Be Chill My Beating Heart

Bakery life isn’t for the faint-hearted. When your alarm clock blares out like a wild, angry goose long before the sun rises, it’s enough to make you question your life choices.

One day’s routine blurs into another. That’s why it was such a shock when the door chime jingled so early. Why wasn’t that door locked anyway? I popped my head out of the back and saw a vision in torn jeans, tattoos and . . . milkshake?

“Sorry. Some kid on a bike—who shouldn’t have been drinking a milkshake this early anyway—ran into me. Can I use your bathroom?”

I thought about him all day, kicking myself for not asking his name. I had no idea I’d have another chance.

The boss sent me out on a late delivery, said our delivery boy got into some snafu with his bike and was out of commission. The address was a bar a few blocks away, right past Starbucks, so I snuck a frappe en route.

Arms loaded with bags and hand clutching the icy vanilla bean goodness, I had to hip-check the door open. It met with resistance, and the frappe jolted out of my hand, sloshing down my front. The door gave way and as the slush oozed its chilly way through my shirt I saw torn jeans, tattoos and laughing brown eyes.

“Could this be love at frost sight?” He winked. “I’m Casey.”

My stomach fluttered. “Well I won’t give you the cold shoulder. I’m Elle.” 

Millicent’s Lebkuchen

Having just finished reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I got the urge to make a batch of a German gingerbread called Lebkuchen. (Read my thoughts on the book HERE) On one of Liesel and Rudy’s visits to the Mayor’s house, they find a plate of Christmas cookies that they decide were meant for them. Could they have been a type of Lebkuchen?

Today I share with you a treasured recipe passed on to me by a dear old friend who recently passed away at the age of 95. My Lebkuchen will always lack a certain something when compared with hers, but I give it my very best. Perhaps knowing that someone you love has made them makes a cookie taste better than one you made yourself.

These cookies are best enjoyed after storing them for at least 3-4 days to soften, but who can resist biting into a freshly baked cookie? I never last 3 days before digging in.

Millicent’s Lebkuchen

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup melted margarine or butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup corn syrup or molasses
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ginger (or more if you like)
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk or soured milk
  • 1/4 cup cold strong coffee

Method:

  1. Mix margarine or butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup or molasses.
  2. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices.
  3. Gradually blend dry ingredients with liquid mixture, alternating with milk and coffee.
  4. Cover tightly and chill until firm.
  5. Roll out to ¼ inch thickness .
  6. Cut out and arrange slightly apart on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
  7. Bake at 350°F for 8-10 minutes. Do not overbake.

There are two options for glazing these cookies.  The first is a thin lemon glaze that is applied while the cookies are still hot from the oven. This glaze cools to a lovely crisp finish.

  • Mix 1 cup icing sugar, 1 large egg white, 1 tbsp lemonjuice, and 1/8 tsp fine sea salt.
  • Brush on warm cookies using a pastry brush. Let set completely before packaging the cookies.

The second option is a thicker lemon frosting that can be tinted a lovely pastel yellow or pink.

  • Mix 1 ½ cups icing sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla, 3 tbsp lemon juice.
  • Frost the tops of completely cooled cookies using the back of a spoon or a small offset spatula.

Store in an airtight container 3 days before serving for maximum flavour and texture (if you have the self-control).

They Wore Matching Leather Jackets with a Red Stripe on the Sleeve

Javier stood at the starting line, concentrating on his breathing. He blocked out all the commotion around him. His focus was keener, sharper than at any other moment in his life. This was his time.  This was his chance. It all came down to this.

When the starter pistol sounded, his muscles leapt into instinctive action, all that coiled kinetic force propelling him forward. He saw nothing but the finish line, heard nothing but his rhythmic breathing, felt nothing but the beating of his heart and the energy coursing through him connecting with the ground at every stride. He was a bolt of lightning, he was a powerful beast, he was . . . alone?

When he rushed through the banner that marked the finish, pride-puffed chest first, arms raised triumphantly above him, there were no cheers. There was no crowd of eager fans to congratulate him. There were no almost-winners breathing down his neck. Baffled, he turned and looked back. 400 meters away a crowd of sprinters and spectators gathered at the starting line in a knot of concern.

