Experiments In Domesticity

Marriage, Motherhood & Modern Housewifery


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First World Problem?

In the wake of the Bangladeshi garment factory plaza collapse, which killed over 950 people, I have been struggling with guilt and searching (once again) for alternatives to inexpensive, manufactured-in-Asia goods. As anyone who has bought children’s clothing, books, and toys can attest, it is not easy to find consumer goods manufactured in North America and Europe. I was shocked at the amount of made in China merchandise available in France last year.

Because we are so addicted to cheap and to quantity, it is easy to ignore where our goods come from until a thousand people die making our sneakers and it becomes international news. Sometimes we feel momentary outrage when we read about unsafe lead levels in toys manufactured in China, we send our lead-infused Polly Pocket to the landfill, wash our hands and move on to the next must-have. The consumerist memory is brief, unfortunately.

There is the argument that manufacturing our shoddy, cheap goods is providing jobs for women in countries such as Bangladesh. If we stop buying, many families will go hungry. However, until there is a third way (providing those working in manufacturing with proper wages and safe working conditions, and ensuring that the goods manufactured are safe), we are stuck either supporting inhumane working conditions and endangering our own children or abstaining from purchasing anything manufactured in Southeast Asian countries. In the last few years, I have chosen the last option whenever possible. The large, glaring exception has been baby clothing.

It is very difficult to find inexpensive clothing for kids that has been made in North America. I posted awhile back about the search for shoes. I have since ordered a couple pairs from Soft Star Shoes and can attest to their all-round awesomeness. I have also purchased some Robeez lookalikes from Lil Jo’s that are made in Vancouver and are very cute.

Recycling is a good way to keep clothing costs down (beware of used footwear though). I happily accept any and all used clothing that people are willing to give Ladybug. While much of what we get is made in Bangladesh and China, we are not contributing any new funds to the manufacturing world. Plus, we are helping to reuse clothing before it ends up in the landfill. Lately, however, we have begun to exhaust some of our clothing suppliers because our mighty Ladybug is gaining on their children. Plus, it is nice to get something new once in a while. To further complicate life, distribution in the off-line world is often a bit spotty for made in North America clothing but the Internet is your friend in this instance. There is always the American Apparel at your local shopping complex but that store’s owner has a past that may be unethical and one that is most definitely murky.

The North American made kids’ clothing companies below manufacture beautiful, quality goods that come with a reasonable price tag. Part of the whole shift in our thinking needs to be a reduction in quantity – does my 1.5 year old really need 10 dresses? – in favour of quality.
Boské Kids
Small Potatoes
Redfish Kids
Red Thread
Stella Industries
Mini Mioche

This list is by no means exhaustive. I have also discovered lovely handmade goods at local seniors’ centres, and farmer’s markets. I can easily spend hours in the children’s clothing section of Etsy.

What are some of your favourite children’s clothing companies? Paper Doll by ana_ng via Flickr Paper Doll by ana_ng via Flickr


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Burn, Baby, Burn: Cob Oven Construction

Over the weekend, Ladybug & I spent two glorious days on a farm near Morinville. I was learning how to build a cob oven with the capable folks at Shovel & Fork, and Ladybug was learning the joys of spending 8 hours outdoors with chickens, dogs, cats, mud, and no danger of being run over by a latté-crazed SUV-wielder.

Because reading books, looking at pictures and poring over blog posts only gets you so far, I recommend building a cob oven with the help of someone who has done it before. Chad and Kevin, our fearless leaders and all-round capable guys, have each built several cob ovens. Under their guidance, a team of about 18 people managed to put together a beautiful, large oven in 16 hours.

The design we followed is meant to be standing for “300 years”, according to Chad, and looked it as I sized it up at 6:00 pm on Sunday. It is not the simple cob dome you often see but a cob dome atop a monolithic hearth. The hearth has the function of adding permanence and strength to the structure, and raising the oven to the perfect height for fire maintenance and peel-usage without developing a crick in your back.

Our site was chosen in conjunction with the property owner to provide proximity to the kitchen and a great meeting place for outdoor parties. We dug a hole to source the clay for our cob. The hole was back filled with various sizes of gravel to provide drainage and a stable base on which to build the hearth.

