Xeno assists with the work at hand.

Xeno assists with the work at hand.

Life…

Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing about witches, but I’m feeling superstitious these days when it comes to saying anything about my current novel in progress. The work takes up the bulk of my waking hours and has seeped into my dreams as well. These are good things when it comes to writing and revising (hurray!) but it also means that there will be periods of radio silence in my online presence from here on out.  Blog posts and social media updates will have to come in dribs and drabs until the book is finished. (But I promise there will be lots of stories and news to share when I’ve gotten to the other side of it. Wish me luck!)

the Flying Manatees review a robot run at the Nova Scotia Championship.

the Flying Manatees review a robot run at the Nova Scotia Championship.

LEGO…

If you follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter, you may have noticed several posts about “the Flying Manatees.” One of the ways I’ve beaten the blahs this long nasty winter is by spending time with the Flying Manatees First LEGO League robotics team based at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. I’m proud to be a mentor to this amazing team of three unschooled-independent learners and have learned much about creativity, determination and the joys of collaboration by hanging out with them and watching them work.

Full disclosure, Mr. McKay is their coach and my younger son Jonah is a member of the team along with his identical twin buddies, Eamonn & Macky Schwartz. Aside from my obvious connections to the team, I find I’ve been constantly wowed by the mandate of FLL (First LEGO League) and the way the program is run. Not only has the team learned loads about robotics (engineering, programming and problem solving,) but they were also required to choose a real-world problem that arises from a natural disaster and then propose a solution (via research and innovation) to correct that problem. Coaches and mentors are tasked with giving encouragement without presenting the team with their own ideas or solutions. Above all else, as the teams participate in competitions at the regional, provincial and international levels, they carry with them the spirit of “coopertition,” displaying unqualified kindness and respect in the face of fierce competition. Competing always, but assisting and enabling others when you can.   

I’m pleased to report that in their rookie season, the Flying Manatees have qualified to attend the First LEGO League International competition in Toronto this June. They’ve scooped up awards for innovation, robot design and programming, as well as earning the highest provincial robot score along the way. Currently, they’re refining their robot and their presentation as well as looking for support to help them get to Toronto.

The Flying Manatees chat with Stephanie Domet on CBC Radio's Mainstreet

The Flying Manatees chat with Stephanie Domet on CBC Radio’s Mainstreet

Here’s a recent interview with the Flying Manatees on CBC Radio’s Mainstreet in Halifax. It’s an entertaining listen that covers the highs and lows of caring for their robot, “Manatee.”

 If you’re interested in learning more about the team and their journey to the first international competition in Toronto, please visit the Flying Manatees IndieGogo Page.

PS There are a couple of perks on the team page for avid readers who choose to donate. (Signed copies of “An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth” by Commander Chris Hadfield and signed copies of “The Birth House” (by yours truly.) Thanks to Random House Canada and Commander Hadfield for their support and generosity!

Xeno watches

Xeno watches

Like most of Eastern Canada and much of the Central and Eastern US, we had dismal weather to start the New Year. Freezing rain, followed by heavy snow, followed by bitter cold, followed by more freezing rain. It’s a good thing I adore my family and that we enjoy spending time with each other! Many rounds of Munchkin, D&D and (our new favourite game) Pandemic were played. Many cookies (so. many. cookies.) were eaten.

Our black cat Xeno enjoyed watching what we like to call “cat TV.”  This involves him sitting on the windowsill and staring down birds as they flit to and from the feeder. One morning he seemed especially agitated, chattering and thwapping his tail repeatedly until I joined him at the window. This is what he was watching.

and a pheasant in a crab-apple tree...

and a pheasant in a crab-apple tree…

A male pheasant was perched in one of the crab apple trees in my front yard, picking and gulping as much fruit as he could manage to yank off the branches. We have pheasants that wander around our land throughout the year, but they usually keep to the woods behind the barn, huddled and chortling between the alders. This, I thought was an unusual sight.

the girlfriend

the girlfriend

The next day he returned with a friend, but she seemed to prefer the apples in the other tree.

the ladies who lunch.

the ladies who lunch.

As did three of her closest friends.

it's a party!

it’s a party!

By the end of the day, there were ten of them dining at once, causing one neighbour to wonder if perhaps I’d bewitched them there.

I’ll never tell.

 

 

lebkuchen

Lebkuchen 2013

This year I finally took on the task of modifying the family recipe for Lebkuchen. The original recipe had been handed down from my great grandmother Tilly, to my Auntie Do, to my mother and then to me. The handwritten instructions called for ELEVEN cups of flour and nearly a pound of lard (or butter) and made enough cookies to feed Gram Tilly’s brood (and I suspect half the town of Saline, Michigan as well.)

I began by cutting the recipe in half, and then substituted ingredients here and there for health and personal preferences. I think the reboot turned out beautifully while still holding true to the winter cookie that above all others smells and tastes like home to me.

Tilly’s Lebkuchen Reboot

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup molasses (I used 1/2 cup molasses, 1/2 cup honey because my dear bees made plenty this year.)

3/4 cup coconut oil (you can use butter as in the original recipe, but I have to say the coconut oil works brilliantly!)