Javier jogged the track in reverse as if rewinding his success. He shouldered his way in through the growing crowd. When his head emerged into the center circle he drew his breath in sharply. There on the ground was number 23, Tyson Blake, his chief rival and the favourite to win this race. He was twisted into the ungainly pose of unexpected death, his face an alarming shade of gray. A tiny feathered dart stuck out of the back of his left calf. One clenched fist extended forward toward the finish line as if in death he still strived for victory. Javier suddenly felt ill.

Paramedics with a gurney parted the crowd and knelt to start their futile resuscitation efforts. It wasn’t until the coroner arrived and waved them all away that Javier could tear his eyes from the grisly scene. He scanned the dispersing crowd for his brother Mateo, spotting him leaning against the hood of his pride and joy, a conspicuous yellow Camarro. The need for speed ran in the family, they often told a new acquaintance or interviewing journalist.

As Javier approached, Mateo pulled his hands out from deep in the pockets of his leather jacket and clapped him roughly on the back.

“Great race, bro. You killed it.”

“That’s not funny, man. Let’s just go.”

After three weeks the police investigation had gone exactly nowhere. The race was rescheduled and on the morning of Race Day: Take Two, Javier shrugged into his leather jacket on his way out the door. As he walked to Mateo’s waiting car he tucked his hands into his pockets, his fingers coming to rest on a thin cylinder that felt like bamboo. A puzzled frown flashed across his face.

“You’ve got my jacket on, bro.”

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

This book. Wow. I know I am a little late getting there, as it was published in 2005, but am I ever glad that I had this gem recommended to me!

The Book Thief is a masterpiece of human emotion, told from the perspective of Death and following the life of a young girl named Liesel as she grows up in Nazi Germany during World War II. It is equal parts insightful, heart-breaking, and hopeful, with both a devastatingly sad and a bittersweet happy ending, if one can believe that is possible.

“Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.”

War is ugly. The holocaust was an atrocity that words cannot even begin to summarize, let alone attempt to heal. But this book tells a story of a glimmer of humanity in an indescribably dark time.

 “I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

The way Markus Zusak, in plain and simple language, hones in so expertly on the universal human truth behind events and actions astounds me. I can only hope and strive to one day attain to that level of writing. His writing grabs the reader, pulls them into the story, and shakes them as if to say: “Don’t you see?”

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

At its core, it is a story about the power of words, and it is one that will sit heavy in my heart for a long time to come. What books have you read that stayed with you for a long time after?

“Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”

Someone Else’s Window

Outside someone else’s window the neighbour’s wife,

in breakfast-crusted robe and last year’s Christmas present

slippers

steps out onto the balcony,

dragging

the laundry basket full, heaping, overflowing. She can

barely

lift it to the railing where it tips,

dumping

raining through the air

all her husband’s dirty laundry. As it

flutters

to the street below, amongst shirts and socks and boxer shorts

I see. I understand.

She’s not the type to wear

a leopard print thong.

The Daily Whys

Why did I ever want to be a baker? I groan and curse the blaring 4:30 am alarm that cuts short my slumber.

Why would anyone choose to live here? I shiver in the dark as I try to move two feet of snow off my car so I can leave for work.

Why does fresh-baked bread smell so good? I soak in the waft of warm, delicious steam when I open the oven door, serenaded by the crackling crusts as they hit the cooler air.

Why can’t people just mind their own business? Teresa and Gary are at each other’s throats again and Karen tries to feed me the gossip for lunch in the cramped break room.

Why does the last hour of the shift always feel the longest? I check the clock every two minutes to see if I can go home yet, but the clock seems to have started moving backwards.

Why not grab a treat to take home? I can’t leave those tasty-looking pear caramel tarts behind, I’d just pine for them all evening.

Why is my winter coat so snug? I could swear it fit me better last winter.

Why should I cook supper when I’ve been hard at it in the kitchen all day? I scroll through takeout menus salivating at the choices.

Why can’t that infernal moron put a proper exhaust on his truck? I shake my fist at the window when he drowns out the crucial moment the killer is revealed on my TV.

Why did I stay up so late? I’m going to regret this in the morning, I just know it as I snuggle down under the covers.

Brunch is Always a Good Idea

Is there anything more delicious than a morning that starts gently and quietly sans alarm clock and culminates in a decadent brunch spread complete with tart, fizzy mimosas and the fluffiest pancakes known to man? No, really, I promise you, the fluffiest.

