Thursday, November 8, 2018

Twix Blondies and a Halloween Recap

This begins my annual Halloween post. The post I write every year detailing what my kids wore on Halloween night, what their Jack-o-lanterns looked like all lit up and glimmering spookily in the night, and, at the end, a recipe utilizing a small portion of the pounds and pounds of candy they collected from our neighbors. This recipe for Twix blondies is definitely one of my absolute favorite ways to use candy bars in baking. My kids collected an exorbitant number of fun size Twix bars this year and they are more inclined towards the sugary sweets rather than the chocolate so they were more than happy to donate their Twix for this recipe. Plus, I just portion the blondies out and freeze them individually wrapped to use in their lunches in the coming months. So, they still get to eat their candy, just in a re-purposed manner. So don't feel too sorry for them. My sisters always tease me about using my kids' candy for baking.

But before we get to this incredible recipe, lets recap how the kids looked in their costumes. We actually trick-or-treated three separate times because we're insane and really enjoy standing in long lanes while waiting for our turn to beg for candy. Instead of putting together new costumes for the kids, I just told them to hunt through their dress up box and find something to wear. Unfortunately, that didn't work too well for Matthew who has grown so tall over the past year that nothing fit him. He had his eye set on dressing up as Spider-man after seeing a costume at Costco while we were shopping. I told him that he could earn the costume dollar by dollar by performing extra tasks around the house. Matthew diligently pulled weeds, raked the yard, picked up dog poop, and dusted furniture, eventually earning enough to purchase his costume. He was proud.

Emma also wanted to earn enough money to purchase a new costume. She had spied a fairy costume at Costco and I told her that she could do the same as Matthew and perform extra chores to earn it. She worked hard for a day and earned a total of three dollars before deciding that it was just too much work and abandoning the project. She chose to be Princess Belle while trick-or-treating at the zoo and then switched to wearing Matthew's old dragon costume when the weather got more chilly. She was perfectly happy with her choice and the dragon costume strangely fit her personality.

Lucia, my sweet little girl, was the only one of my children who did not complain for a new costume. Rather, she was more than happy to wear a different costume from her dress up box for each trick-or-treat outing. First, she was Doc McStuffins, wearing the same costume she wore last year, at the Boo at the Zoo. Then, she decided to be Minnie Mouse, complete with wearing a pair of my pumps. I really had to talk her out of shuffling around in those. Finally, for the chilly Halloween night, she wore a baby elephant costume she had found in one of our clothing bins that I had completely forgotten about.

And baby Daniel was a character from the 100 Acre Wood each time, Tigger first and Eeyore second. Paul wasn't too happy with the Eeyore costume since it was a pink and purple color and little old ladies kept coming up and telling us how beautiful our baby girl was, but it didn't bother me. Eeyore is a boy after all and someone telling me my baby is beautiful is always a welcome compliment.

And once again, I could not get Paul to dress up in a costume so he just went as a grumpy old man. I went as a tired Mom.

As typical, we began Halloween night with a simple dinner of subs and pizza. Lucy picked out decorations for the table, including "spooky spider" napkins and plates. Emma made a hand out of popcorn and candy corn at school that she just had to have displayed in the center. The kids ate well before lighting our jack-o-lanterns on the front porch. I actually helped carve the pumpkins this year, but I'm really not so great at it. Emma wanted me to make a spooky cat and while I was carving it I accidentally cut out the ear and dislodged the whole body from the circle meant to hold it intact. I propped it up with toothpicks long enough to have it lit, but by the end of the night the entire thing had fallen out of the pumpkin. Epic fail.

The kids drew their own designs for the pumpkins. Lucy adamantly wanted a sad pumpkin.

Matthew went with a big, happy pumpkin. With eyebrows. He was very adamant about it having eyebrows.

And Emma wanted to the pumpkin face adorning the front of her favorite stuffed animal "pumpkin bear", a teddy bear inside a jack-o-lantern that she has been sleeping with the for the past couple of years.

It was a freezing cold night. The kids did great despite the frigid air with the exception of Daniel. He wanted none of it and made his opinion known. He lasted a grand total of three blocks before I turned around to take him back home. Lucy chose to join me. Daniel was much happier once we got him in front of a roaring fire which is where he wanted to be in the first place. I was secretly glad that he gave me an excuse to get home.

Matthew and Emma did a few more blocks with Paul before they also retreated inside. Not that they had any lack of candy. I don't think we have ever collected so much candy. I'm crying just thinking about all the cavities.

So when I took about 30 mini Twix bars to make these blondies, it did not make so much as a dent in the actual candy collection of these kids. And between you and me, I would gladly buy a bag of mini Twix just to be able to make these blondies. They are sweet, salty, and extremely addictive. They have a bit of a different texture than other blondies thanks to the shortbread cookies in the Twix bars and I personally just love it! So did Paul and all the kids. Way better than eating a Twix bar straight up.

