Friday, February 24, 2012

French Baguettes

Lent is once again upon us. This year, I decided to give up sweets of all types, something that will prove to be quite challenging because I usually indulge in some form of dessert every night. Paul chose to give up cheese, a very brave and noble decision on his part. He is a cheese addict. The fact that he gave up cheese means that I will pretty much have to ban cheese from the household in order to avoid tempting him. Cooking without it will prove to be a challenge, especially on meatless dishes.

Luckily, my sweet tooth will not be tempted by my "candy drawer" at all this Lent. Whenever I receive candy as a gift either from Christmas, Valentine's Day, or Easter, I normally end up storing it in one of the drawers of my closet where I can find it whenever I am feeling a craving for chocolate. A few weeks ago, Matthew was raiding my closet and discovered my secret stash. Since then, whenever I am busy changing the laundry over or vacuuming, he has been sneaking into my closet to unwrap as many truffles, Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and Hershey kisses as his chunky little fingers can in the 5 minutes that his mother is occupied. I had no idea that he was doing this until I opened the drawer during cleaning and discovered a pile of bunched wrappers.

The little sneak!

A few days later, I was cooking and Matthew was playing so nicely with his block set (or so I thought). Paul came home and went into the living room looking for Matthew, only to return to the kitchen with a quizzical look upon his face: "Where's Matthew?" A short search found our chunky toddler caught red-handed stuffing his face with my chocolate.

For years, I had my holiday candy stolen by one of my 9 younger siblings. After about 2 years of reprieve, my candy is once more being heisted only this time by my child.

Paul quickly came up with a solution to cure Matthew of his thieving ways. Matthew had received a Batman car for his birthday that made some frightening noises and, when prodded lightly with your hand or foot, would suddenly accelerate forward quickly, stopping only once it crashed into a piece of furniture that happened to be in its path. The unpredictable nature of this obnoxious toy frightened Matthew. Whenever he saw it, he would begin to cry and demand that it be taken away out of his sight. Paul decided that this was the perfect thing to use to guard my drawer of candy. He nestled the car snugly inside my top drawer where it lay, waiting for Mr. Matthew.

A few days later, I was unloading the dishwasher when I heard Matthew suddenly begin shrieking: "NOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOO!"

I ran upstairs and Matthew was plastered, terrified against one wall of my closet while pointing and whining at my open drawer that prominently displayed the object of his fear: the Batman car. Needless to say, Matthew has not been stealing my candy since. Not that there was much left to take. He pretty much had eaten the majority of it before the intervention was staged.

Anyway, this past Friday was our first Friday in Lent and we had a special guest for dinner. We prepared Cioppino and served some homemade baguettes alongside. Honestly, the baguettes were the highlight of the meal. Store-bought French baguettes are delicious, but these were extraordinary. They do take a long time, but most of the time is inactive, so you just have to plan well. I would begin these the morning of the day before you want to serve them. They will come out of the oven 24-30 hours after you begin the recipe. Again, most of the preparation is inactive time. And the effort is so worth it. This cannot be made in a stand mixer as it uses some baking techniques that can only be done by hand (such as "crashing the dough" - which is a treat to do!).

Give these a try! They are a fun challenge!

Bakery-Style French Baguettes
From Baking Illustrated

For the sponge:
1/8 tsp. instant (rapid rise) yeast
¾ cup warm water (105-110˚ F)
6 oz. (1 cup plus 3 tbsp.) lower protein all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal or Pillsbury

For the dough:
½ tsp. instant yeast
½ cup water (75˚ F), divided, plus 2 tsp. additional water if needed
10 oz. (2 cups) lower protein all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal or Pillsbury
1 tsp. salt

For the glaze:
1 large egg white
1 tbsp. water

To make the sponge, combine the yeast, warm water and flour in a medium bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon until thick and smooth. Scrape down the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and cut a couple of small holes in the plastic wrap with a paring knife. Let stand at room temperature. After 4-5 hours, the sponge should be about doubled in size and have tiny bubbles on the surface. Continue to let stand at room temperature until the surface shows a slight depression in the center, about 2-3 hours longer (this never happened for me.)

