All Ears

Easter is a beautiful celebration, full of colour, warmth and love. The decadence of spring signifies the transition from the bleakness of winter just as Easter brings the end of Lent. People seem to breathe more deeply at Easter.

This year with Earth Day following Easter I felt a certain symmetry. My reverence for life was reaffirmed in my love for our planet.

At Rabbit Hollow we have a natural affinity to Easter – bunnies are our thing. Beatrix Potter’s Peter is the perfect mascot, with a sense of spirit and (once learned) a sense of responsibility.

Rabbits are a good symbol for us – we are all about foraging, nibbling a little here and there, and enjoying the love and abundance of family and the community at large.

We don’t have the wild bunnies here anymore that lay around when we first moved in, but our friendly sentinels greet me daily in our garden. I honour their presence every Easter. How? Well, with chocolate of course!

(Okay, maybe a Peep or two for food measure)

Especially with it being Earth Day, I wanted to honour all creatures. Ella and I had extra outside time today. I planted more bulbs and watered the early seeds, all the while thinking nurturing thoughts. I was thrilled to see a coyote out midday, cruising the field, and we spotted two deer in the orchard. Everyone was making the most of the day.

This evening as we sat down for our tea and a wee treat, I turned to my Easter chocolate. Are you like me – feet first? My Foodie book of etiquette says it’s disrespectful to eat a bunny’s ears first.

It was a lovely day, a wonderful weekend. I look forward to more warm spring days, so the bees can keep working and the blossoms can bring fruit. There is much to do if we are to help keep our planet going, and the renewal of spring is the perfect reminder to inspire me.

May your garden grow well, may the sun warm your face and may you have time to stop and smell the flowers.

Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest. – Beatrix Potter

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Just the thingamajig for Dolly

My Dad used this expression when I was a kid. I would help him in his workshop, holding tools in place or handing them over from the bench as he tinkered. Before I could do much in the kitchen with its hot stove and high counters, I could make myself useful with Daddy.  My post today is about good thingamajigs for a foodie, but if you’ll let me digress, I’ll give you the background for my silly title…

Learning the myriad of tools in my Dad’s workshop was an exciting challenge. For example, did you know there are three different kinds of screws and screwdrivers? The square one, called a Robertson, is named after the Canadian fellow who invented it? (It is generally regarded as the best for its ability to tighten well.) Screws are different than bolts; bolts get tightened with nuts, using a wrench (which the British call a spanner; hence the expression of having a spanner in the works – as in, things are stuck, not working right.) I loved understanding how it all fit together.

I remember asking him where the expression came from (“who’s Dolly? and what does she need a thingamajig for?”). He chuckled, and said it was something my Ovi used to say in his workshop (his dad – Ovi is Icelandic for Grampa) I would learn years later that the original expression didn’t use the word “thingamajig”. I’m sure you can imagine what guys in their workshops might say, and when I tell you the urban dictionary’s definition for the expression is “a good fit, a perfect match”… well, you can figure the rest out.

Fast forward to my later years, spending more time in the kitchen, and my love for a good gadget is still alive and well. I don’t like silly things, but a tool that is designed for a specific task and does it well deserves appreciation. My sense of curiosity is piqued when I see nifty new things. A recent stop at our local kitchen and houseware store, Lakehouse Home Store, did not disappoint.

⇐ It’s always good to have proper cleaning utensils, and now that we have travel mugs, metal straws and all kinds of re-useable containers, these brushes could come in handy.

 

 

⇒Silicone is the 21st century all-purpose material for many kitchen gadgets. This wreath shape could be used for many purposes, adding air circulation and reducing bottom heat. It sure beats jury-rigging a similar set-up with ramekins or racks.

 

⇐I was intrigued by the concept of a self-heating butter knife, possibly because that morning my hubbie had used up all the softened butter and put out a hard piece – not good for spreading on fresh bread.

 

 

If you don’t have an instant-read thermometer, you need to get one. This model is compact and easy-to-use, and comes at a competitive price. I can’t believe I made bread and cakes without one for years.

 

⇐ While not so much a kitchen item, this bottle holder solves my never-ending dilemma of always having too many things in my hands. I wondered if perhaps I could use it while retrieving things from the fridge…

 

 

 

I love to visit kitchen stores not just at home but also whenever we travel, and often there is one near a farmer’s market or central foodie neighbourhood. In Seattle, a perfect example of this exists in Sur La Table. This foodie mecca is adjacent to the famous Pike’s Place Market. Vancouver has a small store on Granville Island, where its popular market exists, but my favourite pick in the city by the sea is Gourmet Warehouse, a place that lives up to its name. A word to the wise: make sure you check the rules where you park, as you are sure to be in there a while, and tickets in Vancouver are expensive.

