Saturday, October 31, 2015

Root Beer Float Cake

Happy Halloween from me and my little gremlins!

Lucy is probably the fattest lady bug on record.
And the most unenthusiastic trick-or-treater.

Matthew and I stayed up late last night making a few friendly ghosts to hang throughout our house. Emma was excited to find them in the morning and Matthew was more than happy to formally introduce her to his ghostly friends.

He creatively named them the boyfriend and girlfriend ghosts...

the little sister ghost...

and the little boy ghost.

The kids are so excited for trick-or-treating tonight. Paul and I have always enjoyed Halloween even before we had kids old enough to participate in the activities. I think Paul's excitement stems from all the candy. Paul loves candy. I remember the first year we were married, we were so excited to pass out candy to trick-or-treaters from our small apartment. We bought about 20 pounds of chocolate bars, skittles, and starbursts and excitedly waited for the trick-or-treating hours to begin. Much to our disappointment, we had a grand total of three kids knock on our door and spent the rest of the night eating a large portion of that candy ourselves. Yuck.

So, the following year, we decided to not buy any candy and just had a couple pieces on hand for the two kids who might ring our bell. Well, wouldn't you know, we were flooded with candy-seekers that year. We started pulling some of the Easter candy out of the freezer to hand out - Reese's eggs, robin's eggs, etc. I don't think little kids are too discriminating. However, when we handed one three-year-old firefighter a large one-pound solid milk chocolate bunny, we received some strange looks from the parents.

Well, we don't have to worry about that this year since we'll be out with our kids during trick-or-treat hours and will probably come back with more candy than we'll know what to do with! We're probably going to put aside a nice pile for filling Christmas stockings in a few months. Sneaky, sneaky!

Have a fun-filled Halloween night!

For dinner tonight, we will be enjoying chili and this boo-tiful chocolate cake for dessert. Since there will not be enough sugar around the house after trick-or-treating tonight, I decided to throw in a rich, luscious chocolate cake with fudge frosting. But really, I was just looking for an excuse to make this cake for it is truly amazing. It incorporates root beer into both the cake and the frosting. The root beer is not super pronounced, but it does lend an interesting flavor that will make you stop and wonder what exactly is that magical ingredient inside this cake. This is the most moist and fudgy cake I have ever had in my life. Serving it with vanilla ice cream and a side of root beer is a must. Heavenly, heavenly. The ghost decorations were just a fun touch for the kids. They'll probably pass on trying the cake in favor of a Snickers or Milky Way bar from their treat bag. Their loss, More cake for Paul and me!

Root Beer Float Cake
from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

For the Root Beer Bundt Cake:
2 cups root beer (do not use diet root beer)
1 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1¼ cups granulated sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs

For the Root Beer Fudge Frosting:
2 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
½ cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup root beer
2/3 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
2½ cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously spray the inside of a 10-inch bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray, or butter the pan and dust with flour, shaking out the excess flour. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat the root beer, cocoa powder and butter over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the sugars and whisk until dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool.

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

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until just beaten, then whisk them into the cooled cocoa mixture until combined. Gently fold the flour mixture into the cocoa mixture. The batter will be slightly lumpy, which is okay. Do not overbeat it, as it could cause the cake to be tough.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a small sharp knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. My cake always takes about 10 minutes longer - but be careful not to overbake! Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan and turn it out onto the rack.

To make the Root Beer Fudge Frosting, put all of the ingredients in a food processor. Pulse in short bursts until the frosting is shiny and satiny, scraping the sides of the food processor a couple of times. (If you don't have a food processor, simply throw it all into the bowl of a stand mixer or a large bowl using a hand mixer and mix on medium-low until combined and satiny smooth.)

Use a spatula to spread the fudge frosting over the cake in a thick layer. Let the frosting set before serving. Decorate with ghost Peeps and mellocreme pumpkins, if desired. Store leftovers wrapped well or in an airtight container at room temperature.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Pork Tenderloin with Caramelized Apples and Pecans

Are we now at the end of October? I know I'm always complaining about it but time really must start listening to me and slow down. It's going too fast! I just finished discussing and planning Christmas gifts with one of my younger sisters. Christmas gifts!!?! We had our first snowfall a week ago. What is happening here?

