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, April 29, 2014

Naturally dramatic

One of the things I've always loved about our backyard here is the constant exposure we have to wildlife activity.  Our trees and lawn receive frequent visits from various sweetly singing birds and active furry little critters (and sometimes from more elusive and exciting creatures like raccoons and deer). Watching all of this through our kitchen window or from comfortable chairs on our deck during summer provides our family with many moments of peace and contentment.

Sometimes, though, our encounters with roaming furry creatures is anything but peaceful.  Such was the case this past Sunday, as the four of us were quietly eating breakfast while the sun streamed in cheerfully through our kitchen window.  (Well, three of us were quietly eating.  I'll leave you to guess which one of us was talking excitedly and gesturing wildly about whatever fascinating thing had just come to mind.  And no, Dad, it wasn't me!)  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something moving out from under the evergreens, so I looked up and announced casually, "Oh look, it's the little gray cat."  The boys turned to look at the feline neighbour who sometimes comes to pay us a visit, and Will called out a friendly greeting to her in case she could hear us.  It was a sweet little Sunday morning scene.

We noticed the squirrel at about the same time the cat did.  He was scampering up the trunk of one of our majestic willow trees, and the flicking of his tail was an irresistible invitation for the little cat to start chasing him.  "Oh no. Oh no. Oh NO!!" I murmured with increasing intensity as the cat raced towards the tree and started to reach her front paws up it, her eyes hungrily following the squirrel's every movement, her mind planning her next move.  The squirrel turned to look down and then chattered at the cat from his safely higher spot, egging her on, and we watched a little anxiously as the feline disappeared out of sight around the back of the giant trunk.

"She's not going to climb the tree, is she?" someone asked in hopeful disbelief.

"Probably not," I said, trying to reassure myself as much as I was the boys.  "That squirrel is too big for her, anyway."

But that feisty little cat was going to climb the tree.  We couldn't see her; rather the tense scene played out in long morning shadows on the lawn as the cat leapt exuberantly from the ground and landed mid-way up the trunk where she paused, her lithe body reflected as an unmoving black knot in the centre of the tree. We all held our breath for a few seconds, waiting, waiting to see what would happen next....

Suddenly our kitchen erupted into shrieks and hollers as the cat scrambled upwards and into view at the fork of the tree, a long ways up from the ground.   She was eye-level with the squirrel now; the only thing separating them was a thick off-shoot of the trunk.  The squirrel gripped the wood over on his side of the branch, frozen in place and seemingly unsure whether he should run up or down to escape unharmed, and on her side, the cat made a few tentative swipes with her paw to see if she could reach her prize.

The boys and I (all three of us sensitive animal lovers) were worked into a frenzied fit by this point. We were terrified for the squirrel in his predicament, and genuinely worried that the cat was going to get herself stuck up in our tree.  Things only got worse when the squirrel suddenly bolted upwards, and the cat sprung even higher into the branches to follow him.  We paced wildly in front of the window, wringing our hands and yelling out frantic instructions to both creatures.  A very stressed out Will even started shouting, "CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT! CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT!!!"

And then suddenly everything was over as quickly as it had begun.  The squirrel hastily scampered upwards into the highest reaches of the willow, the delicate branches swaying precariously as he went, and the cat had the good sense to realize she wasn't going to win this time.  We all exhaled loudly as the cat gracefully exited the tree (thus making an actual phone call to the fire department unnecessary) and sauntered off nonchalantly back towards the evergreens.

There have been studies done that show nature helps the brain to relax, and that the great outdoors is very restorative for people.  I'm a big believer in the importance of quality time spent in nature in our lives, but let me tell you that it took a good long time for our hearts to stop thumping frantically and our breathing to return to normal after that wild little episode.  What we needed on Sunday was some quality time indoors, completely away from any windows that might shed light on any more natural drama, in order to make a full recovery.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Banana and Cinnamon French Toast (gluten-free, vegan)

I know what you're thinking:  French toast without eggs, or milk, or gluten? Absolutely!  I learned this week that it's possible to create a delicious version of this breakfast treat without using any of those foods. (That discovery calls for a special celebratory breakfast, doesn't it?)