In Calgary, where I grew up, the foodie hangout is a bit on its own. Over the years there have been lovely pastry shops nearby, but I am sad to report they have not survived. (If anyone knows of a Danish bakery anywhere in North America that makes kringles with a custard filling, I’ll add it to my foodie bucket list!) But parking is easy when you visit The Cookbook Co. Cooks and it’s a treasure trove of goodies. When you’re done shopping, wander to the back of the store and you’ll find Metrovino, a delightful wine shop that can help you decide what to drink with dinner.

On my foodie bucket list of places to visit is an amazing shop in Paris, E. Dehillerin. I was in there once years ago, and picked up a few lovely mementos, but I hope to return and buy a copper pot. (Their English website is charmingly awkward in its text, but the pictures will fuel your dreams.)

A good tool is like a friend. Cooking is often a solitary task, but with my collection of nifty things gathered over the years I feel as though I’m surrounded by soulmates, even if no one is coming for dinner.

Have you got a favourite tool or gadget? Do you have a place you like to go to find things? Please share!

The Staff of Life

 

I love bread. I find it satisfying, intimidating, humble and rewarding, all at the same time. As a young person cooking, bread was a daunting chapter in any cookbook. It was not until recently that I screwed up the courage to take on that food central to survival for so long; the staff of life.

In my teen cooking years, I was thrilled to discover I could veer onto the side road known as “Quick Breads”, and worked up my confidence with Soda Bread, Zucchini Bread, Baking Powder Biscuits and cornmeal muffins.

One of my childhood friends was German, and her mom did a lot of hearty baking. She had an old family recipe for bread rolls that she made once a month. If the universe was smiling on me, I would happen to be stopping at my friend’s house after school, and we would be allowed to have a warm bun with butter. It was my first taste of Nirvana.

buns with butter

I have been working with my sourdough starter for a year and a half now, and I am still humbled every time I make a loaf. Just when I think I am the master, the starter behaves differently or the weather changes or the flour combination seems not work as well… it’s all edible, but I am far from the works of art I see on Instagram and in my cooking magazines. Those elusive bubbles and the intricate scoring patterns are like a foreign language – one in which I have only learned a few greetings and a few cuss words, like any other novice.

Yesterday, though, I think I got back to the heart of the matter. I made a recipe that I turned into a sort of pull-apart loaf and some rolls, and it was divine. It was an enriched yeast dough that I just happened to add some starter into, so it was truly a mish-mash of ingredients and techniques. But never mind, it worked. It tasted good. Even my chef hubbie said so!

I think perhaps that my interpretation of bread being “the staff of life” involves a more complex sort of survival than just sustenance. The shared experience of breaking bread is truly part of the magic for me. The love shared for the meal is also something I crave. (Like they say, we cannot live by bread alone.)

So I’m rejuvenated for another day, another effort, another bake. Leaving more crumbs, in case there is someone else out there, struggling along the same road. I posted my Kindred Spirit Milk Rolls, as a record of my progress and a message for those souls who want a taste of the magic.

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Curing the Winter Blues

Grey days. Cold winds. Snow drifts. Slippery sidewalks. Expensive lettuce at the grocery store. These are all reasons I don’t like winter.

The good thing about winter is that I have time to do more cooking and baking. I read cooking magazines and try new recipes. I bake bread more often. Perhaps because it seems to be a winter theme, all this foodie time can be a slippery slope – one needs to also work out more often if one is going to eat more often. Otherwise one could end up like Winnie the Pooh at Rabbit’s house, stuck with legs being used as towel hooks.

pooh stuck at Rabbits

Do you notice that the “sustaining book” Christopher Robin is reading is about food? That’s what friends are for, helping out when we are wedged in a tight spot.

The one thing I’ve discovered about the plethora of food information available online is that much of it is not to my taste. Some of it I would say is even inedible. I once made an olive oil cake posted by a spice company that has great products, but their recipe turned out horribly. The cake was like an oily hockey puck. That was an expensive effort, I’ll tell you. And, I ended up with nothing to have beside my coffee! Talk about NOT curing the blues.

This past weekend I made Alton Brown’s chocolate chip cookies. I had seen not one but 2 posts about “the best chocolate chip cookie” and figured I was armed with all the necessary ammunition to really knock one out of the park. I blazed a trail, and I’m here to tell you that it took some perseverance but I was able to come through the other side and offer up a possible solution for those winter blues.

First, trusting the article that said “don’t use chocolate chips as they don’t melt well; use chopped semisweet chocolate instead”, I bought some quality chocolate.