Twix Blondies

3/4 cup butter, melted
2 cups light brown sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon flaked (or coarse) sea salt
2 1/2 cup all purpose flour
30 mini Twix bars coarsely chopped - about 2 cups worth.
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 9×13 baking pan with foil and coat with nonstick spray. Set aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment combine the butter and brown sugar on low speed. Add in the eggs, vanilla, baking powder and salt and mix until smooth.

With the mixer still on low add the the flour and mix until just combined.

Stir in the Twix and chocolate chips until evenly incorporated.

Spread batter into prepared pan and bake 25-30 minutes until the edges are set and the center is almost set.

Cool completely before cutting into bars.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Concord Grape Pie

After spending a few hours harvesting Mr. Wheeler's garden, we took home quite the bounty of fruits and vegetables, but had an especially large box full of concord grapes. Now concord grapes are delicious on their own, but I personally hate eating them because of their seeds. To me, they are hands down the best grapes for jam. Paul and I had already been planning to make a big batch of jam with them, but when we selected a recipe we realized we had enough grapes to make a quadruple batch, approximately 3 gallons of jam, with another couple quarts of fresh grapes leftover.

What to do with all those extra grapes?

That's when a very special memory that I had subconsciously tucked away somewhere in the deep trenches of my brain suddenly came to the forefront. When I was four months pregnant with Matthew, I attended a simple gathering at the home of a friend in Erie. Although Paul and I had been living in Erie for about a year, we still had not really made any close friendships. My boss at the time had tried to connect me with various families in the area and that was how I somehow got on the invite list for this particular party. Regardless, while snacking on zucchini bread and chicken salad, I struck up a conversation with a very friendly, bubbly, and intelligent woman named Jessica who was there with her husband Jesse. They had been married the year before me and Paul and, as I learned through our conversation, had a daughter named Sophie who was almost 18 months old. Jessica was so very excited to see that I was expecting and we chatted endlessly about pregnancy, birth, and parenting. I felt a great connection with her immediately but did not even think to get her number at the time.

Thankfully, Jessica's husband Jesse visited my office on business later the next week and I took the opportunity to slip him a note that I had quickly and rather sloppily written out with my name and cell phone number on it. I instructed him to give it to his lovely wife and have her call me.

A few days later, she did.

Jessica invited me to attend the annual Halloween night at the local zoo with her and Sophie. Jesse had to work that night and she really did not want to attend alone. I thought it would be fun especially since I really had nothing going on since Paul was also working late that night. We met up at the very crowded event and had a wonderful time walking baby Sophie through the trick-or-treat lines ensconced in various locations around the dark zoo with what seemed about half of Erie's other youngsters. When Sophie had tuckered out from all the walking and candy collecting, Jessica invited me to come to their apartment to continue our conversation. I figured that Paul wasn't going to be home for another two hours, so I agreed.

At her apartment, I left my cell phone in the car - I still am terrible about keeping it on my person - and headed inside where Jessica and Sophie served me my very first slice of grape pie. I did not even know you could make grapes into pie! But then again, I had never lived anywhere where concord grapes, the plump, juicy, ultra-sweet grapes used to make jam, jelly, and Welch's grape juice grew so abundantly. That pie was a revelation. At first, I wasn't sure what I would think of grapes in a pie, but it was pretty fantastic. Jessica gave me a slice to take home to Paul who, unbeknownst to me, had come home early only to find our home totally dark and me missing. He had proceeded to drive all over the city, calling my cell phone over and over but receiving no answer since I had left it sitting in my car. He was filing a missing person's report with the police when I finally walked in. Paul sure wasn't happy with me, but that slice of pie served as a nice peace offering.

Through the years, Jessica has remained one of my dearest friends. From that first meeting, we have watched our families grow and now have eight children between us. Jessica was one of the first people to hold three out of my four children, and I'm certain if there wasn't 1,500 miles between us she would have been at the hospital shortly after Daniel was born as well. Our children are close friends with one another and my kids often think of Sophie, Bella, Maddie, and Francis more as cousins than friends. She and Jesse are the godparents of our daughter Emma and continue to have a wonderful, impactful presence in her life even with the distance between us. Our family misses seeing them on a regular basis, but I know that we will always remain close. They are family to us!

So, when debating what to make with all those concord grapes, I texted Jessica and asked for her recipe for that delicious grape pie because that recipe is more than just a list of instructions and ingredients to me. Rather, it's a precious memory of the day I met one of my best friends.

Concord Grape Pie
adapted slightly from Jessica's recipe

1 recipe or your favorite double crust pie dough prepared
1 1/2 lbs of Concord grapes (after removing from stems)
3/4 cup + 2 tbsp (6.0 oz) sugar
2 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
1 1/2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tbsp unsalted butter, softened

On a lightly floured work surface, roll 1 half of a double crust pie dough into a 15-inch round. Fit dough into a 9-inch pie plate, pressing it into the edges. Trim to a 1-inch overhang all around. Cover with plastic wrap; chill pie shell until firm, about 30 minutes. Repeat process for rolling out dough for the top crust. Transfer to a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the pie.

