When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ice Skating and a New Year

We've been enjoying a wonderful week-and-a-bit of holidays around here.  There has been a lovely mix of anticipation and excitement, happy visits and meals with dear members of our extended family who live fairly close by (and cheerful phone calls with those who don't), and relaxed moments with just the four of us spent enjoying new books, new games, and new activities.  I always really appreciate the opportunity to set aside our usual busy schedules and normal routines for a little while in favour of unhurried dinners, leisurely mornings in pjs, and opportunities to just "be" with the people who mean the most to me.

A few days ago, Matt and the boys took a drive by a park in our neighbourhood on their way home from getting haircuts, to see if the outdoor rink there was ready for skating.  They saw a man flooding the ice, which made us feel optimistic as the four of us returned to the park with our skates later that afternoon.  Sure enough, there was a fresh new ice surface glistening in the sunlight as we approached the rink on foot, and the four teenaged boys who were there before us were just getting ready to leave.  We had the whole rink to ourselves for the next hour, and it was glorious to glide so freely over the smooth surface in the fresh, cold air, creating graceful arcs and swirls in pretty patterns as our skate blades left their mark on the frozen glass.


As we get ready to say goodbye to 2013 today, it strikes me that the end of one year and the beginning of a new one is quite like the ice that afternoon.  The moments and feelings and lessons of the past are layered one over the other, forming a solid base of wisdom and understanding that we can stand on, while a new year stretches pristinely before us, a fresh, untouched layer upon which we are free to create unique and beautiful designs.  Seeing 2014 in this way, with all of its many possibilities, fills me with hope and exhilaration.

New Year's Eve would not feel right to me without some quiet reflection on the significant moments of the past twelve months.  In looking back through my posts here from the past year, there are several that stand out as favourites for me; they reflect the experiences and revelations that have helped me to grow as an individual, a mom, a recipe developer, and a writer.  These are some of the moments that touched my heart, filled me with excitement or a sense of accomplishment, and made me laugh out loud.  I hope you'll enjoy reading through them again as I have today.

Reflections on Life and Family


Robin Reflection

Autumn Stories


Best Loved Recipes

Are you surprised to see that the most visited recipes on my site this year all involved chocolate?  No?  Me neither.  ;) 

Banana Split Freezer Pops

Chocolate Coconut Layer Bars

Chocolate Banana Pancakes

Double Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

Comic Relief

Give up! (But Don't)

Natural Consequence

All in the Name of Science

Twilight Zone

Thank you to each and every one of you who have come to this space to share these moments with me in the past year. Your presence and your thoughtful comments have meant so much; they've encouraged me, taught me, and made me smile.  I hope that 2014 will be a year filled with personal happiness for each of you.  May you glide out onto your fresh ice surface with joy; may you navigate the bumpy patches with grace and hope, knowing that they will make you somehow stronger and wiser, and may you bravely create your own beautiful designs that reflect the truth in your heart.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Simple and Delicious Ideas for Christmas Morning Breakfast (gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free)

Yesterday, I excitedly posted a gluten-free recipe for Christmas Eve meat pies here, a modified version of the delicious ones my mom has made for years.  This morning, I received a gentle email message from my mom, in which she said very kindly that maybe she was wrong, but she was wondering if I meant three "cups" of meat, as I had posted in my recipe, or did I really mean three "pounds".  I could tell by the wording of her message that she was reluctant to bring it up because she didn't want to point out that I was wrong, but it seemed to her that in order for the recipe to work, it would need to be three pounds of meat.  Well, of course she was right!!  I had indeed used three pounds of meat, but had typed three cups when I sat down at my computer, and somehow despite several rounds of proofreading, I didn't catch my mistake.  I thanked my mom very much for pointing that out to me so I could fix it, and then we joked a bunch about how fun (not) it would be to stuff raw meat into measuring cups to get the right amount, and how wimpy the meat pies would have been had I actually used three cups, and then I told her that this whole scenario just proves that a girl will always somehow need her mom in her kitchen.  Thank goodness for moms!

Today we are spending the day hunkering down inside our warm and cozy house, because outside everything is covered in a thick layer of ice after a nasty winter storm.  I've been doing some more baking and cooking in preparation for our Christmas celebrations, and that work has been a pleasant and welcome distraction from watching the very sorry sight of our giant willow tree slowly breaking, limb by limb, and falling to the ground in our backyard under the weight of all the ice. 

Matt is now going to ask Santa for a chainsaw for Christmas.  :(

Today's baking resulted in some special treats for Christmas morning.  While many families enjoy a large, sit-down breakfast on Christmas, our little family prefers something simple (yet still hearty and nourishing), so we can eat in bits and bites while we sit around the Christmas tree opening gifts.  I have a couple of tried and true recipes that I can prepare in advance of the big morning, so when Christmas arrives and excited but hungry children don't have the patience for sitting at the dining table, all I have to do is warm up a few things and serve them.

