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Tea & Oranges

I was in grade three when I had my first favourite pop song. My classroom was a portable beside my elementary school that smelled like an old thermos. I listened to Z95 FM with a fervour that I haven’t been able to find since for FM radio. And for the first time in my life, I had a favourite song that wasn’t from Les Miserables. I was proud. I felt cool. I remember turning it up and my mum saying “wait, that’s a Leonard Cohen song”.

It was a cover, of course. A weird synth-y cover of Suzanne. I didn’t know who Leonard Cohen was, my parents didn’t listen to his records. My mum explained to me that she found his songs a bit monotone. But to me, this was the best song I had ever heard, who cares if there aren’t a lot of different notes. I called into Z95 and requested it, my first and last time requesting a song on the radio. I wanted to hear about the tea and oranges again. All the way from China. I could taste them.

I later lived in Montreal for six years and did a degree in Creative Writing, picking up another major in Communications Studies to round things out. I lived in Leonard’s hood, in a poorly insulated two bedroom apartment that I paid $300 a month for my share of. We had to shrink wrap ourselves indoors in winter, covering the windows in plastic and sealing it with a haridryer. We had two shabby sets of bay windows that peered out at the rambling walk-up apartments that lined our street.

I walked past where Leonard was reputed to live many times, in a jean jacket, in a wool coat, wrapped in scarves, in shorts dashing through a sudden summer rainstorm. It was  on the way to anything north of me. Improbably it was reputed to be on Rue Marie-Anne, like the song. Would Leonard Cohen really be so “on the nose”? Wasn’t that just where people wanted him to live?

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None of us who were paying attention should have been surprised that Leonard Cohen was quietly dying in Los Angeles this autumn. Apart from his latest album “You Want it Darker” which is obviously reckoning with mortality, there was the long article in the New Yorker, what turned out to be his last interview, where he talks a great deal about death. But learning about his death on the day Donald Trump became presented-elect felt like an extra punch in the gut, like the world wasn’t good enough for Leonard Cohen anymore.

In the New Yorker article, Suzanne Vega is quoted saying that Cohen’s songs “were a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells”. But his songs and poems could not be more hard won. He reportedly wrote 80 verses to Hallelujah before recording it in 1984. “Well, you get it. But you get it after sweating” he told Terry Gross in 2006. “I have to finish the verses that I discard. So it takes a long time. I have to finish it to know whether it deserves to survive in the song”.

This kind of genius is so relatable. My office is stacked with watercolour paintings of the same scrap of ocean. Malcolm Gladwell has a beautiful podcast that talks about Leonard’s marathon of a creative process.

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I didn’t go back to Montreal for 8 years after I left. I finally returned for a midwifery conference in 2015. It was November and unseasonably warm. The city was charming, my old neighbourhood more gentrified, and crawling with midwives, who blended in neatly in with their scarves and mason jars.

We ate warm bagels standing on the corner of St-Viateur and and went shopping for sweaters. Four of us had a beautiful meal of confit de canard with a doting elderly French waiter. Several bottles of wine later, we ran west along Rue Marie-Anne, singing “So long Marianne” at the tops of our lungs.

As we neared boulevard Saint-Laurent, Leonard Cohen’s corner, a young woman approached us. She told us: you know, he lives on this street, Leonard Cohen. We knew. We were hoping he would hear us. She told us about the evening she’d spent with a dirtbag guy and then disappeared down an alley. It was perfect Montreal night.

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At the end of her 2006 interview with Leonard Cohen, Terry Gross, she asks him about his preoccupation with beauty while not feeling particularly beautiful himself. Leonard says “Oh, yeah. I’ve felt, you know, like a snail. Like a worm, like a slug, you know, many times. I think the last time was this morning at breakfast.”

Just like his hometown of Montreal, just like all the good things, he was gorgeous and ragged and stinky all at once. He was my Suzanne. Showing me where to look among the garbage and the flowers. Bringing tea and oranges.

The perfect egg

I’m a morning person, and a savoury breakfast person. And a grown-up person without children. As such, one of my pleasures on a day off is a leisurely breakfast in my kitchen nook. Just me and a New Yorker, or me and Ira Glass, or best of all, when our days off line up, me and Brock. And eggs.

