Monday 31 March 2008

A Fairie's Tale

The sun shone down on windy lane cottage on a beautiful summer day. All the flowers were dancing in the garden as a gentle breeze brushed across the tops of their heads and ruffled their curling leaves. Birds twittered in the tree tops and bees hummed as they flitted here and there, darting in and out amongst the dancing flowers.

Christabelle Woodland loved living in such a snug little place. Here she felt warm and she felt safe and she felt, well . . . happy. I wonder, she thought to herself, what it is that makes me feel this way. Where is it that I can find bliss? What is bliss? Where is joy? What is joy? These questions kept swirling around and around in her little fairy mind and so she set off to find out the answer amidst the to's and fro's of Windy Lane.

"Ahhh" . . . purred the china cat sitting on the table at the top of the stairs. "Bliss is having a comfy chair to curl up on and a nice soft blanket to keep you warm . . . a bowl of warm milk and a fire to watch . . . Joy is having someone to stroke your ears and rub your belly."

Christabelle thought that sounded quite true, and very very nice, but . . . she thought to herself, there has to be more, and so she journied on.

She came across two china bluebirds preening themselves on the sideboard. "What brings you joy?" she asked. "Where do you find your bliss?"

They ruffled their pretty blue feathers as if to say. . . what a silly question and then the chipper little one on the left piped up. "Joy is having a song to sing and someone to sing it to!" And with that, he went back to picking and plucking at his feathers . . .

Ohh, that sounds nice thought Christabelle as she hummed a little tune to herself, but there has to be more, and so . . . she went on . . .

"What gives you joy? Where is your bliss?" She asked the tiny bird that perched inside the painted wooden birdhouse that sat on the library windowsill.

"That's easy!" He chirruped and cheeped. "Bliss is having a warm roof over your head and a place to sit your feet. A place to keep you dry when the rain falls and warm when the wind blows."

"That's nice." she thought to herself, but she was still unsure if it was enough, and so . . . she thanked him very kindly and went journeying on her way.

Before too long she stumbled upon Sylphia Pink, who was prancing and swirling across the top of the dressing table in the big bedroom, her green sylph-like wings fluttering here and there as she drifted past. She almost looked too busy to ask as she fluttered back and forth, but Christabelle gathered up her courage and blurted the words out anyways.

Sylphia stopped and looked her up and down, taking in her dull brown wings and woody cap atop her head, almost with disdain . . . as if she could well and truly believe that this very ordinary fairy could not possibly have any idea whatsoever of what true happiness was or where it lay . . .

"My goodness," She huffed and she puffed, as she began to prance about again. "Joy is having a pretty dress to wear and silky wings to flutter . . . and a mirror to watch yourself in from morning to night." and with that, she turned her head as if to dismiss Christabelle and went back to prancing in front of the mirrored glass.

"There has to be more than that." muttered Christabelle to herself as she went on her way.

Down in the kitchen, next to the stove she ran into Pierre, the very French Chef. "Well," he muttered in his very French way,"Happiness eees a pot to stir avec a very big spoon to stir it with." His big black moustache twitched and bobbed as he smiled down at her.

"I couldn't help hearing." a soft voice drifted in from over on the window sill. Christabelle looked up to see a pretty pink and smiling face looking over at her.

It was the cookie jar lady. She was really a big pig, but nobody liked to tell her so, for she was always smiling and so very cheery, and nobody wanted to make her frown and spoil her happiness.

"Joy," she snorted "Joy is having a belly full of good things to eat and a window to look out into the garden with." and then she chuckled merrily, her fat little belly bobbing up and down under her fluffy white apron.

"That's right!" piped up the cowboy pig at the other end of the windowsill."Not to mention being able to smile even if your face is cracked and your star's gone black. It's knowing you matter anyways, and are loved in spite of all your cracks and crinkles." He winked at the cookie jar lady. He knew she was a pig too, but was too polite to say so.

"Ohh, thanks so much!" Christabelle smiled, and who could help but smile with two such cheery faces shining down on you. She wandered out into the garden.

"Joy, is seeing all the beauty that lies around you, and stopping to smell the roses." whispered Sigfried the wood fairy as a butterfly danced upon his fingertips. "It's all the things around you that make you feel all warm inside your heart. The best things in life are free. They are a gift from above."

"It's reaching beyond yourself, and climbing to a higher, loftier places." piped up Harvey the acorn fairy, as he reached for another branch to perch upon, his fairy wings fluttering lightly in the soft breeze that whispered about their heads.

