CHRISTMAS 1944 AND OUR FATHER’S MINCE TARTS

Christmas 1944   – The three sisters brave the cold .  The youngest, Heather is wearing a snow suit.  I am standing Mona’s right.  We are all wearing real fur trimmed parka style headgear

It is the childhood memories of Christmas that evoke the strongest feelings. 1944 and the rationing of almost everything meant making do, making over and often going without.  But Christmas was still bright and wonderful and our Christmas stockings were always filled with mysterious wonderful things.

In early November we  began the school day practising  songs for the annual Carol Festival.  This long anticipated event  was held in one of the cities beautiful old churches.  All the schools in the city performed.    The Carol Festival marked the beginning of the celebrations of Christmas.

It was bitterly cold the first week of December.  My Mother and my sisters bundled up for the mile walk  to the church.  There were no bus service after 6:00 p.m.  Our Dad wasn’t able to drive us in the family car.  Gas was rationed.    We dressed for the cold.

Two layers of hand-knit mittens.

Heavy hand-knit woollen scarves cross-crossed across our faces.

Our eye lashes rimmed with frost and when we spoke it was as if we were filling the air with puffs of smoke.

So much excitement, so much anticipation we never felt the cold.

We sang our way on the walk home.   The sky was clear.     Stars so  brilliant we felt we could reach up to heaven and grab them like a handful of diamonds.

Northern Lights  were flashing, glowing  and dancing across the Northern  sky..  Magnificent emerald greens, yellows, pink, magenta and occasionally sapphire  blue  sweeping back and forth.  We stopped and shouted.  We clapped our hands.  We truly believed the lights responded to the sounds we made.

Home at last.  The wood stove crackled.  The kitchen was filled with the sublime spicy aroma of mince tarts.   Our father  taking them  out of the oven.  How absolutely  glorious to walk into our warm house,  and eat the pies hot from the oven.

Dad’s  mince tarts were so delicate and  flaky they melted in your mouth.  His secret – he always used    lard to make the pastry.      We sisters still use our  Father’s recipe.  It’s pretty simple (or at least we pastry makers feel that way).  But if you follow the directions, and cheat a little (roll the pastry between wax paper, chill the flour) you can pull these beauties out of the oven and wow your family and friends.    Every home should have mince tarts baking in the oven at this time of year.

FATHER’S MINCE TARTS   …   makes around 30 morsels of delight

Pastry:

2 cups all-purpose flour chilled

2/3 tsp salt

2/3 cup chilled lard cut into small pieces

5-6 tbsp cold water

l egg yolk beaten with a little water.

Before you start making the pastry put the flour and salt mixture into the  freezer for 30 minutes or so.   Chill a cup of water at the same time. Cut the lard  into the flour mixture with a pastry blender,  or if you’re using your food processor use the pulse button to process just until it looks like large flakes of oatmeal.

Add the water gradually, a tablespoon at a time tossing the mixture lightly with a fork.  If you are using the food processor add the water and process JUST until mixed.  It should be loose in the  bowl.

Turn your pastry out onto your board and form into a ball.  Flatten the ball and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a good 15 minutes or more.  This allows the pastry to relax.  And everyone knows pastry should be relaxed.

Divide the pastry in to two portions.

Roll out one portion 1/8 inch thick.  Cut into circles about  1 3/4 in diameter.  This will be your base.  Cut the second half into circles about 2 1/2 inches across.  These will be your tops.

Moisten the edges of your base and put a small amount   of mincemeat on each circle.  Top with the larger circles.  Press the edges to seal.   Brush with egg wash and bake around 20 minutes or until golden brown.  Enjoy!

Chefs note:

We made our own mincemeat at our restaurant  Roxy’s Bistro.  We used a traditional recipe using suet and a good dollop of brandy.   Taste your purchased mincemeat.  You will probably need to add some additional flavour.  Add a little freshly grated nutmeg, a sprinkle of powdered cloves, a good amount of cinnamon, some allspice and a little lemon or orange juice.  And if you have some brandy.

Happy tree trimming.

IT TAKES A BIRD TO MAKE A BETTER CHICKEN POT PIE

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My two sisters are as passionate about food as I am.  It’s in our DNA.    On visits to my home town of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan,  we cooked for each other and we cook together.  It is a marvellous way to spend your vacation.

