Category: food

Recipe #6: Kelly’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Time for a break from making finnicky desserts and time for some down-to-earth comfort cookies. I fished out a recipe for these cookies that I got from my long time neighbour, Kelly. I remember she brought a freshly baked batch over to our house and they were gone in no time flat.

I can’t remember the last time I made these, probably because the kids can’t take these in their school lunches (or rather, I won’t let them–there are no laws here in California that prevent kids from bringing peanut and nut products to school, unlike in Ontario where Sabrina’s Law exists).

Some would argue these cookies bake best with processed peanut butter like Kraft or Skippy, but I only buy natural peanut butter. Just peanuts!

The butter mixed with the peanut butter was so creamy when I blended it together with the hand mixer.

Creamy peanut butter and unsalted butter

Then I added the requisite sugar, eggs and flour and voila! beautiful cookie batter.

Yes, sugar

I found a couple of Dairy Milk bars in the cupboard and decided to crush them up and throw them in the batter instead of using chipits and I’m glad I did.

Chocolate + peanut butter= sheer perfection

Just before baking, I used the back of a fork to press the requisite hash marks into each cookie. Because, peanut butter cookies. Right?

The resulting cookies were so creamy and delicious, and once again, they disappeared within a few days. I think the milk chocolate chunks also made a big difference.

These were quick and easy to make and didn’t require much, if any, skill or precision. So go make some!!!

Fork tine marks are required in peanut butter cookies
Let the cookies completely on a wire rack–if you can resist!

Kelly’s Peanut Butter Cookies

  • 1 Cup peanut butter (I like to use all natural smooth PB)
  • 1 Cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 Cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 Cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 1/2 Cups, all purpose flour (or you can do half whole wheat flour for a slightly denser cookie)
  • 2 bars of your favourite chocolate bar (I used Dairy Milk), crushed up into chunks

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  • Blend peanut butter and butter together in a standing mixer or with a hand mixer until completely incorporated
  • Add eggs and blend followed by sugars
  • Add baking powder and flour(s) and blend until ingredients are incorporated.
  • Mix in chocolate chunks until evenly distributed
  • Scoop 1″ balls of dough onto parchment-lined cookie sheet
  • Take the back of a fork and press firmly down until fork tine marks appear in flattened cookie (but not too hard!)
  • Bake for ~10 minutes until cookies are lightly browned
  • Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely (if you can wait that long!)

Recipe #5: French Macarons

So if you thought I had a death wish when I decided to tackle puff pastry, think again. Pastry, shmastry! Puff pastry was a cake walk compared to making French macarons for the first time. Now I know why Laduree and Nadege charge a pretty penny for these dainty sweets.

To be honest, I didn’t spend a ton of time researching this recipe and maybe my results are proof that I should have spent more time studying before breaking out the almond flour. But I had six egg whites in the fridge after making those yummy Portuguese custard tarts. And I think I was feeling a little overconfident after making those divine tarts, nay, impatient to prove I could succeed again at making a *Patchka* recipe.

So here’s the deal with French macarons: historians tell a story of their origins in the 18th century around the time of the French revolution. Nuns who were seeking asylum made the meringue-like biscuits to sell in order to pay for their lodging at the local convent (there seems to be a pattern here with members of the cloth having a knack for baking–Portuguese custard tarts, anyone???). However, there are many other versions of the dessert that apparently date back as far as the 8th century.

And the name alone actually comes from the Italian “maccherone,” which means fine dough. There are accounts of future Queen of France, Catherine de Medici bringing the recipe over from Italy in the 1500’s.

The macarons we think of today–the two round biscuits sandwiched with a sweet filling in the middle–didn’t gain popularity until the 1930’s.

I watched an excellent tutorial by John, over at the Preppy Kitchen. He is meticulous and detailed in his explanation of the what, how and why of making macarons. There is even a term called “macronage” when it comes to incorporating the almond flour and icing sugar mixture with the stiffened egg whites. He is also not above pointing out that it took him many attempts before he got a decent batch of the cookies.

Super fine almond flour and icing sugar are sifted not once, not twice, but three times!
Egg whites are whipped to a marshmallow-like consistency
The delicate dance of “macronage” is underway.

Although I followed his instructions religiously, my biscuits did not come out with a nice glossy finish or crispy exterior as I had hoped. I blame the oven entirely. They taste delicious even if they look a little bit withered. And they are nice and fluffy and chewy.

I made a simple chocolate ganache for the filling. Next time I think I’ll try a caramel filling or french buttercream. Or maybe I’ll use some homemade jam!

Kind of looks like a Neopolitan cookie, doesn’t it?

