Thursday, August 25, 2016

Blueberry-Lemon Zucchini Bread

Another blueberry recipe? Really? Sorry not sorry. I look forward to blueberry season all year. Plus, this recipe incorporates Matthew's favorite vegetable, the humble zucchini.

Why does Matthew like zucchini so much? Frankly, I have no idea. We really struggled getting him to eat vegetables during the first few years of his life, but for some reason he really loves raw vegetables of all types right now. And I mean completely raw. Raw carrots, tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers, red bell peppers, he loves them all. However, if you cook any of those veggies or chop them up really small and throw them in a sauce or a salad, suddenly he grows suspicious. It makes no sense.

Right before we left Montana, Matthew helped Grandma Nistler harvest a very large zucchini from her garden. It was an impressively large zucchini and Matthew became so attached to it that he begged us to let him bring it on our car trip home so he could "eat some of it as a snack." We talked him out of it and, after a few parting kisses to his beloved veggie, he left it behind on Grandma's counter. I hope Grandma washed it really well after Matthew's hands and lips were all over it.

When we arrived home from our Montana trip, I was delighted to find that our neighbor had gifted us a very large zucchini from his garden. Some day, I will actually get up the courage to try growing my own zucchini. I would love to be one of those people who have an endless supply of zucchini and have no idea how to use it up. That would be the perfect problem to have, in my opinion. Matthew immediately wanted to slice it up and eat it but I told him that we were going to use it to make zucchini bread.

"Zucchini? In bread? That sounds like so not a good idea!" was Matthew's dejected response. Don't worry kid, you're going to like this. He watched me skeptically, his little nose wrinkled up in disgust, as I grated up his beloved zucchini, wrung it out slightly to remove some of the excess water, and then added it to my bread batter. This take on zucchini bread simply adds a bit of lemon and a generous amount of blueberries to the traditional batter. These loaves become more moist if you let them sit for a good day before eating. The lemon glaze on top is an absolutely perfect finish. The only alteration I made to the original recipe was to incorporate a hefty amount of lemon zest into the sugar before mixing it with the rest of the batter. I really wanted that lemon flavor to permeate the entire loaf of bread, not just the finishing glaze.

Everyone loved this bread and it was a noble use of half our zucchini supply. Even Matthew, my biggest critic, admitted that zucchini bread is pretty good stuff. He ate half a loaf in one sitting. And whatever zucchini I did not use in this recipe, I sliced into rounds and saved for his dinner and made him the happiest kid on the block.

Blueberry-Lemon Zucchini Bread
adapted slightly from The Recipe Critic

For the Zucchini Bread:
3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
2¼ cups white sugar
Zest of 1 large lemon
2 cups shredded zucchini, drained and squeezed in a dish towel to remove excess water
3 cups all­-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 pint fresh blueberries

For the Lemon Glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon fresh Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Heavy Whipping Cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 9x5 loaf pans. I also like to line the bottom with parchment paper.

Rub the sugar together with the lemon zest with a small bowl until the zest releases its oil and the sugar turns very fragrant. In a large bowl, beat together eggs, oil, vanilla, and the lemon sugar. Fold in the zucchini. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder,and baking soda in a separate bowl and then add it to the zucchini mixture. Stir until no flour remains. Gently fold in the blueberries. Pour into the prepared loaf pans.

Bake for 50-70 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean (mine took closer to 65 minutes). Cool for 20 minutes in the pans before removing and transfering to wire racks to cool completely.

Once the bread has cooled, make the lemon glaze by whisking together powdered sugar, lemon juice, and heavy cream. Drizzle on top of the bread.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Blueberry Pie

Today marks the beginning of the very last week of summer for Matthew before he heads back to school to begin his First Grade studies. I am dreading the first day of school. Ever since Matthew started Preschool, the beginning of the school year has been very difficult and emotional for me. While the routine of the school day is appreciated by parents and children alike, I love having little Matthew around all day every day. I think both his sisters will miss him, but more importantly I will miss him so very much. He has truly blossomed this summer into a helpful, loving older sibling and son. He still has his moments, but he has demonstrated a true desire to please and be helpful.