We used urbanite, or recycled pieces of concrete, stuck together with cob, to build up the exterior walls of the hearth. The cob was a combination of clay, sand and water, and was mixed by human foot power on a tarp.

Beginnings of a behemoth hearth

Beginnings of a behemoth hearth

Mixing cob

Mixing cob

The interior of the walls was filled with “junk” that we sourced from around the yard, covered with sand, and topped with a thermal layer of empty wine bottles and a final levelling layer of sand.

The exterior of the top of the hearth will be skirted with regular, recycled brick, and the interior fire floor was made with pricey firebrick. According to Kevin, the firebrick were $4.25 each and comprised the major cost of the oven because everything else was salvage.

Laying brick

Laying brick

Once the hearth was in place, construction of the cob dome began. A dowel was cut to the agreed height and placed in the middle of the firebrick floor. Using the dowel as a guide, a dome of sand sprinkled with water, or “sandcastle”, was erected. This was covered in wet newspaper, “papier mâché” style, in order to mitigate the amount of sand that will fall on the first few food items prepared in the oven.

Building a sandcastle

Building a sandcastle

Sand dome

Sand dome

Using a slightly thicker cob, we made bricks by hand. These bricks were used to encase the sandcastle. Another layer of soupier cob with flax straw added was then put over the bricks to provide more insulation. The oven can be finished off with stucco, brick or left as is – this is entirely up to the discerning eye of the owner.

Adding insulation

Adding insulation

Cob with flax straw

Cob with flax straw

While the insulative layer was being added to the dome, a door was cut out using a plywood template. When the dome was complete at the end of the day, the sand and newspaper were scooped out of its interior. The oven will require some sort of roof, again up to the owner, as the cob needs protection from rain and moisture.

Cutting a door

Cutting a door

Break on through ...

Break on through …

Over the week, there will be small fires lit in the oven to cure it. Next weekend, we are having a Mother’s Day pizza party using the oven. I will let you know how it all turns out. . .


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Stir It Up

It’s been far too long since I last posted. What happened to my New Year’s resolve? It seems both time and motivation have vanished in the ether. I could make many excuses: I’ve bought and sold a house, I’ve partially packed a house, I have a very active toddler, Musicman has been away, etcetera, etcetera. As we all know, sometimes life gets in the way.

Way back in February, I celebrated my 38th birthday while Musicman was away. Because he had not thought to leave a gift at home for me, he went all out in March and bought me a Thermomix. (Okay, I’ll admit it, he may have had to listen to me talk about it for a year first …)

For the uninitiated, the Thermomix is a kitchen robot that can basically do everything except spoon the food into your gaping mouth. It is made by the Vorwerk company – designed in Germany and produced in France. It grinds, grates, blends, mixes, kneads, steams, sautés, weighs and cooks. You can even get it to clean itself by putting a drop of soap and some water in it.

Adapting and trying out new recipes has taken up some time but the learning curve is not too steep and my family has been enjoying the results tremendously. The things I like most about the Thermomix are its speed and efficiency. I have found that there is a lot less waste involved because I am less reliant on pre-packaged foods, and I am able to throw unpeeled vegetables in and the end product is still lovely. I am also able to whip up a decent meal in half an hour – from scratch.

I use the Thermomix at least once a day and find it especially wonderful for smoothies, steel cut oats, blended soups, hummus, guacamole, dips and rice. It would have been handy to have had when Ladybug was starting to eat solids. It is great for gardeners who are interested in preserves and canning. It is also an excellent tool for those delving into raw and vegan cooking.

Please note: I am certainly not being paid by Thermomix. I wish I were because the machine does not come cheap. I just drank the Kool-Aid and wanted to share my delight with others.

Vegan Potato Rösti with Applesauce from Rescued Fruit

Vegan Potato Rösti with Applesauce from Rescued Fruit


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Moving On Up

Musicman and I have tossed around the idea of moving closer to family since I became pregnant. We definitely did not want to move while I was pregnant, as I had the most amazing midwifery care. Once Ladybug was born, moving anywhere, other than from the basement to the living room, seemed too daunting for a time.

In the last few months, our discussion about moving became more serious. With one set of parents in poor health and the other about to retire, we felt the time to make a decision was upon us. We sat down and made a list of the pros and cons, and decided that a move was in order.

