Chinese New Year at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Sure, bring those little kids to the Art Museum!

Ok, so this post needs a bit of explanation.  We’ve started our journeys to India!  So I decided to come post about going to the Art Museum to learn about India this summer … and lo and behold, I found this draft post from waaaayyyy back around January, that was just waiting to be put online.

So, I thought, what the heck — before we learn about India, let’s just go ahead and talk a bit more about China, just long enough to appreciate the Cleveland Museum of Art.


So, here we go…


The  Cleveland Museum of Art, like many arts and cultural institutions, has been busily re-making their image to be more fun and friendly to younger audiences.  This is, of course, a survival mechanism for many institutions whose supporters are aging quickly.  The CMA, however, is one of the world’s most important art museums, and not really in any risk of going under, so this new openness to children seems to be less about survival and more about delight. And delighted we are.


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The CMA has just emerged from a massive multi-year renovation effort that has resulted in fresh, redesigned gallery spaces, a beautiful new atrium, a trendy gourmet restaurant, and a top-notch interactive exhibit with a special area just for small children.  One of the ways they are promoting their new, friendlier space is through the institution of a second-Sunday event they are calling “Family Day at the CMA.”

In January, “Family Day” was Chinese-New-Year-themed, so of course, we couldn’t miss it.  (Yes, I know it’s taken me four months to get this up on the blog.  It’s been a bit of a busy semester.)

The folks who organize “Family Day at the CMA” always come up with some truly creative approaches to the monthly theme, and the Year of the Horse was no exception.

In one corner, they were rubber-stamping Chinese New Year images in gold paint onto pre-designed papers that could be cut and pasted to make red “lucky money” envelopes.  In the middle of the atrium, they were making Chinese fortune-tellers.  Olive loved this activity.  (All of the Gen-X parents at the table were chuckling over memories of making these in elementary school, too).

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The organizers also went through the museum’s collection in search of classical Chinese artwork, then made color copies of elements of some of the works on magnetic vinyl.  Then the images were stuck on large metal boards, where children could rearrange these elements to make their own “ancient Chinese art.”

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After she ‘made’ her own art with the magnets, we were able to go to the Chinese art gallery and find the original scrolls and tapestries for the images she’d been playing with.  It was a great way to get my preschooler to connect with the artwork in the collection!

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One of the coolest crafts was making paper horse puppets on sticks, with moveable heads and feet.  After they were completed, the children were encouraged to go into the Chinese art galleries on a ‘horse scavenger hunt.’  Isaac found the ancient statue on which the puppet’s design was based!

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On the way out, we took another trip through the Atrium to admire the giant installation there of bronze busts representing the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac by the famous contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

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(As I took this photo, I wondered if someone was cringing at the sight of my child climbing on the art — but because of their placement and size, these don’t really give the impression of being ‘don’t touch’ items.   It’s a little hard to tell, in the modern museum environment, what is touchable and what is not.  You can follow a fascinating conversation among museum professionals about that problem here, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Speaking of Zodiac animals, we found this children’s picture book at the library:

The Great Race: the Story of the Chinese Zodiac
by Dawn Casey, illustrated by Anne Wilson

This brightly-illustrated book is a retelling of a folk tale about how the various animals of the zodiac ended up in the zodiac in the order that they did.  We were able to talk about how the animals in the story were the same as the animals in Ai Weiwei’s sculptures.  A great connection!





So, though there’s probably more to say about China, I’m going to leave it be, in the interest of actually telling about our journeys to India. More on that soon!  Stay tuned!

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Luck for the New Year

Anyone who begins to study Chinese culture notices at once the heavy emphasis on “luck.”

Oranges are considered lucky for Chinese New Year because the Chinese word for "gold" is similar to the word for "orange."

Oranges are considered lucky for Chinese New Year because the Chinese word for “gold” is similar to the word for “orange.”

In traditional Chinese religious thinking, the concept of ‘luck’ goes much deeper than lucky charms and numbers.  In this tradition, luck is the natural result of fitting oneself into the Tian Dao, the “Way of Heaven.”  If one does not fit into the will of heaven, then bad luck — up to and including financial ruin, death and disaster — can result.  Therefore, discerning the Way of Heaven is of critical importance.  This is why so many complex traditions of divination developed over time.

These little oranges don’t last very long around our house…

Chinese philosophy generally emphasizes balance before anything else, so many of the ‘luck’ traditions and divination are about establishing where one’s actions and decisions fit into the overarching balance of the universe.  Seen in this context, the Chinese New Year traditions about luck make lots of sense: the Lunar New Year is when the universe turns, when the cycle starts over, so it is a naturally propitious time for establishing one’s place in that balance.

So we looked up some of the “Good luck” traditions for Chinese New Year’s — there are too many to list here, but some of the more common include exchanging gifts of money or sweets, wearing new clothing, setting off fireworks, and eating foods that look or sound lucky (with names that are homophones for words like “luck,” “longevity,” “wealth,” or other positive concepts, for example).   There’s a very detailed description of some of these customs on Wikipedia — including separate observances for each of the 15 days of the festival!

