Bakery love (and some coffee) in Saskatoon’s Riversdale.

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Recently I watched the PBS documentary “A Few Good Bakeries” and was inspired, and even touched by, the beautiful places of community and joy that bakeries (and coffee shops that bake!) can be. Watch it: it will make you want to quit your job and take up baking. Or just watch it and go to a bakery and bask in the love, which is what we did when we were in Saskatoon last weekend.

Saskatoon is becoming such a fabulous little city, especially the newly rejuvenating Riversdale neighborhood, which is just down the hill from my parents’ neighborhood. While the development of the area is not entirely unproblematic, and these issues are worth talking about, it’s still interesting to see old spaces and places completely transformed. One of the loveliest new spots is Little Bird Patisserie and Cafe. When we lived in Ottawa, my favorite Saturday past time was wandering down to Benny’s Bistro, the French bakery in the market, for an almond croissant. To now have a gorgeous French bakery in the heart of Saskatoon is too much to have hoped for. The space is beautiful — an old building with original hardwood and high ceilings that used to be an antique emporium, furnished thoughtfully with a mix of vintage finds and new creations like this wood counter.

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Although I’ve widely sampled their goods on several occasions, their macarons are probably the star. You know they believe in what they do because they even have a little placard gently informing the customer of the proper French pronunciation of “macaron” as opposed to “macarOON”, which is the coconut and chocolate cookie. Attention to detail, people. This is what makes a great bakery. Sadly, I don’t have a photo of the famous macarons because the day we went, in their debit machine was down and we only had a bit of cash. So we opted for the “healthier” Gruyere croissant, which was incredible. A truly authentic French croissant with a lovely savory cheese layer. Claire and my sister devoured it while I took photos. Then we wandered down to Collective for coffee. Very good coffee made by people who pay as much attention to detail as Little Bird.

And because we hadn’t had enough baking, we bought a scone to go with our coffee and it was dreamy. Some genius thought to put a layer of butter and sliced almonds down on the baking sheet under the scone dough so that the scone had the most amazing buttery crunchy crusty bottom.

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As I watched Claire lounging on a vintage couch enjoying her croissant, I commented to my sister on how different her life is sometimes from what ours was as children. Even if something like Little Bird had existed in Saskatoon when we were young, there is no way my parents could have afforded to bring four kids there for brunch, or coffee even. Both of my brothers would have wanted a six dollar tart and my dad would have had a heart attack. I hope we’re able to teach Claire about the privileges she has and encourage her to be aware of and to share with the many people who don’t necessarily share her privileges. But I also hope that she learns how much her life can be enriched by gathering with friends and family in neighborhood spots like Little Bird and Collective, and that she takes that enrichment back out into her community.

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Pizza Dough and the Impossibility of Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza

Recently I decided to get over my intimidation and bake bread. I found a recipe in my trusty Martha Stewart Baking Handbook and it turned out fabulously. So I got cocky and got out Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, by Ken Forkish.

My husband gave me this book for a gift (after some broad hints) while we still lived in Ottawa, while I was still working on my thesis, and before we had Claire. A world away. I carried it with me everywhere and read it like a novel (the opening story of Forkish’s founding of a French bakery in Portland does sort of read like a novel). I was fascinated and inspired. And completely intimidated. Poolish, levain, biga…I thought I knew a lot about baking but all this was new to me. Scales, tubs, proofing baskets…I didn’t even have a cast iron dutch oven (I also broadly hinted and got this for a gift — or sort, as my poor husband inadvertently got ceramic instead of cast iron and oval instead of round). In the end, I read the entire book and never baked a single loaf of bread.

Fast forward to today. Claire was napping, I was feeling brave, and opened Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast to  see if maybe the pizza crust was doable. The intro to the pizza section said “use any recipe from Chapter 3.” I flipped to the first recipe and the first step was “Feed the levain.” Shoot. What was the levain and how did I make it, let alone feed it?? You also needed a 12 quart tub — I wasn’t sure what that was and how big it was, but I knew I didn’t have anything like it.