My older sister,  Mona,  has what is known as “a dab hand with pastry”.  She has a special marble counter exactly the right height for rolling pastry.  She uses lard for all her pies – sweet and savoury.  Her pastry is so light so flaky it literally drifts on to your plate.  She keeps everything chilled.  Even her flour.  In her opinion using a pie bird is the secret for tender pastry for chicken pot pipe.

We were making chicken pot pie.  My sister  putting the chicken filling together and rolling out pastry..  My job  – to make the béchamel sauce.  The  sauce that binds.   To add extra flavour to the chicken pot pie I used rich chicken stock instead of milk and made it extra thick. After it was cooked I thinned it with a generous amount of cream.  You do know I have a reputation for gilding the lily.

The pie bird was positioned in the centre of the filling. On went the pasty with a slit cut for the bird.    The edges were crimped.  A little egg wash and the crust was sprinkled with coarse sea salt.    The pie bird vents excess moisture from the pie filling (whether it is chicken and vegetables or fresh fruit), and  prevents a soggy pie crust .  These ceramic birds are available in most well stocked kitchen shops.

Now you know my older sister Mona’s secret for amazing pie crust . A trick to use the next time you make a  juicy fruit or chicken pot pie.   Tell your friends “a little bird told you”!

 

BANANA BREAD … a circa World War Two recipe

 

Growing up during World War Two almost everything was rationed, or simply not available.    If you were very young during the war years you would never have tasted marshmallows or chewed bubble gum.   Gas was rationed.  We lived in the small town of Prince Albert, in the northern part of the province of  Saskatchewan.    A National Park and dozens of beautiful lakes were a short drive away.  Our Dad cycled several miles to work  saving  his gas ration coupons  for the occasional family outing.

The annual Pet Parade was a much anticipated event. Cats and dogs were coerced into sitting in small baby carriages, propped up in decorated, polished wagons or coaxed along with a leash.  Patriotic costumes were expected.    I felt quite smart dressed in a red, white and blue crepe dress.  Fortunately it didn’t rain.

This photograph of my sister Mona and myself was taken shortly before our Uncle Bert left for war.  He was one of the many who did not return.

It was important for everyone, young and old,  to do ones bit for the war effort.  We collected string, tin foil (from cigarette packages) metal and even fat.    Once a week the women in our neighbourhood met and knitted socks or rolled bandages.   Tea and only  one kind of cookie or cake was served.    Food was rationed.   My Mother came home from one of these projects with this recipe for Banana Bread.   It was the talk of the afternoon because it didn’t contain nuts, but looked like it did.  Nuts of any kind were simply not available.    This is my Mother’s world War Two  Banana Bread.   The only change I have made is to add nuts.

MRS. BASSETT’S BANANA BREAD

1/2 cup butter ( or very good quality hard margarine)

2/3 cup scant or white or brown sugar

2 large eggs at room temperature

2 cups of flour

1/2 tsp each salt and baking soda

1 1/2 cups generous of VERY VERY ripe bananas.  They should be soft and squishy in the skins

1/2 to 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Have all ingredients at room temperature

Cream butter and sugar until soft and creamy.  Add the eggs one at a time.

Combine the dry ingredients and mix alternatively with the mashed bananas.   Start with one-third the flour, when this is mixed add half the bananas, now add another third of flour mix just until the flour is assimilated, add the rest of the bananas.  Mix briefly, then add the final one-third of the flour.  Add the chopped walnuts and mix briefly.

Pour into a well greased loaf pan and let stand twenty minutes.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour.   Test by sticking a cake tester or a very thin knife, into the centre of the loaf.  It should come out clean.

Banana loaf, like most loaf cakes or breads freezes well.

I READ TO LIVE

Can you remember when you were four years old?    Some of the children at Froggy Pad Day Care are four years old.  Some are younger.  Some are older.  Some need to be read to.  Others can read.    The postcards from Mr. Nobody are important to every single child.

I remember my fourth birthday  gift.   A school bag, red plaid edged in brown leather.  With a big strap to go round my neck.  With flapped pockets closed tight by shiny buckles.  With pockets where I  store treasures.   My Pinocchio book.  Pine cones I hold close to smell the forest.  A tiny pink stone.

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My Mother reads to me.   From thick pages close printed with tiny letters.  From books  with dark covers smelling of  leather that captures and holds the flavours of the book.  These books have no pictures.

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Her voice became David Copperfield.  The words tumbled into my mind where I would turn them over not always understanding, not caring, simply lost in the joy of  hearing the words.