This is how Emma does breakfast.
Yesterday morning, Emma was having a lazy start and lounging on the couch watching a little PBS. I went over to cuddle with her for a bit. I asked her about how she was feeling and what she wanted to do that day and she answered sweetly but then casually mentioned: "And Mommy...there is a wolf outside."

I tickled her and said, "A wolf? Silly girl! There's no wolf outside."
She brushed the hair out of her face and, without taking her eyes off the television, replied: "There is, there is! A wolf outside."
"Where's the wolf, Emma?" I asked, thinking she was still playing around.
"Right there is the wolf," she said casually, pointing at the large sliding glass door leading to the deck.

I turned, humoring her, and was immediately taken aback to see a very large Siberian Husky wagging its tail and staring back at us through the window. When the dog made eye contact with me, it stood up on its hind legs and began clawing at the door and howling.

I should never distrust Emma. By golly, there was a wolf outside. The owner of the wolf was found within the hour. I just love how completely chill she was about letting me know about the dog.

Proud big brother with one fat and happy baby!

Intensely happy to be drawing with chalk while eating Junior Mints in her pink skirt!

On the recipe front, we're still drowning in apples and squash. If your pantry looks anything like ours, you'll love this recipe for Pork Chops with Cinnamon Apples. It is a simple and quick recipe that utilizes lots of those sweet local apples to make a sauce that you will be eating by the spoonful. Actually, the topping is so sweet, it could almost be a pie filling. Sweet sauces and toppings go so well with pork because of the natural sweetness already present in the meat. Feel free to play with the amount of sugar. I found it a bit much, but the sugar addicts in the household (basically everyone else) begged me to leave it alone. We serve the pork thinly sliced over a bed of arugula tossed in a tiny bit of olive oil, salt, and flavored vinegar and then scatter the apple mixture over the top. This recipe also works great with pears or even peaches when peaches are in season...which is definitely not now. You can also just sear individual pork chops or a larger pork loin instead of the tenderloin. This is a highly adaptable recipe!

Pork Tenderloin with Caramelized Apples and Pecans
Originally from a magazine I read at a Doctor's Office - but don't remember which one!

Note: We almost always double the sauce because there never seems to be enough of it!

For the Pork:
1 pork tenderloin (about 1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
Salt and Pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil

For the Sauce:
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 medium tart apples, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large cast iron skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the pork and sear on all sides until golden brown. Transfer the pork to a 13x9 pan lined with foil and immdiately place into the oven. Let the pork cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest portion registers 145 degrees - this varies widely in time depending on how the tenderloin is cut, but 10-15 minutes is a good ballpark time range.

Meanwhile, return the cast iron pan with the pork drippings to the stovetop over medium heat. Add the butter and swirl the pan until it is completely melted. Add in the apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and cook and stir until the apples are tender. Be careful not to burn! Add in the pecans towards the end and continue to toss to coat. Remove from heat, cover, and keep warm until the pork is ready.

Let the pork rest for about 5-10 minutes before slicing to seal in the juices and allow the internal temperature to continue rising. Do not be alarmed if the sliced pork has a pink hue - it's supposed to! If it doesn't, you've overcooked it and it will be tough. Serve thin slices of the pork with plenty of apples over the top.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Award-Winning Apple Pie

I do not make pie often. When Paul and I were first married, I made pie quite a bit. However, as of late, pie-making has definitely not been high on my list of priorities. I think the reason I have not baked many pies over the last few years is because my children are so weird about eating them. They will eat a bushel of apples in one sitting, but heaven forbid if they are cooked! Suddenly, they lose their appeal due to the "slimey" texture the cooking imparts. However, this fall, the children have suddenly changed their tune and have begun to embrace the deliciousness that is pie.

Capitalizing on this sudden turn of events, I decided to enter the apple pie contest in the largest apple festival in our region. I have always wanted to enter a food-related contest of some sort and figured a pie-baking contest was the best way to start. Paul and the kids were immediately supportive and, as a family, we decided to bake a couple trial pies in preparation for the contest. The winner the previous year had baked an apple-blueberry-peach pie, but I decided to go the traditional route and add only apples, sugar, salt, and butter to my pie. I utilized my favorite dough recipe from Cook's Illustrated that incorporates vodka for maximum flakiness (and is the easiest pie dough to roll out!) and chose a combination of local Ginger-Gold, Granny Smith, and Cortland apples for the filling. A light caramel sauce was poured over the raw apples piled high in the pie plate and then the top crust was added, brushed with egg, and then baked until golden brown. We sampled our first pie, made a few notes and tweaks, but all agreed that it was pretty delicious as is! I loved the combination of different apple varieties in the filling - the contrast between the various levels of tart and sweet made for a memorable bite!