To make the dough, add the yeast and 6 tablespoons of the water to the sponge. Stir briskly with a wooden spoon until the water is incorporated. Stir in the flour and continue mixing with the wooden spoon until a scrappy ball forms. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead by hand, adding drops of water as needed, until the dry bits are absorbed into the dough, about 2 minutes. Stretch the dough into an 8 x 6-inch rectangle. Make indentations in the surface of the dough with your fingertips; sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the water. Fold the edges of the dough up toward the center and pinch to seal in the water. Knead lightly, about 30 seconds (the dough will feel slippery). Begin crashing the dough by flinging it against the work surface several times. (This helps the dough absorb the water.) Continue to knead and crash the dough alternately until it is soft and supple, and the surface is almost powdery smooth, about 7 minutes.

Again, stretch the dough into an 8 x 6-inch rectangle and make indentations with your fingertips. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of water and the salt. Fold and seal the edges once again, and knead and crash as before, about 7 minutes, until the dough feels smooth and powdery. If the dough still feels tough, knead in the additional 2 teaspoons of water.

Stretch a small piece of dough out thin (the windowpane test). If the dough does not tear and you can see light through the dough, it is adequately kneaded. (If the dough tears, knead a bit more and test again.) Form the dough into a ball, transfer to a large lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand 30 minutes. Remove the dough, knead gently to deflate for about 10 seconds. Return to the bowl, replace the plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 90 minutes.

Gently punch down the dough in the bowl, and turn it out onto a work surface. Divide the dough into two 12-ounce pieces. Working with one piece at a time and keeping the second piece covered, drag the dough to the edge of the work surface, forming the dough into a rough torpedo shape, about 6½ inches long. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Drape the dough pieces with plastic wrap and let rest 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, cover an inverted baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with one piece of dough at a time and keeping the other covered, shape the dough. Make an indentation along the length of the dough with an outstretched hand. Press the thumb of one hand along the indentation while pulling the upper edge of the dough down over the hand to enclose the thumb. Repeat this process along the length of the dough. Press the seam with your fingertips to seal closed. Roll the cylinder of dough seam-side down, rolling and stretching until it measures 15 inches long by 2½ inches wide. Place seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Space the shaped dough pieces 6 inches apart on the baking sheet. Drape with a clean, dry kitchen towel and cover the sheet loosely with plastic wrap (or seal in a very large plastic bag). Refrigerate until the dough has risen moderately, 12-16 hours (no longer).

To bake the bread, place one oven rack in the lower middle position with a baking stone on the rack. Adjust the other to the lower middle position and place a small empty metal baking pan on it. Preheat the oven to 500˚ F. Remove the baking sheet with the baguettes and let stand covered at room temperature for 45 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap and towel and let stand an additional 15 minutes. Meanwhile, bring 1 cup of water to simmer in a small saucepan on the stovetop. Make the glaze by beating the egg white and water together.

With a single-edge razor blade or very sharp knife, make five ¼-inch deep diagonal slashes on each baguette. Brush with the glaze and mist with water in a spray bottle. Bring the baking stone out of the oven and line up the edge with that of the baking sheet. Quickly slide the parchment paper with the baguettes off of the baking sheet and onto the hot baking stone. Pour the simmering water into the baking pan on the bottom oven rack (be careful to avoid the steam!) Bake, rotating the baking stone after 10 minutes, until the surface is a deep golden and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads 205-210˚ F, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a wire rack and cool 30 minutes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Steamed Mussels with White Wine and Shallots

Two major events occurred within the course of a single day in the Nistler household!

First, Matthew received a major haircut...

...and now looks slightly bald in the front while sporting a minor mullet in the back. I will have to fix this later.

Second, Paul cooked dinner...

Next to red meat, Paul's favorite proteins are mussels, clams, and scallops. He really wanted to make a seafood dish, so I gladly let him have control of the kitchen and these steamed mussels were the delicious result. Served with a homemade french baguette for dipping, it was a perfect cozy meal.

Matthew ate a hot dog and some popcorn for dinner. He chose poorly.

Steamed Mussels

adapted from Cook's Illustrated

2 cups dry white wine

1/2 cup minced shallots

4 large garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 bay leaf

4 pounds mussels, cleaned and debearded

4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

Bring wine, shallots, garlic, parsley, and bay leaf to simmer in large pot. Simmer for 3 minutes to blend the flavors. Increase the heat to high, add the mussels, and cover and cook, stirring twice until mussels open (about 4-8 minutes depending on both pot and mussel size).

