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It’s been cold and snowy in my neck of the woods lately. BUT – since it’s time to plan for my spring/summer garden, I’ve been having fun buying seeds and planning out what I’ll be growing and where, focusing on when the temps will be warm again. It’ll come quickly and I want to be prepared. 🙂

Without further ado, below is my square foot garden plan layout for this year – click on it to make it larger.

I will still do my usual plantings (albeit different kinds) of cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, lettuce, beans and carrots. Oh, and french marigolds to repel the bugs. I’ll be trying some new crops this year: cucumbers, zucchini, garlic (already planted this past fall), snap peas and blueberries. Plus, to assist with my life list item to make my own tea, I’ll be planting chamomile, lemon balm and mint (the mint in its own pot because it can be invasive). I’ll be getting a dehydrator to help with that task as well.

I did all my research and bought all the seeds this morning. I’ll be picking up blueberry plants closer to planting time and I think I’ll plant a couple of other types of basil in 2 of the squares for variety. The purple basils have caught my eye – imagine what a pesto made with purple basil would look like – stunning!

My plan is to cover the entire blueberry 4×4 bed with netting to protect them from the birds. For the basil, I’ll keep some for pesto and dry the rest for cooking. Same for the parsley – I’ll use some fresh and dry the rest. I’ll dry the chamomile, lemon balm and some of the mint to make tea (my favorite tea has all of those elements in it :)). Plus, gotta save some mint for the mojitos.

I love growing my own food and walking out into the yard to pick ingredients for meals – nothing tastes better than tomatoes warmed by the sun or a fresh picked carrot – it’s incredible how different (and better!) things taste compared to the store. I also enjoy babysitting my plants and keeping an eye out for them, trimming here, watering there, picking off pests (Japanese beetles, I’m looking at you). It’s incredibly relaxing, fulfilling and the bigger jobs provide a good workout too. Weeds are few with the square foot garden method because the “good” plants take up all the space and don’t leave any room for the weeds. It’s fabulous.

Here is my list of seeds so far:

  • Red small tomato: Stupice (stoo-pee-chay)
  • Red cherry tomato: Matt’s Wild Red Cherry
  • Yellow cherry tomato: Lemon Drop
  • Yellow cherry tomato: Champagne (Loved these last year – so much sweet flavor in such a tiny package – they’re like a half inch in diameter)
  • Black cherry tomato: Black Cherry
  • Basil: Genovese  (gold standard in basil – amazing for pesto)
  • Basil: TBD – One of the purple varieties
  • Cucumbers: Muncher
  • Zucchini: Green Zucchini
  • Garlic: Red Russian
  • Beans: Yellow Golden Wax (Bush)
  • Peas: Patio Pride
  • Carrots: Nantes
  • Lettuce: Red Salad Bowl
  • Lettuce: Buttercrunch
  • Chamomile: Bodegold
  • Marigolds: French
  • Mint:: Menthol
  • Lemon Balm

 

I am doing my happy dance!!! 🙂

2016 Garden flashback:

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Now that I’ve recuperated from the whirlwind that is my sister and her two daughters, I can write a blog post about all the fun we had during their holiday visit.

They arrived on the 21st on an empty flight and landed at Billy Bishop airport. With the news showing a jam-packed Pearson airport (busiest day of the year apparently), it made sense to fly to the island airport. Traffic was actually light due to many already being off work.

We got back home and everyone settled in. We made lunch (rigatoni with cherry tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella) then had fun playing a rousing game of Christmas charades. The girls are getting old enough to play games that adult enjoy playing too. 🙂 Fun!! We then headed out to Michael’s to get some holiday craft materials that we wanted to tackle during their stay (more on these later!).

We were also cat-sitting for my sister-in-law’s cat Dusty and after a nervous first day, he adjusted quickly and joined in some of the activities. 🙂

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The following day we were planning to go to the Distillery District to see the Christmas Market. During the day, we made the first batch of treats: Smore’s Cookies. They were really yummy and my kitchen helpers were awesome!

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The girls also wrote their letters to Santa for Jingles the Elf to bring them to him. This is a kit that comes with magical paper (and a storybook explaining it all) that shrinks when you bake it (with the help of an adult) so they’re small enough for the elf to carry back to Santa. It was really neat! You can see the large letter in the first pic. Then, the shrunken versions in the 2nd and 3rd pic:

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We also played 5 Second Rule, a fun and simple game where a player has to name 3 things that fit the category in 5 seconds. This was a lot of fun!

