Hot Cross Mum, Part I

Or, the ongoing saga of Nicholas and Laurier. Nope, not a bromance.

On Thursday I picked Middle and Little up at school for two appointments. Our travels took us to the optometrist in Sandy Hill and thence to the doctor in the Glebe. The trip to Sandy Hill was uneventful and we found plentiful bike parking at our destination. We then cycled along Cumberland to Laurier, with Little on the back of the cargo bike and Middle pedalling his smaller red bike.

That is where things started to get hairy. We had to cross the canal, and usually we would use the underpass (the star) at the University of Ottawa to navigate Nicholas. It was used heavily by pedestrians and cyclists, but is closed now until August 24 because of LRT construction. Laurier is the nearest east-west street that connects Sandy Hill to downtown and is therefore the route of choice for all those who want to get downtown by bike or on foot. In many ways, it is a horrible route. Nicholas and Laurier (the square) is a hell on earth of cars, buses and trucks coming from the highways on the Quebec side, joined by vehicles coming from downtown, and going down Nicholas to the Queensway.

Here it is on Google Earth:

Green things have recently been painted on the road, like sharrows and a crossride on the west side of the intersection, that do not appear on that image.

This is the way I got through it earlier this week: disembark from bike, stand at Waller and Laurier waiting for light to change so that I can cross south to Laurier (top right corner of picture). I am right on the edge of pavement, with a bike lane behind me and a roadway in front of me with two lanes full of vehicles, one of which has sharrows on it for bikes. I don’t ride on sharrows with the children. Little once remarked about sharrows: “A bike lane and a car lane in the same place? How can that be?” Indeed. Middle was on the sidewalk with his bike. I notice from the image that the curb curves quite sharply to enable vehicles to turn easily and this makes the available sidewalk smaller. Just as the light changed so we could cross to the south side, a police car turning off Waller drove right over in front of me, blocking traffic and told me to get my bike more fully on the sidewalk because it was very dangerous there because of the turning buses, saying that there had been a terrible accident recently. I got on the sidewalk without remark and missed my light to cross Laurier. Yup, it’s the lady with her bike and her kids that’s the real danger here.

I decided to continue along the north side of Laurier and we walked our bikes, with a crowd of other pedestrians, along a narrow sidewalk between a building and a railing, presumably erected to prevent cars from going up on the sidewalk. The crossing at Nicholas involved us crossing a right turn lane and perching on a porkchop (triangular traffic island) as we waited for the light. There was room on this porkchop (sort of in the middle of the image) for two bikes and no one else. We were still walking our bikes. We crossed Nicholas and arrived at the northwest corner. We got back on our bikes because recent modifications made by the councillor, Mathieu Fleury, in response to an outcry from cyclists, have involved the installation of a crossride from north to south. On the other side of the intersection, a policeman was waving cars through on the dedicated right turn lane from Laurier to Nicholas.  A bike lane is sandwiched between this lane and the two lanes of straight-ahead traffic; the bike lane disappears on the other side of the intersection and cyclist merge with cars onto sharrows.

This is what the intersection looks like from street level. These photos were taken at the end of May. On my most recent encounter with this failure of infrastructure I had my hands full with two children and was not snapping pictures.

SW corner of Nicholas and Laurier, looking east and showing new crossride
SW corner of Nicholas and Laurier, looking northwest at turning lane and bike lane
SW corner of Nicholas and Laurier, looking east towards Waller

We did not continue on the bridge over the canal; that would have involved me being on the bike lane on the road, protected by some blue pilons, and Middle on his bike on the sidewalk. My last trip to this intersection involved me travelling east across that bridge and taking the bike lane separated from the curb by a turning lane. I would never ever ride in that lane with a child on the back and another on the sidewalk separated from me by a lane of cars. Part of riding with children is constant communication and instruction, and that would not work above the din of traffic from one lane away. I have asked the city to move the bike lane to the right side of the street, as they did on the St. Patrick bridge, but was told there was too much traffic turning right and it would slow the vehicles down. If one dropped the assumption that the cars had first priority over all road surfaces, one might come to a different conclusion. One could eliminate the right turn lane, for example. Sigh.