"It's knowing the love of family and friends." Pippa piped up excitedly from amongst the apple blossoms that lined the branches of the old apple tree that stood in the corner of the garden. She was so excited that the branch bobbed up and down and petals drifted to the ground like a soft winter's snow fall . . .

"Don't forget!" chimed in Cassandra from amongst the chinese lanterns that grew under the old oak tree."It's having a light to guide you on your way and help you to find the right path when you are stumbling and wandering about in the darkness."

"Yes," agreed Harry as he waved his pretty wings in the air. "It's all those things and much much more. Joy is feeling good within yourself and knowing who you are and not wanting to be anyone else. It's enjoying the love of family and friends and wanting to help others. It's being still and hearing the voice that can only be heard when you are still, and quiet . . . and listening. Being happy is being who you are, where you are, when you are, and knowing in your heart that that's all you ever want to be."

All was quiet amidst the flowers of the garden, save the gentle noise from fluttering wings as they all took it in.

"Me thinks you are the wise one." came Clothilde's tiny voice from amongst the oak leaves that lay dry at the edge of the garden. Bliss is here. Bliss is now. Bliss is all around us. It's not something we need to go out and look for. It's already with us. We just have to stop and see that it's here"

And with that, they all pranced inside the house and decided to have some cake . . . because . . . what good is all that bliss, without a little bit of cake. There was still some leftover from the weekend that the big people hadn't managed to eat yet . . . a few crumbs would never be missed.

I hope you didn't mind me sharing this little flight of fancy with you this morning. I had such a fun time going around the cottage here and taking photographs to share with you of some of the little pretties that lay here and there. There were a lot more, but I'll save them for another time and in the meantime I'll leave you with my recipe for Chicken Korma. I know, it's not cake . . . but we're not all fairies are we . . . a steady diet of cake gets old real fast!

*Chicken Korma*
Serves 4

Can you believe I had never really had curry until I moved over here to England? Neither can I. Oh what I was missing all those years! Next to fish and chips this is like the national dish of England. I have fallen totally in love with it. I like to serve this mild version with some pilau rice and naan bread to soak up all that lovely sauce with.

1 1/2 lbs skinless chicken breasts, cubed
1/2 ounce ground almonds
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons oil
4 green cardamom pods, bruised
1 onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 pint plain yogurt
1 cup single cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander leaves
1 tablespoon toasted sliced almonds

Mix the ground almonds,and garlic with the ginger and a little water in the blender and blitz briefly to make a paste. (If you like things a bit spicier you can add a bit of chili powder.)

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the oil and when it is good and hot, add the chicken pieces and brown them all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and keep warm.

Turn down the heat a bit and add the cardamom pods, cumin and onions to the pan and cook, stirring for about 5 minutes, until the onions are nicely softened without browning, and the mixture is quite fragrant. Stir in the almond paste and cook for 5 minutes longer over low heat.

Slowly add the yogurt to the pan stirring all the time until the mixture is smooth. Return the chicken in the pan, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the cream and cook for a final 5 minutes. Stir in the almonds and coriander and serve.

Sunday 30 March 2008

Let Them Eat Cake!!!

Oh heck!!! Is today the 30th of March??? What with Easter last weekend, and the time going ahead this weekend, I almost forgot! It IS! It IS!!! It's Daring Baker's Challenge day! It almost, but not quite, slipped my mind!

Oh what a delicious challenge we had this month too! This month's hostess Morven of Rosa's Yummy Yums chose the recipe Perfect Party Cake from Dorie Greenspan's book, Baking With Dorie. (One of my most favouritest baking books of all!)

This truly was a challenge to me this month. I had left it to the last minute and, to be perfectly honest, we have been really caked out this month. After all there IS only two of here living at Oak Cottage, but then again . . . at the same time . . . I had been really looking foward to making it and putting my own unique stamp on it. And so, with that in mind, yesterday morning I pulled out all my baking equipment, got my creative juices flowing, and got stuck in to the challenge.

Actually the whole thing was a bit of a dawdle to bake. Just a simple cake, and, with Dorie's expert instructions, I knew it couldn't fail! I was very impressed with the pristine whiteness of the batter and I do confess I was in bliss when I licked the beaters clean. (HEY! It's a cook's prerogative after all, not to mention I don't have any children around to fight me for them!)

I was a little bit nervous when I took the baked layers out of the oven though. They didn't look quite as high as I had supposed they would be! Never mind . . . I tipped them out of the pan and on to a rack to cool. (Right side up of course!) They smelled gorgeous! I could hardly wait for them to cool before I put my stamp on them.

The buttercream icing was also not hard, as I had already pretty much conquered my fear of that in December when we did the Yule log!