The four of us used to really enjoy French toast for breakfast some weekend mornings, but it's something I haven't thought about much since Will and I discovered our various food sensitivities.  Last weekend we were invited to my brother-in-law Nick's house for a lovely Easter brunch and it got me thinking about how challenging that particular meal can be to plan when gluten, dairy, and eggs are off the table.  I've had great success in coming up with alternative pancake recipes for us to enjoy over the past several years, so I made a mental note last weekend to finally do some experimenting with French toast recipes as well.

In my research, I came across multiple variations of two general recipes for vegan French toast:  one that uses a base of ground flax and/or some kind of flour with a non-dairy milk, and one that uses mashed banana. I thought it would be fun to merge both types together and see what would happen.

The French toast recipe I came up with is super quick to throw together and really tasty!  The banana adds a mild sweetness that is complemented by the cinnamon's spiciness, and the toast cooks up a lovely golden brown colour.  It's a great gluten-free and vegan option for a special occasion breakfast or brunch.

Banana and Cinnamon French Toast

1 large ripe banana
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tbsp coconut flour
1 tbsp chia seeds
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
slices of your favourite gluten-free, vegan bread  (I use brown rice bread from Organic Works Bakery)
coconut oil, for cooking

Place the banana, almond milk, coconut flour, chia seeds, cinnamon, and vanilla in the jar of a blender, and blend well, until a smooth batter forms.  Pour the batter into a shallow dish.

Place a frying pan on the stove over medium heat, and melt a bit of coconut oil in the pan.

When the oil is hot, dip the slices of bread into the batter one at a time to coat them.  (I used the side of the dish to gently scrape off any excess batter.)  Place each slice in the frying pan and cook, flipping the bread over to the other side once the bottoms are golden brown.  Finish cooking on the second side, and then serve the French toast warm, with maple sryup and/or fruit on top.

I had some issues with the French toast sticking to the pan when I cooked it, so I'm going to experiment a little further to see if I can perfect my method.  (I think maybe I needed to use more oil.) The fact that the toast didn't look quite as pretty as I would have liked did not take anything away from the taste of it, though -- it was still very yummy to eat!  I'm looking forward to treating Will to some of this French toast one weekend soon.

What gluten-free, dairy-free, and egg-free foods do you like to serve for a special breakfast?  I'd love to hear your ideas.  :)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Little and big

I dip the wand into the sticky solution and wave my arm in gentle arcs across the warm spring air.  The bubbles form effortlessly, each one a perfect circle that inflates itself and then floats off on its own unpredictable course, its iridescent swirls glowing beautifully in the morning sun. She runs after them all, her four year old feet almost flying off the ground and sometimes tripping over one another as she races this way and that, trying to catch each delicate orb before it suddenly pops and vanishes.  Her eyes twinkle with pure happiness; her little girl laugh rings out gleefully and fills the whole of the bright blue sky.

"Can we keep playing this?" she asks breathlessly as she returns to where I'm standing.

"Oh, yes!" I answer, smiling. "I'm really glad you want to, too."


He speaks from behind me and his voice is somehow familiar yet strangely not at all. I turn around to match a face with the very grown-up sound and am caught off-guard for at least the tenth time this week when I realize the voice belongs to my oldest son.  He seems to have grown into a young man overnight; he is almost as tall as me now, and his voice suddenly fits with the mature thoughts and words I am always so glad he shares with me.  In my heart I still see clearly a sweet, bespectacled little boy running after the bubbles I used to blow for him, and I'm reminded of how important it is to enjoy the wonderful moments of each age while they're there for the catching.  They really do vanish so quickly.


The two of them dash in unison across the grassy yard on a perfect spring evening, baskets in hand, his big feet eventually slowing to allow her little ones a chance to catch up.  I watch him kindly let her go ahead to find the brightly coloured egg he spotted hidden in the grass and leaves, the eight years that separate them obvious in so many ways.  Eight years from now, I imagine that bubbles floating prettily through the air will have lost their magic for her, and that he will be caught up in the exciting and sometimes difficult business of becoming an adult, with all of its rights and decisions and responsibilities.  It seems like such a short time for so much to change, but when I look at the differences between the two cousins, him in his black ball cap and her in his old race car helmet and silvery cape, I know that such metamorphoses happen in what feels like the blink of an eye. That's why the experience of a beautiful Easter weekend filled with four laughing children, some little and some big, each of them wonderful in what makes them who they are right now, feels like such a sweet treat to savour.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Carrot Cake Oatmeal Cookies (gluten-free, vegan)