All these ideas have bolstered my resolve to attempt the recipe again. Just not tomorrow. I need to recover from Round One.

My first batch of vanilla macarons with chocolate ganache filling

Recipe #4: Portuguese Custard Tarts

Did my puff pastry cliff hanger work? Well you needn’t wait any longer! I used about a third of my puff pastry recipe to make Portuguese custard tarts, which are one of my favourite pastries.

While the French introduced the world to puff pastry in the 17th century, the world would have to wait until the 18th century before Pasteis de Nata were invented.

Using my handy dandy Google translator, the literal translation of the pastry’s name is “you’re welcome pastry,” and you should thank the monks and nuns of the Jeronimos Monestery near Lisbon for these delightful creations.

I consulted with my tome on Home Baking, by husband and wife duo, Jeffrey Allford and Naomi Duguid, for the recipe.

I can’t say it was all that difficult to prepare, but you should note that you only use egg yolks for the filling, so plan ahead and make sure you’ve got another recipe up your sleeve for those egg whites (hint: recipe #5 involves egg whites!).

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the filling didn’t call for much sugar and as such, is not that sweet. But it is creamy and silky smooth and egg-y. The secret, I discovered, was to whisk the mixture excessively so there wouldn’t be a single lump or bump in it.

Whisk that egg-y filling!

The puff pastry, as you’ll see, was worked very quickly and chilled in the freezer while I prepared the filling (I even had help from some little hands!). It is the perfect vehicle for the filling and compliments to the creamy filling with a crunchy, buttery exterior.

Little hands made the puff pastry work go quickly
4 inch rounds were cut out of the puff pastry and placed into a 12 cup muffin tin
A perfect marriage of puff pastry and custard

It is baked at a high heat and then at the end gets a quick broil to create that nice browned, almost charred, top.

The finished Portuguese custard tarts straight out of the oven

The tarts are very quickly transferred to a wire rack to cool followed shortly thereafter by devouring, gobbling, you name it.

This homemade Pasteis de Nata is ready for its close up

Recipe #3: Homemade Puff Pastry

Anyone who wants to make their own puff pastry from scratch must be asking for a death wish, right? Who, in this day and age of convenience foods would dain to make the most Potchka (Yiddish translated: finnicky) pastry known to mankind? That would be me.

I read about making “rough puff” which is the home baker’s shortcut method of making puff pastry. And I did seriously consider doing that as a time saver. But who was I kidding? I knew this was going to take time so why not roll up my sleeves and take the scenic route.

I familiarized myself with the process by watching Anna Olson’s instructional video.

According to lore, puff pastry was invented by a French pastrycook’s apprentice in the mid 1600’s. Apparently there is evidence that something akin to French puff pastry already existed in Spain, and of course, in Greece there was phyllo dough (which I haven’t attempted to make yet). Regardless of its origins, puff pastry only gained in popularity with the passage of time and is now used as a staple in all sorts of patisserie.

The process starts with making the detrempe–that’s the flour, water and a bit of butter “base.”

Setting out the ingredients for my puff pastry

This is followed by the beurrage, which is just pounds of butter (that’s three pounds in this particular recipe to be exact), mixed with a wee bit of flour so that it is maleable and doesn’t turn into a giant blob of greasiness.

Following the instructions closely, both of these were pressed into plastic wrap in an 8 inch by 8 inch pan and then placed into the fridge to chill for a minimum of 2 hours.

The next step involves laminating the detrempe and the beurrage together without compromising the integrity of each layer. Both need to be cold but maleable enough to roll out. I followed Anna’s suggestion and actually wrapped the flour mixture in the butter, which is not how most recipes suggest doing it.

That is butter (ALOT of butter) wrapping around the dough

I worked quickly so as not to melt the butter layer. I folded and turned my sheets of pastry on itself in thirds a couple times before wrapping it up in a neat package and popping it back in the fridge for more chill time.

I repeated this a couple of times so there would be a good 12 layers or so.

Then I had to figure out what to make with this precious dough…would it be croissants? Tarts? Turnovers? Or should I go savoury and make something like Beef Wellington? Or chicken pot pie? You’ll have to wait until my next post to find out!

It may not look like much, but that is the beginnings of puff pastry
The laminated puff pastry, ready to become something delicious to eat!

Recipe #2: Butter Tarts

The only reason I’m posting this right now is because I’m feeling a tad patriotic (and because some fellow Canadian moms asked for the recipe!). At the time of writing, the Raptors are in the NBA finals against the Golden State Warriors, who play but an hour away from the home I am sitting in right now. #WeTheNorth mania has taken over Toronto and much of the country north of the 49th parallel, not to mention a lot of the United States. There is even going to be a viewing party in San Francisco for one of the games co-hosted by the Canadian Consulate and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (the owners of the team).