We baked two more pies the night before the contest. It was a fun night for everyone! We put Hook on to watch while we worked on peeling and slicing apples, rolling out pie dough, and simmering the caramel filling. When the perfectly golden pies were removed from the oven, the movie was pretty much over and the children were chanting to try a slice of the newly baked pie. They were a little disappointed when we told them they had to wait until the morning to give the pies time to completely set, but seemed to perk up when we promised them a slice of pie for breakfast!

The next morning, we had the previously promised pie for breakfast and then packed up and headed to the pie festival with our pie in hand. It was pouring the entire drive to the festival and Paul joked that perhaps we would be the only entry in the contest! When we arrived to drop off the pie, that was definitely not the case! There were lines of beautiful pies all along the tables and they all looked so perfect. After I dropped my pie off, Paul asked excitedly, "How did the competition look?" I told him not to get his hopes up - there were a lot of professional looking pies there. Mine honestly looked the most homely.

The kids were very excited to hear the results from the contest. Unfortunately, they were not to be announced until the end of the day so we had to entertain ourselves for several hours. Despite the rain, we had a lot of fun at the festival and enjoyed ourselves! The kids actually had such a blast in the rain - we had brought their umbrellas and rain boots and they were actually allowed to splash in the puddles! Emma was a little overzealous and got her pants pretty wet, but it did not damper her spirits for she never once complained even though Paul and I kept griping about the cold temperatures.

In the end, we did not win the pie contest. However, we did receive 3rd place and the kids were so happy! My biggest disappointment was that there were not taster's comments that we could use for improving our pie-baking in the future. However, given at how many entries there were, I was quite surprised and pleased with the results! However, I was even more happy with how much fun, support, and effort the whole family put into the project. It was a true family affair.

So, here it is...the pie recipe that converted my children into apple-pie lovers and won us a 3rd place ribbon at the Apple Festival.

All-American Apple Pie

For the Crust:
2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup cold vodka
1/4 cup cold water

For the Filling:
8 medium apples (approximately), peeled, cored and sliced thin - use firmer apple varieties
1 tsp. cinnamon + 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg + 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour, mixed together in a small bowl
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1 egg, beaten
Coarse sugar, for sprinkling

First, make the crust and take your time while doing so. Keep everything cold, cold, cold. Chill the bowl too!

Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, about 4-6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 2 days. I personally think a 2-hour chill is ideal.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll out one piece of dough and fit into pie pan. In a large bowl, toss the apple slices with the spice/flour mixture and then pile high into the crust situated in the pie plate. Set in the fridge.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, whisk in the 3 tablespoons of flour until no lumps remain and the flour is cooked. Add the white sugar, brown sugar and water and whisk until combined. Bring the mixture to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, let it continued to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes over medium heat.

Meanwhile, roll out the top crust. Beat the egg in a small bowl.

After five minutes, carefully pour the mixture over the apples in the pie plate. Gently fit the top pie crust and trim. Flute the edges, cut a couple vent holes, and brush the entire top gently with the egg wash. Sprinkle with the coarse sugar and place on a cookie sheet. Slide in the oven and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake for 35-45 minutes or until crust is golden brown and set on the bottom. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack and don't touch it for at least 8 hours so it has time to set completely!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Butternut Squash Slaw

We have had a beautiful fall season so far. The weather has been fairly cooperative - an equal number of warm days filled with sunshine and rainy, slightly chilly days. Nothing extreme but rather everything you would expect during the months of September and October. Emma, in particular, has been rejoicing in every moment this season. 

When the sun is shining, she will say: "It's a beautiful sunny day! Let's go to the park!"

When it is raining and gloomy, she will say: "It's a beautiful day! Let's get my boots and umbrella and find some puddles!"

I love her optimistic perspective on everything. It certainly helps improve the mood of this glass-half-empty Mommy.