I had just made a Victorian sponge last weekend and so did not want to make yet another cake with raspberry jam in the filling, and so I decided to fill mine with my homemade Lemon Curd . I also thought a layer of Orange Marmalade would go nicely in the middle, and help to counteract the sweetness of the lemon curd. I then thought (I was inspired) . . . tropical and so toasted my coconut to sprinkle all over it!!!

The end result was definitely not flat! It was high and marvelous looking, although I do confess I put perhaps a bit too much buttercream on the insides and so was starting to run out a bit when it came to frosting the outsides with it! Thank goodness for toasted coconut, which hides a multitude of sins! All in all . . . I would consider this a delicious success . . . and Todd didn't argue that point at all. All I could hear from his corner of the room was . . . the scraping of a fork and snuffling grunts of pleasure!

PS - For those who have asked, the recipe is a hyperlink in the first paragraph underneath the first photo posted. Just click on the words Perfect Party Cake and they will whiz you over to the recipe, just like magic!

Exploring Our Talents

"O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?" ~Dante Alighieri (The Divine Comedy)

"Robert Louis Stevenson said, "To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming is the only end of life" The gospel calls to us to stretch ourselves, to embrace our talents, to concentrate on our strengths, to be productive, to be creative, to reach our full potential, which few of us ever do. We seem to get discouraged by such trivial things and fail to see the great things we are capable of doing." ~Marjorie Pay Hinckley

This past week has been really gloomy. The weather really has been lousy . . . lousy . . . lousy. . . . Wind and rain and more wind and rain . . . I am so tired of wind and rain. March, which came in like a lion, is bucking tradition and also going out like a lion, or so it seems . . .

I did a bit of baking yesterday and then as Todd was watching war movies on the television I was a bit at loose ends as to what to do. I know I could have done some housework, but I didn't really feel like doing any of that. (who ever does!!) I was feeling rather creative but my sewing machine just wasn't calling to me. Neither was my pen. I felt inspired to pick up my paints after not having done so for several months. I believe the last thing I painted was a recipe box that I had made for a friend way over in America in a craft exchange of sorts sometime last year. I used to paint all the time and, in fact, once upon a time I taught tole painting lessons to people with a desire to learn. I used to paint on anything I could get my hands on . . . old tin cans, cookie tins, wooden lathes, old boards . . . even rocks!

I have always loved drawing and colouring and painting. I guess I am just a creative person at heart, and art is one of the ways I have always used to express myself, as well as cooking of course! (Not to mention writing!!) My family have been telling me for years that I needed to do my own illustrations for the little stories I write from time to time. Just silly little things, with children in mind . . .

I have always shyed away from doing that though, never quite feeling that my drawings would be good enough. I suppose I am like that with most of my work. None of it ever seems good enough to me when it is done . . . even the cooking. I am my own worse critic, finding fault easily and probably where there is none.

I think one of the problems I have is that I always try to turn everything into a great masterpiece, instead of just letting my creative juices flow naturally. I feel that everything I do has to be a Da Vinci or a Rembrandt, instead of recognizing that I am a Marie, and that what I do, quite simply has to have me stamped on it and nobody else . . . for what is a pale imitation of someone else's work, but exactly that . . . a pale imitation.

God gave us talents and abilities that are each our own, and uniquely ours. It's up to us to explore them, develop them and to use them as we are inspired. We must write our own stories, and sing our own songs . . . write our own verse and paint our own pictures. It's all beautiful in the eyes of the Master and He, really, is the only one we have to please deep down, for His opinion is truly the only one that counts or matters.

So, with that in mind, I sat down yesterday with a blank piece of water colour paper and my box of paints and I began to create. This is what I came up with. I call it simply:

"When in Doubt, Eat Cake"

Of course there had to be some sort of food theme surrounding it. I love how the cat is sitting there patiently at her feet, waiting to capture the crumbs that are already falling from the cake. I think she looks quite happy actually!

After I scanned it, I then played around with it a bit on paint shop pro and I added some flowers to the background and a signature on the bottom:

I'm not sure which one I like the best. What do you think? I think the flowers give it a sunny feel, and with this awful weather, we certainly could use a bit of sunshine!

Now that my creative juices are flowing again, I think I will pick up my paint brush a bit more often, and maybe do some pictures for those stories I have already done . . . not to mention the ones that are waiting in my head to spill out and amuse people with.

My only problem is time . . . now that . . . there is never enough of to go around . . .

When I was a girl, I always loved it when my mother made pancakes. She never made them for breakfast though, only ever for supper, and it was only ever once a year . . . on pancake day.

