Friday, May 1, 2015

Matthew's Preschool Progress Report

Preschool graduation is looming on the horizon and I am happy to report that despite my fears about how this year was going to go, Matthew will be graduating to Kindergarten with flying colors. Academically, that is.

When we had our first conference with Matthew's teacher, she was quick to say that he is very, very bright and always a step ahead on the lesson. However, because of this, she thinks that he gets "bored" pretty easily and then feels the need to entertain himself in disruptive ways. He likes to tease the little girls in excess, rap out music on his desk, stomp his feet to make his tennis shoes light up (I never should have bought those things), request to play puzzles during song time and then pout when refused, and so on.

Every day, I dread opening his folder to read his behavior chart because I never know what I am going to find. Some days the comments might read like this:

"Matthew was so helpful today. An absolute joy to have in the class!!!"

Or, on less than stellar days, they might read like this:

"Your son told a girl he didn't like her repeatedly because she sat in his usual spot during circle time. Then, he shook the table while trying to be funny during snack and caused everyone to spill their drinks. He was chasing the kids around in the gym pretending to be a spider and scaring some of them."

Picking him up at the end of the day is always so stressful. Paul and I have been trying so hard to reiterate to Matthew that he is at school to learn and the best way to learn is to LISTEN and OBEY his teachers. Every day when I drop him off, I ask him: "What are you going to do at school today, Matthew?" And he'll reply: "Listen and Obey!"

Some days, that message gets through a little better than others.

His behavior drastically improved after Thanksgiving and we did not have any negative days until March. Then, his behavior began taking another dive. Mainly, Matthew was refusing to practice with the class for the preschool graduation program and his teacher was worried that he was going to ruin it. So, we had another meeting with the teacher who reiterated that he was probably bored and she noticed also that he really is very sensitive to noise (with group singing activities in particular) and that we might want to get that checked out. We already knew about that one since he always plugs his ears during the music at Mass, when a car drives by, while going through the car wash, etc. We have brought it up with his doctor before and he said that Matthew will probably grow out of it. Since the meeting, Matthew's behavior has been great for the last couple weeks - he has consistently received all greens on his behavior chart!

However, I had to laugh at and share the most recent comment from his teacher here with you all because it perfectly sums up our strange little child. He received a green on this day, with the following note:

"Good day today. He did growl at the principal though. I talked to him about using words not sounds to talk to people."

Oh, Matthew. What are we going to do with you?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Perfect Irish Soda Bread

I know that I'm really late for Saint Patrick's Day, but this loaf of bread is a treat that should be made more than once a year anyway! I found this recipe in an article I read while waiting for a work meeting to begin about six years ago - before I had my children! I copied the accompanying recipe down and made it for Saint Patrick's Day as a treat for my co-workers. We loved it so much - and so does everyone who eats it - that we have been making it ever since! It's something that Paul and I look forward to snacking on together for breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night snack, etc.

This is not a true "soda bread" because it is more cakey and sweet than most traditional Irish recipes. That's probably why, in my opinion, it is the best version of soda bread you're going to find. Paul and I have always "enhanced" the recipe by soaking the currants and caraway seeds in Irish Whiskey overnight to incorporate just a mild amount of that luxurious flavor throughout the loaf. Of course, this step is optional - but it's so good. Also, the caraway seeds may seem like a weird, savory component to be putting in a sweet bread, but their flavor compliments the currants very, very well so I would recommend trying the recipe with them first. If you're hesitant about the amount of caraway in the recipe, feel free to cut back on them by 50% or so. I always added less caraway the first couple times I made this recipe because it scared me, but now I am obsessed with caraway and add the full amount.

Also, be sure not to overbake this loaf. It is huge, gigantic, and takes a while to bake. However, it goes from being "just underdone" to "overdone" in a manner of minutes so be sure to keep an eye on it towards the end. You want the interior of the bread to be very moist and not at all dry.

Irish Soda Bread with Currants and Caraway
from an article seen in the New York Times 2009

Optional: Place the caraway seeds and currants in a small bowl and pour over about 3-4 tablespoons of good Irish whiskey. Allow the mixture to sit, covered, at room temperature overnight, tossing occasionally. When ready to use, just fold into the recipes as instructed.

