I like more rather than less, myself.

(Full disclosure - David loved this but he did comment that if people are not used to healthy eating this may not appeal to them ... until they taste it. What on earth does that mean?!!!)


Thursday, November 24, 2011

berry clafouti



My grandmother used to have an old cast iron skillet. Certainly not very noteworthy  - I expect almost everyone's grandmother had a cast iron skillet but my mother did not and so I found it very intriguing that my grandma never washed hers in soapy water and (stranger still) kept it in the oven! It was one of the more minor marvels of my childhood, one that I probably never remarked and definitely forgot over the years. Kind of like I forgot about my own cast iron skillet, pushed to the back of the cupboard in favour of slick and shiny non-stick skillets. I have grown tired of the short lives of most non-stick skillets and more than a bit alarmed at the possible health risks they may pose, to say nothing of how tiresome it is to always be warning ones children to please use the proper utensils so as not to harm the delicate non-stick coatings. Cue the return of my classic cast iron pan to more regular use - and I am reminded of just why it is a classic. Granted it may not provide the kind of skate-across-the-pan non-stick that a shiny new ceramic or teflon-coated pan does but it is nevertheless virtually non-stick, will last forever with a tiny bit of tender care, and doesn't pose any health risk that I am aware of. Add easy to clean, great for cooking  anything from fried eggs over an open fire to dessert, and totally cool looking (in a classic, I'm not trying kind of way - which is more or less my definition of totally cool). I'd say it is a tool to love. 

This week I have used my trusty skillet to make a berry clafouti. It is not the commonly recommended* baking dish for clafouti but it works very well. Traditionally, the dessert is made with cherries but with cherries long out of season I used some frozen mixed berries - cherries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. I also made a gluten-free version as well as one using flour. Equally good either way. All things being equal I think I will probably go with the gluten-free recipe from here out. If clafouti is new to you, it is more custard than cake - very moist and full of fruit. It is super fast and very easy. A healthier dessert option than many. I promise not to start offering two versions of every recipe I share but thought it was worth sharing both the gluten-free clafouti as well as the more traditional. The gluten-free version is healthier on a few levels but both are delicious, easy, and a good dessert choice. Jonathon called one night this week asking for a quick, light dessert recipe to share with friends and I suggested this. The next morning he called back and said I needed to blog the recipe....soon! So here it is.

berry clafouti 

(scant) 1/2 cup sugar
heaping 1/4 cup flour
pinch sea salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup milk
2 tsp grated orange zest
2 cups fresh (or thawed frozen) mixed berries

Whisk together the sugar, flour, salt, eggs, cream, milk, and zest.

Scatter the berries into skillet (or buttered baking dish). Pour the batter over top. Bake at 400 F. for 35 - 40 minutes - until puffed, slightly set, and brown around the edges. Cool for 15 minutes before serving (it will deflate). Sprinkle each serving with powdered sugar and top with a spoonful of freshly whipped heavy cream. 

gluten-free berry clafouti
(from alive magazine)

4 large eggs
3 Tbsp melted coconut oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/3 cup honey
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
3/4 cup almond flour
3 cups frozen mixed berries, thawed

Whisk together the eggs, coconut oil, extracts, honey, coconut milk, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and almond flour.

Scatter the berries in a 10" skillet and pour batter over top. Bake at 400 F. for 35 minutes or until puffed, slightly set, and lightly browned. Cool for 15 minutes before serving. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of powdered sugar - or not.


*If you don't have a cast iron skillet (or just don't want to use one for this) you can make your clafouti in any 1 liter baking dish you like.