4

Ginger Snaps

Today I dismantled my kitchen.

In retrospect, the vision of me slumped by the stove, face in hands, surrounded by moving boxes and packing peanuts is a touch on the side of overdramatic.

After all, it’s only a kitchen. I’ll get a new one, and will likely have many more before I die, but for some reason, during the act of packing up my mixer and bowls, it finally hit me. My dream’s come true.

I’m moving to Toronto this week – to work for a food magazine. It’s the city, and the job, I’ve been thinking about since I was 14 years old. The city I promised myself that someday I would call home. The city that quite frankly encapsulates everything I’ve been working toward for the past five years. The job I know I am going to love.

And now I’m getting there, finally, and for some reason it’s much harder than I thought.

To say I’d given up on myself would be overdoing it; I guess I was just starting to feel like I was destined to become one of those people who dream big but never follow through. Since I was in high school, I’ve been telling people, and most importantly myself, that when I grow up, I’m going to work for a magazine in Toronto. But when university graduation hit and none of my job applications materialized into so much as an interview, I started to feel like a bit of a failure.

So two weeks after I’d sent in my resume, when an e-mail popped into my inbox from the editor of the magazine, I was utterly and completely floored. A week and a half later, she offered me the job. My life has been a roller coaster ever since, a series of ups and downs, excitement over starting this new life, but sadness over leaving my old one behind.

Like most great things, my leaving is bittersweet. As excited as I am about finally having my dream job, I can’t help but cry when I think of leaving my parents behind, or trading in my gorgeous two-bedroom top floor apartment for a one-bedroom basement in the city.

But it’s a sacrifice, and one I know I need to make for myself.

I realized over this past year since I started this blog that food really is my calling. It was my grandmother’s gift to me, one I never really realized until long after she was gone. When I think of how proud she would be of me, working for a food magazine, it makes me proud – of myself, and of her. If it weren’t for my grandmother, I never would have started cooking. I never would have discovered how much I love it, or how much a part of me it has become. So when I’m sitting on my kitchen floor, tearing up over the stress of moving, I think of her. Because this is just as much for her as it is for me.

This ginger snap recipe is my grandmother’s. These were her staple; at any given time, she would always have a tin of ginger snaps tucked away in her cupboards.

Tools

medium saucepan
wooden spoon
measuring cups
measuring spoons
wooden cutting board
rolling pin
cookie cutter
baking pan
wire cooling racks

Ingredients

1 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup molasses
2 tsp ginger
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
5 1/2 cups flour

Instructions

Measure all ingredients except flour in a pot. Stir until it just comes to a boil. Add flour in four parts until firm, then transfer to cutting board. Knead slightly. Divide in four parts and roll thinly. Cut out shapes and place on ungreased baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Enjoy!

1

Blueberry Crème Brûlée

I am Valentinezilla.

That’s right – the day that is supposed to be full of candy hearts and sweet cards and spending time with the one you love has turned me into an absolute nightmare.

Today, the day before Valentine’s Day, started innocently enough. I slept in late, snuggling in next to TJ and our cat, Suzie, until the idea to make crème brûlée for my V-Day blog post popped into my head.

So I hopped into the shower, got ready, and headed downtown – TJ in tow – to pick up some delightfully-coloured ramekins and a crème brûlée torch from the local kitchen store, and some eggs, blueberries and whipping cream from the Victory Meat market. Easy, right?

Not so. The torch was procured easily enough, although TJ complained bitterly about the price. A quick surveil of the store, however, revealed no ramekins. A second, more thorough search also yielded nothing. This is when I started to get cranky.

We paid for the torch, but were informed by the cashier that we’d have to buy butane from a smoke shop, as it came empty. A relatively minor wrench in my plan, but doable, I thought.

There was another home store around the corner that would surely have ramekins, so TJ and I headed further down Queen Street. After a desperate walk-around of their kitchen appliance section, and an even more frenzied dash upstairs in their furniture area, it was certain: there were no ramekins to be found.

As I’m writing this, I realize fully just how benign this situation is. Of all the problems in the world, finding half a dozen ramekins is hardly a crisis. But no, this little dilemma was cause for an utter and complete meltdown. My face started getting hot, my mind was spinning, and my lips just wouldn’t stop flapping. Arms flailing, I stampeded my way up the street to the market in search of ingredients.