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Next was our visit to the Christmas Market. We all hopped on the GO train, played a Christmas-themed version of the alphabet game all the way downtown and got to the market just as the sun was setting and the lights sparkled. 🙂

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On the way back to Union Station, we stopped for dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory and it was warm and cozy. Their Christmas decor was fantastic – just what we needed to warm up!

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The next day we made the next batch of cookies; these were mainly for Uncle Chris: Maple Bacon Cookies. Holy moly were they ever good!

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We made the first craft which was a 3d puzzle-like train made out of foam which was harder than it looked. On the box, they provide a suggested time to finish it (an hour I believe) and we did it in that amount of time:

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We played a bit more charades then got ready for our “Christmas by Lamplight” evening at Black Creek Village. We drove: Drove to the village and drove Uncle Chris crazy with our carol-singing in the car. 🙂 Ha! The village itself was beautifully decorated for the holidays and most of the buildings had something festive going on – see a more complete post here. In short, it was amazing. I’d go back in a heartbeat – highly recommended!!

The next day we made cinnamon-baked doughnuts. Oh my.

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Baking is hard work:

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Had Cadbury hot chocolate (best ever – all others have now been ruined):

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We had an impromptu coloring session:

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We finished up some wrapping to make sure we were all ready for the big day. We all dressed up and had a nice charcuterie, cheese, cracker and fruit dinner with cranberry orange punch (cranberry cocktail, orange juice, sparkling water, cinnamon stick and couple of cloves). I could eat it every day. 🙂  But then I’d end up looking like Santa, so, no.

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We watched a holiday movie (I lost track of which one!!) then the kids were off to bed to try to get some sleep before Santa’s arrival tomorrow morning.  We left out some cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer.

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Maddie read Twas the night Before Christmas to us. 🙂

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We managed to take a pic of the tree after Santa came 🙂

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Dec 25th – Christmas Morning!!!! Sue, Chris and I grabbed our coffees, cookies and doughnuts and the kids opened their stockings. They joined us for cookies, then tackled the gifts. 🙂  Everyone was very happy. I loved what I received from kitchen goodies from Chris (a beautiful pan, cutting boards and tools that I needed) to an awesome winter scarf and Harry Potter slippers from Sue. It was a great success!

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The girls spent most of the day playing; we took a break for lunch (leftover meats and cheeses), then we started on dinner! The adults kicked off the festivities with a bit of brandy. 🙂

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Then we watched The Sound of Music – it’s tradition! And off to bed!

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On the 26th, after having eaten a load of treats and lord knows what else, we headed out to Crawford Lake to enjoy the outdoors and hiked the boardwalk around the lake. It was a cold one but we were all bundled up and pretty much the only ones there! Even the drive up was quiet and scenic.

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We stopped for lunch at Boston Pizza on the way back home and made Christmas ornaments – we got the makings of this from Michael’s as well and these turned out great!
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We braved the cold again the following day and walked the trails near our house on our way to Starbucks to warm up. We came across a dad and his son tobogganing in the area (we heard the dad screaming from a couple of blocks away) and he asked Sienna and Maddie if they would like a ride (to spare him from having to go again teehee). The girls were super excited to have a run. 🙂

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We had fun playing follow the leader on the way back to warm up. There was hopping and jumping involved. Luckily, no video. 🙂

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And that’s it! We survived another family visit, packed as many holiday activities as we could and from what I hear, the girls are already interested in coming back to Aunt Val’s next Christmas. 🙂 A year to recover should be enough. I think.

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It’s that time of year already! I get to look back to see what I was able to accomplish on my Life List. Most of the items were related to our trip to Italy and I also managed to complete a few others:

  • Travel to Italy
  • See the Sistine Chapel, Italy
  • See the Colosseum, Italy
  • Travel to Tuscany, Italy
  • Enjoy pasta and wine in Italy
  • Take a train in Europe
  • Eat pizza in Italy
  • Have gelato in Italy
  • Travel to 50 countries (increased by 2 for Italy and The Vatican: 20 done, 30 to go)
  • Have a proper English tea: We went to the King Edward and it was a fabulous splurge
  • Participate in an Escape Room: I was with colleagues in Ottawa and we had a fun time trying to escape – we almost made it!!
  • Cook a whole fish: I don’t know why I had never done this before but I finally tackled it. Not a fan of all the little bones, but it was tasty!

