Saturday, December 26, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you! May the peace, love, and joy of the Christ child, the greatest of all gifts, be with you and your family in the New Year. Enjoy these days of celebration together - we certainly are!

I snapped photos of each member of the family as I prepared them for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I knew we were never going to get a group photo that night once everyone was ready since it was so late and everyone was tired.

First, I snapped photos of Lucy after dressing her around 9:30 pm. She really didn't want to smile since she was so tired. She was fast asleep about 10 minute later and didn't wake up until around 3:00 AM. 

Matthew was next after he was dressed and ready by 10:45 pm. I had to tell him a joke to get him to smile sweetly.

Followed by Emma around 11:15 pm...

Paul and I took a quick selfie in the wee hours of the morning, completely exhausted but happy and excited! Merry Christmas!!

And just one more of my littlest angel because she is just so cute and chubby! She was trying to figure out how to eat the Christmas tree ornaments. I love this age!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

We're Ready for Christmas!

Matthew is officially on Christmas vacation as of yesterday afternoon. He came home with a backpack filled with all the pictures, activities, and exercises he had completed over the past month. One of the activities was a little booklet titled "Rudolph! Rudolph!" It was basically a cute little rhyming book about Rudolph and his famous nose. Each stanza was composed of a simple rhyme with a the name of a color as the last word in each rhyme. The children were meant to read the verse and then, based on the rhyme fill in the blank with what color should be written in the blank to complete the poem! Matthew, my brilliant son, did not quite understand this exercise. He started out strong, but sort of "lost his way" towards the end. Here's what he had:

Rudolph! Rudolph! Santa has his sack,
But you're not ready if your nose is black.

Rudolph! Rudolph! Your way can't be seen,
through the winter weather if your nose is green.

Rudolph! Rudolph! It's time to fly at night,
But you'll be quite a sight if your nose is white.

Rudolph! Rudolph! It's time to go to town,
But Santa's wearing a frown because your nose is white. (NO Matthew!!)

Rudolph! Rudolph! Santa gave a wink.
But what will Santa think if your nose is pink. (A fine recovery!)

Rudolph! Rudolph! The children are in bed.
And, now I KNOW you're ready because your nose is...


(Gah! Matthew!!)

We have our tree, the house is decorated, Paul and Matthew are currently working on gingerbread and sugar cookies, and the menu is all planned for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Getting the tree this year was a bit of a fiasco. Not the actually procuring of the tree itself - that was a breeze. Rather, it was decorating the darn thing once we had it situated in the house. First, we brought the tree home and the kids were so excited that they just wanted to start throwing ornaments on. We had to explain to them that first Paul had to find the lights and then string those on before anything else happened. Well, we discovered that our lights from the previous year were out of commission. Not only that, but we had picked out a bush of a tree that required quite a bit of extra illumination. So, we went off to Sam's club and bought two large packages of lights. Paul spent a lot of time and effort twirling those lights on the tree, one package of lights covering the bottom while the other wrapped around the top. When it came time for the big reveal, we had a bit of a Griswold family moment when they wouldn't light. After fixing that initial problem - flipping a switch - we stood back and immediately noticed that the lights were two different colors. The bottom half of the tree was covered in "soft white" lights while the top half were covered in "icicle white" lights. They looked completely different - more of a yellow versus blue hue. Paul looked at the packages and swore under his breath at the fact that we had unknowingly selected two different colors of lights. He then spent a bit of time taking the lights off the tree, repackaging them, and taking the "icicle white" lights back to the store to exchange them for a package of "soft white" lights to match our other set. 

Paul drove to the store, stood in line for close to an hour before completely confusing the poor customer service representative who feebly attempted to help, before finally returning home. After putting the lights back on the tree and then plugging everything in, it turns out that the new package Paul had brought home was mislabeled and we once again had a string of "icicle white" lights and "soft white" lights on the tree. Paul about had a conniption. 

We decided it was not worth the effort to return the lights again, so we just left it. Of course, by this time it was late at night and our disappointed children had to go to bed without decorating the tree. We finally slowly decorated it over the course of the next two days. A little anti-climatic, but it got done and the tree looks beautiful, mismatched lights and all.