Finally, we reached the haven of the MUP (multi-user pathway) along the canal on the east side. We continued down to the Corktown pedestrian and cycling bridge, situated right next to the closed underpass, crossed the bridge and faced the MUP on the other side of the canal, closed now for some time for construction. There is an alternate route on a road just west of the Driveway, but this is now dug up, also for construction. A construction worker saw me hesitating and told me that there was a way for cyclists to weave their way through. Yes, there is, and it is narrow and winding and rough, with sharp turns around construction fences. We managed fine, but it was not a proper detour. Did no one think that digging up the MUP and the alternative route for cyclists at the same time might provide some difficulty for said cyclists? We reached the MUP and continued down to Fifth Avenue and crossed the Driveway using the cycling signal. The children always love using that signal, since they can activate the sensor themselves on their own bikes, and they exclaim, “Look, it’s a signal just for us! For cyclists, not for cars!” Yes, grownups, children on bikes are paying attention and know that the world is mostly not built for them.

We arrived at the doctor just in time. It had taken us 45 minutes to travel from Besserer and Cumberland to Fifth and Bank, a distance of 4 km. Even allowing for a slightly slower child biking speed, I would expect it to take 25 minutes at most. Most of that time was not cycling time, but waiting time, walking time, and figuring out which way to go time.

I was cross during that bike ride, and I am still cross. I did not feel safe except when I was on quiet streets or on the MUP. The worst part was navigating the crossing of a highway, Nicholas, that travels through the middle of town. The underpass, a safe route for cyclists and pedestrians has been removed, and replaced with nothing. All the cars and trucks and buses maintain their usual routes, and cyclists and pedestrians are meant to fit themselves around all those other vehicles. We can anticipate two more months of nothing safe at Nicholas and Laurier for the children and me, and all the other people who don’t want to, or can’t, pay for the bus or for a car to get downtown. It is not safe for us to go that route by bicycle, and it is not safe for us to walk our bikes through there either. The spouse’s office is just on the west side of the canal, and it might be nice to meet Daddy for lunch during the summer. On the other hand, the children have remarked that the downtown is loud and smelly and full of mean cars, so perhaps they won’t want to do that after all.


Bread: the original and best

Bread: the original and best

I, celiac, bake a great deal of gluten-filled bread. I bake bread at least three times a week. Right now I have cinnamon-raisin pinwheel bread in the oven , at the request of Little. Two loaves of whole-wheat bread are in the freezer, with a half loaf of the same in the bread basket. I will probably bake bread again tomorrow. The bread I bake most often is the classic white boule, pictured above. It is the only bread recipe I have committed to memory. It always works, it is fast and easy and I can put it together even if I am tired and it is 10:30 at night and I realize that we are almost out of bread.

A bit more than three years ago, I was in Sunnyside Library with the whole family one Saturday and the spouse had the children with him so that I was free to roam the adult books on my own. (It was a thrill!) I happened upon this book at the end of an aisle: Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads by Nancy Baggett. The concept is that you mix up the dough, let it sit for about 12 hours or more, and all the little yeast hoolies do the kneading for you. Intrigued, I took the book  out and tried out Crusty White Peasant-Style Pot Bread.

It was fabulous. I renewed that book three times for three weeks each and tried out one or two recipes each week. At that time my celiac disease had not yet been diagnosed so we all chewed our way blissfully through loaf after delicious loaf. Baguettes, cheddar and chiles bread, cinnamon-raisin swirl, yeasted cornbread, rye, pale ale pot boule….oh yum. At the end of all my library renewals I went out and bought the book. It has since been well-used. The pages are falling out of the binding and marked with grease and flour and my coffee cup.

I decided to bake almost all our bread from that point on. We still buy factory whole wheat for the correctly squishy grilled cheese sandwich, and sometimes we get crumpets or English muffins. I kept baking even after I found out I could not eat gluten.