We could never get enough of them and thinking back on it now, I feel rather sorry for her, as she must have had to stand at that stove for hours to satisfy our rather voracious "pancake" appetites! Now that I'm all grown up (and NO, that is not open to debate!) I can make them anytime I want to, and more often than not, I choose this lovely recipe for buttermilk pancakes . . . we love to have them with tinned sliced peaches and maple syrup. This was often a weekend treat for my own children when they were growing up, and always, always when they had a friend to stay over . . . it was like a tradition . . . a very tasty and fluffy tradition!

*Buttermilk Pancakes*
Makes about 9 six inch pancakes

Nothing says loving more than a stack of these delicious babies with a pat of butter melting on the top and golden maple syrup gilding the edges and dripping down the sides . . .

2 cups plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 TBS caster sugar
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
3 cups buttermilk
4 TBS unsalted butter, melted
more butter to grease the pan

Measure the flour, baking powder, soda, salt and sugar into a large bowl. Whisk it all together with a whisk until mixed and well incorporated. In a seperate measure, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk and the melted butter. Stir this into the dry mixture all at once and mix together lightly, but not until smooth. It's ok and actually preferable to have just a few lumps in it. Overmixing will create rubbery pancakes!

Heat the oven to low (about 90*C/175*F). Put a heatproof plate inside to hold your pancakes and keep them warm while you are cooking them.

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Once it is hot, brush it with a bit of butter. Scoop pancake batter in half cup measures onto the hot pan, allowing about 2 inches of space between each one. You should be able to get at least two of three in the pan, allowing for the size of your pan of course! Cook for several minutes, or until the pancakes have bubbles on top and are slightly dry around the edges. Carefully flip them over and cook until lightly browned on the other side, about one minute longer. Remove to the heated plate in the oven to keep warm while you cook the rest. Repeat until all the batter has been used up.

Serve warm with butter and maple syrup and for a real taste treat . . . a chilled can of sliced peaches!

Saturday 29 March 2008

Tears, the Soul's Balm

"We have but one life - whether we spend it laughing or weeping." ~ Unknown

I would like to be able to tell you that I have spent most of my life laughing, and that's a really nice thought, but that would be a lie, and I could never deceive you. The truth is, that I have cried plenty of tears in my lifetime, for one reason or another, and I have also done a lot of laughing. I have laughed and cried at the same time even . . .

Life should be a balance of both. A good laugh is magic for the soul but so are tears. I don't think it's healthy to hold them in. Releasing them washes our soul clean. They can be an expression of remorse, sorrow, anger and joy. Tears are a release, and they are our body's way of making it known how we feel deep down in our hearts. Tears are therapeutic.

I had a father who was not afraid to cry. He cried at movies. He cried when he heard a sad story. He cried when he was unhappy. He cried with laughter. I think that was a good thing. It taught us as children that he was human and that it was okay to express yourself and let other's know how you were feeling. Emotions and feelings were not something that we had to hide and pretend we didn't have.

Laughter is good medicine, but I also believe there is great value in weeping. I have cried many tears because of a friend's unhappiness or misfortune, both on my own and with the friend. There is something very special about being able to hold a friend, and to cry together. Sorrow shared is only half the burden . . . and a burden shared is more easily borne.

I'm a great weeper at movies, and I have even been known to cry when I see certain commercials on the telly. It shows I have a heart. It doesn't matter how many times I see the film "Old Yeller." I always cry at the end. Big heaving sobs. I know what is coming, and it touches my heart anyways. I cried when Sally and Kevin broke up on Coronation Street years and years ago. It broke my heart, even though I knew they weren't real people. I cry when I read through people's blogs and discover their problems, both health and otherwise. My heart feels for each of them.

I cry when I am angry. The words can't come out. I am not good at expressing myself verbally. I get all tongue tied and twisted, and so . . . I just cry.

When I was a little girl and it rained, I thought God and the angels were crying, and that was a special feeling. It made me feel good to know that God cared about the sorrows of this world. This life here on earth is not called a veil of tears for nothing . . . and to know that He watches over us and cares is comforting to me. I know that He could take away all the pain if He wanted to, but then . . . how would we learn to be compassionate and understanding and to serve . . . to become more like Him.

I cry when I see children or animals being abused. My heart breaks for their tender souls and the pain they must experience. I want to kiss all their boo boos better and bring them all home with me, and wipe away their tears.

I cry at the thought of my Saviour's love for me, for us . . . the magnitude of it gets to me every time . . .

I cry when I'm happy . . . great big soppy tears of joy. What a wonderful thing that is, to be able to cry tears of joy.

