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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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It’s good to have a cardigan when it’s cold – or a mug of hot cocoa

I believe a cardigan sweater is the adult version of a teddy bear. It’s warm and snuggly, giving one that warm-fuzzy feeling we all crave from time to time. Cozy but not overbearing, if you’ll pardon the pun. On a cold grey day, I love wearing a cardigan.

Of course most things we love have to do with memories. I suppose my love for cardigans goes back to my teen years.

I grew up with a fascination for the 50’s, it having been the decade when my parents were kids. I heard all kinds of stories and saw all the old movies about bobby-socks-ers and their letter-sweater boyfriends. Girls either wore these cute finely knit cardigans that were part of a sweater set, or they wore the over-sized chunky cardigan given to them by an athlete wooing them. My first impression of sexy was the coquettish look those pony-tailed teens had in these outfits.

sweater set crowd

I was always torn between trying to fit in and wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t figure out until my 30’s that I’m one of those people who was not meant to fit in, but rather to stand out. (You’d think the horizontally striped socks I wore would have clued me in, but no.) There was one place I knew I could find comfort though – the kitchen.

Cooking has always warmed my heart and my soul as well as my tummy. But sometimes you need a quick fix rather than hours of putzing around. A mug of hot cocoa is the best quick fix I know.

Nestle Quik chocolate drinkAs a kid, warming up a bit of milk with a heaping spoonful of Kwik was good enough, but then I developed my palate and became a gourmand. I travelled to Europe and discovered steamed hot cocoa in Paris. Then I found nirvana at breakfast one morning in Barcelona when I sipped on an elixir that was akin to warm chocolate pudding. Needless to say, my Quik days were over.

When I returned from Europe and got ready for university away from home, I wanted to be independent but still feel connected to home. My Dad gave me one of his cardigans to keep warm in the damp Vancouver climate. It was a bit like having a teddy bear, or a cape with super powers that made me feel safe.

Nowadays you can buy mixes that have definitely stepped up a notch or two from the Quik of my childhood. And artisan hot cocoa from chocolatiers is a popular take-home item.

I like to buy chocolate from Thomas Haas in Vancouver. When I get to the city his cafes are at the top of the list of places to stop. There is nothing like dunking one of his flaky croissants in a mug of his deliciously rich hot chocolate. But there is something wonderfully decadent about being able to make this kind of hot chocolate at home.

Homemade authentic hot cocoa is very simple. Here are my proportions for 1 cup (250 mL). I like to use whole milk. Please just don’t try this with water.

Spanish hot cocoa

Method 1 – with chocolate

  • Heat milk in a pot, or steamer. Measure 5 tablespoons (2-1/2 oz or 70 g) of dark chocolate (55-70% cacao) into your cup, in small pieces or grated. Whisk chocolate and milk until blended. If desired, add a sprinkle of cinnamon or a bit more grated chocolate on top.

Method 2 – with cocoa

  • Rinse a small pot with cold water (this helps keep the milk from scalding in the pot).
  • Sift together 2 tablespoons cocoa, 1/4 teaspoon corn starch and if desired, 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon or ginger.
  • Pour 1 cup of milk into the pot, and stir in 1 tablespoon honey. Stir in the cocoa mix and heat to medium-high, stirring constantly until bubbles form and a gentle boil starts. (you have to get the liquid to a boil for the cornstarch to react.)

Either way, I like to top my homemade hot cocoa with vanilla ice cream, not marshmallows. You know how they say, “Go big or go home”? Well, why not go big at home?!

I have had a few sweater sets in my day, although I discovered the matching type of look was not really me (it’s more for those who really do fit in). But I do still have Daddy’s wool sweater, which I wear every so often with a jaunty scarf and sometimes a hat. It still makes me feel special, and a smile comes over my face every time as old memories come back. The same thing happens when I sip a good cup of hot cocoa.

KPL with Daddy's sweater

Share kindness with a cookie

sharing a cookie

Today is World Kindness Day. I think every day should be World Kindness Day, but we have to start somewhere, right. One step at a time. So, I propose we start by sharing.

One of the easiest things to share is food. I know that in today’s world even that can be complicated, what with all the dietary restrictions and allergies. But the gesture of sharing is still a kind one, even if the recipient has to refuse the token. They don’t have to refuse the smile that goes with it.

My Mom used to say there wasn’t much a cookie couldn’t cure. Technology will argue that point; but if I have a bad day, I still feel better after I take the time to enjoy a cookie. If I can find someone to share the moment and maybe another cookie, so much the better.

Are you like me – certain kinds of cookies fit certain moods?

peanut butter criss cross cookies

 PEANUT BUTTER CRISS CROSS – for days when I feel like a dose of kid magic, that beautiful feeling of freedom and wonder you have when you’re a kid. There is something simple and nourishing about these squished rounds that make my soul sing.

 

cookie monster in bed happiness

TROPICAL DELIGHT – for when I want to “Sail Away” like in that old song, imagining that I’m at the beach or on the water, in holiday mode. These are particularly welcome in the dead of winter.

 

 

Dave Zen cookies

CHOCOLATE COOKIES – you know those days when you just don’t think you can get to the end unless you have a bit of chocolate? These are like a friend made into cookie dough. When your best bud isn’t available, these come to the rescue.

 

 

Maybe you aren’t so much of a sweets person? Not to worry, I have something for that savoury shortbread The Chef Insteadtoo. I always lean towards sweet treats for sharing a morsel, but SAVOURY SHORTBREAD that my hubbie, The Chef Instead makes is a perfect grown-up treat that’s good for one friend or many.