I looked in the index and there was a “Same Day Straight Pizza Dough.” I flipped to that. The suggested schedule said to start the dough at 10AM if you wanted pizza sometime after 6 because it needed a 6 hour rise time, then shaping into balls, then another 2 hour rise. It was 3:00 when I read this. It also called for 7 cups of flour. How much pizza dough did I need??

Defeated, I googled “quick pizza dough” and found a recipe on The Kitchn site, a site that has never failed me, for thin crust pizza. They describe it as “the very best thin-crust pizza dough for a home cook on a weeknight,” and let me tell you: they are not kidding. It whips up in minutes and bakes like a dream. And only calls for 2 cups of flour. The longest part was the five minute kneading time. I found myself watching the clock while kneading and then stopped and just enjoyed the beauty of a simple, nurturing task in a rare silent moment.

I haven’t given up yet on Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast; it has become for me the Everest of cook books. Someday I will read it all again, buy all the stuff, and attempt it. But I might wait until Claire is in kindergarten.

Vegan Chocolate Earl Grey Pudding

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After a long summer hiatus, I’m back to blogging and have been baking and cooking up a storm.

While I’ve been loving Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, and plan to review some recipes from it soon, today I thought I’d do a quick post during Claire’s nap on a fabulous little chocolate pudding recipe I found in our local paper.

  1. Steep Earl Grey tea bag in 100ml of boiling water for about 10 min.
  2. Wrap 300 grams of silken or smooth tofu in tea towel and squeeze as much water as possible from it then combine with tea and one tsp vanilla and blend until smooth.
  3. Melt 100 grams of dark chocolate with 5 TBsp maple syrup over double boiler. Add to tofu and blend again until smooth (I used a salted dark chocolate so I would add a pinch of salt here if you’re using another kind).
  4. Chill for at least an hour and garnish with grated chocolate and Maldon salt.

This comes from Anna Jones’ A Modern Way to Cook — a book I have to check out, even though I am drowning in cookbooks. I love the title: I’m becoming increasingly persuaded that the truly modern/sane/progressive approach to food must be plant-based, not animal-based. More on this soon…

Recipe review of Ottolenghi’s Orange Hazelnut Greenbeans

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I’ve been meaning for some time to do some recipe reviewing. As a grad student, with limited time and resources, I always hated it when I tried a recipe and it flopped. Now that I have a bit more time on my hands (if I don’t mind often cooking with one hand while holding Claire) and I’m no longer a poor student, I love trying new things and hope to give you a heads up on the flops and the fabs.

This one, from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, is definitely on the fab side. I did a simplified version because I didn’t have all the ingredients on hand (does anyone besides Ottolenghi himself typically have hazelnut oil on hand?).

This is brilliantly simple (I’ve made it even simpler than the original): take a pound or so of green beans, blanch for 4 minutes in boiling water then transfer to ice water. Meanwhile, roast about a half a cup of hazelnuts for few minutes at 375. Drain beans and dump out onto a tea towel to remove excess water. Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil, the zest of one orange, and garlic clove put through a press. Mix well and season with fresh ground pepper and sea salt. Roughly chop the hazelnuts and sprinkle on top. Done!

Tip: make sure to pick the youngest, skinniest beans; if you have slightly thicker, older ones, boil for an extra minute or so.

The original called for hazelnut oil as well olive, snow peas, and fresh chives. The flavours are quite intense with the orange and garlic so I feel like the chives could be too much, but I’ll try when I’m at my mom’s next and can pick some fresh from her garden. Will let you know how that goes. The snow peas would probably be lovely but I didn’t have them on hand. Even with a slightly simplified ingredient list, though, this dish was so good: refreshing, light, intensely flavorful, and unusual. I’ll likely say this again and again here: Yotam Ottolenghi is a genius.

PS: Claire hated this recipe. She stuck her tongue out like, “get the taste off!” Oh well. I tried.

2015: The Year of Doing Less.

