Category: food

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…

California Beach Body: Soft Launch

Moving to the surfing mecca of the world means moving to the Land of the Beach Body, which I do not possess (yet). So I figured it was high time I got one. Problem is, it’s really, really, really hard to get a Beach Body. They are highly coveted and contrary to popular belief, require a lot of work to maintain. The amount of time and energy spent on cultivating and nurturing a true Beach Body pretty much means having no other hobbies (or a 9 to 5 job so I’m told) and following a very strict eating regimen (not the ‘d’ word). Many publications have done a fantastic sell job convincing women like me that we, too, can have a Beach Body, if we just follow these 10 easy steps in 30 days!!!!  If only it were that easy, we would all have them and those publications would be obsolete.

I also heard one of the must-haves for a Beach Body is self discipline.  While writing this, I scarfed down a delicious bowl of pasta with garlic, tomatoes, spinach and arugula, followed by a few freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. This Beach Body thing isn’t going to be easy to get.

And then I remind myself, “you used to be a high-performance athlete and coach. You ate self-discipline for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This should be a cinch!

HA! No, double HA! Those were the pre-children, high metabolism, I’ve-got-all-the-time-in-the-world-and-I-can-eat-anything days.

Motherhood, gravity and a general lack of motivation have taken up residence in my body over the last twenty years. I can’t exactly evict them so the Beach Body can move in, but maybe there’s still some room in that there body of mine for a new look and feel, or so I think.

Today was my “soft launch” to getting a Beach Body. It started with a simple Yes/No decision: are you going for a run today?

It was a crappy weather day, but I said “yes.”

I managed a short and fast run…

Short n’ Fast (for me)

Food is a different story. When it comes to will power the outlook is pretty grim. Why? Because I. Love. Carbs. And. Sugar.

Here’s a rundown of what I consumed today:

Raisin bread with natural peanut butter and homemade strawberry jam

Tea with honey

Vanilla yogurt with a handful of coconut cashew granola and fresh strawberries

A slice of sourdough bread with tuna, tomato and cucumber

Hummus and sugar snap peas

A navel orange

5 mini peanut butter chocolate cups (that’s like 300 calories!!!)

Spaghetti with garlic, fresh tomatoes, spinach and arugula with some parmesan

5 mini homemade chocolate chip cookies (that’s like 300 calories!!!)

Not egregious, but not exactly a lean diet either. I know I can do better. I just have to want to do better.

These pictures might just be the motivation I need. They are the unvarnished truth that I cannot deny–my mom body. It doesn’t help that my face is beet-red from running.

So here’s what I know about me: if I can train for a half marathon, then I can train for the beach. I will never deny myself foods and even junk foods that I enjoy. I had to when I was 15 and competing on the national rhythmic gymnastics team and I think subconsciously I will rebel against that for the rest of my life. Okay, not so subconsciously. I like goals; tell me what I have to do and I’ll do it: reps, weights, exercises, activities, I’m your girl. I’m competitive (no shit!). I will eat the 500 calories I burned even after I tell myself not to. I think being lean and muscular is way more attractive than being skinny.

Based on what I know about myself and my patterns of behaviour, here is the challenge I am setting for myself:

2 months of fitness (running, weights, gym, yoga, whatever) EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

I could be setting myself up for failure here, but even if it’s a long walk or a half hour of abdominals and arms, I’ll take what I can get.

Health(ier) eating habits.

There is no sense in setting unrealistic goals so I’m not going to bother. There’s already a bunch of stuff I can’t eat (mostly dairy) because it upsets my stomach, so I’m just going to do my best to make healthier choices. A little less bread, a little more veg.

Logging my activity and eating.

This is really what will keep me honest. I will see plain as day where I am falling into old habits and what I can change.

Writing about my experience.

I love writing. I don’t care if anybody reads my personal ramblings about self improvement or what I did on any given day. Journaling is known to help boost one’s IQ, increase mindfulness, strengthen self-discipline and help achieve goals.