5 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into cubes, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups raisins
3 tablespoons caraway seeds
2 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Generously butter heavy ovenproof 10- to 12-inch-diameter skillet with 2- to 2 1/2-inch-high sides. Whisk first 5 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Add butter; using fingertips, rub in until coarse crumbs form. Stir in raisins and caraway seeds. Whisk buttermilk and egg in medium bowl to blend. Add to dough; using wooden spoon, stir just until well incorporated. The dough will be very, very sticky.

Transfer dough to prepared skillet. Smooth the top, mounding slightly in center. Using a small sharp knife dipped into flour, cut a 1-inch-deep X in top center of dough. Bake bread for about 65-70 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Begin checking at the 1 hour mark and if the bread is over-browning, cover the top lightly with foil. Cool bread in skillet 10 minutes. Turn out onto rack and cool completely. Leftovers may be stored, wrapped very tightly in plastic, at room temperature for up to 2 days or in the freezer for one month.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Picture Day Failure

Oftentimes, I wonder what Matthew's preschool teachers thinks of me as a parent. I have been a bit late to pick him up on a few occasions and I often look really frazzled when dropping him off because getting my child to eat his lunch before school starts is always, ALWAYS a struggle. Also, my son is not the neatest child in the world and is often wearing half his lunch on his face, hands, shirt, etc. when I drop him off. I normally unload him from the car, grab a diaper wipe from the stash I have in the center console, and attempt to scrub his face as best I can while simultaneously embarrassing him in front of his friends. Multitasking!

"Mom STOP! My face is CLEAN!" he growls at me. Matthew's definition of clean means only three tablespoons of peanut butter are smeared all over instead of four!

There have been a few occasions where he has walked into school with a dirty face and his pants unzipped because I did not notice until we were halfway up the steps and had nothing to rectify the situation. This always makes me feel like a winner of a parent: "Hi there! Here's my filthy child! I never bathe or wash him and it shows!! If you have a lice outbreak in the classroom, it's probably from us!!"

Granted, it's not every day that I drop him off looking so disheveled. Some days he actually looks pretty well put together - a nice crisp polo (crisp as in freshly laundered not ironed - who has time for that?), pants that actually fit and are neither drooping down his skinny little backside nor six inches above his ankles, shoes tied and on the correct feet, and combed hair with a little gel worked in. Unfortunately, I have a knack for choosing the wrong days to not keep a close eye on his appearance.

The other day, Matthew came home with a package of spring school pictures in his backpack. I was completely unaware that they were having these pictures done - even though I'm sure a note had come home at some point about it (Mom for the win!). Having missed the memo, I had unknowingly sent him to school the day the portraits were being shot looking like a homeless child. It must have been a very frazzled morning for his hair (in desperate need of a trim) was sticking up, his shirt was too big and sported some pretty prominent spaghetti sauce stains, and he had marker stains on his face. Had the picture been a full-length portrait, I'm sure we would have seen him wearing pants that are too short and his rubber rain boots that are beginning to come apart at the soles. The photographer obviously tried his best to make my poor child more presentable by having him cross his arms to hide his stained shirt and combing his hair down a bit. It was all a failed attempt - the portrait was abysmal.

The photographer did not touch the marker stains on Matthew's face. This was probably an attempt to encourage us to opt for the "retouched" portrait option when ordering these fine works of art and have the stains removed digitally as we would acne or rosacea. A nice advertising ploy, but we still won't be ordering these pictures. No amount of retouching could save them. I also do not wish to preserve such a fine moment of parental failure.

However, I wish I could share them with you. They really were hilarious. Paul and I laughed for a good while when we saw them.