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Shortly before Christmas, our Moms’ Network had a Christmas party: 15 mom and 15 babies. Potluck lunch. Cookie exchange optional. I opted in for the exchange. The night before, Claire miraculously went to sleep at 10 [we’re now sleep training so she sleeps closer to 8 or 9, but 10 was good at that time], so I started baking and enlisted Jeff’s help making a butternut squash soup. I picked a favorite Christmas cookie my mom makes every year.

I realized very quickly that I had made a huge tactical error. Tradition dictates that the cookies be rolled into little candy cane shapes then iced after they cool. I rolled cookies until 1 in the morning, while directing Jeff with the soup. Then I went to bed. Then Claire woke up for her first nightly nursing session. First of 4 or 5. Needless to say, we slept in until 9. That gave me 2 hours to ice 60 cookies (40 for the exchange, 20 for Jeff’s office party), finish soup, feed baby, dress baby, dress self, get baby to nap, get baby to wake up from nap, get baby into car, get cookies into car, get soup into car, survive baby’s inevitable car melt-down, and get to party on-time.

Needless to say, I was late. I got lost on the way, turned a frantic U-turn because Claire was screaming and I was losing my mind, and the vat of soup spilled all over the floor of the car. The party was almost over when I got there. Most of the people participating in the cookies exchange were gone or leaving; I missed the thread that said people were going to bring the cookies all parceled out (mine were on a huge cardboard fruit flat), so no one was able to take mine home. My soup arrived in a half empty sloppy bowl and no one ate it because lunch was over. I begged one of the moms to take some of the cookies to the moms who lived near her, and I passed off the remaining soup on the host. There was also a collection for the foodbank; I had bought food the night before, and forgot to bring it. All in all: disaster.

The mom who had to deliver my stranded cookies showed up in a beautiful dress, with beautiful hair (as always), and little decorated jars of homemade hot chocolate in pretty gift bags for everyone. And beautifully packaged cookies for the exchange. I’ve written before about human extremes, and this lovely girl is a prime example. My go-to response when confronted with such a shining specimen of organizational perfection is usually to feel like a complete failure, but I quickly realized (while scrubbing butternut squash soup out of the car carpet) that the example I needed to look to was that of the mom who agreed to take part in the cookie exchange only on the grounds that she could buy cookies. This is a woman who knew her own limitations.

This all reminded me of the time in third year PhD when I was one of 2 lucky students who got that year’s tickets to the Governor General’s award gala at the Governor General’s residence (a mansion straight out of a Jane Austen novel). My friend Kate came to help me get ready, which really meant we sat in my kitchen drinking wine and eating olives for far too long and then trying out updos and falsies. I ended up standing on the street in Chinatown, at the last minute, frantically trying to flag down a cab — not an easy task during the dinnertime rush. When I finally got one, I sat in the back of the cab as it struggled through downtown Ottawa rush hour, frantically checking the time on my phone.

Looking kindly at me in his rearview mirror, the driver said: “if you rush all the time, you miss your life.” I never forgot that.

I usually end up rushing because I’ve tried to do one too many things. Doing one too many things is usually the result of trying to Do Everything. I don’t know what it is about parenting that can bring on the compulsion to do everything, but it was this compulsion that made me sign up for the cookie exchange, even though several of the other moms simply opted out and even though we were heading to my parents’ the next day where there would be loads of Christmas cookies. I don’t know why I stayed up icing cookies until 1 AM and then rushed around and stressed and cried. But I do know that that cookie exchange was the one thing too many that I should have skipped.

And of course the irony is that in trying to do everything, I did, as the cabbie said, miss life, or at least part of it. I missed most of the party (and, also ironically, the cookie exchange itself), and more importantly, Claire missed being in the group photo of all the babies at the party — it seems like a little thing, but she might have loved to have seen herself with all her little friends some day and now she won’t. But there will be other parties and other photos and other chances to do less, rush less, miss out on life less.

So here’s to 2015, a year of knowing limits, not doing everything, and living more.

