How to Make Crab Apple Jelly (With Your Kids)

carol1One of the hallmarks of the coming of fall and school’s return in the city of Toronto is sidewalks lined with crab apples trees in full array. Walking home from ice cream at Ed’s Real Scoop, I saw two such trees at our local park, just groaning with fruit. It was late afternoon, my boys and I had nothing calling us anywhere, the time was ours.  And I thought of crab apple jelly.

The timing is perfect – school is back, which means packing lots and lots of lunches. We need jams and jellies to go with our peanut butter substitute sandwiches. Good quality jams and jellies are expensive, especially if organic, and these organic crab apples would just fall and go to waste if not snapped up for jelly-making. Plus a quick look on my handy dandy phone revealed that crab apples have natural pectin so jelly can be made without commercial pectin (which I didn’t have anyway).

It was decided. The reusable bag I try to keep in my backpack was actually there, and my boys and I set to filling it. I lifted my littlest to pick a few crab apples, but as they were otherwise out of his reach and the capabilities of my back, he satisfied himself by playing at the park. But with the help of a bench and some climbing skills, my two older sons could reach many more. They picked and picked until our bag was bursting, motivated equal parts by the promise of jelly and the pleasure of the task.

Making the jelly itself was pretty easy as far as these things go.  You only need crab apples and sugar.

This is what you do:

    1. Wash the bounty.  Admire.carol2
    2. Remove leaves, stems and blossoms at the bottom of the crab apple. (You can leave the stems and blossoms on, but this will darken your jelly. I wanted mine to be pretty!)
    3. Halve or quarter the apples.  This step is more important when you have larger crab apples. Ours were mostly about an inch in diameter, so I suspect we didn’t have to do this. But I had three crew members eager to wield knives, so I wouldn’t dream of skipping this step. My four year old insisted he could cut a crab apple with a butter knife and he could, with satisfaction, I might add.  He happily chopped away alongside his brothers and their paring knives.carol3carol4carol5
    4. Put crab apples in a large pot and barely cover with water (if the apples are floating, there’s too much water).
    5. Bring to a boil and then simmer until crab apples are soft (for us, about 25 minutes). Try not to overcook, as this can reduce the natural pectin in the crab apples.carol6
    6. Strain juice from pulp. Cheesecloth would be ideal for this, but I didn’t have any so I used a clean muslin cloth over a fine mesh sieve, which worked great. Various recipes said to strain overnight but most of my juice was strained in an hour. I couldn’t imagine much more dripping out after that.  The recipes were pretty unanimous that one should not mush down the pulp in hopes of getting more juice because this will make the jelly cloudy, so I didn’t go there.088
    7. Return pot with juice to stove and add sugar.  You will need about 3/4 cup of sugar for every cup of juice.  Stir until sugar is well dissolved.carol8
    8. Boil hard until jelly reaches 220 degrees. Note: it took a considerable effort for my biggest gas burner to reach 220 degrees, and only after I finally listened to my son who told me to put a lid on the pot. I thought a couple of degrees cooler wouldn’t matter, but they do. The  juice only gelled at 220 degrees.  If you don’t have a thermometre, or even if you do, you can test the juice for readiness by putting a teaspoon of juice on a plate that’s been sitting in the freezer for awhile (or the top of a clean frozen orange juice can, as the case may be). Put the plate/can back in the freezer for a minute, and then push the edge of the juice with your finger. If a skin forms on the juice, it’s ready to become jelly.
    9. Ladle the juice into sterilized jars and wipe clean any drips on the lip of the jar. For the first time in my canning life, I did this using a canning funnel and one of those magnetic wand thingies that picks up jar lids. Oh man, is there ever something to be said for these not-strictly-necessary-but-so-wonderful-tools. No cussing during this canning project, nope. Easy peasy!carol9carol10
    10. Place jars in a water bath canning pot (or other pot that can do the job) and boil for 10 minutes (that’s the appropriate time for me in Toronto – canning times can vary depending on altitude).

Ta Da!! You now have jars of beautiful and delicious crab apple jelly (and if you used organic cane sugar like I did, you can slap an organic label on there too). And if you manage to make this with your kids, they will have a different relationship to it than the jar you bought from the store or even the farmers market, and share the pleasure of it along with you.

