Saturday, May 28, 2016

Strawberry-Rhubarb Blondies

One thing that Paul and I will always undoubtedly agree upon is that rhubarb is truly one of the greatest miracles growing on this earth. We both find desserts made with those tart, ruby-red stalks to be completely irresistible. In fact, when we first were married we could not wait to buy our own place just so we could plant a rhubarb plant and harvest our own! No, we did not yearn for that sense of independence that comes with home ownership or the acquisition of a more spacious environment to raise a family. The only reason we sunk our life savings into this little piece of property we call our own is so we could grow rhubarb. Sad, but not really too big of an exaggeration. Ok, Paul wanted me to note that HE bought the house for responsible reasons and I was the one with the rhubarb dreams.Yeah, sure Paul. *Wink, wink*

Shortly after we moved into our house, Paul acquired a rhubarb plant from a co-worker who was moving out of his home in Chicago. He had lots of "that pesky rhubarb" growing around  his house and had never learned of the wondrous things that could be made with it. He had sprayed Roundup on it in an attempt to keep it at bay, but the rhubarb kept right on growing.  Finally, he had to resort to completely digging up each plant. Paul begged him to save a plant for us half-jokingly. The guy took him seriously though because he dug up one of his rhubarb plants, stuck it in a planter, and carried it on a plane from Chicago and set it on Paul's desk the day he made it back to the office. We were delighted!

We planted that little rhubarb plant in a carefully selected section of the yard and tended to it with such gentle care you would have thought it was our child. (Truth be told, Matthew might have taken a little bit of a backseat to the rhubarb at this time). We began to dream of all the pies, tarts, cookies, and breads we could make with our rhubarb harvest.

Now, four years later, how is our little rhubarb plant faring? Truth be told, we killed it. Neither of us claims to possess a green thumb. We harvested it twice and made one delicious pie before Paul decided that he wanted to move it to a different part of the yard with "more sun" and somehow managed to murder it in the process. Roundup could not kill that plant, but one swipe of Paul's garden shovel seemed to do the trick.

With our dream of harvesting our own rhubarb gone, I am happy to report that the stalks I buy at the store are still just as tasty, albeit a bit expensive.

I had the sudden inspiration to create Strawberry-Rhubarb Blondies while shopping the other day. I had agreed to make some bar desserts for an upcoming wedding and was brainstorming different ideas that were floating through my head. Suddenly a couple stalks of rhubarb and a bag of dried strawberries ended up in my cart. And thus this recipe came to be. I took a basic blondie recipe, jazzed it up with the addition of finely chopped dried strawberries and thinly sliced rhubarb and - voila! Paul, after trying one, urged me: "Record this recipe - NOW!" So, here we are. These are not making it to the wedding - we have already devoured too many of them! They are a glorious treat indeed and yet another fantastic use for that "pesky rhubarb." Of course, if you are at all looking to unload your rhubarb supply, I would be more than willing to take it off your hands just so I can make more Rhubarb Blondies. And pies. And cakes...

Strawberry-Rhubarb Blondies

Note: I find dried strawberries in the bulk section of my grocery store. Otherwise, Target carries an extensive variety of dried fruit. I also think this recipes would be fantastic with the addition of a few tablespoons of very finely chopped crystallized ginger for an additional zip.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 sticks butter, melted
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 stalks rhubarb, thinly sliced crosswise
1 cup dried strawberries, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13x9 pan with foil so that it drapes generously over the sides creating a sling so that the cookies may be easily lifted out and neatly sliced after baking. Grease the foil.

Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking power. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the butter and the sugars until very smooth, about two minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for one minutes between each addition. Add the vanilla and beat again. With the mixer on low speed, add in the flour mixture and continue to mix just until incorporated. Fold in the rhubarb and dried strawberries.