But she is so right to see the beauty in the countryside surrounding us no matter whether it is ! Just look at these gorgeous images from our walk this morning!

We had company over the other night and I took the opportunity to try something a little different with one of the many, many butternut squash that are currently piled atop our counter. Normally, butternut squash is used in a cooked application but I wanted to try making a raw salad with the sweet, orange flesh of one of my favorite gourds. While doing my cardio workout last weekend, I was watching the Food Network. Some might feel that gazing upon food preparation while burning calories is a little counterintuitive, but if I envision myself sprinting towards the cake, cupcake, or brownie being featured, I suddenly am able to run faster and further! Plus, everyone knows the only reason I work out is so I can reward myself with a big slice of cake later in the day. Anyway, I watched a new-to-me TV chef prepare a raw butternut squash coleslaw tossed in a maple vinaigrette. It sounded so delicious to me especially since I already love gnawing on pieces of squash as I'm cubing it up to be roasted. I made a mental note to prepare this salad as soon as possible.

The verdict? Easy, delicious, and refreshing! Everyone loved it - even the crazy kids! It honestly reminded me a bit of a shredded carrot salad that my Mom used to make while I was growing up. I remember watching her grate the carrots individually on a box grater and always thought that the tedious process was more trouble than it was worth! I hated carrots at the time, so watching her prepare that salad always made me shudder. Maybe if I had eaten more of that salad as a child, I wouldn't be so dependent on contacts and glasses now. Similar to that despised childhood salad, there was a bit of bicep work that went into the grating of the squash for this slaw - and I absolutely believe that it should be done by hand to guarantee the best texture - but after that, there was basically three additional minutes of prep and then it was ready! I enjoyed the leftovers for lunch the next day with a couple extra nuts and dried cherries sprinkled on top. It was awesome. Don't be afraid of eating squash raw! This is a nice fall-inspired spin on the traditional coleslaw dish.

Butternut Squash Slaw
adapted from Damaris Phillips

Note: Toasted walnuts, pecans, or even roasted pepitas would be fantastic if you do not have sunflower seeds. Pumpkin seed oil, if you have it on hand, would also be excellent in the dressing.

2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 pound butternut squash, peeled, grated on a box grater
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves chopped
1/4 cup chopped dried cherries
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, toasted
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Whisk together the maple syrup, vegetable oil and sherry vinegar in a large bowl. Add the squash, parsley, dried cherries and sunflower seeds; toss well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let sit for 30 minutes at room temperature or 1 hour in the refrigerator before serving.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Emma, Lucy and I headed to the market the other day to pick up some deli ham and cheese. Somehow, we walked out with ten pie pumpkins, eight butternut squash, fifteen delicata squash, twelve acorn squash, and ten sweet dumpling squash. We may have gone a little overboard, but Emma became emotionally attached to so many of the "baby pumpkins" that we could not help but adopt them all. They are currently adorning our fireplace and will eventually be selected one by one to be roasted in preparation for various baked goods, stews, soups, and pastas. The only pumpkin that shan't be consumed this fall is the plumpest one of them all...

Have you ever cooked dinner inside a pumpkin? It's a novel concept that is always a big hit with the kids. If you were to serve the same rice-and-sausage concoction from a casserole dish, they would whine and complain as if they were being forced to consume asphalt but serve it from the inside of a pumpkin and suddenly the dish is transformed to one of the greatest things they have ever eaten in their young lives. Little tricks like this are a lifesaver when it comes to feeding small, easily impressionable palates.

I have to admit that this dinner is a lot of fun to both make and serve. It's nice to do something different with a whole pumpkins besides carve a face into the side that is about as artistic as my two-year-old's self portraits. This is a great Halloween night dinner idea. I personally like to use pie pumpkins for this because the flavor is better than the larger pumpkins, but either work. If using smaller pie pumpkins, you might need to fill 2-3 of them. A single, 5-6 pound pumpkin should be large enough to stuff completely full with the filling depending on how many...ahem...guts you have to scoop out of it.

This is a simple, homey meal made simple by the fact that the cooking vessel is the pumpkin. Be sure to scoop up the pumpkin flesh when serving the rice - it really does add something special to the dish!

adapted slightly from Favorite Family Recipes

Note: The pictures above were taken before baking. The pumpkin takes on a darker appearance after baking and the insides are soft and scoopable and are, in my opinion, the best part of the whole dish!