Of course, they didn’t have blueberries, and the recipe I had my heart set on involved a blueberry bottom. Things really started to get ugly then. I barked at TJ to drop the basket he had grabbed on our way in, stomped out the doors, and started power-walking in the direction of home, TJ trailing after me like some kind of sad puppy. He tried so hard to calm me down, asking – begging – me to put things in perspective for once and recognize that this isn’t a big deal. But I kept ranting, cursing the city of Fredericton and its founders for failing to provide me pretty ramekins and a pint of blueberries.

“I have to make the cream, then refrigerate it for two hours,” I yelled. We were already so late in the afternoon, and that didn’t leave me enough time to take photos of the finished product before the natural light disappeared. After all, there’s no sense in making them if I can’t get a good photo for my blog, I said.

It was then that it occurred to me then that I had clearly lost track of what was important. I cook because I love to, and I share it on this blog because it makes me happy. So what if my photos are a little shaded for this one post, I thought. I’ll make this work.

My optimism didn’t last long. While I managed to find ramekins uptown, TJ had failed to locate some butane for my torch. I still needed the ingredients and it was bordering on 4 o’clock. I started to get hungry, headachey, and very, very grumpy. Everyone was annoying me – pedestrians, people in the supermarket, anything that impeded my mission.

When we got home, I quickly got to work preparing the dessert. Cooking soothes me, so I started to unwind again, and actually came around to apologizing to TJ for being such a nightmare of a girlfriend. While the cream was cooling, TJ ran out for a couple errands and I called my parents.

I was talking to my dad about my awful luck today when TJ came back home, thrusting a bouquet-shaped package in my direction. Instead of responding like a normal, decent girl, my mind automatically went to the negative, questioning why he would give me flowers while I was clearly on the phone. His face sunk. I felt like a total ass.

It was then that he dubbed me Valentinezilla. Like bridezilla, I had allowed the pressure and stress of something meant to be enjoyable to send me to the brink of insanity. I was a monster.

I wish I could say that I finally came ’round and realized how lucky I am, and how ridiculous I’d been acting, but I have to admit, I’m still pretty grumpy. While I haven’t quite yelled at  TJ since the flower incident, I did get a little testy when he accidently lit one of my crème brûlées on fire, and I did get short-tempered when supper didn’t turn out right, either.

It’s funny how the pressure of something great can completely backfire; I wanted this day before Valentine’s Day to be perfect, casual and fun for the two of us, but instead I tried so hard that I turned it into a stress-filled mess.

But I know it’s not the end of the world – that’s the thing about being with someone special. Even when you might completely screw up, they love you just the same.

Tools

six ramekins
medium saucepan
mixing bowl
whisk
wooden spoon
crème brûlée torch

Ingredients

1 pint blueberries
3 cups half-and-half
1/4 cup sugar
3 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 – 12 teaspoons white or brown sugar

Instructions

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat the half-and-half in saucepan over medium heat until it just reaches a boil. In mixing bowl, whisk sugar, whole eggs and yolks until frothy.

Slowly mix in hot half-and-half , then add the mixture to the saucepan and heat over low. Stir in vanilla. Drop blueberries into the bottoms of the ramekins. Pour cream into ramekins. Place ramekins in a large baking dish. Pour hot water into the dish until it reaches two-thirds of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake 35-40 minutes.

Once baked, remove ramekins from the dish and let cool for 10 – 15 minutes, then chill in refrigerator for two hours.

When ready to serve, sprinkle one to two teaspoons of brown or white sugar on top of each and apply torch flame until sugar caramelizes.

Enjoy!

2

Pull-Apart Rolls

Growing up, you always think the hardest thing about love is finding the right person.

It’s practically bred into us since we were kids. No one dares tell the story of Cinderella’s happily-ever-after, because in reality the end isn’t nearly as fun as the beginning.

No one ever tells you just how hard the rest of it is. You grow up watching your parents fight from time to time, and you rarely see them kiss, but you never really consider the fact that they’re in a relationship; they’re always just your parents.

Love takes a lot of patience and adjustments – there’s no way any two people can survive together without changing some integral part of their personality. There’s no such thing as loving someone just the way they are – it’s about accepting who they are and willing to work through their shortfalls. It also takes a willingness to change.

I was a very different person when I started dating TJ seven years ago. My most noticeable and proudest adjustment has been my temper. My tendency to fly off the handle was something TJ picked up on pretty much immediately, and I’ve been working toward toning it down ever since.

We’re still working some things out, and will be for the rest of our lives. One of the biggest adjustments we’ve made recently is finding a balance between his lack of cleanliness and my obsessive-compulsive need to organize. He has a tendency to leave his socks all over our apartment, or to leave empty rolls of toilet paper on the stand without replacing it with a new one. Sometimes I get frustrated and rearrange his stuff (which he absolutely hates), or I’ll get grumpy and start nagging.