Wash grapes and discard any that are under-ripe, damaged and blemished.

Remove the skins from the grapes by pressing them between your thumb and forefinger. Put the skinless grapes in a medium saucepan. Reserve the skins in a small bowl.

Gently mash the grape pulp in the medium saucepan to release their juice. Cook over medium low heat until grapes come to a full boil, and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. Press the grapes through a fine sieve and discard the pits.

In a heavy bottomed pot: combine the grape pulp, grape peels and all the remaining ingredients . (You’ll have about 1 1/3 cups of pulp – add everything else and you’ll have about 2 cups) Bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring continually until the filling is slightly thickened and bubbly. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 400°F with a rack in the bottom third of the oven with a pizza stone or baking sheet on it.

Transfer the cooked filling to the prepared pie shell. Moisten the edges of the pie crust with water and attach the top crust, crimping the edges to seal the crust.

Cut six small slits in the crust to act as vents. Place pie on the pizza stone, protect the edges with a pie ring, and bake for 30 minutes at 400° F and then reduce heat to 375° F and bake an additional 25-30 minutes until the filling is bubbling. Cool on a wire rack for at least 3 hours before cutting.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

An Afternoon with Mr. Wheeler

We first met Mr. Wheeler after church on a Sunday. The kids had been unusually angelic during Mass so we kept our promise to them and headed to the parish center to inject them with sugar and caffeine in the form of coffee and donuts. After watching them smear chocolate icing over themselves for a good 10 minutes, we cleaned up and were heading out to our car when a frail older gentleman called out to us. "Do you like concord grapes?" he asked us. When we answered in the affirmative, he put his hand to his hear to indicate that he could not hear our replies. Paul leaned in super close to his ear and practically shouted, "YES! WE LOVE GRAPES!" The man then introduced himself as Mr. Wheeler and offered to give us all the concord grapes we could carry if we helped him prune and harvest his garden. "I'm 92 years old and can't hardly do all that work anymore," he explained. We exchanged phone numbers and told him that we would call to find a time to help. He made us promise to call that afternoon. And so we did.

Mr. Wheeler encouraged us to bring the entire family over. Paul asked him over and over again if he was sure about this. The kids could be quite the handful and we didn't know if they would necessarily be very helpful. But Mr. Wheeler insisted that kids would love seeing how the vegetables grow. He also told Paul, "Be sure to bring your lovely wife too" so there was no way I could use the opportunity of Paul and the kids being out of the house to sneak in a much-needed nap.

So, in the mid-afternoon that Sunday, we loaded everyone up into the car and headed to an older section our cute little mountain town and pulled up in front of a modest red brick home that from the looks of the architecture appears to have been built sometime in the 1960s. Mr. Wheeler greeted us at his front door and ushered us inside. Instead of immediately going to work in his garden, he invited us to sit down and visit for a bit. The visiting part was a little difficult for us since he really couldn't hear anything. He couldn't read lips either, so the only way to communicate your point to him was through wild hand gestures (reminiscent of a lively game of charades) and bellowing directly into his eardrum. The poor kids never quite understood just how hard of hearing poor Mr. Wheeler was and this led to more than one misunderstanding in conversation with the kids. Poor Lucy stood in front of him trying to tell him she liked one of the knick-knacks on his shelf for about 10 minutes while he repeatedly said, "Eh?...Eh??..Eh??" She kept trying to repeat herself again and again before she hunched over in frustration and walked away.

Since it was so difficult for us to talk to him, we just let Mr. Wheeler talk to us. And talk he did. He told us about his life - how he had lost his wife to illness almost 20 years ago, how he was only able to have one child with her and that child moved far away and rarely came back for visits, how he was a bee farmer and at one time sold his honey all over the county, how he was an inventor of many quirky yet fascinating objects that gained notoriety all over the county. In fact, he spends most of his days hand-making one of his inventions - a light-catching spinning mobile made from used pop cans - that caught the attention of the Colorado Department of Transportation. They had ordered a couple thousand to aid in decreasing the number of wild animals hit by vehicles on the highways. And Mr. Wheeler agreed to meet their quota and makes every single one in a painstaking process by hand. After listening to him, you can't help but conclude that Mr. Wheeler is one fascinating man. But lonely. He misses his wife terribly and his son too, although he is very very proud of all that he has accomplished.

Being almost completely deaf was not Mr. Wheeler's only handicap. He also had a very difficult time walking, only managing to move forward with slow, cautious shuffles and always with the assistance of a cane. His eyes also had the pale blue, glassy look of someone with compromised eyesight and judging by some of the comments he made I was positive that he really couldn't see much at all. The fact that he still drove himself to church and back was incredible albeit a bit frightening. I got the impression that church was the only place to which he drove, relying on the help of friends if he ever needed to go on a more ambitious trip. Judging by the heap of wrappers pouring out of his garbage, all he ate was McDonalds cheeseburgers (Matthew's dream diet).

