Saturday, May 31, 2014

Where We've Been: Part IV (and A Recipe for Cinnamon Roll Cake)

Our last morning in Fort Wayne, my little sister Amy requested that we bake a treat together for breakfast. She has a true interest in baking - mainly because she has an unrivaled sweet tooth. She also has an obsession with anything cinnamon-sugar, as you may recall from her love for monkey bread. So it came as no surprise when the recipe she selected was a delectable Cinnamon Roll Cake from one of my favorite blogs Mel's Kitchen Cafe. I was rather relieved that she chose it over traditional cinnamon rolls because this cake was so incredibly simple to make and required very little effort. That's the best kind of recipe early on a Sunday morning!

Amy was quite the little baker. She was very organized with her ingredients and measured everything out accurately. I was impressed about how good she was about cleaning up her work area in between steps (such as putting away the flour, baking soda, and so on after measuring out the dry ingredients) so we did not have to deal with clutter as we completed the recipe. The only issue she had was dolloping the cinnamon-sugar filling. It was a bit too tedious for her. She preferred just to plop the entire mixture into the center of the cake batter and let it go. Lazy child.

This treat came together in no time and was soon happily baking in the oven. As it baked, we threw together an egg scramble with ham, onions, and cheese. After all, we have to have a side of protein with our sugar in the morning!

The cinnamon roll cake was a perfect indulgent treat to be enjoyed with a large cup of coffee. The entire 13" x 9" pan was pretty much demolished during breakfast. Some of the diners complained that the cake was a bit rich - and I agree that it is quite so - but that did not stop anyone from devouring a slice bigger than their head. This would be a great company brunch item. We will be having my friend and her large family over for breakfast in a couple weeks and I am definitely planning on having this cake on the menu. Her kids are going to love it! Thanks Amy for selecting such a great recipe!

So it was with full bellies that we packed up the car and headed home. We had a great time visiting with our Fort Wayne family and look forward to the next time we can all get together! Luckily, I do not have to wait too long since my younger brother Ray (the graduate) will be visiting this weekend and the following weekend four of my sisters are coming down for a visit. Let the good times roll!

Cinnamon Roll Cake
from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

For the Cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups light or regular sour cream
2/3 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 large eggs

For the Cinnamon-Sugar Swirl:
3/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

For the Glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar
4-5 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9" x 13" baking pan with butter.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together all the ingredients for the cake until well combined. Spread the cake batter evenly into the prepared pan.

In the now empty bowl of the stand mixer, beat together the butter, light brown sugar, flour and cinnamon for the swirl mixture. Dollop the cinnamon mixture by tablespoons over the cake batter. Make sure to get a few dollops close to the edges so that not all the filling gets pooled into the center of the cake. Using a knife, swirl the cinnamon mixture into the cake better. Try not to over-swirl.

Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 30-32 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs.

Meanwhile, make the glaze by whisking together the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla until very smooth. Pour the glaze over the warm cake. Make sure to glaze the cake within 5-10 minutes of removing it from the oven.

Serve the cake warm or at room temperature. On second thought, this cake will disappear before it cools!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Where We've Been: Part III

Once the weekend arrived, we only had two more days in Fort Wayne before it was time to head home. We started off the weekend with Paul's hamburgers, lovingly made with his own two hands. Then we popped some popcorn and enjoyed watching the Disney classic That Darn Cat! together. The little kids were laughing so much during certain parts - it was really cute!

The hypersensitive children couldn't handle the noise of the popcorn popper. Paul included.

Amy can't take a normal picture. She is always making this face.

Since the siblings were around for the whole day on Saturday, we tried to plan some fun activities that most of the family could do together. One of my favorite spots to play when I was younger is a park out in rural Indiana that we deemed "castle park." I still do not know the actual name of the park - but it has a huge play structure that looks like a couple interconnecting castles complete with slides of all shapes and sizes, rope bridges, monkey bars, balance beams, tire swings, and a special miniature play area for toddlers.

Everyone was so excited when I suggested the outing. Once we got out of the car, Emma spotted the play structure and started pointing and squealing (while kicking her legs and flailing her arms) in excitement. She loves going to the park. I can't wait until she is walking so her knees and hands do not get so darn dirty from crawling all over everything. She certainly does not let her physical limitations prevent her from experiencing all the joyful fun a park has to offer.

Luckily, I had many helping hands to assist Emma through the play structure. She was very appreciative. I don't think anyone was more happy to be out in the sunshine than Emma!