For my annual book, movie and cooking challenges, I did pretty good:

  • Watch 50 movies in 2017: I’m currently at 57. Overshot this one very nicely! 🙂
  • Read 30 books in 2017: I’m currently reading #17. Not stellar and it’s not because I selected really big novels either. I’ve just been doing other things (watching movies apparently!). May have to reduce this next year to be realistic.
  • Cook 30 new recipes in 2017: I’m currently at 27 with a few days to go. It might happen.

My list is now at 310 completed of 441 total.

Next up: Revising the list and planning next year’s To Do’s!

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Christmas wouldn’t be the same without homemade cookies and other treats. I have my usual favorites but also enjoy discovering new recipes that are good enough to make it into the annual repertoire.

Chocolate Chip Cookies (aka Alton Brown’s “The Chewy”)

This is the best chocolate chip cookie ever. Hands  down. Look no further. Alton Brown did a series on the Food Network about chocolate chip cookies and explained how the chemistry of the ingredients resulted in different types of chocolate chip cookies (chewy, crisp, etc.). Genius!

This chewy morsel of deliciousness if heaven on a plate (if it eve makes it to a plate from the cookie sheet that is)! The secrets: Use bread flour (not all-purpose), melt the butter and have a mix of brown and white sugar. You’ll never need another recipe for chocolate chip cookies for the rest of your life.

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 12 ounces (2 1/2 cups) bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 ounces (4 1/2 Tbsp) granulated sugar
  • 8 ounces (1 cup) light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 ounce (2 Tbsp) whole milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

Directions

Melt the butter in a 2-quart (2 litre) saucepan over low heat. Set aside to cool slightly.

Sift together the flour, salt and baking soda onto a paper plate. Pour the butter into your stand mixer’s work bowl. Add the sugar and brown sugar and beat with the paddle attachment on medium speed for 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the whole egg, the egg yolk, milk and vanilla extract in a measuring cup. Reduce the mixer speed and slowly add the egg mixture. Mix until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds.

Using the paper plate as a slide, gradually integrate the dry ingredients, stopping a couple of times to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Once the flour is worked in, drop the speed to “stir” and add the chocolate chips. Chill the dough for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and place racks in the top third and bottom third of the oven.

Scoop the dough into 1 1/2-ounce portions onto parchment-lined half sheet pans, 6 cookies per sheet. Bake 2 sheets at a time for 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. Remove from the oven, slide the parchment with the cookies onto a cooling rack and wait at least 5 minutes before devouring.

Yield: Makes about 20-24 cookies. They keep well in an airtight container.

Note: The darker the sugar you use, the chewier your cookies will be.

My adaptations: I don’t sift the flour. I use dark brown sugar. I don’t use a stand mixer, I mix everything in a bowl by hand with a wooden spoon and when incorporating the dry into the wet ingredients, I stir until just mixed, then stir in the chocolate chips and scoop with an ice cream scooper onto cookie sheets lined with either silicon sheets or parchment.

Before baking:

After baking:

The next recipe is a new one (to me) that comes from the Outlander Kitchen cookbook. The cookbook is based on the Outlander book series by Diana Gabaldon about Claire, who travels through time to mid 18th century Scotland and falls in love with highlander Jamie Fraser. The recipes are pulled out of the book (where foods are referred to in passing) and being able to make them yourself makes it seem like you’re right there in Scotland with Claire and Jamie.

Ginger-Nut Biscuits

This is not your traditional ginger snap cookie. This is a slightly spiced soft pillow of ginger and cinnamon goodness. Perfect with tea, or coffee, or plain old tap water for that matter – they’re that good.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 1/3 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp kosher or coarse salt
  • 1/2 cup white granulated sugar (for rolling)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a large bowl with a wooden spoon, cream butter with brown sugar vigorously until fluffy. Beat in honey and eggs until well combined and smooth.

In another bowl, combine flour, ground ginger, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Stir into wet ingredients until just mixed.

Shape into golf-sized balls and roll in white sugar to coat. Place on an ungreased or parchment-lined cookie sheet 1 inch apart. Do not flatten.

Bake for 10-12 minutes.

Remove from oven and rest on sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool

These keep well in an airtight container, or you can freeze them too (although they’ve never lasted long enough in my house to freeze them).