You have to make a lot of compromises, something I’ve never really had to make before meeting him. I can’t just live my life freely if I want it to involve him; every step we take needs to be calculated with each other in mind.

Sometimes I get angry with him for having to give up my neurotic need for an immaculate apartment, or for having to consider our finances as a whole before making any big decisions. And I know he gets mad when he can’t just throw his coat wherever he wants or eat barbeque chips for supper.

But no matter how loud we yell or how heavily we stomp away, we both know it’s worth it. Because I know that I’ll always be able to take my make-up off and stuff my hair in a bun at night and have him tell me I’m beautiful. Because I know that after I’ve had a hard day, I can come home and cry on the couch and not worry about him thinking less of me. Because I know that no matter how hard I fall, he’ll always be there.

Sometimes I get sad when I think of how carefree the early days were, or I get nostalgic when I see a new couple flirting together for the first time. But that stuff’s easy: anyone can put on a push-up bra and dole out sweet remarks. It takes real love to stick with someone after the mascara’s smudged off.

I waited a long time to try this recipe, mostly out of fear that I couldn’t possibly make rolls (breads tend to intimidate me). But after having a particularly nasty fight with TJ last weekend, I stormed into my kitchen, hauled out the mixing bowls and went to work. They worked out really well, and after a lot of compromise on both of our parts, so did we.

The recipe is from Canadian Living.

Tools

measuring cups
measuring spoons
medium saucepan
mixing bowls
wooden spoon
fork
wooden cutting board
two 9-inch round baking pans
cooling racks

Ingredients

2 tablespoons  sugar
1-1/4 cups milk
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup warm water
2-1/4 teaspoon (one package) active dry yeast
1 egg
4-1/2 cups flour

Instructions

After gathering ingredients, remove one teaspoon of sugar from required amount and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat milk, butter, salt and remaining sugar until butter is melted. Let cool.

In large bowl, add warm water to the remaining sugar and whisk until dissolved. Sprinkle in yeast, then let stand until frothy, about 10 minutes. Whisk in milk mixture and egg.

Stir in four cups of the flour, one cup at a time, using the bread attachment on your stand mixer, or with a fork. Turn onto lightly floured cutting board and knead, adding as much of the remaining 1/2 cup flour as necessary until smooth.

Grease a large bowl with margarine or butter. Place dough inside bowl, cover with a tea towel, and let rise for 1-1/2 hours in a warm place.

After dough has rise, punch down. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and divide into 20 pieces. Shape each into a ball.

Place 2 balls in the centre of each of two greased 9-inch round metal cake pans. Surround each centre with eight balls. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until they’ve doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Dust with flour.

Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 to 30 minutes, or until rolls are golden on top. Let cool in pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan to rack and let cool.

Enjoy!

3

Tortellini Soup

A year ago today, I did something I never thought I’d ever be able to do. I started a blog.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I wrote that first post about chicken noodle soup. I was sure no one but my mom and dad would read it, and I never imagined I’d be sitting here a year later writing my 39th recipe with no plans of slowing down.

I was kneading dough for my grandmother’s shortbread cookie recipe when I got the idea to write a book about my newfound love of cooking, and its ability to connect me to the woman I thought I’d all but lost a chance to know. It was kind of a breakthrough moment for me, at a time when I knew my future was coming whether I wanted it to or not, and decisions needed to be made about the next few steps I’d take.

Writing a book seemed a little far-fetched for me at that point. I was 21, in my fourth year of university and in the midst of battling a fairly intense bout of depression. The commitment of writing a book seemed far too much for me to handle.

“Why don’t you start a blog?” my boyfriend asked one evening, shortly after we’d watched Julie and Julia.

I think I responded with something like, “Yeah, maybe,” code words for, “Probably not, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Then I was sitting on the living room couch one Friday night when it popped into my head.

“Stuck in Thyme,” I blurted out to TJ. “I could call my blog Stuck in Thyme.”

I still don’t know where that name came from. I suspect it has something to do with a sketchy little sign for a mending service in the top window of a run-down building next to my orthodontist. That’s the only reasonable explanation I’ve been able to muster up.

But I think it’s the idea behind the name that makes the most sense to me. At the time I started this blog, I was suffering from depression, severe anxiety and an even worse lack of confidence. But when I baked, I was me. I wasn’t some girl on pills that needed frequent naps, I wasn’t a twenty-something in knots over the future, and I wasn’t sad or angry or disappointed in myself. I was just a girl adding flour and eggs to chocolate chips in order to make cookies.