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A perfectly cooked egg is so appealing. The beautiful contrast of yolk and white, the range of texture from liquid to custard to crispy. But eggs can go so wrong too when they’re dry or rubbery. I’ve been slowly collecting and amending some of my favourite simple egg preparations over the last few years and I’ve finally figured out a few things. Here are my favourite ways with eggs.

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I read about this method a couple months back and wow, scrambled eggs have never been so creamy and decadent. The texture of a soft polenta, like a savoury custard of little curds. Add a little butter, keep stirring, you can’t screw it up. It will never yield a dry egg.

For boiled eggs, I’ve never looked back from this method which is really more steaming. You need to adjust for the size of the egg and how runny you want the yolk. Once you figure that out, it’s so easy that in our home this as know as a “perfect egg”. As in, “would you like a perfect egg?” My preference for this method is medium-sized eggs for about 6 minutes which yields a springy, fully-cooked white and a soft yolk.

On the subject of boiled eggs, now that picnicking season is almost upon us, I’m remembering how delicious deviled eggs can be. I love a straight up traditional deviled egg. For something less mayo-based, here are a couple of delicious variations. Sometimes I hard boil half a dozen or so eggs for snacks and lunches through the week.

For omelettes I like them simple and just-set in the style of this gal. High heat, butter, swirl and shake the pan, done in 30 seconds. I add a sprinkle of fresh herbs and a smear of chèvre which I feel is the cheese most suited to eggs. Truthfully I’m more likely to have this for dinner with a little salad.

My latest fave for breakfast (or on top of fried rice) is the good old fried egg, sunny side up. I’ve noticed this fella showing up in the brunch circuit in Vancouver, and may even give the free form poached egg as run for its money.

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I have 2 tips to share here. One is this high heat method for a crispy bottomed bubbly white, although I wouldn’t use olive oil for such high heat frying. Ghee, or grapeseed oil would be perfect. I’ve been known to just go for it with butter and let the butter get a little scorched. I have grumpy old electric stove that I suspect doesn’t get nearly at hot as Deb’s but it’s still crispy enough.

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My other recent discovery is that a well-seasoned dutch oven is the perfect vessel for frying eggs. Especially with high heat frying, there will be splatter and the tall sides mitigate the mess. I think that the tall sides also trap the heat and help cook the top of the egg so the white is fully cooked.

For free form poaching, I mostly leave that to the professionals. What are your eggy secrets?

The digital ether

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I have been a naysayer about e-readers for a long time. I love the aesthetic of a well-made book. I love a pleasing typeface and a page that feels nice to turn. I love a beautifully-designed cover that suits the story.

Brock was intrigued about e-readers from the get go. He likes to fancy himself an early-adopter, even though I tell him the early-adopters are just suckers who pay extra for technology that’s still in-the-making. On the point of e-readers, I was a luddite. Until he got one and I slowly started to come around to the idea.

Brock and I both work shifts, sometimes odd hours and there are nights (or days) where we joke that there has to be someone in the bed at all times. I get paged and get out of bed to go to a birth. I get home and go to bed, then Brock gets up and goes to work, etc. There’s a lot of quiet creeping and little piles of socks left in the office.

A some point I realized that when I crept into the dark bedroom, I couldn’t tell whether or not Brock was awake and reading or asleep in the dark. That’s how little light the e-reader throws. Just exactly enough for one person to read, which it turns out isn’t much. It lights the page in a way that doesn’t mess with your sleep, unlike reading from an iPad which shines light into your retina. This is key for a couple of sleep-deprived shift workers. Being able to read at any hour helps reduce the inevitable panic of the wakeful person who knows she needs to sleep.

Brock did a bunch of research on Kindle versus Kobo when he got his e-reader. He settled on Kobo. I followed suit 6 months later. We’re happy with them, although they’re certainly not perfect. Here are some pros and cons about Kobo & e-readers in general.

Pros

  • You can download library ebooks for Kobo (not for Kindle). The Vancouver library is well stocked with ebooks . You can do it all from home.
  • I’ve been reading way more books.
  • Kobo gives you more control over the way the text looks.
  • Night reading without disturbing your partner.
  • The battery lasts for weeks between charges.
  • E-readers are of course, great for travel, ferry rides and waiting rooms.