I cry with regret and remorse . . . sorrow at things I have done and shouldn't have. Tears for the pain I may have caused others. I never purposely seek to hurt another and it pains me to think that I have. It is good to feel these feelings though. It is a hard person who never feels remorse.

I guess I'm just an old softie at heart, but I don't think that's a bad thing. It's ok to be soft and it's ok to have a heart and to feel for others. I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd rather that, than to have a heart of stone . . .

Yesterday I gave you a delicious recipe for chili sauce and today I am going to show you something delicious that you can do with it. Sometimes I spoon it over meatloaf during it's last half hour of baking, or stir a bit of it into macaroni and cheese before it's baked . . . deliciously moreish. This though . . . is one of my very favourite ways of using it. Another one from out of my old blue binder of magic . . . tried and trues . . . family favourites, the ones they ask for time and time again.

*Heavenly Hot Ham Buns*
Makes 4

This may sound an unusual combination but trust me when I say that all the flavours meld beautifully into a wonderful taste sensation. These are perfect for a casual supper in front of the telly while you watch the big game. Heck these are good anytime! I like to serve them with some coleslaw and chips.

1/2 pound cubed cooked ham
1/2 pound cubed cheddar cheese (I would recommend medium to strong for flavour)
3 TBS chopped green olives
1/2 cup chili sauce (preferably homemade, see my recipe)
1/2 cup good mayonnaise (I use Hellman's)
4 large hamburger buns

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C/400*F. Slice the hamburger buns in half, but not quite all the way through. Set aside.

Mix the ham, cheese, olives, chili sauce and mayonnaise together in a bowl. Make sure they are well combined. Divide the mixture evenly between the four buns and then press the tops of the buns over top of the filling. Wrap each one in aluminum foil leaving a bit of airspace around the bun, but making sure each packet is closed entirely. Place them on a baking tray.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the filling is hot and the cheese is melted. Remove from the oven and let sit for a few minutes before unwrapping and serving.

Thursday 27 March 2008

A Feast for the Soul with a side of Corn and Potato Scallop

"And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord His God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them." ~Deuteronomy 17:19

"Let us establish in our lives the habit of reading those things which will strengthen our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world." ~President Gordon B Hinckley

I love to read the scriptures. I have an old pink bible that I have had for years and it is practically falling apart. It's pages are wrinkled and worn. You can tell it has been a much loved book, and, I reckon, that is the way it should look. I also have a newer set of scriptures, bound in burgundy leather . . . a gift from a much loved friend, and while these are not quite so worn out, they are marked in places, with notations written here and there, and, you can tell that I use and love them as well.

It is good to love the word of God, and in fact, we are told to "Feast" upon the word of God. Two of my favourite books are the Psalms and the Proverbs. There are wonderful little gems in there such as "Blessed is he that considereth the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble." (Psalm 41:1) and "A soft word turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger." Proverbs 15:1) Just who can forget the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my Shepherd." Holy words and instructions from a loving and Divine Father. I love to read them and ponder them, and indeed . . . feast upon them.

Todd and I often read through them together. There is a special feeling that comes from being able to read the word of God with your life partner, and in being able to share your thoughts and feelings about the words that you have read with them as well. For years I longed and prayed to have a husband that I could share this very sacred and important part of me with. At the time, I was praying about my ex husband, and, sadly, it never happened. He was never as enthusiastic about spiritual matters as I was, and never became so. God had a different answer for me and . . . in time, has gifted me with the desires of my heart. I now share my life with a Godly man, and I have learned that prayers are always answered, just not always as we think they will be. Patience, truly is a virtue.

When I am low or seeking comfort, I go to the scriptures and I drink them in. They peacefully bathe my soul, and give me much needed sustenance and comfort. You don't need to be a church going person to partake of the wisdom on their pages. The words are there for anyone to take in and to savour. "Happy is the man that findeth wisdom." (Proverbs 3:13)

I have scripture memory CD's that I like to listen to from time to time as well . . . scripture verses put to music. It's much easier to memorize things if you put them to a melody. I am not sure why that is, but it does work. I love to memorize scriptures. That way I can have these special and sacred words tucked into my heart and they are never far from me when I really need them.

They give me peace when I need it, truth when I need it, comfort when I need it and wisdom when I need it. They inspire and instruct me. They guide me. I believe they are the word of God and even if you happen not to believe this is so yourself, reading their words will never harm you. A little food for the soul is just as nourishing as a hearty meal, a lot less harder on the hips and can lift a body to higher places. Try it, you never know, you may even like it.

I think I inherited my love of the scriptures from my mother, and that she inherited it from her mother before . . . and I hope that I have passed this love down to my own children. Mothers are good for passing things down to their offspring, and hopefully I have passed on some good and useful things to mine.