Remove the mussels from the liquid with a slotted spoon and place in a large serving bowl. Meanwhile, swirl the butter into pan liquid to make an emulsified sauce. Pour the broth over the mussels and serve immediately with warm, crusty bread for dipping.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Syracuse Salt Potatoes

We have been hard at work around here as usual. Matthew is a ruthless Executive, answering emails and setting up conference calls with his fancy little Bluetooth. This is how I found him this morning when I went upstairs to switch the laundry over. Shameless.

Paul and I made a glorious dinner on saturday night. For his birthday, Paul received a big pack of strip steaks from my parents. It is a running joke in my family that Paul does not get the chance to eat enough meat since I make our dinners meatless most of the time. Needless to say, Paul enjoys basking in the outpouring of pity surrounding his condition, especially when it results in a couple extra pounds of steak nestled away in our freezer. We finally broke into our bounty of red meat by making Pan-Seared Steaks with a Port Wine Sauce, Roasted Asparagus, and Syracuse Salt Potatoes.

With so many delicious elements on our plates, the surprising star of the show turned out to be the Syracuse Salt Potatoes.

They might not look like much, but they pack a lot of flavor.

The recipe is simple. Baby potatoes (or fingerlings) are boiled in an extremely salty water bath until tender. Once removed and allowed to dry over a wire rack for a minute or two, they develop a pale, salty crust which lends a delightful crunch once bitten. The insides are moist, creamy, and perfectly seasoned. When dipped in a chive butter, their flavor is ethereal. Paul and I could not get enough of them.

Matthew, on the other hand, thought the mini-potato was cute enough to hold and call "baby," but was unimpressed with the overall flavor, politely regurgitating his bite and handing it over to me for removal from his sight.


These potatoes make a quick and easy option for any meal and would even be a nice substitute for fries. They are my new favorite way to prepare potatoes.

Syracuse Salt Potatoes
from Entertaining Magazine

For the potatoes:
8 cups water
14 ounces table salt (approximately 1 1/4 cups)
3 pounds small white or red potatoes (or fingerlings)

For the chive butter sauce:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon black pepper

Bring water to boil in Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in salt and potatoes and cook until potatoes are just tender, 20-30 minutes. Drain potatoes and transfer to a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Cool until salty crust forms, about 1 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the chive butter sauce. Microwave the butter, chives and pepper in a medium bowl until melted, about 1 minutes. Transfer potatoes to large bowl and serve, passing melted butter at table.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

White Chicken Chili

Happy belated Valentine's Day!

Valentine's Day, in addition to being the national holiday dedicated to love, is also the anniversary of the day that a cocky yet sheepish 19-year-old Paul picked up a dozen roses and headed over to my dorm room to ask me to be his girlfriend. He wrote me the cutest little poem declaring his affection inside a Snoopy-themed card. According to his college roommate, he worked for hours writing that poem for me. He was no Robert Frost (I think one of the exact lines was "I think you're divine/will you be mine/my valentine") but it worked and we have been a splendid pair ever since.

Before he left for work in the morning, Paul surprised me with a beautiful potted rose plant!

I may not have the greenest of thumbs (Ok....I kill everything I touch), but I do love flowers. Even if they do end up looking like this....

Of course, we had a special valentine waiting for Matthew when he woke up Valentine's Day morning...

...He was thrilled and, even though the chocolates have long since been devoured, he insists that his animal crackers and other portable snacks be placed inside the puppy box.

Paul and I had a date last night that almost did not happen. The sushi restaurant that Paul had made reservations at a month ahead of time informed us that they planned on seating us at a hibachi table, where we could enjoy our cold sushi in front of 6 other couples all ordering and watching the hibachi show.

No, thank you.

We really had been looking forward to a quiet, intimate evening out where we could eat and speak to one another without interruption from our little blonde terror.

