31 May 2014

The Banner Maker

A few months ago Milé and I were contemplating how to celebrate our 5th season at Small Pond Arts. It seemed obvious we should use our annual silo banner in some way, so we decided to create a call for submissions and have a guest artist design and make the banner.

We had a number of interesting submissions, but when we reviewed the application from Toronto textile artist Leanne Shea Rhem it really struck a chord with both of us. We loved the image she proposed (more on that later) but through her artist statement it was clear that she understood what we were trying to accomplish:

"I am very interested in community art projects and art that is freely available to the public. By raising a different banner every year you are able to inspire the surrounding communities of Prince Edward County to engage in artistic expression by displaying public art; I would love to be a part of that."

Leanne arrived and got to work immediately in the art barn. Her approach was very different than those of our previous banners; her design was far more complex, and she used a lightweight synthetic fabric, where in the past we'd always used cotton or a cotton blend. Working from a detailed sketch, the whole thing came together remarkably quickly. It was done in a week, leaving Leanne with the second week of her artist residency to focus on other projects.

We hoisted the banner at our annual banner-raising party (of course). We had a good-sized crowd there to watch it go up, and it was terribly satisfying to hear all those "oohs" and "aaaahs" as the image revealed itself.

Leanne's initial inspiration for the image of the pileated woodpecker was the symbol for a fifth wedding anniversary: wood. She colour-matched the base fabric to the colour of the silo, transforming the silo into a giant tree stump. This species of bird is native to Prince Edward County, and it's always a thrill to see one in action and admire its distinctive markings. We think the banner turned out brilliantly, and we're so lucky to get to look out our windows and see this work of art every day!

Following the banner raising we had a performance by the Silo Choir with a program of bird-themed songs...

Finally, we had a creative potluck dinner. We'd told our guests the theme of the potluck was "Put A Bird On It" - and it was hilarious to see what they came up with... like this potato salad in the shape of a chicken...

...Or this scrumptious cake with an icing sugar bird stenciled on it...

Our beautiful woodpecker banner will be on our silo all summer - drop by and see it for yourself!

Congratulations to Leanne Shea Rhem on creating such an inspiring work of art. If you'd like to find out more about her or see more of her work, check out her website and blog.                                                                                                                                                               

16 May 2014

Layer Cake with Lemon Filling

After recently having taught myself to make lokumi (AKA Turkish Delight) and maznik, I felt the next food-from-my-childhood I should take on via the Small Pond Arts Special Projects Division* was some form of lemon cake. I remember my mother baking very simple, but tasty, lemon cakes, sometimes even for my birthday (see the photos from 1974 below –or maybe 1973, sometimes my parents would add an extra candle for good luck) and, even though this type of cake wasn't as ubiquitous as lokum and maznik and graf (a lovely, rich bean soup I learned to make a few years ago), I felt that, having found the photos below, it was a significant enough part of my early childhood that I should give it a try.

Behind me, L-R: unknown lady, my cousin, his dad.
(my head's almost as big as that balloon)

When I was an adolescent, somewhere around 11-13 years old, I was learning how to make simple foods. My good friend, Chris, showed me how to make omelettes and I felt quite skilled, cracking the eggs, chopping the onions, and laying down the processed cheese slices, making a nice meal for myself. Eventually, over the years, my cooking repertoire grew, inspired by TV cooks Stephen Yan, Martin Yan (no relation), and Graham Kerr. Nothing sophisticated, but I liked the idea of playing with ingredients, experimenting, confident in the knowledge that it's kind of hard to mess up a pasta dish.

That's my dad, standing. Judging by the awesome framing, my mom must have been taking the pictures.

At some point, while still a young adolescent, I tried my hand at baking, not knowing that it was a precise science reliant on specific chemistry to do the work. I think I tried making a cake, but I'm not sure what I did wrong (maybe it was undercooked and/or I messed up the icing and/or a whole assortment of other possible failings). Anyway, after trying and failing at a few other baking projects, my confidence was shattered and I was more or less put off baking for a very long time (focusing more on –and getting better at– cooking other, non-bakery things). That's why these projects mean so much to me.

Behind me L-R: my cousin, her mom, my dad.

Having lemon cake on my mind (but not looking for the specific kind my mother made) I did a Google search and picked a lemon cake that looked delicious and challenging. I picked one from a blog by Shauna Sever where you can marvel at the amazing cake she made, as well as see the ingredients and instructions I used here.