Enjoy all year long, or as long as supplies last!carol11

ps. The white canning lids are made by Tattler.  They are reusable and BPA-free. I had read about them before and was pleased to see them for the first time at Canadian Tire.  So far, they seem to work perfectly, which means a safer and more eco-friendly way to can. I don’t think they look as nice as the metal lids for gifting though, and you probably wouldn’t get them back which defeats the reusable bit (unless gifting to a canning friend!). So I stuck with metal lids for the jars I thought would be gifts.  I don’t think I’m going to have any to gift though, the boys are loving this jelly so much.  Luckily we have more crab apples in the fridge for a second batch.

pps. If your jelly does not set after 24 hours, Google says no big deal, you can just redo the process – dump out the contents of your jars and start again. What the — ? A canning redo is a big, big deal for the likes of me!  If it is to you too, make sure you get your juice up to 220 degrees or have some commercial pectin as a backup plan. They also say that working with smaller batches is easier when it comes to setting the jelly. The batch I made produced 6 cups, and you probably don’t want to work with anything bigger than that.

OK Friday Barn Fair: Top 6 Reasons to Visit!

OK Friday Barn Fair_Betty's(4)_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling Pictures
We all revel in a good farmer’s market, and OK Friday Barn Fair, launched by Burl’s Creek Event Grounds, has just taken things up a notch (or four). This weekly arts and market space, located in Oro-Medonte and conveniently en route to cottage country, showcases a wide range of goods from local farmers and vendors, selected Toronto imports, and live musical performances.  I recently had a chance to visit OK Friday Barn Fair and loved it, and am here to report to you my top six reasons for visiting.

1. There’s an amazing and thoughtful array of local goods.  You’ll find wonderful local produce, cheese, meats, maple syrup, honey, as well as jewelry and other crafted goodness at OK Friday Barn Fair. When you meet the farmers and craftspeople doing the growing and the making, you’ll also know that they’ve been selected with care and in collaboration with The Karma Project, a non-profit cooperative dedicated to promoting sustainable and accessible local food.

2. Cottage-goers never had it so good. So it’s Friday and you’re desperate to leave the city and you didn’t quite find the time to buy what you need to make your weekend the culinary delight you were hoping for.  Never fear! You now have delicious local options that are moons away from the jaded produce from Foodland in Barrie or the IGA in Wherever. Stretch your legs, score some great food, and support local farmers and businesses while you’re at it.

OK Friday Barn Fair_fresh produce(2)_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling Pictures

OK Friday Barn Fair_baked goods_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling Pictures
OK Friday Barn Fair_Nocturna Jewellery(3)_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling Pictures
OK Friday Barn Fair_Maddington Farms_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling PicturesOr, if cooking after the commute feels too much, grab dinner from the eateries at OK Friday. Rodney’s Oyster House offers up its famous oysters, mussels, and lobster rolls. Fans of Toronto’s restaurant trinity Fat Pasha, Rose and Sons, and Big Crow will be pleased to know that Anthony Rose also presents a range of his wares for sale.  Enjoy tastings of award-winning VQA Norman Hardie wines, and take a bottle home with you.  And for those of us lucky enough to be guests for a weekend away, it goes without saying that OK Friday Barn Fair is a treasure trove of lovely gifts for host or hostess.

OK Friday Barn Fair_Rodney's Oysters(3)_Image by Daniel WilliamsDowling Pictures
3.  The locals never had it so good.  One of the magical things about OK Friday Barn Fair and Burl’s Creek Event Grounds generally is the boost its giving to its community of Oro-Medonte. The market and grounds provide business development, cultural programming, and visibility to a beautiful region of Ontario. Restoration work on a 1930’s landmark barn with soaring 40 foot ceilings has been undertaken with assistance from the Mennonite community, and will serve as a destination event space, including weddings. During my visit to OK Friday Barn Fair, we enjoyed not just performances by Reuben and the Dark, but also by a local school who treated us to singing and their ukeleles, which were received through a musical grant. The presence of the local community of Oro-Medonte is infused throughout the market and the grounds.

OK Friday Barn Fair_banr(5)_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling Pictures
OK Friday Barn Fair_Reuben and the Dark(5)_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling Pictures
4.  Drop by or spend the day.  If you only have time for a quick stop, the amazing vendors will help you make the most of every minute.  But if you have the luxury of a day to spend, it’s worth the trip to go. Time moves easily as you check out the grounds, browse the stalls, or just take in the glorious natural setting.  The eating is great (of course), and the music is an ever-changing series of local Canadian talent – this week is Dan Mangan. You can even heighten your peace of mind with an outdoor mid-day yoga practice at 3pm with Shanti Vira Yoga Studio and Green River Yoga Company.