Luckily, Paul found a last minute (literally, five minutes before our babysitter showed up) reservation for us at another sushi restaurant. Unfortunately, it meant we would not be eating until 9:00pm. However, we took advantage of the opportunity to go see a movie. It was the first time we had been to a movie theater since before Matthew was born. We originally had wanted to see Star Wars 3D but Paul wanted to see something a little more in the spirit of Valentine's Day. So, we settled for The Vow. He REALLY had to talk me into going to see that one. I am not a Rachel McAdams fan (I kind of loathe her, actually) and from what I saw of the trailer, I was afraid it was going to be another super cheesy Nicholas Sparks movie. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. Plus, it was nice to sit in a dark theater and enjoy just holding Paul's hand (again...uninterrupted!) for two hours.

And the sushi? It was worth the wait. The spicy lobster roll is a new favorite.

While we were out, one of Paul's co-workers and his future wife agreed to babysit Matthew for the evening. They are the ones who usually watch him when we go out and they never let us compensate them. I am so grateful to them that the least I can do is have a decent meal prepared for them. I made a White Chicken Chili and had it prepared with a side of chips and salsa and some heart-shaped chocolate dipped Rice Krispies Treats. The chili is a variation on a family favorite that my Mom prepared while I was still living at home. It is not as heavy as a traditional beef chili, but just as warming and soulful. Plus, it is a quick, easy, and cheap meal! Instead of roasting your own peppers, you can use a couple cans of green chilies or jalapenos. Just watch can get spicy!

White Chicken Chili
Serves 4-6

1 Anaheim pepper
1 Poblano pepper
1 jalapeno pepper, finely minced
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
1 large onion, diced
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cayenne (or less if you do not want it too hot)
4 cups chicken broth
3 cups cooked, shredded chicken*
3 cans Cannellini or Great Northern beans
Shredded Monterey Jack Cheese
Sour Cream
Chopped fresh cilantro

Roast the Anaheim and Poblano peppers under a broiler until the skins are blackened, turning often. I actually like to use my gas stovetop. I just let them hang out on the burner, turning every so often with a set of barbecue tongs until done. Once roasted, stick them in a paper bag or a dish with a cover to cool for about 10 minutes. Peel the skins off under running water by lightly rubbing with your hands. Mince and set aside.

Heat the oil in a stockpot over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and jalapeno and cook until the onion is translucent, about five minutes. Add the roasted peppers, garlic, and spices and let cook/stir until fragrant, about 1 minute more. Pour in the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Cover, and let cook for 15-20 minutes. At this point, you could also remove the pot from the heat, let cool to room temperature, and then stick it in the fridge until dinner time.

Add the beans and the chicken and continue to simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Serve with lots of cheese, sour cream, and cilantro!

*I usually take two chicken breast halves, brush them with a little oil, and lightly sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper before roasting them in a 400 degree oven for about 20-25 minutes, or until the internal temperature is 160. Let cool slightly before shredding with two forks or dicing!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Red Velvet Whoopie Pies!

This weekend, my happy little two-year-old went from being an active and mischievous toddler to a cranky, lethargic, and extremely unhappy grump, who refused even the slightest offering or suggestion of food or drink. On Friday, he was perfectly healthy and hopping about from activity to activity per his usual. However, on Saturday morning he awoke with red, bloodshot eyes, an extremely runny nose, and a perturbing cough. Not to mention a 102 degree fever.

Before the illness...

In the full swing of the illness...

See how the light has disappeared from his little eyes? He woke up clutching his monkey and would not let it go. Poor little dude.

Paul and I attempted to feed and distract him from his misery, but he appeared more insulted than anything at our pathetic attempts to cheer him up. There was only one thing left to do...put him to bed. In the BIG bed.

He enjoyed this very much and took a very, very long nap. Just him and his blocks.

While my baby slept, Paul and I made some Red Velvet Whoopie Pies for Valentine's Day. I have an appointment with a Physical Therapist tomorrow afternoon and some dear friends of ours have agreed to watch Matthew for me while I am at the appointment. What better way to say "thank you" then with some delicious whoopie pies?

I have made whoopie pies before. There is a pumpkin version with a maple cream cheese filling that I am particularly fond of - and this recipe turned out to be a much easier version than my pumpkin one. In less than an hour, we had 30 perfectly cute little cake sandwiches spread about our counter-top (can you say dangerous?).