And now here we are, the day before Christmas Eve and we're ready for the birth of Our Lord. The kids could not be more excited. Emma is especially really eating up the magic of Christmas. She is so excited. Tonight, we will finish our baking and then spend the evening driving around gazing at the twinkling Christmas lights while enjoying this balmy 63 degree weather. I've been loving this warm winter weather. Last night, we took a walk at 8pm to look at the decorations in our neighborhood and we all had such a good time because it was an extremely comfortable temperature! I'm enjoying it while it lasts because I'm sure by this time next month, we will be covered in white. But for now, have a very merry green Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bourbon Balls

I have not made Christmas cookies with my Mom since 2007. This year, I was blessed to have my Mom and my sister Adrienne come out for a visit the week before Christmas to do some baking. Good thing too, because I was in desperate need of cookies and baked goods for gifts and desperately needed an extra pair of hands to help with both the making, scooping, and baking of the cookies as well as with child management. It was a quick, fast-paced 48 hours but we churned out a lot of cookies.

One of my favorite things that we made was bourbon balls. We figured we would "ease into" the baking of cookies by making a "no-bake" treat. Bourbon balls are little truffle-sized balls of bourbon and chocolate that give just a hint of a burn as you eat them. Delicious. The first batch of bourbon balls I made with my Mom was very close to the Joy of Cooking version and it was very, very boozy. I liked them, but decided to make another batch to tone down on the alcohol and up the chocolate factor since I planned on giving them away as gifts. I was a little afraid to gift such boozy cookies to Matthew's teachers in case they happened to be Teetotalers. 

So, I made a second batch that had much more sugar, less bourbon, and more chocolate. They turned out pretty darn good. In fact, Paul and I are both obsessed with these. We have to be careful to keep these away from Matthew and Emma because they still have a hefty dose of bourbon in them. Emma tried her hardest to eat one but alas, she is a bit vertically challenged and unable to reach the top shelf of our refrigerator. 

These look so cute and would be very pretty on a Christmas cookie platter. I was good and did not keep them all for myself and gave away about 80% of them. I'm already regretting it. Thankfully, these are embarrassingly easy to make which means there is plenty of time to make another batch in time for Christmas Eve.

Bourbon Balls
from Williams-Sonoma

1 box vanilla wafers, broken into pieces
6 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup bourbon
Pinch of salt
2 cups pecans, lightly toasted and finely chopped

Working in batches, finely crush the vanilla wafers in a food processor, or place them in a heavy-duty plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin.

In the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, melt the chocolate. Remove from the heat. Add the brown sugar, corn syrup, bourbon and salt and stir to blend. Stir in the crushed vanilla wafers and half of the pecans.

Spread the remaining pecans on a plate. Using your hands, shape the dough into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in the nuts to coat evenly. Arrange the balls in layers, separated by waxed paper, in a tightly covered container. Refrigerate for 24 hours before serving to blend the flavors. Makes about 4 1/2 dozen cookies.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Walnut Twist (aka Wreath)

I am excited to introduce my family's favorite treat in the entire world. Walnut Twist or "Wreath" as we have always called it because it is shaped like a Christmas wreath - at least that's what we've always thought - has been a holiday staple for as long as I can remember. I think I was once told that my Dad got the recipe from a lady at work and asked Mom to make it. Well, she did and we ate it, liked it, and have been enjoying it every Christmas for the past 20+ years. It would simply not be Christmas if this treat did not grace the breakfast table at some point.

Wreath is essentially a sweet, cinnamon-roll style dough filled with a buttery, brown sugar and walnut streuesel. The filling is rolled up in the dough just like you would prepare a cinnamon roll, only it is then cut in half lengthwise, twisted together and formed into a braided circle. Or a wreath. We have a title! Then, the wreath is baked to perfection and slathered with a rich, brown butter frosting before being served warm. I cannot describe all the warm memories and happy feelings eating a slice of this evokes for me. A single bite always transports me back to celebrating Christmas morning with my family - sitting around our large table, everyone talking as loud as they can in order to be heard above everyone else while toasting one another with our little mugs of egg nog. We would gobble down our generous slices of wreath and then gaze longingly at the remaining couple slices, ready to gobble them down even though we were already stuffed to the gills. Those of us who did manage to score a coveted second serving of wreath felt like we'd won the lottery. Gosh, I miss those days.

When I got married and moved away and suddenly found myself preparing Christmas festivities for my growing little family, I was so nervous to make wreath all by myself. I had always made it with my Mom or at least had her supervision. The first year I made it, I chatted with my Mom the entire time while she simultaneously made her wreath 300 miles away just to ensure that I was doing the recipe justice. Thankfully, it turned out beautifully then just as it has in the years since. Thank you, Mom for always lovingly making this and so many treats for our family over the years. This is my most treasured recipe and I have a feeling it always will be.

