Monday, December 22, 2014

The Time is Near!

We have been busy as bees getting ready for Christmas! Paul is finally off work and excitedly helping me with my long list of items to complete before Christmas Eve. We've planned our menus, gathered our grocery items (minus the fish for our Christmas Eve feast), shopped for stocking stuffers for the kiddos, and finished cleaning and decorating. It's been great having him home!

Matthew has been drawing lots of Christmas pictures - mainly consisting of some scary-looking snowmen, irregularly sized nativity scenes (baby Jesus is always way bigger than Mary or Joseph - perhaps he is symbolically representing their importance???), and lots of elves hard at work in Santa's toy shop. He's been very well-behaved and I hope that it is not only because he knows Santa is watching. He listens very closely to song lyrics and one of his favorites is "Santa Clause is Coming to Town" so I know he has been picking up on the whole "Santa is always watching" theme. 

After Matthew's preschool party the other day, he brought home and proudly hung the biggest ornament I have ever seen in my life on our Christmas tree. I had to move it to the back because seeing his floating face in the tree out of the corner of my eye startled me on more than one occasion.

Yesterday, Paul and Matthew spent the afternoon making cookies. Paul was in charge of making Spicy Gingerbread Men, Candy Cane Crisps, Peanut Butter Drops, World Peace Cookies, and Sugar Cookies. In the five hours they spent baking, they only completed the Gingerbread and the Candy Cane Crisps so they'll be back to bake another day. 

Matthew was especially excited to make the Gingerbread. It is his favorite cookie by far and he loves helping roll out the dough and cutting out the shapes. 

Where were Emma and I the entire time? Emma was napping and I was relaxing. I have finally caught the horrible cold that has been wreaking havoc with the rest of the family and I can barely see out of my puffy, watery eyes. The last thing I felt like doing was baking, so it was nice to relax while the men did some work.

In case you were wondering, he wears a wrinkled undershirt like a uniform around our house. 

He loved the batter for the Candy Cane Crisps but after seeing the
finished cookie he wanted nothing to do with them!

Paul was feeling a bit tired when it came time to roll the dough for his Candy Cane Crisps so he forego rolling them in powdered sugar and just put them on the baking sheet. The powdered sugar really helps the buttery dough keep it's shape during baking and as a result he ended up baking up batch after batch of the flattest cookies in the world. 

It takes immense talent to get a cookie this flat.

The taste is wonderful, but they are pretty ugly little things. The kids wouldn't touch them, but that didn't bother Paul a bit. He'll probably eat the whole batch within the week since they are his favorite cookies.

One new cookie we made this year were these Orange-Cranberry Crinkles from the blog Lauren's Latest. I absolutely adore the combination of citrus and cranberry and wanted to give these a shot. The kids were in love with these cookies which should come as no surprise since they love anything fruit-related (this is the reason we are stuffing their stockings with fresh fruit instead of candy!) They smelled the orange zest in the batter and came running. Matthew was very confused to see it was the cookie batter he had been smelling! Everyone in the family was distraught when I gave away 3/4 of the batch as gifts for Matthew's preschool teachers.

They did not have the traditional crinkle "look" to them after baking and cooling, but they were still pretty fantastic. Soft, chewy, sweet and just slightly tart from the fresh cranberries. These will certainly be making a reappearance on our cookie platter next Christmas.

Cranberry-Orange Crinkle Cookies

½ cups butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 whole egg
Zest of one orange
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
¼ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoons baking powder
⅛ teaspoons baking soda
1-½ cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped fresh cranberries
½ cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease light colored baking sheets with non stick cooking spray and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla, egg, orange zest and juice. Scrape sides and mix again. Add the flour mixture and mix just until combined. Scrape sides of bowl and mix again briefly. Fold in chopped cranberries. Pour powdered sugar onto a large plate. Roll a 2 teaspoon of dough into a ball and roll in powdered sugar. Place on baking sheet and repeat with remaining dough.

Bake for 9-11 minutes or until bottoms begin to barely brown. Keep a close eye on them since the particular oven and cookie sheets you use will effect the baking time. The cookies should have a matted look and not be "shiny" or "melty" in appearance. Remove from oven and cool cookies about 3 minutes before transferring to cooling rack. I found these a bit difficult to transfer since they were so soft! 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Finding Our Christmas Tree

The search for the perfect family tree began with high hopes from Paul. Despite the begging and pleading from Matthew to pick out a tree during the first week of December, Paul wanted to wait until there was snow on the ground. I looked ahead at the weather forecast and told him the chances were slim to none of having any white precipitant falling from the skies before Christmas because the temperatures were too warm. "We'll wait until Christmas Eve if we have to!" he replied and both Matthew and I groaned.