1 medium pumpkin
1 tbsp butter
1 small onion, diced
2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed
1 8 oz can water chestnuts, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp soy sauce
4 cups cooked rice, white or brown

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with foil.

Thoroughly wash and dry the outside of the pumpkin.

Cut the top off the pumpkin and clean out the pulp and seeds. Place the pumpkin on the baking sheet. Save the top.

In a large skillet, sauté the beef and sausage until no longer pink, breaking the meat into very small pieces with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Drain the meat on paper towels. Return the hot skillet to the onion and add a tablespoon of butter. When melted, add the onion and mushrooms and cook until the onion is translucent. Add to a large bowl with the meat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the water chestnuts.

In a small bowl, mix the soup, brown sugar, and soy sauce. Add to the beef/sausage mixture along with the cooked rice. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pumpkin and replace the pumpkin top.

Bake for 1 hour on the lower rack of the oven, or on the rack where the pumpkin can be most centered in the oven.

After 1 hour, remove the top and check the sides of the pumpkin for doneness. The outside of the pumpkin will turn a dark orange, and the inside of the pumpkin should be tender and easily scoop off the sides with a spoon. If the inside of the pumpkin is still not fully cooked, bake for an additional 10-15 minutes. The cooking time will vary depending on the size of the pumpkin. Using hot pads, place the pumpkin onto a serving plate, remove the lid, and stir. Be sure to scoop off chunks of cooked pumpkin into the casserole as it is served.

Linking this post up for #TuesdayTalk.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Apple Butter

This apple season has been phenomenal! After a few years of really bad apple crops, the trees have produced some wonderful fruit this Fall! We have already made a few trips to the orchard for bags and bags of apples and have sampled nearly 15 different varieties! The Ginger Golds in particular have been exceptional with their crisp bite, firm yet juicy texture, and sweet-tart flavor. We have apples everywhere - all over the countertops, in decorative glass bowls adorning the dining room table and hutch, and filling the spacious back compartment of our double stroller from a recent trip to the park where the public apple trees were overflowing with beautiful, ripe fruit just begging to be plucked from the bowing branches. Having our house filled to the brim with apples is not a problem for me and my troop, for every member of this familiy (with the exception of Lucy and her one-ingredient diet) is obsessed with apples. Matthew and Emma eat about 3-4 apples a day. They would eat more except I selfishly cut them off because I'm worried they'll eat our entire supply and leave none for me!

Besides just eating the apples out of hand, we've been making a fair share of sweet apple treats. Every year, I make a huge supply of apple butter to can for us over the next couple of months. Paul loves apple butter and looks forward to enjoying it each Fall. I normally pile our crockpot high with all the apples, spices, and sugar and allow the butter to cook that way, but I wanted to try a different method this year. The most recent issue of Cook's Illustrated had a recipe for apple butter that included a generous portion of Applejack. That sounded awesome, so I chose that recipe but added in a generous amount of spice because their recipe did not even call for cinnamon. To me, apple butter should always have a bit of spice. 

The result was a beautiful, shiny apple spread that I could directly out of the jar with a spoon. No toast required! We've been enjoying it in our oatmeal, as a filling for apple pie, rolled up into cinnamon roll dough along with fresh diced apples, and mixed with mustard and dappled over bratwurst. This stuff is incredible. No more crockpot recipe for me. This is the recipe I'll be sticking with in the future.

Apple Butter
adapted from Cook's Illustrated Magazine September/October 2015

4 pounds of assorted apples
1 cup apple cider
1 cup Calvados brandy or Applejack
1 cup granulated sugar, (7 ounces)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar (3 1/2 ounces)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice

Combine apples, cider, and Calvados in large Dutch oven and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until apples are very soft, about 30 minutes.

Working in batches, transfer apples to food mill and process. Discard skins and transfer purée to now-empty Dutch oven. Stir in granulated sugar, brown sugar, lemon juice, salt, and spices. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is browned and thickened and rubber spatula or wooden spoon leaves distinct trail when dragged across bottom of pot, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Transfer apple butter to jar with tight-fitting lid and let cool completely before covering and refrigerating. Apple butter can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.