These soufflé pancakes are a lot more work than traditional pancakes, but absolutely worth the effort. They are so delightfully airy that you can feel the bubbles on your tongue. The ingredients are simple and few. This recipe is all about technique, so follow the instructions carefully for best results.

Souffle Pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • Powdered sugar for dusting
  • Raspberries to garnish
  • Maple syrup (optional)

Method:

  1. Whisk together egg yolks, flour, milk, and vanilla until combined.
  2. Beat egg whites until foamy and then gradually add sugar while continuously beating for 2-3 minutes until stiff peaks form.
  3. Add a small amount of the stiff egg whites to the egg yolk mixture and whisk to combine. Put away the whisk. Now you need to be gentle!
  4. Gently fold the rest of the egg whites into the mixture using a spatula, being sure not to deflate the egg whites.
  5. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat with oil.
  6. Using an ice cream scoop, scoop batter into pan. This recipe will make 4 pancakes, but if your pan is not large enough, you will have to cook 2 at a time. I use a 12-inch pan to accommodate 4 pancakes. They need their space. Do not spread the batter out, just scoop into heaps in the pan.
  7. Add 4 teaspoons of water, cover, reduce heat slightly, and cook for 6 minutes.
  8. Flip, cover, and cook for 5 minutes.
  9. Dust with powdered sugar, garnish with raspberries, and enjoy!

Cuthbert Could Not Abide

Cuthbert Sloane was on a roll.

It started the day he went into the office lunchroom to grab a cup of coffee. He always kept a carton of milk in the fridge. He was the only one in the office who took milk in his coffee, and he brought in his own. But that dreary Thursday he held the carton upside down above his cup and not a drop of milk came out. Now, if there were one thing Cuthbert could not abide, it was helping yourself to something that wasn’t yours.

He knew it had to be Betty. Petty Betty, as he called her in his mind. He had jammed the copier the Friday before—totally accidental, it was—and by the time the tech guy had finally swanned in to have a look, it was gone five and he said it would have to wait until Monday. Petty Betty was fuming and the milk was her passive aggressive revenge, no doubt.

Cuthbert handled it with dignity, aplomb, and no small amount of poetic justice. At least that’s what he told himself as he milked the last drops of brake fluid into the empty carton Friday afternoon.

So sad to hear of Betty’s passing when they all came back in Monday morning. It really cast a pall over the office. Of course Cuthbert chipped in when Grinning Ginny, the office pep squad all in one perky buck-toothed bundle, went round taking up a collection to send flowers to the family. He couldn’t help but notice, though, that the bouquet she cc’d them all a photo of was on the budget page of the flower shop website. He’d wager she pocketed the difference.

Well now, that just wasn’t right, and it sure wouldn’t happen again if Cuthbert had anything to do with it. A tissue neatly sopped up the layer of oil off his jar of peanut butter at home Wednesday morning. Not that he could bring peanut butter sandwiches to work, as someone was allergic. The tissue was the next thing that lined Grinning Ginny’s pocket.

Thursday was a dark day in the office. Soft murmurs of ‘Poor Ginny’ and ‘She was so young’ and ‘I heard they couldn’t find her epi-pen and by the time they got her to the hospital she was gone.’ There was even the occasional worried whisper: ‘Don’t these things happen in threes?’

It was all overshadowed on Monday by the breathless anticipation of the announcement of the next assistant manager. Everyone expected Cuthbert to get the promotion; he’d been working so hard and he had the most qualifications and the top sales for the last three quarters. A ripple of raised eyebrows and surprised gasps rounded the office when Barry stood up and shook the boss’s hand with his chest puffed out. Later on, Cuthbert watched as Brown-nose Barry circled the office collecting high fives and firm back-of-the-shoulder pats, accolades that should have belonged to him. Not to mention the pay raise that Cuthbert had been counting on.

Not to worry, Cuthbert had just the thing. A pay raise and greater responsibility most often came with greater stress. Brown-nose Barry was also going to need an increase in his blood pressure medication, to be sure. Cuthbert took him a congratulatory cup of coffee in his new corner office and watched him down it in three quick swallows. ‘No, don’t worry “sir” I’ll wash the cup.’

A Nightmare Thankfully Unfulfilled

So there I was, far from home, boarding a bus for an 20 hour journey from Santa Cruz to the mountain city of La Paz. My travel companions: my brother-in-law who speaks scarcely a dozen words of English and his friend who I had only met days earlier. I had never ventured far afield in Bolivia, tending to stick closely to my sister and the comfort of her familiarity with Santa Cruz.