Cons

  • Kobo books generally cost more than Kindle books.
  • The price of ebooks in general seems high – often higher than the paperback price on Amazon, which doesn’t make sense to me.
  • Kobo makes is very difficult to share books within one household, which seems a bit unreasonable when you’ve paid $15 for a digital copy. (There are work arounds though, such as sharing a Kobo account.)
  • The interface can be a bit clunky when you are used to smart phones and iPads, but you get used to it.
  • E-readers are no good for any book with a visual component. The images are there but they are too difficult to view.

It’s weird to think that our new favourite books won’t be on our bookshelves. As my sister-in-law pointed out: how will people know how smart we are? But I’m coming around to the idea of a lighter home with fewer belongings. Besides, after our recent cull, we still have three bookshelves full. We are in no danger of floating away.

Here are some of our favourite books we read this year (not necessarily newly published). Of this list, only two are on our book shelves. The rest are in the digital ether.

Covers

If you care about the quality of prose & the characters, nothing too depressing (Frances’ picks)

  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  • Euphoria by Lily King
  • The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (a winner poetry/lit nerds)
  • How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

If you care about plot, history & a darn good story (Brock’s picks)

  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  • The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff
  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman

What it’s there for

In the last year and a half I’ve realized the poison in the do what you love Steve Jobs mantra. And underneath that, the Generation Y idea that we are all special. At first I thought the problem was the cliché. But then somebody put their finger on the point rather beautifully and I realized it was so  much  more.

Here’s an idea that rings truer to me: work is work. That’s the natural state of work. Even if you have a fancy, fun-sounding job. Like working in a toy store, for a TV production company, or being a midwife. I have done all of those things and they are all still jobs, even though there are wonderful moments. If you are searching to love every minute of what you do, I think you will be searching forever. Roll up your sleeves and pick some work to do. If you are lucky, it feels worthwhile or maybe even important.

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Every job has an aspect that needs to be survived. And I think that is part of what gives value to your work. You’ve done it and now someone else doesn’t need to.

Sometimes work feels like too much. As a midwife, it’s when my body is sore and I’ve been awake for 36 hours and my pager goes off. But most of the time, it feels ok to use up so much of my energy and life on work. I am making peace with it. That’s what it’s there for.

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To survive the hard call shifts, I carry snacks like a squirrel for getting through the long nights.  If there isn’t time to sleep there’s usually time to take few bites and keep my blood sugar from bottoming out. Here’s one of my favourite home made snacks for getting through a tough call shift.

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Adapted from ReBar cookbook by Audrey Alsterberg & Wanda Uranowicz

Note: The original recipe calls 1 1/4 cups of fruit sweetener which binds the ingredients together. I will be honest and say I don’t even know what fruit sweetener is (average nectar?). I didn’t go looking for it since I wanted a version with less sugar and more protein. I’ve altered the recipe to have more nut butter and a some honey which act as the “glue” to hold everything together.

  • 1 1/2 cups dried fruit
  • 4 rice cakes (I use tamari ones for an extra salty crunch)
  • 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut (optionally toasted)
  • 1 cup toasted nuts or seeds
  • 1/2 cup oats (optionally toasted)
  • 1 cup nut butter
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 tsp flaky maldon salt (less if your nut butter is salted)
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds for rolling them in

In a food processor, pulse the rice cakes until they are in small crumbs. Transfer to a large bowl. Do the same with the dried fruit and then the nuts. Add the remaining ingredients except the sesame seeds, mix well with your hands then refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Roll into balls and coat with sesame seeds. Refrigerate or freeze them until you pack them in your lunch.

 

A little secret

It was a rainy day and Brock & I went for a walk in Stanley Park, which turned into walk on the sea wall when a man started following us and I got creeped out. The fog horns were groaning and everything was socked in, including Brock’s glasses. We headed back for the great indoors.

On the way back, we picked up a loaf of fluffy white sourdough and some cheddar to try a crazy new technique for grilled cheese. Instead of butter, your spread the outsides of the bread with mayo.

