Sunday, December 16

Cross-country Skiing Lessons

Arrowhead Provincial Park has a great network of cross-country ski trails for a variety of skill levels, groomed for both nordic-style and skate-style skiing. Plus they rent skis if you don't have your own. It's a challenging sport, though, and can be a lot of work if you don't know what you're doing out there. Happily, we recently heard about a couple offering cross-country skiing lessons in the park.

Dan and Joan of Ski For Life have been teaching for years and frequently offer courses at Arrowhead Park. They are currently promoting classes on December 29th and 30th but have dates available throughout the winter. Here's the info from them:

Our first Northern Getaway Lesson of the year -- all equipment supplied.
Beginners, novices or those brushing up on long forgotten skills are all welcome. 
The lesson starts with preliminary info and outfitting, followed by instruction and trail skiing. Full-day lessons include a rest break in the warming hut for a half hour or so right at Arrowhead (bring a small packed lunch). On half-day lessons, eat a light lunch before arriving. The park trail fee for each adult skier, including ourselves, is $11. 
Date: Saturday December 29
Time: 9:30am till 3pm
Location: Arrowhead Provincial Park
Lesson Fee: $40/person
Park Admission Fee: $11/person
Date: Sunday December 30
Time: noon till 3:30pm
Location: Arrowhead Provincial Park
Lesson Fee: $40/person
Park Admission Fee: $11/person 

Contact Dan and Joan at Ski For Life directly to book your lesson or enquire about lesson dates.

If you're staying here at Fern Glen Inn, you know we'll start your morning with a hearty healthy breakfast to sustain you on the trails!

Monday, December 10

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares

It's that time of year again! An abundance of holiday parties, open houses, potlucks and office socials mean it's time to break out your baking gear. And so I think it's the perfect time to share one of my very favourite sweets with you. 

These cheesecake squares are easy, quick to come together with few ingredients, travel well, freeze great, and can be kept simple for the novice baker but make a perfect blank canvas for the advanced baker to unleash some decorative flare. 

I've been making variations of them for years and years and have lost track of how many times I've given out the recipe to friends and coworkers. I hope you enjoy them too!

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares

2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup icing sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 oz (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter
2 250 gram packages cream cheese, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup dulce de leche*
icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 9"x13" cake pan with parchment paper, allowing overhang so it will be easy to lift out.

Measure flour, icing sugar, salt and baking powder into the bowl of a food processor process and pulse to combine. Cut butter into 1/2" dice and add to flour mixture. Pulse to combine then process until mixture looks like wet sand. Dump into prepared pan and press evenly onto bottom. Bake shortbread until dry on top and pale golden, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of stand mixer with the paddle attachment (or with electric beaters), beat cream cheese until smooth. Beat in granulated sugar and vanilla extract. Beat in eggs, one at a time, on low speed until just combined.

If dulce de leche is very thick, heat gently until it is spreadable.

Spread the dulce de leche evenly over hot shortbread. Carefully pour the cream cheese mixture over top, covering the dulce de leche completely. Bake until slightly puffed and dry on top, about 30 minutes.

Cool completely in pan then chill for at least an hour for cleaner slicing. I like to trim the edges off then cut into 1 1/4" squares (makes about 54) for snacking or a dessert buffet but you can cut into larger pieces for a more substantial dessert. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Can be frozen, well wrapped, for longer. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

* Dulce de leche is a rich caramel sauce available in the jams or baking section of most grocery stores. You can also make it yourself: Empty one can of sweetened condensed milk into an 8" or 9" ceramic or glass baking dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 350°F, stirring occasionally, until thick and golden brown in colour, about 1 hour. Cool to room temperature before continuing with recipe.

Make it Fancy

There are so many ways to dress up these basic cheesecake squares if you want to add some bling to your sweet, such as...

• Drizzle the cooled cheesecake squares with zigzags of melted dark chocolate

• Spread a thin layer of dark or white chocolate glaze over the cooled cake and sprinkle with chopped nuts, crushed hard caramel candies, colourful sprinkles, silver dragees or even edible gold foil

• For dessert-sized servings, add a dollop of whipped cream and a ribbon of bittersweet chocolate sauce


Raspberry Cheesecake Squares: Replace dulce de leche with good quality seedless raspberry jam. Drizzle cooled cake with melted dark chocolate (optional).