More than anything else I wanted to read those books.  Thick, fat books without pictures.   Books with  close square  print holding secret stories.

“When can I read?”

“When you are six.  When you go to school”

“But I will be old when I’m six.  With white hair”.

I am six.  I go to  Cottage School.  Two rooms, one up one down.    The school smells of  wooden desks deep carved with initials.  The desks have circular openings that hold bottled ink.  Mine is empty.  I am not old enough to use a pen.  I write with a thick, broad, flat pencil.    The black boards are gray with old chalk.  There’s a map of the world so enormous it covers an entire wall.   I am going to learn to read.   I am given a book  words worn thin by countless eyes.  DICK AND JANE.

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I am six.  I am furious.

I tell my mother “I am NEVER going back to school.   Nobody says “Look  Jane look, look.  See Dick.  see see, see Dick” .  That’s not a real book! Where are the words from The Old Curiosity Shop,   Oliver Twist? The words from Gulliver’s Travels and A Christmas Carol?  Where are the words from your books?”

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I am more than six.  I am a compulsive reader.  I read the backs of cereal boxes at the breakfast table.  The fine print in advertisements standing in line at the grocery store.  I cannot pass a bookstore even  when the books are in another language.  My silver memory box holds library cards from Edinburgh,  Amsterdam, Calgary, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver.  My oldest card, dated 1941, from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan,  the place where it all began.

This holding a book in my hands.  The feel of the pages.  The smell of the ink.

This cadence of the prose.

This losing of one’s self to another place and time.

This reading of the beautifully written words.

This utter delight of being able to live a thousand lives.

I read in order to live.

REMEMBRANCES OF CHRISTMAS PAST … 1944

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Christmas was always cold.    There was always lots of snow.  Snow so cold it squeaked when we walked on it. Snow piled at the edges of the skating rink.  High snow banks along the road. Fresh snow to make snow angels.

Through the dark winter nights, sitting close to the hot air register, we listened to radio shows while our Mother knitted sweaters, hats, scarves and mitts.  Some of the knitted items were Christmas gifts and we helped.  Hands held high while Mother rolled hanks of wool into balls for knitting.    When we outgrew our sweaters they were unraveled and re-knitted into heavy warm mitts.

We cut down our own Christmas tree.  North of the city of Prince Albert lays the Great Northern forest.  Traditionally this was a family outing.  It was exciting ploughing threw deep snow to find the perfect tree.  But Christmas 1944 meant war-time gas rationing and no gas for the family car.  Instead older sister Mona and my Father road their bikes  in bitter cold weather road to bring home a tree.  It was several miles to the forest and I remember anxiously watching at the window for their return.

The setting up of the tree took a little time.  A big pail was filled with sand and the tree safely anchored.  Then we had to wait for the tree to thaw out.  The branches were brittle with the cold and snapped easily.  One year to our great delight we found a bird’s nest amongst the branches.

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Such excitement to open the box of decorations and bring out our favorites.  There was a pair of celluloid Dutch looking dolls, Hansel and Gretel. We girls thought they were the most beautiful things in the world.  We still have the doll decorations Hansel in Prince Albert with sister Heather, and Gretel with me.

The day this photograph was taken we helped our Father fasten pine boughs around the front door and  threaded Christmas tree lights through the branches.  Darkness comes early in the far north.  To see the coloured lights reflected in the snow was a moment of pure wonderment for us.

Then out of the cold to sit by the warm kitchen fire to drink hot cocoa and eat shortbread  and mince pies and listen to Christmas carols on the radio.

 

 

 

 

 

PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES . . . delicate light morsels of delight!

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Do we really need another peanut butter cookie recipe?  Absolutely!    When a peanut butter cookie recipe is this good it cries out to be shared.        I spent part of my summer with my two sisters in my home town,  Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.  Sister Heather whipped up these melt-in-your-mouth morsels of delight to serve during a Duplicate Bridge Tournament.  What makes these cookies more than just another peanut butter cookie is their delicate lightness.  If you are a lover of all things peanut butter they are definitely worthy of adding to your collection of cookie recipes.

The secret to good cookie  making is to always cream your butter and sugar really well.  At least five or preferably ten minutes.  Then beat in the eggs thoroughly one at a time.  Stir in the flour briefly  – just until it is combined with the flour.  In this recipe it is ESSENTIAL to refrigerator the dough for at least one hour.