Isn't it a thing of beauty? It's still wrapped up at this point.
Matthew was very concerned that we were going to leave it like this!

Well, Paul got his wish and we were blessed with a 3-inch coating of snow on the 12th of December. On the 13th, after enjoying a nice breakfast, Paul announced that we were going to select our tree but instead of going to our normal tree lot, we would drive out to a tree farm in the rural area of the county and chop down a tree.

"Don't you think the kids will absolutely love it?!" he asked me. I thought Matthew might be mildly interested but Emma would certainly be unimpressed.

We made the 35 minute drive out to the tree farm. When we arrived, we were greeted by a pair of workers who informed us that we could either cut down a tree in the fields (a tractor would arrive shortly to shuttle us out to the location) or we could make a selection from the group of trees they had already cut down and put on display by the barn. We got out of the car and immediately the kids began complaining about the cold. They were pretty bundled up too. Paul tried to distract them by having them look at the trees on display while we waited for the tractor shuttle. This really didn't work.

"Hey Matthew, which of these trees do you think will make the nicest Christmas tree?" Paul asked Matthew.

"Uhhh....This one," Matthew said, pointing to the tree nearest to his foot. A lot of deep thought went into this decision. "Can we go home now?"

Their whining continued and still there was no shuttle to be seen. I began to suggest that maybe we should just pick one of the already-cut trees. Paul's face fell. At that point, a gigantic arctic gust of wind blew threw the field and the kids began to scream. I saw a couple signs pointing to the barn saying "Hot Chocolate" "Warm Fires" and "Santa Visits". I grabbed the hands of both kids and began dragging them towards the barn: "I'm just going to get them warm and then we can decide what to do."

Inside the barn, the heat felt so, so good. The kids huddled around the fireplace as if they had been standing outside for ages. Then they had a little fun exploring the decorated barn and getting tattooed. (Washable tattoos, of course. Although sometimes they might as well be permanent with how difficult they are to wash off).

This pretty much sums up Paul's frustration with me and the kids.

Paul returned to the barn as well and said that he was just going to buy one of the already-cut trees. He sounded so disappointed. I told him not to be, the kids are still very little and it was really, really cold. Besides, he was the one who wanted to wait for snow and sub-zero temperatures. Had we gotten a tree a couple days ago it would have been nearly 50 degrees! I'm sure the children would have been more cooperative then.

We ran from the warmth of the barn back to our car. After strapping both kids in, we drove into the lot where the workers helped Paul strap the tree to the car. The kids watched happily from the comfort of their car seats. I was pretty happy to stay in the warm car and watch as well.

Notice that they are both tattooed at this point.

Once we arrived home, the kids made up for their lack of enthusiasm regarding selecting the tree by throwing much energy into decorating. They both loved getting out the ornaments and hanging them carefully on the tree branches. We had to encourage Matthew to not put all his ornaments on one branch and Emma to not throw the glass orbs at the cat.

Soon enough, we had a beautiful Christmas tree all adorned and glowing. I'm so glad we only do this once each year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My Favorite Salad Dressing Ever

Emma had her best friend Maddie over to play!
Christmas is almost here and we can hardly believe it. In preparation for all the Christmas feasting, I thought it appropriate to talk about salad. Salad dressing particular. The dressing is pretty much the only reason my husband eats salad, so it has to be good!

I love to make my own salad dressings because you can modify them to suit your tastes! Lots of the dressings on the store shelves have such muted flavors and are too sweet, too salty, or too oily! Every once in a while, I crave the flavor only a store-bought Italian dressing can provide and the Hidden Valley ranch dressing always tastes great on anything - and the kids eat it too!

But, cream-of-the-crop, give-it-the-top, this Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette is my favorite dressing in the whole wide world. Now, you probably have to be a bit of a cilantro lover to like it. However, I have served it to a couple people who detest cilantro and even they liked it. Or so they said. Maybe they didn't really but were too polite to say otherwise.

