It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

It feels like the Christmas season is finally in full swing! Now that my last market of the season is complete, I can actually concentrate on our family celebrations at home.

I introduced you last year to our household’s Elf on the Shelf, who was named Candy Cane by my kids. As she does every year, Candy Cane showed up on the first day of December, along with the advent calendars.

On December 1st, Candy Cane appeared on the family room mantle, bringing with her a suitcase overflowing with tiny outfits.

On December 2nd, she hid away in our old china cabinet and tried on her outfits in front of my grandmother’s antique hand mirror.

On December 3rd, she spent time in the kitchen making hot chocolate.

And today, December 4th, she absconded with some of the kids’ LEGOs, including some minifigs from their advent calendar, and played with them by the window.

In addition to hunting for Candy Cane every morning, an essential element of this part of the season is making Christmas gifts. I was thrilled last week when Thing 1 came back from Guides with this lovely mason jar full of chocolate chip cookie mix. Each member of the troupe learned about following a recipe and got to measure out and package their own ingredients. I thought it was a great learning experience, and the girls had a lot of fun! (You can find the recipe on Very Best Baking if you want to make one of these jars yourself.)

Thing 1’s experience with making the cookie mix made me think. I do all kinds of canning, so why am I not making dried mixes in jars as well? These aren’t just good Christmas presents, they’re fantastic for teacher appreciation, housewarmings, new parents, sick friends, poor students and young adults moving out for the first time… I already have two books that devote a large portion of their contents to the subject: Company’s Coming: Gifts from the Kitchen (Jean Paré, 2001) and Jazzy Jars: Glorious Gift Ideas (Marie Browning, 2002), and as someone who makes preserves I have lots and lots of jars, so why am I not using them? I honestly think it’s because I have too much choice (I know, not the most horrible thing overall), and I’m having a hard time narrowing it down.

So my question is this: what is your favourite recipe for a dry mix in a jar?

Pumpkin-centric Weekend

It seems like I spent the majority of my time over this past weekend dealing with pumpkins. On Friday night I cooked up all three of my orange jack-o-lanterns (I had two white ones as well, but they had white flesh and a melon-like consistency, so I decided they probably wouldn’t cook up well with the more traditional kind). Even without the white pumpkins, I think I will have enough to last me for a while.

This is all going into the freezer for now, but a good quantity of it will become pumpkin butter as soon as I deal with the other fresh food in my fridge that I have to put up. I did a lot better this year with regards to processing my pumpkin in a timely manner, since I only got to it at the start of December. I mean, it hadn’t spoiled, but I was definitely running slow. I didn’t have a lot of leeway this year since the gourds were already carved, and once the innards are exposed to the air they can go bad pretty quickly.


Photo by Karen Turnbull

Then on Saturday I headed out to Metcalfe where the South Tower Armouring Guild was hosting their annual Great Pumpkin Massacre. Basically, sword handling enthusiasts get together with their weapons and take turns using them on pumpkins, which are bought by the truckload after Halloween. People also bring along their Halloween pumpkins and carved jack-o-lanterns. All kinds of weapons are used in the “massacre”: swords, axes, knives, maces, sledgehammers, machetes… No projectile weapons, though! Everybody just hangs out and has fun practicing their technique and/or venting their frustrations in a safe environment on some inanimate gourds. It may sound silly to some, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Looking back through my photos I realized that I’ve actually been attending this event for eleven years! The above photo was taken by a good friend of mine back in 2009, on a year when the weather was much nicer. I didn’t even bring my camera this year because it was raining and I didn’t want to chance getting it wet. (And yes, the sword I’m holding in the picture is taller than I am. It belongs to a much taller person. Yes, I can wield it. No, I cannot wield it well.)

Although I took the above photo of a friend of mine in 2014, it’s a better representation of the weather we had yesterday — and everyone was even more bundled up than this! And muddy. Very, very muddy. It was very cold and wet, with wind that just drove the moist, cold air right through your warm woollies. We still had a good time, but it would have been better if the weather had been lovely and sunny like it was on Sunday.

Pumpkin Massacre 2018 Slo-Mo

As you can see, despite the weather the pumpkin horde met their demise. I think that this year’s weapon of choice was the sledgehammer, specifically because it makes the pumpkins splat so nicely.

I’d like to say a big thank you to STAG for hosting and coordinating this event every year. It has been one of the highlights of my autumn for eleven years now.

Too Many Tomatoes

It’s that time of year again when everything seems to be ripe at once and it’s physically impossible to eat it all before it goes bad. Case in point: my tomatoes. I grow predominantly cherry tomatoes, although a friend did give me one black tomato plant that has done very well this year. I just find cherry tomatoes to be more flavourful than most of the larger varieties. And I plant tonnes, since I know that I’ll want to include them in a number of preserves come fall.