The sick child arose shortly after we put the finishing touches on these. Since we had been unable to feed him all day long, Paul and I had formulated a plan to trick him into eating dinner. Matthew's favorite food in the whole world is probably pizza. He has been known to eat 2-3 large pieces of pizza for dinner (crusts and all!). So, in order to try to cheer him up, we made a very small batch of pizza dough and topped it with cheese and pepperoni (his favorite!) and popped it in the oven just for him.

He was delighted to see it, hot and fresh out of the oven! He ate two pieces with relish! Maybe this means he is feeling better?

Let's hope.

As for the whoopie pies? He ate a couple of those too.

Red Velvet Whoopie Pies
Cake recipe adapted from Better Homes & Garden, filling recipe from Brown Eyed Baker

For the cake:
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk
Red food coloring

For the filling:
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons butter, softened
3-3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.

In large mixing bowl, beat butter on medium-high speed for 30 seconds, until smooth. Add brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. With mixer at medium speed, add egg and beat until thoroughly combined, then beat in vanilla. Add about one-third of flour mixture followed by half of buttermilk mixture, mixing until incorporated after each addition (about 15 seconds). Repeat using half of remaining flour mixture and all of remaining buttermilk mixture. Scrape down sides of bowl and add about 1 tablespoon food coloring along with remaining flour mixture; mix at medium-low speed until batter is thoroughly combined, about 15 seconds. Add additional food coloring if necessary to achieve the desired shade of red. Remove bowl from mixer and fold batter once or twice with rubber spatula to incorporate any remaining flour.

Pipe batter in 1-inch diameter rounds about ½-inch high on prepared baking sheets, allowing 1 inch between each round. I just put the batter into a gallon freezer bag and then cut a little slit in the corner to use to portion out the batter. It worked like a charm!

Bake 7-9 minutes, or until tops are set. Cool the cookies on cookie sheets.

While the cookies bake, make the filling: Add cream cheese and butter to mixer bowl and beat until smooth. Gradually add powdered sugar, then the vanilla. Beat until smooth.

To fill, pipe cream cheese filling on flat sides of half the cookies. Top with remaining cookies, flat sides down. Push gently so cream cheese filling flutes to the edges.

To store, refrigerate in airtight container up to 4 days. Let stand at room temperature 15 minutes before serving.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Raspberry-Lemonade Bars

I made these bars for Matthew's birthday party last weekend and they were a major hit. Lemon bars are a classic dessert favorite but I wanted to try a variation that was a little different. I had come across a recipe for lemon bars with raspberry juice infused into the curd, resulting in a noticeable color makeover as well as an additional layer of tartness. With a generous dusting of powdered sugar, these made a delicious alternative to all the chocolate offerings on our dessert table. They made me very impatient for the return of warm, humid summer afternoons where I can slowly sip an ice cold glass of lemonade. In the meantime, I think I'll go have another one of these babies.

Raspberry-Lemonade Bars
Adapted from Sophistimom

For the crust:
9 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the raspberry-lemon layer:
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2-2 cups frozen raspberries, thawed
3 large egg whites
1 large egg
2/3 cup lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 8x8 baking pan with parchment paper.

Using a mixer, combine the butter and sugar until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Add the flour and salt until just incorporated. Carefully press the dough evenly into the prepared baking pan. Transfer to the oven and bake for 25 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave the heat at 350 degrees.

While the crust is baking, prepare the raspberry-lemon layer. Whisk together the sugar, flour, lemon zest, and salt in a large bowl. Using a fine mesh sieve, press the raspberries through to extract as much juice as possible. Press firmly on the raspberries with a spatula or the back of a spoon to ensure that you get as much of the juice as possible while straining out the seeds. It might be easier to do this in small batches. Add the egg whites and egg to the bowl with the dry ingredients and whisk well to blend. Whisk in the raspberry puree and lemon juice until smooth.

Carefully, pour the raspberry-lemon mixture over the baked crust and then return the baking pan to the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the center is just set and no longer jiggles when shaken. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, cover well with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Cut into small bars and dust with powdered sugar. Serve!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Matthew's Birthday Party!