5.  The music festivals!  OK Friday Barn Fair runs every Friday from 2 to 8 pm except for July 24, when Burl’s Creek hosts WayHome Music and Arts Festival (Neil Young headlines days of jam-packed talent) and August 7, when the huge Boots and Hearts Music Festival comes to town.  With over 700 acres of pristine land, Burl’s Creek is Canada’s largest outdoor event venue, with space for 60,000 people and 45,000 campers.

6.  It’s a labour of love. During my visit to OK Friday Barn Fair, I had the unexpected pleasure of sitting next to Burl’s Creek owner Stan Dunford during lunch (by Anthony Rose!). His goal was unwavering and simple from its inception: to create a world class facility. When asked what motivated Stan to take on this project, he points to his nephew, a fellow lover of music and the person who helped inspire the expansive vision behind Burl’s Creek. Stan talked about how the heart of an endeavour like this was never clearer to him than when a music festival was cancelled, but 40,000 people showed up anyway. They weren’t there for the music (there was none), he explained, but the chance to be together.  The core of Burl’s Creek is not just food and fun, but family and friendship.  It’s a good place to be.

OK Friday Barn Fair_Northwinds planters(3)_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling Pictures

The OK Friday Barn Fair operates every Friday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. until October 9, excluding July 24 and August 7 when Burl’s Creek has planned festival events.

Photo credits: Daniel Williams/Dowling Pictures

Gerry Dee’s Tour: You Gotta See It!

About a year ago, I saw my first stand-up comedy show in Las Vegas and I loved it.   To celebrate my birthday, I asked my husband to forgo the fancy dinner out and take me to the local comedy club. We still did the dinner, courtesy of my brother and his wife, and the four of us made our way to the 11 pm show at Absolute Comedy.

Seeing live performances, be it Shakespeare in the park, a big-budget flashy musical or a lone comic standing at a mic, is electrifying. The performers have logged many hours honing their craft and their moment of truth is when they take the stage.

When it feels off, like the marks are missed or cadence wavers, my stomach usually knots and I feel a mixture of anxiety, embarrassment and disappointment for the performers. But with that, I always feel admiration. They put themselves out there to be judged, albeit harshly when the price of a ticket is attached, and I simply don’t have the chutzpah to do that.

But last night, the four of us went to see homegrown comedian, challenger on Last Comic Standing and star of his own eponymous CBC show, Gerry Dee and everything clicked.

Gerry Dee took the stage at historic Massey Hall and after being introduced by his solid opener Graham Chinden, his 90-minute set was an enjoyable ride!

Dee’s bits are taken from his life as a former teacher, dad to three young children and husband to a levelheaded, east coaster who is the perfect yin to his yang.

His banter is relatable; relationships are universal and if you’re not a parent, you’ve been a kid.

When you see a consummate performer like Dee, whose polished routine fails to falter, the energy in the room becomes exhilarating. A good performance brings about a high for the audience, and in the case of last night with 2,600 people united by laughter the room buzzed.

It’s no wonder it feels so good to experience a release of energy through laughter. The Mayo Clinic sites the short-term benefits as endorphin enriching, stress reducing and muscle relaxing. Need proof? The elevated people exiting from the crowded theatre did so with nary a kerfuffle.

Laughing Canadians = very gracious folk.

Gerry Dee is on a national tour and you’ve gotta see it!  Check if he’s coming to your city by clicking here.

And I leave you with my favourite bit from the night.

Joust About An Unbelievable Good Time!

IMG_0530 (1)Why is being a tourist in your own city something that never tops the “list of things to do”?  Just last week I read Amy from Joey and the Owl is moving from New York City to the suburbs, and in her farewell post to NYC she commented how few tourist attractions in the city she’d actually been to.  It made me pause to reflect on the many incredible sites and attractions that Toronto has to offer, practically on my doorstep.  I do make an effort to visit the museums and art galleries, and I have a theatre subscription to both Mirvish Productions and The Young People Theatre, but there are so many places I’ve left undiscovered.

Like, Medieval Times.

Last week Carol and I, along with our families, ten of us in total, trekked through the congested streets of downtown Toronto in frigid arctic temperatures to arrive at the Exhibition Place, home to Medieval Times.