Makes about 3 cups

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Our Trip to Denver: Part IV

The most significant thing that happened on our fourth and final day in Denver was the bestowing of a new nickname upon Baby Lucy.

Lucy's new nickname originated during a hike we planned to take during the early morning hours of our final day. We rose bright and early before the sunrise so that we could head out to the mountains and hike to the summit before the it became too hot for our pale, delicate skin. I wish I was referring simply to Lucy's sensitive epidermis, but alas Paul and I are more pale than both our girls. Our skin practically spontaneously combusts in the presence of direct sunlight.

Paul had selected a rustic hike that he found on some hiking blog. The trailhead, which we found by using GPS coordinates, was not clearly marked and little more than a tiny opening through a very dense, wooded forest. Once we entered the forests and began our climb upwards along the narrow trail, I was surprised by how incredibly dark it was. The tall pine trees shielded most of the sun, giving our surroundings an eerie twilight feel. On top of this, the forest was so quiet. There was not a sound other than the crunch of the pebbles and pine brush beneath our feet. The further we ventured up our trail, the more creeped out I started to feel. It was not just the darkness, nor the quiet, nor the fact that Paul and I had been pretty silent the entire time. I sincerely felt like we were being watched, stalked, something. I kept looking over my shoulder, back over the trail we had just covered, half expecting to see an animal following close behind. I mentioned my fear to Paul and he laughed at me, saying that we should just keep chatting so as to not surprise a bear should there be one up ahead of us. We continued onward, nervously clapping, chatting, and singing. But, eventually, we both grew quiet and began listening for sounds. At several points, Paul, who was leading the way, stopped dead in his tracks to listen carefully for some "weird noises" that disturbed him.

I continued to feel watchful, piercing eyes upon me, my husband, and baby. It wasn't a bear that I was afraid of. I had the feeling that a cougar was stalking us. I shared my feelings with Paul and he gulped. He was nervous too. Somehow, seeing Paul nervous made things monumentally worse. Paul was always so confident and unafraid, making my fears seem silly and ridiculous. But now that he was sharing a bit of my terror, I suddenly began to panic. I didn't want to head back, we were about halfway to the summit and the forest was finally starting to see light once more as the trees became smaller as we approached the higher altitude. So, we continued onward while silently praying the rosary under our breath.

At this point, Lucy, who had been peacefully sleeping in her front-pack, began to stir. Paul, who was carrying her, began to bounce her while whispering, "Oh no...please stay asleep Lucy! We don't need your cries to attract the animals!"

"What do you mean...attract the animals?!?" I asked with fear.
"Oh sometimes if wild animals hear sounds they are unfamiliar with, like baby cries, it piques their curiosity and could potentially cause them to venture out to see what it is. Baby cries are terrific bear bait."

And from there...we began calling Lucy "little bear bait." Whenever she began to stir, we'd say "quiet down there little bear bait!"

When we broke out of the tree canopy and were out in the full sunlight once more for the final ascent to the summit, our moods improved drastically and we were no longer afraid. We actually relaxed completely and I spent quite a bit of time collecting beautiful pieces of granite, pyrite, and quartz for Matthew's rock collection. We eventually made it to the rock pile at the very top of the mountain and took in the stunning views. Simply beautiful. I took many, many pictures while nervously making sure to hold on extra tight to my camera for fear that it would slip from my fingers and smash on the boulders below.

We spent quite a bit of time enjoying the summit, but then agreed that it was time to head back down. The way down was not nearly as frightening as the way up. We encountered another group of hikers on our way down and it was also not quite as dark as it was when we began our hike. When we returned to the car and drove back into an area with cell reception, I looked up the area we had just hiked to see if it was an area commonly occupied by mountain lions. I was still convinced that something had been watching us. Sometimes you just know! My search revealed that the particular area of our hike was an area known for cougar sightings. In fact, over the past ten years there had been a few cougar attacks right in that same area. Not too many encounters at all, but it was still enough to make the skin on the back of my neck crawl. Obviously, we lived to tell the tale, even while carrying 14-pounds of bear bait.