Walnut Twist (aka Wreath)
from a recipe lovingly prepared for years by my Mom

For the dough:
2 1/4 teaspoons yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup warm milk
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

For the Filling:
1/3 cup butter, softened
1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

For the Browned Butter Icing:
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
5-6 teaspoons half/half
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
A pinch of salt

To make the dough, bloom the yeast in the warm water for about five minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk the milk into the yeast mixture. Attach the dough hook onto the mixer and, with the mixer running on medium-low speed, add the yeast mixture, the butter, the eggs, and the vanilla. Knead until the dough is soft, slightly tacky and not at all sticky, about 10 minutes. If the dough is sticking to the bottom of the bowl, add a little flour (about a tablespoon at a time) until it no longer sticks. Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, turn to coat, and then cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled - about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the filling by creaming together the sugar and flour with a mixer. Beat in the flour, cinnamon, and vanilla until smooth. Stir in the nuts. Cover and chill until the dough is ready.

Punch down the dough and roll out into a 30 x 10 inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface. Crumble the filling evenly over the dough. Starting from the long side, roll up the dough tightly like you would for cinnamon rolls. With a sharp knife, cut the roll in half lengthwise. Carefully turn the halves so that the cut sides are facing upward. Loosely twist the halves together, keeping the cut sides up so the filling can be seen. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until doubled - about 1 hour more. At this point, the dough can also be refrigerated overnight for baking in the morning. Simply let the dough sit out for an hour or two to come to room temperature before proceeding with baking.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. When the dough has risen, bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, covering lightly with foil as needed to prevent excessive browning (I almost always have to do this!). Carefully remove to a wire rack.

During the last couple minutes of baking, make the brown butter icing. Lightly brown the butter in a small heavy skillet over medium heat, being very careful not to burn. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar. Whisk in the half/half, vanilla, and salt until the mixture is smooth. Drizzle the icing over the still-warm bread.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Lucy's First Feast Day

The Feast of Saint Lucia is traditionally held on Sunday, December 13th. My family always observed this day by eating a candlelit breakfast in bed that was served by one of the girls of the house - usually Adrienne although I remember Catherine and Sophie taking turns with it. For some reason, I really don't remember ever playing the role of Saint Lucy although I did participate in the baking of the breakfast treat once I hit high school. Paul and I have continued celebrating this feast day with our own family. However, this year we have an even greater reason to celebrate since it's also the feast day of our own chunky, lovable, sweet little Lucy!

It was one year ago this week that we first found out via ultrasound that we were going to be having a baby girl. We had already picked out our baby names - Wyatt for a boy and Lucy for a girl - and only needed to know which one to start using in reference to our growing baby. I was thrilled to find out we were having another little girl, not because I would not have been overjoyed at the idea of another boy, but rather because I had always, from the moment I discovered I was pregnant, thought the baby was a girl. In my mind, she was already our Lucy. After the ultrasound confirmed our suspicions, we happily named her and the older two began praying for "baby Lucy" during nighttime prayers. I think our parents were also secretly thankful that we were not having a baby named Wyatt. Be's still on the queue for future babies!

Lucy's feast day fell on a Sunday this year, so we went to early Mass and then came back to eat a special breakfast. I had prepped the Walnut Twist (aka "Wreath"), a marvelous braided sweet bread that my Mom always makes for special breakfasts, the night before and left it to rise on the counter while we were at Mass. Once we arrived home, I slid it into the oven where it baked away while Paul prepared a sausage and egg scramble. When the bread was finished, I drizzled the brown butter glaze over the top and then everyone was called to the table to feast. Paul and I choked down mugs full of very strong coffee made by Matthew - it's his job to make the coffee in the morning and he got distracted while prepping it this time and put in close to 10 scoops of coffee instead of the required six - while the kids enjoyed steaming cups of hot cocoa and marshmallows.

Our little lady of the hour enjoyed breakfast very much because she got to sit on mommy's lap the entire time. She was wild about the Walnut Twist. I kept feeding her bits of it and she could not get enough - especially the brown butter frosting. I can't blame her. It's pretty much the greatest treat ever. There is a reason my family makes it for Christmas breakfast, Easter breakfast, etc. I'm planning on posting the recipe later this week. This treat deserves a post of its own! It's that good.

Happy Feast Day, Lucy! We hope that you will follow in the example of your namesake and always love God, follow His will, and one day be a saint in heaven. We love you - you bring us such indescribable joy!