Either way, I really, really love this dressing. Paul also really, really loves this dressing. It comes from one of our favorite restaurants. I had a salad with tossed with this vinaigrette and asked the chef for the recipe. He gladly gave it to me and I have been making it at home ever since! Ironically, whenever I go back to that restaurant, I'm so tempted to get the same salad each time even though I can technically recreate it at home. You'd think I'd want to try something else on their fabulous menu - like the trout, salmon, or prime rib - but this dressing just makes salad so incredibly delectable!

Certainly an unappetizing-looking dressing. But trust me - it's delicious!
Warning: It does turn a horrifying green color in the blender. The looks on my kids' faces when they watch me blend it is priceless. Paul came home and saw me making it once and asks (with fear): "Is that another kale smoothie?!?!?" He still hasn't forgiven me from the last time I made him drink one.

Here are some ideas for using this dressing:

Salad #1: Mixed greens, sugared pecans, julienned jicama, chopped tomatoes. Simple and yummy.
Salad #2: Baby Spinach, segmented oranges, sugared pecans, feta cheese.
Salad #3: Baby Arugula, quinoa, feta cheese, roasted salmon fillet with extra dressing drizzled over the salmon. (My FAVORITE)
Salad #4: Baby Arugula, freshly sauteed shrimp, segmented grapefruits, red onion.

Today's Salad: Orange segments, red onion, spinach, and lemon quinoa pilaf.
But really, you could do anything. It's also great for taco salad or burrito bowls!

Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette
from Firebirds Restaurant

2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons lime juice (fresh is best - I've tried the bottled and it really doesn't work in this recipe!)
2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup fresh cilantro (I add more if I feel cilantro-y!)
1/2 cup olive oil or vegetable oil

Add all the ingredients into a blender except the oil. Blend until smooth, scraping down if necessary. With the blender set on low, slowly drizzle in the olive oil and blend until completely emulsified.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sweet Orange Rolls for the Feast of Saint Lucia!

One of my favorite Christmastime traditions while growing up was celebrating the feast of Saint Lucia. This feast day is typically celebrated in Sweden by having a person (usually the eldest girl in the household) wearing a white robe, a red sash, and a wreath of lit candles upon her head serve special treats, rolls, or cookies to the other members of the house. While growing up, one of the sisters would take turns playing Saint Lucy and bring hot chocolate and generous slices of my Mom's delicious cherry coffee cake to everyone in bed. She also brought a candle for each dark room so we could eat our sweet breakfast by the flickering candlelight. We loved it - eating in the dark! What fun we would have all had if we had been born before electricity was invented! (I guarantee the fun would have ended there for me - since I am the one who is perpetually cold!)

Now, for our Saint Lucy celebration, I do not wear a wreath on my head or serve everyone in bed. We just have a special breakfast with as many candles as I can find lined up all over the counters and tables. Last year we even lit a fire in the fireplace. My kids love having the candles lit in the house, especially when the lights are out, so I thought they would really enjoy a special candlelit breakfast in honor of Saint Lucy Day this year. In the past, they haven't really cared so much.

Happy Matthew, super tired Emma.

In preparation, I made a sausage-egg casserole and some orange rolls. I assembled the casserole the night before and baked the orange rolls the afternoon before. All I had to do this morning was roll out of bed at 6:30, put the casserole in the oven, and then climb back into bed for another hour. It was perfect timing.

Matthew was very excited for the special breakfast - he was looking forward to those orange rolls! Emma was still not quite awake, but Paul brought her down anyway. I gave each kid a roll, we said grace, and then began to eat. And that's when things stopped being so fun.

Such a grump. She was not ready to wake up!
Matthew was so very excited! I just wish he had been better behaved!

Paul and I told Matthew that he had to at least try the egg casserole. He refused while stabbing madly at the small (tablespoon sized) portion of egg with his fork. We sent him to his room to think things through.

Then, Emma started whining and complaining and throwing things off her tray. We cleared everything off but she continued to complain and whine. We let her out, but she only whined further. We determined that she needed more time to wake up, so we put her upstairs in her crib.

Within five minutes of starting breakfast, Paul and I found ourselves sitting alone in the dark: "Well this is nice."

No worries, both grumps eventually  made it back to the table and finished eating. Maybe they'll sit through the entire meal with us next year!

On a perkier note, these rolls were extremely delicious! They are basically a cinnamon roll dough with a buttery orange filling instead of the traditional brown sugar and cinnamon. They are topped off with a simple glaze consisting of orange juice, zest, and powdered sugar that oozes into the rolls, keeping them moist and intensifying the orange flavor. I would take these over traditional cinnamon rolls any day - and I LOVE cinnamon rolls!