This baked oatmeal with apples, cinnamon, and pomegranate makes a wonderfully easy and filling Christmas breakfast, and the pomegranate arils make it especially festive, too!  I'll make this dish during the day on Christmas Eve, refrigerate it overnight, and then place it in a warm oven to reheat it Christmas morning.

A favourite treat that the boys request for every special occasion breakfast is these orange dark chocolate chip scones, a recipe from elana's pantry.  I've made a few changes to her recipe (I only use 1/4 of a teaspoon of baking soda; I substitute 1 tablespoon of arrowroot flour mixed in with the dry ingredients and 3 tablespoons of water mixed in with the wet ingredients to replace the egg, and I use part of a dark chocolate bar, finely chopped, rather than dark chocolate chips because I've never been able to find true dark chocolate chips.)  These scones are really delicious, and they, too, can be made ahead of time and then simply warmed up before serving so that the chocolate gets nice and melty again.

The last thing I'll add to our Christmas breakfast is a tray of colourful, cut-up fresh fruits.  It's a very simple holiday meal to prepare, yet one that all four of us will very much enjoy!

Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and a truly happy holiday season, filled with good food and wonderful people you love. 

xo Lisa

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Eve Tourtiere (Meat Pie) *gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free

Christmas is quickly approaching (though not quickly enough for the youngest member of our family, it seems!), and this weekend all four of us have been enjoying time together completing some of our favourite "getting ready for Christmas" activities.  Our kitchen has been full of delicious smells and trays full of yummy things to eat over the past few days, and Matt and the boys and I are all looking forward to the special meals and celebrations coming up where we'll be able to enjoy them all.

One of my family's Christmas holiday traditions when I was young was to share an evening meal of delicious homemade meat pies (or tourtiere).  The recipe was one that had been passed down through several generations in my mom's family, and the rich, mildly spiced pies were a real memory-filled treat, as my mom and my grandma only made them at Christmastime.  I have not had this pie in years, since I'm no longer able to tolerate several of the ingredients in it, but this year I was determined to find a way to make it myself, without gluten, dairy, or eggs.

A few months ago I discovered a great savoury crust in Elana Amsterdam's Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook that I knew would work perfectly for meat pies.  I made a few slight modifications to that recipe, and then emailed my mom to ask her for the recipe for the filling.

Now there's something you should understand about the women in my family:  we don't really have "recipes" for many of the dishes we make.  It's more of a "throw a little of this in and some of that, but not too much" kind of situation, and none of this is very helpful when you're trying to make something for the first time and your mom isn't close by to show you!  After my mom laughed when I asked her for the "recipe", she did her best to quantify ingredients and be more specific about instructions, and I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best as I stood over my stove!  While these meat pies are a little different from my family's traditional recipe because of the changes I had to make, the delicious flavour of them is very reminiscent of the ones I loved so much as a child.  I think my mom and my grandma will be proud.

Christmas Eve Tourtiere (Meat Pie)


For the crust:

4 1/2 cups blanched almond flour
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp dried parsley
3/4 cup grapeseed oil
3 tbsp water

Preheat the oven to 350 F.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the almond flour, sea salt, baking soda, and parsley.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil and water.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until well combined. 

Measure out half a cup of the crust mixture and set it aside.  Divide the remaining mixture between the pie plates you're using.  (I used four larger sized ramekins for individual pies, plus one nine-inch glass pie plate.)  Press the crust mixture firmly into the bottom and up the sides of each dish, using your fingers to create a nice scalloped edge along the top.

Take the half a cup of crust mixture that you reserved earlier and roll it out between two sheets of parchment paper using a rolling pin.  Cut out holiday shapes (I used a snowflake) with cookie cutters.  Place these "cookies" on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.

Place the prepared crusts and the "cookies" in your preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes, until they are all golden brown.  Keep an eye on the "cookies", as they may brown more quickly and may need to be removed from the oven a little sooner.

Allow the crusts to cool while you prepare the meat mixture.

For the meat mixture:

1 1/2 lbs of ground beef
1 1/2 lbs of ground pork
enough water to cover the meat in the pot
1 small onion, minced (optional -- I left it out because I would rather not listen to my children complaining at the Christmas Eve dinner table!)
1 large carrot, finely grated
1 bay leaf
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp ground sage
sea salt and pepper, to taste

1/4 tsp allspice
2 tbsp arrowroot flour

Combine all of these ingredients (except for the 1/4 tsp of allspice and the arrowroot powder) in a large pot over medium high heat, using a spoon to break up the meat a little.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low medium and continue to simmer until the meat is cooked, stirring often.

Once the meat mixture is cooked, remove it from the heat and discard the bay leaf.  Skim most of the fat off of the top of the mixture and discard it.  Sprinkle in the additional 1/4 teaspoon of allspice and the 2 tablespoons of arrowroot flour, stirring constantly.  (I added one tablespoon of arrowroot flour at a time and stirred it well to see how much it thickened the mixture.  You want it to be somewhat thickened, but still juicy.)  Let the meat mixture cool.  (It will continue to thicken a little as it does.)