Soft Chewy Caramels

These aren’t a cookie but they are definitely a decadent treat to enjoy during the holidays and make a great gift (just so you don’t lose complete control and eat them all!!). There are only a few ingredients and you don’t need a candy thermometer. Win-win! Although making candy can be a tricky experience, I’ve never had issues with this recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1½ sticks butter (12 tablespoons)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 14 oz sweetened condensed milk
  • Optional: coarse sea salt, ½ teaspoon vanilla (see note)

Directions

  1. In a medium sauce pan combine butter and sugar and stir over medium heat until melted. Stir in corn syrup and condensed milk.
  2. Bring to a boil and then decrease to simmer 7-10 minutes or until mixture achieves deep golden color, stirring constantly. (*For lower altitudes, simmer time may need to be reduced 2-3 minutes, watch carefully for coloring!)
  3. Pour caramel into a foil-lined 8×8 inch pan and allow to cool completely. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt if desired.
  4. When completely cooled, cut into squares and wrap in wax paper.
NOTES
  • Makes about 20-30 caramels (depending on how large you cut them)
  • Recipe prep time does not include cooling time which may be 1-2 hours
  • For additional richness and flavor, you can stir in ½ teaspoon vanilla after removing the caramel from the heat and before pouring it into your prepared pan. sprinkle coarse sea salt on top of caramels for a boost of rich salted caramel flavor!

Sorry for the blurry pic – it was all I could do to hold back from scarfing them all in one sitting. 🙂

Here’s to Christmas cookies, treats and other goodies!

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That really should say my recipe, my mom’s recipe, my grandmother’s recipe and further back even… Over the years and generations, we each probably tweaked it a bit to our liking but it’s the recipe that’s stayed in the family and one person in each generation carries the torch to cook the bird every year. For my generation, that person is me. 🙂

Early on, I’d say about 10 years old or so, my interest in cooking started. I’d hang out in the kitchen observing others prepare meals, helping with small tasks and enjoy watching how separate ingredients would be magically transformed into delicious dishes that people oohed and aahed over. The creative outlet and the chance to make family happy (and friends, later) were the hook for me. It’s been a lifelong passion ever since.

I’ve made this turkey every year for at least 17 years now. I’ve typically been the dinner host for family gatherings and even since my husband and I moved to Toronto from Montreal in 2008, we still end up with family visiting. I’d like to think they come to see me but secretly suspect it’s the turkey that draws them near. Or at least the craving for the continuity of family traditions. I look forward to the day that I’ll pass the recipe on to one of my nieces; Sienna seems more interested in cooking than Maddie but you never know. Luckily, I’ve got several more turkeys in me yet. 🙂

Roasted Turkey

Ingredients:

1 frozen turkey (I always get a Butterball and I let it defrost in the fridge anywhere from 3-5 days prior, depending on the size)

1 yellow onion, peeled and quartered

2 lemons, quartered lengthwise

Fresh thyme, a bunch (about 3-4 springs)

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened (in the microwave) – I don’t always use it all

1/2 tsp dried thyme

Salt and pepper

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325F and get your roasting pan and meat thermometer ready. Make sure you adjust your oven racks too and your sink is empty and clean and so are your hands. Take the turkey out of the fridge, remove the wrapper and rinse out the turkey in the sink, remove the neck and giblets from the cavity, pat dry and place it in the roasting pan. (Warning: This is probably the least graceful prep exercise of anything you’ll ever cook, so best to do it with as few witnesses as possible. I usually get up at 6am to do it since we have a holiday lunch instead of a dinner. The only witness was usually the cat but even he looked at me with disdain during this part).

Next comes the fun part. Slather the softened butter all over the turkey; I use my hands. So fun. Next (after washing your hands of course), add the onion, lemon and fresh thyme to the cavity. Add a couple of pinches of salt and pepper in there too. Sprinkle the outside of the turkey with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Stick the meat thermometer in (I put it between the leg and the body because that’s usually the last spot to cook through), cover the pan/turkey with foil and pop it into the oven. Try not to throw your back out when doing this step. 🙂

Cooking times vary depending on size and whether the bird is stuffed or not. I usually get a 16-20 lb turkey and at 325F it usually cooks for about 4 hours. I rely on the meat thermometer to gauge when to start the side dishes which usually take about 2 hours start to finish, some started the day before to keep the oven free for turkey morning. See Butterball’s handy turkey calculator here which includes how much turkey to buy, how long to defrost it and how long to cook it.

Once there’s about an hour left, I remove the foil and baste if I’m so inclined. Since I usually carve in the kitchen and place turkey slices on a platter for the table (also make sure it’s all cooked through – no one wants a raw poultry surprise), there’s no pressure of the perfect looking bird. You can do so if you like.