When he took us out back to his large garden, overgrowing with ripe tomatoes, zucchini, concord grapes, cucumbers, carrots, and plums, he distributed bags to everyone and instructed Paul to find the ladder in his shed to use to cut down the large bunches of grapes off the vines. Matthew and Emma were in charge of gathering the ripe plums that had fallen from the branches of the plum tree. Lucy, Daniel, and I then assisted Mr. Wheeler in cutting out zucchini and cucumbers. The four of us finished far more quickly than Paul and the fruit-gathering duo, so Mr. Wheeler then shuffled back to the porch with us and we relaxed and chatted while the others worked away. Every once in a while, Matthew and Emma would come running towards him to show off how many plums they had gathered. He would inspect the ripeness and encourage them to continue onward. He would also invite them to "eat as many as you can fit in yer mouth!" Then he would continue to talk with me about his late wife and their life together. I could tell that he missed her very much. Lucy was content to sit next to him and play with one of his handmade spinners. Every once in a while she would tap his leg to ask him a question: "Excuse me...Mr. Wheeler? Excuse me?" He almost never understood what she was trying to ask him, but she didn't seem to mind.

By the time Paul and the kids had harvested the entire garden for Mr. Wheeler, we had spent nearly four hours there. I think Mr. Wheeler would have preferred if we had stayed a bit longer, but I had to go to my volunteer job at church as a high school youth teacher. Mr. Wheeler sent us on our way with more than half of the bounty we had harvested. He didn't want to keep much for himself ("I'm only one person!") and planned on donating the produce we didn't take with us to a foster home down the street from him. The kids all thanked Mr. Wheeler profusely for they loved fresh produce and enjoyed the fun process of harvesting it all! He made us promise to come back and visit him.

The children were so happy on the way home, talking excitedly about how much fun it was to work in the garden and about how kind Mr. Wheeler was. Matthew in particular pointed out how good it felt to "help out a neighbor!" All the children couldn't wait to go see Mr. Wheeler again.

We see Mr. Wheeler at church every Sunday. And every Sunday since we went over to his home, the kids excitedly point and wave when they spy him. They run up to him at coffee and donuts and excitedly tell him, "Hi Mr. Wheeler!" He smiles and waves back. Last Sunday, he came up to Paul and invited our family over to help him harvest some pumpkins and butternut squash. He gave us directions to his house and his phone number as if we had never been there before. Paul explained to him that we do know where he lives.

"You do?!" he exclaimed with surprise.
"Yes! We've visited with you before at your house!"
"You have? Oh you have! Well come over whenever you'd like..." Mr. Wheeler trailed off as he patted Lucy on the head and shuffled away.

We are not sure whether Mr. Wheeler remembers us or the times we spent together. I'm not sure our family visit made a great impression on him. He is probably fairly perplexed as to why our children flock around him whenever they see him. But one thing is for sure, he definitely made an impression on us and our children. They will never forget him. And try their best to make sure he doesn't forget them. Almost every night, Emma and Lucy mention Mr. Wheeler at bedtime prayers. Emma usually will specifically pray that Mr. Wheeler "gets to see and walk again." They sure do love him.

Thank you, Mr. Wheeler, for providing us with your friendship and the opportunity to teach our children how serving others is both a privilege and a blessing.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Egyptian Barley Salad

I may have complained about it before, but I've had to do a heck of a lot more driving since moving to Colorado. Everything is just a bit further away here than it was back in Pennsylvania. School alone is an hour long drive round-trip if traffic is good. Get stuck behind a train or caught in a traffic jam and the commute time easily gets pushed passed the 90-minute mark! Because of this, on days when Matthew has sports practice, I normally do not go back home after school until the practice is over. This means that if his practice does not begin until 5:00 PM and school is out at 3:00, that we have to kill time somewhere else for a couple hours. Thankfully, their school is located very close to a branch of the public library. I normally take the kids there and have Matthew work on his homework while the girls and I read, play games, or draw. Surprisingly, the time passes rather quickly and everyone mostly enjoys themselves.

Although we all prefer the days when Daddy brings dry ice from work to play with...

Yesterday we were hanging out the library as we normally do a couple days out of the week. I was reading a story to Emma and Lucy when they suddenly noticed that children were gathering for what appeared to be a story time. Now, we have a very large Hispanic population in the area of town where my kids' school is located. Because of this, nearly half of the library books at this particular library branch are in Spanish and a large portion of the library activities are conducted in Spanish. I noticed that this particular story time - which was very well attended by a dozen Spanish-speaking families - was intended for Hispanics.

Emma and Lucy, upon seeing the moderator preparing her materials for the story time begged me to let them attend.

"I don't know girls. This story time is going to be entirely in Spanish. I'm not sure you're going to be able to understand much of it," I explained to them.