And it could have been worse. Like what happened to this kid.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Whole Grain Cherry Almond Cookies

I have been on a kick with sneaking whole grains into our cookies. Whole grain cookies - cookies made completely from whole wheat flour and flax seed meal - sounds like something you eat only if you are on a diet. Or starving to the point of craving cardboard. However, I assure you that this recipe is absolutely delicious and one that the entire family raves about. The kids love them and Paul is obsessed with them.. I've posted the recipe for the basic Cinnamon and Fruit Whole Grain Cookies last summer, but this version is equally fantastic. The main difference is that it utilizes almond paste in place of part of the butter, adds in dried cherries (or cherry flavored craisins - whatever works!) and toasted almonds, and omits the oats. A great flavor combination!

I should stress that whole grain cookies lack visual appeal. They are a little darker, chunkier, and - frankly - uglier than a standard batch of chocolate chip cookies. However, don't let their humble appearance fool you - what they lack in the looks department, they make up for in leaps in taste! They are not dry and are plenty sweet. They just have a more wholesome, substantial taste thanks to the addition of flax seed meal and whole wheat flour. I'm not going to lie, these are definitely one of my favorite cookies ever. If you are an almond lover, you will find these especially appealing. The almond paste has such a wonderful flavor. We had some leftover from making this Whiskey Pear Tart, so into these cookies it went!

As you can see, Emma was very frustrated that I wanted to take a picture of the cookie plate. She honed in quickly and claimed a cookie. I should probably point out that this was her third cookie. She probably would have finished the entire plate if I did not put it out of her reach. Also note that she is doubling-up on her snacks by alternatively taking bites of cookie and chewing her way through a cupful of goldfish crackers. Eating is her favorite pastime.

Whole Grain Cherry Almond Cookies
adapted from Wegmans Menu Magazine Holiday 2014

1 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour
1 cup ground flaxseed meal
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 *heaping* teaspoon salt
1 can (8 ounces) almond paste
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sweetened dried cherries or cherry-flavored craisins
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Whisk together the flour, flaxseed and baking soda in a small bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the almond paste. Gradually add the water until well-blended and smooth. Add the butter and brown sugar and mix until very creamy and well-combined. Add the egg and vanilla and beat for another minute or so. Gradually beat in the flour mixture, then switch the mixer to the lowest speed and add the cherries and nuts. Mix until just combined.

Drop the cookie batter by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased cookies sheets. I pressed each cookie down with the bottom of a drink glass to flatten evenly. Bake 10-12 minutes or until done - the centers will still be very soft and the edges will be a very light brown. Be careful not to overbake!!

Let the cookies rest for 1-2 minutes on the baking sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Don't Steal My Baby Name!

Baby Emma on the beach in September 2013

A few days ago, I was in the grocery store with the kiddos and began chatting with a really sweet older lady after we reached to grab the same apple (for the record, I let her have it!). She commented on how well behaved the kids were (I didn't tell her it was a rarity) and asked me a couple questions about the pregnancy. When I told her we were expecting a girl, she quickly asked: "Do you have a named picked out yet? If it's a secret, you don't have to tell me!"

This really struck me. I told her that of course it was not a secret and that we would be naming the baby Lucia Therese (aka Lucy). She then went on to explain that her son and daughter-in-law were always really big on keeping the name choices a secret until the precious bundle's arrival in order to prevent their name from being "stolen" by other, jealous, less creative parents-to-be.

Baby Matthew on top of Mount Helena July 2010

This reminded me of an incident I experienced a couple of years ago while attending a work event with Paul. At the formal dinner, we were seated next to another couple I had never before met - the husband occasionally worked with Paul and his wife was eight months pregnant with their first child. At this point, Matthew was about two years old so I thought that I would actually have something to talk about with this woman, especially since Paul's work events normally involve a bunch of engineers with stellar conversational skills sitting around staring at one another, perhaps occasionally discussing their latest projects, while I nod and smile awkwardly. But kids, pregnancy, childbirth - these were all subjects I could chat about! However, my enthusiasm soon waned when the gal presented a pretty standoffish front to my attempts at conversation. Granted, they weren't the most creative conversation starters, but I was really hoping to flesh out more than the one-word responses I received.

"How have you been feeling?"

"Do you know what you're having?"

"Ok. Well, that's good. Is the baby a Boy or Girl?"