Our realtor came by today and our house will be listed as of tomorrow. Sitting in our beautiful, tidy home, we both feel excited and wistful. We love our house, we have great friends here, and Edmonton has so many amenities. We are moving 600 plus kilometres, from a city of over a million inhabitants, back to our hometown of 90,000.

What tipped the scales was the idea of Ladybug being near her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. We both had this opportunity when we were young, and we feel it is very important. We can always get another house and make new friends.

Selling a house, moving, and buying a house are stressful events for adults – imagine what it must be like for a toddler! Poor little Ladybug has been walking around the house watching me stage rooms. She points to where things used to be, makes a sound and then holds both hands up as if to say “what’s going on?”

When moving with a child, it is generally advised that you not make any other major changes to their routine. For example, don’t go from co-sleeping to a crib or toddler bed. At the new house, try to set up your child’s room first. It’s also a good idea to prepare them for the move by discussing it with them.

I expect that Ladybug will be more clingy over the next couple months and that her sleep pattern will be disturbed. She doesn’t sleep as soundly or for as long whenever change is afoot. I plan to take things slower than I would have in a pre-baby move and to give myself plenty of time to get things done.

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Happy Women’s Day!

Today was International Women’s Day and, while I didn’t do anything in particular to celebrate, I did spend some time thinking about the women who are important to me and what it means to me to be a woman.

I have had the great privilege of being the daughter of an unquestionably amazing woman. My mother is a true humanitarian and has always had a heart for the poor, the needy, and the underdog. The love and compassion she shows to others is uncommon and has been a real lesson for me. She is also a tireless worker and loves interacting with others – qualities that I continue to work on. I am eager to see what project she will tackle, as she begins her retirement this summer.

My grandmother is also a remarkable woman. She is fit, active and involved in her community. She has always kept an immaculate home and shared the produce from her gigantic garden. She will be 90 years old in June, she lives in her own home, and she regularly drives the over 600 kilometres to visit her family. I admire her independence and strive to be half the homemaker and gardener that she is.

How I define “woman” has changed dramatically in the last year. While I don’t believe you need to be a mother to be a whole woman, I think having a child alters your understanding of the passage of time and what it means. I am glad that I have been able to experience the fullness of being young, single, married, divorced, childless, a career girl, a student, happily remarried and now a mother. Each new phase of my life has offered me some tremendous highs and valuable learning opportunities.

I am thankful for my wonderful friends, my strong mother and grandmother, and this crazy life. I am thankful for being a woman: we’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go.


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The Dry Season

Ladybug has been suffering from dry skin and eczema-like patches on her body. Not a huge surprise, considering I have the same issues every winter. The moisture-guzzling combination of cold weather and dry, warm forced air from the furnace leaves many of us scaly and itchy in the winter. Here are a few dry, sensitive skin tips that I have found helpful:

Around the House:
– ensure that your furnace has a humidifier and that it is working. They are not terribly difficult to replace yourself and are relatively inexpensive;
– use a portable, plug-in humidifier in your bedroom. There is some debate as to whether hot, cold or ionic is best. I went with ionic because the vapour is very fine and cool, and I thought it would be better for a baby;
– consider the type of laundry soap and fabric softener you use. The more heavily-scented, “whitening” or other tempting miracle soaps often contain harsh, skin irritating ingredients. Because Ladybug is cloth diapered, I use a laundry soda that is recommended for diapers. You should absolutely avoid fabric softener and dryer sheets if you cloth diaper because they leave a moisture repelling residue behind (on the diapers and in your dryer). I have had little static by using reusable dryer sheets. (For cloth diaper tips and tricks and some skin-friendly laundry soaps, check out the “Resources” section of the Bummis website.)