My grandmother was a lovely cook, and so is my mother. One of their dishes, that has been much loved for several generations of my family at least, is this wonderful potato dish. I always thought it was my lucky day when it was on the menu, and I don't make it near often enough. Back home in Nova Scotia, it was traditional to serve this or something like it on Saturday nights, along with baked beans and ham, and let's not forget . . . big slabs of warm homemade bread. It's very simple to do and yet so very delicious. I could sit and eat a whole plate full of this all by itself, with nothing else. The leftovers are even tastier the next day warmed up in a skillet with a little knob of butter, but then again, butter makes everything taste that little bit better doesn't it?

*Corn and Potato Scallop*
Serves 4 - 6

This is good old fashioned home cooking at it's very finest. Frugal never tasted better. Simple ingredients, prepared in a simple way. This goes very well with most meats, but especially pork, chicken and fish.

4 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (I use my mandoline for this)
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tin (2 cups) of creamed corn
2 TBS flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 TBS butter
cracker crumbs

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C/350*F. Lightly butter a deep casserole dish, perferably one with a lid.

Layer the ingredients in the casserole dish as follows: One third of the potato, one half of the onion, one third of the creamed corn. Sprinkle the first two layers with 1 TBS of the flour and some salt and black pepper. Dot each with 1 TBS of the butter. Repeat twice, topping the third layer with the final third of the creamed corn and the last of the butter. Sprinkle cracker crumbs to cover the top and pour on only enough milk so that you can barely see it through the layers of potatoes. I use the tip of a knife to open them up a bit and let the milk sink down to the bottom. Cover with the lid of the casserole (or tinfoil if you don't have a lid) place it on a baking tray (just incase it spills over when cooking) and place the tray into the preheated oven. Bake, covered for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the top is nicely browned and the potatoes are tender. Remove from the oven and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before spooning out to serve.

*Note - you can also add cheese to this. I often do. I grate about 3 ounces of strong cheddar cheese and add it between the layers and on top. It's delicious!

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Moments Remembered, Giveaways and French Coffee Cake

"We don't remember days; we remember moments." ~Cesare Pavese

What is life really, but a series of moments, both big and small. When I look back on the years I am very thankful for each and every moment . . . the good and the bad, for altogether they have helped to make me who I am, and I'm happy to say . . . "I like who I am."

After all the chill and rain and cold of this past Easter weekend, I went out into the garden yesterday afternoon with my camera. The sun was shining, and I didn't want another day to pass without feeling the sun on my face, or me marking it in some way. I wandered about and looked for signs of life, amidst the dry leaves that remain from autumn along the base of the shrubs and bushes, and was thrilled to find little scraps of colour here and there. The rhubarb is peeking up in one corner, and my mouth watered at the thoughts of a rhubarb pie or crumble . . . the taste of spring.

The branches of each tree and shrub are full of tiny buds, small leaves beginning to unfurl . . . each one tender and sweet with the promise of warmer days to come, and indeed, when I look out over the orchard behind us from our upstairs library window, I notice that the view has taken on that distinct soft green hue that is only present in the springtime, like a fuzzy green haze that covers every branch and limb . . . the greening of England is what I call it. Most welcome after the dull and grey months of winter.

Little red tulips line the drive and purple hyacinth greet us by our back doorway. Beneath the bushes yellow primrose are in bloom, and indeed they line the banks by the lanes and pathways that meander through our small village. The earth is awakening and stretching it's arms open wide to greet us. It is a lovely feeling, despite the chill that still lingers on.

I remember to savour each moment, each smell, each little gift. To mark each day that passes in some small and treasured way, even if it is only the sight of a feather caught upon a budding branch, or a dozy winged early spring bumble bee making it's way along the base of the hedgerow out back. Signs and moments and intimate pleasures that are free for the taking, and yet they enrich my life in numerous ways, too many to count . . . but I mark them in my mind and take note, so that in days to come I can take them out and roll them around and feel their specialness again . . . just when I need them the most.

With all the busyness of Easter, I had forgotten that I had wanted to do something *special* to mark my 100th post here on blogger! Well, here it is my *106th* and I am marking it with a special Giveaway!

Time passes far too quickly it seems, and if it were not for the special moments that we treasure in our hearts, it would soon be forgotten and a blur. I'd like to make my special moment a special moment for one of you, so I am giving away one of my most favouritest cookbooks. There's a lot of sweet indulgences and special moments in this book, and lovely ways to treat the ones you love and mark those special times together!