Blueberry Cheesecake Squares: Replace dulce de leche with good quality blueberry jam. Spread cooled cake with melted white chocolate (optional).

Gianduia (Chocolate-Hazelnut) Cheesecake Squares: Replace dulce de leche with chocolate-hazelnut spread (such as Nutella); add 1/2 cup toasted skinned hazelnuts to the food processor with the flour and process until finely chopped. Drizzle or spread with melted chocolate and sprinkle with chopped toasted skinned hazelnuts.

Friday, November 30

Arrowhead in Between

We're in between seasons now. The fall colours have all fallen but the snow hasn't started yet (not in earnest, it hasn't). It's too cold for swimming and too warm for snowshoeing and that leaves a lot of people wondering what to do with themselves around here. My favourite answer to that: hiking!

Cool days, fresh air, clear paths, no crowds. All excellent ingredients for a great day on the trails. A popular local spot for afternoon hikes is Arrowhead Provincial Park, just north of Huntsville, Ontario.

The park is closed to vehicle traffic at this time of year but there's ample parking at the entrance gate and visitors are welcome to walk, hike, cycle and even roller blade into the park during the day. It's about 1.5km from the gate to the (closed) park office and the start of the 2km Mayflower Lake Trail or 2.7km Homesteaders Trail.

You can venture further into the park to access even more of the trails, such as the one that goes to Stubb's Falls. From the park gate to the falls and back is about an 8km round trip walk/hike. While there are some good long hills on the route, most of it is on paved roadways absent of cars.

I recently did the hike to Stubb's Falls and back in about an hour and twenty minutes, but allow yourself at least two hours so you can spend some time viewing the falls or wandering along the lakeshore. There are lots of photo ops, even if this isn't our prettiest time of year.

Even though the park is officially closed, you won't be alone there as it a favourite outing for many locals and visitors, especially on a mild weekend afternoon. Plus we have park maps here at the inn for guests to bring along on their hike so you'll have the lay of the land.

It's between seasons now, what some would call the "off" season, but take advantage of this limbo time while you can. Once winter sets in, the cross-country ski trails, snowshoe trails, and the new ice-skating trail will be open and Arrowhead Park will be a bustling hive of activity for outdoor enthusiasts once again.

Thursday, November 15

Track and Tower Trail

It was a beautiful November day -- mild temperature, sunny breaks, and my birthday to boot! -- so we headed over to Algonquin Park for an afternoon hike. I got to choose the trail and since I've never done the Track and Tower Trail, and because I wanted to make good use of a particularly fine day, that was the one I chose.

It's a 7.5 km trail including the side loop over to the lookout point. It's definitely worth the extra couple of clicks to get that view! We did it in just under 3 hours with brief stops for snacks and photos. The Algonquin Park trail guide recommends allowing 4 hours for the hike and that's about right for a leisurely pace. It's also wise to err on the side of caution when planning a hike at this time of year. The days are short and there are fewer people on the trails so it's important to start a trail only if you know you can finish well before the sun goes down.

The trail followed Cache Lake to start.
Rivers, rapids, and bridges make for interesting sights and sounds along the way.
A few sections of the trail use boardwalks to protect the land and/or our feet.
A lovely little waterfall cascade. We could hear this one well before we could see it.
Over 130 steps up to the lookout and back down again.
The view from the top! Totally worth the stairs!
Part of the trail follows an old train track. It ends rather abruptly where a bridge used to span a river.
And it picks up on the other side where it left off.
The old track sections make for some easy, level walking.
Even though the ambient temp was 15°C, these frozen little waterfalls stayed cold against the rock face. 
Cool curtain of ice!
Old footings, remnants of a train trestle.
A river runs through it.
Hike complete! Either I'm doing a happy dance or I'm trying to get untangled from the leash. Either way, what a great day!

Friday, November 2

Oh, Deer!

We know deer frequently inhabit our little meadow at night. We see the tall grasses flattened down where they sleep, as well as other signs they've been. We often catch brief glimpses of them in our headlights when we pull into the parking lot after an evening out.

This week, though, two deer have been active in our back lawn in the middle of the day. We've been able to watch them from windows in the kitchen and the Loft room. They stay awhile and graze on grass and other vegetation. They've completely chewed down our comphry plants, which is fine with me -- I'm just glad someone is making use of them!