Loss in The Winter Vault

**Trigger Warning for anyone struggling with loss or traumatic birth experiences**
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Luck would have it that the very first book I read after Claire’s birth was The Winter Vault — a book about motherhood, or, more accurately, lost motherhood. Motherhood was not something I was certain I would ever experience. We lost two pregnancies before Claire and hers was a high risk pregnancy full of uncertainties and fear. Part of the purpose of this blog is to clarify her in my mind, to begin to grasp the essence of this little being we were never entirely sure we would know. The Winter Vault deals in essences — the essence of motherhood, the essence of a child, the essence of the past. I couldn’t have read a more perfect book at that time, but Claire is now 8 months old and it’s taken me this long to manage to write something about this book, and even longer to write about the experience of miscarriage.
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Like another brilliant Michaels’ novel, Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault is filled with Michaels’ fascination with things submerged, layered, buried, excavated. The story follows Avery, an engineer, and his wife, Jean, as they witness the submersion of towns and villages in both the  the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Aswan Dam project in Egypt in the 1960s. These lost worlds are fitting settings for the tragedy of the late term miscarriage they suffer while in Egypt. “A child is like a fate; one’s future and one’s past,” Michaels writes. Like the drowned towns, a miscarriage is the loss of fate and an imagined future. Unlike the towns, there is no possibility of ever excavating the lost life of the child, the lost dreams of what the child might have been, or what you might have been as that child’s parent.
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Margaret Atwood once told in an interview of a woman who wrote to her convinced that Atwood was obese because she captured so well the experience of being obese in Lady Oracle (this was clearly pre-Google images). And despite my academic training to the contrary, like Atwood’s fan I couldn’t help feeling that Michaels must have lost a pregnancy, so visceral is this story. When Jean suffers a late term miscarriage, she carries the still child until her body naturally starts labour. The labour is so difficult she believes the child is in fact alive and fighting to be born. When the baby is delivered lifeless, by caesarean, Jean refuses to let her out of her arms. She holds her baby until she falls into an exhausted asleep and Avery passes the baby to a nurse. I cried through these parts of the novel as I never have at any other book; I cried for the pregnancies we had lost, and with the memory of Claire’s body moving in me so recently, I cried at the terrible thought of what it would have been come to know a being so intimately, yet incompletely.
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As Jean recovers, an old man advises her, “All your self-knowledge won’t bring you any peace. Seek something else.” Is it really self-knowledge that Jean or any woman who loses child seeks? No. It is body knowledge – the knowledge of the body of that child. Jean holds her baby all night to keep forever in her muscle memory the feel of that tiny body, to try to understand this thing that was once a dream, then a ponderous wonder in her body, now a dream again.
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This is what I seek when I hold Claire, to understand the solidity of this creature once only a whisper, a grainy image on an ultrasound, now a permanence. It is why I love the wrap I carry her in – it’s the closest I can get again to the weight of her as part of me. My first two pregnancies ended too early for me to feel this weight. As Claire grew, I knew what it meant to feel her move, to feel that weight, to not know where her body ended and mine began. Her personality revealed itself in the pattern of the kicks, the stubborness with which she pushed back against the press of her dad’s fingers and hands. If I had lost her then, I can’t imagine.
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“For months after birth, a child remains in the mother’s body; moon and tide. Before the child cries, the mother flashes wet with milk. Before the child wakes and cries out in the night, the mother wakes. Deep in the child’s cranial vault, the mother’s gaze knits up the dangling synapses.
And when the child is spirit, it is exactly the same.”
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Moon and tide. Knitted synapses. So close, Michaels understands, is the instinctual, physiological, emotional connection between mother and child. Sorting through the realization of a lost pregnancy is much like an excavation, a peeling back of layers of loss, emotion and dreams. For Jean, the process is first about adding layers, as she leaves Avery for a time and allows her pain to be buried under the stories of loss she learns from her new lover, Lucjian, a Polish Holocaust refugee in Toronto. He too knows what buried pain is, literally, as he lived through the destruction of Warsaw and helped rebuild its replica over top of the dead. Jean allows her loss to become just another fine sedimentary layer settling upon depthless layers of loss revealed in her lover’s stories. But she also unearths her own deeper buried pain, the loss of her mother. Michaels manages to show how the recovery from loss can be twofold: an inward excavation of layered losses, and a communion with the external and powerful forces of communal grief.
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The only problematic aspect of this communal grief that Jean enters into is that the death of her baby is somewhat subsumed and overshadowed by the many deaths witnessed by her lover; it is almost as if she doesn’t believe she has as much right to her grief as those around her. Can loss be ranked? Could Michaels have written the same book if Jean had lost her baby in the first or second trimester? If her child had simply bled from her body would she have deserved to mourn any less? Any woman — any parent — who has suffered the loss of pregnancy at any point would of course not begrudge another parent his or her grief. It is our own tendency to suppress, absorb, hide our sense of loss that we must resist. I wonder how different Jean’s story would have been had she found a community of other women with stories like her own.
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Jean’s greatest moment of healing seems to be when she finally allows herself to fully grieve her daughter’s loss by visiting her grave and planting flowers on it, and allowing her husband to join her again in their shared grief. The cultivating of memorials, the sharing of memory — these are things we avoid sometimes when a baby is lost too soon. When I was early in my pregnancy with Claire, I was visiting Saskatchewan and went with my brother and his wife to her family farm. It was a hot day out and everyone was swimming and rummaging in the garden and I was inside lying on the couch chatting with her mother. To my surprise, I told her about our previous losses. To my equal surprise, we embraced as she welled up with tears for our loss, and hope for this new pregnancy. When Claire was born, she sent a beautiful gift, even though we had only met that one time. It was a reminder to me that the excavation of healing is not something to be done alone, and that there is great beauty to be found in allowing others to share in the journey of our loss.