Just leave a comment at the end of this post and I will enter each name into a draw at the end of this month. Don't be shy!!

Oh, I do love to give things away, and I can't think of anyone nicer to give them to than YOU!!!

Todd always has meetings on Tuesday evenings and so I pass the hours away while he is out usually by baking up something good and tasty to greet him when he comes back through the doorway at the end of the evening. Last night it was the French Coffee Cake that won my poll last week. It is an old recipe I have had kicking around in my old blue binder for a very long time and smells fantastic when it's baking. I always think a home should smell like a place you want to be when you come in from being away, a homey welcoming smell. Nothing says home more than the smell of some loving from the oven, be it bread, or cookies or cake . . .

*French Coffee Cake*
Makes 12 to 16 servings (depending on how greedy you are)

This coffee cake is impressive and delicious and very easy to make. I am not sure exactly why it is called French. I have never actually seen it on any of the trips I have made to France. I suppose some soul thought years ago that the name made it sound exotic and inviting and like a foreign treat. The smell alone when it's baking is inviting enough for me!

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (Trex, Crisco, White flora)
1 cup caster sugar
3 eggs
3 cups plain flour
1 TBS baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 cup of sifted icing sugar
a few drops of milk

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C/350*F. Lightly grease and flour a tube or bundt cake pan. Set aside.

Cream the butter and shortening together until fluffy. Beat in the sugar and then the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix together the sour cream, almond extract and the vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the creamed mixture, alternately with the sour cream mixture.

Combine the streusal ingredients, mixing then together well.

Pour half the batter into the prepared cake pan. Sprinkle with half the streusal mixture. Pour on the remaining batter and then finally top with the remaining streusal. Run a knife through the batter just once for a marble effect.

Bake for 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. (start checking after 45 minutes though, just to be safe)

Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes before removing from the pan to a wire rack to finish cooling. Place on a plate top side up (streusal side). Make the glaze by stirring the icing sugar together with enough milk to make a thin mixture which will drizzle well. Drizzle it haphazardly over the top of the cake. Cut into thick slices and serve with your favourite hot bevvie!


Tuesday 25 March 2008

A Lucious Caramel Flan . . . Or . . . Flying in the Face of my Fear

"Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly." ~Robert F. Kennedy (1925 - 68)

When I was growing up my mother always told me that you have nothing to fear except fear itself, and some of my most important lessons in life, I have learned through making mistakes, but I have to say upfront that I was sorely tempted to opt out of this week's Tuesdays With Dorie challenge, "Caramel Topped Flan" as chosen by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon .

You see, Caramel has always been my nemesis. Any and every time I have tried to make caramel in the past I have either burnt it, or it has turned into these crusty flakes that were impossible to turn into anything but the garbage. (Actually that's a lie, as they were so embedded in the bottom of my saucepan that I had to soak it for days and days and days) Did I really want to put myself through the torture of trying to make caramel yet again? Could I conquer my fears and actually produce something edible? Should I just hide my fears and say I didn't have enough time to do the challenge this week, you know . . . what with Easter and everything, who could argue with that?

I am a stubborn person though, and I do love a challenge. I had to ask myself, "What's the point in belonging in a group like this if the first time something gets a bit *sticky* (every pun intended) I run for cover and hide in the hills???" I decided to grab the bull by the horns and face my nemesis head on!

Let me tell you though, it was not without more than a little bit of trepidation that I grabbed my saucepan and the sugar canister that day, and decided to face my fears, and I really, really did think it was going to be just another failure in the long list of caramel failures in my culinary history.

I measured the sugar and the water and . . . ohhh . . . just a squirt of lemon into the saucepan and began. I have to say that Dorie's instructions are so "spot on" that I could not fail. I am happy to say that my caramel turned out perfectly, the first time, and I was thrilled to bits!!!

Now, does that not look like perfect caramel to you???? Let me tell you, there was some heavy duty "Self back patting" going on after this one!

The rest of the recipe was a breeze to get through after that, and I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about, and I could almost hear my mother's voice telling me just the same and, "I told you so!" I did kind of wonder though, how something as hard as that caramel waiting in the bottom of my pan for the custard mixture was ever going to turn into something as liquidy sweet as the caramel that I was looking at topping Dorie's photograph in the book. Fingers crossed, I plunged ahead anyways, and trod where only fearless caramel conquering hero's dare to tread!

It all went together rather smoothly and before too long I had a lovely custard mixture sitting in my big beaker waiting to pour into the caramel coated cake pan, which was sitting there waiting, in my roaster on a lovely bed of paper kitchen toweling. (I am not certain what the need of the paper toweling is, but I'm sure someone will enlighten me at some point in my life!)

