While I was at Assiniboine I had the delight of sitting down for a post breakfast coffee chat with their chef Marianne Abraham. This blog post will be a distillation of what we brewed up in that conversation including her picks for the backpacker’s treats that have been most popular with guests in the lodge’s 85 year history.
The mid morning sun stretched its rays like the claws of a lazy kitten through the windows of Mt. Assiniboine Lodge’s dining room windows as Marianne Abraham and I sat side by side on hand-made log chairs flipping through cookbooks on the smooth surface of a pine table. Abraham had the three copies of White Water Cooks that she has contributed to (lately acting as food editor and stylist) with her good friend, the author Shelley Adams, in Nelson, B.C.
I have a tiny spiral bound copy of the Mount Assiniboine Lodge Cookbook that was published in 1983. I asked Abraham for some all-time favourite recipes that could be shared with Alberta at Noon’s faithful listeners and Abraham seeks the opinions of the other staff as they go about their duties in the lodge. The group gathers, an easy consensus is reached and off they go on their merry ways again. It’s as though thoughts of the ginger cookies they’ve chosen are dancing in their heads and making them happy. It could be that or it could be that a place like this self-selects the staff that will be able to maintain such cheerful yet hard-working dispositions.
I ask Abraham to tell me about herself. She’s a “West Van” native who has always loved to cook. She says she’s always found it easy and that consequently she became good at it. She says she still loves to cook almost 30 years into her career because she is constantly inspired by great quality ingredients and by exploring the markets of the world in her “between seasons” travels. One of Abraham’s early friends in West Vancouver was Shelley Adams and when they both ended up cooking and catering for the film industry they found they had fun and worked well together.
In a non-intentional but birds of a feather kind of way, Abraham and Adams both ended up in Nelson about 20 years ago. Adam’s and her husband went onto buy the local ski hill called White Water and she opened a now famous cafe called Fresh Tracks. Adams had so many requests for the cafe’s recipes which she described as pure, simple and real that she compiled the recipes in a cookbook with fantastic drool-inducing photography. Adams has gone onto publish White Water Cooks at Home and White Water Cooks with Friends and with each book Abraham has become more involved. As I look at her copies of the books with loose and tattered pages, there’s not a shadow of a doubt that she knows the contents backwards and forwards and that the recipes are authentically loved by her.
Abraham met the Renner family who have been in charge of the lodge for over 30 years while cooking for a workshop Sara and her mother Barb were attending at Mountain Waters Retreat center in Nelson. The elder Renner especially liked Abraham’s food and invited her to come to Mt. Assiniboine Lodge for a visit.
Abraham fell in love with the setting. An avid skier, hiker and cyclist she easily fell into the rhythm of lodge life. Being invited to be one of two alternating chefs at this historic lodge was a great feather in her chef’s cap (see drawing above – that explains it!). Rising early to cook with time off to hike in the afternoon followed by dinner service and early to bed in a beautifully equipped setting feels luxurious after years of cooking at many lodges where she had to chop wood, drag water, pack in every single item of food for group’s and then share the accommodation after a 16 hour day of work. She marvels at this lodge’s hot showers and the privacy of having her own cabin. Her eyes smile as she talks about it.
Abraham works on a two weeks in and two weeks off schedule during the winter back-country ski touring season of February to mid-April and then again from late June to early October. Her children are grown, her partner tends her home while she’s at Assiniboine and they have the flexibility to travel together in the off-season. Assiniboine has electricity generated by a water turbine from a nearby stream, back-up propane, a well-stocked pantry at all times with fresh grocery delivery each Wednesday.
Abraham says the very active guests of the lodge need the kind of food she loves to cook. There’s health in variety and that is delivered in healthy carbs that she says are not just “fillers”. There are lean proteins with each meal, salads, soups and creative vegetable sides. Because the Canadian palate is influenced by our multi-ethnic immigration pattern Abraham tells me she can play with international twists on the ingredients she has to work with. She loves to welcome skiers back to the lodge after a long day out-of-doors with her steaming Thai Coconut Soup. She says guests linger when the smell of bread wafts through the air and everyone loves finishing the day with a sweet (but not overly so) dessert that they have earned in the strenuous physical pursuits of the day.