It also feels like summer outside and I equate butter tarts with summer, not to mention Canada Day, which is around the corner too.

I’ve tried a few butter tart recipes, but I think this one is my favourite so far. The pastry is super easy to make and easy to manipulate–IF you follow the instructions.

And the filling is also straightforward. You are more than welcome to add raisins, pecans, craisins, or whatever your heart desires. I’m a purist and like to keep it plain. They are super rich, super sweet with a super flakey pastry and super worth the time and effort.

You’re non-Canadian friends will thank you, but be careful: once you share these with them, they will want them again. And again. And again.

Rosie Daykin’s Quintessential Butter Tart

Start by making All Butter Pastry (makes enough for a couple dozen tarts)

  • 5 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups butter, chilled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • water
  1. Place flour and salt in a large bowl, drop the butter all over the flour mixture. Using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles large crumbs. You should still be able to see some butter in the flour.
  2. Crack the egg into a liquid measuring cup and add the vinegar. Top up with enough cold water until it reaches 1 cup. Whisk until combined. Pour over the flour and butter mixture.
  3. Mix with a fork until the dough starts to come together and looks ragged. Use your hands to gently finish mixing the dough and it takes shape. You should still see some butter bits!
  4. Divide the dough into four even disks about 1/2 an inch thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours or better yet, overnight.

Now prepare the filling:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups of sultana raisins (if you like raisins!)
  1. Whisk all the above ingredients together and put in a liquid measuring cup with a spout so it’s easy to pour.
  2. Roll out the chilled pastry on a floured surface with a rolling pin to about 1/8 inch thick. Use a 4 or 5-inch circular cutter to cut out the pastry circles.
  3. Make sure your muffin tin is well greased with shortening (I use Crisco).
  4. Rosie’s secret technique: Take each circle and pinch it at two points, best visualized as 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. Then lift up and pinch 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock and place in the muffin tin. Fill the tin with the pastry and then chill in the fridge for about 10 or 15 minutes.
  5. Fill each tart shell with about 2 Tbsp of raisins (or not). Then top with the filling until 2/3 full.
  6. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until the pastry has browned and the centre of the tarts are puffed and golden.
  7. Make sure not to drip the filling down the side of the muffin tins, otherwise the sugar mixture will stick to the pan and you will have trouble getting the tarts out.
  8. Allow tarts to cool a bit before removing from pan.

My One Year Caliversary

It’s been one year since our family of five moved from Toronto to San Jose, California. I feel as though the last twelve months have flown by, and yet I feel as though I haven’t accomplished much personally or professionally in that time. For someone who is really good at getting a lot done when given a list of to do’s and a deadline, I’m also very good at being critical of myself.

To counter the negative, I’m going to do an exercise that is supposed to list the positives: what I have accomplished in the last twelve months—things that demonstrate all the skills I have cultivated professionally and personally have been put to good use. So here goes!

 

Research

I have researched the heck out of my new city. Doctors and dentists for children (and me) have been found and visited.

Speaking of doctors, navigating the health insurance system has been an education unto itself. The amount of time dedicated to research on this subject alone is immeasurable, and yet I feel I should be remunerated in some way for the pain and suffering it has caused me (yes, I’m being facetious, but just a little bit).

Driving routes to school and hockey practices have been cemented in my mind after countless excursions that I don’t need to rely on Google Maps anymore.

Grocery stores that carry the right kind of condiments, loaves of bread, cuts of meat, and snacks for school lunches have been raked over with a fine-tooth comb. I go to no less than three grocery stores to get what is needed. You read that right: THREE different stores! (sometimes more)

My research continues as the need arises. This skill has probably been the most integral to our settlement in a new city and country.

I also do research on where to go and what to do with the kids when we have free time, if we have the energy to go anywhere. There have been many excursions to the coast, sampling of different ice cream shops, exploration of hiking trails primarily with a friend of mine and the dog, trips up and down the peninsula in search of delicacies I crave, discoveries that even the locals don’t know about or haven’t bothered to explore. For the most part I have enjoyed this part of my research.

Researching involves benchmarking and I’m not sure what the benchmark is for excursions. This is where I still feel like a tourist that’s living in this town. If it were home I wouldn’t be excited by the vistas and views of and from the mountains and ocean. It would just be part of the scenery.