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Sounds kind of gross, right? I like mayo and it sounded gross to me. (Brock thought it sounded kind of good which tells you he’s a way more of a mayo guy than me.) The mayo melts and leads to grilled cheese with an exterior of astonishing crispiness. You would not know it was mayo, you would just think you were in the presence of a grilled cheese genius. It also works with egg-in-a-hole although I miss the butter a little more there.

I read about this mayo trick here, and it comes from this book, which I also read but apparently wasn’t paying attention. This lead me to want to share a few of my own favourite kitchen tricks:

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  1. Age chocolate chip cookie dough for at least 24 hours to allow the flour to slowly absorb the liquid of the egg yolks. Yields a much chewier texture.
  2. For the best pesto, add a juicy peach when making a batch. Freeze fresh pesto into ice cube trays for zippy pasta all winter long that easily melts into hot noodles.
  3. The perfect boiled egg is really steamed.
  4. Lightly pickle any onion you intend to eat raw. It zaps out the bad breath bite. Just chop it up and stick it in a jar with some vinegar, sugar and salt for a few minutes to a few hours. (PS. Zap the smell out of your hands by touching your wet hands to stainless steel)
  5. Every basic vinaigrette needs a good dose of mustard and salt.
  6. Massage kale with olive oil and lemon juice before eating it raw. It will shrink down into a submissive pile of glossy and tender greens. Only takes a minute. Don’t be gentle.
  7. Bake cookies to order. I keep a bag of golf ball-sized cookie dough balls in the freezer and bake as needed for dessert. 15 minutes later you have a warm cookie. Leads to less frantic cookie consumption for those who can’t keep their hand out of the cookie jar.
  8. Sprinkle toasted bread crumbs on pasta or salad to take it to the next level texture-wise. I keep a bag of crumbs from stale bread in my freezer and toast them with olive oil & salt when needed.
  9. Melt an anchovy into butter or oil to add some umami to a sauce. It will completely dissolve leaving only an idea of the sea behind.
  10. Do the same thing for taking veggie stock to the next level by simmering a parmesan rind or some kombu seaweed.

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I would love to hear your favourite kitchen tricks.

One little step

You may notice things look different around here. The spring cleaning itch has hit me a little early, when this book came up for me at the library. I think it’s a gem. It’s making the rounds on the interweb. I heard about here, then here.

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By nature, I’m a slob about some things and an organizational nut about others. My spreadsheets are tidy. My clothes are a disaster. I can’t abide a dirty bathroom. But there is no doubt in my mind that having a clean, organized home brings me peace. I love purging my home of clutter, but it never seems to last.

Marie Kondo’s insights about decluttering are simple but actually kind of game-changing. You choose what you keep, rather than what you throw away. The things you should keep are the things that “spark joy”. And what a relief to have only things will bring you joy in your closet, on your bookshelves. She says go by category rather than room. And she has all kind of interesting ideas about organizing and storing clothes, how they should be folded and hung, including socks, which should never be balled up since that doesn’t allow them to ‘rest’.

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After I’d tackled my closet and bookshelves, I turned my attention to this little blog. The interface was sparking no joy for me. And being someone with no knowledge of web design and a very small budget, I’ve take one little step toward a more organized, aesthetically pleasing layout. It’s still in progress. I have not yet mastered my widgets. I hope you like it.

Favourite things

When I was in grade three, I had the honour of having my toothy grin featured in the “Saltspring Says” section of the the local newspaper, which keeps folks abreast of cougar spottings and development scandals. The question posed to me and a few other kids was something like “What is your favourite part of Christmas?” The obvious answer: presents. I was eight. But I knew that would not print well, so I said “Surprises and tobogganing”. Surprises being a euphemism for presents and Christmas morning. Tobogganing showing a complete denial of the fact that I lived in a rainforest.

For years I looked out my bedroom window on Christmas morning fully expecting the miracle of a Chirstmas eve snowfall had happened. My mum told me it happened to her once, so it could happen to me. Nevermind that she grew up in Saskatoon. Instead I saw the same muddy creek running through our swampy backyard. Occasionally a thick frost would be there and before my eyes fully came to focus I would see a silvery cedar limb and think: snow!