Case in point: this is what I brought in from the garden the other day. I think that these tomatoes, and probably the onions as well, will soon become spaghetti sauce. I might even go for the healthy veggie tomato sauce I made last year, and include the eggplant that should be ripe in a few days. (I had a lovely huge one ready to go, and then an animal go to it. Figures.)

At the same time, I had a few small radishes, the last of the cucumbers (the vines were starting to die back), and a few potatoes that were beginning to poke through the surface of the dirt. Something needs to be done with all of this produce before it rots!

The first step for me is to make at least one dinner with the fresh ingredients. I barbecued some chicken thighs with my usual spice mix (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, garlic powder, and sea salt), and cooked up some of the potatoes on the grill at the same time. I know that they look very similar post-grill, but the difference was immediately apparent once they were cut open. I added some cherry tomatoes and sliced radishes as a veggie once everything else was cooked. It was a very simple meal, but it was both tasty and easy to prepare — which I needed after spending a couple of hours in the garden!

Double Chocolate Triforce Cake

Thing 1’s birthday was over the weekend, which of course meant that we had to bake a cake. Since, in my experience, kids love baking cakes, Thing 1 and Thing 2 helped. I also believe that even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, kids really do benefit from cooking with their parents.

Thing 1 requested a “chocolate Zelda cake with chocolate icing”. Since I am not known for my beautiful cakes (my 16th birthday cake being a great example of my skills), I decided to keep it as simple as possible. We used the tried-and-true Amelia Bedelia’s Sheet Cake recipe, which is found at the back of the story book Amelia Bedelia Bakes Off (Herman Parish, 2010). (You can also find the recipe via Desktop Cookbook.) This makes a very rich, moist, dark chocolate cake — which, as a bonus, is tree-nut and peanut free, and can be made vegan (which is great when you have to make cupcakes for school, FYI).


It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.

The kids had gone to bed by the time the cake was cool enough to ice, so it was my turn. I used the Chocolate Satin Frosting recipe from page 796 of the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker, 2006 edition). This recipe is ridiculously easy — since it’s mostly made in a blender or food processor, it’s only slightly more difficult than cracking open a can of pre-made frosting from the grocery store. It’s also a very dark chocolate icing, almost bitter, which is perfect for my little chocolate lover.

I made the Triforce design using a stencil. I went low-tech and drew the pattern with a pencil and ruler on a piece of card stock, then cut it out with scissors. Then I simply held the stencil very closely over the icing and sprinkled on the sugar. The result wasn’t completely perfect, but Thing 1 knew what it was supposed to be. As an added bonus, the coloured sugar added a lovely crunchy topping.

So happy birthday to my fabulous firstborn! I love you so much.

Algonquin Park Camping: Day 3

Day 3 of camping at Achray Campground dawned clear and sunny — the only truly summery day of our trip.

We strung up as many lines as we could to try and get everything to dry before we went home. I think it was a little bit futile, especially since the bottoms of the tents were pretty soaked.

We started the day with bacon and pancakes (Aunt Jemima Complete Buttermilk Pancake Mix) for everyone for breakfast.

I could only make one pancake at a time, but I just kept cooking until everybody was stuffed.

Then Thing 1 and I tool a walk along the lake shore while my husband and Thing 2 cleaned up.

There were a bunch of canoes pulled up on the beach, some of them day rentals, others belonging to people who had come in from the park interior. Some campers had cut their trip short due to the forest fires encroaching on their planned routes.

On our walk, we saw all kinds of small wildlife: frogs, tadpoles, and everything in between, minnows, small fish (but bigger than minnows), and even a water snake no thicker around than a pencil.

When we returned, Thing 1 and Thing 2 got changed into their bathing suits to play in the shallows while my husband and I struck camp. With the water only being knee-deep for at least a hundred feet, it was a perfect playground — and with our campsite being so close to the water, we didn’t have to worry the kids would be unsupervised.

After everyone was thoroughly cooled down in the lake, it was time for some hot chocolate and reading time as we tried to use up our camp fuel (an attempt which proved to be futile in the end).

We packed up the last of our gear and drove away from Achray, but it wasn’t long before we reached the entrance point to the Barron Canyon Trail (which is only 1.5km long, but is at a pretty steep pitch most of the time).

My husband had hiked this trail as a child, and he really really wanted us to see it too. The canyon is 100m (328′) deep at this point, and the top of the trail provides a fantastic view for miles around. It also is a straight drop down with no railings, which is a little bit vertigo-inducing. I kept a death grip on Thing 2’s hand whenever she even remotely neared the edge, since she has a bad habit of not taking safety warnings seriously. Heck, there’s even a sign at the beginning of the trail that reads, “Caution: This trail visits a cliff. Please keep children under control at all times.”