Top 5 Reasons You Should Visit Medieval Times

  1. Betcha Didn’t Know That!

While Medieval Times is simply a fun way to spend time together as a family, it’s also educational, and arguably much more enjoyable than just reading about the Dark Ages.  Servers are aptly referred to as serfs or wenches.  There are no french fries or burgers, only fare that would be typical of a gluttonous medieval feast.  The castle is dark and the lighting used is minimal to replicate the primitive castles of the era, but as Carol’s young son pointed out me, luckily this castle has heat.

  1. Is It Real?

Where you sit at Medieval Times matters, unlike a traditional theatre.  Each seating area represents a knight, and it’s your duty as the king’s guests to cheer on your knight to victory as he risks life and limb in this tournament of heraldry.

Luckily for us, we were seated in the front row and had a clear view of all the action.  Seating is based on first come, first serve unless you’ve chosen to enhance your experience and for a fee.  Carol and I spent some time surveying the various levels and with all seating areas, the view is clear and the knights do make a considerable effort to engage the crowd regardless of position.

Our six boys were sitting at the edge of the seats for the entire spectacle.  Wearing their crowns, and waving their black and white flag they cheered for our knight, who impressively captured their attention, Carol’s heart (until her son stole her intended flower), and several rounds of the tournament.

It was during the car ride home that my boys peppered us with questions, namely, “was it real?”.  I love that they are young enough to be swept away by the magic of theatre and make believe.  I think it added to the overall awe of performance and how much we enjoyed it.  I explained to the boys it’s just like a play with actors who practice, and many behind the stage hands that make the experience come to life.  An interactive show like this is a good introduction to live theatre if you have a child who isn’t likely to sit through a lengthy play with minimal action.

  1. A Feast Not Only For The Eyes!

I imagine that one doesn’t go to Medieval Times solely for the food, but it’s worth noting that while the fare isn’t going to top any “best of” lists, it’s tasty enough and was a hit with the kids.  Garlic bread and a tomato bisque were followed by a half roasted chicken with spare ribs and a potato wedge – all served warm and eaten without utensils.  My boys rejoiced!  I have to point out that while the food may not be winning any awards the service does.  Guests’ dietary restrictions are readily accommodated, like our nut allergies.  The vegetarian dish, 3-bean stew with fire roasted tomato and brown rice, was served to 2 of our party and while they ate with spoons, they seemed to enjoy it just the same.  Be sure to ask for a take-out container to take home your left overs!

Halal meals are available upon request.

  1.  It’s Joust About Unbelievable!

The jousting tournament was actually quite riveting and within minutes, Carol and I found ourselves cheering alongside our boys.  The jousting lances splinter when they’re clashed and the swords spark with each cross, eliciting lots of excited squeals.  On select days in April your child can experience Knight Training where they can learn first-hand how treacherous life as knight can be and how dangerous the weapons truly are.  All Knights-in-Training will be knighted by King Carltos in a special ceremony.  Reserve your space here.

  1.  Because It’s Fun!

Let’s put aside all the lessons in history and theatre for a moment, and dwell on perhaps the most surprising for me.  Medieval Times is fun!  It’s really fun!  How liberating it was to not only allow but encourage my rowdy group of boys to scream, cheer and boo!

And because I am a mom, and this is something that all moms want to know, I will share that the restrooms were plenty and clean.  And because I am a mom, and this is something that all moms want to know, there are several gifts and treasures to be purchased before, during and after the show – plan accordingly.

Be sure to visit the Medieval Times website for discount codes, birthday specials, and a complete overview of the show with information about medieval life and times.

Little Lords and Ladies Medieval Reading List 


Medieval Jousts and Tournaments by John Green


Medieval Castle Sticker Picture by A.G. Smith


Knights and Castles by Rachel Firth


Sticker Dressing Knights by Helen Davis


You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Medieval Knight by Fiona Macdonald

Disclaimer:  Thank you to Medieval Times for hosting all 10 of us!  We had a wonderful time and will be back!  Readers, please note that while we received our tickets complimentary, the views expressed in this blog post are our own.

Life Lessons Learned on the Rock Wall

121My husband works at a big fitness club – there an indoor soccer field, indoor basketball courts, squash courts, three pools, lots and lots of fitness rooms and lots and lots of weights and machines to choose from.  There are spa facilities and a hair salon.  But my eyes were drawn from the beginning to the three story rock wall.