Spread into the prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center is removed with only a few moist crumbs attached. Let cool completely before slicing!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Scenes from the Last Two Weeks

The past two weeks have been a blur of family, friends, celebrations, travels, and lots of fun! The girls and I headed to Indiana to stay with my younger siblings so my parents could travel to Kansas for the graduation of my sister Adrienne from Benedictine College in Atchison. Then, we hung around for a few more days before meeting up with Paul and Matthew and then heading north to Milwaukee for the ordination of a close college friend. There was a lot of traveling, not so much sleep, and probably a bit too much junk food consumption, but being able to see and visit with friends and family, some of whom I had not laid eyes on in almost eight years, made everything well worth it!

I took my good camera along for the ride, but failed to take it with me whenever I suddenly had the urge to take a picture. Thus, the majority of our trip was captured via iphone. At least the quality is remarkably good compared to my old flip phone (the one that is currently in the Smithsonian as an example of "old cellular technology" though it was my personal phone up until a few months ago). Unfortunately, even my phone pictures were few in number and fail to show how much activity was packed into the last few weeks.


Enjoying play time with Uncles and Aunts. For those who are unaware, my youngest brother is eight and thus is more of a best friend to my kids. However, occasionally he does like to break out into "Uncle Bruce mode" and patronize the littlest nieces by attempting to pick them up or teach them to walk.

Just a few of my sisters (plus a very thirsty Lucy). Missing two of them...

Watching soccer with Grandpa...

Visiting Notre Dame. That door is the entrance to Alumni Hall, the place where Paul and I spent so much time together during our college years.

Lucy had South Quad pretty much all to herself...

Taking a stroll down God Quad with my third baby...

Feeding the rabid ducks. Even Emma had her fill of fowl by the end of that day!

In Milwaukee for our dear friend Andrew's ordination! So good to see him and so many Notre Dame classmates again after such a long time!

Hanging out with Daddy and Uncle Peter in downtown Milwaukee!

Babies get the best views!

We have lot of catching up to do in the coming days and lots of new recipes to share! Stay tuned.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Chocolate Banana Snack Cake

My tiny little baby Lucy will celebrate her first birthday in one week. I know it is so cliche, but I really have no idea where the time has gone. She used to be so whiny, so needy, so sleepy, and so helpless but has blossomed, seemingly overnight, into a rambunctious, high-energy, always-smiling, constantly-on-the-go, little girl! Her sense of humor is starting to blossom as is her need to tear apart the contents of every cabinet, box, basket, or container she happens upon. She likes to color, be tickled, chase Matthew, eat anything she sees Mommy eating, jump on the trampoline, give high fives, dance to music, swim in the pool, climb up the stairs, read books, and play at the park. Where did my little baby go?!

Lucy's favorite pastime is eating. If I had to pinpoint her favorite foods, I would have to say pizza, smoothies, and anything chocolate. Obviously, she is a health freak. Of those three, chocolate would hands down be the one thing she will never refuse. The girl is obsessed. As a shark can detect the tiniest drop of blood in the water, Lucy can sense the presence of chocolate in the house. It is near impossible to unwrap a candy bar or some other chocolate confection without suddenly experiencing the strange feeling of being watched by a baby smacking her lips and holding a very steady gaze on her prize as she crawls towards you at a speed that would rival that of a small, plump puppy. Once she reaches you, she will demand her fair share of the sweet treat and grunt disapprovingly if you dare take a bite in her presence. While brainstorming ideas for her first birthday party celebration, her love of chocolate sure made it easy to pick out a cake flavor. The fudgiest, most chocolaty cake I can find!

I had Lucy in mind when I spied some rotting bananas on our counter-top. Usually, the kids are pretty good at eating through our banana supply, but there are some weeks where they seem to turn black pretty fast. While Paul claims to enjoy eating overripe bananas, I rarely see him reach for fruit as a snack. He usually opts for a handful of chips. He's where Lucy gets her healthy eating habits from. So what do you do with rotting bananas? Everyone knows you make banana bread. But sometimes you want to make a different recipe than the usual, plain banana loaf for which everyone has a cherished recipe. I though Lucy, being the lover of chocolate that she is, would very much enjoy a chocolate banana snack cake.