As an example, the other day I was extremely flustered while making Blueberry Pie for our Sunday dessert. Matthew had helped me prepare the pie dough earlier in the day and we decided to actually bake the pie while Paul was out mowing the lawn and Lucy was eating a snack while safely strapped in her high chair. Emma was being a bit of a pain trying to steal and eat the raw pie dough, but we could handle her as long as Lucy was subdued. So, Matthew measured out the blueberries and mixed them together with the sugar while I rolled out the dough for both the bottom and top crust while simultaneously protecting it from the grabbing hands of the three-foot kleptomaniac. Just as we were getting ready to assemble the pie, Lucy began to flip out. I went over to try to appease her, but she kept screaming and crying at the top of her lungs. I got her out of her high chair and tried to distract her with some toys so I could go back and continue assembling the pie. She ended up following me, howling the entire time, and began clutching onto the back of my legs and begging to be held: "Mommy! Mommmeeeeeee!"

I was getting so flustered, especially because I had let the pie dough sit a bit too long and it was being a real pain to roll out. Matthew, seeing my frustration, grabbed Lucy by her torso, took over to the other room, and began to encourage her to play with her Noah's Ark set. My little man bought me just enough time to finish assembling the pie, toss it in the oven, and quickly clean everything up before returning to my typical role as the baby slave. But, do you see? Matthew anticipated my needs and, without even being asked, took control of the situation and aided me in my time of crisis. I will miss him so incredibly much! While out at the library a couple days ago, the librarian asked me if I was excited for the start of the school year. When I answered with an emphatic "NO!" she was very surprised and told me I was the first Mom to say that. I explained to her that I love having Matthew at home and the beginning of the school year is always very emotional for me. I wonder if that will ever change?

The blueberry pie I made with Matthew was entirely his idea. After we did our last round of blueberry picking, Matthew begged and pleaded for me to help him make a pie. I was actually not too wild about the idea of making blueberry pie because I remember not liking it very much at all as a child. Granted, that was about a gazillion years ago and a lot of things have changed since then. I no longer wear my hair in big scrunchies, walk around in dalmatian-patterned wind pants, regard the Hardy Boy mysteries as top shelf reading material, or think Tuna Casserole is the fanciest meal on the planet so perhaps my tastes regarding blueberry pie have changed as well. So, Matthew and I made my favorite pie crust and decided to use a simple filling recipe from Williams-Sonoma (upping the amount of berries called for by quite a bit).

Matthew could not wait to cut into the pie and was rather bummed when I told him that we had to let it cool as long as possible or else the juices would run out when cut. So he waited and waited and as a little special treat for being such a good helper, Paul and I let him stay up a little later than his sisters and enjoy a big piece of pie with us. You should have seen him eat it - he enjoyed, savored, and delighted in each and every bite. The entire time he ate his slice, he kept raving about how much he loved it. He has come a long way from the little boy who would never even touch every pie, cobbler, or crisp I made. He licked his plate clean and asked me to promise to make it for his birthday. I guess someone is getting blueberry pie in the middle of January.

This pie completely changed my opinion about blueberry pie. It was so darn good. We served it a la mode with a scoop of ice cream and that was simply perfect. I loved the small hint of cinnamon that really accented to the blueberries in the filling. At first I was worried that it would clash with the little bit of lemon also added to the filling, but the flavors actually melded together perfectly. I can't stress enough how much every single member of the family enjoyed this pie! And now that I know my kids love pie so much, I really should start making it more often!

Blueberry Pie
filling adapted from Williams-Sonoma, Crust adapted from Cook's Illustrated

For the Crust:
2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¾ cup cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch slices
½ cup vegetable shortening, cold, cut into 4 pieces
¼ cup vodka, cold

¼ cup cold water

For the Filling:
6 cups blueberries
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, strained
3⁄4 cup sugar
3 tablespoon cornstarch
1⁄2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Process 1½ cups of the flour, the salt and sugar in a food processor until combined, about two 1-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 10 to 15 seconds; dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula and redistribute the dough evenly around the processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into 2 even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

Remove 1 disk of dough from the refrigerator and roll out on a generously floured work surface to a 12-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang on each side. Ease the dough into the plate by gently lifting the edge of the dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with the other hand. Leave any dough that overhangs the plate in place; refrigerate while preparing the filling, at least 30 minutes.

To prepare the filling, place the blueberries in a large bowl, sprinkle with the lemon juice and toss to coat evenly. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, cornstarch, lemon zest, salt and cinnamon. Sprinkle the sugar mixture over the berries and toss to distribute evenly. Immediately transfer to the dough-lined pan. Dot with the butter.