Mark kept getting harassed for no reason whatsoever by a precocious 5-year-old girl. She would walk by him and kick him as she passed. Then she started pelting him with mulch. Of course, being 17-years-old, he was unable to defend himself really in any way so he sent 6-year-old Bruce to get her off his back.

This plan backfired when Bruce began getting beat up by the lovely young lass. And by beat up, I mean the girl kept throwing him to the ground and body slamming him. Her parents must watch a lot of WWE.

I was about to go break everything up even though Bruce was being a good sport about being harassed but before I could say anything, Matthew came buzzing into the picture. He was pretending to be Spider-Man and announced himself to the girl: "I'm Spider-Man here to save the day!" She gave him a look that clearly read "you're weird, kid" and kept beating on Bruce. That's when Matthew charged her. He tackled her, knocked her down, and then kept on going, pretending to shoot webs as he ran to the other side of the park. She looked a bit stunned but soon picked herself up and left the boys alone!

When we asked Bruce later about how Matthew had to rescue him from the wild woman, Bruce replied: "No he didn't! I just wanted her to beat me up."

A fine attempt to preserve your dignity, Bruce, but you were certainly getting creamed.

Saturday evening, we took the younger set and headed over to Shannon and James' house for dinner and games. They live on several acres of beautiful land with all the amenities a child could want - a trampoline, a tractor with a flatbed attached for "hayrides", bikes, tricycles, and a sandbox! The kids especially loved James giving them all a hayride around the property. We enjoyed a dinner of pulled pork, macaroni salad, a green salad (with lettuce and herbs from their garden!), chips, and banana cream pie. I was relieved that the kids cleaned their plates without complaint before rushing back outside to play some more! It was so nice because the kids really entertained themselves while the adults could spend more time catching up and visiting. By the time we were ready to leave, they were filthy! The bathwater that night was pretty dark.

Stay tuned for Part IV. It includes a yummy, indulgent recipe that I made with my sister Amy who is turning into quite the little chef.

In case you missed it, click to read Part I and Part II.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Where We've Been: Part II

Upon our arrival in Fort Wayne, we set up camp at my parent's house and prepared for a week of house-sitting for them while they traveled to California. All of my younger siblings were still in school (much to their chagrin) and required mucho attention to see that they remained fed, clothed, and happy. Mornings began pretty early with a cacophony of numerous alarm clocks going off in the various rooms of the house, none of which roused a response from the occupants sleeping in the adjacent beds. After silencing that symphony from hell, the children were herded out of bed and told to be downstairs, dressed, and ready for breakfast in 30 minutes.

Thirty minutes later, I would find myself alone in the dining room while a bleary-eyed Sophie sat on the couch in the next room staring at the wall with no sign of life other than the occasional blink. Eventually the stragglers would make their way down to the breakfast table, eat casually, and then sit in a stupor until I shouted at them to get in the car. A madcap race to the minivan reminiscent of It's A Mad Mad Mad World would ensue. If the neighbors were to glance at our driveway outside, they would see an open minivan door with a jumble of various limbs, backpacks, and faces trying to shove their way inside. Once everyone was inside, I would madly drive to first the high school and then the grade school in the hopes of getting everyone to their respective institutions of learning on time. I succeeded about 90% of the time.

Emma charming Uncle Mark while eating dandelions.

During the day, Paul was working remotely at the house and required a quiet work environment so he could complete conference calls. So, I would take the children on various errands, outings, and play dates around the city of Fort Wayne. Luckily, my sister Sophie had a fairly light work schedule during that week so we were able to hang out with her quite a bit. We even discovered this new coffee shop where a beautiful, clean, play room is provided for the children so the parents can sit, relax, drink coffee, and watch their kids play. Matthew loved it and did not want to leave because they had a full train set.

I also arranged to spend a generous amount of time with my best friend and her four kids. Shannon and I have been friends since my family first moved to Fort Wayne. We were married within two months of one another and were each other's maid/matron of honor. Shannon and her husband James are Matthew's godparents; Paul and I are the godparents of their son Edward. I love her and her sweet little family dearly and wish we could see them more often. In the meantime, we try to get together as often as we can and speak on the phone once a month. For our first get-together over this visit, Shannon, Sophie, and I took the kids to the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo. Matthew was so excited to go and Emma just went with the flow. In the end, I think Emma actually enjoyed the zoo more than Matthew. She has always loved animals but when she found herself surrounded by creatures of all shapes and sizes, she was in nirvana! We spent five hours there and she was engaged the entire time! 