Organization & Scheduling

Three kids. Three schools. Three sets of extra curricular activities. Keeping organized and staying on schedule should go without saying, but there’s more to it. I went old school and invested in a white board. Yes, we always keep the kids’ activities colour-coded in Google Calendars, but I’m a visual person so writing out their activities and appointments has been a great way to keep track of all the moving parts.

I also did real meal planning successfully for the first time ever. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I managed to stay out of hell most of the time and stick with the plan. It also meant a lot less food waste, and meal planning has become, to my pleasant surprise, rule by consensus. I write out my ideas for meals and the kids weigh in with their ideas or change the ones they don’t like. Normally that would put me in a bad mood, but their participation in meal preparation has raised their awareness about the amount of time, effort and thought that goes into it.

Having a white board has also eliminated many excuses from the kids about not knowing they had an activity, not being prepared for a test or not getting out of the house on time. Despite all the technology that exists to keep us organized, the simple act of writing down schedules has had a marvelous impact on the family.

The infamous white board!

Networking

As I’ve said in a previous post, it’s hard making friends in your 40’s. I have been fortunate to meet some great people since my move, but it wasn’t happenstance that brought us together.

Meeting new people—making friends—is just like going on a blind date. So many of them were connections I made through Facebook groups. There are some people I have met who, I hope, will be lifelong friends. There are others who turned out to be a bad fit (can I call them wing nuts???). I’ve adjusted my expectations with respect to the success rate of these “matches.”

Networking is an art and a skill that requires time, effort and practice; something I learned from a former colleague of mine who has become a dear friend.

I also know I need to be in the right mindset to do it and that isn’t always the case.

Fortunately I have met people through different circles; some are parents of my kids’ classmates, some who are fellow Canadian expat moms and some who are fellow Canadian expat professionals who live and work in Silicon Valley. My circle of friends is small, but even my 11-year-old said, you don’t need a lot of friends, you just need good ones.

Volunteering

Since I am unable to work in this country, I thought I’d dip my toe into the volunteer pool and see how I liked it.

For the first time in the almost 15 years I have been a mother, I am able to volunteer at my kid’s school on a regular basis. Never able to commit to volunteering, I would pitch in at events like the spring fair on a weekend, even sitting on the Board of the boys’ daycare, but now I get to spend time with my youngest son and his class during the day. Once a month I plan and lead gardening classes with a fellow mom and I help out with the weekly lunch hour garden club with all the students. I love it!

There isn’t much for me to do for my older kids, but I do help out at the middle school snack bar, which gives me a chance to see what goes on at the school.

I have also volunteered to write for that Canadian expat professional group I mentioned before and contribute my expertise as a communications professional. There is something physiological that happens to a person when they volunteer. Maybe your body releases those feel good hormones called endorphins or maybe not, but in general I leave my volunteer gigs with a heightened sense of wellbeing. I will likely do more volunteering and make it a part of what I do going forward—even when I am back in a paid position. I never thought I had time for volunteering regularly, but now I know it’s so worth making the time.

 

Self Improvement

This is an interesting category because it could mean different things to different people. The first thing that comes to mind for me is my physical wellbeing. I have done more hiking in the last year than in my entire life and my dog loves me for that. I go hiking in the foothills near our home with someone who has become a good friend. I have also continued to run, but believe it or not, all this motion has caused repetitive strain injuries. So I’ve returned to yoga, which has been wonderful. I have also started taking pilates classes.

My eating habits are a different story!

My body is being looked after and now I am turned to improving my mind. My biggest worry about not being able to work was that my intellectual muscles would atrophy if I didn’t use them every day. Having to think strategically, have intelligent conversations and generate ideas is something I genuinely love to do and I miss it.

I’ve decided to enroll in online learning courses on design thinking and business strategy. No, it’s not the same as waking up every day and going to work, but it means keeping the synapses firing in my brain by learning something new and continuing to grow.

So that’s been my year in a nutshell. I could tell you so much more, but I think I’ll save it for another time…right now I have to go do yoga and try out a new dinner recipe on my kids!

Craving Comfort (Foods)

Homesickness is a bitch. I don’t remember experiencing this kind of ache for the motherland when travelling overseas as a twentysomething, or even when living in Vancouver while attending university. There are myriad reasons why I could be feeling the way I feel at any given time. Maybe it’s the change in the weather–dark mornings and dusky afternoons, shorter days, a crispness in the morning air. Fall is my favourite time of the year, so maybe it’s the root vegetables, squash and apples that are in season right now that have me pining for home. Whatever “IT” is, I’m craving comfort and comfort foods.