My first springform pan. I like it a lot.


The directions were to use a powered mixer, but we don't have one, so I used a tool normally used for making pie crusts. It worked perfectly for mixing my dry ingredients with the butter.

Still good...

I added the wet ingredients to the dry, still using the pie crust tool, still working perfectly.


Yes, I sampled it, and yes, it tasted really good. Now to pour it all in the pan. The recipe called to split the batter in two and use two pans (making two cakes, which would give you four layers), but I only have this one big pan...for now.


So far, so good. Except for the improvised mixing tool and the not-splitting-the-batter part, and using all-purpose flour instead of cake flour, I haven't veered from the recipe or directions.


I made this a couple of days earlier, but had to pause because I didn't have nearly enough eggs for the batter. Then something else interrupted me on the next day, but it kept very well in the fridge and it turned out nicely, too.


Because I put it on one big pan, it took about twice as long to cook (Krista gave me guidance and kept me calm). Nearly an hour later, it wasn't jiggling and the knife came out of the cake clean.


While the cake cooled for a couple of hours, I prepared some very simple icing using icing sugar, vanilla, milk, and butter. Surprisingly easy.

Cooled & cut.

Here we are, pre-assembly, everything still going well, so far. I knew early on that I'd have one big cake with two layers instead of a smaller one with four layers, but I was okay with that.
I spread the lemon curd on the bottom layer on the right and put the top on, making it ready to be iced.


Sure, that icing was surprisingly simple, but I made a rookie mistake: my first (perfect) batch only covered the top, so I made a second batch for the sides...but added a touch too much milk and it got all runny (and I didn't have the presence of mind to just add more sugar to thicken it up). This was the kind of mistake that kept me from baking all these years.

Regardless, various shortcomings aside, I think it turned out okay. The cake itself had a nice sort of crust that concentrates the flavour so well and the inside was soft and...cakey. It was a bit of mess cutting it and plating it, but flavour-wise, it was a success.

Next up might be a chocolate cake...
Maybe pineapple upside-down cake...

*created to cover strange, unusual, dangerous, and potentially catastrophic assignments outside of normal Small Pond operations.

12 May 2014

Makedonski Maznik

Back in January I tried my hand at making lokum (AKA Turkish Delight) and, having had a great deal of success with it, I've made a few more batches since. Now it was time to move on and continue my plan of learning how to make some of the other foods I've enjoyed since childhood and today's Big Experiment was maznik, a pastry made with phyllo dough and feta cheese (other fillings are optional (nuts and raisins, meat, spinach), but feta was the main filling I experienced and loved as a kid, so that's what my first batch contains).

Maznik (like graf, a lovely, rich bean soup I learned to make years ago) was one of those dishes from my Macedonian heritage that seemed ubiquitous to me while growing up in the 1970s and 80s: my mom made it, my aunts made it, and it was served at every house we'd visit...and they all were more or less identical, as though some ancient Maznik Master had trained them all; certainly, the recipes have been passed down through numerous generations. The maznik of my youth that I tried to recreate here was flaky, salty, very tasty, a bit greasy, and very popular with everyone; I can't remember anyone who didn't like maznik.

For this project I used a combo of recipes and techniques from the internet (videos, blogs) as well as memories of helping my mom and aunts decades ago. Why didn't I just ask my mother for her recipe? I have no idea, actually...

Second doughy attempt.

Before I did anything with the ingredients, I donned an apron, mostly for moral support, and cranked up my Macedonian music playlist to set the appropriate mood.

I mixed two cups of flour with half a teaspoon of salt and some water to make the prime dough ball. On my first attempt I used too much water and it became a big sticky mess, so I chucked it and tried again, this time I added tiny amounts of water, gradually, to make sure I didn't overdo it, and I think it worked pretty well, if not exactly perfectly.

Soak 'em!

I cut the dough ball into thirds and made smaller, more manageable balls to soak for about 15 minutes in 100mL vegetable oil and 100mL (melted) Crisco. This makes the dough stretchable and allows it to pretty much fry in the oven. Just don't think about all that greezyness...

Cheese 'em!

Because it's the way I've seen it made all my life, I bought a broom handle specifically to roll out the maznik dough and asked my mom to give me a sheet of the heavy fabric she uses to make the stuff herself, but it turned out I didn't really need either of these task-specific tools. I did bring out my first stretched out round to the broomstick and cloth to sprinkle the feta cheese on it. Note the minor tearing here and there: no big problem once they're rolled up.