Spoon the cooled meat mixture into the pre-baked pie crusts.  Place them in a 400 F oven and bake for 30 minutes.  Remove the pies from the oven and let them cool.  Once they have cooled slightly, place the little "cookies" you made on the tops of the pies to give them a festive flair.  :)

I am so excited that these meat pies turned out so well -- I can't wait to share this Christmas Eve tradition with my little family this coming week!  We will enjoy ours with some potatoes, carrots, and parsnips roasted with a little olive oil, garlic, rosemary, and citrus zest, plus this pretty holiday salad featuring baby spinach, clementines, pecans, and pomegranate.  I love that this Christmas Eve meal will remind me fondly of loved ones who live far away, even when we can't be together.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


It seems that there has been a lot of growing up happening around here lately.

Last weekend, we sent Noah on a bus to Ottawa with a group of his swim teammates (and their coaches) to compete in the Division 1 Team Champs meet.  For this meet, the swim club required all of the participating swimmers to travel, stay in a hotel, and eat with the team, not their parents.  Matt drove down to Ottawa on his own (as did many of the other swimmers' parents) so that he could watch the meet and cheer our swimmers on, but he stayed at his sister's house and had very little contact with Noah over the course of the three days, and Noah had to be more responsible for himself (and his stuff -- yikes!) than ever before.  In the weeks leading up to this significant event, Noah was both nervous (this was his first real trip on his own) and really excited (this was his first real trip on his own!!), and admittedly, so was I.  He handled the whole thing very maturely and responsibly, and had an excellent meet and a fun time, and I was so proud of him for taking this big step and proving to himself that he could do it. 

It became even more obvious to me in the past week just how quickly Noah is growing up when I attended a meeting at his school last week with him, his classroom teacher, and the Itinerant Teacher of the Gifted for our school board.  We were there to discuss an accelerated math program that the enrichment teacher had proposed for Noah as a means of alleviating some of the boredom he's been feeling at school in recent years.  The program involves him completing all of the grades 7 and 8 math curriculum by the end of this school year (he is currently in grade 7), and then in September, he would attend a local high school for one period a day to complete his grade 9 math credit.  (This program would also allow him to complete another grade 9 credit in a different subject during the second semester, so by the time he actually started high school full-time, he would be two credits ahead.  Taking this route would open up his schedule in later years to study some additional high school courses he's really interested in, or to begin studying university courses in grade 12 through the University Cooperative Education Program.)

While everything I know about Noah should have led me to expect having to consider some unique educational experiences for him to keep his mind challenged and happy, I was somehow still not prepared to think about him starting high school a year early.   There is not only the academic side of things to consider; Noah's emotional and social well-being are important to me, too, and without a crystal ball, it's hard to know how choosing this path will affect him in the future.  I didn't want to push him to do something if he didn't feel ready for it. Apparently Noah had some of his own reservations about this really interesting, but potentially stressful opportunity.  He loved the idea of being able to move through the math curriculum at a much quicker pace, but he felt worried about how the older kids in his grade 9 class next year would perceive him, and about what his peers at his own school would think of what he was doing.  These are things that weigh heavily on a 12 year old's mind, especially one who is more of an introvert and doesn't like to draw too much attention to himself.

In many ways, I was very excited about the idea of this program for Noah; I saw it as a way for him to find challenges that would allow him to enjoy math again, and to be able to dip his feet into some of the other interesting learning opportunities a high school environment can provide.  I had no doubt that he was capable of handling the academic side of things, but I wanted him to feel good about all aspects of the experience.  He and I discussed at great length all of the pros and cons we could think of if he decided to go the acceleration route, and I told him that ultimately it was his decision, and that his dad and I would support him and be proud of him no matter which path he chose. 

Noah has bravely decided to go for it -- he will begin the accelerated math program when he returns to school in the new year, and come next September, he will begin his journey into high school.  I think he's made a wise and mature choice for himself, and I hope that his experiences in the years ahead will keep feeding his passion for exploration and discovery and motivate him to always keep reaching for the stars.  (And when Will heard that this was what Noah was doing, he exclaimed, "Hey, I want to do accelerated math, too!".  No doubt I will have two boys in high school before I even know what's happened!)

The other night I watched out the kitchen window as Noah and Will were playing together out in the snow.  It delighted me to see them tumbling down the hill on their sleds in the dark, hearing them shrieking gleefully as they flew by me.  People say that the childhood years pass by so quickly, and it's true -- sometimes it takes my breath away when I suddenly notice how grown up both of my boys are in so many ways.  I'm glad for the moments where I still catch them playing with such youthful joy outside in the snow; that sight makes time stand as still as the frozen landscape for  me.  It's a welcome reprieve for this mom's heart when everything else seems to be moving so very quickly.

Friday, December 13, 2013

No surprises

A number of years ago I purchased a little wooden house with twenty-five numbered doors in it, as a fun way for the boys to count down the days until Christmas.  On the eve of December every winter, I fill the little compartments with special surprises (small squares of dark chocolate, coins, tiny toys or gadgets, and tickets for special activities or treats), and Noah and Will open one door each day until Christmas arrives.  This is a tradition that the boys and I still very much enjoy, even as they are growing older.  They still find it exciting to peek behind a door each morning and see what little treasure is waiting there for them.