On Your Skin:
– do not bathe in really hot water. Hot water, like hot air, is drying;
– put rolled oats in a cheesecloth bag or tie them up in a washcloth for an itch-soothing soak. I found this to be a great relief when I was pregnant last winter;
– add some plant-based oil to your bath water. I like almond but plain old olive works well too;
– avoid chemically, heavily scented or otherwise “unnatural” soaps or body washes. Read the ingredients on what you plan to put on your skin. Less is more in this case. I like liquid Castile soap or Val’s Veggie Bar soap;
– after a bath or shower, massage more plant-based oil into your skin before towelling off. Coconut oil is perfect for this purpose and has the added bonus of smelling great. Do not rub your skin dry, blot it gently;
– for diaper rash, a good barrier cream is essential because it prevents the contents of your baby’s diaper from penetrating the broken skin and making the rash worse. I like Burt’s Bees Baby Bee Diaper Ointment. Look for a cream that is thick and seals the skin while repelling moisture. When the skin is not broken, I like to use an emollient, soothing cream like Weleda’s Calendula Diaper Care;
– for skin irritations, cradle cap, and minor eczema, I have had great success with DermaMed’s Baby Healing Cream. I use it on myself and on Ladybug. Musicman calls it the “magic cream”.

Finally, do not forget to drink lots of water and stay away from too much caffeine and alcohol. What you put into your body has an effect on your skin too!

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There’s a Place In France … (Part 2)

A friend who’d flown to Australia with her infant sent me off to France with her Flyebaby. Once in the air, I was glad that I had printed the instructions, as the set-up is not intuitive. It was definitely a good option for some hands-and-lap-free time en route. However, its true usefulness was to be discovered when we landed.

4. High Chair is Not Part of French Vocabulary. In the entire month we spent travelling in southern France, Ladybug sat in one high chair. The restaurant offering the chair, I think it was La Marina – though the restaurants along the Hérault in Agde all sort of blur together, advertised its availability by placing a beautifully patinated wooden affair on the quay. The siren, surely designed to beckon weary parents in search of travel respite, combined with the woman who greeted us and announced the special of the day, was all the encouragement we needed. Had I not brought the Flyebaby, I would have spent every other meal for a month with Ladybug on my lap.

Of course, the stroller might work as a meal seat for the child who does not demand to sit at the big kids’ table. Another option to which I have availed myself in a pinch is the ever useful swaddling blanket. I have used one to bind Ladybug to the chair back with great success, by wrapping it over her tummy, around the chair and tying it in back.

5. Travel Insurance is Essential When Bringing Bébé.
Once we had settled into our damp, somewhat smelly, three hundred year old rental accommodation, it became apparent that Ladybug was not only jet-lagged and unsure of her new pied à terre, she was teething and sick. To this point in her short life, she had no teeth and had never had even the slightest sniffle. Trust international travel to bring out the worst all at once!

After a week of sleepless nights and days of fording a relentless snot river, my mother insisted we find a doctor. I returned to the pharmacist who had deftly diagnosed my bad hair and recommended a product cure. He assured me that a doctor was in order, saying he could see Ladybug had an infection by looking at the puffiness under her eyes and encouraging me to at least suction the snot from her salinated nose using a modified straw that he plucked from a shelf in the rhinal section of the shop. After paying for the sucker and engaging in a round of profusely polite parting pleasantries, we were off in search of medical help.

When we arrived at the last address on the list, we were pleased to find a doctor who worked on the weekends in the off-season. We entered the building and were directed by the receptionist to climb to the next floor. No names were exchanged, no questions asked. Upon arriving upstairs, we discovered two waiting rooms for two different doctors. There was no receptionist, just people sitting quietly and patiently. I went back down to speak to the woman at the desk who told me to return upstairs and wait with no further explanation. We picked the room with less people and sat down. A few minutes later a doctor appeared in a white coat and asked for the next patient. A man stood and followed him to his office. There were no arguments or discussions about who was next or whose problem was most acute, everyone waited their turn.

When we were ushered into the doctor’s office, he indicated that we should sit on the other side of an imposing wooden desk from him. He inquired as to our particular complaint, made some notes and invited us over to the examination table. He looked in Ladybug’s ears and throat, and felt her glands, speaking only to direct me to change her positioning. When I asked a question, he held his hand up in the universally accepted “stop” position and asked me to reserve my questions for after he had given his prognosis and prescription. We returned to the desk where he wrote up four prescriptions and asked for 28 euros for his time.

Though your child may be hale and hearty, lack of sleep, change of climate and hours of breathing recirculated, disease-filled airplane air may bring on an illness. Additionally, new countries mean new germs that you and your child may not have the antibodies for. Think ahead, get travel insurance, and bring along some basic first aid supplies such as children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen (pain, fever), and children’s antihistamine (bug bites, allergies).