One thing that Dorie didn't mention in her recipe though, was to pour the custard mixture into the pan through a sieve, which I did do and was glad that I did. It is inevitable when you are making a custard mixture that there will be some sediment and eggy solids in the bottom of your mixture, and if you don't want that interspersed throughout your custard or hanging around the bottom, it's always wise to pour it into the pan through a sieve and I wish I had taken a picture of what was left in the sieve to show you, but alas . . . I was just so damn thrilled that my caramel had turned out I could think of nothing else!

I poured my boiling water into the roasting pan around the cake pan and then very carefully transferred the whole lot in to the waiting oven. I would have loved to have the roaster and everything already waiting in the oven, ready for me to pour the water in, but in truth, I have very flimsy oven racks in my stove, not at all like the sturdy American ones up at the big house and I have known them to collapse under the pressure before and send my ministrations all over the floor of a hot oven so the way I did it was the only way for me to do it, and not risk total failure and a very messy oven.

Half an hour later, I was rewarded with a lovely looking custard, perfectly set, and lightly browned in several places. I took it out of the oven (again very carefully) and set it on the side to cool for a time before I popped it into the fridge to finish cooling.

I know, I did the unthinkable . . . and this was going to be our Easter Dessert. Todd is always telling me I shouldn't experiment on our guests . . . and I am always flying in the face of danger and experimenting on my guests. Thankfully, I have never had a complete and utter disaster yet . . . but . . . just to be on the safe side, I had also whipped up a Victorian Sponge.

I uttered a huge and inaudible sigh of relief when that beautifully caramel topped golden flan slipped from the pan onto my serving plate when it came time to serve dessert. "Oh my goodness!" Sister MacDonald exclaimed as she saw it for the very first time . . . "Back home this would be a dessert served in a high class establishment!" I calmly smiled and replied as I let my knife slip through the first deliciously trembling piece, "Oh this little thing? . . . It was nothing . . . a piece of cake."

I'm probably not the first person to say this, and I probably won't be the last, but . . . Dorie helped cure my inate fear of making caramel and I'm a changed woman because of it . . .

You could not ask for a nicer dessert. Deliciously rich and silky custard covered and surrrounded with a bittersweet caramel syrup. My guest's were thrilled with it, and I caught Todd digging into the leftovers the morning after. I think next time (and there will be a next time) I'll try out the coconut version! Yummy!!!

*Caramel Topped Flan*

For the Caramel
1/3 cup sugar
3 tbsp water
squirt of fresh lemon juice

For the Flan
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
1-1/4 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Getting Ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a roasting pan or a 9-x-13-inch baking pan with a double thickness of paper towels. Fill a teakettle with water and put it on to boil; when the water boils, turn off the heat.

Put a metal 8-x-2-inch round cake pan-not a nonstick one-in the oven to heat while you prepare the caramel.

To Make the Caramel: Stir the sugar, water and lemon juice together in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Put the pan over medium-high heat and cook until the sugar becomes an amber-colored caramel, about 5 minutes-remove the pan from the heat at the first whiff of smoke.

Remove the cake pan from the oven and, working with oven mitts, pour the caramel into the pan and immediately tilt the pan to spread the caramel evenly over the bottom; set the pan aside.

To Make the Flan: Bring the cream and milk just to a boil.

Meanwhile, in a 2-quart glass measuring cup or in a bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolks and sugar. Whisk vigorously for a minute or two, and then stir in the vanilla. Still whisking, drizzle in about one quarter of the hot liquid-this will temper, or warm, the eggs so they won't curdle. Whisking all the while, slowly pour in the remainder of the hot cream and milk. Using a large spoon, skim off the bubbles and foam that you worked up.

Put the caramel-lined cake pan in the roasting pan. Pour the custard into the cake pan and slide the setup into the oven. Very carefully pour enough hot water from the kettle into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the cake pan. (Don't worry if this sets the cake pan afloat.) Bake the flan for about 35 minutes, or until the top puffs a bit and is golden here and there. A knife inserted into the center of the flan should come out clean.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven, transfer the cake pan to a cooking rack and run a knife between the flan and the sides of the pan to loosen it. Let the flan cool to room temperature on the rack, then loosely cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

When ready to serve, once more, run a knife between the flan and the pan. Choose a rimmed serving platter, place the platter over the cake pan, quickly flip the platter and pan over and remove the cake pan-the flan will shimmy out and the caramel sauce will coat the custard.

Yield: 6 to 8 Servings

Just . . . one . . . more . . . trembling . . . mouthful . . . ahhhhh . . .