 

When snow did happen on our little island, it meant things slowed down. No point driving along the perilous winding hills to town. That day was about playing, getting wet and cold and then warm and dry. I remember my parents walking the three and a half miles to town and back for supplies, like someone out of a Jane Austen novel but in Goretex. The snow boots came out and we unrolled the scraped-up crazy carpets and picked off the cobwebs. We borrowed the beautiful wooden sleigh from our elderly German neighbours. And the tobogganing was glorious.

I’ve since been cured of my desire for snow by growing up and living in Montreal for six years. Now in Vancouver, the rare snowfall slows the city down to a crawl and it’s only fun if you have the luxury of dropping your plans for the day and wandering around on foot.

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Everyone has their best and worst case Chirstmas scenarios. This year I will be working for the first time, on-call for the mothers & babies. If I must work at Christmas, at least the job seems apt. But working means being in the city when I’d rather be in the country with my sweet little nephews & niece. So I’m going to make the best of it by hitting all the Christmas things that I can.

Here are some of my favourite things, 24 years later. Nine things on my Christmas to-do list:

  1. Snowshoe through a winding path thick with snowy conifers on the local mountains. Because it’s the grown up version of tobogganing. The quiet crunch. Deep and crisp and even. There are sure to be elves hiding somewhere around the bend.
  2. Sing carols – ideally at my parents place on Christmas Eve in a house crammed full choir types and their children.
  3. Meet my sweetie for a fancy drink at a hotel downtown. Sit at the bar in fuzzy wool tights.
  4. Listen to David Sedaris reading the Santaland Diaries. Because I laugh out loud every time and it pokes fun at the dark underbelly of Christmas. Christmas Freud from the same episode is also fabulous.  I also enjoy the Canadian radio favourite Dave Cooks the Turkey.
  5. Perform our traditional dance-off to the best Chistmas song ever which involves leaping around in a poorly-executed attempt at Highland dancing. Good way to work off that fistful of shortbread. Runner up best song.
  6. Decorate our sweet 1930’s apartment which seems made for Christmas, complete with a wood burning fireplace. Have friends and family over for drinks.
  7. Serve said friends & family this. And maybe these or my other favourite wintery drink if they are up to it.
  8. Listen to Dylan Thomas reading  A Child’s Christmas in Wales – Proof that some things never change. A reminder to have a sense of humour about holidays and family. Plus: that voice.
  9. Watch my favourite Christmas movie in a heap of old magazines, making paper ribbons.

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Paper Ribbons

Here’s how I make paper ribbons, which I started one quiet afternoon working at the local toy store, many years ago. It’s is a great way to use up old magazines. It works great with wrapping paper too.

  1. Tear or cut paper into strips. You have to tear with the grain. There is one direction paper wants to tear, the other direction will give you trouble. Aim for strips roughly 1″ wide and 11 inches or longer. Make more than you think you need – a few strips will tear as you curl them and will be too short to use.DSC_0050
  2. Curl the paper like you would any ribbon. Place the blade of your scissors near the centre and holing the paper taught against the blade (but not too tight or it will tear) run it toward the edge. If it’s not curly enough, repeat until it is.DSC_0079
  3. When you have several curled ribbons, gather them up and tie them together in the middle, pulling the ribbons tight. I like to use a thin ribbon or raffia and leave longer tendrils hanging. Affix to any wrapped gift.

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Little Cake on the Prairie

You may not want to talk about Christmas yet, but people are getting ready. Choirs are practising their harmonies and sugar plum fairies are trying out their tutus. And in a foil wrapped package in my cupboard, my favourite Christmas sweet is softening and ripening.

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Vinarterta is best aged for 3 weeks, so I cracked open the Christmas baking this week when I had a few days off. It’s a layer cake made of cardamom flavoured dough pressed into cake pans and brought together with a prune jam flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla. Once aged, the cake is soft enough to slice into tiny squares like a fruit cake. It adds beautiful stripes to your Christmas baking plate. It’s one of my very favourite things to eat.

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This recipe came into my family in the 1960’s somewhere on the chilly plain of Sakatchewan from a church-going woman of Icelandic descent. My family is not Icelandic but smart enough to know a great recipe and so my grandmother baked it, and after her my mother and now it’s a bit of a family tradition. This cake is now quintessentially Icelandic-Canadian which is a fairly specific origin. It’s enough of a story that someone wrote a PhD dissertation on it.