Sweet Orange Rolls
recipe from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

For the Dough:
¾ cup buttermilk, warmed
6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
3 large eggs
4 ¼ cups (21 ¼ ounces) flour (approximately - you may need more or less!)
¼ cup (1 ¾ ounces) sugar
2 ¼ teaspoons instant yeast
1 ¼ teaspoons salt

For the Orange Filling:
1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
Grated orange rind/zest from two large oranges

For the Orange Glaze:
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice from about 1 orange
2 teaspoons grated orange rind

First, make the dough! Whisk the warmed buttermilk and butter together in a large liquid measuring cup. Combine 3 1/2 cups of flour, sugar, yeast and salt together in a standing mixer fitted with dough hook. With the mixer on low speed, add the buttermilk mixture and eggs and mix until the dough comes together, about 2 minutes. Increase the mixer to medium speed and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. The dough will still be overly sticky, so just add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until the dough clears the sides of the bowl but has a slight tacky feel when pressed between your fingertips. Be careful not to make the dough too dry! A little sticky is okay!

Place the dough in a large, lightly greased bowl and cover the top tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled, around 2 to 2 ½ hours depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

For the filling, combine all the filling ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Set aside.

When the dough is ready, turn it out onto a lightly floured counter and roll it gently into a 16x12-inch rectangle. Gently spread the orange filling over the dough.

Lift the longest edge closest to you and begin rolling the dough into a tight log. Pinch the seam closed and roll the log so it is seam side down. Using a serrated knife, slice the log into 12 evenly sized rolls (this might seem a bit tedious - but persevere!). Place them down in a greased 13x9 glass baking pan. Cover the rolls with lightly greased plastic wrap. Let the rolls rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 to 1 ½ hours.

While the rolls are rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bake the rolls at 350 degrees for 22-25 minutes or until the rolls are lightly golden on top and cooked through. While the rolls are baking, mix together the glaze ingredients. Drizzle the glaze over the warm rolls. Eat warm or at room temperature!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cacio e Pepe

This cold weather is unbearable. We were just blessed with 5-8 inches of icy snow. Every time I take the kids outdoors, they scream when the wind starts to blow despite the fact that they are wrapped like mummies. Matthew my almost-five-year-old will stop dead in his snowy tracks, crying and refusing to go any further until I agree to carry him in my arms along with Emma. Have no fear - I don't acquiesce to his requests - but we do end up taking about 10x as long to reach our destination with all the whining. And I don't like the bitterly cold wind either! So, we've been spending the long, dark days indoors - and they are beginning to become quite dull. While I may feel bored, Emma and Matthew have certainly been finding ways to entertain themselves.

Emma loves her Daddy!

The children recently decided to set up their Little People Nativity Set by the fireplace. That is all fine and dandy, except I am now finding the wise men, the shepherds, and various members of the holy family in the most absurd places. They show up in the bathroom sink, in the cabinets, in the fireplace, in the microwave, or - on special occasions - I'll discover one ensconced inside Emma's diaper as I'm laying her down for a changing. The other day, Emma was eating in her high chair with the sheep and Mary figures on her tray. She began stuffing her pasta into their hollow feet. That was a disgusting mess. No more toys during mealtime for her.

Our poor cat is another source of entertainment for the wee ones. He stays out all night chasing bunnies and mice in the snow and just wants to rest when he comes back inside. Unfortunately for Riley, rest is kind of hard to come by when Emma is around. He does his best to ignore.

I often find him asleep on our couch buried under a small mound of toys. It's kind of awesome that he really doesn't care.

And he would have stayed there with those toys on top of him had I not been compelled by mercy to remove them.

Lately, I have been absolutely starving by the time Paul gets home from work. During the week, I have been trying to plan dinners that are quick, easy to throw together, and require very little advance preparation. Instead of the traditional spaghetti with meat sauce, we have been enjoying some simply dressed pasta dishes - like this recipe for Cacio e Pepe. It's a great meal that the entire family enjoys eating. Add a light salad on the side or maybe some breadsticks (if I'm feeling super ambitious to get the dough started early in the day) and this is one of Paul's favorite meals.