This did not deter Emma, who is currently taking Spanish as part of her Kindergarten curriculum. She began bouncing up and down while clapping her hands and saying, "I am learning Spanish! I can talk a little bit in Spanish!" And before I could stop her, she had danced over to the large group gathered for the story time and skipped right into the center of the circle, waving enthusiastically while declaring: "Hola amigos!!"

The moderator encouraged Emma to be seated and then asked her: "¿Cómo te llamas?"

To which Emma replied: "Eh? What did you say?" You see, she had already displayed the majority of her Spanish vocabulary which I'm pretty sure she learned from Dora the Explorer.

By this point, Lucy and I had joined Emma and I quickly whispered to her: "Tell her 'Me llamo Emma'." And she did. Lucy did the same with her name and the two of them sat down and listened to a story completely in Spanish about a girl who had red curly hair and desired nothing more than for it to be straight and smooth. So, she went through a number of drastic experiments in a vain attempt to straighten her curls. I'm not sure how much of the story my girls understood, but Emma laughed and laughed louder than any other child there throughout the entire tale at each and every silly way the poor little girl tried to change her hair.

Then it was time to sing some songs. The girls quickly caught on to the first song since it was "If You're Happy And You Know It" just in Spanish. They surprisingly picked up the Spanish lyrics quickly and sang loudly while doing all the correct hand motions. For being the only non-fluent participants of the Spanish story time, they were more vocal and enthusiastic than any other child there.

Next, the librarian pulled out a large laminated poster featuring the letters of the alphabet with a corresponding animal picture underneath each letter. She started going through each letter and encouraged the children to make the sounds and say the name of the animal in the picture. When she reached the letter "O", there was a picture of a bear underneath the letter. The librarian prompted the children: "O es para oso." And then reiterated the lesson by pointing to the picture of the bear: "Oso. Oso!" This made Emma laugh very loudly: "Oso! Ha! That's a funny name for a bear! HAHAHA!"

I was truly concerned that their Spanish illiteracy would disrupt the class, but at the end, the librarian approached me and encouraged me to bring the girls back for Spanish Story Time each week. She loved seeing how they did not grow bored or restless even though they did not understand the language but rather displayed an interest in learning new words! Everyone was so kind and encouraging of the girls and they truly did enjoy themselves. Maybe if I keep bringing them, they will actually pick some of it up.

As usual, the recipe I want to share with you today has absolutely nothing to do with my story. It's a simple barley salad that is actually Egyptian in origin. That simple fact is the only reason Matthew was willing to try it because he is suspicious of anything that has feta in it. But he not only tried it, he actually liked it! This is a filling salad - with raisins, pistachios, feta, green onions in addition to the barley. We ate this as a meatless meal and it was plenty filling BUT you could certainly add some grilled chicken that has been marinated in lemon and garlic. This would also make a great side to some salmon or as a bed for shrimp! The original recipe called for pomegranate molasses which I could not find so I used honey as a substitute. They also detail that a garnish of pomegranate seeds would add some lovely color as well as an additional level of texture to the dish but I skipped that too because I don't like them. If you happen to try the salad with either of those ingredients, let me know how you like it!

Egyptian Barley Salad with Feta and Pistachios
from The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook

Note: Do not substitute hulled barley or hull-less barley in this recipe.

1½ cups pearl barley
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
2 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
⅓ cup golden raisins
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
¼ cup shelled pistachios, toasted and chopped coarse
4-6 ounces feta cheese
6 scallions, sliced thin
½ cup pomegranate seeds (optional)

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in Dutch oven. Add barley and 1 tablespoon salt, return to boil, and cook until tender, 20 to 40 minutes. Drain barley, spread onto rimmed baking sheet, and let cool completely, about 15 minutes.

Whisk oil, honey, cinnamon, cumin, and ½ teaspoon salt together in large bowl. Add barley, raisins, cilantro, and pistachios and gently toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add feta and scallions and pomegranate seeds (if using) and toss lightly to combine. Serve!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Baked BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao)

I have been studying the four temperaments lately as a way to better understand my children, my husband, and myself and how we process situations and conduct ourselves emotionally. My hope was to glean a little extra insight so I might be able to tweak my parenting in order to better communicate with my children. I figured it would also help me deal with Paul when things get a little tense, which happens to us from time to time.

Well, all my research and studies have led me to conclude one thing: when one major choleric procreates with another major choleric, you end up having children who are EXTREME cholerics. In theory, this is not necessarily a terrible thing. Cholerics tend to be self-assured, extroverted, motivated leaders. According to the book The Four Temperaments, Cholerics "are firm and forceful in their approach to problems...[they] word things with confidence and certainty...possess confidence and demanding natures that make them natural leaders."

Sounds great, right?

Not so fast...Cholerics also tend to be aggressive individuals who love competition, but hate to lose. They are defiant of authority because they wish to prove themselves dominant and in charge. They can be very condescending towards others, particularly those that fail to take charge as a fellow choleric would. They can be the most loyal of friends until you get cross them and then they will do everything required to make you pay for it. The book really addresses some of the worst tendencies of the choleric, explaining that they "may take pleasure in the pain, misfortune, or humiliation of people they are not on good terms with and may blame others for their own mistakes. They hate admitting when they are wrong. They feel that they can define and understand and advise others, but laugh at the thought that others could do the same to them."