Today I was a bit manic about cooking and I made a pot of pureed butternut squash soup (a la Martha Stewart’s fabulous Everyday Food cookbook) and roasted a batch of golden beets. But things didn’t stop there–I missed the Thanksgiving long weekend up at my parents’ cottage in Thornbury, Ontario and I was really craving pumpkin pie, so I made the requisite two-pie recipe. The first was almost gone before it had completely cooled.

But the soup and the pie were just the bookends–I needed to come up with a really good stick to yer ribs kinda meal. Ribs! That’s it! I had some lovely boneless beef short ribs in the fridge that I thought would be labour-intensive to prepare, but I they weren’t. I sliced up an onion, popped it into a slow cooker, cut up the ribs in chunks, poured some amazing L & L sauce on top (this stuff is like GOLD because I brought a case of 12 jars with me when we moved from Toronto last January). L & L is like umami for grilling or cooking meat, it’s just that good.

Slow cooker braised short ribs with garlicky mashed potatoes and blanched green beans (and a side of butternut squash soup)

What goes better with slow cooked beef ribs than garlicky mashed potatoes? Nothing. So that’s what I made. Oh! And there were delicious, fresh from the farm green beans, blanched and sauteed in garlic oil.

This was the comfort food meal to end all comfort food meals (until I come up with another–ahem! chicken pot pie).

Double the pleasure: pumpkin pie

But it’s not just comfort food that I’m craving–it’s coziness. It’s Hygge I’m also longing for–that key ingredient to Danish happiness. Pyjamas, sweatpants, sweaters, blankets, slippers, pillows, duvets, LOTS of candlelight, tea with honey, hot chocolate–ANY hot drink and pastries, LOTS of pastries. I have been fairly successful at achieving Hygge in the past, but now that I feel like a displaced person I think my home senses that I am homesick and therefore it is slightly lacking in the Hygge department. So it’s time to pull out the blankets, fluff the pillows, light the candles, bake some cookies, or brownies, or other pastries, put on my flannel pyjamas and get cozy.

 

 

Blogging about California

I turned my back on this blog many months ago. I didn’t feel like spilling my guts on to the proverbial page and leaving an indelible digital footprint, only to be discovered or stumbled upon by some poor schlub at some later date. Life was is in flux. My thoughts were are driven by emotion. I needed to give my head a break. And yet here I am, typing out my thoughts. Why, you ask? No good reason, really. It’s just time to start writing again.

Maybe I’m doing it to flex the writing muscles that have atrophied over the last several months; to remind myself that I am still capable of stringing together coherent sentences. Maybe it’s simply an outlet for my personal thoughts and ideas, and as I’ve been known to say (especially to my children), “better out than in!”

The truth is I was having a rough day the other day. It happened to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The holiest of holy days in the Jewish year, occurring ten days after the New Year. I have a rather superficial relationship with my deity. It’s more of a means to an end, the end being Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, family gatherings at certain holidays. Food, food and more food. You get the picture. But this year things are different. We are in California without the extended family to have a meal with or sit with in synagogue and count the number of pages left in the prayer book before the service is over. I’ve struggled a lot with our move to the west coast, primarily because I miss our family and friends. When the holidays roll around those feelings are exacerbated.

People think, “California! That’s amazing! Great weather, mountains, ocean and Silicon Valley!” Those things are all true, and I have enjoyed those things. However, moving away from home is hard, regardless of the location you are moving to.

Writing about my experiences was my husband’s idea. While not in synagogue, we had a heavy conversation reflecting on the move, what it’s meant for our relationship and our family. What it’s meant for both of our careers–his moving forward, mine on hold. We also talked about our fears, which are very real. We don’t agree on everything, and in the past that has really shaken my confidence in our relationship. But during that heavy conversation we agreed that we were in this together. All for one and one for all. And that has bolstered my confidence.

I also think my identity is bound up in my country and my career. Absent those two things I am struggling to discover who I am and what I enjoy doing. So this hasn’t only been a literal journey, but a figurative one too.

I’ve decided to write down some early observations about our home away from home that have made me feel homesick. I now realize how much I romanticize the home I have left behind, and as a good friend said, I haven’t been able to “commit” to making a home here. I’m sure there was plenty to complain about back home, but I have a selective memory and have consciously and subconsciously chosen to only remember the good stuff. So I’m going to try hard to remember the good and the bad:

1. I am a slave to my car

Other than the pathetic little plaza out by the main street in my neighbourhood with a pharmacy, a mediocre pizza joint, a dentist, a suspicious looking gym, and an overpriced market, I have a 10-minute 8-kilometre drive up the expressway to the nearest collection of big box stores and decent shops a la Trader Joe’s. I wish my neighbourhood was more walkable from a retail shopping and public gathering place perspective. The upshot is we live close to many trails in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, which means I can easily go for nature hikes without much effort. So there’s definitely lots of SPACE in the area.