Like most banana breads, this recipe comes together quickly. In addition to all the usual suspects that go into banana bread, this recipe also incorporates a generous portion of chocolate chips, cocoa powder, and a surprisingly hefty amount of buttermilk. The result is a rich, chocolaty, moist treat that is perfect plain or served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The kids particularly enjoyed it as an after-dinner-treat. Lucy ate her entire serving, happily hooting the entire time. Paul was also particularly impressed by this treat and his praise very much surprised me because it really is quite an unassuming, humble little recipe. Then I tried a bit for myself and had to agree that it pretty wonderful - especially with some ice cream! I think a ganache glaze on top wouldn't have hurt either - but then again, I am also a chocolate fiend just like my daughter. Matthew declared that tomorrow is Monkey's half-birthday (his little Monkey that he has carried everywhere with him since he was an infant) and that Monkey wanted to have this cake again for his birthday dessert. Nice choice, Monkey.

Chocolate Banana Snack Cake
adapted from Dorie Greenspan

Note: I opted to bake this in a bundt pan just because Paul always complains that I never use it and it takes up way too much space in our cupboard. However, this will bake up just as lovely in a 9x5" loaf pan. Just keep an eye on the baking time.

2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (good quality makes a huge difference)
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. baking soda
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
2 ripe bananas, mashed (I actually used three because I can't help myself)
3/4 c. buttermilk
3/4 c. chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Spray a bundt pan thoroughly with nonstick cooking spray.  To prevent the bottom from over baking, place the loaf pan onto two cookie sheets stacked together.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour through the baking soda.  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter until creamy. Add both the brown and white sugar and beat on medium speed for two minutes. Then, add the eggs, one at a time, beating for one minute after each addition. With the mixer on low speed, beat in the mashed bananas.

Reduce the mixer speed to low and mix in the mashed bananas. Add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, mixing only until they disappear into the batter. Still on low speed, add the buttermilk, mixing until it is incorporated.. Do not over mix. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Put the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes, then cover with aluminum foil to prevent the top from over-browning and continue to bake until a thin knife inserted into the center comes out mostly clean, about 30-45 minutes longer. Let cool for about 20 minutes or so on a wire rack before unmolding.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Vietnamese Pork and Rice Noodle Salad

When I had my first taste of Thai food several years ago, I wasn't sure what to think of it. I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of lemongrass in the bowl of soup I was served to the point of nausea since the flavors were very reminiscent of a household cleaner my Mom used in the kitchen. I have since learned that a heavy-hand with lemongrass can produce that effect and after tasting a dish where the balance was expertly achieved, I have since become a Thai food fanatic.

However, despite our love of Thai cuisine, Paul and I both cannot stand the aroma of fish sauce. Just having it on the table at a restaurant makes us both feel nauseous. The repugnant, oily, piscine aroma is so overwhelming to our olfactory systems that we almost lose our appetites. But, even with such a horrific stench, that fish sauce - when combined properly with sugar and lime juice - creates a most enticing, intriguing, and sumptuous flavor that keeps us coming back for more. I have a large bottle of fish sauce in my refrigerator, for it is an essential ingredient in replicating authentic Thai flavors at home. However, I keep it stored far in the back so that my nose is not greeted by it's aroma each time I open the fridge.

But I promise, fish sauce does magical things. The following recipe incorporates nearly a cup of it!

I have had this recipe for Vietnamese Pork Noodle Salad bookmarked for ages. Vietnamese food incorporates a lot of similar flavors as Thai food and when I glanced at the list of ingredients that made up this salad, I knew it would be a dish that would make me swoon! The kids...well, I wasn't too certain what they would think of it, hence the reason it took me a few months to make it. But when I did, my goodness, I was in heaven from the first bite! So many wonderfully complex flavors all marrying together in one little salad! Each bite sent my taste buds reeling as they reveled in the various flavors - sweet, savory, salty, sour! It's all in this dish. And I needn't have worried about the children, for they all surprised me greatly by eating every bite in near silence. This was one lovely, lovely meal and I cannot wait to make it again.