I don’t know why it’s taken me until now to give it a try.  Well, I guess I do…  Until recently, there’s been a baby attached to my hip or wrapped around my legs.  But probably more importantly, I’d never done it before and, unlike Beth-Anne who likes to try new things, I kind of resist them.  I’m not crazy about this tendency, so challenging myself to actually try that wall for none other than this blog became my mission over the holidays.

I went with my niece, an athletic 16 year old who had climbed before.  We had spent the entire day at the club, and she had played soccer for over two hours, and was then given a good workout on the squash court by my husband.  The day before she had spent skiing which, as a Californian, used her muscles in unusual ways.  This is all to explain that when she tried the rock wall of moderate difficulty, she got a fifth of the way up and had to let go.  Her legs were shaking; she simply could not go on.

My turn.  Unlike my niece, I had only gentle swum with my kids that day; however, also unlike her, I don’t have a teenage athletic body anymore.  We were climbing walls that did not require a lesson first, strapped in with a harness that gently bounces you to the ground if you slip.  Having never tried this before though, I discovered that I had trouble trusting the safety device would catch me if I fell.  Suddenly I feared heights where I hadn’t before.  With no advice before climbing, no experience, and ultimately, no confidence, I let go almost precisely at the spot my niece had and fell.

As it happens, the harness did work.

My attempt disappointed me.  It would have been quite alright to not get to the top (and when my husband tried, he fell at the same spot – it really was tricky) but my effort was not solid.

I gathered my wits.  Then, with the genuine encouragement of my niece and husband, I got in line for the beginner wall.

I think I was the only person above four and a half feet for this climb, but I ignored any prideful urgings and strapped myself in.  The climb was much easier than the other I tried, and I was comfortable enough to play around a bit with what movements worked.  I reached the top, and my husband boasted, with no hint of irony, that I sped by the nine year old to my left.

The question was whether to try something more.  There were two climbs at moderate difficulty.  I asked a boy there, who had obviously done these climbs many, many times (he looked like a little Spiderman scaling those walls), which of the two were harder.  He pointed to the one I hadn’t tried, and said he thought it might be slightly easier.

With no real aim except to make a better attempt, some minor success under my belt (ha), and more assurance in the harness, I tried again.  It was a much harder climb.  I think I was the most surprised of everyone when I actually made it to the top.

The accomplishment felt at least as much mental as physical and got me mulling, as I’m wont to do, about the broader significance of this singular experience.  I’ve since concluded that there are several useful life lessons to be learned from a rock wall.

1.  Confidence Matters.  

It’s not the only thing that matters, but my initial lack of confidence on the first climb was fatal to the effort.  If you don’t believe you can do something, you’re unlikely to manage it.

2.  The beginning is a good place to start.  

Sometimes I like to fancy myself a little more advanced than I am, a quick learner or something, who can maybe skip a step or two.  Occasionally this works, but oftentimes it doesn’t.  The beginner rock wall was not so physically challenging but I’m positive I would not have succeeded at the harder one had I not started at the beginning.  And experience can bolster belief to develop needed confidence (see above).

3.  There’s not much success without taking risks.  

At some points in the climb, I realized that I couldn’t find the next fingerhold or foothold not because I wasn’t looking properly, but because there wasn’t one.  The only way to continue at these junctures was to set my sights on my next best guess, and spring over to it and hope it would work. I had to let go without knowing what there was next to hold on to.   There was no going higher without taking the risk.

4.  Small things really matter.

I knew that rock climbing tests both agility and strength, but I didn’t realize the extent to success hinges on the smallest things.  Like little protrusions from the wall that your foot can’t really stand on, but that might help your other foot or your hands hang on just a little longer.  Or like fingertips, or the tips of fingertips – these really matter. When I got back onto solid ground after the moderate climb, I couldn’t move my fingers or wrists – they were both burning and throbbing.  My thighs and feet and back must have played a part, but I think my fingertips were the star of the show.

5.  Fear must be dealt with or it will be a block.

To climb that wall, I had to get over my fear of falling.  Probably by falling.  And getting back up again.

6.  Everything that gets done gets done one step at a time.

Many times on that moderate climb where I made it to the top, I didn’t think I would.  I’d look up and the way looked awfully long.  At those times I lowered my head to look at where I was and paused. I brushed aside the temptation to give up and instead agreed with myself to just look for the next step.  When tired, I thought of just the next step.  Stacking enough of next steps together got me somewhere.