The hockey rink where my kids practice and play is a 20-minute 16-kilometre drive from home. The drive is mind-numbing, but it could be worse. There are people who drive upwards of 50 kilometres in EACH DIRECTION to get their kids to practice three times a week! I also remember those drives to north Etobicoke and down to the bottom of the lakeshore to get the kids to games on weekends, or practices downtown at 5 in the afternoon on a weekday. That was no picnic. So any way you slice it, driving kids to hockey sucks. I am a glorified Uber driver, except I don’t get paid one red cent.

Some advice for the City of Sprawl San Jose and its planning department: it’s time to invest in mass rapid transit. The suburbs need trains. Big time. HOV lanes for Uber and Lyft drivers, electric vehicles and carpools during rush hour don’t cut it. If this city and State made it easier, cheaper and more enjoyable for people to commute to work by taking public transit, they might just solve their gridlock problem and improve the quality of life out here. Hey wait: am I talking about San Jose or Toronto????

Oh yeah–and fix those on and off ramps on your highways–they’re backwards!!!

2. The sky is blue. All. The. Time.

I wake up, the sky is blue. I go to bed, the sky is blue. Well, it’s black when I go to bed, but it was blue. All. Day. Long. There is rarely a wisp of cloud in the sky. It is dry. It is a desert. It is dusty. My house is dusty. The hills are like a crispy, brown tinderbox with a few green trees scattered about. It’s been like this since April. I know there are worse problems to have in this world, but the constant threat of drought and forest fires proves that climate change is real. When it rains here I rejoice. I heave a sigh of relief that the parched earth can take a deep drink and replenish its fluids. I am astonished that homeowners are allowed to water their perfectly manicured, deep-green lawns. Why do they have grass??? I feel like a hypocrite because our rental home has a lush, green front lawn with a sprinkler system that waters it every night.

I miss the seasons. I miss a rip-roaring thunderstorm. I miss the Monet-like shades of Autumn in the trees. I miss the smell of the leaves rotting in raked piles on the lawn. I miss that bite of cold air when summer has departed and Fall has arrived. I miss the first snowfall and seeing a puff of my breath in the air. I miss the glare of the sun off the blanket of pure white snow. A snow storm! I miss the thaw and the promise of something new shooting up through the ground. I miss a rainy day–and the smell of rain–curled up under a blanket with a book and mug of tea. I miss the humidity of summer and the refreshing dunk in the lake to cool off. I miss warm nights. I’ll say it again: I miss the seasons.

But let’s not kid ourselves; five months of winterish weather is not fun. You wake up and it’s grey outside. You go to bed and it’s grey outside. Correction: it’s pitch black at 4:30 in the afternoon after we change the clocks in November. I don’t miss gripping my toes inside my boots and bracing myself as I gingerly walk down the icy sidewalk for fear I will wipe out and break something in my body. I don’t miss feeling the hairs in my nose freeze as I inhale or tensing my shoulders, which lock up around my ears as I steel myself against the windchill. That gets old quickly. I recall piling on layers of clothing and the same boots, jackets, hats, gloves and scarves every single day for weeks and months on end. And that’s just winter! Summer humidity is killer. Without question you need air conditioning to survive. It’s just too damn hot and there is no relief.And the bugs! Don’t get me started on those noxious creatures. I don’t want to complain too much about summer in Ontario, because it’s so short-lived. Oh yeah, that’s the other drawback: it’s so short-lived.

3. What is with the food?!

Food is a tough one because it can provide comfort and make you feel at home if you’ve got access to the food you are used to eating. So visiting grocery stores here is a bit like being an explorer going on an expedition.

Food is also a bit of a double-edged sword because the area of California we live in is so abundant in some of the most amazing produce–on any given day you can source fruit, vegetables, meat, and any kind of dairy from within about a 100 kilometre radius. In that regard I feel spoiled. But I have to say, it ain’t cheap. Good food costs money here. On the other hand, bad food is easy to come by cheaply. Just visit any grocery store here. The cookies, crackers, chips and “soda” drinks are abundant. I have not indulged in such convenience foods, but they too, are overly abundant. I wouldn’t even call some of it food–maybe consumables, because you wouldn’t die (at least not immediately) if you ate it. Your body would just be full of sugar and salt.