"What an exciting time for you guys!"
*Silence and a blank stare*

Her husband was much more eager to jump in and fill in the gaps to this delightful conversation. Thank goodness for him! But then came the kicker. I asked the ultimate question.

"Do you have a name picked out for your little girl?"
At this point, the husband interjected: "Well, honey, we do have a name picked out."
To which she replied: "Yes, but I don't want her stealing it!"

Okay, at this point I was not even expecting. And these people do not even run within our close circle of friends so even if I was inspired by their name choice and decided to copy it by naming my own future daughter the same, they would not even know the difference! In case you're curious, we found out a month later that the special, super-secret name was "Norah". And as you all know, that's just the name I've been itching to name my daughters. Darn it, now it's claimed.

I honestly don't understand why people get so uptight about naming children. Unless we're going to go the Gwyneth Paltrow route and decide to name our children after fruit, odds are that our name choices are not going to be super-unique or personalized. My kids have pretty generic names, but we named them not for the uniqueness of the name but rather simply because we liked it! The uniqueness of each and every child comes from their individual personalities, souls, and expressions - not the name by which they are called. Maybe we're weird, but Paul and I really enjoy naming our child around the time of the anatomy scan and calling the baby by name for the duration of the pregnancy - and also sharing this news with others. Then, on the day of the birth, all we need is to see the sweet little face of our newest child! And we are so looking forward to meeting our daughter Lucy any time now!

But don't steal my baby name!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Strawberries & Cream Cake

For Emma's birthday, I could not envision making anything short of a strawberry cake for my little sweetie. She loves strawberries and whipped cream so I had originally planned on making this French Strawberry Cake for her.

However, when Paul came back from his European adventure, he brought the plague with him. Within 24 hours of being back, I suddenly had one of the worst respiratory viruses I have ever had in my entire life. Here we are, nearly a month later, and I still have not fully recovered from it! Luckily, neither of the kids was affected but I was so sick and burnt out by the time we were ready to celebrate Emma's birthday that I just did not feel like making a labor-intensive cake.

Thank goodness for cake mix! My Mom and I had a discussion about how useful cake mix can be as a quick base that can be "dressed up" to make some pretty darn good tasting desserts. Mom says she always feels a little "ashamed" to admit to using a cake mix - but I think if it tastes great and people love eating it, who cares?

Now, you certainly could use your favorite white or yellow butter cake recipe and make this same cake, but it is so easy to just open a bunch of boxes, dump all the ingredients into a mixer, let it whip a couple minutes, and then pour into cake pans. It took me about 5 minutes of work and then I went back to lying on the couch with my mountain of tissues.

After the cake has been baked and cooled, a simple whipped cream frosting is made - using a bit of cream cheese to help stabilize - and lots of chopped, sweetened strawberries are hidden between the layers. I added a little heart shaped strawberry patch onto the very top of my cake and garnished the sides with additional strawberries. Simple, elegant, and the birthday girl was very pleased!

The cake was delicious! The cake itself had a bit of an "angel food cake" taste to it thanks to the addition  of the white chocolate pudding. Of course, this combination was great when combined with the whipped cream and fresh strawberries. It was a lovely, not-to-sweet taste of spring! Paul and I both loved how it did not feel "heavy" or "painfully sweet" like some cakes can. I will definitely be making this again - I think it's a crowd-pleaser!

Strawberries & Cream Cake
adapted from Let's Dish Recipes

For the Cake:
1 box white cake mix
1 box (3.4 oz.) instant white chocolate pudding (I used Hershey's White Chocolate Pudding)
5 egg whites
1 cup sour cream
1/3 cup oil
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Frosting:
3 cups heavy cream
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla

For the Filling:
3-4 cups chopped strawberries, plus more strawberries for garnish
1-2 tablespoons of sugar, depending on the sweetness of your berries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 3 9-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine cake ingredients. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake for 17-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes before turning onto wire racks to cool completely. After the cake layers are cooled completely, they can be wrapped very tightly in a double layer of plastic and frozen for up to a month.

When ready to decorate, place the chopped strawberries into a medium bowl and sprinkle with enough sugar to taste. Mix everything together and then set aside, tossing occasionally, while preparing the whipped cream frosting.