Cooking was and still is exhilarating. It’s the one time of day when I don’t have to be thinking; thoughts come naturally. Cooking challenges me; some days recipes come together effortlessly, other days they’re disasters. But after each screw-up, I’m always wondering what went wrong, and what I can do differently next time. I’m by no means an excellent cook, but I do believe I’m getting there, albeit slowly.

To date, this blog’s been viewed more than 5,000 times in the past year. It’s a modest accomplishment, but considering my doubts that no one aside from my direct friends and family would ever want to read my stories, it makes me incredibly grateful.

For Stuck in Thyme’s one-year anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to make another hearty soup. This one, fortunately, is much simpler than chicken noodle from scratch, but it’s every bit as good. It comes from one of my favourite cooking blogs, the Tasty Kitchen Blog.

Tools

large saucepan
measuring cups
measuring spoons
cutting board
large kitchen knife
wooden spoon

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, with juice
salt and pepper to taste
9 ounce package of tortellini
3 cups chopped spinach
parmesan cheese

Instructions

In a large saucepan, fry oil and garlic for five minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, oregano, and salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil, then add tortellini. Cook until al dente, about 10 – 12 minutes. Add spinach and cook for 1 – 2 minutes. Season with additional salt and pepper, and serve. Top with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Enjoy!

0

Burnt Grapes

I have a confession to make: I’m an emotional eater.

I’m kind of scrawny, so it surprises most people when they realize the sheer amount of food I intake on a daily basis. But nothing, and I mean nothing, rivals my eating habits on a bad day.

My dad used to call me Rizzo – from the Muppets – when I was a kid. I’d get into everything. The fridge was my playground: onions were chewed like apples, apples were devoured, and no one dared tell me otherwise.

I always thought it’d be something I’d grow out of, or at least turn into a bad habit that I’d have to kick once puberty hit. Not so: as it turns out, my constant snacking got even worse with age. Thank God I learned how to cook, if only to sustain my addiction.

The past few weeks have been, well, difficult, so the snacking’s been at an all-time high. Christmas is over, winter is in full swing, and general crankiness is ensuing. I over-think pretty much everything, and the dreariness of winter creates the perfect condition for OCD to run rampant inside my brain.

I feel complacent, stagnant, yet unwilling to change. There are so many things I want to accomplish, but all I seem to find myself doing is eating and watching cooking shows on the Food Network.

I want to go to pastry school, but I’m scared I won’t be good at it, or I’ll get bored of it, or it’ll make me resent baking. I want to write for national magazines, but I’m convinced I’m not ready, or I’ll just get rejected. So instead I bake, and think, and then write about what’s going through my mind, hoping I’ll get some kind of epiphany that tells me exactly what to do with my life and how.

I think my real problem is this ridiculous fear of failure; I’ve gone my whole life excelling at pretty much everything I put my mind to, simply because I’m afraid of disappointing everyone around me, but also myself.

There’s comfort in stagnancy; an undeniable relief that comes with staying still in life, knowing you don’t have to change or try, or even more, regret. It’s that comfort, and that fear, that keeps me from even trying.

I wish I wasn’t so afraid of the future, that for once I could think of where I’ll be this time next year without getting a tightening feeling in my chest. There are plenty of things I’d like to do with my life, but don’t know how. And I’m so scared of shaking things up, of risking everything for uncertainty, that I stay where I am.

I’ve come a long way in the year it’s been since I started panicking over my future, when the excitement of my impending university graduation was outshone by the sheer terror of not knowing where, who or what I was going to be in a few short months. I think I turned out pretty alright, so who knows what this new year will bring.

Speaking of emotional eating, I devoured an entire bowl of this grape dessert while writing this blog post. Okay, I know grapes drenched in sour cream and brown sugar syrup sounds like something you eat when you’re a) really, really, desperate or b) really, really inebriated, but trust me, it is quite simply delicious.

This recipe comes from Saltscapes Magazine; the original yielded six servings, but I halved it to make three bowls.

Tools

colander
large bowl
measuring cups
measuring spoons
small saucepan
whisk
wooden spoon
small serving dishes

Ingredients

2-1/2 cups seedless red or green grapes
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar

Instructions

Wash and dry grapes. Mix sour cream, white sugar and vanilla together in a large mixing bowl until thoroughly combined. Pour mixture over grapes and stir to coat. Divide grapes into separate bowls, or one large dish.