Yesterday when Jim saw the deer were back, he grabbed his camera, quietly slipped outside and then slowly, slowly, made his way close enough to get some nice pictures. We know we're sharing our forest with many wild animals but it's such a rare treat to get a good long look at them doing what they do.

Wednesday, October 31

Beauty of the Beets

I love to cook. I love to emerge from the kitchen with a well-balanced and nicely plated meal, of course, but my pleasure in cooking doesn't just come from the "ta da!" moment of serving the finished dish. Like many things in life, it's the process and not the end result that provides the most moments of simple happiness.

For me, those moments come from the uncontrived beauty of the different foods I'm preparing. The colours and textures of the ingredients rival that of any artist's palette. The patterns, shapes, gloss and viscosity of the (literally) raw materials contribute to the final masterpiece but are also appreciated as individual works of art.

Perhaps the best example of this is the humble beet. It's certainly one of the most vibrant examples. It doesn't look all that impressive when you pull a beet from a produce bag, the dull skin a dusty purple-grey. But peel the skin off and slice into the vegetable and it reveals a deep ruby interior and a hint of brilliant juice. Many recipes involving beets recommend wearing gloves to avoid staining your hands. But I don't mind magenta fingers and cutting boards. They can be washed. Meanwhile, the beet juice on my white cutting board is like an abstract painting ready to hang on a wall.

Of course the other thing I love about beets is they are delicious! I didn't like beets when I was younger. The only way I had ever tried them was pickled or boiled and I found them, well, bleh. It wasn't until I tried them roasted that I fell for them, and fell hard. Roasting intensifies the natural sweetness of the beets and gives them a great, slightly chewy texture.

Sometimes I peel the beets and cut them into thick wedges, sometimes into small dice, sometimes sliced into rounds or half-moons.

With wedges or dice, I toss them in a ceramic baking dish (a snug fitting single layer, more or less) and stir in olive oil, salt, pepper, herbs or spices, and sometimes add a good splash of balsamic vinegar or a sprinkle of brown sugar, plus enough water or other liquid (orange juice is nice) to just cover the bottom of the baking dish. I cover the dish tightly with foil and roast, stirring occasionally, until the beets are tender, about an hour depending on the size of the pieces and the oven temperature (anywhere from 350-450°F depending on what else I'm cooking). I remove the foil and finish them uncovered to cook off any liquid and allow them to caramelize a bit. Wedges are lovely as a side dish on their own or mixed in with other vegetables. Diced beets make a for a nice garnish, tumbled over a crescent of roasted squash or a raft of green beans.

Sliced beets are quicker to roast and are delicious straight up or in this beautiful salad. You'll feel like a real artist mixing pigments as you create the salad. When you toss the red cabbage, onion and beets with the dressing, the acids in the vinaigrette react with the flavin in the cabbage to turn it a bright red-pink. Add some green arugula and stark white cheese for contrast, and you've got a real work of art to behold and share.

Ruby Salad
Serves 6 to 8.
Adapted from Fine Cooking magazine.
This is a vibrant starter or side and the perfect way to add bold colour and tastes to an autumn dinner.

For the beets: 
5 or 6 medium-small beets, peeled and sliced 1/4" to 1/2" thick
1 tablespoon olive oil
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette: 
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad: 
4 cups thinly sliced red cabbage (from 1/2 large head)
1 medium red onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 to 3 cups baby arugula
crumbled goat cheese
toasted walnuts (optional)

Roast the beets: 
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet (or two medium) with parchment paper.

Toss the beets, olive oil and a pinch each of salt and pepper to coat. Distribute the beets in a single layer, not touching, on the prepared baking sheets. Roast for 15 minutes, flip the beets over and return to the oven. Continue roasting until tender, about 10-15 minutes longer depending on the thickness of the slices. Let cool on a rack until moderately warm or room temperature. The beets can be roasted a day ahead and refrigerated but bring to room temperature or heat lightly before adding to the salad.

Make the vinaigrette:
Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Slowly whisk in the oil.

Make the salad:
Combine the cabbage and onion in a large bowl and set aside. Up to an hour before serving, add the beet wedges to the cabbage and onions and about half of the vinaigrette. Toss gently and admire the colour.