A selfie with your sister Emma who is your biggest fan!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Two Ways to Babka: Chocolate and Cinnamon

Babka has become a traditional family treat that we look forward to around Christmastime. It is a sweet brioche-style bread filled with a rich cinnamon or chocolate filling that is great for breakfast or tea. In the past, I have only made a chocolate variation but wanted to try the cinnamon filling this year. Because Paul got so worked up at the thought that I might just nix making the chocolate version altogether, I made both!

This babka is an extremely easy bread to make especially if you are a novice. One of my good friends wanted to try baking bread for the first time - she had never before worked with yeast and the thought terrified her - and I walked her through this recipe and she was just thrilled with the results! "I can't believe I just made this! It was so easy!" she exclaimed.  And it really is! Just a few easy steps of prep work are required and then the rest of your time is spent just waiting for the bread to rise. Obviously, this is not a project to start late at night - believe me, I've done my fair share of late night bread baking and setting the alarm to check on your dough between rise times is so not fun and really does take away from the joy of bread making. However, other than patience, not much skill is required to make one of the best sweet breads you will ever eat! The only cautionary words I want to offer is to be careful not to bake the bread too long or too little, Utilizing a digital instant-read thermometer will definitely assist with this.

And you shall be rewarded for all your time and effort with this...

Our family gobbled down two gigantic loaves of babka in a matter of days. The kids were obsessed with the bread - Emma was particularly fond of the chocolate "baba" while Matthew found the cinnamon filling a little more to his liking. Maybe it's a girl thing, but my preference lies with Emma's choice - the chocolate babka will always have my heart. It's just so good. Not to say that the cinnamon version is not good - it is really fantastic as well - basically a gigantic cinnamon roll in loaf form. It's just that if I had to choose between the two, I'm almost always going to choose chocolate.

I'm baking more babka this week for teacher gifts. When Paul heard this plan, he commented: "What could be better than babka?"

Cinnamon Babka (with Chocolate Variation)
from Cook's Country

Note: At the end of the recipe, I have posted instructions on making a chocolate babka. Simply switch out the cinnamon filling in this recipe for the chocolate variation I specify below.

For the Cinnamon Filling:
1 cup light brown sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 egg white

For the brioche dough:
½ cup whole milk, heated to 110 degrees F
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons instant or rapid-rise yeast
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces and softened

For the Egg Wash:
1 egg, lightly beaten

To make the filling, combine all of the filling ingredients in a medium bowl. Set aside 1 tablespoon of the filling.

To make the dough, grease a large bowl and set aside. In a 1-cup measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg yolks and vanilla extract.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix the flour, sugar, yeast and salt on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Slowly pour in the milk mixture and mix until the dough comes together, about 3 minutes. Increase the speed to medium-low and add the butter, one piece at a time, until they have all been incorporated, about 1 minute. Continue to mix until the dough is smooth and comes away from the sides of the bowl, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the dough to the prepared bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature until risen slightly, about 1 hour.

Place the bowl in the refrigerator until the dough is firm and has doubled in size, at least 1 hour.

To assemble the Babka, line an 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan with parchment paper, allowing the excess to hang over the edges.

Punch down the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll out the dough to a 20 by 14-inch rectangle. Spread all but the 1 tablespoon reserved filling over the dough, leaving a ½-inch border around the edges. Working from the short side, roll the dough into a cylinder and pinch along the seam to seal.

Position the cylinder seam side up and roll back and forth until stretched to 18 inches long. Spread the reserved filling over the top of the cylinder. Fold the cylinder on top of itself and pinch the ends to seal.

Gently twist the double cylinder twice to form a double figure eight. Place the shaped dough seam side down in the prepared pan, cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.

To bake the Babka, while the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly beat the whole egg and brush the top of the loaf. Bake until the loaf is deep golden brown and the inside of the loaf registers 190 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 45 minutes. Allow the bread to cool in the pan for 20 minutes, then remove the loaf from the pan and cool completely, about 2 hours. The bread can be kept at room temperature, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, for up to 3 days.

Chocolate Babka

For the Chocolate Filling:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 egg white

Combine all ingredients for the filling, setting aside 1 tablespoon. Use the same dough as detailed above, but use the chocolate filling in place of the cinnamon. All other steps and directions are the exact same! Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Thanksgiving in Montana

It has been a crazy busy couple of weeks! We spent an entire week out in Montana visiting my husband's side of the family and then came home with a few coughs and runny noses. On top of all that, the Christmas season is now upon us and the flurry of activity and preparations for the coming of Our Lord has been both fun and exhausting. Currently, I'm taking a break as my cinnamon babka rises (recipe to come soon!) to share some images from our time in Montana.