We decided to try just a few of these customs, starting with food!  This brief article listed a few ‘lucky foods’: So we thought we’d try the ones that were easily vegetarian.  We started with:

Long-life Noodles

Serves 4.

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  • 1 package udon noodles
  • 1 egg
  • 1 8 oz. can bamboo shoots
  • 1/2 red pepper, cut into slivers
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and cut in matchsticks
  • 3/4 cup shredded cabbage or bok choi
  • 3/4 cup fresh bean sprouts
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 1″ square of fresh ginger, minced or grated
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
  • 2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce
  • 3 Tbsp. soy sauce or tamari
  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tsp. sesame seeds for garnish (optional)

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To prepare:

  1. Boil water and cook noodles according to package directions.  Do not break or cut the noodles to get them in the pan!  Drop the whole noodles into the pot and allow them to slowly soften until the entire noodle is underwater.  Boil until cooked. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a large wok.  When oil is hot, drop in egg.  Immediately scramble the egg with chopsticks.

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3. Cook until egg is cooked through in small pieces.  Remove egg and drain on paper towels.

4. Now heat another 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in the wok.  When oil is hot, add carrots, cabbage, red pepper and bamboo shoots.  Cook until carrots are just starting to soften.  Don’t overcook!

5. Add ginger, garlic, sesame oil, hoisin sauce and soy sauce. Stir and cook for another 2 minutes or so.

6. Add sprouts and green onions.  Stir and cook another 1 minute or until sprouts are just heated.

7. Add cooked egg and udon noodles.  Stir well to mix.  Remove from heat.

8. Serve garnished with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

9. Give your children chopsticks and see how they do with such long noodles!

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In our next post: picture books about Chinese New Year and an adaptation of “Mu Shu’s Mu Shu” from the Disney Princess cookbook!

We interrupt your regularly scheduled traveling with… Kurentovanje!

So I know it’s taking us forever to get out of China. Mostly because I have been too busy to follow through with our plans to eat lychee fruit at the Chinese market and visit the “year of the horse” statues all over Cleveland’s Asiatown.

I would like to say that I have taken Kathy’s advice and taught my children how to eat noodles with chopsticks properly:

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But that’s a whole ‘nother post.  I’ll catch you up on all of that later.

Today, I simply must take a moment’s break from China to tell you about our day trip to…  Slovenia!

This weekend, we happened to stumble into a cultural event that is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Cleveland all year.  And Cleveland has some pretty cool stuff going on, so this is impressive.

The event is called Kurentovanje.  Pronounced “koo-rahn-toh-VAHN-yay,” this event was described by one organizer as a “Slovenian Mardi Gras.”  But no, it’s much more than that.  It’s as though you took Halloween, Carnival, and St. Patrick’s Day, added a good dose of live polka, two DJ’s, piles of food, and a lot of random local artists and crafters, scattered them in a beautiful century-old building in the center of downtown, and then stuck a beer garden in the backyard.

I know, right? How much cooler could anything get?

So if you want to learn about the history of Kurentovanje, you’ll have to read it on the beautiful event website, because I cannot possibly do justice to the entire explanation.  Let’s just say this was a wild and exhilarating party, with plenty of people but still a very ‘small community’ feel to it.  This had such a rich flavor of Cleveland about it — the genuine article.

Photo Credit: Cleveland Kurentovanje 2013

Photo Credit: Cleveland Kurentovanje 2013


Unfortunately for us, we missed the earlier part of the event, which featured a parade led by a dozen giant fuzzy Kurents.  What is a Kurent, you ask?  It is a mythical creature whose job it is to stomp around jangling enormous bells in an attempt to frighten away the winter. Go check out the parade photos on this RustWire post to see this year’s parade for yourself!

The photos we have are limited to the event following the parade, or, to be fair, the tiny portion of it that I could possibly manage to capture with a cellphone in a crowded room.

The east side Slovenian Home, a lovely well-aged structure with a lot of heart, was packed to the gills with people in and out of all manner of costume, eating food from local vendors, shopping for jewelry and scarves at tables set up by local crafters, and drinking gallons of Slovenian beer.  There was a live polka band onstage, and women in traditional Slovenian dresses were wandering the room in their high white pleated bonnets and embroidered shawls.

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There was a beer garden out back, with a skinny young DJ wearing an inexplicable false beard, playing dance music in a heated tent, but the heat was better in the basement of the building, where one more DJ was spinning 70’s hits for a gaggle of preschoolers dancing on the stage. Isaac joined them. Of course.

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We enjoyed a small feast of freshly-made pierogies and cold Slovenian beer.

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And don’t forget the arts and crafts!  They had those, too!

My amazingly talented friend Nicole, of Plenty Underfoot fame and one of Cleveland Magazine’s “Most Interesting People,”  was on hand with a pile of fabulous art materials made from “upcycled” scraps of Styrofoam, old fabric samples, vinyl flooring, wire, markers, staples, and all manner of other fun things, all for the purpose of helping children (and grownups, too!) imagine and create.  No rules, just pure invention!  Grandma Jeanne and Olive had fun putting together a brightly-colored mask on a stick, while Isaac was just happy to be allowed to touch scissors for once.