Vietnamese Pork and Rice Noodle Salad
from Pink Parsley

Note: This does require a little advanced planning to give the pork time to marinate. While the pork can be marinated for as little as 30 minutes, I highly recommend letting it marinate for at least 8 hours or up to 24. The longer, the better!

For the Pork:
3 Tbs fish sauce
3 Tbs brown sugar
1 Tbs + 1 tsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 lbs pork tenderloin, trimmed and sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch medallions

For the Dressing:
2/3 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup warm water
1/3 cup lime juice (about 3-4 limes)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 Thai, serrano, or jalapeño chilies, ribs and seeds removed, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, minced

For the Salad:
4 medium carrots, peeled and shredded on the large holes of a cheese grater
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, halved crosswise, and thinly sliced into half moons
1/3 cup chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
1 Thai, serrano, or jalapeño chile, ribs and seeds removed, thinly sliced
6 oz dried rice noodles (rice vermicelli), broken into 6-inch pieces
4-5 cups romaine lettuce, chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped

For the pork:  Combine the fish sauce, brown sugar, and oil together in a gallon-sized freezer bag, and agitate to dissolve the sugar.  Add the pork, shake to combine, refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to 24 hours.

For the dressing:  Combine all the ingredients in a mason jar or small bowl, then shake or whisk to combine.  Set aside.

For the salad:  In a small bowl, toss the carrots, cucumbers, peanuts, and chilies together with 1/4 cup of the dressing.  Set aside and allow to marinate while you prepare the rest of the salad.

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Remove from heat, add the noodles, and stirring occasionally, let them sit about 10 minutes.  Drain the noodles and transfer to a large bowl.  Layer the carrot-cucumber mixture, lettuce, basil, cilantro, and mint on top of the noodles, but do not toss.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, adjust the oven rack 6 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler.  Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray.  Arrange the slices of pork in a single layer on the baking sheet.

Broil until the pork is golden on both sides with crispy, browned edges, about 10 minutes, flipping halfway through.

Pour half the dressing over the noodle-veggie mixture and toss to combine.  Divide among serving bowls and top each portion with a few pieces of the pork.  Drizzle the remaining dressing over the individual servings and serve immediately.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Compost Cookies

Ever since Earth Day, Matthew has been bugging us to start composting. His entire Kindergarten class enjoyed a field trip to a local nature reserve where they learned all about the importance of recycling, composting, and taking care of our earth. Ever since, Matthew has been the Recycle Nazi. He is constantly picking through our trash and pointing out things that should be recycled. Just this morning, there was a Gatorade bottle in the trash that he pulled out and indignantly pointed to the recycle label at the bottom, "See Mom? It says to RECYCLE this. You should recycle, reuse, REDUCE!" Admittedly, we should be more strict about the recycling than we are. It's one of the items on the very long list of things that I feel guilty about on a regular basis.

Back to the compost. On the afternoon immediately following his field trip, Matthew came home and asked me if he could play outside. It was a beautiful day and I was more than happy for him to spend some time getting some fresh air while I prepared dinner and struggled to keep Lucy out of the kitchen cabinets. When Paul came  home, he was greeted by a very dirty Matthew who proudly announced that he had dug a hole in the lawn.

"What do you mean you dug a hole in the yard?!" was Paul's angry reply. Not quite the reaction Matthew was expecting.

This hole that Matthew had worked so hard digging out was in fact the beginnings of his compost. He explained that we were to put our apple cores, sand, egg shells, leaves, grass, or cardboard into his "compost pit." I don't think he quite understood the purpose of composting because he thought it was for "feeding all the earthworms." Paul promised to build a compost with Matthew if he promised not to dig any more holes in our yard. Matthew agreed and this weekend he and Paul are going to start composting. Matthew is a little ecologist in the making.

While Paul and Matthew are out playing with dirt and table scraps, I will be inside doing my own form of composting in the form of the baking of these compost cookies. Oh my, these are good. Like a good compost, this cookie dough includes a little bit of everything - chocolate, butterscotch, oats, potato chips, pretzels, and coffee - and all the flavors blend together into a treat that is simultaneously sweet, salty, chewy and buttery. Paul took one bite and I actually witnessed his eyes roll into the back of his head with pleasure as he declared: "I think I may have found my new favorite cookie."