6. Have Fun!
The reason we travel, for the most part, is to enjoy ourselves and have new experiences. Almost every experience you throw at a small child whilst on the road will be new, try to ensure that the experiences are as enjoyable as possible by planning your activities with your child in mind.

Most toddlers, for example, will not want to spend the day at the Louvre but you may be able to squeeze in an hour or two, with snack breaks, with few protests. Most adults’ idea of personal hell is spending their precious time and hard earned coin at EuroDisney. As I mentioned earlier, there are many wonderful sights, sounds and smells to be had for free or next-to-nothing. Follow the French lead and pack a picnic lunch from the amazing variety of delicious foods available everywhere you turn, eat in a park, at the beach or along a river and take in the natural beauty of one of the world’s favourite travel destinations.

Some of my best memories are of playing in the sand and water at the Mediterranean with Ladybug or feeding the ducks along the Midi Canal our day-old bread. Slow down the pace, stop to smell the flowers and enjoy your time with your little one – having a strict agenda is bound to make for stress-filled and unhappy travel.

For older children and parents with a less restrictive budget and little planning time, there are many wonderful packaged, family-designed tours out there. For example, the American company Butterfield & Robinson offers some phenomenal, educational biking tours in France.

No matter where you go and what you decide to do, you are bound to have a lovely time in France. There is a reason that North Americans have been spending time there for centuries – go discover why for yourself!

Agde, France

Agde, France


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There’s a Place In France … (Part 1)

A friend of mine is heading to Europe for an extended visit with her twin infants and has asked for ideas of things to do while in France. Much has been written about France, travel and children. What immediately came to mind was Todd Babiak’s 2010 Learning French column from the Edmonton Journal. A serial account of family life in France simply doesn’t get much funnier, truer, and more whimsical. Alas, a quick search on the Journal’s site returns next-to-nothing. My next thought was Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon. This book represents the fruit of Gopnik’s dispatches from France to the New Yorker. Lately, there’s been an awful lot made, perhaps too much?, of Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. A personal favourite, though it has nothing to with children at all, is David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Any of the above will give you an introduction to the French from a North American’s perspective.

I have made many pilgrimages to France over the years, both with and sans baby, and have yet to have had a terrible time. My last visit was in September and October 2012. I travelled solo with Ladybug and made the mistake of using points. My 23 hour journey went like this: Edmonton – Heathrow – Frankfurt – Toulouse. By the time we got to the airport hotel in Toulouse, Ladybug had a meltdown the likes of which I had never seen and hope never to see again. It lasted for 2 hours and I hadn’t slept in two days. You get the picture, I’m sure. Which brings me to my first tip:

1. Know thyself and thy child. If you have never travelled with your child, have never travelled far with your child, have never crossed time zones with your child, or have never been on a plane with your child, make it easy on yourself. Book the flight with the least amount of stops. Bring an adult companion with you. Ask for a seat at the bulkhead or one with an extra seat open next to it. A perfectly rational child may become a snivelling mess when a mile high. You may become a three-headed monster when seriously sleep-deprived. The only way to know how you and your child will travel is to go travelling.

Once we got on the train to Agde the next morning, we were both slightly more composed. The train is an excellent way to travel in France and many parts of Europe. It also eliminates the need to lug around a carseat.

2. Kids are currency with French public services, if you can find the right information. Before we left, I did a fair amount of research on train travel. I purchased something called the Carte Enfant+ for 75 euros. It is available to children under 12 and is valid for one year from the start date of usage. The card entitles the child card-bearer to a free seat on the train when accompanied by an adult. It also entitles up to 4 people to accompany the child and receive a minimum of 25% off their fares and up to 50% off certain journeys. These people do not have to be related to the child and can be of any age. My parents qualified for seniors’ pricing but this card proved more economical than the seniors’ discount. Certain trains even have Espaces Familles which are like your own private room reserved for families. For more information, click here.