The story is that Vinarterta was all the rage in Iceland in the 1860’s, before the country came upon hard times in the form of bad weather, pesky icebergs and volcanoes. During the rough patch between 1870 and 1914, a quarter of the island’s population left . A bunch of them moved to Canada and settled in the Prairies showing a weird affinity for places with terrible weather. The families who found new lives in Canada preserved Vinarterta’s original form and stature as the winter dessert. Meanwhile in Iceland, it continued to evolve and fell out of favour. Today, Vinarterta in Iceland may involve rhubarb or apricots rather than prunes and cardamom (no wonder it fell out of favour.)

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[A word about prunes: I think they are unfairly maligned due to their digestive qualities and unfortunate name. They are one of my favourite dried fruits with their rich, winey flavour and silky texture. The French know what’s what and you will find prunes in sweet and savoury delights of that country. Others are also working to advance the cause to the prunes. Get on board.]

The spice profile of Vinarterta is subtle and unusual. You pop a little slice in your mouth and think: mmm, what is that? This is my ideal use of spice, where it adds a tasty je ne sais quoi that eludes to another place but doesn’t smack you over the head with it. It’s too subtle for Brock whose favourite Christmas sweet is mince tarts which I find completely overpowering. Vinarterta is a contralto to the boisterous soprano of mince tarts.

When I was a kid, making Vinarterta involved stewing prunes to soften them, pitting them, then running them through a meat grinder clamped onto the kitchen table. I was a kid, so I’m sure I was totally useless in this process but I thought it was neat. It was the only use we had for the meat grinder. Nowadays I buy pitted prunes and zip them up in the food processor. It makes Vinarterta fairly manageable as Christmas baking goes.

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Let’s talk about the name Vinarterta. That’s apparently the correct spelling, which seems like the most awkward possible, (proof that it’s right if you’ve even seen any other Icelandic words.) My copied out recipe card reads “Vinartarta” and my family pronounces it “Vinatarta”. The Icelandic word apparently means Viennese cake.

It seems like a small miracle that this worldly, wandering little cake has found a home in my recipe box and family Christmas repertoire. I feel lucky to know it. I treasure it. I’m grateful for the Icelandic woman who shared her special recipe. I’m thankful for the women who came before me, bravely pitting and grinding prunes, up to their hips in children.

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Vinarterta

Recipe note: My mum who hasn’t eaten wheat since the 90’s has made this with spelt flour and rice flour. It works beautifully with both although tends to be a touch more crumbly. Also, apparently I can’t read my own recipe because this year I made 4 cakes instead of 5 – oops. Many traditional recipes call for 6 or 7 cakes. This recipe made with 5 cakes is tried and true.

Cakes:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tbsp cream
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp group cardamom

Preheat the oven to 375F. Prep 2 or more 9″ cake or springform pans with parchment covering the bottom. Cream the butter and sugar then add the eggs & cream, then dry ingredients. Divide the dough into 5 equal parts. I use my scale here but you could just eyeball it. Press each ball of dough into the cake pan and bake 10-15 minutes until slightly golden. Remove from tin while hot & cool. They will harden.

Filling:

  • 400g pitted prunes
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup water

Combine add the filling ingredients in a food process and run until smooth. Transfer to a pot and cook over medium heat until it comes to a gentle boil (no need to cook further).

Assembly:

Assemble the cakes so that a smoother side is facing outwards on the top and bottom. Spread the jam to cover each cake completely before adding the next layer. When complete, wrap well in several layers of tin foil, place in an airtight container or bag and leave in a cool place to ripen for 3 weeks.

 

 

 

The power of Elvis

It was a busy summer. If I’m honest, I feel a bit worn out. But everyone has some things that gets them through the week. Here are mine.

1.

Tea in my favourite mug, which I bought here. When I drink from it I remember rummaging through the heaps of beautiful pottery stacked outside the artist Susan Crowe’s studio on Hornby Island, each piece decorated with spider webs, fallen pine needles and rain drops. Like some kind of outdoor tea party for grown-ups.