All the kids were well behaved and got along great. Matthew and Josie were quite the pair, strolling through the various exhibits together. I would follow behind them and listen to portions of their conversations. 

Josie: "Matthew, this is bamboo. The pandas eat it."
Matthew: "Bamboo taste bad!"
Josie: "You're right! But don't worry, Matthew! You don't have to eat it."

Emma was NOT shy about crawling up the tree fort. We had trouble getting her to come back out!

The only mishap of the day occurred at the petting zoo. One of the goats grabbed a tuft of little Edward's hair from behind and yanked his head backwards. The poor kid was so shocked by this that he started sobbing "BAD GOAT!" and wanted nothing more to do with the petting zoo. I don't blame him. Sometimes those goats are a bit aggressive! 

"Mommy - Take a picture with me and the ALLIGATOR!"
Done. The alligator even smiled for the camera.

On a positive note, I have never been able to convince Matthew to enter a petting zoo. He has always been afraid of the animals. However, after a little encouragement from Josie, he grabbed a brush and had a grand-old-time grooming the goats. I had trouble getting him to leave. Emma, however, was very suspicious and hated the goats nibbling on her feet. She preferred to maintain a high perch on my shoulder.

Before too long, it was time to leave the zoo and pick up the siblings from school. My kids passed out in the car on the way back to the house - a true sign of a successful day of play!

I'll continue with Part III shortly. For those who missed it, Part I can be found here!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Where We've Been: Part I

You may (or may not) have noticed a long period of silence on my end. Our family went on an extended trip to Indiana that was filled with fun with family and friends. We only saw my parents for the first day before they skedaddled over to California leaving Paul and I to keep track of the rest of the clan. I took a bunch of pictures during our time in "the crossroads of America" but will only document the highlights here.

First stop on our trip was the University of Notre Dame to watch my little brother (and birthday twin) become a Double Domer. We had to leave at 3:00 AM in order to arrive with a little extra time to freshen up before the big ceremony. We pretty much transferred the kids directly from their beds into the car and then fed them a bunch of Pop Tarts, animal crackers, and juice in order to keep them happy. Since Emma in particular likes to wear everything she eats, they both looked pretty nasty when we finally pulled into South Bend. Thankfully, Raymond was gracious enough to leave a key to his apartment for us so we could go inside and clean up the kids so they would not look like street urchins. When we got inside, we found that Raymond had also bought a bunch of snacks for the kids - including some Thomas fruit snacks for Matthew - and some coffee/alcoholic beverages for Paul and I. What a nice host he was! We cleaned up, ate some food, met up with Mary (Ray's girlfriend) and then headed over to the JACC for the graduation.

At the JACC, we met up with my family and then settled in to watch the graduates process in. Around this time, Matthew decided to completely conk out on Paul's lap. He had been wide awake the whole time in the car, excited to see my parents and his uncles and aunts. Emma decided to start complaining right around the time they announced that my brother was the valedictorian for his business class. I had to take her out to the back because she sounded like a monkey in distress and completely missed it! I did, however, make it back in time to see him receive his diploma.

We were all so proud of him! He worked so hard for this moment. He actually looks smart in that graduation cap and gown.

The Graduate + the Parents

The Graduate, Paul + Emma, my youngest brother Bruce, and my brother Mark.

The Graduate + The Girlfriend

Matthew of course woke up the second the graduation ended but was so darn grumpy that he refused to cooperate for any pictures. He also hit the graduate and ended up spending a bit of time in the corner. I think our feeble attempts at parenting were amusing to some.

So, let's play a game....see if you can spot Matthew in some of the group pictures in this post.

Three Domers + Two Future Domers

We enjoyed a lovely celebratory lunch at a local Asian restaurant. Afterwards, the kids played outside while Paul and I took a walk around the Notre Dame campus to reminisce. We both miss it so much. It's a very special place to both of us because it really is where our journey as a twosome began. During our walk, we would pass the familiar landmarks and talk about things that happened during our time on campus. Paul even remembered some incidents that I had forgotten - such as the time I had tried to coax the giant swan to eat out of my hand at one the lakes and that big dumb bird had ended up engulfing my entire palm with its mouth, holding on tight, and then dragging me into the lake. I still have a little scar from that.

Later that afternoon, we said goodbye to my parents before heading to the Basilica for Mass with all my younger siblings. After Mass, we loaded everyone up in our Camry and my parent's minivan and drove to Fort Wayne to begin our week of house-sitting.