1 cup buttermilk (or you can “sour” your milk by adding a tablespoon of cider vinegar to reg. milk)

1/4 cup lemon juice (fresh squeezed is best)

1/2 Tablespoon vanilla

3/4 Tablespoon baking soda

1/2 Tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon clove

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup mixed candied fruits (citron, lemon, orange)

1/2  to 2/3 cup chopped pecans (the original recipe calls for English or Black Walnuts, but I like the mellowness of pecans)

5 cups flour (I used 1.5 cups of spelt flour and reg. organic flour for the rest)

(You can also add raisins if you like, but no one in my house likes them in cookies.)

Mix together brown sugar, molasses and coconut oil. Add buttermilk, lemon juice and vanilla. Sift together spices and dry ingredients, and set aside. Lightly coat candied fruit and nuts in flour and add to the mix. Gradually add flour mixture until all ingredients are well blended.

At this point, you’ll have a sticky dough that’s a bit difficult to handle. Divide the dough in half, then shape the halves into patties on wax paper. Wrap the patties up and place in the fridge to set for 20 minutes or so. (This gives the ingredients time to bind together and will make the dough much easier to roll.)

Flour your work surface and roll out the dough to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into shapes with a knife, biscuit cutter or cookie cutters. These are thick, chewy cookies so basic shapes work best. Traditional shapes include rectangles, circles and hearts. (I use a canning jar ring to make my rounds.)

Place a pecan or walnut half in the centre before baking on an ungreased baking sheet.

325 degrees F for 10-12 minutes.

While still warm, brush on the following glaze:

1 cup confectioner’s sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

add water by tablespoons and mix until thick, yet runny.

Moms recipes

Mom’s recipes

A few years ago I wrote a Christmas post for Jennifer Hart’s blog, “Book Club Girl.” She’d asked me to share some memories of the season with her readers and I’d gladly said yes. At the time, the days were edging towards the second Christmas after my mother’s passing, so my mother (and her cookies) were on my mind. I’d skipped baking cookies the year before because it had felt too difficult a task, but I was determined to mark year two by getting back in the kitchen and embracing the traditions of my youth. I’ve decided to include that post with the recipe – for all those who seek to make peace with Christmas ghosts.

December 2009

This is my second Christmas without my mother.

She died suddenly on a January morning after one last holiday season with family. It was a shock. It was too soon. I wasn’t ready. When I went home for her funeral, I stood in my sister’s arms, in the kitchen of our childhood and cried like I’ve never cried before. It was a stop all the clocks moment, where the familiar contents of that room – the shining chrome stovetop, the set of songbird coffee mugs, the scalloped copper hood on the exhaust fan circa 1973, the battered counter-top caddy bursting with wooden spoons, wire whisks and rubber spatulas – all seemed to say that it couldn’t be true, that any moment now our mother was going to walk through the door, put her hands on her hips and teasingly say, “Snap out of it, girls. There’s work to be done.”

In the sadness of the days that followed, reminders of her came to me like messengers from the past – some easy and kind, others unexpected, yet still comforting. While searching for a mixing bowl in my parents’  pantry, I discovered a Tupperware tub half full of cookies that she’d tucked away (as she’d always done in Christmases past) so she and Dad could have a sweet or two with their morning coffee after the kids and grandchildren had cleared out after New Years. Fumbling through a cupboard for a bottle of Tylenol, my fingers found the butter spotted envelope where Mom kept her collection of Christmas recipes.

She was the Queen of Christmas. She adored the sparkle and hopefulness of the season, sewing sweet dresses for her girls from velvet and lace, trimming the tree from top to bottom, carrying armfuls of poinsettias into the house.

I opened the envelope and shuffled through the pile of index cards. Seeing her handwriting reduced me to tears yet again. Aunt Cleo’s Lemon Squares (with a note: “these don’t store well, so make them last.”) Butter Cookies for my grandmother’s old metal cookie press – “don’t let go too brown.” And the long, involved instructions for making Lebkuchen, a recipe that had been passed down from her beloved grandmother. Attached to the recipe for the Lebkuchen was a list of eleven tips, (equal to the number of cups of flour required to make the cookies.) Tip number five warned, “Don’t make this on a day that you just cleaned the kitchen.”

Grandma Tilly’s Lebkuchen had helped me battle the terrible bouts of morning sickness that had accompanied both my pregnancies. The second time around, I hadn’t even told Mom I was expecting when she showed up at my house on a hot July day with a tin of the magical cookies. “I thought you might be needing these,” she’d said with a knowing smile.

This year I bought all the ingredients to make Tilly’s Lebkuken, (a task I’ve never tackled without Mom by my side.) I brought everything home from the store- the molasses, the raisins, the sugar, the flour, the lemon peel – and put it away in the cupboard. Then I stood there thinking, “What are you doing? You’re no Queen of Christmas.”

It was true. I could never hope to make Christmas like my mother did. Despite her love of all things Yuletide, I always preferred the shadows of the season. I cared for the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol far more than Tiny Tim. I relished the part in the nativity story where the angel made the shepherds sore afraid. Even my favourite Christmas carol, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is in a minor key.

Mom knew this about me and never seemed to mind. She went on her merry way and simply said “to each her own.” I realize now, it was her joy in embracing the season that allowed me to revel in the dark.

As I look around my kitchen this morning I see it’s in no danger of having just been cleaned. It’s as good a day as any to give the Lebkuchen a try. Somehow Mom’s voice is pushing into my head, working to replace my doubts. “Snap out of it and roll up your sleeves. Bake the cookies or don’t – just make Christmas your own.”

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