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.”

dna : the stuff of life

dna : the stuff of life

2013 is almost done, and though I’m not one to wish away time, I’m getting anxious to greet the new year. A solid draft of novel number three, The Witches of New York is well in hand, and I’ve also started scribbling notes on a few new book shaped ideas as well as setting up a blog called Mutant Me.

The latter is a project that’s grown from a CBC radio documentary I wrote and co-produced a few years ago called “Daughter of Family G.” While the documentary recorded my initial steps towards undergoing genetic testing for Lynch Syndrome (a genetic mutation that predisposes carriers to colorectal, endometrial and various related cancers,) Mutant Me discusses the ins and outs of living with the results.

Although I’ve been writing through this journey on my own for over a decade, I’ve hesitated bringing much of that part of my voice/life into a public forum for a few different reasons. First, it’s taken me quite a long while to process everything that came with my test results. Second, I didn’t want to elicit fear, worry, pity or feelings of TMI in anyone – family, friends, readers or strangers. Last, but not least, the writing that’s come from this journey is a similar, yet different animal than my fiction. It’s come easy (and messy) on the page, but often with a heavy toll on my heart. It’s honest and raw- a strange collage of family history and medical statistics, nightmares and magical thinking. In a way, I suppose all the wandering around I’ve done in my head in the name of fiction has helped to shake this project loose. Now that it’s here, I’m not sure what will come of it. The blog is only the start, my leap off the edge. (And by taking that leap, I hope to help others find a few connections and answers of their own along the way.)

We’re living in a world of “new normals” when it comes to how we approach well-being and health. Genetic testing can open doors to preventative health care and screenings, but it can also be a Pandora’s Box filled with emotion, worry and what ifs. Still, through it all one thing remains constant, our need to put the bits and pieces of our lives (be they memories, words, medical stats, strands of dna, or even facebook statuses) into a fetching, natural, compelling order so that we might look back on them with wonder, understanding and hope.

Mutant Me is my way of doing just that. If you’d like to check out the blog, the first few posts can be found via the following links:

Mutant Me  – the homepage for the site, including more background on the project.

Daughter of Family G. – the story of how a 19th century seamstress’s story led to a 20th century medical breakthrough (plus a podcast about genetic testing)

Insides Out – preventative hysterectomy, how does one decide?

TWITs - “This week in tweets,” helpful health links, including a link to forms you can use to record your family medical history.

 

As always, my sincerest thanks for stumbling into my corner of cyberspace and for taking the time to read my words.

May your 2014 be filled with love, enlightenment, happiness and health!

There’s nothing quite like the first few days of university life. As a goofy, giddy frosh I managed to find my way to classrooms and the cafeteria, twist my ankle running down a flight of stairs, and make a friend for life.

Marta Pelrine-Bacon was a kindred spirit from the start. Even though she’d grown up in a small town in Florida and had never seen snow, we had more in common than not. She loved stories of magic and fantasy. Me too. She enjoyed staying up late and dancing to Howard Jones, Oingo Boingo, Crowded House, and OMD. Me too. She’d watched The Wizard of Oz at least once a year for as long as she could remember. Me too!

Marta, creepy Santa and me.

Marta, creepy Santa and me.

Yes, Marta is wearing a “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” t-shirt! 

At times it’s felt as if we’ve lived worlds apart. I lived in California for a semester. Marta joined the Peace Corps and went to Bulgaria. These days we connect by phone or internet since I live in N ova Scotia and she’s settled in Austin, Texas with her husband, son and three dogs. No matter the distance, our communications are still filled with talk of things that make our imaginations and hearts sing. Doctor Who, raising sons, embracing the creative process, and our passion/obsession for writing novels, (just to name a few.)

Recently Marta reached two HUGE milestones- she finished her last round of chemo after breast cancer surgery, and she became a published novelist! I couldn’t be prouder of her determination and her accomplishments. In celebration of her debut novel, The Blue Jar, I asked her to share a few thoughts about the novel and her work as a visual artist. I hope you enjoy the novel and her insights as much as I did!