We left in the evening, driving through the night. I would sleep through bumpy stretches and awake when the bus shuddered to a halt, inexplicably, at times for what felt like hours. The darkness and the unknown and the mystery of it all were terribly exciting and stressful all at once.

I assumed that the tiny closet of a bathroom on the bus would be vile. It was in constant use during the journey, people of all ages, shapes and sizes shuffling along the aisle, down the steps, disappearing for varying lengths of time and then reappearing again. I made it through the night and into the morning without needing the facility. A brief stop for lunch of coca tea and soup sealed my fate. Having tried to toe the line between being dehydrated enough not to have to pee, but hydrated enough not to feel the effects of the altitude change too badly, the tank was now ominously full. Despite a pit stop before we boarded the bus again, I knew I would not make it the rest of the trip.

I enjoyed the scenery as the bus climbed further, jungle having given way to desert plains now as we climbed higher into the mountains. Somewhere in a roadside town the bus halted once more, without allowing anyone off. After we were on the road again, my brother-in-law suggested that the bathroom may have been cleaned and now was probably the best time to use it. Still reluctant, I waited longer until I could wait no more. I did my own shuffle along the aisle, down around the steps, into the closet.

The first thing I noticed was a puddle on the floor. Knowing the awful truth about its origin, I tried to straddle the liquid as best I could, telling myself maybe people had splashed water on the floor as they washed their hands. Legs thusly akimbo, I turned around and tried to lock the flimsy accordion door in place. It wouldn’t lock. Okay, I will hold it with one hand so no one can enter. The suspicious puddle on the floor sloshed one way and then another as the bus jostled. I lowered my pants the necessary margin with my free hand, squatting precariously over the toilet seat, one arm fully extended to hold the door closed, one foot on either side of the puddle. The bus rather viciously rounded a curve, and the top-heavy double-decker beast rocked from side to side. All I could picture was me, flying through the insecure door, pants about my ankles, landing in an undignified heap at the feet of the next passenger in line, bare bum sticking up for all the world to see above the pee-soaked hems of my jeans.

This nightmare thankfully unfulfilled, I plodded my way back up the stairs, around the corner, along the aisle to my seat. A trail of damp footprints followed me, and for the rest of the drive the smell of other people’s urine lingered in my nostrils.

The moral of the story? If you’re on a 20 hour bus ride through the jungle and the desert into the mountains, the bathroom WILL be as vile as you can imagine. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and the adventure is worth it.

To Escape the Lurking Darkness

It’s a short minute to walk up the boardwalk, along the edge of the harbour, and out to the far end of the breakwater. In the harbour some bit of sailboat rigging is rattling against the mast with a metallic tinkle, and all the boats rock and sway gently in their rhythm. The harbour water rests calm and endlessly deep, that kind of deep that dares you to plunge in. On my left, the waves slosh in and lap at the sandy beach, nibbling at yesterday’s sandcastles and wiping out footprints as quickly as they are left. My steps take on an urgency. They’ve been this way before.

Weeds and spiders creep through the rocks on the lake side of the wall—it’s a wonder the waves don’t wash them away on the stormy days. Kids always love to climb up there but you won’t catch me going anywhere near the creepy crawling things that loiter in the dark crevices. I come out here to escape the lurking darkness.

At the end I perch on the wall and dangle my legs, swinging my toes above the water. Below my feet the water swirls over the algae covered rocks. The hairy green sways in time with the currents in a gentle dance. The wind is calmer today; it’s just the soft kiss of a breeze that makes the hot sun pleasant more than burning. A few fluffy clouds float toward me from the horizon. Out here I can breathe. Out here I can feel. Out here I can cry.

I whisper my confessions to the lake that holds my secrets. Every trauma, every sadness, every bitter regret and shame is released and set adrift. The breeze dries away my tears even as the soothing rhythmic waves calm my anxious heart.

I turn my head, interrupted by the sound of screeching seagulls and children’s laughing screams. A boy charges across the sand toward a dozen gulls at the water’s edge and sends them scolding into flight. His little sister toddles after him on chubby legs, her sodden diaper drooping low behind her. Envying their freedom, I sense my time has come to leave. I retrace my steps, feeling if not happy then at least at peace.