There are no contractual obligations or penalties if for some reason I don’t follow this plan religiously. Maybe taking the pressure off will make it easier for me to follow. We’ll see!

The Big Bar Mitzvah (Part 2)

If anyone reading this has been on the Bar or Bat Mitzvah circuit in Toronto, you can probably tell someone who doesn’t know any better what to expect at a typical evening reception for a 13-year-old kid:

  • Gender stereotypical themes like Tiffany boxes and fashion labels for the girls, pro sports teams and rock n’ roll for the boys
  • Obnoxiously loud pop music, flashing lights and a couple of sweaty dancers charged with enticing reluctant self-conscious pre-teens on to the dance floor by baiting them with made-in-China giveaways
  • Barely teenaged girls in barely there dresses, high heels and Kardashian-style smokey eye make up
  • A sit down dinner for the adults who attempt to exchange pleasantries but can’t hear each other over the thumping bass music
  • A buffet of fast food favourites for the scores of kids that generally include burgers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs and french fries
  • A photo booth with tacky feather boas, sparkling cardboard top hats and wacky glass frames for accessories that dole out pictures not meant for any photo album
  • A kids’ candy buffet overflowing with gummies, gum balls, sour keys and every other sugar-laden treat imaginable the adults secretly covet

We decided to forego the serial (and predictable) evening reception for something a little different. I call it a 13-year-old boy’s birthday bash extraordinaire.

Mere hours after the brunch reception that followed the Bar Mitzvah service, we changed out of our fancy duds for jeans and cozy sweaters and headed down to the William P Wilder Arena at Upper Canada College.

We rented one of the ice rinks for an hour and a half for the kids (and any adults who wanted to) to skate and play some shinny. We hired a former hockey trainer of the boys’ to do some fun games and activities on the ice–we did have giveaways for the kids, but they didn’t know it. We slipped the trainer some gift cards to give to kids who participated in the activities.

On the ice……

We also rented out the lounge that overlooks the ice rink–this is where non-skaters and the few adults invited could hang out and watch the skating.

My son likes music but isn’t into dance parties, so he made a playlist on Spotify to play over the sound system inside the rink. I had my playlist going over the speakers in the lounge.

I hired Jacqui, who owns TWSS Balloons, to do a big balloon display over the entrance to the lounge as well as a couple of balloon bouquets inside the room–nothing crazy, but definitely festive.

Balloon display by TWSS balloons

I also brought some board games from home for those who didn’t want to skate and were looking for something to do. I was glad I brought them because it kept some of the younger kids entertained while the adults could enjoy a drink and conversation.

My son’s favourite colour is red, so I purposely decorated the tables with inexpensive red table cloths with a small stack of hockey pucks and a votive candle for a centrepiece. This was a kids’ party after all, so any effort on decor was for my benefit–not the kids’.

Red table cloths and coordinated balloons

I got lots of praise for the dinner menu, but credit really goes to my son, who asked for his favourites; burger sliders, chicken wings, caesar salad and penne in a pomodoro sauce. The food was catered by my neighbourhood friend, Suresh, who owns Avondale Foodworks. He’s catered for us before and he consistently produces delicious and flavourful meals that are always crowd pleasers.

Before dessert was served, the kids all gathered at one end of the lounge and were treated to a show by Magic Dan. He was great with the kids, held their attention, encouraged lots of participation and kept everyone, young and old, entertained. My youngest was particularly freaked out when Magic Dan made him float in the air!

Magic Dan performs to a rapt audience

Dessert was probably the most fun. I asked Suresh to order donuts and chocolate milk from Tim Hortons because what kid doesn’t like donuts and chocolate milk? And yes, there was another cake! I actually wanted to order a cake from a bakery because I really didn’t think I’d have the time or the energy to do another cake, but I made a deal with my husband that if I baked the cake (and prepared the icing), he would decorate it. So I baked four marble cakes, recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart. Then I left it to my husband to ice it. You can see the results below–a cake that looks like a giant hockey rink.