After our hike, we picked up a few souvenirs for the kids, enjoyed a picnic in a park in downtown Boulder, and enjoyed a sushi dinner. We were pretty burnt out at this point and just wanted to relax. We ended up going to bed super early because we had an early morning flight to catch. Although we were sad for our vacation together to end, we were eager to get back and see our other two kids. It's amazing how you look forward to spending time alone without the children but then experience an intense longing to see them within less than 24 hours of being apart.

I don't think they even noticed we were gone. They were too busy having fun with "Indiana Grandma" and their many, many little aunts and uncles. They even camped out in the backyard one night. My two kids stayed in the tent all night long while one by one all their aunts and uncles went inside to seek the comfort of a mattress. By the end of the night, only Matthew, Emma, and Grandpa remained outside the whole night. Poor Dad was pretty darn tired and sore the next day, but his resilience and determination to chaperone the backyard camp did not go unnoticed by Matthew and Emma who have spoken of the event often!

"Indiana Grandma" and Aunt Susanna with Matthew, Emma, and Lucy.

Uncle Bruce in an earnest moment with his nephew Matthew.

If you are thinking of visiting Denver, I highly recommend it because it is a city that truly has something for everyone: arts, culture, hiking, biking, shopping, and pretty much every restaurant you can think of! However, if you are not used to bigger cities and hail from the modest Midwest like moi, be prepared to spend a lot of time in the car while getting from point A to point B. That was the one thing that really disappointed me because I felt like we spent quite a few hours in the car just driving. As someone who experiences car sickness readily, that was not too pleasant. However, the sights and those beautiful, gorgeous mountains make the trip well worth it!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Our Trip to Denver: Part III

The next day, we planned to spend half our time with James before breaking off to explore Cherry Creek and downtown Denver. James was staying at the same hotel as us, so we told him to meet us for breakfast bright and early at 6:30 am. Lucy and I were ready to go, but Paul was very exhausted from the day before and just kept sleeping. I finally shook him awake and told him that we were going to be late for breakfast if he did not get moving. That got him into the shower, but then he spent close to 30 minutes just percolating in the warm water. We were very late. Poor James had been ready to go on time. Paul had decently texted him that we were running late about 5 minutes after we should have been there (how magnanimous of him!), and blamed our tardiness on me. Wasn't that nice of him?

After finishing breakfast, we headed out to see Red Rocks Amphitheater - an impressive rock structure that serves as a natural outdoor venue for many concerts and shows. We took a little hike around the formations and up the side of the hill. I enjoyed this a lot - it was so neat! Along our hike, we were spooked by a giant spider that very much resembled a Hobo Spider. Paul did not want to continue on the path any further after seeing that, but after much coaxing and promises of red meat for dinner, he overcame his fears and soldiered on.

I took lots of pictures. Lucy took a very long nap.

People come to workout up and down the many, many steps of the amphitheater.
You can't tell from the pictures, but there were a lot of fitness enthusiasts there this particular morning!!

Oh and look! We found John Denver.

After Red Rocks, we drove over to the Coors factory for a tour. I'm not a huge fan of Coors, but their tours are free and family-friendly so we figured that we'd give it a shot. I'm so glad we did, because it turned out to be really fun and informative. I discovered that Coors actually owns the only beer I like - Blue Moon - as well as Redd's Hard Cider. The tour was self guided with these hand-held radio devices, so you could move at your own pace throughout the factory. Lucy preferred that I move at a lightening fast rate through the factory and I spent a good 15 minutes feeding her in the powder room - my fancy description of a really dirty hall bathroom with a 1950s era couch set inside for nursing mothers. The best part of the tour was at the conclusion where they lead you into a pub where you could have up to three drinks of your choice on tap in cold glasses. These were not sample servings - they were full 12 ounce glasses of beer! We basically got a glass of everything and concluded, no surprise, that blue moon is the tastiest. They also had soft drinks on tap for the kids or the occasional 20-something-year-old female who is not all that fond of beer.

After the Coors tour, we said good-bye to James and then headed for a walking tour of the shops, landmarks, and architecture of downtown Denver. Unfortunately, the clouds began to open just as we arrived and a downpour ensued. We persevered, since we had already paid for the parking, and walked through the rain, trying to keep as close to the buildings as possible to benefit from the protection of the overhangs. We enjoyed walking hand-in-hand, a rare treat nowadays with all three kiddos, through the many, many different specialty shops. We stopped in our tracks from excitement when we stumbled upon a Peet's Coffee shop - our favorite coffee is their Major Dickason blend, we shared a latte and a yogurt parfait inside while watching the rain and chatting. Sometimes, quiet moments together are the best.