I look at Abraham’s pale green-blue eyes, her shiny thick blonde locks and long tanned slim legs visible between her unlikely but somehow fitting chef’s shorts and hiking boots. I tell her that I think she looks incredibly healthy and balanced. She smiles and says that her life is balanced. There’s no tight rope to walk here. She’s found that her personal cooking and food philosophy has happily found her a job that brings with it the balance of almost daily opportunities to exercise, rest and eat beautifully. She looks forward to every day that she spends at Mt. Assiniboine Lodge.
As I come to know this cook a bit, I see joy and I see someone who savours their food and savours their life. It’s a balance I’m always seeking.
It’s been nice to find an unexpected life and cooking guide among the mountain and hiking guides at Assiniboine. In hindsight though, maybe that should not have come as a surprise at all. Nature will always find balance and so it seems will the people who spend a lot of time in nature’s company.
I will be going back to Assiniboine and it won’t just be for the recipes for great food that can be found there. I’ll be going for the time in nature, the exercise, the rest, the food and for the chance to meet exceptional people and cooks like Marianne Abraham.
Mt. Assiniboine Lodge’s Great Divide Cookies
¼ c. white sugar
½ c. brown sugar
½ c. peanut butter (without sugar)
1 t. vanilla
1 c. margarine (Karen used butter)
1 ¼ c. white flour
1 t. baking soda
1 ½ c. rolled oats
¾ c. chocolate chips
¾ c. raisins
¾ c. coconut
½ c. sesame seeds
Cream together sugars, eggs, peanut butter and margarine until smooth. Add flour and baking soda. Add remaining ingredients. (You might want to mix in all the final ingredients with your hands) Roll into balls. Place on greased cookie sheets and flatten evenly with a fork. Bake at 350F for 10 – 15 minutes. Makes 3 dozen.
Mt. Assiniboine Lodge’s “Best in the West” Ginger Snaps
The staff at Mt. Assiniboine told me this is their most popular cookie by far.
½ c. soft margarine (Karen used butter)
1 c. white sugar
¼ c. black strap molasses
2 t. baking soda
1 T. ground ginger
1 t. each cinnamon, nutmeg, all spice and cloves
2 c. white flour
Cream shortening, and then add egg and molasses. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Form teaspoons of dough into round balls. Roll in granulated sugar. Press flat on greased cookie sheet with cookies about 2 inches apart. Bake at 350F for about 10 – 15 minutes or until the edges of the cookies are brown. Remove from pan and cool on a rack. Make 3 dozen.
White Water Cooks Pecan Squares
Marianne Abraham is not only a cook at Mt. Assiniboine Lodge – she is also the food editor of the best-selling White Water Cooks series with author Shelley Adams. Abraham gave permission to share this all time favourite treat from book one in that series.
1 c. cold butter
6 T. brown sugar
3 c. flour
1 t. lemon juice
3 c. pecans, whole
1 c. butter
2/3 c. honey
1 c. brown sugar
4 T whipping cream
Place butter, sugar, flour, egg and lemon juice in food processor and process until mixture just holds together, but is till crumbly. Press into prepared 9X13 inch pan and bake in a 350F oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Arrange whole pecans on top of prepared crust. To prepare filling, melt together butter, honey, sugar in a saucepan. Let boil for 5 – 7 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add cream. Drizzle filling over pecans until completely covered. Return to oven and bake for 20 minutes. When cool, cut into squares.
Hint: Chocolate chips can be added to top as soon as these come out of the oven, if desired.
White Water Cooks White Chocolate Hazelnut Brownies
1 c. butter
10 oz. good quality white chocolate cut into small pieces
1 1/4 c. sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature
1 T. vanilla
2 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
1 c. hazelnuts, coarsely chopped and toasted
Place butter and chocolate in a large metal bowl in the oven at a low temperature of 225F. Stir occasionally until incorporated. Remove from the oven. Turn the oven up to 350F. Stir sugar into melted chocolate. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. It may look “curdled”. Add flour, salt and toasted hazelnuts and quickly stir until just mixed. Pour batter into a 9 X 13 inch pan. Bake in a 325F oven for 30 – 35 minutes or until top is light brown, but centre is soft. Cool completely before cutting. Sprinkle with icing sugar, or drizzle with dark chocolate.