I knew starting out that many rock climbers are diehards about their sport.  I think, in some tiny way, I may understand why.  It’s about a lot more than fitness and really challenges the mental strength of the climber, and this can only be that much more true when climbing an actual rock face.  At it’s core, I think rock climbing is about overcoming obstacles that you once wouldn’t have thought possible.  No wonder it’s got such a stronghold on its followers.


Dining Out? Dine Healthy with Zomato

zomatoThis week, I had the pleasure of meeting Jimena Duran from Zomato, a new digital presence in the Toronto dining scene.  She walked me through some of the features of the site while I sipped a latte and tried to control my mouth-watering reactions to the restaurant reviews she highlighted.  I left our meeting buzzing with caffeine and enthusiasm for the foodie network, and eager to explore its offerings.

Zomato is an online and mobile restaurant discovery platform and social food network for foodies.   The staff for each city in which Zomato operates (currently 113 worldwide) go in person to each and every restaurant to collect menus, verify opening hours, and collect all the pertinent information for each restaurant, which gets uploaded to their database.

Then Zomato users take their turn.  You can browse the website or download the Zomato app to choose a place to dine out based on neighbourhood, cuisine or establishment.  Other users rate and review restaurants, and you can follow users whose reviews resonate with you.  Once you create a profile, you can publish reviews of the places you have dined, create a record of your food journey by tagging the places you’ve been to, and bookmark the places to like to check out next.

And one of the handy dandy collections is Healthy Eating.  So you can have your (tasty rice) cake and eat it, too.

Look us up!  4mothers1blog has a profile on Zomato and we’ll be adding our reviews too.

Handmade Holidays: Trufflemaking at Chocolate Tales

Ever since I tried handmaking chocolate a year or so ago with the kids, my eyes (and tastebuds) have been more alert to the possibilities of creating with chocolate. So when the opportunity to try a different route to making chocolate treats crossed my bath through the blog, I knew I was in.  Chocolate Tales and I booked a date for a trufflemaking workshop midtown at The Mad Bean, and we were off to the chocolate races.

Our workshop began with a history of chocolate, which for hundreds of years was consumed as a beverage.  The Aztecs ground the beans and drank a really strong, unsweetened version of chocolate – apparently Montezuma drank 10 cups of this a day.  It was also given to human victims before they were sacrificed, supposedly for the calming effects of serotonin and theobromine.  Personally I find it hard to believe that this could have had much effect but maybe that’s just me.

This grisly historical lesson out of the way, we could start focusing on the here and now (thank goodness).  We were working with high quality couverture chocolate, which gets all its fat from cocoa butter.  This is contrasted with compound chocolate, where the fat comes from fat substitutes – usually oils – and it’s difficult to temper because different oils have different burn points – this chocolate sometimes shows a white film which indicates it’s not properly tempered.  It can still be tasty – which is why most of us enjoy a good Kit Kat every now and then – but it’s more a candy than chocolate.

photo 1

At the Chocolate Tales workshop, we were messing around with the real thing, ie. the couverture chocolate.  Our stations were laid out tidily with rows of hollow chocolate spheres, and the various tools we’d be using to fill these into Belgian truffles, as well as to make French truffles out of slabs of ganache.  There was a giant bowl of melted chocolate on a double boiler at the front, which was ladled into plastic bags that we used as icing tubes.  With tips on how to best fill our chocolate spheres (try to fill it without air gaps, which reduce shelf life, for eg.), we set to work.

photo 1 (2)photo 5

I couldn’t take pics of us messing around with chocolate, but mess is the operative word here… we were given aprons and gloves for a reason.  Melted chocolate gushed out of bags and outside of our little chocolate receptables and into our trays (and up into our mouths).  After letting our filled chocolates cool, we set about enrobing them.  The technique for this is to paint your hand with chocolate, and then roll the truffle into our palms to cover it with melted chocolate, then repeat.  The gloves came in handy here to keep the mess at bay, but I wanted to feel this experience all the way so I removed my gloves (I was the only one).  There’s something luscious and decadent and playful about doing this with your bare hands, and although I spent a spell in the bathroom trying to get all the chocolate off afterwards, it was worth it.

photo 2photo 3We all left satisfied, and possibly a little dizzy from eating chocolate spills and leftovers, with a stack of Belgian and French truffles to go, packaged prettily in decorative bags and a gift box.  It was a friendly group, led by a friendly facilitator, creating a perfectly pleasant way to spend a Tuesday night.