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I’m a big-time mug snob so I care about things that normal people don’t think of. I care that the inside is pale, so the rosey taupe of a perfect cup of milky tea shows its true colour. I care that the tea-colour contrasts beautifully with the blue glaze on the outside. I care that the rim is thin for the right sip-feel and the shape feels nice in the hand. I like that there is no handle. My steely hands can take the heat.

The payoff of being a mug snob is that I get great joy from the perfect cup. It’s an aesthetic catharsis over all the tepid, thick rimmed cups of tea out there. And for a moment I imagine I’m in the country and there’s a pottery studio close at hand.

2.

This song about Elvis which I put on sometimes when I’m driving to the hospital, again. I’m not even joking; it’s my pep talk song. That’s the power of Elvis. And of Gillian Welch’s brilliant songwriting and harmonies. A little sing along on the way to work does me good. Then I put on my big girl pants and walk into the hospital.

Just a country boy, combed his hair

put on a shirt his mother made and he went on the air

and he shook it like a chorus girl

Now that’s self confidence.

Elvis Presley Performing

 3.

The simple pleasure of a home-cooked meal. Here’s a new standout recipe that we will be eating a lot of this autumn. In terms of comforting and nourishing, it’s at the top of the charts. Like many good things, it was inspired by a couple of other great recipes.

The other day I whipped up a recipe for Heidi Swanson‘s summer squash soup with zucchini and potatoes. I was thinking it would be nice with some velvety cubes of kabocha squash, which has a melon-like aroma. Brock, who’s palate is suddenly blossoming, remarked that it would be nice with rice noodles. The squash and rice noodle combo was something our friend Liz had cooked up for us, so we knew it was a winner.

Then I wandered off from there. It’s a flexible recipe that you can play around with. Heidi has you top it with cubes of tofu fried in in coconut oil and salt. I think it would be sumptuous with prawns.

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Squash & rice noodle soup with Thai coconut curry

  •  2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1-2 tbsp red thai curry paste
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp chili flakes
  • 2 shallots or 1 small onion, diced
  • 1/2 kabocha squash, diced (I leave the peel on – you can eat kabocha skin)
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced or micoplaned
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 2 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • rice noodles
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro & plus some for garnish
  • juice of 1/2 lime

Heat the coconut oil and add the shallots or onion, curry paste & chili flakes. Sauté 2 mins, then add the squash and cook until it starts to soften. Add the garlic, stir, then add the coconut milk & stock. Cook for 15-20 mins, until tender.

Meanwhile soak the rice noodles in a bowl of cold water until they are malleable. Drain them and add a few rice noodles to each bowl.

Add the fish sauce, lime juice and cilantro to the hot soup then ladle it over the noodles and let stand 3-4 minutes so that the noodles finish softening. Garnish with cilantro and slurp it up. Serves 2-4 people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not ready for cinnamon

As the internet explodes with autumy snacking cake recipes, I feel the need to tell you about one of my favourites. And put a plug in for my favourite autumn fruit: the pear.

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Apples get all the attention with their snappy bite but I sometimes find them a bit sharp. Pear has a subtler note, a dedicate skin and pleasing grainy mouth texture. Also, can I say that I’m not ready for cinnamon? How about a little pear with nutmeg & vanilla. This is a perfect September cake. We are not resigned to gingerbread yet.

It was a happy day last Tuesday when a dozen conference pears turned up in our CSA box. I pulled out a recipe for French Apple Cake written out in my teenage scroll. I believe the recipe originally came from here. It has a custardy topping that gets baked onto the cake until it’s bubbly and caramelized. I don’t know whether it’s actually French in origin, but it’s a keeper.

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French Pear Cake
  • 1 lb of slightly under ripe pears, sliced (no need to peel them: take that, apples)
  • ¼ c melted butter
  • 6 tbsp milk
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ c sugar
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 c flour
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder

Topping

  • 6 tbsp soft butter
  • ½ c sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 325F. Butter a cake pan and arrange the pear slices in the bottom. Combine the wet ingredients and then add the dry and mix until just combined. Spread the batter over the pears. It will barely cover them. Bake for about 40 mins until lightly golden.

Meanwhile combine the topping ingredients. Spread the topping over the hot cake and return it to the oven for another 20 mins. Once it’s cooled a bit, you can invert it and dust it with icing sugar or eat it straight out of the pan, like we did.

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