That last sentence could describe my two eldest children with terrifying accuracy. Have you ever had the pleasure of playing a board game with my family? If any one of us loses, we have to really restrain ourselves to not treat the winner like absolute crap the rest of the day or to ramble on and on about how the only reason we could have possibly lost that game was because of some extreme injustice on the part of the victor. Paul and I can't play card games together for this reason. It never ends well. Thus, for the sake of our marriage, we keep away from such traditional pastimes. Unfortunately, Paul and I both love to be right all the time (it doesn't help that we normally are!...joking joking). Big surprise, that I birthed a bunch of know-it-alls. All my children have the amazing ability, at the tender age they are, to be absolute experts on every subject known to man. They're either a bunch of geniuses or....they're all cholerics.

Just Keeping It Real on Instagram. Original post was from my sister Amy.  

If you look up the word "choleric" in the dictionary, you will find the single biggest character trait associated with this temperament: a tendency to outbursts of anger. To describe a choleric individual is to depict one as bad-tempered, irascible, crabby, touchy, or grouchy.

Super flattering, but unfortunately, also a fairly accurate description for every single member of our family. All of us fly off the handle so easily it's embarrassing. Inanimate objects are very often the focus of our wrath as well as people. I was thinking about this during breakfast this morning while I watched Paul become extremely angry at his spoon for allowing milk to drip everywhere while he attempted to eat his cereal. He slammed his hand down angrily on the table and went to grab a napkin, cursing that blasted silverware the entire time. I just reminded him gently that, if he should need the assistance, I am here to feed him.

If you think that comment didn't go over very well, you would be correct.

Anyway, my point is that we have some very strong-willed, all-knowing, all-powerful, super-egos residing in this household and dealing with all of us on a daily basis is truly exhausting. Studying up on the temperaments and realizing how choleric we all are failed to enlighten me on how to deal with one another better but rather made me feel very overwhelmed. Maybe I should have married a melancholic? But then who would entertain me with angry, dramatic outbursts at the seat belt that won't buckle or the shoe lace that won't come untied? Life would be so dull otherwise.

Future Choleric. It's in his genes.

What does all this have to do with Baked BBQ Pork Buns? Absolutely nothing. But I'm a choleric! I can do whatever I want - and it is PERFECT.

Anyway...these BBQ Pork Buns are incredible. I already gave you the easy recipe for the amazing filling. Detailed below is the method for preparing the dough. It uses the tangzhong method which is a Japanese technique for incorporating a water roux into the dough that serves to pre-gelatinize the starches in the flour, allowing it to absorb more water. Heating the starch with the water produces more structure that enable the resulting bread to rise higher due to the internal steam produced by the extra moisture retained in the dough. The result is a very fluffy-textured bread that is truly a delight to eat. Stuff them with sweet pork and top them with a slightly crunchy sugar coating and you have a magnificent treat that will pass as a fun weekend dinner. We enjoyed these while watching Notre Dame beat Stanford a couple weeks ago and they were a pretty perfect football game food if you ask me!

Oh, and all of us cholerics approved of this recipe!

Baked BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao)
from America's Test Kitchen

For the Dough:
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons plus 2 2/3 cups (13 1/3 ounces) all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup cold whole milk
1 large egg
1/3 cup plus 4 teaspoons (3 ounces) sugar
3 1/2 teaspoons nonfat dry milk powder
2 1/4 teaspoons instant or rapid rise yeast
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces and softened

For the Topping:
2/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons (3 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup confectioner's sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the Filling:
1 1/4 pounds Chinese BBQ Pork filling

For the dough: Whisk water and 2 tablespoons flour in small microwave-safe bowl until smooth.  Microwave, whisking every 20 seconds, until mixture thickens to stiff, smooth, pudding-like consistency and registers at least 150 degrees, about 40 to 60 seconds.  Whisk in milk until smooth, then whisk in egg until smooth.

In a bowl of stand mixer, whisk together 2 2/3 cups flour, sugar, milk powder, yeast, and salt.  Add cooked flour mixture.  Fit stand mixer with dough hook and mix on low speed until all flour is moistened, 1 to 2 minutes.  Increase speed to medium-high and knead until dough is smooth and elastic and clears sides of bowl, 10 to 12 minutes.

Fit stand mixer with paddle.  With mixer running on medium speed, add butter, 1 piece at a time, beating for 30 seconds after each addition.  Continue to mix until butter is fully incorporated and dough is no longer shiny, 1 to 2 minutes longer.

Transfer dough to very lightly floured counter.  Knead dough briefly to form ball and transfer, seam side down, to lightly greased large bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size, 1 to 1/2 hours.  (Wash and dry mixer bowl and paddle.)