Hockey rink cake, anyone?

I did end up doing a candy table for the kids, but I had my rules: no bowls of open candy that grubby, germy paws could dig their hands into. I ordered retro candy and gum from a wholesaler and set it all up in galvanized metal trays and buckets. Kids would take a loot bag and fill it with their candy loot.

At the end of the candy table, kids picked up their parting gift: a red and white trucker-style baseball cap with a custom design embroidered on the front.

Nifty trucker baseball caps

All in all, it was a great party with lots of variety for the kids and the adults. The vibe was just right. There were still plenty of details to remember and lots of elements that maybe others would have happily left to a party planner, but I really enjoyed researching all the options and coming up with a party concept that I knew would be emblematic of my son.

The Big Bar Mitzvah (Part 1)

This post has been a long time coming…13 years to be exact! Although I didn’t know it thirteen years ago.

My oldest had his Bar Mitzvah just over a month ago and I feel like I’ve just recovered from the big event.

He did an amazing job reading from the Torah, giving his speech to our guests, and maintaining his confidence and composure the entire day. He really shone like a star that day and was deserving of all the accolades and attention.

My job was to set the scene for our guests after the pomp and circumstance and for that I spent many months planning, plotting, “pinning” and preparing. There were so many details and so many checklists, but here, I will give you a brief glimpse into the celebration that followed the ceremony.

Our brunch began by welcoming our guests to “the cottage.”

Welcome to the Cottage
This was the seating chart for the luncheon

I hired a graphic designer, gave her the guest list in a spread sheet with the table assignments along with some suggested fonts and icons and the dimensions for the foam core board. She was amazing to work with and had the poster delivered right to my front door. We simply mounted the board on an easel right inside the entrance to the reception room.

As people wandered in and found their tables, there was a slide show playing to music projected on to a drop cloth that I had hung on the wall, with patio lights framing it.  The “screen” was flanked by red plastic Muskoka chairs that were draped with wool camp blankets and throw pillows with wildlife imagery such as owls, deer and moose.

All the photos in the slide show were of the family at various family cottages in both summer and winter. Putting together that slide show was a labour of love. I also printed all the photos on to 4″ x 4″ paper, which were used as part of the centrepieces.

Each photo from the slide show was part of the centrepieces

My mother, my husband and I did an assembly line, punching holes into each photo and tying jute twine through the holes. These photos were then hung on the young birch branches in the centrepieces.

Speaking of the centrepieces–these were probably the cheapest DIY centrepieces ever and yet the most personal. I got little red socker plant pots at Ikea–there was a lot of red in the decor because that is my son’s favourite colour–filled them with pea gravel and off cuts of birch branches from my girlfriend’s cottage in North Bay, and the young birch branches were from my mom’s cottage on Georgian Bay.

We stood the pots on round wood “coins” that my husband cut with his chainsaw from fallen trees in the ravine in our neighbourhood. I just had to schlep them all to the car!

And the final touch were the rocks around the bottom of the pot, which were collected by me and my son from the harbour near my mom’s cottage.

So I think all told, we spent about $5 on each centrepiece and the biggest expense was the printing of the photographs.

The additional expense came with the guest keepsakes that I put on each table. These were maple syrup candles in tins. They certainly didn’t come cheap, but I thought it was important to give guests a small memento from the day as a thank you from us.

Each guest received a maple syrup candle as a memento

The brunch was delicious, catered by L-Eat. Niki and Tony did a fabulous job and the presentation of the food was simple and elegant. We made sure everything that was served were things we would typically eat for brunch: french toast with maple syrup, quiche, bagels with all the fixings, yogurt with granola and berries, and as a special treat we arranged to have smoked trout from Kolapore Springs trout farm up near my parents’ cottage.