Claire’s Favorite Squash (“Kabocha”)

Since Claire and I spend so much time together in the kitchen, I had really planned on blogging about food a lot more than I have, and it doesn’t take much to do more since I’ve done none.

As soon as fall arrives, I obsessively buy squash and put it in everything. This recipe is quick and easy and Claire loves it. It’s adapted from a cookbook my mother-in-law gave me called Just Add Shoyu, which was created and published by the Japanese community centre she and her family were a part of in Toronto. In fact, one of my husband’s aunts has a recipe in it. It’s nice to cook from a book with a family and cultural connection, and the photos all exhibit a certain minimalist Japanese elegance.

Kabocha is Japanese for winter squash, which looks a lot like buttercup squash. You could really use any squash, and if you google kabocha and buttercup squash, they look essentially identical so I just grab the closest thing to the photo.

My new philosophy of cooking is that recipes need as few steps as possible, and those must preferably be doable with a baby in a sling on my hip. This recipe has been modified to reflect this philosophy.

1. Wash squash then microwave for a minute or two to make peeling and chopping easier.

2. Cut in half, remove seeds, then peel and cut into chunks, about an inch by an inch and a half. If little bits of the peel stay on, no worries. The original recipe actually said to leave some on for colour.

3. Cover with water, just barely, and add a tablespoon each of soy sauce (shoyu), mirin, and agave syrup (feel free to add more to taste, but I kept these to a minimum so baby can eat this).

4. Boil gently on low medium heat until soft and most of the water is reduced.

Voila! Best baby food ever and great side dish.

I know lots of people don’t give babies any added sugar or salt, but I don’t subscribe to this approach of giving these poor little humans nasty, bland, textureless blah for months on end. I suspect it makes them picky eaters when they start eating a greater variety of foods, but that’s just my two cents worth. I feed Claire everything we eat; if I think the flavours will be too intense, or if the food is too rich (like avocado), I mix it with her oat cereal to tone it down. Because the squash is on the sweet side, you could mix it with more tricky veggies, like kale, to make them more palatable. Claire could eat this stuff all day.