Trufflemaking is just one of a range of workshops offered by Chocolate Tales – there’s something for the sweet tooth in all of us.  One thing I’d mention… when I arrived at the workshop I thought we would be making chocolate from scratch, but the facilitator explained this process and it’s not at all workable for the end result sought – the process takes too long, is too complicated, and too mechanized.  It’s possible to make a simple handmade chocolate as I did, but it won’t have the professional and consistent qualities that you and I normally associate with a truffle.  The workshops are about working with the basic components of chocolate and putting them together in personalized and delicious ways.

I knew I would enjoy this DIY workshop but hadn’t thought of what a nice experiential gift this could make until I saw the friends and couples there, and sat down next to a mother who gifted this workshop to her teenage daughter.  They were completely engaged with each other and the activity, and the daughter may have had just a bit of a glow when she left.  I thought of my 13 year old niece, and I come December 25, she and I may be poised for more chocolate love.


Loving Bedtime Stories (or Maybe Something Else)


I’m a diehard for bedtime stories.  It’s a rare night when they’re missed in our house, and that’s usually because we’re coming home really late from some outside adventure, and kids are either asleep or so tired they might as well be.  I’ll fight for this window of storytime against competing needs, and I’m not the only one.  My boys are mystified if something interferes with their stories, and I’ve discovered that even if it really isn’t the right time for a bedtime story, it’s often the path of least resistance to sleep to just read a quick one – just scratch the itch – and then settle everyone into bed.

It’s nice to now that bedtime stories are supposedly good for children in many ways, but I can tell you that the ritual at our house is based on pleasure – mine as much as the boys.  I have three very energetic sons, but they settle quietly right into me during storytime in bed and listen to all kinds of stories, even when the boys are quite a distance for the target audience (our age ranges from 3 to 8).  I love it.

Reading up on bedtime stories for this week’s conversation here at 4Mothers, I felt like I should have been really enthusiastic that our nighttime reading ritual is so highly touted by the experts as producing smarter, more intuitive, more attached, more imaginative children.  Maybe it’s my mood, and maybe I’m prickly, but it kind of got my back up.  It somehow struck me as another might-as-well-be-mandatory requirement of parents, one of those tangible ways we can prove how good we are at parenting, and we do.

But there are so many kinds of parents out there, and so many kinds of parenting.  In university I volunteered with an organization that tutored adults who couldn’t read and write well for any number of reasons – learning disabilities, falling through the cracks at school, surviving much bigger life issues than literacy.  I remember one student was a tall, good-looking musician whose young son was reading better than he could, and the father sought literacy tutoring in hopes of sharing more of his son’s life.  Improving literacy skills as an adult is usually a long process that takes a lot of dedicated time, and I don’t know how far this student got; it’s quite likely that he wouldn’t have been able to match pace with the learning of a young child for whom reading comes easily.

That father may not be reading bedtime stories to his child but I think there’s every chance he’s an ace father.  I just feel like giving a shout-out to him and other parents who don’t read their kids bedtime stories (even if they are literate to the nines), in case they’re feeling down about it.  Because maybe you do other things instead.  Maybe you run with them everyday instead, or drive two hours on the weekend to make sure they know their grandparents.  Maybe you have a long fuse, or you’ve got a short fuse but you’re working on it.  Maybe you have a quiet understanding with your child that she is loved completely.

Books and bedtime are so amazing – I love them so much.  I just want to make sure that love isn’t pushing anyone else around, because it’s a big, beautiful world out there, and books are just one part of it.

Snakes and Lattes: Board Game Cafe

annex-whiteWhen we were getting to know each other, a past boyfriend asked me what I liked to do for fun when I was a girl.  The idea I think was this information could be a window into our who we are now, as adults.  He said he liked to draw (which I did not like to do).  I also remember that I did not like playing with dolls, or pretend house, dress-up, or building.  My repertoire of fun was limited:  I liked to read, do puzzles, and play games.

So it surprised me that it was not until last year that I learned of Snakes and Lattes, which claims to be North America’s first board game cafe.  It’s a place where, for a $5 cover, you can sit and play games until the cows come home.  All the gaming while, you can have coffee/tea and snacks, or a casual meal, delivered to your playing table.

The main appeal of the cafe, of course, are the games.  We’re going leaps and bounds beyond Monopoly and Battleship here, although of course the tried and true are here and popular enough.  There are hundreds and hundreds of games, from traditional favourites to new weird and wonderful that neither of us have ever heard of.  When the options start to overwhelm, you can consult a Game Guru, aka an employee who knows a strange lot about the bazillion games on offer and will guide you to choosing something that you’ll like.