In a small saucepan, heat butter until melted. Add brown sugar, whisk, and bring to boil, maintaining the boil for a minute, or until the mixture turns golden and sugar dissolves. Pour over grapes immediately. Do not stir. Chill in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours.

Enjoy!

3

Chunky Broccoli and Cheddar Soup

My sister and I didn’t always get along.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has or ever had a sister; by nature, two girls living in the same household for the majority of their lives are bound to knock heads every once in a while.

The thing about Megan and me is how totally and completely opposite we are: she’s aggressive, I’m passive; she’s outgoing, I’m a hermit; she exudes confidence, me – well, not so much.

I was your typical little sister growing up; I dug through her diary and revealed all the juicy bits to my parents, exaggerated any conflict between us in order to make her out to be the bad guy, and once I stood up in front of the school bus and told the entire school (which, incidentally, fit on that one bus) that she had a crush on Chris Murray. A particularly good find was a cigarette butt in her closet, which got her grounded for at least a month. Sometimes I would purposely do things to push her over the brink, just so that she’d do something to get herself in trouble.

Embarrassing her in front of friends was a real event, and would have me plotting for days in advance of their arrival. Once I replaced her Nirvana cassette with a Fred Penner tape just before a boyfriend was set to arrive. I prepared elaborate outfits of oversized hats, sunglasses and 80’s shoulder pad jackets from my dad’s closet to wear when they came over, parading around the house playing my harmonica.

Although I’d never admit it at the time, half the reason I got her grounded so much was so that she’d spend less time with her friends and more time at home with me. I loved my sister, no matter how much fun it was to make her life miserable, and I was always so jealous of the amount of time she spent with her friends.

I remember the day she moved out; I’ll always remember that day. We packed our old station wagon to the gunnels, in a rush, of course, and Megan was supremely cranky. I remember being mad at her for being cranky on her last official day home, but when I did the same five years later, I understood why. After a long, hot, and argument-filled car ride, we arrived at her new home, unloaded all her stuff onto the third floor of the all-girls’ residence, and then left without her. The ride home was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life; it was just me and my parents, and I was acutely aware of the fact that that was how it was going to be from then on.

The distance was good for us, I think. I missed her a lot, and would write her long, rambling letters about boys at school and fights with my friends. She wrote back, telling me about boys at her school and all the new friends she was making, along with some awkward older sisterly dating advice. When she came home at Christmas or over the summers breaks, we were closer than ever.

Megan and I only see each other a couple times a year now; she lives on the West Coast and I live on the East. It’s funny though, how much alike we’re becoming despite the difference in our personalities and the distance between us. We actually buy the same clothing, read the same books, and have the same duvet cover on our beds (thanks, Mom).

We tell each other just about everything, and thankfully she no longer has to worry about me tattling to our parents if she did something bad. It wasn’t easy, but I believe we’ve finally come to a point where knowing everything about each other isn’t means for ammunition, but a point of empathy and respect.

I know it sounds cliché, but her battles really are mine, she cries when I cry, and the scars from whatever stupid fights we’ve had over the years are only reminders of how far we’ve come, and how much more growing there is to come. And I really can’t wait to see where we go from here.

 

Tools

Cutting board
large kitchen knife
measuring cups
measuring spoons
colander
microwave safe bowl with lid
large saucepan
potato masher
wooden spoon

Ingredients

5 cups broccoli florets
1 teaspoon olive oil
large onion
3 cloves garlic
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 1/2 cups milk
2 cups cheddar cheese
1/4 cup tapioca

Instructions

Cut broccoli into florets and rinse in a colander. Place in a microwave safe bowl, cover and microwave on high for five minutes.

In a large saucepan, heat oil. Chop onion and garlic and add to pot, stirring often. Cook on medium high for 10-15 minutes. Add broth and cooked broccoli. Bring to a boil, then reduce to low and let simmer for 20 minutes, or until broccoli is soft.

Mash broccoli with a potato masher until desired consistency. Pour in milk and cream and stir. Add cheddar cheese and tapioca and continue to heat on low. Let simmer until soup has thickened, at least 20-25 minutes.

4

Granny’s Shortbread Cookies

 

I’ve been waiting to write this post for almost a year now. It’s the reason I started this blog; I was baking these cookies last Christmas when I got the idea to start writing about what was going through my mind – the regret of never spending more time with my grandmother, my love of baking, and the desire to actually start embracing it.