This morning, Will and I were sitting at the breakfast table (Noah and Matt had already left to travel to Ottawa this weekend for a swim meet), and Will realized with a bit of regret that Noah was going to miss out on the opening of the little doors for the next few days.  I thought it was sweet that he was thinking of his brother, and I smiled kindly and told him that we would leave Noah's surprises there behind each door, so he could open them all when he returned.  This suggestion seemed satisfying to Will, and he returned to eating his toast quietly and studying the Future Shop flyer with intense focus.

A moment later, he looked up at me and suddenly blurted out, "I paid attention to which days we've been getting which surprises, and how many days there are before there's a repeat of something.  According to my calculations, we should be getting another one of those awesome coupons on December 20th."  And then he beamed at me with a proud grin.

Of course my boy whose brain loves patterns and logical ways of organizing things (just not the stuff in his room!) would be able to completely figure out my carefully planned placement strategy.  (I couldn't help myself -- my brain loves patterns and logical ways of organizing things, too.  And he's exactly right -- there are a certain number of days between each door that hides a repeated item!)  So much for surprises. 

I am going to have to work harder next year to keep Will guessing, I suppose.  Good thing I have twelve months to try and figure out a complex enough formula to baffle him. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I lean back on the cold, rumpled, snow-covered ground with a relaxed sigh, protected from the chill of the December night air by a warm coat the same shade of red that smiling children use to colour in hearts on paper. As far as I can tell, I am the only warm and breathing thing in an endless landscape of frosty white. The evening is quiet and peaceful and perfect for gazing upwards with eyes and reaching upwards with thoughts in an effort to find meaning. Delicate flakes swirl gently above me and then float silently downwards to land on my outstretched body as I lie there, completely still. Under the lights from our street, my colourful winter clothing creates a striking backdrop for the tiny, frozen crystalline forms; I marvel at the perfect outline of each uniquely patterned flake and how the simple meeting of random forces in nature can create something so intricate and affecting. It makes me wonder what chaos the water droplets tumbled through to transform themselves into such complexly beautiful entities.
We packed up the SUV early in the morning. The trip ahead of us was long, and I was anxious to get home to my parents’ house in Sault Ste. Marie. It was the same house in which I grew up, a place I knew would be filled with outstretched arms and lit-up smiles to greet my husband and me and our 16-month old son Noah as we joined the rest of my family to celebrate Christmas. In my mind I could already smell the inviting scents of favourite foods cooking away on my parents’ stove, and hear the cheerful notes of old holiday albums playing and the familiar laughter of loved ones that I’d been missing for too long. I had visions of multi-coloured lights twinkling on the house above my old bedroom window where I used to wait for sleep and Santa on Christmas Eve, and I could feel the warmth that all of those memories evoked within me. If the weather cooperated, eight or nine hours on the road in a vehicle loaded to the roof with baby gear and winter clothes and gifts and Christmas baking were all that separated us from a cheerful family reunion.
“That doesn‘t look good.”

I solemnly whispered the words only a couple of hours later, eyes wide as I stared out our vehicle windows at the scene off to one side of the road. On a stretch of highway known to travellers north for often having difficult weather, emergency vehicles surrounded a car that had lost control on the snowy surface. The police officers wore grim faces and the car was a heap of mangled steel that seemed horribly out of place in the winter wonderland of pretty snow-covered trees that stretched for miles on the horizon. I imagined a family eagerly waiting for loved ones to come home for Christmas and hoped that by some miracle everyone in that car was okay. The realization that any of us at any moment in time could be only a breath away from a life-shattering experience like this surfaced from a place deep within where I usually try to keep it buried; it left me with an uncomfortable sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as we drove on.


As it always does, the last leg of the trip was feeling long, monotonous, drawn out. We seemed to roll past the same landscapes over and over, ones dotted with trees and rocks and occasionally a motel or a truck stop or a small, quiet town. I was weary of sitting in one place for so long, and the fact that my hometown was only a little over an hour away was making me excitedly impatient. 
“How are you doing?” I sympathetically asked Matt, who had driven the entire way while I entertained and cared for Noah.

“I’m good,” he answered cheerfully. “Not much longer, babe.”
I looked ahead through the windshield at a sky coloured a gray just dull enough to obscure the shine of a thin layer of ice gripping the asphalt ahead of us.

There was no warning, no obvious precipitating event like a deer suddenly darting out into the road or a car ahead of us braking too suddenly. Our vehicle simply launched into a snowflake-like dance of its own, spinning and gliding, swaying this way and that as we lost control and slid silently across the highway. I heard nothing, saw nothing but white in those moments that seemed to last an eternity; I was frozen until our vehicle hit the shoulder on the opposite side of the road, where it stopped briefly, and then lurched down an incline onto its side in a water-filled ditch below. I don’t remember what we said to each other in those moments immediately afterwards, when we were immersed simultaneously in cold and shock and the tear-inducing relief of realizing that all three of us were okay. It felt like it was only seconds before I heard concerned voices and the muffled sound of feet scrambling on steel.