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This city never ceases to surprise me!  The tablecloth has it right: CLE rocks.

Believe it or not, useful things my children learn from TV

tvSo, I am not a natural member of the “kids can learn from television!” bandwagon.  There is plenty of scientific evidence that children do NOT learn things from television (especially culturally complex concepts like languages) at anywhere near the rate that they would learn the same information from, say, actually doing things or talking to real people (rather than cartoon characters).

However, there are occasionally times in our lives (such as, when Papa and Grandpa are watching the SuperBowl and Mama needs a break) that actually doing things or talking to real people is a little less practical than the far inferior world of passive entertainment.

For those moments, we generally turn to the world of PBS Kids, which offers a range of more-or-less “educational” TV for children.  However, for our Staycation in China, we’re going to make a brief exception for Nickelodeon.

Yes, we’re back to Kai-lan, because I just have to say, 20 minutes with her during the Superbowl was actually tremendously educational for me AND the kids.  We watched “Lulu’s Cloud,” which you can stream from Amazon by clicking right there —>*

By the end of this episode, the kids had learned about the value of trying new things (“I thought I wouldn’t like it because it was different, but I tried it, and I like it!”), accompanying a friend in distress (“I want to go play, but Hoho seems sad.  I’m going to stay with Hoho because that’s what good friends do.”) and, most interestingly, several words of Mandarin.

So, friends, time to practice!  Here are the words Isaac mastered yesterday:

Ni hao  (“hello”) — go on, you can do this one — sounds like “Knee How.”  The emphasis is on the first syllable — KNEE how.

Qìqiu (“balloon”) — pronounced “CHEE chyoh.”

Xie xie (“thank you”).  Pronounced “SHEEyuh sheeyuh” (each word is about one and a half syllables).

This last word made an appearance this afternoon, when we went to a local Chinese fast-food place for lunch.  The woman who brought out our food lingered for a moment, tickled by the sight of two tiny American children tackling tofu and noodles with chopsticks.  I prompted them both, “can you say ‘thank you’ like Kai-lan?” and Olive said shyly, “Xie xie!”  A moment later, as the chuckling employee headed back into the kitchen, Isaac called after her at top volume, bouncing in his chair, “Shee shee!  Shee shee!”

Well, we tried.

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Even the preschool is on the Stay-cation this time around!  Olive reported that this morning they painted Chinese fish.  Once they dry, I’ll be able to upload a photo of that one, too.

*I am a member of the Amazon Associates program.  That means I earn a tiny commission — probably a few cents or so — if you click on the link above and decide to buy or rent the video.  But I’m not so hungry for those few cents that I won’t recommend that you do as we did and go get the DVD of “Princess Kai-lan” from your local public library. 

Happy Year of the Horse! Welcome to China!

Ni hao!  We’ve arrived in China!

This particular Stay-cation has a special place in my heart, because it was China who convinced us to take on this project to begin with.  Flashback to last May, when I asked Olive, “what kind of birthday party do you want?”  She dithered for weeks, until an excruciating and expensive trip through the party-supply store decided her.  She wanted a Kai-lan themed birthday party.

nihaokailanIf you’ve never had the opportunity to experience Kai-lan, let’s just say that she’s Nickelodeon’s Chinese-American version of Dora the Explorer.  The storyline and basic format of Nihao, Kailan is exactly the same as Dora, with (obviously) a different ethnicity.  (And it shares the most unnerving feature of Dora — namely, the Ask the Audience Moment.  At least once in every episode, the characters suddenly wheel on their unsuspecting audience, camera zooming in their gigantic cartoon eyes.  They peer quizzically out of the TV screen, and ask an inane question like, “what is YOUR  favorite food?”  Then there is a long, uncomfortable pause, in which the character blinks patiently into the screen, then they jump back to life and shout, “mine too!” then go about their business.  It is Creepy. As a toddler, Olive always used to shrink back from the TV and stare at it disconcertedly when they pulled this trick.)

At any rate, Kai-lan is a favorite around our house (and not all for bad reasons – the show also teaches a lot of good lessons about emotional health and gentleness that I appreciate).  So when Olive asked for a Kai-lan birthday party, I agreed.  I even made a proper Chinese sponge cake, painstakingly decorated.  Don’t even ask how long this one took.

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In order to prepare for the party and get into the Chinese theme, we went on our first mini-stay-cation.  We took a trip to Asia Plaza in Cleveland’s Asiatown area.  We visited the enormous Chinese supermarket to craft the party menu, the many import shops for decorations, party favors and clothes, and then a stop in at the incomparable Li Wah restaurant for Dim Sum.  The kids loved the whole experience.