Just before serving, you can toss the arugula with a small amount of dressing -- just enough to give the greens a bit of gloss -- or leave the arugula undressed. Taste the ruby salad and add more vinaigrette or salt if needed.

To serve: 
Mound the ruby salad on plates and surround with some arugula leaves (alternatively, you can distribute dressed arugula on the plates first and top with the ruby salad). Finish by sprinkling crumbled goat cheese and walnuts, if using, over top. Serve immediately.

Friday, October 19

Golden Encore in the Almaguin Highlands

Fern Glen Inn •

Here we are in late October and the red maple leaves have fallen from the trees. You might think this means the end of fall colours for the season. Think again.

The Golden Encore is underway in the Almaguin Highlands and in parts of Muskoka and the eastern side of Algonquin Park. This is when the maples have finished their big colourful number and the tamaracks, birches and aspen take centre stage to show off their brilliant gold and yellow hues. Set against a backdrop of dark green conifers and deep blue sky, the result is striking.

Throughout the spring and summer months, tamaracks look like evergreen trees, easily mistaken for pine or balsam. But in the fall, usually around mid-October, their needles begin to turn golden yellow before falling like deciduous leaves. The trees spend the winter looking like barren spikes before awakening in the spring with fresh green needles.

Driving through the region at this time of year, we're amazed at the vast tracks of tamaracks that we simply don't notice otherwise. It's another facet of the forests around us, and it's timed perfectly for us to appreciate it -- a last bright blast of colour before the winter sets in, a swan song of the season. I hope you enjoy the show as much as we do.

Read more about the Golden Encore here;

and the Turning of the Tamaracks here.

Tuesday, October 2

Best of the Best

Fern Glen Inn •

A lot of people tell us that autumn is their favourite season, the best time of year to get out of the city and into the forest -- to explore the trails of Algonquin Park, the hills of the Almaguin Highlands, and the vistas of Muskoka.

Well, if fall is the best season of the year, then this year is the best of the best. Everyone is saying that this year the fall colours are the reddest, more vibrant and full ever. It's the eighth autumn that Jim and I have lived here so we don't have all that many years to compare it to, but folks who have lived in the region their entire lives are saying they've never seen anything like it.

The views from the back roads, the highways and the hiking trails are breathtaking. As I drive or walk along I am rendered speechless, and that's no small task! So I'll stop trying to come up with words to describe the awesomeness around me and leave it to the photos to speak for me...

Tuesday, September 18

Booth's Rock Trail, Algonquin Park

Yesterday Jim and I decided to make the most of a (mostly) sunny September day and headed over to Algonquin Park for an afternoon hike. We decided to do Booth's Rock Trail partly because it's off the beaten path so not as busy, but also because it's one of the five trails recommended by park staff specifically for the fall foliage viewing (the others are Centennial Ridges, Track & Tower, Lookout and Hardwood Lookout).

What goes up...
One of the great things about the hiking trails along Algonquin Park's day use corridor is the variety in trail lengths and features. A 5.1 km loop, Booth's Rock Trail is the perfect length for an easy afternoon hike. The park guide says to give yourself three hours for the trail but we did it in two -- and that was with stops for photos and a detour to the old Barclay's estate grounds.

The trail offered a good variety of sights and experiences, including stretches through dense forest and cool rock cuts; through hemlock stands to stunning views atop sheer cliffs. 

Some sections of the trail are linked with wooden boardwalks and staircases. The stairs down after the clifftop section are impressive. As we neared the bottom, I looked up and said to Jim "this is Casey's worst nightmare". Casey is the neighbour's basset hound. Bassets aren't big on stairs.

The last leg of the trail includes views and access to Rock Lake. By this time we were ready to sit and have a snack as we listened to the wind lap the water against the bare rock. That in itself is worth the hike. 

 The fall colours are just starting in Algonquin Park, with some areas already looking stunning in orange and red, while other areas are still predominantly green with just a hint of the colour to come. Lots more great hiking days ahead!
Jim and Saba on the cliff looking out over Rock Lake.
It's windy at the top!
That cliff face in the distance is the same one pictured above.

...must come down
Fall colours underway!
Remnants of a pier at the old Barclay estate. Now a great spot for an "ahhhh" moment.