Cacio e Pepe ("cheese and pepper") is a traditional Italian dish where cooked pasta is tossed with a simple sauce consisting of Pecorino Romano cheese, a generous helping of pepper, and a touch of cream. That's all you need to create a pretty darn yummy dish! You can also use the same method for dressing the pasta as dictated in the recipe except using finely grated Parmesan and some grated lemon zest (plus a squeeze of lemon juice at the end). Both varieties are pretty tasty, filling, and much beloved by our family. I make this a couple times each month - Paul even requested the Parmesan variety for his birthday last year! It's really simple, but really good! The key is to use good quality cheese and olive oil because they are the highlight of the whole dish!

Cacio e Pepe
from Cook's Illustrated

Note: As stated above, sometimes we switch out the Pecorino Romano for Parmesan and add in a generous amount of lemon zest and juice as we're tossing. It's also delicious! Also, make sure to use the exact amount of water and salt when cooking the pasta - the starch in the pasta thickens up the water so the sauce sets up properly and the salt ensures a well-seasoned dish!

4 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated (Plus some additional coarsely grated Pecorino or Parmesan for sprinkling on individual servings!)
1 pound spaghetti
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream or half/half
2 teaspoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 1/2 teaspoons finely ground black pepper

Place the finely grated Pecorino in a medium bowl. Set colander in large bowl.

Bring 2 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven. Add pasta and 1½ teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente. Drain pasta into colander set in bowl, reserving cooking water. Pour 1½ cups cooking water into liquid measuring cup and discard remainder. Return pasta to now-empty Dutch oven.

Slowly whisk 1 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water into finely grated Pecorino until smooth. Whisk in the cream, oil, and black pepper. Gradually pour cheese mixture over pasta, tossing to coat. Let pasta rest 1-2 minutes, tossing frequently, adjusting consistency with remaining ½ cup reserved pasta water as necessary (I almost never use it - but it's a matter of preference!). Serve, passing coarsely grated Pecorino separately.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Peanut Butter Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

Daniel Tiger's mother puts me to shame. If you have ever seen the adorable television show Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It has been Matthew's favorite PBS program for three years running now and it is a great place for me to pick up a few parenting tips from Daniel Tiger's Mother.

Daniel Tiger is a typical preschooler. He likes to play with his friends and baby sister, but like a lot of preschoolers he also tends to throw temper tantrums, get frustrated, be picky about food, etc. For example, on the episode we watched today, Daniel kept trying to play in an organized fashion, but his baby sister kept crawling around and knocking his toys over. It made him SO MAD! But, his Mother quickly intercedes by calmly soothing him and teaching him a little song to sing when his baby sister gets in the way: "When a baby makes things different, find a way to make things fun!!!" She's basically the tiger form of Maria Von Trapp - she always has a song with a lesson to help Daniel through some of life's biggest challenges for a preschooler.

As I said at the beginning of this post, Mother Tiger puts me to shame. If Daniel (aka Matthew) had come whining to me about the baby knocking his toys over for the thritieth time, I probably would have barked: "She's a baby. She gets into my stuff too!! Go play somewhere else! Deal with it!"

Ironically, I was speaking with a Priest the other day about how frustrated I get with my kids and his advice was to try putting my lessons/requests/orders to music and see if they respond better to that. He also suggested that when I start to get mad or frustrated with them, to put on a favorite CD or something and to try to sing along with it as a way to both soothe my temper and distract the kids. Just a few days into this experiment...and wouldn't you know it does really work better! Matthew especially responds well to this. For example, I asked him to go upstairs and make his bed. He crosses his arms across his chest and says, very defiantly: "I don't want to!" So, feeling rather silly, I started to sing: "When we wake up, we make our beds so it's all ready at night for our sleepy heads." And as I began singing my silly, ridiculous lyrics, a smile started to creep up on the edge of his mouth and he turned to go upstairs where he made his bed and did a pretty good job.

And remember that time of day that I dread? The time of day where dinner needs to be made, the kids are tired and needy, and it's pitch black outside even though it's only 5:00 pm? That's when I make sure the Christmas music is blasting from our stereo. It really keeps our moods up until Paul comes home!

Emma has been sick with a cold recently.
She's turned into a couch potato - curling up and watching Winnie-the-Pooh.