The cookies are a bit more involved than your back-of-the-bag chocolate chip cookie recipe, but the extra effort is certainly worth it. For example, you have to make a graham cracker crust to include in the cookies - but really, it's not that difficult because it only involves mixing a couple ingredients. Once you make your cookie dough, you have to chill it for a period of time to ensure that the cookies bake up correctly. Also, my cookies were HUGE so I could really only fit three or four on my baking sheet at a time when it came time to bake them. This meant that it took 5-6 separate batches before all the cookies were made. You could of course fix this problem by making the cookies smaller, but please adjust the baking time accordingly. I found that these cookies over-baked very quickly, so please keep an eye on them to ensure that they do not go up in flames!

Like composting, making these cookies requires a little extra effort but the reward shall be great!

Compost Cookies
from the Milk Bar Cookbook

Note: I weigh all my ingredients for these recipes because I want to replicate the results at the actual Milk Bar in NYC as close as possible. However, the conventional measurements are also included.

225 g (16 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar
150 g (2⁄3 cup tightly packed) light brown sugar
50 g (2 tbs) glucose or 18 g (1 tablespoon) light corn syrup
1 egg
2 g (1/2 tsp) vanilla extract
225 g (1 1⁄3 cups) flour
2 g (1/2 tsp) baking powder
1.5 g (1/4 tsp) baking soda
4 g (1 tsp) kosher salt
150 g (3/4 cup) mini chocolate chips
100 g (1/2 cup) mini butterscotch chips
1/4 recipe (1/2 cup) graham crust (recipe below)
40 g (1⁄3 cup) old-fashioned rolled oats
5 g (2 1/2 tsp) ground coffee
50 g (2 cups) potato chips
50 g (1 cup) mini pretzels

Combine the butter, sugars, and glucose in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes. scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the egg and vanilla, and beat for 7 to 8 minutes. (see page 27 for notes on this process.)

Reduce the speed to low and add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. mix just until the dough comes together, no longer than 1 minute. (do not walk away from the machine during this step, or you will risk over mixing the dough.) scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

Still on low speed, add the chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, graham crust, oats, and coffee and mix just until incorporated, about 30 seconds. add the potato chips and pretzels and paddle, still on low speed, until just incorporated. be careful not to over mix or break too many of the pretzels or potato chips. you deserve a pat on the back if one of your cookies bakes off with a whole pretzel standing up in the center.

Using a 1/3 cup measure, portion out the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan. pat the tops of the cookie dough domes flat. wrap the sheet pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 1 week. do not bake your cookies from room temperature— they will not bake properly.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Arrange the chilled dough a minimum of 4 inches apart on parchment- or silpat-lined sheet pans. bake for 18 minutes. the cookies will puff, crackle, and spread. after 18 minutes, they should be very faintly browned on the edges yet still bright yellow in the center. give them an extra minute or so if that’s not the case.

Cool the cookies completely on the sheet pans before transferring to a plate or an airtight container for storage. at room temp, cookies will keep fresh for 5 days; in the freezer, they will keep for 1 month.

Graham Crust
makes about 340 g (2 cups)

190 g (1 1/2 cups) graham cracker crumbs
20 g (1/4 cup) milk powder
25 g (2 tbs) sugar
3 g (3/4 tsp) kosher salt
55 g (4 tbs) butter, melted, or as needed
55 g (1/4 cup) heavy cream

Toss the graham crumbs, milk powder, sugar, and salt with your hands in a medium bowl to evenly distribute your dry ingredients.

Whisk the butter and heavy cream together. add to the dry ingredients and toss again to evenly distribute. the butter will act as glue, adhering to the dry ingredients and turning the mixture into a bunch of small clusters. the mixture should hold its shape if squeezed tightly in the palm of your hand. (If it is not moist enough to do so, melt an additional 14 to 25 g (1 to 1½ table- spoons) butter and mix it in).