On our way back to retrieve our parked car, we were accosted by many, many individuals soliciting funds for various charitable organizations, requesting our signatures for certain government petitions, or proclaiming the ways to our salvation. For the most part, we averted our eyes and just kept walking quickly when approached. However, we did stop to chat to one younger guy who was collecting money for a campaign to feed America's hungry children. He was a pleasant hippy who was not too pushy with his initiative. He kept asking us questions about ourselves and we ended up turning some of his own inquiries around on him. Then, we somehow started sharing our viewpoints on marriage, family, and Catholicism and we definitely got his attention - blew him away with our large family background and our openness to life. We actually talked to him for nearly an hour before we had to keep moving to make our dinner reservation. Little encounters like that, where you get to meet and hear someone's life journey and share a portion of your own story in return, can be so rewarding and uplifting. Wherever our friend may be, we wish him well - he had such a good heart!

Next, we headed over to Cherry Creek to enjoy our "fancy" dinner of the trip at Elway's. One of the most famous and revered restaurants in Denver, Elway's is the flagstaff restaurant of former Bronco's quarterback John Elway. From everything I had read, the restaurant is revered not just because of it's association with Denver's second favorite athlete (next to Peyton Manning - but I'm biased) but also because the food is supposed to be delicious, high-end, masterfully prepared cuisine. I actually watched the Executive Chef of Elway's compete on Top Chef Master's and he knew what he was doing. He didn't make it all that far, but I liked the flavor combinations he came up with. In other words, I was really looking forward to eating there. Paul was looking forward to eating the steak, their main specialty.

Well, after having eaten there, I can conclude that we were really disappointed. We were kind of ignored by our waitress after we declined to order alcohol. We chose to split an entree and just order several sides since I'm not a huge red meat person and their various vegetable preparations intrigued me the most. And also because the meals were about 80 bucks a pop. Who can afford that? So, Paul chose the NY strip and we added on a beet salad, some creamed spinach, a brussels sprouts hash, and potato hash browns with mustard aioli. When our meal arrived, we were blown away by the deliciousness of the sides. With the exception of the creamed spinach, which could have used a bit more seasoning, everything was artfully prepared and beautifully presented.

However, the steak, the crown jewel of the restaurant's menu, was an abysmal failure. Ordered medium rare, the steak appeared to be overdone, dry, and texturally reminiscent of a steak that had spent some time in the freezer. In addition to that, the cut had the appearance of a filet mignon, and judging by the lack of fat content, we were fairly confident that that is exactly what we were served. Plus, the waiter had actually said, "And here is your filet..." when he placed the plate on the table. When the manager stopped by to ask how our meals were tasting, we told him our honest thoughts. He claimed that our complaints stemmed from a lack of knowledge of food preparation. That really made both of us mad because food is...well...sort of a hobby for us.  We told him flat-out that we were not looking for a freebie by any means, but legitimately wanted to bring the issue up so the restaurant could simply be aware of it in order to improve for future guests. Maybe it was because we were a lot younger than their average clientele, or because we were splitting an entree and therefore paying a lot less for our meal than every other couple that night, or maybe it was because I was waving a toy above Lucy's head in an attempt to keep her happy while we discussed the situation, who knows...but both Paul and I felt disrespected by the staff as a whole. In the end, the manager brought us a boxed up dessert on the way out, which was very kind of him but truly unnecessary. In case you were wondering, the dessert was a Key lime Pie with a raspberry coulis and it was delicious.

After dinner, we went in search of a park where we could eat our compensatory dessert and enjoy the beautiful evening. This turned into us driving all over the southern portion of Denver - through Aurora, Englewood, Littleton, and Lakewood. We did stop at a little park in Centennial where we ate our dessert in the grass while the baby slept. We were pretty exhausted at this point and I'm pretty sure Paul almost fell asleep while sitting in the grass. So, we packed everything up, finished our loop driving through the aforementioned areas of Denver, and went back to the hotel to rest-up for our very last day of vacation.