One of the nicest things about Snakes and Lattes is that it appeals to all generations.  I have a friend who is a big more of a board gamer than I am, and this cafe is for her both a destination on date night and for her children for (the whole of) a Sunday afternoon.  You gotta love the democracy of a good game.

I also love – and here my biases are pretty well-defined – that these games are played without screens and with other people and not in a basement.  It’s almost quaint, the idea of a board game, which for me is extra reason to applaud how successful this cafe has become.

Another thing about this place, it’s open like all the time during the week – an ungodly 7am on weekdays (what is it, a bakery?) until “late”.  Weekends commence at a more normal 11am until “late”.

Predictably they sell games too, although the real appeal is getting to play games in a public place with other people willing to do the same thing – kind of like an adult opportunity for parallel play.  It’s a friendly place, with a nice vibe, and if anything can take the possibly ever so slightly nerdy edge off of board games, this is it.

ps.  If you have not tried it, and like politically very wrong humour that targets everyone, Cards Against Humanity is a memorable choice , and good for a group, especially if there is wine.  Or tequila.

pps.  Snakes and Lattes did not ask me to write this and I got no free games out of it.  Darn.

Tequila Tasting in Toronto

It never fails to amaze me the many unique opportunities and experiences Toronto has to offer. There are the obvious: the CN Tower, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the many orchestras, ballets and theatres, to name a few. It’s the hidden gems that continue to inspire me, delight me, educate me and make me thankful to be living in such a dynamic, colourful, and culturally diverse city.

El Caballito is one of these hidden gems. How does a tequila and tacos cantina qualify? First off, El Caballito, located in the heart of the entertainment district, is not just another tourist trap. The robust and lively atmosphere, with dimmed lighting and music pumping, instantly transports you from the hustle and bustle of traditional downtown Toronto to the vibrant streets of Mexico City. The place oozes authenticity and Manny Contreras will attest to its street cred, Certified Master Tequilier and bar manager, was born and raised in Mexico City.

El Caballito offers patrons more than just incredible Mexican cuisine. Whether you’re a scotch aficionado, a wine sipper with penchant for Merlot or a lover of craft beer, after some time in the private tequila tasting room with Manny, you’ll leave El Caballito at the very least with an appreciation for the art of tequila and quite possibly a new affection for the spirit.

Manny Contreras himself is a hidden gem. There are less than one thousand tequiliers working in North America and Manny is one of only two working in Canada after years honing his taste buds in Mexico City. He began at the age of 13 working behind his father’s bar and he is truly steeped in the tradition of tequila.

“You need to know everything about each tequila before you can sell it,” his father told him. Manny sipped from each bottle, discerning the various flavours before he had his first full glass at the age of 21. Manny’s interest in his country’s national drink was more than just a means to make money; it became a passion that propelled him to enroll in a five-year course to become a Certified Master Tequilier.

Tucked away in a room lined with his collection of tequila, that includes everything from Jose Cuervo to Clase Azul, the candle light flickers on the brick wall and the scene is set.


Manny explains with vivid detail how tequila evolved from being the drink of the peasants to the kings and cycled back again to the peasants. Folklore, European invasions, wars, and big corporations have all had a hand in transforming tequila from pulque (fermented sap from the agave plant) to what we know it to be today.

“You have to be ready to really taste the tequila. You have to take your time with it. Let it be still in your mouth.” Manny guided us through our tasting with patience while describing the proper way to enjoy tequila. Drinking tequila is somewhat analogous to the vision that I have of the quintessential Latin lover.

There is much fore play: rolling it around in your mouth, breathing in the heady sensations, allowing the first sips to cleanse and prepare the palate.

There is much sweetness and intensity: the lightest in colour the blanco is young, and bites the tongue, while the darker anjeo is aged and has a sweeter, lasting flavour.

There is also the morning after that can leave one groggy and remorseful but Manny maintains it’s not likely if you savor the experience of a fine tequila instead of absently shooting it back in a flurry of debauchery.


If you’re looking to experience something truly unique, even if you think you hate tequila because of a wasted night in Mexico on your 18th birthday, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.   Book an evening with Manny. He offers a variety of tasting experiences that are suited to all tastes and budgets.

Manny’s Picks

All Time Favourite: Don Julio 1942

Best Value: Tromba

Under-The-Radar: Casa Amigos

For Deep Pockets: Clase Azul