Eat immediately, or deploy as directed in a recipe. the crust is easiest to mold just after mixing. stored in an airtight container, graham crust will keep fresh for 1 week at room temperature or for 1 month in the fridge or freezer.

Friday, April 29, 2016

That Time Emma Fought A Snake. And Won.

When we were just a family of three with our little Matthew, I became very adept at dealing with a child whose list of fears was longer than Santa's "Naughty List." Loud noises of any type, the dark, big dogs, small dogs, bath water, running water, any type of water, sand, mashed potatoes...I'm telling you, the list was endless. We still have to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for a gigantic breakdown from Matthew on the 4th of July because the noise from the fireworks are too much for him to handle. We only survived last year because we gave him hunting ear plugs that cancelled out most of the noise, enabling him to enjoy the sights of the fireworks without the scary booms and hisses. When we had Emma, we were prepared to rear a child with similar fears and worries as her big brother. However, we soon discovered that Emma has absolutely no fear.

Emma's courage is mostly a good thing, although it has resulted in a couple hairy situations. She has attempted to pet a few dogs that were less than friendly, although their rabid barking failed to deter her from extending her hand out to every animal she spies. This is the reason she has been bitten by a goat, a llama, a horse, and (almost) a hog. The first time I took her to Lake Erie, she quickly ran into the surf and was almost overcome by a wave. While that moment completely terrified me and nearly convinced me to never ever bring the kids near a body of water again, Emma's love of the water never waned. For the most part, I admire and enjoy her tough, edgy demeanor and wouldn't change it for the world.

Emma's courage is pretty limitless and we recently discovered that this applies even to slithering reptiles that make both her father and brother cringe. Paul's greatest fear, other than spiders and worms of unusual size, is of snakes. To illustrate this point, Paul and I encountered a snake while taking a walk on our honeymoon and Paul instantly dropped the hand of his new bride and went bolting the opposite direction down the path. Let's just say, Paul's daughter is a bit more brave than that.

A couple weeks ago, the weather was so warm and enticing that we decided to head out to the woods for an afternoon hike. The trail is rustic and winds throughout several woods, creeks, and gorges. Emma insisted on walking all by herself for the first time - we would normally carry her in backpack carrier hoisted high on Paul's shoulders. Paul's back was thankful for the reprieve. Emma started out strong on our hike, but soon was distracted by all the new, blooming flowers and began to dawdle because she was more interested in picking an impressive bouquet than continuing onward. Paul stayed behind to encourage Emma to walk faster while Matthew, Lucy, and I went on ahead.

As Matthew and I approached a curve in the trail, we spied a group of teenagers huddled around something off to the side. They were pointing, taking pictures with their iphones, and shouting, "A snake! Oh gross! A snake!" I hurried up ahead to see for myself (and also because I wanted to be sure that they were not planning on harming the snake) and found a snake holding a frog by its leg. The poor frog was chirping loudly as it struggled, but the snake had such a strong hold on it that the poor thing could not get away. I can't begin to describe what sad, desperate sounds that frog was making, almost as if it was begging us for help. The teenagers were laughing and remarking that this was "the perfect example of Natural Selection at work." (Ehh...not really, but I didn't think this was an appropriate "teachable moment".)

Anyway, it was about this time that Paul and Emma caught up with us. I was looking around for a stick to use to try to free the frog from the snake. Before I could find one, Emma had shoved her way to the front to see what all the commotion was about. When she took one look and saw the poor frog desperately trying to escape, she immediately bent down and grabbed the frog, pulling him away from the snake: "Let go you bad snake! Let go of the frog!" The snake would not give up it's prey, and Emma was in a veritable tug-of-war. I gently told her to let go out of fear that between the two of them, the frog would end up with a broken limb. Paul then took a stick and lightly snapped it against the tail of the snake. At the impact, the snake let go of the frog and Emma once more got in there and scooped up the poor frog and cradled it gently, "It's ok, you poor frog. I have you!" The frog stayed as still as could be. We then moved the snake off the path and then went in search of a creek where we could safely drop the frog off.