Most of the time, the songs do not work when trying to entice my kids to finish their meals. But bribing them with cookies certainly does the trick! I made these Peanut Butter Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies as a treat for Matthew's preschool class. The parents take turns bringing the snack in each week and I had forgotten that it was our turn. Luckily, I had everything I needed to make these and the kids seem to love them. They could most definitely win an award for "Ugliest Cookie Ever" but don't let their looks deceive you - they are pretty tasty and chewy (albeit not actually "pretty")! The taste is reminiscent of granola which means they must be healthy. In fact, I fed them to my kids for breakfast this morning (but I'm not asking you to emulate me). Actually, I bet they would be fantastic broken into pieces and served on top of some frozen yogurt along with a healthy dose of chocolate syrup. Also, if scooped and baked to make larger cookies, they would be great for ice cream sandwiches! I've got about 100 of these in a Tupperware - we have to eat them somehow!!

Peanut Butter Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies
adapted very slightly from Dorie Greenspan

3 cups old fashioned oats or quick-cooking oats (NOT instant)
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup peanut butter - smooth or chunky!
1 cup sugar
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Whisk together the oats, flour, baking soda, spices and salt.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter, peanut butter, sugar and brown sugar on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition, then beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the dry ingredients, beating only until blended. Mix in the chips.

Drop rounded tablespoonfuls 2-inches apart onto the baking sheets. I flattened them a little bit with the back of a spatula.

Bake for 13-15 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back after 7 minutes. The cookies should be golden and just firm around the edges. Lift the cookies onto cooling racks with a wide metal spatula - they'll firm as they cool.

Repeat with the remaining dough, cooling the baking sheets between batches.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

I am finally getting around to attempting some Christmas baking. Matthew hasn't been nearly as helpful as in years past (he's been more interested in eating rather than baking) and this has definitely contributed to my lazy attitude towards baking. I finally had the chance to sit down this week (with Matthew) and plan out our schedule. This weekend, we have knocked out four types of cookies and are giving out gifts beginning on Tuesday this week. It will be so nice to have those projects out of the way - hopefully even before we get our tree up!

Planning our Christmas baking list. Or rather, waiting for Mom to finish planning.

The first batch of cookies being made!

Playing in the laundry baskets is much more fun than baking. 
But first, let's talk about these gorgeous, delicious, light-as-air Lemon Ricotta Pancakes. On a whim, I decided to make these for breakfast today and Paul nearly barfed when he saw me pull out the tub of ricotta. He hates ricotta with every fiber of his being. However, he was a fairly good sport and willingly took a serving of pancakes once they were ready.

These pancakes are bound together with milk, ricotta, a touch of butter, very little flour, egg yolks, and lots of egg whites whipped to stiff perfection. Lemon zest and fresh-squeezed lemon juice add a wonderful aroma to the batter. The pancakes rose so high while cooking on our griddle and we were all enticed by the lemony aroma.

The pancakes were heavenly. Absolutely heavenly - and not just because they were so light that they almost seemed to float off our plates. They were light, fluffy, perfectly sweetened, and required only a sprinkling of powdered sugar as a finishing touch. I served them with an apple-cranberry compote, but they really did not need anything. The entire family loved them - especially Paul the ricotta hater! The ricotta cheese just melted into the batter and added to the light texture of the cakes - it was not detectable in the dry, sometimes "pebbly" form that Paul really abhors. We will be making these again for sure!

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
from Cook's Illustrated

2/3 cups (3 1/3 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ounces (1 cup) whole-milk ricotta cheese (may use light ricotta but do not use fat free!)
2 large eggs, separated, plus 2 large whites
1/3 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest plus 4 teaspoons juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar

Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together in medium bowl and make well in center. Add ricotta, egg yolks, milk, lemon zest and juice, and vanilla and whisk until just combined. Gently stir in melted butter.

Using stand mixer fitted with whisk, whip egg whites on medium-low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-high and whip whites to soft, billowy mounds, about 1 minute. Gradually add sugar and whip until glossy, soft peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer one-third of whipped egg whites to batter and whisk gently until mixture is lightened. Using rubber spatula, gently fold remaining egg whites into batter.

Preheat an electric griddle to 325 degrees. Lightly grease with vegetable oil or butter. Cook pancakes for about 2-3 minutes on the first side. Flip, and continue to cook on the second side for an additional 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately with a dusting of powdered sugar.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Ornaments

The good thing about sending Matthew to preschool this year is that he has made lots of new friends.

The bad thing about sending Matthew to preschool this year is that he begins to pick up the preferences of his new friends.

One of these is his new obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Since the new Ninja Turtle movie came out, those creepy, green, genetic marvels are everywhere. Matthew came home talking about how much he loved them without really understanding who they are and what they do. I was clued into this when he began drawing pictures of ninja turtles "swimming in the ocean." He's a bit confused.