If there’s one recipe that makes me think of my grandmother, it’s these shortbread cookies. They were her absolute specialty. She made them every Christmas by the dozens. If you dug through her cupboards any given day in December, you’d find five or six containers of them, always cut into triangles with a dollop of icing and half a cherry on top. She had them perfected, so they were always the perfect flaky, melt-in-your-mouth texture with a hint of almond.

My whole family loved them, and she was so proud when she shuffled out of her kitchen with a tin to pass them around. I get a little butterfly in my tummy just thinking about it.

Christmas always seems like a bigger deal when you’re a kid. You wait all year for it to come, and it seems to last forever. Sure, there were family fights and crises along the way, but nothing could subdue that feeling I got on Christmas Eve, lying in my bed willing myself to go to sleep so Santa could come. Even when I was a teenager, Christmas still gave me that tingly feeling inside. It was the one time of year when my whole family would get together, crammed together in my grandparents’ sweltering house on Prince Edward Island.

We drove each other nuts, but it was Christmas, so we made it work. We’d laugh till our sides hurt, eat till our pants stretched at the waists, and in the evening, my grandmother would inevitably haul out the Rook cards and smoke us every round.

Christmas hasn’t been the same since Granny and Pop passed away. I used to get really upset over it, almost to the point where I dreaded Christmas because it made me miss them so much. That’s why I started baking her shortbread cookies; it was like a part of her was still there when you opened up a tin and found those shortbreads.

It’s been four years, but I still miss my grandparents a lot this time of year. I don’t think I’ll ever really get over it, but I’m at the point now where I can look past the fact that they’re not here. Now when I think of them at Christmas, I remember all the times they made me laugh, or how happy they’d be just to have the whole family there.

My shortbread cookies aren’t nearly as good as my grandmother’s, and I don’t make nearly as many as she always would, but making them always brings back memories of her. I smell her kitchen when I mix the almond extract into the icing, and just looking at the glossy red of the maraschino cherries puts me right back in her living room, surrounded by my family at Christmastime.

Tools

mixing bowls
hand mixer
measuring cups
measuring spoons
wooden spoon
plastic wrap
rolling pin
cutting board
cookie sheets
cookie cutters, or a small cup to cut out shapes
wire cooling racks
icing kit, or a sandwich bag with the corner cut out to apply icing

Ingredients

Shortbread
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup icing sugar
3/4 cup cornstarch
2 cups flour
pinch of salt
splash of almond extract

Icing
1/3 cup butter
1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
pinch of salt
4 cups icing sugar
4 – 5 tablespoons warm milk

Instructions

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, cream butter, shortening and icing sugar. Gradually add cornstarch and flour, mixing well with hand mixer. Add salt and a splash of almond extract, then blend well.

Knead dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for an hour, or until firm enough to roll out.

Once dough is chilled, roll out on a floured cutting board until 1/4 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 18 – 20 minutes, or until bottoms start to turn golden.

Let cool on the cookie sheets for five minutes before transferring to a wire cooling rack.

For the icing, cream butter, vanilla or almond extract, and salt until fluffy. Blend in icing sugar and some milk (not too much at a time), alternating until smooth.

When cookies are cool, top each cookie with icing and half of a maraschino cherry.

Enjoy!

0

Santa’s Favourite Sugar Cookies

I didn’t always like that I liked to bake. Ever since that one fateful day when I disastrously attempted baking blueberry muffins, I’ve been attracted to the idea of making something from nothing, and then sharing it with people.

Maybe that’s why I love writing so much; I can take a blank page and turn it into something that makes me smile, or cry, or brings back a memory that I’d forgotten. If I’m really lucky, that story does the same for someone else.

But baking used to be a sore spot for me. I was never very good at it, and my baking screw-ups tended to outweigh the few times I made something that actually got eaten.

Baking was, and still is, volatile: it’s unpredictable, and following the rules doesn’t fix everything. You need to wing it most of the time, and you need to accept failure and work past it. Neither of those things are my strong suits. I like routine and planning, but in the trenches of the kitchen, even the best planning won’t save crusty dough or watery gravy. You need to deal with the trauma, and honestly, that freaks me out.

I didn’t latch on to the idea of cooking or baking; even though in the moment I loved the serenity and repetition, I couldn’t get over the possibility of failure. After finally succeeding with the muffin recipe, I stuck to it, and didn’t bother trying to make anything else. I made them at least once a month, never straying from the recipe. They were good muffins, mind you, and my family certainly appreciated them, but the fact that I never dared to venture outside of that recipe was emblematic of my own self-esteem issues. I was afraid of failing again, so I didn’t bother trying anything else.