As we were sitting genteelly sipping chrysanthemum tea from handle-less cups and nibbling at mushroom dumplings and tiny cakes (and trust me, my children being genteel in an elegant restaurant at lunchtime is a miracle beyond belief), I thought, “hey, this is going so well, we should do this ALL the time!”  Hahaha.  Me and my brilliant ideas.

Well, at any rate, we’re back on our adventures to what Olive calls, “Ummm Whatsitcalled Again, That Place Kai-lan Is From?”  And we’re back just in time for the Lunar New Year.  There are tons of fun things to do around Cleveland with a Chinese theme this time of year, so we’re sure to find something exciting.  Maybe not as exciting as a four-year-old dressed like Kai-lan eating sponge cake, but every day can’t be a birthday, after all, so we have to find our holidays where we can.

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Check back soon for a report-back from our Year of the Horse celebration at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and other events and activities.  See you soon!

Australian animals, Damper and Pavlova!

Welcome to our last day in Australia!

In today’s blog post, we have a whole lot of photos, a video, a field trip, two recipes, a book and a stage play.  Hold on to your hat, mate!

The video:

If you’re looking for an easy way to learn about some Australian animals from the comfort of your computer screen, you really can’t do much better than Curious George.  This episode just happened to air yesterday, to our stay-cationing delight:

But if you’re lucky enough to have a local zoo as world-class as the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, you don’t have to stay home with Curious George.  It’s worth the field trip to go meet a few Australian animals for yourself!

The field trip:

A warm(ish) winter day was all the excuse we needed to head for “Australian Adventure” at the Zoo.

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One of the newer areas at the zoo, “Australian Adventure” has been lovingly built with great attention to cultural education and interesting animal exhibits.  The décor (and even music piped through outdoor speakers) is thoroughly Australian, even to the “dingo fence” that surrounds the entire area.

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The “Kookaburra Station” is the centerpiece of the entire area.  It is designed to look like a genuine Australian outback station, complete with barn, outbuildings, giant tree house in a yagga tree, and a nearly full-sized sprawling 18th century farmhouse.

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In the barn and its attached contact yard, during the summer you can pet typical Australian farm livestock such as sheep and miniature ponies.  They even have an exhibit with a few European rabbits in their own pen, with some information about the way that the rabbits have become a virulent invasive species, taking over much of the continent of Australia.  Plenty of other cool animals in this area, too, including a deceptively snuggly-looking dingo.

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There are plenty of other things to visit around the Australian Outback, and lots of great animals (koalas snoozing in eucalyptus trees! lorikeets you can hand-feed!) but the station house is one of my favorite hidden treasures at the Zoo.

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It does not have any animals inside, so it’s often skipped over by zoo visitors eager to see the animal exhibits.  But the station house is loaded with little treasures for global stay-cationers!  We spent nearly an hour “playing house” in this full-size exhibit, pretending to eat some of the Australian food on display inside the model kitchen,

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pretending to play with the boomerangs and cricket bats in the foyer,

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Examining the exhibits hiding inside the kitchen drawers (like this drawer with a bit of kangaroo fur inside that you can pet) and on the walls (posters about “bush tucker” and other Australian delicacies),

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And (most fun for mama) examining the recipes of traditional Australian foods on display all over.  We went right home to make this traditional “Damper” bread from the photograph of the recipe.  (Don’t worry, I won’t make you cook from a photograph.  I’ve reprinted the recipe below — with a few helpful changes.)

After we were finally done playing house (and warming up — brrrr, we could wish it was an Australian January, not a Cleveland one!) we went out for the most important visit of our Australian staycation:

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A nice walk among the friendly free-roaming animals in the Wallaby Walkabout.

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Because, after all, what is Australia without kangaroos? (Or are those wallabies?  They share this particular space and I can never tell them apart.)

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On our way out, the children tried their hand at jumping as far as a kangaroo.  Not a chance, mates.

Then we went home for one last meal of Australian foods — including damper and pavlova!

Recipe #1: Damper Bread

Serves 4-6.

Damper is an iconic Australian outback recipe, traditionally baked among the ashes of a campfire.  It incorporates a few simple ingredients that can be carried easily when traveling deep into the outback.

The damper recipe pictured above calls for “self-rising” flour, but I don’t know anybody with enough extra space in their kitchen to be able to keep self-rising flour around.  Certainly I don’t.  So I’ve incorporated the extra baking powder and salt needed to make regular flour into “self-rising” flour.  You can thank me later.


  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 cup milk

To prepare:

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Grease and flour a round cake tin.
  2. Mix dry ingredients together.  Add butter and mix well.
  3. Add liquid ingredients and mix well.
  4. Knead dough for about 5 minutes.
  5. Shape into a flattened round and place in the prepared cake pan.
  6. Bake about 30 minutes.
  7. Slice and serve hot.

And if, after all that bread, you’re still hungry for dessert, don’t forget to make the best dessert ever…

Recipe #2 : Pavlova.

Serves 4 with reasonably sized portions.  Or maybe 2 very hungry people with a good-sized sweet tooth.  It’s that good.