It snowed here today. (Don't even get me started on the ridiculousness of that on April 15th, although this post reminded me recently that the weather was equally ridiculous in April last year.)  It seemed like a good day to spend some time in the kitchen baking and doing some advance prep for our Easter celebrations this coming weekend, because then I could ignore the fact that I needed winter boots and a parka to properly go outside.  I made our family's famous sweet potato casserole to freeze for Sunday's dinner, and then for some reason I got carrot cake on the brain.  Rather than baking a cake, I decided to create some almond flour and oatmeal cookies that had all of the delicious flavours of carrot cake in them.  The cookies turned out wonderfully -- they are chewy, cinnamony, lightly sweet, and cheerfully decorated with a coconut butter and maple syrup icing that makes them especially fun for kids.  Yum!

Carrot Cake Oatmeal Cookies

For the cookies:

2 1/2 cups blanched almond flour
1 1/2 cups certified pure gluten-free rolled oats
1/2 cup coconut sugar
1 tbsp ground chia seeds
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup finely grated carrot
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

For the icing:

3 tbsp raw coconut butter
3 tsp coconut oil
3 tsp pure maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350 F.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the almond flour, rolled oats, coconut sugar, chia seeds, baking soda, sea salt, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil and vanilla extract.  Stir the grated carrot into the oil mixture, and then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients.  Stir well until a uniform dough forms.  (The dough will be somewhat dry-looking, but it should stick together nicely when you press it between your fingers.  You may want to knead it a little with your hands.)  Stir in the raisins and walnuts.

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.  Using your hands, roll the dough into balls that measure approximately one and a half inches in diameter.  Place the balls in rows on the parchment paper lined baking sheets, and press them down with the palm of your hand to make flat circles measuring about half an inch high.  Bake the cookies in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, until they are lightly golden.  Cool the cookies completely.

To make the icing, combine the coconut butter, coconut oil, and maple syrup in a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until a smooth icing forms.  Place the icing in a piping bag with a small round tip and pipe the icing across the tops of the cooled cookies in a zig-zag pattern.  Serve and enjoy!

These cookies are fun and easy to make with kids, who might want to leave some for the Easter Bunny this weekend.  (After all, why should Santa get all the goodies, right?)

This post is linked to Gluten-Free Wednesdays.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sixth sense

We were engaged in some usual dinner table conversation one evening last week, and I was suddenly distracted by the sight of Noah's glasses, the lenses of which were covered in smudges.

"You should clean your glasses after dinner, Noah, " I suggested.  "I'm not sure how you can even see through those."

The dirty lenses reminded me of the fact that we had ordered a pair of replacement ones from Lenscrafters for Noah the week before, and that the store was supposed to call when they came in.  We had forgotten all about that in the bustle of the week that had since passed.  I glanced at Matt questioningly.

"Hey, the Lenscrafters people haven't called yet, have they?"

Matt confirmed that they hadn't as far as he knew, and we all started back to eating and thinking about other things to talk about.

Not three seconds later, the phone rang.  The four of us looked around at each other in wide-eyed silence, each of us having the same thought as we remembered the last thing I had said.

"I bet you that's Lenscrafters," I declared with bright confidence as the phone rang a second time.  Matt got up from his chair and walked into the family room where the phone was, and he laughed incredulously when he looked at the call display.

It was Lenscrafters.

If the boys were previously unconvinced that their mom had superpowers, they had no doubt in their minds in that instant.  We all shrieked and laughed in disbelief, and my two sons stared at me with a mixture of awe and fascination. I was suddenly even cooler than the time I had shown them I could turn my eyelids inside-out.

I would chalk this up to some extra-freaky coincidence, except that this type of thing seems to happen frequently where the women in my family are concerned.  We somehow have an uncanny ability to "know" about situations before they happen; there are many stories of vivid dreams predicting events that occurred shortly afterwards, and "feelings" about things that very soon proved to be true.  Just a few weeks ago, my mom told me that she had recently encouraged my dad to start working on a crocheting project for the next grandbaby, though there was no actual next grandbaby to speak of as far as any of us were aware.  That same week I was talking to her, my brother Frank and his wife Meg surprised all of us with the wonderful announcement that they are expecting their second child in October.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.