Except at Christmas – there was this one recipe for sugar cookies that came in a kid’s book someone gave me, and for whatever reason, I insisted on making them every December. Truth be told, they were awful. I always burned the bottoms and they were hard as rocks. Everyone knew they were dreadful, too, and they sat in the tin for weeks after I made them, until eventually someone would throw them out sometime after New Years. The only ones that ever left the tin were the few that I dug out and put on a plate beside the fireplace for Santa every Christmas Eve.

The only reason I made them was because I loved to bake, always had, but never had a reason to, other than those blueberry muffins. Christmas was the perfect excuse, because I knew that I had to make those cookies for Santa.

As I grew older, I still baked sugar cookies every Christmas, but I got a little more confident in my baking abilities. Rather than sticking to the recipe book, I played around  a little bit, adding more or less ingredients depending on the consistency of the dough. And rather than sticking them in the oven for the prescribed amount of minutes, I watched them obsessively, pulling them out of the oven the minute I sensed they were done.

Just like the muffins, the sugar cookies improved. I no longer need my mom to help me knead the dough because I mixed it all wrong or didn’t add enough liquid, and I only really use the recipe notes for guidelines; for the most part, I go by what looks and feels right. And best of all, people actually eat them.

Once I got over the sting of my original failure, I was okay. I think I realized that one failure doesn’t mean I’m doomed forever. It just means I have to work harder the next time, and the success will be even sweeter.

Tools

two mixing bowls (medium and large)
wooden spoon
measuring cups
measuring spoons
plastic wrap
wooden cutting board
rolling pin
cookie sheet
spatula
wire rack

Ingredients

2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon milk

Instructions

In a medium size bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter until soft, either with a wooden spoon or a mixer. Slowly beat in sugar, egg, vanilla, and milk. When well combined, stir in dry mix, a little at a time. Add remaining 1/2 cup flour, just until the dough is stiff enough to roll into a firm ball.

Wrap dough ball in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours. Once dough is chilled, let sit at room temperature until it softens up a bit to the touch.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll out dough on a floured board until 1/2 inch thick. Cut dough with cookie cutters and place on ungreased baking pan. Top with sprinkles and bake for 6-8 minutes, until bottoms start to turn golden.

Let cookies sit on the baking sheet for 5-10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.

Enjoy!

2

Blueberry Monster Muffins

I was seven years old the first time I went away to summer camp. Other than the constant praying and the kid who ate toothpaste on the bunk above me, I don’t remember a whole lot about that week of my life.

Rather, what sticks out in my mind is a day two months before I left for that dreaded Circle Square Ranch. My mom and I were sitting in the Harbour View Café, a tiny little family restaurant attached to the local convenience store. It’s the kind of place you see in the movies: waitresses wearing rubber shoes and aprons with pockets to hold their notepads. The curtains were outdated (even back then) and the menu hasn’t changed in the last 15 years at best.

Mom was filling out the application for me to attend the summer camp, and was going through a checklist describing my personality. She appropriately ticked off the boxes for “shy” and “soft-spoken,” but hesitated when she came to the final trait.

Sensitive.

“Are you sensitive?” she asked tentatively. I asked her what that meant. She said it meant I got upset easily, bringing up some recent examples in which I ended up crying and storming to my room after my big sister said something silly.

Ironically enough, I got mad. Furious even. I refused to talk to her while we finished up our fries and hot dogs, and I remember starting to cry halfway through the meal, insisting that I was not the least bit sensitive – that my sister was just a bully.

In middle school, I came home from school bawling at least once a week because of something some kid in my class said or did that for whatever reason undermined my own sense of self, replacing it with thoughts of the pimples on my chin or the weird colour of my hair.

I thought it would get better as I grew up, that somehow self confidence was something that developed with age. If anything, it got worse. The slightest criticism from a high school teacher left me silenced and shaken, while anything less than an A in university was a surefire sign that I was a complete failure.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I’m too sensitive, that I should develop the elusive “thick skin.” At first I brushed it off, again assuming it would come with age. Then I started refuting it, insisting that my sensitivity was what made me who I am, that I shouldn’t try and stifle an integral part of my personality.

Well, I’m on my own now. My parents aren’t going to call someone and make it better, and I can’t just grin and bear it through a semester like I did in school. This is my life, and my sensitivity is beginning to eat away at me.

It’s not okay to come home everyday in knots, and it’s not a normal part of my personality to take to heart every little throw-away comment.