 

 

If, God forbid, you’re not into any kind of biscuit or cookie (it’s okay, we could still be friends) then how about sharing a pot of coffee or a bottle of wine? You can even “pay it forward” in the queue at Starbucks or Timmy’s. You could put something in the Food Bank donation box at your local grocery store.

Even if you’re reading this at the end of the day, you can still be a part of all this wonderful-ness. There is no expiry date on kindness. What do you say?

(I’m heading out to share my birthday cake from yesterday. I’m baking cookies tomorrow. I’ll report back on how they turn out!)

It’s all in the wrist

You know how sometimes life gets ahead of you? Good intentions trip you up and instead of checking items off your “to do” list you are mired in the weight of the list itself and spinning your wheels.  I love to try new things and to share my excitement at new discoveries, but I have been caught in a hamster wheel for a while with things I told myself were “more important”. I was making excuses instead of getting organized.

But now I’m back, and I’m so glad I have this safe space to come back to. I still haven’t completed that list, but I did bake brownies today. And I feel so much better for it. It’s about following through, I discovered.

The recipe is one I saved over a year ago and never got around to trying. Red Wine Brownies (yes, really). Please don’t wait that long – they are really good. Sarah at Broma Bakery knows her stuff.

It seems so silly now that I’m here writing – I try to live not feeling guilty for indulging in life and yet that’s what stopped me from taking time to write or try new recipes. I felt guilty because I didn’t have everything done I thought I should do. Foodie heal thyself, right?

Okay, so I’m human. Today I took Ella for a walk and we decided we should stop by the local fruit market for ice cream. It turned out to be a rather nice fall day, and they will be closing soon for winter, so it was a “carpe diem” kind of inspiration. You know,

Eat ice cream, breathe the fresh air, shuffle in the leaves; for soon it will all be cold and white.

Root beer float and Tiger Tiger, on a waffle cone of course. I only ever eat Tiger ice cream in a cone. I have to say, the combination with root beer may be a new classic I want to lay claim to. It was like a key to a time warp that made me feel ten years old again. Living in the moment. Ella seemed to approve too, although her tastes are not very discriminatory when it comes to ice cream cone bottoms.

I felt a wonderful sense of pride and accomplishment seizing that beautiful moment. After all, I had spent the morning inside doing housework. I deserved a break. (And even if I hadn’t done housework, why not say “Yay me!” for making a memory?”)

The brownies didn’t get made until after dinner, since other tasks were prioritized. But they only took about 10 minutes to whip up, and then just 35 minutes in the oven. They were lukewarm when I cut into them to serve.

Hubbie was very happy I made brownies, and even happier when they showed up in a bowl with ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce and crushed toasted pecans. I was happy when I tucked my spoon in for the first bite and realized how gorgeously gooey and rich (not sweet) they were. Thank you, Sarah!

Broma Bakery red wine brownies

The thought did cross my mind as my spoon headed to my lips: “this is the second time I’m eating ice cream in a single day – and I only bothered to stretch today, didn’t even really work out!” I swallowed that thought with the bite of brownies – it was delicious.

So, there you are. I’m human. Not at all perfect. Completely fallible. But I can bake a good brownie with a little direction. And now that I have my momentum back, I may even come up with a variation on something or a new idea. Just watch me! Like my Dad used to say when I was trying to improve my clutzy basketball skills, “It’s all in the wrist.” One just has to follow through.

 

Travel theme: flavour

I came in from outside tonight with my fingers all coated in saskatoon and raspberry juice, and read Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney’s post about harvesting berries – I took it as a sign. So, here I am contributing my handful of harvest ideas and memories to her theme for this week.

I live in the Okanagan, western Canada’s fruit basket. We have an edible fence in our front yard, with tayberries, golden and red raspberries, white currants, and two kinds of gooseberries. We also have a cherry tree that is over 60 years old, the only one left from the original orchard that surrounded our farmhouse. Late June our harvest begins with the currants and saskatoons, then it’s non-stop eating till the first frost.

 

As I stood out there tonight, picking and eating (you know, “one for the bowl, one for me”), I thought of how fortunate we are. To live in a place where all summer long I can eat my fill with the dogs nuzzling at my feet – it made me think of the phrase “an embarrassment of riches”.

When I was a kid growing up in Calgary, berries were much more of a luxury. My parents tried to grow raspberries, but we only ever managed a few handfuls for a harvest. My mom would buy them occasionally but they were doled out like gold coins. Perhaps that is part of why they taste so good now.

My favourite way to eat berries is by the handful right off the bush, but if I’m cooking them I want to make sure I can still taste the full impact of their flavour.

  • Our golden raspberriesberry financiers are more delicate in taste than red ones, but in Raspberry Financiers they shine. These are delicious for brunch or afternoon tea, and they make a delectable hostess gift.
  • Gooseberries have great taste but they are tough to deal with. The prickly bushes put up a good fight for their bounty, and their stems and tails are rather gnarly to eat. I like to make syrup by simply boiling the fruit with a bit of sugar and then I strain it for syrup – yummy on pancakes, ice cream, or even in salad dressing.
  • Currants are good for syrup too, and you can take things a step further and make mostarda. This Italian condiment is a great savoury match for roasted meats and cheeses. You can use this recipe for cherry mostarda for currants too.

As a foodie, I am all about the flavours of life. It amazes me that Mother Nature can offer us so many variations on a theme. I mean really, your imagination has to be good to develop the sweetness and range of colour in blueberries and golden raspberries and then head all the way through the spectrum to the different but equally delicious tangy gooseberries and currants.

I’m not sure what flavour the fuzzy saskatoons have – that was more about texture, not one I wanted to sample …


I have been fortunate to have flavour memories from other parts of the world, but I’ll save that for another post. Today I’m just going to stay grateful for the bountiful flavours of home.

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