One cannot visit Australia or New Zealand without being informed that Pavlova is the national dessert of THAT country.  Aussies and Kiwis compete about the provenance of many of the recipes we’ve included in the Australia section here, but perhaps none so much as the Pavlova, the iconic meringue-and-fruit concoction reportedly created in honor of one of famous ballerina Anna Pavlova’s tours “down under” in the 1920’s.  A friend from New Zealand told me that Pavlova is “as light as the ballerina on her feet.”  And indeed it is — or, I suppose so, anyhow, not having any personal experience with Anna Pavlova.

If you want to compare dessert to ballerina, you can always watch an old recording here:

And here’s the recipe:


  • 4 egg whites*
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. fine white sugar
  • 1 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tsp. vinegar
  • 8 oz carton heavy whipping cream
  • 2 fresh kiwis, peeled and sliced (you can also use any other combination of fruit — berries, peaches, mango, etc.)

*a word about separating eggs: you Absolutely Must be sure not to have even a Speck of yolk in your egg whites.  In order to get the high, stiff egg-white foam you need to make the meringue, you cannot allow any oil into your egg whites.  That means you need to have scrupulously clean bowl, beaters, utensils, etc.  Try not to get even the oil from your fingers into the bowl, utensils, or egg whites.  Break eggs one at a time into a separate bowl before dumping the whites into the primary mixing bowl, so that if you accidentally break one yolk you don’t ruin the rest of your egg whites with it.  This has been a Public Service Announcement from the Been-There-Done-That school of home baking.

To prepare:

  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
  2. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Dust the top of the parchment paper with a bit of cornstarch.
  3. In a large bowl, beat egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form.  It should look more or less like this:

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4. Add 3/4 cup of the sugar VERY gradually (1 tsbp. at a time), continuing to whisk the whole time, until the mixture is stiff and shiny.  Add vinegar and mix well. (I know it seems weird to put vinegar in dessert.  Just go with it.  The acid in the vinegar does something magical to the meringue, and it makes it taste divine.)

5. Mix together the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with the cornstarch and lightly fold into the stiff mixture.

6. Spread a layer of meringue on prepared parchment paper in a shallow, slightly bowl-shaped mound about 8-9″ in diameter.

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7. Bake in a 250 degree oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

8. Turn off oven, but leave meringue in oven for at least an additional 30 minutes or until entirely cool.  Crack the oven door open if possible while meringue is cooling.

9. When cool, the meringue should be hard and slightly golden-brown on the outside, with a soft, pillowy inside.

10. Whip cream in a large bowl until soft peaks form.  Add 1-2 Tbsp. sugar and continue to whip until stiff peaks form.

11. Spread cream into the bowl-shaped depression in the meringue and top with kiwi (or other fruit).

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12. Give the leftover whipped-cream beaters to the child who’s been begging for them since you started.

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13. Now slice and serve immediately (it will start to collapse quickly once it’s assembled). Watch your family gobble it up faster than almost anything else you’ve made so far in your stay-cation…

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The book…

So we’ve talked about Australian animals, and we’ve talked about Australian food, but wait!  I’ve saved the best for last — a book about Australian animals eating Australian food.

We happened upon this little treasure entirely by accident at our local Salvation Army while out shopping this month.  For 75 cents, we became the proud owners of a not-too-beat-up copy of a perfectly marvelous little book:

 Possum Magic, by Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas.

This book traces a Grandmother Possum and her invisible granddaughter Hush, who go on a journey through Australia to find the right kind of human-food to cast a “visibility” spell to make Hush visible again.  On their journey they encounter all manner of other Australian animals, and they taste all kinds of Australian food.  But what is it that finally makes Hush visible again???  Vegemite, Pavlova and a Lamington.  Delicious!

As children’s books go, this one is a keeper for sure.  Now if only I could find any of the “Grug” books at our local library, we’d have a complete Australian stay-cation in book form.

Fortunately for us, the Cleveland International Children’s Theatre Festival was kind enough to import the stage production of Grug last spring, and we took the kids to see it.  It was a bit before our stay-cation began, but absolutely delightful, so it’s worth sharing with you. Here’s a little clip — an appropriate way to end our stay-cation.

Last but not least, the stage play:

OK, yes, that’s finally all from us down under, in the land of the January sunshine.

Check back in a couple of days after we travel due north to China, just in time for the Lunar New Year.

Until then, g’day!

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Second weirdest street food ever: the Pie Floater

We’re back!  The holidays are over, we’re back in the swing of the school year, and I’ve been sitting on my photos from our last few Australian adventures for weeks.  So it’s way past time to share them!

For today, I present to you — the Pie Floater.

Now, this is definitely NOT the Weirdest Street Food Ever.  That award is still held, probably permanently, by the Filipino delicacy known as balut.

However, the Pie Floater is a pretty close second.  In this case, it isn’t the food itself that is all that strange; it is, rather, the idea of eating this particular food curbside.

australia.adelaide.lgThe Pie Floater has reached official iconic status in South Australia, most especially in the town of Adelaide.  According to this page on The Pie Cart website, nobody knows exactly where the Pie Floater comes from, but it seems likely, given the primary ingredients, that there are Brits involved.