I'm not in need of any more proof that I've inherited some kind of sixth sense.  Now if only I could channel those superpowers into predicting the next big winning lottery numbers....  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Doll Sweater

When I was a young girl, my creative mom made playtime especially fun for me by knitting and sewing an impressive collection of clothes for my favourite dolls.  I used to spend hours dressing babies and little ladies and men up in different outfits and creating imaginary worlds for them.  My mom saved all of those clothes when I finally grew too old for playing with them, and she passed this special piece of my childhood on to me, stored carefully in my old toy box, years later.

Once I had young children of my own, I opened up that treasure trove of memories and fondly pulled out some of my old dolls' wardrobe to share with my two boys.  It was sweet to see them clothe their favourite stuffed rabbits and monkeys and elephants in little sweaters that had been made by my own mom's loving hands so long ago.  The woven strands of those clothes were a tangible reminder of the fact that I, too, had once spent hours happily lost in the creative and innocent pastimes of childhood; having them around me again brought a wonderful feeling of familiar comfort.

A few months ago, Will came to me with a worried look on his face and confessed that there had been an incident involving one of the handmade sweaters.  He had left it on his desk near a blob of sticky pink putty, and the putty had slowly expanded overnight until it overtook the sweater and oozed itself intricately into the very fibres of it.  The poor sweater looked like it had just emerged from a very unfortunate encounter with an entire package of chewed up bubble gum.

I Googled several variations of the phrase "How to remove sticky goop from a sweater", and tried a number of different tricks involving ice cubes and salt and soaking and such, but none of them worked to completely loosen the pink stuff's grip on the yarn.  The sweater is still sitting in my laundry room because I haven't been able to decide exactly what I should do with it next.

I was initially upset by this sweater versus putty incident, even though I knew it was an accident.  I felt like the damage to the sweater was somehow an unravelling of my own story, that changing the way it had always looked took something special away from me.

It's interesting how we become so attached to physical objects that remind us of important moments from our past.  We cling to them as proof of experiences and feelings that have passed us by and that we can no longer recreate; they reassure us that what we remember was real.  Old photographs and treasures wrapped carefully in crinkled tissue paper keep us firmly rooted in our sense of self, when the constant ebb and flow of life makes us feel sometimes as though we're drifting off into the unfamiliar.

But physical objects like a handmade doll sweater are not the only testament to the moments of our past. The experiences represented by those things we've saved are woven into our very selves; their effects on us are displayed in the complex patterns of who each of us is at any given time.  Photographs fade, fragments of delicate mementos are lost, and even our own bodies change in ways that are sometimes unrecognizable to us as we grow older, but our very essence is made up of our cumulative history:  the events, people, thoughts and feelings that shaped us and made each one of us unique.

Over time, seeing the pink-goop-riddled doll sweater day after day in my laundry room has somehow shifted my perspective on its significance.  The sweater, like everything in life, could not stay the same forever. Rather than seeing the pink stains as a symbol of something lost, I now see them as another meaningful layer added to my life's story.  Some day in the future, when I am the mom of two men, I will come across that sticky sweater carefully packed away somewhere and will be reminded of a much loved boy whose vivid imagination used to spill out in colourful collections of random objects all over his desk.  There will be no doubt in my mind then that what I remember was real, and wonderful.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Fruit Pizza (gluten-free, vegan)

This afternoon's gray and gloomy skies had me wishing for a little bit of colour to brighten things up around here, so I popped into the grocery store to pick up some fresh fruit in a rainbow of colours.  The fruit was just the inspiration I needed for a creative afternoon project:  I decided to make a fruit pizza that our family could share together after dinner this evening.  I baked an almond flour crust, adapted the filling for my lemon and raspberry cheesecake blossoms from last spring to spread on top, and finished it off with an arrangement of vibrant fruit pieces and a sprinkling of coconut.  This simply delicious and appealing dessert was a nice Friday evening treat that all four of us really enjoyed!