I wish I could brush off the insults. I wish I didn’t care so much about the bad things people say to me. I wish I believed in myself enough to not let anyone undermine my confidence. I wish I wasn’t so sensitive.

I’m trying really, really hard to overcome this. I’m getting better at standing up for myself in all aspects of my life. I’m beginning to see myself as not a victim, but as someone who’s perfectly capable of existing on my own, without the compliments and encouragement of others.

I’m working on it because I have to. Because I know that if I continue like this, I’m going to wear myself down now that I have no one else to stick up for me. I hate it, absolutely hate it, that I have to change, because it’s hard, and it’s a lot easier to fall back into the old habit of beating myself down.

I chose this recipe because it carries a lot of meaning for me. It was the first thing I ever baked, and it’s one of few recipes I’m able to make without having to haul out my hand-scribbled cookbook. It’s part of who I am, but it took a long time for it to get that way. These muffins were originally a disaster when I first made them more than 10 years ago; they were green, blobbish, and emerged from their cups like ghouls retreating from some kind of swamp, hence the name Monster Muffins. But I worked on them, and I kept making them, no matter how weird they tasted for those initial trial runs. Eventually, they got better, and I’m now able to say without hesitation that I’m better for them. Sometimes change is good.

Tools

large mixing bowl
wooden spoon
measuring cups
measuring spoons
muffin tin
muffin cups

Ingredients

1/3 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup milk
2 cups flour
2 cups frozen blueberries

Instructions

Soften butter in microwave, or leave it out at room temperature until softened. Combine butter and brown sugar until smooth, gradually mixing in eggs.

Add vanilla, baking powder and baking soda and mix well. Pour in milk, then slowly stir in flour. Once combined, add blueberries and pour into muffin cups.

Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the centre of a muffin.

0

Wacky Cake

There are days when nothing will do. My apartment’s not big enough, my clothes don’t fit right, and my boyfriend is just plain messy.

And then there are days when all I need to satiate every possible need in my life is tangible, inexpensive and sitting in my cupboard.

I’m talking about chocolate, that sweet gift from the gods that makes everything wrong in the world somehow seem okay. It has the ability to turn a downright awful day into an alright one, a heavy argument with your boyfriend into an obscure event, and a sore tummy into a bloated but happy one.

This recipe is revered in my house as the ultimate chocolate-craving soother. Without a doubt, it comes out every couple months in my mom’s kitchen, generally in the colder months, on “one of those days.” It’s a warning sign; when the wacky cake comes out, you stay your distance. My mom’s a sweet woman, but my God, don’t mess with her when she’s got cocoa on the table.

This cake’s most redeeming quality is its simplicity, but that’s also what makes it so delicious. It doesn’t try to mask its function by pretending to be fancy and ‘gourmet.’ You can dress it up if you like, but it’s essentially just pure, unadulterated cocoa.

It’s pretty much impossible to screw up wacky cake, which is handy given that most times it comes into use, I’m distracted by anger, tears or some other tragedy that requires nothing but chocolate.

There was no real reasonable requirement to make this cake tonight (do you ever really need a reason for chocolate?), but I kept thinking about it all day, and nothing else would hit the spot. I tried regular old chocolate bars, but all the nuts and caramel just got in the way of what I really wanted, which was chocolate.

The icing is optional – it’s great if you’ve got time or need that extra bit of chocolate, but the cake takes on a more brownie-like quality without it. It’s also impossible to ruin. Proof in point: I left it on the stove whilst writing this very blog and completely forgot about it for a good five minutes. A little heavy stirring and we were back in business, neither of us worse for wear.

A note on the icing: it’s best to leave the cake in the pan while you’re icing it, as the icing is very runny and will pour over the edges; the pan catches the icing and lets it sit evenly on top of the cake.

Tools

mixing bowl
measuring spoons
measuring cups
wooden spoon
8 inch cake pan (square or round)
cooling rack
medium saucepan
spatula

Ingredients

Cake
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon vinegar
5 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup lukewarm water

Icing
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons corn starch
2-3 tablespoons cocoa powder
dash of salt
1/2 cup boiling water
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions

Combine cake ingredients in a large mixing bowl, starting with the dry ingredients. Mix well. Pour into lightly greased and floured cake pan and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the middle. Cool on a wire rack.

While cake is cooling, mix sugar and corn starch together in saucepan. Add cocoa, salt, and water and cook until thick. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla. Spread on top of cooled cake while hot.

Enjoy!