For the frosting, beat the heavy cream in a medium bowl until very stiff peaks form. In a separate large bowl, beat the softened cream cheese with an electric mixer on high speed until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and vanilla to the cream cheese and beat until well combined.

Place one cake layer on a cake stand. Top with half of the macerated strawberries and then top with a generous portion of the whipped cream. Spread the whipped cream gently to the edges. Place a second cake layer on top and add the remaining macerated berries. Press down gently onto the strawberries to make sure that they are firmly adhered to the cake layer, then add another generous helping of the whipped cream frosting. Place the third and final layer on top. Generously spread the remaining whipped cream up and down the sides of the cake. Smooth the top and sides and garnish with additional strawberries. Place in the fridge until ready to serve!! The cake is best served a couple hours after assembling to give all the flavors a chance to really meld together.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Happy Birthday, Emma Rose!

To my beautiful Emma Rose,

You turned two a few weeks ago. I know every parent says it, but I cannot believe how fast time has flown. You have grown from a tiny infant into a precocious little girl in the blink of an eye! You bring me joy every single day - even when you are at your crankiest - and I treasure every moment I get to spend with you.

We love you Emma Rosie. We love you, it's true!! Here are ten things that we love about you!

1. You melt our hearts when you sing to your baby dolls. You rock them back and forth gently while singing "Little Daughter.....Little Daughter"over and over in a tune only you seem to know. It melts my heart because you picked that phrase up from me. Whenever you fall down or hurt yourself and need some consolation, I wrap my arms around you and tell you: "It's alright, my little daughter." It's so touching to see you imitate me while interacting with your own "children".

2. Like your brother Matthew, you scorn all things potato (with the exception of french fries or tater tots) but you eat pretty much everything else. Including cat food. And if there is gum on the underside of a pew at church, you'll find it.

3. You love to dress up in pretty dresses, complete with sparkly shoes. However, you insist on wearing your shoes on the wrong feet and are so rough-and-tumble in play that your dresses all are doomed to be stained!

4. Ever since the snow thaw, you have been begging me to spend every second outdoors. You love to play, to run, and to dance in the sunshine. You also love to take walks with me around the neighborhood.

5. You talk to animals as if they are people. All animals seem to love you too. You charmed the ancient German Shepherd up the street into coming down the sidewalk to receive a pat from you while you were on your tricycle. I have never seen that animal move in the three years we have lived here.

6. You copy everything your big brother does. You think he is the funniest guy and laugh heartily at everything silly he does. You drive him a bit crazy when you mispronounce words, call every cat you see "a Riley", read a book upside-down, refer to magpies as "penguins", color over his art projects, and destroy his block towers. However, you almost always say "Sorry Matthew!" and win him over once more. He loves you so much too.

7. Your favorite animal is a ducky. Your favorite color is pink (followed closely by purple). Your favorite cereal is "Honey Bee Cereal" aka Honey Nut Cheerios. Your favorite drink is orange juice. Your favorite fruit is an apple. Your favorite snack is cheese.

8. Your favorite bedtime stories feature pigs. Your favorites are the Little Pookie books and the Olivia books. You still fall asleep only once wrapped in your Pooh blanket, stroking the tassels with your hands and with your baby doll wrapped up in her own blanket next to you.

9. You are so friendly to other children on the playground. You go right up to any kid of any age and say: "Hi! My name Emma!" Most of the time, the kids just stare at you blankly, but you don't seem to care. You also always seem to adopt an older child to act as your "maid servant" while at the park. Normally, this is a little girl about the age of 7 or 8 who follows you around wherever you go, helping you up and down stairs, slides, and bridges. You love it.

10. You always have ChapStick in your pocket to keep your lips hydrated. You normally stole this ChapStick from your mother's pocket while she was distracted.

Emma Rosie, you are so loved! Your laugh and smiles are contagious. You are adored by all who know you because of your sweet temperament, your spunky personality, and hilarious facial expressions. What a blessing you are in our lives.

Happiest of birthdays to you, my sweet little daughter.

Linking up for Tuesday Talk over here!