These  cookies are very rich.  Roll the dough into small one inch balls and bake on a parchment lined sheet.       Then if you really want to gild the lily, and make your bridge partner happy, melt some chocolate with heavy cream.  Let the chocolate cool and  sandwich the cookies with the ganache.    Such indulgence!

The recipe makes 50 to 60 cookies.   I set up an assembly line.  I prefer to bake my cookies one sheet at a time.  I have one batch of cookies in the oven.  One batch cooling.  And a third batch waiting to be baked.     To  balance the sweetness of the cookies I listen to  Tom Watts growl his way through his newest album BAD AS ME. 

The recipe awaits you in MRS BUTTERFINGERS kitchen.  DUPLICATE BRIDGE PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES.

SEARCHING FOR THE RAM’S HEAD ORCHID by going back to the past.

 

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I grow up in Northern Saskatchewan.  My home town, Prince Albert,  sits squarely on one side of the North Saskatchewan river.  On the other side is the beginning of the dense, mysterious  Great Northern Forest .

We spent our summers  playing in the shadows of fragrant  Northern Forest.      The Little Red , with its creaking swinging bridge, was the perfect place for childhood adventures.  We explored the plains covered with tiger lilies.  Hot and tired we knew the secret location of a hill-side spring.    Water so pure  so cold  we would linger refreshing ourselves, body and mind.  The Little Red is where we searched for the elusive Rams Head Orchid, but it always eluded us.

This summer, seven decades later,  I returned to my home town .    Three sisters spending a summer vacation together.     More than anything I wanted to return to The Little Red .    Carol,  a friend from our childhood,  knew every trail in the Little Red Park.    Along with two happy dogs we walked the paths searching for the shy, tiny exquisite flower. We had a very small blooming window.    Carol had not had a sighing the previous year.  We were hopeful this year would be different.

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The narrow paths wound through  dense trees.   Lichen crunched beneath our feet.  The air was heavy with the fragrance of wild roses .  We had almost given up hope when Carol saw the first tiny flower.  Then another, and another.   Breathtakingly beautiful, incredibly tiny Ram’s Head Orchids.  Oh joy supreme!

I promised not to write about our glorious find until it’s brief blooming season was over.  These rare plants need to be protected, and there are those who would invade their environment and think nothing of digging the orchids up for their own use.

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(Phone by Scott Young  – on the Bruce Peninsula)

Rams’ Head Orchid (Cypripedium Arietinum)  can be found from Quebec to Saskatchewan.  It is difficult to cultivate and rarely survives transplantation to a garden from the wild.  It should never re removed from any natural area.  Ram’s Head Orchid has now been listed as a n endangered species in Nova Scotia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROSES FOR A TEACHER … or how baseball changed my life.

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(My grade eight graduation picture, holding roses to be presented to the Principal.)

 

I had just begun fifth grade when I was called to the Principal’s office.  Walking down the long hallway I searched my mind for any transgressions.  Nothing.  On her desk I saw foolscap paper covered with my hand writing.  The first week back to school our grade five teacher, Miss Jean Clyde, asked us to write about our favorite summer sport.  I wrote about what it felt like to be picked last for a baseball team.

In grade four I realized I couldn’t see the blackboard the way other students could.  Even from the desk closest to the blackboard.   I couldn’t read ANY of the letters on an eye chart.   For nine years I had been functioning in a extreme myopic fog.  Eye glasses brought a new world into focus.  I could see leaves on trees.  Movies, which I thought was radio with blurry images, became pure magic.  I could recognize people at a distance.  I could find the ball when we played “anti-eye-over”.  But my eye-hand coordination never really improved.  I had lost nine formative years.  Baseball, much as I loved it, wasn’t my game.

My essay on “my favorite sport” was given by Miss Clyde to the principal, Miss Larson.  As a result every day for four years after school I went to the Principal’s classroom and wrote.  I wrote about my dog Scamp.  My cat Minnie Jones.  My pet homing pigeons, Alice and Frances.  I wrote ghost stories and fairy tales.  I wrote about  what it felt like growing up in world a a miasma of shadows and light.  Miss Larson would correct my  syntax.  Make suggestions.  She challenged me to think differently about the written word.

Nan Larson was an exceptional teacher.  She was my combined grade three and four teacher in our old cottage school.  In grade four Miss Larson introduced us to Shakespeare.   She had eight and nine year old children reading Midsummer Night’s Dream and performing excerpts from the play.