For the topping: Meanwhile, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in small bowl.  Using clean, dry mixer bowl and paddle, beat butter and confectioner's sugar on medium high speed until light, pale, and fully, about 3 minutes.  With mixer running, gradually add eggs, then vanilla; mix until smooth, scraping down bowl as needed for about 2 minutes.  Add flour mixture and mix on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds.  Scrape down bowl, then fold ingredients by hand to mix fully.  Transfer mixture to 1-quart heavy-duty zipper-lock bag and snip off 1 corner, making hole no larger than 1/4 inch (alternatively, transfer to pastry bag fitted with 1/4-inch piping tip); set aside until ready to use (do not refrigerate).

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.  Transfer dough to counter and divide into 20 equal pieces (about 1 1/2 ounces each).  Working with 1 piece at a time, press dough into 4-inch round on lightly floured counter and drape in muffin tin to form cup shape.  Fill dough cup with about 1 1/2 tablespoons pork filling.  Pull edges of dough to center and pinch tightly to seal.  Transfer bun to counter, seam side down, and rotate gently to form round shape.  Repeat with remaining dough pieces and remaining pork filling.  Space 10 balls evenly on prepared sheet.  Lightly spray tops of buns with vegetable oil spray, cover with plastic, and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.  Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees.

When buns are doubled in size, pipe about 2 tablespoons topping in tight spiral on top of each bun (topping should form circle roughly 2 inches in diameter and 1/4 inch thick).  Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until topping is golden brown, 14 to 16 minutes, rotating sheet halfway though baking  Transfer buns to wire rack and let cool for at least 10 minutes.  Serve.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Chinese BBQ Pork (Char Siu)

This has been the craziest week of the school year so far. My small dog walking/sitting business has been quite busy, so in between client visits, taking care of the kids, and keeping house, there is relatively no down time. Paul has also been working like a dog at work. The other day he ran a test that lasted 18 hours and required constant vigilance from him so he spent the entire day and night at the lab. He then stumbled home around 6:00 AM, slept for two hours while I took the kids to school, and then headed back into work. Matthew has also been playing flag football for his school, but since Paul has been busy at work, I have had to do the majority of the shuffling which requires taking everyone to practice and back. And then there is homework - which I dread. Matthew's homework is supposed to only take him 20 minutes, but he whines and procrastinates so much that it turns into a couple hours worth of homework. And I have to hover over him to instruct, encourage, and - at times - threaten him until it all gets done. It's exhausting, exhausting, exhausting.

The busy days make me long for more relaxed ones. It seems like so long since we have had a proper vacation. I've been reminiscing about the few days a little over a year ago that Paul and I spent in New York City. I can't believe that was only a year ago. At that time, we never would have suspected that in just a few short months we would have another baby on the way, putting our home on the market, and preparing to move across the country. It's crazy, but it happened and here we are.

One of our favorite memories from New York is strolling through Chinatown and dining at a 100-year-old Dim Sum restaurant. My favorite dim sum is of course BBQ Pork Buns and I have always wanted to make my own but always imagined they would be a bit on the complicated side. When I spied a recipe for Char Siu - the filling for those marvelous BBQ Pork buns - I was surprised to find that it is a rather easy method of preparation. A bit of planning ahead is necessary as a lengthy marinading stage is required in addition to a couple hours in the oven, but the end result is a sweet, tender, addictive main dish that will satisfy any craving you might have for Char Siu. This was JUST as good as the Char Siu we ate in Chinatown. Everyone loved it - including all of the kids. Even the one who recently sprouted a mustache.

The best part of this recipe? It details how a portion of this pork can be set aside and prepared into a filling for pork buns. That is exactly what I did and I could not have been more thrilled with the results. That recipe is coming up next - so stay tuned!

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and make some Char Siu. Serve it up with some fried rice and roasted broccoli for a complete meal. And do reserve a bit to make pork buns.

Chinese BBQ Pork (Char Siu)
from America's Test Kitchen

Note: I've also included directions below if you are planning to use a portion of the Char Siu to fill pineapple buns or bao. Not much extra work is required and only 12 ounces of the pork is required to make a generous bunch of pork buns! My next post will feature that recipe!)

4 pounds boneless pork butt (also called pork shoulder or Boston butt)
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
3/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 cup Shaoxing Chinese rice wine
1/4 cup grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon red food coloring (for that traditional deep red color; I omitted)
2 teaspoons five-spice powder
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon pink curing salt #1 (I got it from a local spice store but it is also available on Amazon)
3/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons cornstarch (if filling Pineapple Buns)

Cut pork into 4 pieces and butterfly to create 3/4-inch-thick pieces. Divide pork between 2 one-gallon zipper-lock bags.  Whisk soy sauce, sugar, hoisin, Shaoxing, ginger, sesame oil, garlic, food coloring, five-spice powder, and pepper together in large bowl.  Measure out 1 cup marinade and set aside.  Whisk pink curing salt into remaining marinade; divide equally between bags and rub to distribute evenly over pork.  Press out as much air as possible from bags and seal; refrigerate pork for at least 10 hours or up to 16 hours.