Roll out the second half of the pie dough into a 12-inch circle and gently drape over the top of the blueberry filling. Crimp the edges. Using a small, sharp knife, cut six slits in a circular pattern in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape during baking.

Refrigerate the pie until the dough is firm, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 375°F.

Bake the pie until the crust is golden and the filling is thick and bubbling, 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely to set, at least 2 hours.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Warm Spinach Salad with Roasted Pork Belly

My brother-in-law Peter is quite the character. I have so many brothers-in-law that I love and admire but Peter holds a very special place in my heart because he was one of my best friends before I fell in love and married his identical twin. Some of my fondest memories of college involve Peter and his shenanigans.

Peter would often be seen around Notre Dame's campus in all types of weather wearing flip flops. He had a pair that I swear were glued to his feet. He would be all bundled up in his ski jacket but always wearing that same pair of flip-flops. As a member of the Notre Dame Cycling team, he could also be seen strutting around in his spandex biking uniforms sporting freshly shaved legs. I was, in fact, quite jealous of his shaving technique because he could flawlessly maneuver over the tricky bumps and curves of the ankle area with incredibly skilled precision. Paul used to be so worried that people on campus would mistaken Peter for him - and he most certainly did not want people to think he wore spandex and shaved his legs. Paul also used to joke about how embarrassing it was for him to listen to his identical twin discuss leg shaving techniques with his girlfriend.

Obviously a quirky fellow, Peter has always had a fondness for Asian cuisine and culture. In fact, he owned a fancy rice cooker long before most of us could afford a decent haircut.  He also took a semester of Chinese despite a rigorous schedule of engineering courses and no foreign language requirement to fulfill. He chose the name "Showw-shing" (I am totally butchering the spelling and I'm sure I will hear an earful from Petey about that later) because it translates into "Little Whale." It was always grand entertainment sitting in the common room of Peter's dorm and listening to him practicing his Chinese vocabulary out loud from the confines of his bedroom.

Although he has long since abandoned his attempts to study the Chinese language (he has since been immersing himself in the study of German and is now quite proficient), Peter still loves Asian cuisine. Peter now resides in Los Angeles, a far cry from his remote Montana roots. One of the things he enjoys most about LA is the variety of restaurants at fingertips, particularly the ethnic cuisine. Right before Lucy was born, he was enjoying Korean restaurants the most and had become quite fond of a particular soup. He sent me a recipe for it so I could try to re-create it at home (in our small town we are nowhere near a Korean restaurant) but I was too fat and lazy from my pregnancy at that point to get myself to an Asian grocer and track down all the weird ingredients needed. Well, three weeks later, Lucy arrived and about three days later so did Peter. The following weekend, he and Paul went on a hunt for all the ingredients to make that Korean soup and came home with a lot of fairly interesting ingredients - including dried anchovies, whipped tofu, and...about 20 pounds of pork belly.

My kids are little porkers, but that's a lot of premium-quality pork fat even for them!

Peter went about making the soup and our kitchen smelled rather fishy for the duration of the evening. When he finally served the soup, it was the most interesting bowl of food that I have ever gazed upon. In other words, it looked completely unappetizing - almost as if someone had gotten sick and served it as the main course. However, it was pretty darn tasty. Paul and I enjoyed it so much and slurped down the leftovers for days afterwards. I would love to try the dish in an actual Korean restaurant sometime!

However, of the twenty pounds of pork belly we purchased for the soup, Peter maybe used about half a pound. The rest went into my freezer where it was completely forgotten about until this summer. Foodies would declare this absolutely sinful, since pork belly is considered a very cherished ingredient in the culinary world. However, I really didn't want to cook with it since 1) there was so much of it, 2) pork belly is so incredibly fatty, and 3) Paul had been talking about making bacon out it. While struggling to make room in my freezer for some groceries, I came across the large slab of pork belly and decided that it was high time we cooked the darn thing.

I threw a brown sugar and salt rub on the defrosted pork belly and let it sit in the fridge for about 24 hours to cure. Then, I slow roasted it so the fat cap would begin to melt and naturally baste the rich meat as it delicately cooked. Once removed from the oven, the fat was drained into a cast-iron skillet and used to fry the fat cap on the belly, leaving it perfectly crisp. The pork belly was then put aside to rest and drain while I prepared a basic wilted spinach salad. I used some of the fat from the belly to make a hot dressing. I poured the hot dressing over fresh spinach, mushrooms, and red onions and tossed until the spinach began to wilt. We plated each salad individually and topped the plates with a generous portion of pork belly and a runny egg. It was pretty rich, mighty tasty, and incredibly filling. We did not use all the pork belly in the salad, but rather saved the majority of it for use in eggs, tacos, and other meals throughout the remainder of the week.