In honor of our son turning 2 years old, we threw a small celebration at our home. I have always wanted to host a birthday party, but Matthew's birthday falls in the month of January where you are forced to host an indoor party, jamming around 20-40 people into one tight space. Being slightly claustrophobic, this was never a super appealing option to me. However, my desire to host a birthday party for my little guy overcame my paranoiac fears of tight spaces and overly warm rooms and Paul and I proceeded to plan a Dog-Themed party for our little Matthew.

I planned to hand out dog-themed decorated sugar cookies as party favors. I made a basic sugar cookie base and then cut out shapes of paw prints, puppies, and bones. I then made up a royal icing frosting to use to paint each cookie. If you have never worked with royal icing before, let me tell you that it is a super painful experience until you get the hang of it. Tedious, tricky, and extraordinarily frustrating - it can be really difficult to achieve the right consistency for the amount of detail you desire for your cookies. With Paul employed as my willing and energetic assistant, we had a bumpy start with the decorating due to some major issues with dying and thinning out each batch of frosting we made. Paul was pretty grumpy about the whole experience. I think I have mentioned before how much he truly detests cookie decorating. But, he also loves me and knows that I'm crazy.

Thus, Paul merely uttered a single question question before sitting down to help me decorate 100 sugar cookies the night before our party: "Why can't we give out stickers and candy like normal people?" About 20 minutes later, when I had just moved on to only my 2nd cookie of the night, I began to wonder the same thing.

Once we got our cookie decorating groove on, we actually picked up the pace quite a bit and produced some pretty gorgeous looking party favors.

I also made a clothespin birthday banner for Matthew using some of my scrapbooking materials. Paul had rented a truly horrible film for us to watch one Friday night and I was so bored that I decided to do something productive with my time. Out of my boredom came the creation of this banner - I simply cut thin strips of scrapbook paper and pasted them onto the front of some clothespins. Then, I took several pictures of Matthew in various stages of growth from newborn to the present and pasted them onto decorative pieces of card stock. To assemble, Paul and I strung a long piece of rope from the top of our kitchen cabinets to the window of our kitchen and we pinned the pictures on in chronological order. While we were at it, we also made a simple birthday banner to hang over the window. That was pretty much the extent of our decorating. Matthew enjoyed gazing at pictures of himself while eating. He really is his own number one fan.

For the menu, we chose the theme of "whimsical childhood favorites." We planned to make macaroni and cheese, ham and cheese sliders, soft pretzels and cheese dip, puppy chow, raspberry-lemonade bars, and homemade twix bars. We also threw in a veggie platter with hummus and a taco dip with tortilla chips into the mix. Drinks consisted of assorted soda and Capri Sun flavored waters for the little folk.

I chose to make a Chocolate-Peanut Butter Layer Cake for Matthew. He absolutely loves anything Peanut Butter or chocolate, so I thought if I made a cake utilizing these flavors that he might actually venture out to eat a slice. The cake was a snap to put together and looked pretty cool once decorated.

My brother and sister came into town the night before the party. This proved to be super helpful for multiple reasons but mainly because they took Matthew to look at some puppies at the pet store while Paul and I finished throwing the food together. Unfortunately, the pet store trip was a little bit of a bust because my sister Catherine chose a small pug dog to visit with and apparently the thing ended up going crazy once it was let out of its cage. The maniacal dog scared the birthday boy into a corner where he sobbed, seeking the protection of the 6'7" of human flesh that is my brother Raymond. So, he arrived home a complete emotional mess just in time for his guests to arrive. However, once he saw the pile of presents accumulating in the corner, he quickly began to cheer up.

Overall, the party was a great success. Matthew enjoyed being sung to by a crowd of nearly 30 people. And, to my heart's delight, he LOVED the cake! He kept taking bites of it and declaring: "MMMMMMMM!!"

He received some pretty neat gifts, including a Thomas Train Set, some baby kitchen tools, a couple new outfits, a football, a little chair, blocks, lots of Toys R Us gift cards, and a scooter. He was especially interested in that scooter and immediately employed the help of some of Paul's fellow engineering friends in opening it. It took them a little too long to figure out how to set it up. They eventually figured it out and Matthew was on his way!

As it came time for each person to go, Matthew handed them their favor cookies and waved goodbye at the door. We had so much fun planning and hosting this party. I am already looking forward to next year!