I looked for New Zealand butter as well, as the article also informed me that Canadian butter has a lower fat content and so less of a rich flavour. I’m afraid that $15 per pound was out of my budget, so instead I decided to brown the butter in the recipe (this works well for a brownie recipe I love.)

Vanilla extract is the other ingredient that has become more dear in recent months. I use it more sparingly now, so I planned for just a wee bit to heighten the chocolate taste, and then a good sprinkle of cinnamon to carry the cookies all the way to the finish line.

Loaded with good ingredients, I set out to bake. The other article had tested cookie recipes from various famous chefs, and Alton Brown’s recipe was voted unanimously as the winner. So, I downloaded a copy and got out my equipment. I’ve watched Mr. Brown’s Food Network show about cooking techniques and he seems like a knowledgeable and trustworthy fellow…

Well, perhaps his scribe is hard of hearing or can’t read Alton’s writing. I used my instinct and cut down his  1 teaspoon of kosher salt to 1/2 tsp. Turns out that probably 1/4 tsp would be plenty with a coarse salt. The butter is to be melted, so browning it didn’t change much in the recipe. However, I found that creaming the butter and sugar only happened once the butter had cooled a bit. I put my mixing bowl’s bum in a bigger bowl of cold water to make that happen as I mixed it.

One thing I’ve learned over the years – that was not mentioned in either article – is to make the best cookies of any kind is to shape them and freeze the dough. Then you can bake a few whenever you want them, and have them still warm.

chocolate chunk cookies

(My chef hubbie is quite a discerning cookie eater; he doesn’t like “leftover cookies”; I’ve tried warming them up and they often end up drier and a bit overdone, even. Word to the wise: save yourself the disappointment and cook them fresh. You can probably even do it in your toaster oven, instead of using the full oven and all its energy.)

I posted my adapted recipe for future reference – Almost Alton Brown’s Chocolate Chip Cookies. I like texture in my cookies, so I added nuts and candied fruit, but if you’re a purist I won’t hold it against you.

My mom used to say there wasn’t much a cookie couldn’t cure.

HIlton hotel cookie

On our return from our winter holiday in Jamaica, we had to layover in Toronto due to weather delays. The Doubletree Hotel at the Toronto Airport gives out warm chocolate chip cookies when you check in; I have to tell you that cookie went a long way to ease my disappointment from the day. Their marketing manager must be a Mom.

Here’s hoping you have access to a good cookie if your winter is making you blue.

 

Just a Tad of Decorum

It’s a funny thing when you realize you know why your parents harped on you about manners and having respect for the world at large. It was part of learning to be a good citizen.

When you’re young, all those sayings and anecdotes seem like overkill, too crazy to be real. Then, well, you get out into the big bad world and realize there might not be such a thing as too crazy to be real.

“Eat your crusts, there are children starving in Africa.” This was the litany when you didn’t finish your meal. I understood I wasn’t supposed to waste food, and I should respect every morsel. But it was an abstract notion.

Now I can say I have seen pictures of starving children, and I’ve seen videos of food not eaten when it didn’t need to be wasted. Once I saw Just Eat It ,just eat it film poster a documentary about a Canadian couple that decided to try and survive on wasted food, I realized that food needs to be better valued, and distributed, in our world. Now we keep a chalkboard on the fridge reminding us of what needs to be eaten.

“Don’t litter”. I remember seeing signs on the highway that said this. It was definitely considered bad manners to be careless enough to just throw something away, not in a garbage can. As I got older, recycling became more of a part of that action.

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Now I work harder to make my motto the other parts of that slogan. After scuba diving in Cozumel and seeing the piles of plastic garbage on the beaches and pieces of plastic in the ocean, I work hard to minimize my plastic use. We take our own metal straws to the movie theatre, and we won’t buy pre-packaged fruit or vegetables in plastic or foam trays. We use grocery bags made of recycled plastic for our shopping; if we forget them, we carry the groceries out in the cart.

So many small gestures in our day can make a difference. I don’t know about you, but I feel that I should make sure to consistently be a good citizen.

  • “Use your napkin to wipe your mouth”. How many paper napkins get taken from dispensers, not used and thrown out? I think before I pull now, and at home we use cloth napkins  that I wash with the regular laundry.
  • “Say please and thank you.” In an effort to pay it forward,  I make a point of using these words when I shop, including an employee’s name if I notice a nametag. I almost always get a smile, even if I don’t get a response.
  • “Respect your elders.” This was about being polite when I was a kid, like giving up your seat on the bus. Now I want to include valuing their opinion, listening to their stories, learning the traditions they remember.

All these are little things.

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They each take a moment out of our day. But don’t we say that life is made up of the little things?

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