That’s it! It’s the easiest thing to roast in my opinion and the most bang for your buck for the little effort that goes into it. The recipe above always results in a juicy and delicious turkey (if I do say so myself) and a house that smells amazing. The side dishes complement the turkey but the bird is the star of the show! My mom used to return the turkey slices/pieces to the pan and let them simmer in their juices while she finished the side dishes. I never found the patience to do that – once it’s ready I want to eat it now!!

Some pics of the holiday table over the years, some for a small gathering, some for a crowd:

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In every family, there are traditional recipes that get made over and over again. This particular treat has been made dozens if not hundreds of times in our family, most often around the holidays but has been requested on birthdays, or even ‘just because’. I tend to make them for Thanksgiving or Christmas but when nothing else will do, a comforting pan of Kovas will usually satisfy any chocolate craving.

Really, they’re nanaimo bars, but the recipe originally came printed on a tin of custard powder and they were called “Kova Custard Squares”. The name stuck and our family still calls them that, 30+ years later!

The recipe couldn’t be simpler – there is no baking, just some melting on the stove top. The cocoa makes the crust nice and rich, the custard is smooth and creamy and the chocolate icing is so yummy. It’s a quick and easy way to make delicious holiday treats for friends and family.

Or just for you. I don’t judge. 🙂

Kova Custard Squares

Ingredients:

Crust:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 5 tbsp sugar
  • 5 tbsp cocoa
  • 1 egg, unbeaten
  • 2 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Custard:

  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp custard powder
  • 3 tbsp milk
  • 2 cups icing sugar

Icing:

  • 3 squares semi-sweet chocolate
  • 1 tbsp butter

Preparation:

Mix the first 4 ingredients (butter, sugar, cocoa and egg) in a medium-sized pot on medium-low heat until the butter is melted.

Add graham cracker crumbs and vanilla. Stir until combined.

Place mixture in 8″ or 9″ square glass or metal pan, pat in, cool in fridge.

Meanwhile, make the custard:

In medium mixing bowl, combine custard ingredients (butter, custard powder, milk and icing sugar).

Remove pan from fridge and spread custard over mixture in pan.

Melt 3 squares semi-sweet chocolate and 1tbsp butter in a small pot over medium-low heat (once it starts melting, stir continuously) and spread over custard. (You can use the microwave in 20 second intervals – but be careful).

Cool in fridge for at least 2 hours (if you can wait that long!). Slice into bars and serve.

They keep for about a week but honestly, they won’t last that long!

 

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I’d had this on my Life List for a while now and after a false start last year we finally managed to go this afternoon for an early Valentine’s Day outing. It was worth the wait. 🙂

king-edward

We arrived at the Omni King Edward hotel – took the train to downtown Toronto and walked a few blocks up to the hotel in the snow. We were greeted, shown to the coat check (complimentary), waited just a few minutes for the setup/room to be ready and were seated at a lovely table.

We were offered menus and tea boxes to sniff the various teas available. I selected the Rouge Provence (rooibos) and Chris took the Taj Spiced Chai Tea. We were each brought an amuse bouche – a yummy mushroom tartlet with tarragon creme fraiche, quickly followed by our respective teapots. Both the tartlet and the tea were delicious.

We each chose the Winter Tea which included sandwiches, scones and pastries. The sandwiches were brought first and everything was fresh and tasty:

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We each had our own plate with 5 finger sandwiches:

  • Peppered Beef with Watercress and Horseradish Cream
  • Free Range Egg Salad with Fresh Lemon and Dill
  • Smoked Salmon & Mango with Pickled Vegetables
  • Toasted Sesame & Wasabi Mayonnaise Chickpea Hummus with Lightly Curried Carrot, Raisins & Almonds
  • Chicken Waldorf with Crisp Apple & Celery

Delicious.

Next came the scones and pastries. It looked so good – I forgot to take a pic before we ate the scones! The scones came on the bottom plate (we each had 2 kinds):

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  • Currant & Cinnamon Scone
  • Classic Cream Scone
  • Served with Devonshire Cream, House Made Ontario Strawberry Jam and Apple Brandy Butter

Again, everything was fresh and tasted amazing. But there was more!

The pastries were next:

  • Blood Orange Posset with Cranberry Oat Biscotti
  • Chocolate Mint Macaron
  • Vanilla Bean & Berry Cream Tartlet
  • Layered Chocolate Chestnut Slice

It was just the right amount of food and each item was carefully prepared. Our server was polite and friendly and we were well taken care of throughout. It was a beautiful room and a very relaxed atmosphere.

It was a very enjoyable experience, one we would do again.

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