The year I graduated from Grade Eight was Nan Larson’s last year of teaching.  She was retiring.    I was thrilled to be chosen to deliver the farewell speech and present her with roses.  Nan Larson gave me the rich legacy of the written word.  I went on to write for radio and television for 22 years.

As for Miss Clyde, the teacher who recognized my writing potential back in l945, she attended our Prince Albert Collegiate High School’s One Hundred Years celebrations eight years ago.  She asked if I was still writing.

Yes, Miss Clyde.  I am still writing.

A CAT CALLED MINNIE JONES

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I was six years old when the kitten, Minnie Jones,  became part of my life.  He grew into a hulking, frost bitten eared, battle-weary tom cat. A cat so loving, so docile I could dress him in discarded baby clothes and wheel him in the annual pet parade.

But,  this tale is about his name-sake, Minnie Jones.  Most small towns like Prince Albert have their local characters and she was ours.  As long as I could remember I would hear stories about Minnie Jones.   I was too young to appreciate the stories but I loved the way her name rolled off my tongue.  Minnie Jones.

She always seemed to be wearing the same clothes.  A black coat with a moth-eaten fur collar.  A slouchy black hat adorned with a faded velvet rose.  She wore the hat pulled low over her face.  Her cheeks were heavily rouged.  Her enormous dark eyes kohl lined. Black stockings covered her legs.

Minnie Jones was always accompanied by a child’s red wagon.  Most times it was pulled by a large dog.  Minnie Jones lived at the edge of town on a small acreage.  She kept chickens and goats.   Her trips into town were foraging expeditions.  She dumpster-dived  in the most genteel manner.  The staff at the local Safeway Grocery store would put aside items for her,  everything from fruits and vegetables to the soft paper that wrapped fragile items.

The war ended and brand-new cars were finally available.  Minnie Jones walked into a car show-room admiring the shiny automobiles.  The veteran salesmen would have nothing to do with her and sent the newest staff member to get rid of the town’s character. The story goes Minnie Jones asked the price of the cars,  said she would take two and pulled the cash from her battered purse.  Minnie Jones was starting something Prince Albert did not have.  A taxi business.

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There may still be a few people left who remember the person, Minnie Jones.  Their memories may be different then mine, but they must remember these are the memories of a very young girl absolutely besotted with the exotic creature called Minnie Jones.

SAVORY CHEESE AND CHIVE BREAD

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I started baking cakes when I was nine or ten years old.  I made quick breads.  They were the easiest.  No whipping egg whites.  No careful folding of flour. Baking utensils were basic. An egg-beater for whipping egg whites and cream.  A large white bowl for mixing.   A heavy spoon for creaming butter.   The forefinger on my right hand still has a tiny bump on it caused by countless of hours of creaming butter and sugar.

The baking of a loaf cake was also easier.  It did not require a quick oven (very hot).  Simply a nice steady heat.  As the cook I had to regulate the heat of our wood burning stove.  If the wood was cut to thin it would spit and crackle and burn too hot and too quickly.  I would test the heat of the oven by opening it and putting my hand in to feel the heat.  One that was created by medium sized logs burning steadily and quietly. I still find myself double checking an oven temperature in this way.

Savory cakes are popular in France.  The cake salé as it is known   (salé  means salty or savory) is a simple quick bread recipe.  You whisk all the dry ingredients together in one bowl. All the rest in another.  Then gently combine the two.  It takes less than ten minutes to put together and like my youthful loaf cakes requires no special equipment.

I made this savory cheese and chive bread  to serve with aperitifs.  I was celebrating a major birthday and my two sisters were traveling from Prince Albert to Vancouver to help me blow out birthday candles.   The bread is also perfect for brunch, excellent with salads and delicious lightly toasted and buttered.

This version is simple –  using just old cheddar cheese and snipped chives but it also a great way to use those left-over  odd-sized pieces of cheese you have on hand.  It is good with basil or a mix of herbs.  Or you can be creative and mix in diced ham or bacon, toasted chopped nuts, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, or minced shallot.

You can serve this warm but it tastes better when it has cooled completely.  If you’re serving it with drinks, cut it into 8 slices about 1/2 thick, and cut the slices into strips.  SAVORY CHEESE AND CHIVE BREAD   …   Bon Appetite.