We finally found a creek opening just off the path and Emma set the frog down gently in the water. The little frog immediately took off swimming in little circles, so happy to finally be free and safe. He swam a quick lap and then came close to the edge of the water where it sat, staring at us solemnly, almost as if it were thanking us for the rescue.

Suddenly, as we were wishing it goodbye, a noise came from the brush behind us and a biker appeared at the top of the ravine, speeding towards us. We quickly jumped out of the way but then watched in horror as the biker seemed intent on crossing the creek at the shallow point where our poor frog friend still sat.

I know what you must be thinking. After all that...the frog then gets squished by the biker? Thankfully, no...the biker missed him by mere inches. After the biker passed, Emma asked fearfully, "Daddy, did the biker squish my frog?" After that, we encouraged the frog to swim towards deeper, safer waters by nudging him a bit and then he was off! Free to live another day.

Paul and I were both so proud of how courageous our little Emma was that day. She was so determined to save the life of that frog and a scary snake was certainly not going to deter her from that mission. I love my tough little girl, but I think I need to start teaching her a couple things about snakes. I don't want her to try petting a rattler next.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Millionaire's Shortbread

This past weekend, we celebrated the conferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation on my little sister Amy. I love all of my sisters greatly, but Amy holds a very special place in my heart for she is also my goddaughter. Months ago, she humbled me greatly by asking me to sponsor her as she prepared for her Confirmation. I was honored to be chosen and felt blessed that the role of being her sponsor naturally syncs with the responsibilities I already carry as her godmother - to mentor her and guide her in the Catholic faith as she grows and discerns her vocation. And, honestly, I benefit greatly from this as well because there is nothing like having someone looking up to you as a role model to force you to keep your own life in check!

Amy chose Agnes for her Confirmation name because she feels a strong connection to Saint Agnes, a first-century martyr who died at the age of 12 or 13 for refusing to compromise her purity. Amy spent quite a bit of time choosing her saint's name, almost embracing the name of Saint Gianna at one point, but, in the end, she really identified with Agnes' commitment to chastity and purity. So, Amelia Grace Agnes is now her name!

At one point during the Confirmation Mass, the candidates all stood and renewed their baptismal promises. I got a bit emotional during this part because I remember so well the day 14 years previously that I made the baptismal promises on the behalf of an an infant Amy at her baptism. Now, it was truly moving to witness her reciting the promises with such fervor and commitment as she heads quickly towards adulthood. She has made her own mind up to be committed to Christ and a witness of his love to the world. Witnessing such faith in someone so young is always incredibly moving.

When we were walking up to the front of church for Amy's turn to be anointed by the Bishop, Amy was shaking like a leaf - she was so nervous! I loved seeing how seriously and reverently she received the sacrament. I know God has wonderful plans for this sweet young lady with the most gentle heart. I pray that she will always love God and her faith as much as she does today. Saint Agnes, pray for us!

Doesn't Amy look cute? I love the dress she wore. Catherine and I worked on her hair for about an hour. I was thinking that it would take maybe 20 minutes tops to curl, but she has so much hair! It took us almost 90 minutes to finish!

Random funny story, I bought the pink dress I wore for Easter at Macy's and actually called my sister Catherine immediately afterwards just to say "I just bought a dress that you would LOVE!" Well, turns out I was right because she actually already owned the exact same dress and we found that out because we both wore that dress for the Confirmation Mass. And similar shoes. Sister twins! Catherine thought it was oh-so-funny and said that it reminded her of the days when we used to match on purpose. I think she is remembering the days that she used to try to match me on purpose and I used to get so annoyed with it! Little sisters!

My Mom also wanted me to share the lovely ice cream cake she made for Amy's party following the Confirmation. Isn't it beautiful?

She did some lovely piping around the borders of the cake, but then accidentally dropped it when she tried shoving it back into the freezer, hence the slightly "squished" appearance. She requested a picture to be taken as evidence that I don't get any baking talent from her. And Paul was just happy to be eating ice cream soon, so he proudly took a picture with her. Ignore all my Mom's negative comments and just know that the cake was really delicious. Even Emma took a break from her sandbox play - where she pretty much spent the entire weekend - to slowly and deliberately enjoy a gigantic slice of cake.