I'll be posting Part II shortly!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Strawberry-Rhubarb Slab Pie

When we first bought our home, Paul and I began dreaming and scheming-up ways we would fix up the landscaping around the house. One of the first items on our future "To-Do" list was to plant some rhubarb on the side of our house. Rhubarb plants are not really great-looking or anything, but their roots are super delicious in all kinds of pies, cobblers, and bars. Finding rhubarb in the store has always been a bit of a challenge (and super expensive) so we thought it would be great if we could harvest our own. When we went around to some of the local farms, greenhouses, and garden centers, nobody had any rhubarb plants/seeds for sale. In fact, several vendors actually thought it weird that we even wanted to plant the stuff in our yard: "You know the leaves are poisonous..."

Last year, one of Paul's coworkers mentioned that they had a monstrous rhubarb plant in the backyard of their Chicago home that they were planning to rip out. Paul half-jokingly begged him to give a small portion of the plant to us so that we could grow rhubarb in our backyard. We did not expect him to comply - but within a couple of weeks a small rhubarb plant appeared on Paul's desk. When Paul got home from work, he took Matthew out back and the two of them dug a small hole for the new addition. Matthew was so proud of his newly planted "wooobarb".

This Spring, that little tiny rhubarb plant exploded into a towering monstrosity. Our neighbors probably are looking at it wondering what the heck kind of weird weed is taking over the side of our house. Matthew was thrilled to see how much his plant had grown. Every day, he goes to check on the status of the rhubarb and reports how much it has grown (I think his estimates tend to be a bit generous). Whenever anyone comes to our house (be it the mailman, random guy dropping off an amazon package, Tru Green lawn service trying to get us to buy their services, Jehovah's Witnesses), Matthew asks them: "Would you like to see my woobarb?"

Newly harvested rhubarb is great in so many desserts. A new one that I just tried was for a Strawberry-Rhubarb Slab Pie. A slab pie is basically a pie baked in a sheet pan so you can serve pie for a crowd without having to use multiple pie plates. I had seen a recipe for Apple Slab Pie in an issue of Cook's Country that detailed how to make use store-bought pie dough rolled with crushed animal crackers to beef up the flavor. (Interesting!) I'm all about homemade crusts, but sometimes when you put too much effort into making something, it makes you want to do this:

So, I tried the Cook's Country method for the crusts but used a basic strawberry-rhubarb filling and added a streusel topping instead of another layer of pie dough. We served large, hot pieces of this pie with generous scoops of vanilla ice cream. It was divine. This would be a great recipe to bring to a summer potluck. And, if our rhubarb plant keeps growing the way it has, this is a dessert that I will be making often!

Strawberry-Rhubarb Slab Pie
heavily adapted from Cook's Country

For the crusts:
1 (15 ounce) box Pillsbury pie crusts
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup animal crackers

For the Filling:
3 cups sliced fresh rhubarb
5 cups strawberries, sliced
1 3/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch (heaping)

For the Streusel Topping:
1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cold butter

Adjust oven to rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Unwrap and unroll pie crusts from package. Cover with a towel until ready to roll out. Pulse animal crackers and 1/4 cup sugar in food processor until finely ground. Dust work surface with cracker mixture. Brush half of one pastry disc with water, overlap with second pastry disc, and dust top with more cracker mixture. Roll out dough to 19 by 14 inches and transfer to rimmed baking sheet. Crimp the edges and refrigerate until ready to fill.

For the filling, combine the rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, and cornstarch in a large bowl. Toss until combined.

For the streusel topping, pulse the flower, brown sugar, and butter together in a food processor until it has the consistency of coarse crumbs.

To assemble the pie, spread the filling evenly over the pie crust. Sprinkle evenly with the streusel topping. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until the crust is browned and the juices are bubbly. Let cool on a wire rack before slicing and serving. Ice cream is essential.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Grilled Caprese Chicken

We had a major "light bulb moment" yesterday.

Over a year ago, my bedside lamp suddenly stopped working. This caused a little disruption in my normal nighttime routine as I like to read in bed before falling asleep. The large overhead light in our room is too bright to have on for reading since Paul prefers to flop into bed and instantly start snoring. While upset that the light was no longer working, it really did not surprise me since the lamp had been acquired during a campus dumpster dive during the spring semester of my sophomore year of college. I actually was surprised that the little lamp had made it this far!