I have been trying to make a special ornament with the kids each year during Advent. Last year's was a little involved - drying clay, waiting for paint to dry, and glazing the finished ornament. With how sluggish and tired I have been feeling with this pregnancy (I know...more whining about that!), I wanted to make a super simple ornament. Then, I saw a facebook post circulating about making Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ornaments simply by gluing ribbon and googly eyes onto green ornaments. It looked easy and inexpensive!

We gathered all the materials we needed from the local craft store and then attempted to make our ornaments right after lunch. It was a little annoying getting the ribbon to wrap and adhere just right to the ornament. This was probably mostly my fault because I hate working with a glue gun so much. It stems from a childhood fear of the heated glue because I burnt my finger once while making a felt doll. Even with the minor difficulties and frustrations associated with the glue gun, we had a set of six Ninja Turtle ornaments in less than 30 minutes. We are giving the extra Michelangelo and Leonardo ornaments to a friend. I think our Ninja Turtles will blend perfectly with my Notre Dame, cat, and snowflake ornaments - don't you think?

Matthew was certainly excited about making them! He has been proudly telling everyone about them - and playing with them secretly in his room. Now we just have to get our tree sometime in the next couple weeks before he breaks them.

I like the reflection of Matthew's smiling face in the ornament. A little bit creepy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Unique Homemade Advent Calendar

There's nothing like the first snow to encourage thoughts of the Christmas season. When I woke up a few days ago to the joyful shouts of my children ("Snow Mommy! Let's go play in the SNOW!"), I immediately had the itch to begin Christmas preparations, But it is not even Thanksgiving yet!! 

I have to hold off on the other preparations for a couple weeks yet, but I thought now would be a good time to make our Advent calendar so the kids can begin counting down the days until Christmas beginning with the first Sunday of Advent on November 30th.

Now, normally we buy one of those cheap advent calendars from the grocery store where you open little paper windows to reveal a "Christmas rhyme" and a tiny piece of chocolate. Now that we have two children, I really did not want to deal with either of these scenarios:

1) Buying two Advent calendars so each child can have his/her own.
2) Buying only one Advent calendar and precariously splitting the tiny piece of chocolate perfectly in half each morning for the two to share.
3) Not buying an Advent calendar (because I honestly like them as much as the kids!).

I also began thinking about how I would like the Advent calendar to do a better job of teaching my children the true meaning of the season. I began searching around for a better Advent calendar and saw that they can be super expensive. The only other option? Make my own. Easier to customize.

I saw an idea for a non-traditional Advent calendar in a parenting magazine during one of my prenatal appointments. The magazine detailed how to fold scrapbook paper into cute little "packets" that can be filled with treats. The packets are numbered and then placed in a decorative bowl. Each morning, the child opens one packet until Christmas Day. I liked the idea of making packets - I could adjust their size to put as much stuff inside as I want - so I decided to run with it.

I bought some Christmas-themed scrapbook paper and some peppermint Hershey Kisses to place inside. I also decided to compose a children-friendly version of the Nativity story and split it into installments. The idea is that each day my kids will learn a little more about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. By the end of Advent, we can read the whole story, start to finish. I also decided to include a simple activity for each day - most of the activities focusing on doing something special for other people. I'm really trying to focus on this being a season of giving - especially since Matthew has already been talking about what Santa is going to bring him this year. It's okay to be excited for presents on Christmas morning, but I want him to also understand that our hearts can be filled with joy and happiness when we give to others.

So, the construction of each packet went like this. Cut a 4" by 7" rectangle out of your paper.

Starting from the short side, roll into a tight cylinder. Make the cylinder has wide or narrow as you want, depending on what you are planning to place in your packet.

Secure with tape. I think a decorative tape like Washi tape would be great, but I couldn't find any that was Christmas themed. So I just used what we had.

Flatten one end of the packet and pinch together evenly. If you have a little overlap of paper, trim it so the paper is evenly together. (I don't know if that tip made sense - but it sounded good in my head) Secure with tape. At this point, fill the packet with items of choice.

Flatten the other end of the packet perpendicular to the first end and secure with tape. Ta-Da!

Fill out a little sticker label with the number corresponding to the packet - in this case "1".

Make about 24 more!

That's it! Easy, simple, and I think they look kind of cute. Ideally, I would keep these displayed on top of our piano, but I think I'm going to have to put them up in a high place once Emma realizes they are filled with food.