So what is a pie floater?  It is more or less what it sounds like: a small hand-sized meat pie floating in a bowl of soup.  Thick green pea soup, in this case.

And this is what makes it the Second Weirdest Street Food Ever.  Because how on earth could it ever have been convenient to walk down the street eating a bowl of pea soup with a pie floating in it?  Other street food around the world makes sense — small sausages tucked into bread so you can eat as you walk, hand-sized turnovers you can hold and nibble, shishkebabs, little bags of nuts or popcorn, you get the picture.  But pea soup with floating pie?  I don’t get how that ever caught on as street food.  But it did, in Adelaide at least.

A pie cart in Adelaide, Australia.  (Photo Credit:  Owen.James on Flickr)

A pie cart in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo Credit: Owen.James on Flickr)

I have to admit that, though I cannot imagine eating this on the street, it made a highly filling meal when eaten in a relatively civilized manner at the dining room table.

I have written before about the difficulties encountered when vegetarianizing traditionally meat-based foods, and this recipe was no exception, requiring vegan adaptations of pie crust, filling, and soup base.  It turned out OK, but it was an absurd amount of work.  Definitely special occasion food.  Next time we’re going to take shortcuts!

The pies are largely inspired by this recipe from Green Gourmet Giraffe (who was also responsible for the exquisite sausage rolls).  I’m inclined to try her sausage-roll filling for these pies next time, as the filling on these was a bit too cabbagey-tasting from all the cauliflower.

Vegan Pie Floaters

Serves 6 for dinner.  And eat it at a table, for heaven’s sake.


Pea soup:

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 4 cups vegetable soup stock
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 lb. dried split green peas, soaked overnight and drained.
  • 1 tsp. dry tarragon
  • 1 carrot, grated

Pie crust:

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt

Pie filling — the base of this filling is the same “mince meat” that I used for last week’s Spag Bol.  You can make a full batch of the original mince “meat” recipe, use half for your “meat pies” and freeze the other half for later.  The filling amounts below are for half the original recipe, just enough to make these pies.


  • 1/2 head cauliflower, chopped
  • 1 cup raw walnuts
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp. dried sage
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce or tamari


  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. brown sugar
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • (the original recipe calls for dried mushrooms.  If you have dried or fresh mushrooms, by all means, add them to this gravy.  I didn’t, so I kept it simpler as listed here.)

To prepare:

1. Make the mince first: finely chop walnuts and cauliflower in a food processor.  Place in a greased casserole dish and add the remaining seasonings.  Stir well, and roast in a 350 degree oven for about an hour, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until it is fairly dry and dark brown in color as shown.

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2. While the mince is roasting, make the pea soup: in a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium heat.  Add onion and sautee until transparent.  Add garlic, stir and cook 1 minute.  Add drained and soaked peas, water, veggie stock, tarragon, and grated carrot.  Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook gently, stirring occasionally, 30-45 minutes or until peas have cooked down into mush.  You can blend this soup with an immersion blender, if you like, but there is no need — it is already pretty soft from the soaking and cooking.

3. Now that the mince is in the oven and the soup on the stovetop, make the pastry: whisk together both flours and salt.  Mix in oil and knead with fingertips until oil is well distributed.  Add water and knead 5 minutes or until smooth.  Roll out to pie-crust thickness with a rolling pin.  Cut into 12 rounds: six 5″ in diameter and six 4″ in diameter, using two different sized cups or small bowls.  Grease a muffin tin and line six cups with the larger rounds, as shown.

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4. Now make the gravy.  Add onion and garlic to a food processor and process until finely chopped.  In a large saucepan, heat olive oil, then add onion and garlic and stir to cook about 5 minutes or until mixture begins to change color.  Now add remaining ingredients and stir well to mix.  Add enough water to bring it to gravy consistency, then bring to a simmer and cook 5-10 minutes to allow flavors to mix.

5. Once the mince is done, remove it from the oven (leave oven on) and add it to the gravy.  Stir well and cook another 5-10 minutes or so.  It should look like this now:

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6. Carefully fill prepared pastry shells with “meat” filling.  Fill about 2/3 fill — I filled mine too much, and they exploded in the oven (as you’ll see below), so be careful here.  Now top with the smaller rounds and pinch edges of pastry together.  Brush tops of the pastry with soy milk (or regular milk, if you’re not trying to be exclusively vegan with this recipe).  Put in hot oven and bake about 30-45 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown.

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7. Remove from oven and allow to cool.  Notice what they’ll look like if you overfill the cups!  If you are more careful than me, you’ll have nice, neat little pies without all the goo leaking out of them.

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8. Remove from muffin tins once they are cool.  Now fill shallow soup bowls with your pea soup, then float one pie in each bowl (if you want to be authentic, you can plop it in upside down — don’t ask why it’s served upside down, I haven’t the foggiest idea — but as my pies were all a bit sloppy, I decided to keep them face-up so they didn’t fall apart).