But the best part of brunch was the dessert table! This is where I truly got to showcase my baking skills, with the help of my mom, sister and mother-in-law. First, I decorated the table with objects that represented my son and the cottage–Scrabble pieces that said “Help Yourself”, antlers, a red model sports car, an old cribbage board, a vintage waterski, red oil lanterns, and a photo of my husband holding our son as a newborn.

All the baked good were displayed on red tin trays, big glass cookie jars with red lids, even the waterski was used to display the homemade butter tarts.

There were homemade salted chocolate chunk cookies, s’mores bites, butter tarts, honey cake, shortbreads, poppy seed cookies, ginger cookies and also chelsea buns from the Thornbury bakery (the only thing I didn’t bake!).

The Dessert Table

 

It wouldn’t be a celebration without a cake, right? Of course I baked a cake! It’s the giant, incredibly chocolatey cake recipe from Deb Perlman’s Smitten Kitchen. It’s the same cake I baked for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, except this time I made marshmallows, charred them and put them on the cake. I also made banana chocolate chip cake “logs” and I made flames from melted red and orange lollipops. A candy maker I am not!

Campfire cake

I can’t say the cake turned out as nicely as I would have liked from a visual perspective, but it tasted damn good.

Credit for all the photos goes to Julius Ding of Julius and James Photography. This was their FIRST Bar Mitzvah photo shoot, and they really did capture the essence of the celebration, rather than the staged photos of the family and Bar Mitzvah boy that we all too often see. This was a celebration in real life and I’m so glad Julius was there to capture the moment.

There is so much more to tell you about the day because it didn’t end with the brunch! But I think I’ll save those details for another post. I’m starting to get tired just thinking about it again. Phew!

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or want to learn more about what I did and how I did or where I got my ideas from.

121 Days….and counting

I have set myself a goal that I hope is achievable: 4 months to whip myself into shape (and get awesome looking arms in the process. ha!). Just in time for my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. The goal is this: exercise every day. Even if it’s only 20 minutes. And make it count. That means not undoing 20 minutes of exercise by mindlessly munching on potato chips while laying in bed watching Netflix. So I’ve printed out calendars to track my progress.

Four months to go!
Four months to go!

I know exercise is only half of the equation. Nutrition is the other half that tends to be my undoing. I’m pretty diligent about exercising. I am not so disciplined when it comes to making healthy choices. I don’t eat a lot of fast food or junk. I can’t–it would wreak havoc on my stomach. But I like sweets. Cutting out sugar–chocolate especially–is near to impossible for me. I’ve done 30 day challenges of no chocolate in the past. I’ve even cut out sugar. But I don’t believe it’s realistic for me to maintain that kind of rigor in my day-to-day life. So what it comes down to is moderation. Can I get through 121 days and be disciplined about what I do and don’t eat? I  honestly don’t know.

My days start out well with a breakfast of steel cut oats (sprinkled with cinnamon, maple syrup and almond milk), a banana and some yogurt. But things go downhill after lunch when the 3 o’clock munchies kick in and I’m like a raccoon on the prowl for hot neighbourhood garbage.

A typical breakfast of steel cut oats, yogurt and banana
A typical breakfast of steel cut oats, yogurt and banana

I know my intentions are not that noble–I would love for people to show up at our family function and whisper to each other, “she looks great! she doesn’t look like the mother of a 13-year-old!” And deep down I know this is about more than vanity. This is about my overall health and well-being. This shouldn’t just be about trying to fit into a dress or impress a crowd. But hey, it’s a good excuse.

My first attempt at sourdough bread

After watching Cooked on Netflix, I was inspired to make my own sourdough bread. After all, Michael Pollan swore it was the easiest thing in the world. All it takes is flour, water, and some wild yeast encouraged by the bacteria floating through the air in your house. Easy!

Not so.

My first attempt to make sourdough starter was an abysmal failure. The flour and water looked–and smelled–like glue, which I guess it was.