Thing 2 was very happy to sit for this photo, though, since she could see the Barron Canyon expanse without me freaking out (it’s further back than it looks).

I honestly didn’t know that we had terrain like this anywhere near home. It’s difficult to get an accurate impression of scale in photos.

Thing 1 was my husband’s responsibility, but her cautious nature meant that she didn’t tend to walk too close to the edge on her own. Actually, to get the best view she and my husband crawled on their bellies so that they could peek over the edge safely.

The best representation of scale I could get is when a canoe passed us by at the bottom of the canyon. That little line in the water is four people in a big fiberglass canoe.

It was a fantastic way to end a thoroughly enjoyable trip!

Algonquin Park Camping: Day 2

Day 2 of camping at at the Achray Campground on Grand Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park dawned rainy, but the precipitation quickly moved on. This left us with clouds in the morning, a brief rainstorm in the afternoon, and a mix of sun and clouds for the afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, there was never much of a breeze, so nothing we brought with us really dried out, but we had fun anyway.

The day began with cooking bacon, eggs, and toast (with bread machine bread baked in advance of our trip) on the old Coleman camp stove. I am particularly fond of the camp toaster, which was always my favourite part of the setup as a child.

It was a hearty and delicious way to start the day!

After cleanup we headed out to the lake, which is where we spent the majority of our day.

The shallow, sandy beaches meant that the kids were quite content to play and explore for hours.

We found teeny tiny catfish (at most an inch and a half long) in the weedy shallows, where they were industriously cleaning the lake bed.

There were also tonnes of tadpoles in every stage of becoming frogs — some had no legs, some had two, some had four, and some were basically frogs with tails — alongside full-grown frogs. A few swam by us while we were swimming, while others stuck to the weedier or rockier areas.

I honestly think that our favourite part of the day was all of the tiny minnows that swam around our feet and nibbled on our toes while we waded in the shallows. Video of that will have to wait until I can get it off of my other camera, but I think it’ll be what the kids remember the most from this trip.

When we headed away from the water we found wild raspberries, which was an unexpected and tasty treat.

I cooked dinner over the single-burner backpacking stove, since the old Coleman decided to act up for a bit. I basically made tuna noodle casserole, but with frozen corn instead of canned, and canned salmon instead of tuna. Also, having no oven, I couldn’t bake the dish.

I don’t think that my alterations improved the dish any; without the potato chips topping and baking to combine the flavours, it was pretty bland. I should at least have grated some cheese on top, but I didn’t think of it. But it was warm and filling and we were sitting somewhere dry, which sometimes is all you can ask for when camping. As a bonus, the only perishable ingredient was the frozen corn, which in its turn helped keep the other food cold.

Also, did I mention that there were butterflies? Well, there were a lot of butterflies. The monarchs in the area really like the milkweed blossoms, which were just coming out of bloom, and milkweed was everywhere. Apparently these monarchs are endangered, but you’d never know it from how plentiful they were around our little corner of the park.

When Hunger and Exhaustion Collide

So I had kind of a mini food crisis the other night. I was home alone with my sleeping children; my husband was out visiting some friends. Since I hadn’t been home much lately, the fridge had become very empty, and the pantry wasn’t faring much better. I’d been up since 5:30am that day doing all kinds of lifting and lugging out in the heat, and I was exhausted. However, I couldn’t go to sleep yet because I had time-sensitive tasks that had to be completed. But I was just so exhausted that I couldn’t even think of cooking. I’d left it too late to order delivery, unless I wanted pizza, which my gut just can’t handle. (My friends told me afterwards that there is a local place that makes vegan pizza, i.e. it’s dairy free, and I may try that next time. Or order chicken wings from a pizza place, which didn’t even occur to me.)

In the end, starving but too tired to cook much from scratch, I tried making a microwaved baked potato, but even then I was thwarted: upon cutting it open, I discovered that it was rotten inside. I only got to eat a potato on my second try. I was so tired and frustrated that I was brought to tears over this stupid potato.

And all that time, all I could think about was how good Two Bite Brownies would taste.

So! I finally am able to go to bed, tummy actually full, but when I woke up the next morning I was absolutely determined that the same kind of thing wouldn’t happen the following night. Hubby home and children awake, I popped out to the grocery store and purchased the ingredients for one of my favourite easily-baked items: banana nut bread (or muffins, in this case). They’re filling and more or less healthy and very difficult to mess up. No was was I going to be exhausted and hungry and frustrated to that degree if I could help it.

I did buy a bag of Two Bite Brownies as well, though.