It is unbelievably cheap to bake your own bread. I buy the ten-kilo bag of flour at Costco for $7.65 and it lasts for about a month of baking. I use about $5 worth of whole wheat flour during that month too. In that period I make between 20 and 30 loaves of bread.

It is so much fun deciding which kind to bake, and by now everyone has favourites so I am happy to take requests. I just love baking, and it doesn’t matter to me if I can’t eat the product. Last year I decided to bake my way systematically through the whole book just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything good. At the end, the classic white boule was still the original and best. Nancy Baggett’s recipes are usually for one loaf and I almost always double them so as to able to keep the rapacious hordes satisfied.

Here’s the recipe for two boules: I use completely average Canadian grocery-store ingredients: Redpath sugar, Sifto salt, Fleischmann’s yeast. In the winter, the water that comes out of my Ottawa taps is almost in ice-cube form already.


8 cups white flour
2 tsp white sugar
1 tbsp plus one tsp (or 4 tsp) salt
1 1/2 tsp quick-acting or breadmaking yeast (f you want to bake the same day, double the yeast to 1 tbsp)
4 cups ice water


2 large mixing bowls
Measuring spoons and cups
One wooden spoon or Danish dough whisk
One spatula
2 Dutch ovens (cast-iron ovenproof pots)

Mix dry ingredients together in a very large bowl. Little likes helping me measure and mix. I use a Danish dough whisk to combine the ingredients. I got three for Christmas one year after this bread-baking mania began. Slosh in the cold water and mix for quite a long time until all ingredients are combined and it looks wet and gluey with no traces of flour. No kneading: just mixing.

When I was first starting out with this book, I couldn’t figure out why my dough was always way drier than that pictured in the book. But then I remembered that Canadian flour has more gluten than American flour and just added a bit more water to make things squishier. If you have made bread before using a more conventional recipe, the dough will seem quite wet and soft. Go with it and do not fret.

Divide the dough and put one portion of it in another bowl to rise. I have one bowl larger than the other, so I divide them unevenly. This works fine since my Dutch ovens are not the same size either.  So now you have two bowls of dough. In every recipe Nancy Baggett advises covering the bowl with plastic wrap, but I am a professional loather of plastic wrap. What a silly, one-use object, and especially irritating if it sticks to itself and not the bowl. I went out and bought silicone airtight lids, which go through the dishwasher and can be used in the fridge or microwave as well.

If I want to bake in the afternoon, I mix up the bread in the morning and bake 3-4 hours later. If I’m not in a rush, I either mix the bread in the morning and bake it in the evening, or I mix it up after supper and bake the next morning or whenever that day works out. One can delay baking by putting the bowls in a cold place until one is ready. Whatever you decide, when the bread is nearing the top of the bowl or indeed is pushing the lid up, take a spatula and fold the dough in towards the middle of the bowl while rotating it. 20160530_101241This organizes the gluten (hey, I can’t eat gluten, but I can organize it) for baking. Leave for about an hour, depending on the warmth of the room, and then turn on the oven to 450° F (235° C). Put two cast-iron pots (the pots need to have lids, but leave the lids out of the oven for this first phase) into the oven when you turn it on. Have your oven mitts at the ready.

When the oven is hot, remove one pot and dump the contents of one bowl into it. Don’t worry if it looks a little messy; you are doing artisanal baking after all. Spritz water onto the top of the loaf, put the lid on and put the pot back in the oven. Repeat with the other pot. The water creates steam inside your little Dutch oven and that steam gives you the lovely crust. 20160530_103856Turn the oven down to 425° F (220° C) and set the timer for 50 minutes (maybe check after 45 minutes if you are doing this for the first time). The loaves should look solid but a bit pale at this point. 20160530_113121Take the lids off the pots, set the timer for five minutes, and bake the loaves lid-free for that time. Remove the bread when it is browned and crisp.

I usually find that the loaves come right out when I tip the pots over onto the cooling rack. Let cool. Often the teenager comes home from school 15 minutes after baking is over and he has at the fresh warm bread for his snack. The other loaf I put in the freezer for another day.

The gorgeous crackling noise that the bread makes as it cools is known as singing.