“It’s okay -- we’ve got you. I‘ll take the baby first.”

I didn’t ever want to let go of my sweet, small boy again; I was suddenly and keenly aware of how precious it was to feel his warm little body next to mine, his heart beating in his little chest, his breath tickling my cheek. But I reluctantly passed him carefully to the strong, unfamiliar arms waiting in the open doorway above me, and then climbed shakily to my own safety with the help of several kind strangers. We stood on trembling legs in the dusk, waiting for the police and a tow-truck to arrive, trying to think clearly about what we would do next in this chain of unexpected and unwished for events.

A young man approached us from a minivan that had stopped on the opposite side of the highway. He had been driving behind us when our vehicle careened off the road, and he felt compelled to see if there was anything he could do to help. His final destination was only halfway to ours and the road conditions were still dangerous under a sky that grew darker by the minute, but he selflessly offered to drive Noah and me all the way to my parents’ house while Matt rode with the tow-truck driver to a car garage in the Sault. Like in nature where random forces meet and create moments of true beauty, there is loveliness in chance human encounters, too. I knew I would forever be moved by the generosity of this fellow who gave a meaningful gift to strangers on a quiet northern Ontario highway one evening and filled a family’s hearts with gratitude.

I sat warm and safe in the backseat of a stranger’s van, my baby secured snugly in his car seat beside me, and I sobbed uncontrollably as we travelled the last stretches of highway towards my anxiously waiting parents. I cried because I couldn’t help but think about all of the awful things that could have happened in the terrifying moments of that accident. I cried because I was flooded with feelings of thankfulness for the good fortune that had somehow kept all three of us from harm. Snowflakes began to land softly one by one on the windshield in front of me while I wept, and I realized that this powerful experience would leave its own intricate patterns etched in the shape of who I was. By tumbling through chaos, I, too, had the potential to be transformed in complex and beautiful ways.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Chocolate Coconut Layer Bars (gluten-free, vegan)

The tradition of baking favourite sweet treats for our family to enjoy over the holidays is one that all four of us cherish, and this weekend I began the process of gathering up recipes and ingredients, mixing things together in bowls, and creating some delicious goodies for our Christmas celebrations.  While I'm often alone in my kitchen during meal prep times, baking is something different:  as the smells of chocolate and cinnamon waft through our home, I'm suddenly surrounded by smiling boys, each of them eagerly offering a hand to stir things, some quick feet to fetch an ingredient from the basement pantry, and of course, some taste buds to make sure that our finished treats turned out just right.

It has become a bit of a fun challenge for me over the past several years to see if I can take old holiday baking recipes (ones I used to follow before we discovered our family's food sensitivities and changed the way we eat), and find a way to recreate them without gluten, dairy, or eggs, and with less sugar, yet still have them taste as good as the originals.  I've had many successes in the past, and this year, I decided to tackle one of my very favourite old recipes:  triple layer bars.  With some help from Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows, who shared a way to make homemade dairy-free sweetened condensed milk (from coconut milk), and with some other modifications I made to the original ingredients (like using an almond flour crust instead of a graham cracker one, coconut oil instead of butter, and cashew butter instead of peanut butter) our family is able to once again enjoy the scrumptious combination of a crumb crust, a chewy coconut layer, and a topping of melted chocolate and nut butter.  Mmmmmm! 

Chocolate Coconut Layer Bars

1 400ml can of coconut milk
1/2 cup coconut sugar

2 1/4 cups blanched almond flour
1/4 tsp sea salt
3 tbsp melted coconut oil
2 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut

2 85g bars of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), chopped
1/2 cup cashew butter

To make your own dairy-free sweetened condensed milk, pour a can of coconut milk into a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk in the coconut sugar (Angela's version used 2/3 of a cup, but I tried using only 1/2 a cup and it worked perfectly), and bring the mixture to a low simmer.  Be sure to keep an eye on the pot, as the mixture could boil over very easily.  Reduce heat to low-medium and simmer the mixture for 15 to 20 minutes, whisking occasionally, until it thickens slightly.  Remove the mixture from the heat and let it cool while you're preparing the crust.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.  Line a 9x13 inch baking pan with two pieces of parchment paper, one going over the other in a perpendicular fashion, leaving some overhang all the way around.  In a mixing bowl, combine the almond flour and sea salt.  Whisk together the melted coconut oil, maple syrup, and vanilla in a smaller bowl, and then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients.  Stir until well-combined and crumbly.  Press the almond flour mixture into the prepared baking pan, being sure to push down firmly so your crust will hold together well once it's baked.

Sprinkle the shredded coconut in an even layer over top of the almond flour crust.  Carefully pour the sweetened condensed milk over top of the whole coconut layer, and use a fork if necessary to help spread it out uniformly, pressing the coconut and milk mixture down onto the crust.  Place in the preheated oven and bake for 25 minutes. 