9. Serve hot, with Australian tomato sauce (required, apparently), malt vinegar and mint sauce (optional) as toppings.  Don’t forget the Foster’s!

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Thanks for waiting until the holidays were over for this one!

We have one more stop in Australia before we head to China… but the field trip is a surprise.  Don’t miss it!

Finding Nemo and Rocket Salad

Pumpkin and Rocket Salad

When I was doing research into Australian recipes, somewhere along the line I saw a suggestion of something called “rocket salad.”  This sounded exciting, and great fun for kids!  We love rockets over here, after all!green rocket

Well, my excitement was short-lived.  “Rocket” is simply the Australian word for the humble, bitter, delicious plant known in the U.S. as arugula.

arugulaWell, no rockets.  But we tried it anyhow, thinking that perhaps calling it “rocket” rather than “arugula” would convince our green-phobic children to try a bite or two.  Not a success.  Fortunately, I’m rather obsessed with arugula — I mean, rocket — so I ate their portions in addition to my own.2013-11-20 17.15.27

We followed this recipe for Pumpkin and Rocket Salad, once I discovered that the “pumpkin” of this recipe is simply our own butternut squash.  I was lucky enough to have two baby butternut squashes on hand from a recent trip to the farmer’s market.  I won’t reproduce the recipe here, as I followed it exactly — just go check it out and try it yourself.  It is delicious!

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Australian Movie Night

I know there have to be more films out there about Australia.  I’m sure if I sat down and gave it some thought, I’d come up with plenty of excellent Australian films.  But when it came to films for children, I was drawing a blank.  Until I remembered one particular American film that just so happened to be set in Australia.  Well, underwater Australia anyway.


I suppose our family has finally arrived in the digital age, because I was able to hook up the laptop to our TV last night and stream Finding Nemo directly from  Global stay-cation meets couch potato Saturday night — excellent!

We really attempted to make this an educational experience.  We took advantage of the multiple “breaks” when the video stalled* in order to talk about the flora and fauna of the Great Barrier Reef and the physics of the East Australia Current, and we oohed and aahed over the lovely Sydney harbor (especially the cartoon version of the Sydney opera house).

OK, so anybody else have any other suggestions of films for children set in Australia?  Hubby and I have seen (and enjoyed) Baz Luhrmann’s manic romp Australia and the intelligent, heartrending independent film Rabbit-Proof Fencebut we quickly discarded both as appropriate for children’s viewing.  Are we really limited to Nemo and The Wiggles?  Any other options out there???

*I’m sure that the frequently-stalling video wasn’t Amazon’s fault at all, but instead, the fault of our unstable free neighborhood wi-fi internet (it’s a truly brilliant neighborhood development idea, but they’re still working out the bugs).  But how cool is Amazon? A few days later, I received a note: “we noticed that you had some trouble streaming this movie from our website, so we’ve refunded your rental fee.”  Wow, they just got some points in my book.  No free advertising for Amazon intended here, but really!!  Much as I would like to say bad things about this Mega-Corporate Behemoth, in this case, I have to say that I’m pretty delighted with them.  

Does St. Nicholas come to Australia?

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

St. Nicholas arrives by boat in Port MacQuarie, New South Wales, Australia.

Do the Australians celebrate St. Nicholas Day? It was hard to tell, but it looks like the Dutch community in Australia certainly does still honor Sinterklaas in his more-or-less original form — that is to say, a fairly obscure 4th century Asian bishop named Nicholas of Myra.  Doesn’t it look nice and warm there in summery December Australia?  Poor St. Nicholas looks a little toasty, but as I sit here looking out at our snowy morning, I think I’d take toasty.  Brrrr.

A bit off-topic from Australia, but pertinent to the moment — who was Nicholas of Myra?  I had to research him for a presentation last year, and I was surprised and delighted by what I found.

St. Nicholas of Myra (18th cent. Russian icon)

St. Nicholas was firmly entrenched in the manger tradition that roots our entire Christian gospel.  He was known for his rigorous observance of twice-weekly fasts, for his open-handed generosity to the poor, for his concern for those people most marginalized by society.

One story tells of him anonymously giving dowries to three poor women (tossed in the window, not down the chimney, for what it’s worth) so that their father would not have to sell them into sexual slavery (one of very few options for 4th century women who were destitute).

I’d like to point out that this is quite different from the indiscriminate generosity for which he would be known later; it is not even simply charity.  It is, rather, a deliberate attempt to right a grave social injustice, to preserve the moral dignity of the poor.  This is the heart of the Gospel.

St. Nicholas was an ascetic.  Iconography generally depicts him as thin, somber and bearded, wearing bishops’ robes and carrying a staff.  He was certainly not the ‘jolly old elf’ of later tradition who danced on rooftops and dropped down chimneys to bring delight to children.

St. Nicholas was someone who was clearly alert to the injustices of his place and time, and his dedication to Christ meant that he strove to right those injustices.  He saw his Christian role as being the personification of “Good News to the Poor.”

Fast forward seventeen centuries.