These pictures have nothing whatsoever to do with the post - I just felt like sharing!

When my engineer-extraordinaire husband arrived home that evening, I told him about the lamp. He agreed to have a look at it to see if he could fix it. Well, that did not happen right away. In fact, weeks and then months passed by and that broken lamp was still sitting on our nightstand. In the meantime, I had been reading in bed with a flashlight. Paul insisted that I stop using the flashlight out of concern that I would ruin my already-pathetically-nearsighted vision. So, I stole the tiny "little sluggers" lamp from Matthew's nightstand and put that next to the broken lamp on my nightstand. That has been my reading lamp for the past year.

Around Christmastime, Paul finally took a good look at my broken lamp (about 9 months after it broke) and officially deemed it a lost cause. "We'll have to get you a new lamp!" he said.

Fast forward another five months to Mother's Day (aka yesterday). We were at the hardware store looking for plants for our yard when I decided to peruse the selection of lamp and lampshades. I found a base and a shade that looked nice and showed it to Paul. His reply: "Let's get it! You've been waiting for that lamp a long time!" (No Kidding)

Proud to be the mother of these two darlings.

We arrive home and in an uncharacteristically proactive moment, Paul takes the lamp upstairs to install on my nightstand. He removes the bulb from the broken lamp and twists it into the socket of the new lamp. He screws the shade onto the new lamp, plugs it into the outlet behind the dresser, and then slides the switch.

Nothing happens.

I begin to glare at Paul as he disassembles the new lamp and removes the bulb: "Do you mean...that this whole the time the lamp just needed a new light bulb?!"


Paul looked pretty sheepish as he got a new bulb, screwed it into the old "broken" lamp and then plugged it in. And the lamp illuminated the room. I am now the proud owner of two bedside lamps.

Did I mention my husband is an amazing, smart, intelligent engineer?

Ok, so he might have a little trouble replacing light bulbs, but Paul sure knows how to grill his wife a delicious meal for Mother's Day! A few days ahead of Mother's Day, Paul asked me what meal I would like him to make for dinner. I immediately thought of this Grilled Caprese Chicken. Paul had made this meal for me as a surprise last summer shortly after I had arrived back in Erie after a long car trip with both of the kids. It was so darn good that it immediately catapulted its way to the top of my list of "Favorite Meals."

As you can see in the pictures, Paul served it to me on the "special plate" for Mother's Day. He was so sweet to me all day long. The kids were kind of whiny and grumpy all day, but that's reality for you!

This is an easy, delicious, and healthy meal that does not take long to pull together. We serve it as a salad along with some homemade bruschetta atop toasted Italian bread. It is so delicious that I am looking forward to enjoying the leftovers tonight!

And, in Paul's defense, his fairly intelligent wife also could have figured out that the light bulb needed replacing! A sheepish moment for both of us, for sure!

Grilled Caprese Chicken with Arugula
adapted from Cook's Country

Note: The chicken breasts should be on the thinner side. Our chicken breasts are always huge, so we normally remove the tenderloin and then pound them to about 3/4" thickness.

1/4 cup table salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 quart water
4 chicken breasts, about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds (See Note Above)
4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch slices, halved, and patted dry
2 large tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2-inch slices (make sure they are ripe but firm enough to hold shape on the grill)
6 ounces baby arugula
Combine the salt, sugar, and water with a whisk in a large bowl. Add the chicken pieces and place the bowl in the refrigerator to brine for at least 30 minutes before grilling.
In a small bowl, combine the basil, vinegar, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Slowly whisk in the oil until it is thoroughly incorporated. Transfer 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette to a bowl and toss in the fresh mozzarella pieces, coating the cheese with the vinaigrette. Set aside. Reserve the remaining vinaigrette for the cooked chicken.
Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel and season both sides with salt and pepper. Grill the chicken and tomatoes on a hot charcoal or gas grill until the chicken is browned and cooked through and the tomatoes are lightly charred, about 2-3 minutes per side (depending on the thickness of your chicken and heat of the grill). Transfer the cooked chicken to a platter. Top with the tomato slices and drizzle with the half of the reserved vinaigrette. Cover the chicken with an even layer of mozzarella and tent the platter loosely with foil. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes.
While the chicken rests, toss the arugula with the other half of the reserved vinaigrette. Add a little additional olive oil if desired and season with salt and pepper. Pile arugula onto individual plates and top with the chicken and any additional tomatoes. Enjoy!