Amy is also graduating from 8th grade this May and, as a present to her from our parents, she is coming to live with me for a month during the summer! I am beyond excited for her to stay and have already planned a whole slew of activities and road trips for her to experience during her time with us! Amy also shares my love of sweets and baking, so of course I want to do lots of baking and cooking while I have a dutiful live-in dishwasher (haha...just kidding Amy...or not!).

The recipe I want to share with you today is right up Amy's alley - it's sweet, salty, crunchy, and very reminiscent of a certain popular candy bar. Millionaire's shortbread is apparently British in origin and features a shortbread "biscuit" bottom, a chewy caramel center, and a smooth, shiny, chocolate topping. It's rich and indulgent but also something that would not be such a bad treat to serve with coffee (or "a spot of tea" if we are to truly pay homage to this cookie's origin). The only thing I would possibly change about the recipe is perhaps a touch more salt added to the shortbread layer although Paul told me not to change anything because to him it was perfect as is and thus I have presented the unadulterated version of the recipe below.

All THREE of my children loved this recipe, a rare thing for sure since there is always at least one child who wrinkles their nose at whatever it is I've lovingly prepared. Emma and Lucy actually sat right at my feet chewing on the extra bits while I photographed the nicer-looking cookies for the blog. Lucy in particular would have eaten the whole batch had I not cut her off. That girl loves chocolate.

If you're a fan of the Twix bars, this is definitely the cookie for you!

Millionaire’s Shortbread
from America's Test Kitchen

Important Note: To ensure that the caramel filling has the perfect texture, use an instant read thermometer. Grating a portion of the chocolate is important for getting the chocolate to set properly. The small holes on a box grater work well for this task. Stir often while melting the chocolate and monitor the temperature by holding the bowl in the palm of your hand; overheating the chocolate will cause it to set poorly. For the neatest looking results, slice the shortbread with a serrated knife using a gentle sawing motion.

For the Crust:

2½ cups (12 ½ ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (3 ½ ounces) granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the Filling:

12 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup packed (4 2/3 ounces) dark brown sugar
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ teaspoon salt

For the Chocolate:

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated

For the Crust: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottom and sides of 13- by 9-inch baking pan with aluminum foil. Combine flour, sugar, and salt in medium bowl. Add melted butter and stir with rubber spatula until flour is evenly moistened. Crumble dough evenly over bottom of prepared pan. Using your fingertips and palm of your hand, press and smooth dough into even thickness. Using fork, pierce dough at 1-inch intervals. Bake until light golden brown and firm to touch, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack. Using sturdy metal spatula, press on entire surface of warm crust to compress (compressing crust while warm will make cutting finished bars easier). Cool crust to just warm, at least 20 minutes.

For the Filling: Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add sugar and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is homogenous and sugar is melted, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in sweetened condensed milk, increase heat to medium-high, and bring to boil. Cook, stirring constantly and scraping corners of saucepan, until mixture registers 235 degrees, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in salt. Pour over crust and spread to even thickness. Let cool until filling is just warm, about 20 minutes.

For the Chocolate: Microwave 6 ounces chopped chocolate at 50 percent power, stirring every 15 seconds, until fully melted but not much warmer than body temperature, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 2 ounces grated chocolate, and stir until melted, returning to microwave for no more than 5 seconds at a time to complete melting if necessary. Spread chocolate evenly over surface of filling. Refrigerate shortbread until chocolate is just set, about 10 minutes. Let set at room temperature for at least 1 hour before cutting.

Using foil, remove shortbread from pan and transfer to cutting board; discard foil. Using serrated knife and sawing motion, cut shortbread in half crosswise to create two 6 ½- by 9-inch rectangles. Cut each rectangle in half to make four 3 ½ - by 9-inch strips. Cut each strip crosswise into equal 10 pieces. (Shortbread can be stored at room temperature, between layers of parchment, for up to one week.)