The grocery stores carry enough variety that I can usually find what I want–I say “stores” because I have to go to three on average to find all the things I need. I definitely miss certain brands and products, like President’s Choice, Nestle nut-free chocolates, Shreddies and Vector cereal, and Ace bakery breads to name a few. I’ve tried to replicate some of them through other products on the store shelves here without much success.

And what is up with the absence of veal? I have looked high and low for veal cutlets but apparently eating baby cow is gauche here. I was jones-ing for an Italian veal sandwich several months back and every time I asked a butcher if they carried veal, they looked at me like I was a murderer. My quest continues, although I fear I may fail. (update: Whole Foods said they carry veal, but they are currently out of stock) I also haven’t been able to find Montmorency sour cherries (best for making sour cherry pie) or Cortland apples (for making sauce), but I am bound and determined to find them.

As for restaurants, I don’t bother eating out much here. The bar is pretty low when it comes to fine dining. It’s either fast food (I’ll take a hard pass, thanks), or mediocre chain restaurants. The best restos are up in San Francisco.I can’t even find a decent Chinese food joint in the area. There are lots of good Vietnamese places that serve Bahn Mi and Pho. Oh! And if you like Mexican food–burritos, tacos, etc.–you can find a decent taqueria on every other corner. Unfortunately Mexican is not my favourite. So I’m expanding my home cooking repetoire. I’ve got a board in the kitchen where I write down meal ideas and the list is growing. Let’s just hope the kids appreciate my culinary adventures.

I can’t really complain about the food back home. It’s good. (what I’d give for an Ace Bakery baguette right now!) But like I said, the fresh produce only lasts from late May to October. Then we are back to importing berries from Watsonville, which is an hour away from where I live now! And who am I kidding? We rarely got out to a good restaurant (although, when we did it was Amazeballs!), because kids, you know?

4. Americans are paranoid

Obvi! That’s why they carry guns! And have home alarm systems! And cameras to spy on their neighbours! And apps called Nextdoor where people can post about suspicious cars and people driving and walking through the neighbourhood! Maybe it’s only endemic to this particular corner of the universe, but my observations have led me to conclude that people are afraid of other people and it has bred a strange sort of alertness and vigilante-ism. And this is California–one of thee most liberal States!!!! The majority of kids don’t walk or bike to school–parents drive them to school (although, to be fair, many of those parents head off to work after school drop-off). Neighbours will post messages if they see someone they don’t recognize lurking about. That never happened back home. Oh wait! I’m wrong–there is now a neighbourhood watch and several people in the neighbourhood who wish to keep it clean and pristine (apparently there is a sex doll shop on the outskirts of the neighbourhood they are trying to get rid of) and free of any nefarious elements. So if I stop and really think about it, there are outspoken actors willing to step up and step in in both of our neighbourhoods.

Maybe I’m too trusting, maybe I’m oblivious or maybe I just don’t care. This one really stumps me and I have decided to study this cultural difference further as the weeks and months go on. I find it both fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

So those are my early observations. I’m sure others will develop over time. I plan on taking notes and posting about this again (I think I could write an entire post about the horrendous traffic in this region–and I’m not talking about gridlock this time, I’m talking about the horrible drivers). It shouldn’t take long for me to amass more topics (my head is FULL of them). I look forward to sharing with you in the future.

In the meantime my search for comfort food continues as does my dream for a rainy pyjama day.

 

Ignoring my blog

I’ve been ignoring my blog. Not really on purpose, but moreso because I don’t want to keep feeding it. I’ve been feeding Instagram and Facebook a lot in the last four months and I must say, social media has an insatiable appetite! I kind of did it to myself–a little over a month ago I took up a year-long challenge to post a photo a day. There have been days when I’ve struggled to think of a decent picture to post (just see the one of my messy kitchen) and it’s only been a month! What am I to do for the next 11 months?!

But I also felt like there wasn’t much I wanted to write about that was related to homemaking, baking, cooking, decor, fitness, etcetera, etcetera. I’m actually waiting for a Duncan Hines cake to come out of the oven right now, so I figured I’d kill some time writing an entry. The cake is for the kids’ graduation. All three are graduating from a milestone year at school. Next year they will all be at different schools and as much as we all commiserate about the demands of parenthood, schlepping them hither and yon to school, daycare, hockey, swimming, blah, blah, blah, I know it will pass in the proverbial blink of an eye.

We are also days away from heading back east for the summer, which means now seems like a good time to reflect on our relocation to Northern California. It’s been almost five months to the day since the Big Move. I won’t lie to you–it’s been difficult for all of us in different ways. I think the biggest challenge for me has been the separation from our family and close friends, which won’t come as a surprise to many of you. I’ve also been really uncomfortable with unemployment. I managed to work remotely for the first three months, which helped immensely with the transition. Had it not been for a good friendship that I have struck up with a fellow Canadian (from Ottawa), I’m not sure I’d be in as good a place as I am now. We are in constant contact without being needy (at least, I hope I’m not!). We go on long walks and hikes regularly and our 11-year-olds have become good buddies.