If you happen to have many, many pounds of pork belly left to consume, consider this simple roasting method for preparing it! Or, if you have a hankering for a really strange but tasty Korean soup, I know a cute, German-speaking, rice-loving, Camry-driving, Othello-winning, computer engineer who can make it for you!

Warm Spinach Salad with Roasted Pork Belly

For the Roasted Pork Belly:
1 (3-pound) skin-on center-cut fresh pork belly, about 1 1/2 inches thick
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
Vegetable oil

For the Dressing:
3 Tablespoons Reserved Pork Belly Grease
3 Tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar
2 teaspoons Sugar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon Mustard
1 dash Salt

For the Salad:
5-6 hard-boiled, fried, or poached Eggs
1 whole Red Onion, Small
1 package Mushrooms, sliced thinly
8 ounces, weight Baby Spinach, Washed Dried And Stems Removed

Using sharp chef's knife, slice pork belly lengthwise into 3 strips about 2 inches wide, then make 1/4-inch-deep crosswise cuts through skin and into fat spaced 1/2 inch apart. Combine 2 tablespoons salt and brown sugar in small bowl. Rub salt mixture into bottom and sides of pork belly (do not rub into skin). Season skin of each strip evenly with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Place pork belly, skin side up, in 13 by 9-inch baking dish and refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 12 hours or up to 24 hours.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 250 degrees. Transfer pork belly, skin side up, to lightly greased wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Roast pork belly until meat registers 195 degrees and paring knife inserted in meat meets little resistance, 3 to 3 1/2 hours, rotating sheet halfway through roasting.

Transfer pork belly, skin side up, to large plate. (Pork belly can be held at room temperature for up to 1 hour.) Pour fat from sheet into 1-cup liquid measuring cup. Set aside three tablespoons of the fat to use in the dressing. Add vegetable oil as needed to equal 1 cup and transfer to 12-inch skillet. Arrange pork belly, skin side down, in skillet (strips can be sliced in half crosswise if skillet won't fit strips whole) and place over medium heat until bubbles form around pork belly. Continue to fry, tilting skillet occasionally to even out hot spots, until skin puffs, crisps, and turns golden, 6 to 10 minutes. Transfer pork belly, skin side up, to carving board and let rest for 5 minutes. Flip pork belly on its side and slice 1/2 inch thick (being sure to slice through original score marks).

While the pork belly is resting, prepare the spinach salad.

Add 3 tablespoons bacon grease, vinegar, sugar, and Dijon to a small saucepan or skillet over medium-low heat. Whisk mixture together and heat thoroughly.

Add spinach to a large bowl. Arrange onions, mushrooms, and bacon on top. Pour hot dressing over the top; toss to combine. Arrange salad on individual plates. Arrange chopped pork belly and sliced hard-boiled eggs on top. Serve!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Pepperoni Pizza Rolls

Can we talk about balloons for a minute?

I absolutely despise balloons. I used to love and marvel at them as a child, but now that I have my own children I have come to cringe whenever I attend an event and see a balloon artist busily at work handing out balloons twisted and tied in all kinds of creative ways to resemble a wide variety of animals and objects. My kids are always so excited to have a personalized balloon made for them - Matthew usually requests an alligator or a dinosaur whereas Emma is all about flowers and cats - but I dread the moment when, inevitably, those fragile balloon shapes either pop or deflate and it is up to me to wipe the tears from the faces of my devastated children. Like I said, I hate balloons.

We had a couple encounters with balloon creatures this week and, unfortunately, poor Emma could not catch a break when it came to keeping her balloons inflated for longer than an hour. First, we attended an event at our local library that featured a really creative balloon artist. The guy made some of the most incredible creations out of balloons. They were so complex and detailed - it was mesmerizing to watch him work! He made a special balloon for everyone present, including a light saber for Matthew that actually lights up. When it came time the balloon artist to make a creation for Emma, she shyly requested "a kitty with a bow on it." And he sweetly obliged her and made her the cutest balloon kitty I've ever seen, complete with a long tail and an intricate pink bow. Emma was so thrilled that upon reception she cradled her kitty lovingly in an embrace and named it "Nimbo." (Your guess is as good as mine as to the origin of that name!)