The Blue Jar - a debut novel by Marta Pelrine-Bacon

The Blue Jar – a debut novel by Marta Pelrine-Bacon

From the publisher - After a party, sixteen-year-old Fran accepts a ride from Chesnie’s brother, and her life changes forever. She leaves her parents and her boyfriend to live with her best friend’s grandmother at the edge of a woods. In the woods, the girls practice a secret ritual to exorcise the memory of what happened that night. Would the magic work? Maybe, but not in the way either girl expected. Fran must do battle not only with her own demons but with Chesnie’s also, as she tries to forget that fateful ride home. But Fran still wants to keep her best friend, even as Chesnie becomes obsessed with revenge.

 

Q&A with Marta Pelrine-Bacon

1. Choose three words to describe Chesnie.

angry, loyal, smart

2. Three words to describe Fran.

thoughtful, creative, hesitant

3. If you could give any of the characters in your novel a book, which character(s) would you choose, and what book(s) would you give them, and why.

I’d give Paul The Truth about Unicorns by Bonnie Jones Reynolds because he reminds me of Harley (mostly because I had Harley in mind when I wrote about Paul). Harley loved one girl and got disastrously distracted by another.

I’d give Fran The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath because Esther and her journey reminds me of Fran. If Esther makes it through, then Fran can too.

I’d give Chesnie The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I tried to think of a book that was around in 1985, and though Chensie loves to read, nothing was coming to mind. The only book I could think of was The Hunger Games, probably because I just finished reading it. I think Chesnie would like and understand Katniss. And Chesnie would probably find the violence in the story cathartic.

4. You’re a visual artist as well as a writer, what parallels do you find, if any, between your artistic process and your writing process?
They both have great moments of inspiration (“I know what to do next!”) and they both have moments of frustration (“Into the trash can you go!”). They both start with a piece of an idea, nothing fully formed, and I figure out each as I go. I’m always surprised at the results.

But I want to add that a major difference is when I put the work out in the world. Art, being visual, gets an immediate response. It isn’t easy to sell art, but it is easier to sell art than a story. Reading takes time. It takes a commitment in a different way. My art provides much more in the way of validation, which maybe I shouldn’t need, but it helps sometimes.

Marta's drafts become visual art.

Marta’s drafts become visual art.

5. You’ve been known to cut up drafts of your work to create pieces of visual art. Did you find the process painful or freeing?
Freeing. I mean, it was weird the first few times I took scissors to my manuscript, but I ended up enjoying the process, discovering how I could play with the words and manipulate the mood of a phrase just by taking it out of context. And literally cutting words from my stories made it much easier to edit my stories. I can cut a scene with scissors or the delete key.

 In fact, I keep thinking of ways to cut up my novel. I’m not sure what that means, but I have several ideas of ways to shape and cut the pages. I’ve made a curtain of paper loops from an old draft of my novel. I’ve made flowers. I hope to make a wreath and other odd things. We’ll see.

6. People often ask writers which authors have influenced their work…let’s change that up a bit.

Which people, what things etc. (outside of the world of literature) inspire you and feed your work?

 I’m glad you asked this question because I find inspiration in many things. I find inspiration in other art. A drawing I see on Etsy or Tumblr or in a coffee shop. A song—the lyrics or the melody. Sometimes a story on TED Talks or RadioLab inspires me. Interviews with other writers or artists, or interviews with anyone who tries to follow their creative drive—actors, musicians, or scientists.  Just a great conversation with a friend can give me an idea or motivate me to get to work.

I think the main thing is to be open to the unexpected.  For example, a while back I was driving home from work, and I passed a lot where a house had recently been torn down. A high chain link fence surrounded the space. Soon a new house would be built there. Anyway, I don’t remember the song on the radio, but something in the song and the vacant lot in a row of house made me think of a young man in a long coat—I have thing for long coats—climbing over the fence and jumping to the ground. I went home and started a short story about him.

I can’t wait to see what she does next!

You can learn more about The Blue Jar and Marta’s art and illustrations (she illustrates children’s books too!) at martapelrinebacon.com

And you can order the e-book edition of The Blue Jar, published by Plum Tree Books at Amazon.com

Marta with her creations at an art fair in Austin, TX.

Marta with her creations at an art fair in Austin, TX.

 

 

 

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