During the last 5 minutes of baking time, melt the chopped dark chocolate and cashew butter together in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally.  As soon as you remove the baking pan from the oven, pour the melted chocolate mixture over the hot coconut layer and spread it out evenly with a spatula.  Let cool for about 30 minutes, and then place the pan in the freezer for a few hours to allow the baked goods to firm up.

Once they're firm, remove the baked goods from the pan by simply lifting up the parchment paper edges.  Place the whole thing on a cutting board and slice into squares with a large, sharp knife.  Let the squares thaw a little longer, then serve and enjoy (or freeze the squares to save them for a later date).

While my version of triple layer bars is quite different from the original in ingredients, as well as a fair bit less sweet, the end result is every bit as decadent and delicious as the squares I used to bake years ago.  We're looking forward to sharing these yummy treats with family and friends over the holidays.  Maybe your loved ones will enjoy them, too!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

20+ Great Gift Ideas for Boys (2013 Edition)

During the holiday season, I love watching excited children opening up and appreciating gifts that someone has chosen for them with care and love.  I have a lot of fun each year choosing gifts for my own two boys -- it's exciting for me to try and find interesting games, books, activities, and gadgets that will delight Noah and Will and keep their busy minds and bodies happily engaged long after Christmas morning has come and gone. 

Last year in December, I published a holiday gift guide for boys, highlighting some of my guys' favourite things, in the hopes of helping others who wanted to choose a well-received gift for a special boy they knew. I thought I'd share a new list this year, filled with more of our family's favourites, and some new things that my boys are either wishing for, or that we've seen somewhere and think are really cool.  As I mentioned last year, while I say this is a list of gift ideas for boys (because I've seen the positive reactions my two have given to these items), I'm sure many girls would also very much enjoy them!

For construction fun


Build replicas of famous landmarks and objects (or kids can come up with creative designs of their own) with these teeny, tiny building blocks.


Brightly coloured ball and rod building pieces snap together in various ways to create anything kids can imagine.

Hexbug Nano v2

The newest version of Hexbug nanos are able to defy gravity:  they climb up tubes and through loops in habitats kids build themselves.

For inventing and creating

Frames 5 software

My guys have spent hours creating scenes out of Lego, taking hundreds of pictures of them with their digital cameras, and then using this software to make entertaining animated movies out of their photos.


littleBits kits come with various electronic modules that click together with magnets to form circuits, allowing kids to experiment creatively and bring their inventions to life.  

The World Record Paper Airplane Book

This book is full of interesting information about paper airplane flight, and includes paper and instructions for building twenty different models.

For game night


For kids who love visual challenges, Q*bitz is a fun game that involves arranging cubes into a pattern that matches the picture on a card.  Each game includes three different rounds, to test speed, luck, and memory.

Settlers of Catan

This strategy game has kids building opposing settlements on a newly discovered land and trying to gain supremacy through clever trading of resources.

For listening enjoyment

Monster DNA headphones

This is Noah's top wish list item this year.  With pure sound, noise isolation, and sleek looks, he thinks these headphones will elevate his music listening experiences.

mini Bluetooth speaker

Kids can connect a mobile device (iPod, smartphone, tablet) to this device wirelessly to play their music virtually anywhere.  This speaker delivers great sound for such a small item.

For active adventures

Carpet slides

Turn carpets into skating rinks with these fun slides that strap easily onto feet.


Bilibo can be used for almost anything, and is a great motivator for open-ended imaginative and active play.  Small children can sit in it and rock, turn it upside down and climb over it, put it on their head as an interesting hat, wear it on their back like a turtle, put things in it, or use it for playing in water or snow. 

SKLZ pro mini hoop

This is a mini sized basketball net for indoor use, though it looks and feels just like an outdoor net.  It mounts easily over the back of a door.

For thinking and problem solving

Ball of Whacks

The colourful magnetic shapes in this ball come apart and can be rearranged in endless ways.  This is  a wonderful toy to stimulate creativity -- there is no wrong way to play with it!

Mirror Cube

The mirror cube is similar to a Rubik's cube, but the different sized blocks add a whole new twist!  Once you fiddle with the cube, it looks like this:

It's an excellent challenge for kids who enjoy solving puzzles.

For the love of reading

Seven Wonders:  The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis

Treasure Hunters by James Patterson

You'll find other titles that are great reads for boys in A bookworm's breakfast.

For artistic expression

3D drawing pad

When kids draw on this special paper with black ink and then put on the glasses, their drawings seem to pop off the page in three dimensions.

Putty Peeps

This metallic putty comes with a pair of eyes, so kids can make all sorts of fun creatures.  Will loves leaving his putty critters on my computer desk, where they slowly morph into different shapes on their own over several days while they stare at me!

For small surprises

Bug Light

Kids can take these mini LED lights with them wherever they go; the legs of these bugs will wrap around objects for hands-free lighting.

Pocket Microscope

Perfect for curious kids, this pocket-size microscope lets them examine up close whatever they find in their daily adventures.