Unfortunately, within minutes of arriving at home, poor Nimbo's head popped and a horrified Emma was left with a headless balloon kitty. She cried and cried but I didn't feel too badly for her since we were heading to Paul's company picnic in just a few hours and they always have clowns making balloons there for the kids. A replacement was in her future! We eventually made our way to the aforementioned picnic and when it came time for Emma's balloon to be made, she requested another kitty - a pink one with big eyelashes. Once again, she cradled it and declared that she would cherish it forever. Afterwards, the kids wanted to go play at the park with their balloon creations, but Paul convinced them to put them in the car for safekeeping. It was a very hot day so maybe the car became to hot for the balloons - whatever the reason, by the time we made it back to our vehicle, Emma's balloon (and not Matthew's) had popped. We hid both balloons and drove home, masterfully evading the question each time the kids asked about their balloons. Of course, our charade could not last forever and Emma eventually gleaned the truth about her balloon. The discovery led to more tears and eventually a small bowl of ice cream as a consolation prize. My mommy heart cannot handle the emotions.

My immediate reaction when someone is feeling sad or blue is to feed them.  There is nothing my kids enjoy more than...PIZZA! Super original, I know. They are pretty plain jane when it comes to their pizza tastes. Give them plain ol' pepperoni and they are three happy little kiddos. However, I get a little sick of making pizza the same way and sometimes the traditional pizza shape can be a bit messy with my sloppy little eaters. I hate having to break out the kitchen shears to cut the pizza into more manageable, bite-sized pieces for my messiest eater Miss Emma. How about pizza that is rolled into the dough cinnamon-roll style, making it a more compact, hand-held shape that is perfect for dipping in extra sauce?

Verdict? The kids loved it. I adored the super-quick pizza dough that requires a mere 15 minutes before it is ready to be stuffed and rolled. I also loved the cornmeal that each cut roll is dipped into that lends a bit of crunch and additional flavor. This is such a fun way to spice up pizza night that we have made them several times over the past few weeks. So easy and so good. No complaints when this dinner is served! No lingering memories of popped balloons either.

Pepperoni Pizza Rolls
from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

For the Pizza Dough:
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon honey or white sugar
2 tablespoon olive oil
4 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups flour

For the Filling:
2 1/2 to 3 cups pizza sauce (we use a jar of Parmesan Romano Spaghetti Sauce)
8 ounces freshly shredded mozzarella cheese
5 ounces pepperoni, chopped
1/3 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

For the dough, in an electric stand mixer fitted with the dough hook (you can also do this by hand in a large bowl with a spoon), stir together the water, honey, olive oil, yeast, salt and 1 cup of the flour. With the mixer on low speed, continue adding the flour until the dough clears the sides of the bowl and forms a soft, smooth ball. Knead for 3-4 minutes (add a few minutes if using whole wheat flour). Let the dough rest, covered, in the bowl for 10-15 minutes.

Separate the dough into two pieces. On a lightly greased countertop, press one portion of dough into a thin rectangle, about 14x10-inches.

Spread 1/2 to 3/4 cup pizza sauce evenly across the top. Sprinkle evenly with half the mozzarella cheese and then half the pepperoni. Starting with on long side, roll up cinnamon-roll style, pinching the seam together to seal.

Place the cornmeal in a bowl or shallow dish. Cut the dough into 1-inch sections. One by one, press the bottom of each pizza roll into the cornmeal and then place on the prepared baking sheet about an inch apart.

Repeat with the remaining half of dough.

Once all the pizza rolls are placed on the baking sheet, sprinkle evenly with Parmesan cheese and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden.

Warm the extra pizza sauce, and serve the pizza rolls immediately out of the oven with the pizza sauce for dipping. I have also made them a few hours ahead of time and they reheat beautifully.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Blueberry Crumb Bars

Since she began walking, Lucy has just blossomed into the cutest, most adorable petite person you ever did see. She adds new words to her vocabulary every day. Her current favorite phrase is repeating "All Day" over and over again. The phrase comes from the very last sentence of one of her favorite board books about a little curious little dog - "and they went outside to play all day." For some reason, that line really resonated with Lucy and she has been waddling around here repeating "alllll day"...well, quite frankly all day every day. She's also discovered the wonder of music and has displayed quite the singing voice with a particular penchant for "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Old MacDonald." There is nothing cuter than watching Lucy twirl around, swinging her fat little arms, while singing, "E-I-E-I-O!" There is nothing cuter.