Children under 18 are admitted free to most national monuments and museums in France. If you are planning to visit a lot of sites there are multi-day passes available to adults that really cut costs. However, if you are there in the late spring, summer or early fall, there are many lovely outdoor opportunities that won’t cost you a cent. Walk the lavender markets in Provence, stroll along the Seine in Paris … but leave your stroller at home.

3. Be prepared to get some serious exercise. As anyone who has ever been in the metro in Paris or any train station in France will tell you, accessibility is a huge problem. Many stations have stairs, stairs everywhere and not an escalator in sight. I brought an amazing, light umbrella stroller for my mother to use with Ladybug. It was a pain in the airport, on the plane, on the train, on the cobblestones, in pubs … you get the picture. I did see French women blithely pushing their progeny is strollers whilst sucking on cigarettes, in skinny jeans and stilettos, but I found it much easier to navigate with my carrier and sensible shoes. I definitely did not see anyone anywhere with those gigantic “jogging” strollers women here are so fond of.


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Locals Only

The most sobering fact I learned, and the one that stuck with me, from Edmonton-based Jennifer Cockrall-King’s book Food and the City is that grocery stores only hold three days worth of food supply. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, an oil and gas shortage, or a Canadian civil war, we may find ourselves very hungry, very quickly.

I have the great fortune to live in a city that, despite rather major drawbacks such as frigid winter weather, boasts 5 year-round farmer’s markets. That’s right, five! Edmonton has the good luck of being northerly enough that it gets extended sunshine hours in the spring, summer and early fall, and is also the bearer of kick-ass soil (as my laissez-faire garden can attest). In the winter, we have several excellent greenhouse producers who keep us in tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce. For cool, non-GMO food manipulation, check out Doef’s to see how they produce heart-shaped cucumbers.

Last week, I went to hear Raj Patel speak on Food Cultures for Sustainability. Patel is an engaging and passionate speaker. Between wrestling with Ladybug and spilling coffee all over myself, I was able to enjoy his entertaining anecdotes which drove home important points about the modern agricultural-industrial complex. I was also proud to be an Edmontonian when Patel complimented us on “fresh”, our urban food strategy, and joked that we were the only city in the world where you could purchase frozen vegetables at the farmer’s market.

As we settle into February and seed catalogues begin to appear in my mailbox, I find myself dreaming about the upcoming gardening season and all that it promises. Thoughts such as these, combined with my weekly trip to City Market, give me much to look forward to.

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Pancakes Are Ready!

Last night, Ladybug and I went snowshoeing in the river valley, visited the old fur trading post, and sipped warm cider while we were regaled with tales from Edmonton’s frontier days. We had a wonderful time. Ladybug, who would normally be in bed by 7:30 PM, exclaimed repeatedly about the night sky. We were returned to our car in a wagon pulled by two enormous Clydesdales. Ladybug was fascinated by the horses and even patted one, named Jeb, on his velvety nose. It reminded me that, though we read her many animal stories, our city slicking kid has not seen any live animals save dogs and cats.

We slept in today, and I wanted to make something quick and delicious before we headed out to the farmer’s market. One of our favourite breakfasts is pancakes with real maple syrup. I have modified a recipe from my well-worn How It All Vegan, by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer, to suit our family.

Snowy Saturday Pancakes

1 banana
1 cup whole grain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp brown sugar (optional)
1 1/2 cups almond milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup blueberries, frozen or fresh
coconut oil
fruit for garnish (I use strawberries)
maple syrup

1. Heat cast iron skillet, griddle, or other heavy pan over medium low heat.
2. Mix flour, baking powder,cinnamon, and sugar (if using), in a large bowl.
3. Mash banana with a fork in a smaller bowl. Mix in the almond milk and vanilla.
4. Dump the wet ingredients in with the dry and mix until everything is moist. Add blueberries.
5. Test your skillet by dropping a bit of water in. If it sizzles, you are ready.
6. Put enough coconut oil in to cover the bottom of the pan (1/2 tsp), and distribute it evenly.
7. Using 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of batter, pour pancakes into pan.
8. When the edges of the pancake look cooked and the centre has bubbles, flip the cakes over. Fry for another 2 minutes or until browned.
9. Repeat steps 6 to 8 until all the batter is gone.
10. Serve with sliced strawberries, more blueberries, or whatever floats your boat. Don’t forget the maple syrup!

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