Minecraft Creeper wallet

Give kids a place to safely hold their money with this leather wallet designed after one of their favourite characters.

Vanilla Candy Cane lip butter

This all-natural lip balm from Rocky Mountain Soap Company will help soothe and protect kids' lips from the harsh effects of cold winter air (and it smells good enough to eat!)

If you're still looking for more great gift ideas for boys, you might find something you like in our list from last year.  Or, just wrap up a little sweater that your mom knit for your boy Cabbage Patch Kid when you were a child and give it to an imaginative young fella you know -- I'm sure he'll find lots of ways to have fun with it.  ;)

Friday, November 29, 2013

A kind gift

It was an ordinary Thursday afternoon.  Noah and Will and I were sitting around the kitchen table after school, munching on snacks and chatting while going through the day's communications from school and the pile of mail I had just collected from the box.  Will came across a Christmas gift catalogue sent out by a charitable organization (one of the kinds where you can buy gifts of goats or clean water for families in need in underdeveloped countries), and he claimed this as his reading material of choice. 

For the next while, Will studied that catalogue very carefully, with the same quiet intensity he demonstrates while poring over the various Wish Books and toy flyers that come in the mailbox this time of year while he's trying to decide what he wants to ask Santa for.  He didn't say much at all about what he had read before disappearing upstairs to put some school things away.  But when he came back downstairs a few moments later, his face was lit up with a warm smile, and he looked at me with his deep, knowing brown eyes and said, "Mom, I think I know what I want to do with my saved money."  (He was referring to the allowance he has been carefully squirrelling away for months to buy something really awesome when he finds it.)  "I want to buy one of those gifts to give to a child who needs it."

His words and the selfless sentiment behind them made me quite emotional.  I listened with a warmed heart while he continued to talk excitedly about his idea, explaining that he had so many great things and was probably going to get many more great things for Christmas, so he didn't think he really needed his money to buy anything else for himself.  He said it would make him happy to make other children happy by giving them something they really needed.  And then he asked me to look at the catalogue with him again to help him choose which gift to give.  The thoughtful conversations that came out of the time we spent reading the catalogue together were deeply meaningful ones for me to share with him.

I think it's difficult for any of us who have never had to go without the necessities of life to truly understand hardship and suffering, but it has always been important to me that my boys' eyes and hearts be open to the many people in our community, in our country, in our world who are less fortunate than we are.  From the time they've been very small, I've talked to Noah and Will in age-appropriate ways about the differences between "wanting" and "needing" things, and I've involved them in thoughtful acts of giving to others, especially at Christmastime when the focus for children is so often on receiving.   The suffering of others around the world has been front of mind for the boys and I in recent weeks, through the research they've done for their FLL project, through the stories Noah and I heard at We Day, and through the various charitable gift catalogues that have arrived in the mail.  The stories of hardship are hard to hear, but it's an empowering feeling for children to see that they can help create change through their acts of love and kindness. 

Will has always had a mature interest in social justice, and a deep sensitivity to the feelings of others, so I am not at all surprised by his lovely decision.  Still, I'm so proud of my kind-hearted boy for choosing to use his money for this particular "something really awesome".  His generosity and the wonderful feeling he's experiencing from it reflect everything I want the boys to understand about the true spirit of Christmas.  Somehow I think this is only the beginning of many wonderful things Will will do for the world.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Festive Baked Apples (gluten-free, vegan)

It's cold and a little snowy outside here today, but inside our house it feels warm and cozy.  When the boys burst through the front door after school with cheeks flushed red from the chilly air, they were greeted by the cheerfully twinkling Christmas lights I had put up earlier this week, and the sweet, spicy aroma of the oat, nut, and cinnamon stuffed apples I had baked for them as an after-school snack.

Before this fall, I hadn't thought of baked apples in a really long time; they were one of the (many!) tasty things my dear childhood friend Laurie and I used to create together in her family's kitchen when we were kids looking for something to do.  When Matt and the boys and I went apple picking with my aunt Christina and her family this past September, though, my uncle James reminded me of this simply delicious treat when he mentioned that someone in his family used to make them, too.  It took me a couple of months after apple picking to get around to coming up with my own version of baked apples, but today seemed like a good day to get to it.  Noah and Will were glad I did -- they really enjoyed warming up with this special snack this afternoon.

Festive Baked Apples

4 good-sized apples, washed
1/4 cup certified pure gluten-free oats
1/4 cup blanched almond flour
2 tbsp chopped pecans
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp melted coconut oil
2 tsp pure maple syrup
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp pomegranate arils

Preheat the oven to 350 F.  In a mixing bowl, combine the oats, almond flour, pecans, and cinnamon.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the melted coconut oil, maple syrup, and vanilla extract.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until the mixture is crumbly and well-combined.  Gently fold in the pomegranate arils.

Using a small sharp knife, cut down into the top of each apple, all around the stem, and remove as much of the core as you can, leaving the bottom of the apple intact.  Once the apples are cored, place them in a small baking dish.  Spoon the oat and almond flour mixture into the centre of each apple, pressing it down to stuff in as much of the filling as possible.