Unfortunately, I am beginning to witness a little "sister rivalry" happening between Emma and Lucy. Although she would definitely classify herself as a "big girl", Emma still likes to be cuddled, held, and catered to like a baby at times. Whenever a story is read, she likes to sit in my lap and she will, on occasion, be asked to be spoon fed. No worries, that last request is always refused. Whenever Emma needs a little more attention from me, Lucy immediately becomes enraged. Even if she is perfectly content and playing with a toy on the other side of the room, the moment she sees me cuddling Emma, she gets up and begins her mad dash across the room towards her property, angry little arms flailing, her face all scrunched up in a look of pure disgruntlement, and her tiny little voice loudly wailing, "Mama! Mama!" They regularly fight over me. And while at times I have to stop and marvel at my sudden popularity, most of the time I find it pretty irritating.

Between Matthew and Emma fighting over every nonsensical thing under the sun and Emma and Lucy fighting over who gets to love on Mom more, I often feel as if I am losing my mind. What if we were to suddenly add a pet to that mix? While at times I think having a pet could be nice, I'm really not wild about opening up my home to another creature whose bathroom habits I will need to monitor on a daily basis. Ever since our wonderful cat Riley died suddenly last year, the kids have been petitioning for a new cat. Paul, on the other hand, has sworn that he will never again endorse having a cat as a pet but he is fully willing to adopt a large dog. And everyone knows that dogs are way easier to keep than cats, right? His logic is that he needs a dog to "walk me" so I stop bugging him to take strolls in the evenings. A pretty expensive and time-consuming way to avoid a little bit of exercise.

The kids are still petitioning for a cat. So one day, Paul and I took Emma down to the cat orphanage to pet a few cats. While we were there, I also thought I'd look around and see if any of them seemed to be a good fit for our family. The experience ended up backfiring a bit because Emma, for some reason, started following around the most disgruntled kitty in the whole place. The fur ball kept hissing, spitting, and whipping it's tail at Emma but she just kept on following him around. "Look, Mommy, the kitty likes me! He's talking to me!" she declared as the cat snarled and spat in her direction. Both Paul and I tried our best to direct her towards the other, more friendly animals in the room but we weren't successful and before too long the inevitable happened. The cat scratched and bit Emma.

Emma's feeling were so hurt by this sudden act of violence from her new friend that she began to weep uncontrollably. Paul carried her to the car and we quickly left. On the way home, Emma continued to sob while I spoke to Paul about the other cats we had seen at the sanctuary. I had just finished telling him that none of the cats had the lovable personality Riley displayed and Paul agreed saying, "Yeah, I don't think we're going to have another cat as a pet." From the back seat came Emma's words of agreement: "Yeah! Cats are MEAN!" Guess our little trip cured her of any desire to adopt a new cat.

Other than sibling rivalries, a very destructive toddler, and debating over the pet situation, life has been good! Especially now that blueberries are in season. Blueberries are my favorite fruit to pick and I love that the season lasts nearly two months. The berries at the beginning of the season are more tart, but the berries at the end are the biggest and sweetest you've ever had! Any type of blueberry works well in one of my favorite treats - these blueberry crumb bars. While looking through the archives, I was shocked to see that I have never shared the recipe before on my blog. Obviously, it is time to remedy that.

Make these, You can use any kind of fruit you want really. You just might need to play around with the thickening agent depending on the types of fruit you are using (think peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, or raspberries). However, this blueberry variety is my personal favorite.

Blueberry Crumb Bars
Ever-so-slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold unsalted butter
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of one lemon
4 heaping cups fresh or frozen blueberries
1/2 cup white sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9×13 inch pan and line with a parchment paper sling.

In a medium bowl, stir together 1 cup sugar, 3 cups flour, and baking powder. Mix in salt and lemon zest. Use a fork or pastry cutter to blend in the butter and egg. Dough will be crumbly. Pat half of dough into the prepared pan.

In another bowl, stir together the sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice. Gently mix in the blueberries. Sprinkle the blueberry mixture evenly over the crust. Crumble remaining dough over the berry layer.

Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until top is slightly brown. (This took an extra 10 to 15 minutes in my oven.) Cool completely before cutting into squares.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Crafting with Kids: Painted Rock Garden Bugs

Summer is going by so quickly. I believe that Andy Williams was very much mistaken when he sang about Christmas being the most wonderful time of the year for as much as I love sleigh bells, hot cocoa, and celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is the sweet summertime with its sunny skies, warm temperatures, and outdoor activities that I look forward to most of all! Unfortunately, there is something about summertime that suddenly makes time just take off in a sprint and that's how I feel this summer has been so far: An absolute whirlwind!

Paul has been busy tearing up our deck and making our backyard an absolute hazard. He told me the other day on his way to work: "Don't let the kids go out on the deck, they might get splinters. Actually, just don't let them in the backyard period because there are probably nails and pieces of wood all over the grass." Fantastic. Don't let the kids outside when it's summer. We've been taking full advantage of the parks in our area.

This was the massive graffiti session that took place right before the deconstruction of the deck began!

In between ripping up the deck and getting a killer farmer's tan, Paul has also been grilling a lot. I am so so grateful that he loves to grill because I really hate having the oven on when it is hot and humid outside. Hamburgers, brats, and smoked fish have been go-to dinners and Paul is always more than willing to grill anything. However, he did have a teensy little accident the other day when he was grilling barefoot and a hot coal tumbled out onto the grass from the chimney starter he was emptying and he stepped on it with his big flat foot. The result was a big blister and a whiny husband. The invalid sat nursing his sore foot with ice and a manly pink washcloth while I was forced to finish the grilling. I was smart and wore shoes. And burnt the hot dogs.

Beer to numb the pain in his foot. 
The kids and I have busied ourselves with lots of beach time, visits to local farms, hikes, and the occasional craft or project. Matthew and Emma both love to paint and "help" me with creative additions to the house. Matthew has actually come up with some pretty awesome craft ideas that have turned into fun projects that we have all enjoyed. However, Emma is the one who came up with the most recent family project. While taking a walk around our neighborhood, Emma pointed out a stone she had spied in a flower bed that was painted like a ladybug. To my horror, she picked it up and declared that she was going to take it home because "it is just so cute!" I told her that it wasn't ours and told her to put it back. She did, slowly and reluctantly, and we continued on our walk. A short while later Emma, still thinking about the cute rock she had left behind, asked, "Mommy, can we make some of those?" I thought that was a great idea and told the kids that we could make them for our new flower bed!

Paul and I are very proud of the new flower bed in front of our house. There used to be these nasty juniper bushes filling that spot, but we dug them out last summer and planted a whole bunch of cute little flower plants in their stead. The plants all flower at different points throughout the summer and fall, so the logic behind the planting was that there would always be some type of flowers blooming. So far, we have been successful in that nothing has died on us! Matthew already added a couple mini American flags to the flower bed so I thought a couple painted rocks would also be a nice personalized touch.

While Emma was very excited to be painting ladybugs, Matthew suggested that we also paint some bees. I collected some outdoor acrylic paints as well as a glossy sealer for our rocks, and then we headed to the beach and the creek to search for flat, smooth rocks for our project. While we were out collecting, Matthew found one particularly ugly, scraggly-looking rock and he declared that he was going to paint it to look like a Woolly Mammoth. Having no idea what he was talking about, I just agreed that he could keep it and kept on collecting rocks.

Painting the rocks was so much fun! The kids were surprisingly helpful and not messy at all. Emma helped with painting the bodies of the bugs black and then Matthew, Amy, and I added the details. I was very impressed with Matthew's painting skills. When he puts his mind to things, he is surprisingly neat and detail-oriented! The paint dried very quickly so we didn't have to hang around long to see our project finished. Amy sprayed them with the sealer and allowed them to dry overnight just to be sure and soon they were ready to be scattered outside. The kids were so excited to help me distribute the rocks in the flower bed. I think they look pretty cute!

Oh, and Matthew did paint his Woolly Mammoth and carefully put it next to his Cosmos plant to "protect it from the garden spiders." I think it's pretty cute - see the trunk and tusks he painted on it? He grew that Cosmos plant himself during Kindergarten and brought it home at the end of the school year. We planted it in the garden along with the rest of the flowering plants and it has just thrived. Matthew is very proud of it.

Next, we are going to paint larger, flat rocks with the kids' hand and feet prints and we are going to set those up along the retaining wall. That was Amy's suggestion but she abandoned us before we had the chance to finish it. I think I'm going to have a rough time getting Lucy's footprints without her here to assist me in holding the child down long enough to get a good print!