I also joined the schools Gardening Club and purchased a summer “plot” even though I won’t be here to tend to it. I have made friends with some of the moms at the school who are fellow Garden Clubbers, which has also been a great comfort.

Those amazing Canadian Moms In Silicon Valley have also been my saviours. We are a mixed bunch at various stages of expat-ness, but we have our motherhood and national pride in common and that is a tie that binds us. A big shout out to Kathryn for being my life ring in the choppy seas of relocating.

Finding my “tribe” has kept me afloat on this crazy adventure. So, too, has my husband. I remind myself regularly that I’m not the only one who has had to make adjustments. And yet I feel a great sense of responsibility to each member of the family to make sure they are good, physically, mentally and socially.

Highlights of the Big Move: 

Hiking the Quicksilver Foothills (literally in our neighbourhood backyard)

One of the nearby trails I have hiked a few times

Gardening Club at the elementary school

All ready for a fun garden activity with the kids

Exploring the region (oceans and mountains)

Postcard-worthy shot of the Carmel-to-Big Sur coastline along Highway 1

Time…to cook and bake

A one dish dinner that was better than anything we could have got at a restaurant

The finished product

Writing letters home to my friends

I don’t have a photo for this one, because, who really needs to see the envelopes and stamps? But what I DO love is finding the perfect card for the right person. I think many of them would be copyrighted so I’m not about to photograph them and post them on my blog (although who are we kidding? is anyone of any import really going to read this and report me??). I have found solace in putting pen to paper and writing whatever pops into my head and sending it off for my friends to receive in the mail. Maybe I will singlehandedly revive the lost art of letter writing, or maybe not. I just know I’ll keep doing it because it makes me feel good.

Now I’m thinking about my next “move” (no, we aren’t moving to another city) when we return from our summer vacation. I will look for more volunteer opportunities, possibly putting my communications and writing skills to use. I am also considering some self improvement through online courses; maybe I can still learn something as I grow long in the tooth. And of course I need to keep up with my fitness; I still can’t seem to accept the mushy middle that is my mummy tummy, but I’m not willing to give up chocolate and chips, not gonna happen. So I’m going to have to devise another plan to feel good about my body. I think that’s plenty for me to contemplate over the summer.

Okay, the cake is done and it’s late so that’s the end of this post. Besides, I have to wake up at the crack of dawn and drive up to Berkeley to make a big batch of jam….more on that later!!!

Friday Fitness

The sun was shining this morning so there was no excuse to keep me from exercising. So I pulled on the spandex and quick-dry, laced up the runners and headed out with my fellow Canuck for a looooooooong walk along a path that follows a river to Almaden “Lake” (by “lake” I mean a man-made reservoir that collects all the rain water that flows down from the foothills in the surrounding area).

Once we got there, here was the view looking back towards where we came from:

Almaden “Lake” on a sunny day in March

All told, we walked about 10 kilometres there and back, but I kept a running tally going for the day until I sat down for dinner and started typing this. When I checked my pedometer I was pleasantly surprised to see this:

Giving Forest Gump a run for his money

I would LOVE to burn over 500 calories a day EVERY day! Can you imagine??? All I have to do is walk or run ten kilometres! That should be a cinch! (not)

I admit, my puppies were barking a bit after that walk. My arthritic foot with the bunion, especially. But as they say, “no pain, no gain.” Or in this case, “no weight loss.

The only problem with that is, as I have said before, I am my own worst enemy. I got in the car and this is what I proceeded to do:

Damn you, chocolate!

So there go 200 of those 500 calories.

But I persevered. I had healthy snacks today on my walk and I had a glass of red wine with the most amazing dinner. E.V.E.R.

Best. Meal. Ever.

That’s spaghetti with white truffle oil, roasted garlic, fresh campari tomatoes, wilted baby spinach, fresh arugula and shaved parmesan cheese. I think I could eat this meal every day if I had to. It’s the white truffle oil and roasted garlic that does it for me. I think I am part Italian or it’s somewhere buried deep in my genetic code.

Tomorrow’s project: container gardening. It might not help me burn 500 calories, but I’ll definitely get something out of it for all the effort I put in. We got all the planters, soil, fertilizer, seeds and plants. Now we just have to put it all together and we have an instant vegetable garden! I’ll post pictures soon…