Roll 'em!

Since I brought it all the way over to the cloth, I used it to roll the first bit of dough into a long, cheese-filled shape, but I rolled the other two by hand quite easily on the kitchen table, adding small amounts of the excess oily mixture as needed to help with the elasticity.

Shape 'em!

These were much smaller than the ones I'm used to. Normally, the dough wouldn't be split into three but stretched out whole over the tablecloth, then rolled and spiralled into a large circular pan. I didn't mind these cute little guys being smaller, snack-sized mazniks.

Bake 'em!

For some reason, I decided to add an egg wash over them before baking –this isn't necessary or even common (and perhaps overkill) but what the hell, it didn't hurt.

Eat 'em!

The snack-sized mazniks turned out quite well, but they weren't like the ones I'm used to; these were more like burek, with a crispy outside and soft, creamy inside (best eaten while still fresh and hot). I could have stretched the dough a teeny bit more and maybe used the middle rack in the oven instead of the bottom one. I'll probably try a different filling next time...or maybe make burek!...or maybe just go and watch my mom make this –a lesson would be nice. Anyway, they were pretty good.

Next up for the Small Pond Special Projects Division (this week!) will be a layered lemon cake –a more elaborate version of the standard birthday cake my mother made during my early childhood.

01 May 2014

A 'SPARC' of Inspiration

I spent last weekend in Ontario's Haliburton Highlands for SPARC: Symposium for Performing Arts in Rural Communities

The event centered on the Haliburton School of the Arts, a gorgeous facility set amongst beautiful wilderness and peppered with outdoor sculptures.

Upon arrival, we were warmly welcomed and directed towards a rack of costumes and a photographer. Yeah, I think I'm going to like it here.

Devil meets hula cape meets Hamlet.... whaaa?
Next we were guided over to a wall where we put a pin on the map to show where we'd come from - a great representation across Ontario, Canada, and even a few international guests.

We were given index cards on which we each wrote what we were seeking and what we were offering. Mini versions of our costumed photos went on the cards, too, helping people find each other and make connections. It's easy to feel awkward about networking, but these few fun icebreakers really helped set the stage for meeting one another.

There were three stirring plenary sessions that were held in the Great Hall...

And numerous smaller sessions, including mine! I was honoured to have been chosen as a presenter, and gave a workshop called "Celebrating Local Stories With Shadow Puppetry."

How much can I possibly talk about shadow puppets...? Turns out, a whole lot!
After presenting a slide show covering my work with Shadow of a Doubt Collective, ArtsCan Circle, Puppets Without Borders and the Ontario Arts Council's Artist in Education program, it was time to offer some hands-on experience. I guided the participants into brainstorming a local story from their community, which they shared with each other. 

Participants sharing their own local stories
Then they had the opportunity to make a shadow puppet of their very own.

I love these two shadow puppets that got hung up in the Great Hall,
a nod to the history of  logging and forestry in Haliburton
There were *so many* great presentations, like this one on site-specific theatre by Kendra Fanconi of The Only Animal. Here she discusses her work "NiX," set in a geodesic dome with a set made of snow. WOW!

But it wasn't all classrooms and Powerpoint presentations. We went on field trips!

You're either on the bus, or off the bus... and we were definitely *ON*.
Who would want to come to a place like this without getting to experience some of nature's magic?

There were also tons of performances of theatre, music and dance, keeping the creativity flowing and helping us get to know each other's work.

Bi-coastal collaboration:
Newfoundland's Dan Rubin with Tina Jones from B.C.'s The Kerplunks
There were so many wonderful, like-minded people at SPARC. New friendships were forged over box lunches and bus rides, and there are great hopes of building a network of us creative rural folk to keep these conversations going.

Sadie Dixon-Spain from Scotland's The Walking Theatre with Tina Jones
To wrap up the symposium there was a presentation from the youth caucus. Some 20 or so youth were in attendance, and it was really important for all of us to hear their perspective.

All in all, it was an incredible couple of days, and I returned home to my own beautiful neck of the woods, inspired and invigorated. As a rural creator of performing arts I face particular opportunities and challenges - but now I feel like I'm not so alone. There are artists creating incredible work in the most unlikely places, and I'm going to keep on keeping on, carving out a place for myself in Prince Edward County's local culture.

Home sweet home.