While pork marinates, whisk honey and reserved marinade together in medium saucepan.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until glaze is reduced to 1 cup, 4 to 6 minutes.  (Glaze can be prepared up to this point and refrigerated for up to 2 days.)

If filling Pineapple Buns: Reserve 2 tablespoons glaze and set aside.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 250 degrees F/121 degrees C.  ine rimmed bakin gsheet with aluminum foil and set wire rack in sheet.  Spray rack with vegetable oil spray.

Remove pork from marinade, letting excess drip off, and place on prepared rack.  Cover sheet tightly with aluminum foil, crimping edges to seal.  Bake until pork registers 195 degrees F/90.5 degrees C, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.  Remove pork from oven and discard foil.  Let pork rest on rack for 30 minutes.

If filling Pineapple Buns:  Pour pan juices into fat separator and let settle for 5 minutes.  Pour off and reserve 3/4 cup defatted juices; discard remaining juices.

Heat broiler.  Brush both sides of pork with half of remaining glaze; broil until top is mahogany, 2 to 6 minutes.  Flip pork and broil until second side is mahogany, 2 to 6 minutes.  Brush both sides with remaining glaze and continue to broil until top is dark mahogany and lightly charred, 2 to 6 minutes longer (second side does not get broiled again).  Transfer pork to carving board, charred side up, and let rest for 10 minutes.  Slice pork crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick strips and serve.

If filling Pineapple Buns or Baked Char Siu Bao:  Combine reserved defatted juices with reserved 2 tablespoons glaze in small saucepan and whisk in cornstarch.  Bring to boil over medium heat, whisking constantly, and cook until mixture is thickened and glossy, about 1 minute.  Transfer to bowl with 12 ounces chopped pork and toss to combine; set aside until ready to use.  (Pork filling yields 1 1/4 pounds and can be refrigerated for up to 7 days.)

Monday, October 1, 2018

A Peek Inside Our Colorado Home

We have now lived in Colorado for nearly eight months. Things have finally settled down - my broken foot is completely healed and I'm back to running on it like normal, the baby has been born, our Pennsylvania home has sold, the kids are in school and loving it, and we are gradually getting to know more people in our church and neighborhood community. Life has been good and we are very blessed!

One of my friends suggested that I post a home tour on this here blog now that we have everything *mostly* set up and organized. I'm not going to show every nook and cranny, but I'll show off the main areas of the house so you can get the general sense of what our home is like! I already posted some pictures from our PA home when I was begging God to send us a buyer - and did he ever pull through for us! Now it's time to give y'all a peek inside our home in the Rockies!

Of course, we had to put up a flag in support of Notre Dame on the outside. Paul and I would be terribly disloyal alumni if we did not show our support during football season.

"Welcome to our home!" says little miss Lucy. She's always ready and willing to hold the door open for me. This is the entrance from the garage. We have a bench there to force all the children to take off and leave their stinky little shoes by the door. Ironically, they normally sit on the floor and ignore the bench.

View from the garage doorway.

As you walk in from the garage, you can look to the right and see the main doorway into the house as well as the french doors leading into the office.

If you take a left, you can walk towards the kitchen and living room area. The stairs and my desk are located on your left as well as the doorway leading down to the basement.

Directly across from the stairs and my desk is our dining room.

Then we head into the kitchen. It's unusual to NOT find someone in here eating.

Ooops! Daniel got hungry while I was taking pictures. He's mashing up some cheerios now with his toothless gums and being stinkin' cute like normal.

Here are some views into the living room area.

Daniel got sick of eating so now he's having a story read to him by his big brother in the living room.

Let's head upstairs!

We have a loft that can serve as another family room space. It's basically the play room. It's a pretty awesome space because the kids can play up here and still see me working downstairs in the kitchen. This way, they feel like the can bug me still without physically being underfoot. It's awesome.

Guest bedroom that also functions as our baby room when guests are not in town. Best windows in the house are right here!

Emma and Lucy's bedroom. We are still sticking with the birds and owls theme.

Matthew's bedroom. A lot of Star Wars, LEGOs, and dinosaurs. Can you spot King Kong dressed as Davy Crockett? Or Matthew's ski boots out, cleaned and ready to hit the slopes this winter?

Jack and Jill bathroom located between Matthew's room and the girls' room. They love having a bathroom connected to their bedrooms. They also enjoy locking one another out of the bathroom.

Sliding barn door reveals bathroom and walk-in-storage closet.

Master bedroom. Too large for these two minimalists.

Daniel got tired and is now taking a well-deserved nap. A baby's life is so rough.

Master bath with an adjoining walk-in closet. I couldn't get a good picture of the vanity but it has two sinks which I am loving. We use that giant tub for bathing the youngest kids. Lucy loves it because it's practically a mini swimming pool for her!

That concludes our home tour! Friends and family are always willing to visit us at any time. Nuestra casa es su casa!