Pour a shallow layer of pure apple juice into the bottom of the baking pan around the stuffed apples, and place the pan in the preheated oven.  Bake the apples for 35 to 45 minutes, or until they are tender and the filling is golden brown.  Cool slightly and serve warm.

Noah really liked the addition of the ruby red pomegranate arils to these baked apples.  (Apples and pomegranates are two of his favourite fruits!)  Baking apples with a mixture of oats, nuts, and cinnamon easily turns them into something special that can brighten up a gray, wintery day.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Still here

I thought I'd pop in here and say hello and let you know, in case you were wondering, that yes, I am still alive.  I know I've been uncharacteristically quiet around these parts of late, and I'll assure you that it's not because I have nothing to say.  Life has actually been a little bursting-at-the-seams this month, so it's more of a case of having everything to say and no time to say it in. 

This past week has been especially bonkers.  In addition to the usual busy-ness, and some getting-ready-for-Christmas stuff, there has been some fantastic (volunteering at a Gifted Outreach conference that Will participated in on Monday, and attending an amazing We Day with Noah on Wednesday), some fun-but-tiring (helping the boys and their team all week to get everything ready for tomorrow's full-day Lego League competition), and some downright ugly (acquiring a gigantic and painful bruise on my leg while climbing over a stadium seat one afternoon -- long story -- and noticing last night that there was a puddle of water on our furnace room floor, which resulted in a new hot water tank having to be installed today.  And Mom, you will be proud of me when I tell you that I did not, as is my habit in any situation involving plumbing, yell in a panic, "SOMETHING must be DONE!!" when I discovered that puddle.  Shocking, I know!) 

I'm hopeful life will slow down just a little next week.  We have now at least reclaimed our living room (the gigantic Lego table was returned to its usual home tonight), so there's that.  I plan to return to our regularly scheduled programming around here soon!

In the meantime, I'll leave you with a fun little game for a Friday night.  It's called "Can You Find the Cat?".


Yes, that lump is our cat.  She also gets a little frantic (and hides) in situations that involve plumbers.  I know, Maggie.  I know.
Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Taking over

Our family has undeniably reached the stage in its life where the kids' interests and activities have pretty much taken over... everything.  This point became especially clear on Friday, when a gigantic table came through our front door and took up residence in our living room, where it will stay for the next week. 

There used to be a coffee table somewhere in this room....
Noah and Will are both members of the First Lego League (FLL) team at their school this year, and together with their teammates, they've been eagerly preparing over the past two months to compete in a tournament that will take place at a local high school this coming Saturday.  The competition is an excellent, multi-faceted experience for everyone involved: kids research a real world issue based on the year's theme (2013's theme is Nature's Fury, so our team has been studying the effects of hurricanes on communities), and develop an innovative solution to a specific problem they choose.  They consult with experts and share their ideas with others in the community who could benefit from the information, and on the day of the competition, they present this entire project to the judges in a creative way.  Team members also design and build a robot using Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0, and program their robot to complete various timed, theme-related missions on tables just like the giant one now set up in our living room.   Just as importantly, each team is required to complete an unfamiliar cooperative task together as part of the competition, and all participants are expected to demonstrate core values of teamwork, positivity, respect, and gracious professionalism throughout the entire day.   It is a great deal of work to prepare for an FLL tournament, but it is also an exciting and incredibly valuable learning opportunity for the kids who become involved in it. 
When time at school to complete all of the robot programming work our team still had to do was running short and the tournament date was quickly approaching, our family volunteered to set up the table at our house for the last week of preparation, and to host a couple of team work sessions.  Yesterday, three other boys from the team, plus a kind and knowledgeable teen mentor who willingly gave up his Saturday to help, joined Noah and Will in our living room for six busy, productive hours to get the programming done. It was incredible to watch these kids work so hard together towards a common goal.  They were focused, encouraging of one another, and great at solving problems as they arose.  Admittedly, there were some moments of extreme silliness, and the occasional fart joke, but the overall impression I had from the day was that these boys could do anything they set their minds to.  I felt as elated as they did over their successes as they painstakingly completed each program one by one, and I beamed with pride for all of them when they first piloted their robot through a perfect run, completing all of their timed missions gracefully with a few seconds to spare.  I can't wait until next Saturday when I'll see the truly inspirational sight of our group and all of the other teams sharing the results of their hard work on the competition day.  These kids are all a testament to the fact that our young people today can be truly amazing. 

There was a time when part of my November Saturday afternoons could be spent with my feet up on the coffee table in my living room, enjoying a good book or a magazine with a mug of tea.  Those days feel far away now; it seems they've been completely replaced by the bustle of activity that curious, motivated, energetic boys seek out and thrive in.  As busy as our weekends often feel these days, I'm so glad for the experience of having a giant Lego table where our coffee table used to be.   In the same way that the physical structure fills our living room to overflowing, the echoes of the positive, creative energy that table carries with it make my heart feel so incredibly full.