Then I showed up at work with a homemade sour cherry pie (that’s another post!) and started talking about baking with a colleague. Little did I know that she, too, had been inspired to attempt sourdough bread after watching Michael Pollan and she had met with some success. She offered to share some of her sourdough starter with me, pointed me to a website that had easy to follow instructions and then I was off to the races!

I had my doubts about the starter. It failed once again and I ended up with a loaf of glue. See specimen here:

Glue bread masquerading as sourdough bread
Glue bread masquerading as sourdough bread

So I decided to persevere. For those who know me–and I mean, really know me, I am a relatively impatient person. So waiting for a sourdough starter to be ready, or waiting for bread to proof, are exercises in patience for me. And you can’t rush a good loaf of bread. I fed my starter again and decided to just watch it for about 24 hours. Sure enough it came back to life and started bubbling away, and almost “breathing”. That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s literally alive! When it had filled up the bowl, I decided it was show time.

I mixed the starter with flour and water and mixed it with the dough hook. I added a spoonful of kosher salt too. Some recipes tell you to knead the bread a lot and to do some of the kneading by hand to encourage the glutens to bind with each other. Other recipes say to be careful not to overdo it with the kneading because you don’t want to destroy the wild yeast in the starter that will give the bread that lovely bubbled centre. It’s really hard to know which recipe to follow and what measurements to use when you’re a beginner. This is when the internet is not your friend, but seems to be deliberately working against you to leave you second guessing which is the best recipe to follow.

In the end I found a pretty straightforward recipe at Cultures for Health. There’s even a nifty video that walks you through the recipe, but I decided to try it without watching the video. I think I might watch the video next time.

So here are the results:

In the end the bread was quite tasty–crispy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside with some air bubbles that are indicative of sourdough bread. There is a nice tang to the flavour and the kids seemed to like it, which is a good thing. It didn’t puff up as much as it probably should have after proofing, which could mean one of two things: the sourdough starter wasn’t as mature as it should have been to help the bread rise, or else I didn’t leave it to proof long enough (12-ish hours???).

I can see why making bread is addictive. It’s not an exact science, and yet the success of your bread making depends entirely on science.

The sourdough starter is once again percolating away in the glass bowl on the counter and I look forward to my next attempt at making a loaf of sourdough. Let me know what the secret of your success is when making sourdough. I could use all the help I can get!

Half way through my month-long fitness challenge

I admit I have not exercised every day in the past two weeks. I think I’ve missed three days. I’m not going to make excuses. Yes, there were reasons, but I’m not making any excuses. Instead, I am resolving to make the next two weeks epic.

We took the kids to the Mandarin restaurant on the way down from the cottage just over a week ago (I know, you’re thinking, “The Mandarin??? How is that a healthy choice???” Believe me, when you’ve got three hungry boys in the car, healthy choices is pretty low down on the list of priorities) and this was the fortune I got in my fortune cookie:

A very timely fortune cookie
A very timely fortune cookie

I’m taking it as a sign to do my best to be true to the sentiment that you can only have good health if you’re healthy and that means eating good food and exercising.

So I’m trying to stick to both without it being about how much I sweat and feel the burn or by depriving myself.

Exercise has entailed many activities included biking around the neighbourhood with my kids on this thing:

My retro bicycle with white wall tires.
My retro bicycle with white wall tires.

And I’ve even managed an early morning hike with my four-legged friend through the ravine in my neighbourhood.

Puppy hike through the ravine
Puppy hike through the ravine

Food is always a tricky thing for me. I’m battling gallstones right now, so most of the time eating meals isn’t that much fun, and sometimes I give up and grab something that tastes good, but isn’t good for me. For the most part I’ve been good, having lots of fruit for snacks like this:

Fruit salad
Fruit salad

Today, I managed to squeeze in a run at lunch time–half an hour and just over 5 kilometers. Not bad, eh?

I also just ordered a new bikini, which gives me even greater incentive to work on my figure for the coming summer.

Now all I need is a drill sergeant, a nutritionist to make this into a reality TV show!