Now, this was the first time since 2007 that Paul and all eight of his siblings have been together in one place at one time. Matthew was excited to be reunited with his cousins Benedict and Steven and Emma was thrilled to meet her little cousins Evelyn and Elena. We had a great time catching up, playing games, and enjoying this special time together. Paul came home with a new card game to play - pinochle! - and Matthew came home with a 500 piece parrot puzzle that is currently taking over the dining room table since it is still in the progress of being built. But perhaps I should let the pictures tell the story. Beware, there are many.

Emma simply adored her cousin Steven. And he adored baby Lucy. This sweet, gentle, fun-loving little nephew of mine holds a special place in my heart.

Matthew adored having another buddy around who shares many of his same interests: puzzles, wrestling, LEGOS, and just being silly.

Lucy loved her Aunt Ali! In fact, Lucy gobbled up all the attention she received. She is a very social baby and feels secure as long as there is someone holding her or playing with her. She was spoiled rotten by the many, many pairs of hands that held her during our visit. This was great during our time away, but was horrible when we came home with a spoiled baby!

Lots of attention from Grandpa. He was quite smitten with his youngest grandbaby. I told you she was spoiled!

John Paul is a board game lover. Here he is playing a game with the boys. Matthew really loved this!

One of the nights, Ali came over and prepared a big Italian dinner for everyone. She made two kinds of gnocchi, a cheese sauce, and meatballs. Everything was fantastic!

Happy Lucy getting even more attention from her Aunt Amy!

One afternoon, Uncle Peter decided to make grilled cheese and tomato-basil soup for everyone. He then proceeded to instruct the kids to dip their sandwiches in the tomato soup. All three of them made faces at first, but after trying it they were converts! Emma was especially fond of this meal and has requested it at home several times since we've been back.

The weather switched from being nice and semi-warm to freezing cold and snowing. We took advantage of one of the nice afternoons to get outside with the kids. Emma loved being pushed by Grandma on the swing.

Lucy loved the swing too. I have no idea when she lost her sock! Matthew was having fun pushing Lucy on the swing - don't be fooled by his look of confusion!

Emma and Steven began dancing to music in the kitchen. It was the cutest thing. Unfortunately, I had a hard time capturing a really good picture of it, but Stevie was being such a sweet little gentleman and Emma was totally eating up the royal treatment she was getting from him. "Please you twirl me, Steven?" she kept asking him. She eventually exhausted him and he retreated to work on a puzzle. Emma's just giving you practice for later, Stevie. Women are demanding!

Rasputin Tevye Hagrid Andrew arrived home from seminary! All three of the kids were obsessed with Uncle Andrew immediately. Emma and Lucy were especially fascinated with the wild animal that has taken up residence on his face.

Playing away with Aunt Mary Rose! Mary Rose painted Emma's toenails with a glitter polish and Emma mourned the day all the polish washed off. This of course meant I had to go to the store and buy her some glitter nail polish and we have been painting our nails almost daily for about a week now. Thanks, MRTN! 

Uncle Steven came home from college! He also became a quick favorite with Matthew. Matthew loved that all his uncles took time to take him outside in the bitter cold and snow. His mother certainly was not willing to do it and the little guy loved it!

The littlest cousins. This is little Elena. She and Lucy are only two months apart. Lucy is a bit fatter.

All the little girl cousins playing together: Elena, Lucy, Emma, and Evelyn. So many "E" names to keep track of!

The whole family in one picture!

Another take of the family picture - I like this one because Emma is trying to pull out poor Andrew's beard. Just her subtle way of telling him to get rid of it!

Emma's dream came true when she was able to help "feed" her cousin Evelyn. Thankfully, Evelyn was actually welcoming of being fed by Emma and both girls managed to eat most of their dinners. Emma enjoys being patronizing and since she has not been able to help with feeding baby Lucy, she was all about practicing on Evelyn.

Here we are all gathered together to celebrate Grandpa's 60th birthday! It was a fun night of tacos, games, and prizes. We all had such a blast!

This is a really blurry picture that I found on my camera but it totally made me crack up! What is Uncle Andrew doing to my poor child?!

All the siblings together in one place for the first time since 2007. It's crazy how much everyone has grown up all of a sudden! I remember when most of these kids were babies and now everyone is practically an adult. Such a good looking bunch. Especially you Paul - shiny head and all! 


I love this picture from Thanksgiving morning. Look at James holding both Elena and Emma - and look at Emma snuggling her baby cousin. So cute!

Happy Thanksgiving! We hope your time with family, friends, and relatives was just as joyous and fun as ours!