If you are in search of a fun, easy, and semi-enjoyable summer activity, I highly recommend painting some rocks for your garden! I love that these little mementos will be around for a while as little reminders of fun, lazy summers with my kids while they were young.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Fruit Pizza with Citrus Glaze

We have had the pleasure of hosting my sister Amy for half the summer. The kids have loved having her around to play with them during times when Mommy is at her busiest and I have loved having an extra pair of hands to help me with the kids in addition to her companionship and friendship. Unfortunately, our time together is coming to a fast end and I am already sobbing into my pillow just thinking about the upcoming separation. Parting truly is such sweet sorrow. I don't know if I can go back to how things were before when it was just me, myself, and I chasing the kiddos around but I'll have to find a way to manage! She better head back this way next summer!

One of Amy's defining characteristics is her intense and passionate love of all things sugar. This girl craves Coca-Cola as if it is necessary for survival. She could eat ice cream and cookies morning, noon, and night. I rarely spy her without a box of candy in her hands. She is a serious addict. As a family, we ate a lot more sugar than we normally do when Amy was around - not that anyone minded! We made cookies and dessert quite a bit and ate a ton of ice cream, and our excuse was "because Aunt Amy is here!" Every day Aunt Amy is around is a day to celebrate with sweets!

One of the desserts Amy wanted to make while she was out here was a fruit pizza. Matthew had eaten a fruit pizza sometime during the school year when one of his classmates had brought one in for her birthday celebration and he had enjoyed it so much then that he was ecstatic when Amy set about making her own version. However, he really wasn't much help and Amy was a bit disappointed in his lack of interest in the actual construction of this fruit pizza. His only contribution was picking out the stems from the blueberries. Emma, on the other hand, was a little bit more heavily involved in the project. I'm not sure whether her involvement was desirable or not, but she was right at Amy's side the entire time, sticking her grubby fingers in every single component and taste-testing for quality control. We had a couple frustrating moments when placing the fruit on top in a pretty pattern and Emma would come out of nowhere and start picking the blueberries and kiwis off the top and popping them into her mouth. She just wanted to eat it! Ironically, when we served her a big slice later, it was much too late and she was too tired to eat it. However, she did polish it off for breakfast the next morning.

This is a good, classic summer dessert! The cookie base is quite good - great, actually - and we all enjoyed it very much. We served it for dessert when Lucy's godparents came up for a visit. Such a great visit - we always enjoy seeing these two - and the kids love their "Aunt" Jen and "Uncle" Pat. We had a really low-key meal of burgers but it was nice to have a special dessert to finish the night with them!

Thanks Amy for everything you've done for us this summer. I'm seriously in tears thinking about you leaving! And not just because I'll miss having an excuse to eat dessert every day!

Fruit Pizza with Strawberries, Blueberries, and Kiwi

For the Sugar Cookie Crust:
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 and 1/2 cups (190g) spoon & leveled all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 and 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

For the Topping:
8 oz full-fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups (240 grams) confectioners' sugar
1-2 Tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sliced Strawberries, blueberries, kiwi (or whatever combination you prefer!) 

For the Glaze:
1⁄2 cup fresh orange juice
1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 cup water
3⁄4 cup sugar
3 -4 tablespoons cornstarch

First, make the sugar cookie crust. In the large bowl of a stand mixer, cream the softened butter for about 1 minute on medium speed. Add the sugar and beat on medium speed until fluffy and light in color. Beat in egg and vanilla. Scrape down the sides as needed.

In another medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cornstarch together. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Once completely combined, cover the dough tightly and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 11-inch tart pan. Remove chilled cookie dough from the refrigerator and press into the bottom and sides of the tart pan. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the edges are very lightly browned. Be careful not to overbake!. Allow crust to cool completely before decorating.

While the crust cools, use the time to chop/slice the fruit. Refrigerate until ready to decorate!

To prepare the glaze, combine orange juice, lemon juice, sugar and corn starch in a saucepan.
Cook on medium-low heat until thickened. Allow the sauce to cool completely before using.

When ready to decorate, make the frosting. Using the stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Carefully add the confectioners’ sugar and 1 tablespoon of cream. Beat for 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and 1 more tablespoon of cream if needed to thin out. Beat for 1 minute. Spread in a thick layer over the cooled sugar cookie crust. Decorate with fruit by overlapping in concentric circles. Brush the glaze over the fruit to make it all shiny and pretty!

Cut into slices and serve. Leftovers keep well in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.