Today, through a complicated process of storytelling, merging with other legends and characters, traditions, poems, songs and a Whole Lot of advertising, the historical bishop Saint Nicholas has been entirely transformed into the contemporary mass-marketed global Santa Claus.


(This is a truly global image — though this photo looks like it could have come from any American mall, it was, in fact, taken in Guam. Photo credit: kokoloveguam on Flickr)

There are a lot of reasons that this happens.  The history of how that happened is fascinating, and worth the read, but my point is this: Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus.  The question for us is, shall we accept this transformation, or not?

Do we accept that a 4th century ascetic saint is now portrayed in our culture as a round-bellied, pipe-smoking, cookie-gobbling, bewhiskered, middle-aged man who lives at the mall????

If you think about it, that’s one fascinating piece of Americana – only in America, where capitalism is the secular faith, could we have developed the idea that one of Christianity’s holiest and most venerated saints lives in the shopping mall.

So here’s my big question: What would happen if the original St. Nicholas, rather than our contemporary Santa Claus, was our central image for this holiday season?  How would our perspective on the holiday, the gift-giving, the feasts, be different?

Happy St. Nicholas Day, everyone!!!  Let’s keep him in mind as the season continues…

Australian Santa arrives at the beach. Image credit: National Archives of Australia.

(I promise, we’ll be much more focused on Australia in our next post.  Check back soon for a great recipe for Vegan Pie Floaters, south Australia style!)



Spag Bol — don’t be fooled, it’s only the name that’s Australian

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“Spag bol” is an extremely Australian dish. Why?  Because there’s nothing uniquely Australian about it except for its name.

That’s right, folks, “Spag bol” is nothing more or less than spaghetti bolognese.  It is essentially pasta with a meat sauce, a simple, filling dish adored by kids around the world.

Australia might shorten the Italian name to the irreverent “spag bol,” but Americans have our own unique spin on the name (and dish).


That would be the quintessentially American canned pasta-and-meat-sauce product known as Beefaroni… and Cleveland boasts rather a large share of responsibility for it.   It was right here in Cleveland, in the Roaring 20’s, that Italian chef Hector Boiardi opened a restaurant whose pasta dishes were so famous that he opened a factory to can them, then had to change his name on the label to make it pronounceable by its American consumers.

Yes, that’s right, Cleveland is the original home of the Chef Boy-ar-dee canned-pasta empire.  Please don’t blame us too much.

For our family, spag bol is, like many ethnic dishes, an adventure in vegetarianizing.  This version depends heavily upon this recipe for “meat mince” made from cauliflower and walnuts.  I followed the links there from Australian blogger Green Gourmet Giraffe, whose excellent Aussie meat pie recipe will appear on this blog shortly.  It was Green Gourmet Giraffe whose comment on a photo inspired me to make this “meat” into the Aussie “spag bol.”

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Walnut and cauliflower “mince,” straight out of the oven. Click here for the recipe.

Slow Cooker Spag Bol

Serves 6.


  • 1 pound dry pasta, any kind, cooked according to package directions just before you are ready to eat
  • 2 28-oz cans diced tomatoes (I used the kind that already have oregano, basil and garlic added to them, because they were in the pantry and had to be used up.  You can use ordinary canned diced tomatoes, or even fresh diced tomatoes if you have them around, but you’ll want to add lots of extra Italian seasoning before you simmer the sauce.)
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped finely
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste (yes, I know you can’t buy a single tablespoon of tomato paste. Follow this excellent tip from master chef Marie Simmons.  Open a can, scoop out a tablespoon for this recipe, then scoop out the rest into 1-Tbsp. blobs on a plate covered in wax paper.  Throw it in the freezer until they are solid, then remove to a Ziploc bag.  Then every time you need a little tomato ‘kick’ for something, just pull out a blob of frozen tomato paste and toss it in.)
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper (more or less to taste)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 recipe Ricki’s cauliflower and walnut mince (I made the whole recipe, used half for this dish, then threw the other half in the freezer and used it for Aussie “meat” pies — recipe soon to follow)

To prepare:

  1. Preheat a slow cooker on “high.”
  2. Heat oil in a small skillet. Sautee onions until translucent, then add garlic and sautee 1 minute more.
  3. Dump contents of skillet into hot slow cooker.
  4. Add 2 cans tomatoes, bay leaf, chili powder, paprika, crushed red pepper, and tomato paste.  Stir well and cover.  Turn to LOW and cook for 6-8 hours (or 2-4 hours on HIGH).
  5. Add walnut-and-cauliflower “mince” and cook another 30-60 minutes.
  6. Taste for seasonings.  Add salt and pepper as necessary.
  7. Add vinegar and stir well.
  8. Serve over pasta with a class of excellent (and inexpensive!) Australian red wine.

The “meat” in this dish looks so realistic that when I sent leftovers to school with the kids for their lunch, the school director panicked when she saw what they were eating — she assumed that our vegetarian kids had been served the school’s regular hot lunch by mistake!   (Note to self: next time, don’t send this dish to school on Beefaroni day.)