Fruit Pizza

For the crust:

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

For the topping:

3/4 cup raw cashews, soaked for one hour, then rinsed and drained
the juice of half an orange
the juice of half a lemon
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp melted coconut oil
2 tbsp pure maple syrup
the zest of half an orange
the zest of half a lemon

assorted fresh fruit (I used strawberries, blackberries, kiwi, mango, and pineapple)
unsweetened shredded coconut for sprinkling on top of the pizza

Preheat the oven to 350 F.  To make the pizza crust, combine the almond flour, sea salt, and cinnamon in a mixing bowl.  Whisk together the melted coconut oil, maple syrup, and vanilla in a smaller bowl, then pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.  Stir well, then spread the crust mixture out across a standard sized round pizza pan. Firmly press the mixture down with your hands, making sure you have a nice even crust.  Place the pan in the preheated oven and bake for 10 minutes.  Remove the crust from the oven and let it cool completely.

To make the filling, place the soaked cashews, orange juice, lemon juice, vanilla, melted coconut oil, and maple syrup in the bowl of a food processor.  Process the ingredients at high speed, stopping as needed to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, until you have a smooth mixture.  Stir in the orange and lemon zest, and place the filling in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to firm up a little.

Spread the filling out smoothly across the entire top of the cooled pizza crust.  Arrange an assortment of fresh fruit on top of the filling, and sprinkle a little unsweetened shredded coconut over everything.  Slice the pizza into triangles with a pizza cutter or a sharp knife and serve.  (Any leftover slices can be stored in the refrigerator.)

This fresh fruit pizza, with its pretty presentation and pleasing flavours, makes a lovely dessert to follow any spring dinner.  It would be a perfect treat for Easter, too.  Enjoy!

This post is linked to Gluten-Free Wednesdays.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Amazing 'Mum'ford

I think I may have somehow convinced my children that I am a magician.  There is no other way to explain the absolute trust they've shown in my ability to produce random items out of thin air, with no advance warning or preparation.

This morning, for example, Will told me over breakfast (in an "oh and by the way" kind of voice) that he needed to bring a snowboard to school for a presentation he was doing in French class.  Luckily a snowboard is something that Will actually has and so there was a hope that we could realistically produce it in a last-minute fashion; however, he hadn't used it in awhile and neither one of us was exactly sure where it was. There were about thirty minutes left before the time he usually leaves for school, and I knew that if he followed his usual course of action for the morning, which typically involves him talking instead of eating, trying to drive Noah crazy instead of getting dressed, and making brains and things in the bathroom instead of brushing his teeth, that those thirty minutes were already more than accounted for.  I wanted Will to be responsible himself for having what he needed for school, so I told him if he wanted to bring a snowboard, that he would have to hustle through his routine to leave himself enough time to find it somewhere out in the garage.  (I also reminded him that remembering and taking care of this last night would have been an excellent idea.)

The snowboard must have been important to Will, because he managed to be ready on time this morning. He went out to the garage to search for it, but he came back empty-handed, and I could hear in his wavering voice the anxiety he was then feeling about not doing what he was supposed to do for his presentation. When I thought about the high levels of stress that this would cause my rule-following perfectionist boy all day, I caved and dashed out to the garage to look for the thing myself while he got his coat and boots on. (I know, I know -- it's my own fault that the boys have come to believe I'm a magician.)

With about 13 minutes left before the school bell time and a 10 minute walk ahead of the boys still, I managed to reach Matt on his phone, found out that the snowboard might possibly have been stuffed way back on the very top shelf of the garage, and completed the daring physical feat of balancing on one foot on top of a tippy storage bin and blindly reaching for something that felt like a snowboard while fishing rods, beach umbrellas, and curling brooms tumbled down on my head.  I think I was as glad as Will was when a snowboard suddenly appeared in my hands amid a bang! and a pouff of smoke.  (Okay fine, there was no bang! or pouff of smoke.  I added those for dramatic effect.)

It's tricky sometimes as parents to find the balance between not doing too much for our kids so that they learn to be responsible, and helping them when they're struggling (because we want them to be successful and we recognize that learning tricks like planning in advance can take time).  I take comfort in the fact that I've seen both boys discover from past experiences how they can be better organized so we can avoid last-minute stresses: Noah understands now not to tell me again on a January school morning when the ground is completely covered in snow that he needs a dozen rock specimens that day for a school project, and Will actually gave me a very reasonable few days' notice last week that he needed to dress like a hippie for a school assembly.  Despite the fact that I had to make a snowboard magically appear at the last minute this morning, I'm hopeful that my two apprentices are figuring out how to be masters of their own successes, one trick at a time.