Thursday, January 28, 2016

Matthew Turns Six

I can't believe that my chubby, cuddly, fussy little baby boy is now a tall, gangling, inquisitive six-year-old! He has grown up so much over the past year - going to school full time, learning to read, getting his first girlfriend - and now he is talking about how he is practically an adult. When he greeted me the morning of his birthday, he announced: "Now I'm six! And then I'll keep getting bigger and then be the same as YOU, right Mom?"

Please, Matthew, slow down! Don't be in such a hurry to grow up!

This year, his birthday fell on a school day. But when you're in Kindergarten, that is NOT a bad thing. Matthew was so excited because he got to be the "line leader" all day at school. Plus, his teacher presented him with a birthday crown with his name on it that he wore all day long at school so everyone in the school could wish him "Happy Birthday". His entire class sang to him, the principal presented him with a birthday certificate, and he got to bring in cupcakes to share with his class. He had a great day at school.

After school, we went out for an early dinner as a family. Traditionally, Matthew has requested pizza on his birthday. However, this year he decided to change things up a bit and asked if we could go to the "cowboy restaurant" -  known more commonly as "Texas Roadhouse." We went to the restaurant early to avoid crowds and when we walked in we realized that Tuesdays are apparently "kids night" at the Roadhouse. This basically means that all kid dinners are two bucks and there is a balloon artist who will come to your table and make a balloon for the kids. At first when I heard this, I was dreading the fiasco balloons often cause but the birthday boy was super excited about it, so I decided to bury my ill feelings and just go with the flow.

For his birthday dinner, the birthday boy ordered....wait for it....a hot dog. Yes, we went to a steakhouse so Matthew could order a hot dog. We tried to talk him out of it, but it was truly what he wanted to eat. And eat it he did while declaring it "the most delicious hot dog ever."

When the balloon artist came to our table, he really impressed me with how wonderful he was to the kids. He was funny, he was entertaining, he did tricks, he told jokes, and the balloons he made for the kiddos were much more fancy and elaborate than any I have ever seen! Matthew laughed so hard at his jokes and the guy just ate it up.

Here is an example of the banter:

Balloon Guy: "How old are you today, Matthew?"
Matthew: "I'm six!"
"You're sick?"
"No, I'm SIX!"
"What?!? You're sick!? Is it contagious?! Good thing I got my flu shot!"
"I'm six! You know, like the number six?"
"You don't look all that sick!"

And Matthew just laughed and laughed the entire time. It was really funny He spent a good 20 minutes at our table entertaining the kids - and us too! It was really great to see the kids having such a good time. He made Emma a "princess wand" and a giant octopus for Matthew. It really made our night!

When we returned home, there were presents for our birthday boy. He received a small LEGO set, the game Trouble, a puzzle from his grandparents, two Life at the Pond CDs (he loves that radio program), and a BIG trampoline for our backyard. He loved all his gifts, but was especially pumped about the trampoline! Unfortunatey, we do have to wait a couple more months for the snow to melt before we set it up, but Matthew was so icredibly excited about having a giant trampoline to bounce on all day long. Emma was also excited. They spent a couple minute jumping around the house expressing their joy before we told them to calm down and come into the kitchen for their sugar injection...I mean, the birthday cake.

This year, Matthew was less than helpful in selecting a cake for his birthday. So, I decided to make things a bit easier on myself and make him an ice cream cake. I know how much he loves ice cream and figured that I could not lose. The first layer was a coffee and dark chocolate ice cream, followed by a layer of fudge and crushed OREO cookies, and then a layer of caramel ice cream. I then decorated the entire cake with a whipped cream frosting and some sprinkles. Very simple, but pretty. The birthday boy was pleased. We all sang to him while he smiled with glee. You see, this is the part about birthdays that he looks forward to the most. He blew out all the candles, and just like that...he is six.

I feel as if Matthew has been a part of our lives forever while, at the same time, only yesterday being that tiny newborn we lovingly strapped into an infant car seat for the first time and then loaded into the back seat of our Camry for the short ride home from the hospital. Now look at him! I can't stop him from growing up, but I will continue to relish the cuddles, the hugs, and the kisses that he is still so happy to shower upon his mother. I am excited for the young man he is becoming and know that God has something wonderful planned for his future.

We love you, dear Matthew, and are so proud of you. Happy Birthday!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Dark Chocolate Almond Roca

Please excuse my absence from blogging over the last few days. This is birthday week in my house and we have been pretty busy celebrating. Matthew and Paul have back-to-back birthdays and I try my hardest to ensure that their celebrations are distinct. I think both of them had pretty good days and I'm happy to take a rest from making, decorating, and eating birthday cake until Emma celebrates her birthday in a couple months.

Matthew drew a picture of Yoda for Paul - in case you were wondering that picture was!

Paul's birthday was first and he, as usual, was not too forthcoming about how exactly he would like to be celebrated on his special day. After much prodding, he chose Pork Tinga for dinner and his favorite Whiskey Pear Tart with vanilla ice cream for dessert. He made me swear not to buy him any gifts and I stuck to that with the exception of a bottle of Cointreau so he could mix up some margaritas, his favorite mixed drink by far, to go with his dinner. However, I did make plans to send him and Matthew to a local ski hill for a day of tubing. I was a little nervous that this plan would fall through since all the snow had disappeared during the week, but thankfully Mother Nature cooperated and dumped 14 inches of snow on us the night before Paul's birthday. In fact, the amount of snow made the roads a bit treacherous and Paul actually had a bit of trouble driving to the place. Thankfully, he and Matthew made it there all in one piece and they had a blast tubing. In fact, Matthew did not want to leave! However, Paul convinced him to leave the hill by promising hot chocolate and cheese fries in the ski lodge. Matthew will do anything for a cup of cocoa.

Paul was a little bummed about turning 30, but we tried our best to get him to stop focusing on the number and instead celebrate how much he has accomplished so far in his young life. We are so grateful for him - for all that he is and everything he does. He is an amazing husband, an incredible father, a brilliant engineer, and a loyal friend. I couldn't have asked for a better person to be my soul mate. I am one lucky girl.

And I'm just glad that he got to turn 30 first. My day is coming in about 3 1/2 months. But for now, I'm a gal in her 20s married to a man in his 30s. I used to tease Paul this same way when he turned 20 before me. I used to say: "How does it feel to still be dating a teenager?" He didn't find it very amusing then, and he still isn't finding it amusing now. But in all seriousness, Paul is only getting better with age and I will love him forever!


The recipe I'm sharing with you today is in honor of Paul. One of his favorite treats in the world is Almond Roca. His godmother used to make it for him every Christmas. I still remember how she would send him a gigantic tin full of it to his dorm room in college and he would be so excited to receive it! Over the next few months, he would slowly work his way through the stash of almond roca, always willing to share but only in very small amounts. When his supply eventually depleted, it was a sad day for Paul.

Before this Christmas, I actually had never attempted to make Almond Roca even though it is a pretty simple recipe. Shame on me, considering how much Paul loves it. I remedied that this Christmas by making a gigantic batch of it, packaging it into cute little packages, and then stuffing his stocking full with them. He was certainly surprised on Christmas morning to discover his stocking overflowing with a couple pounds of his favorite candy! He should be able to make that stash last quite a while.

I'm telling you, Paul loves this stuff for a reason. It is fantastic. Sweet, salty, buttery, crunchy, chocolaty. It's pretty perfect. I could not stop sneaking pieces of it while I was packaging it up for him. It's so addicting!! I also love how ridiculously easy it is to make. I timed myself while making this recipe and it was done and cooling within 15 minutes. You really can't beat that. I think this recipe will definitely be on my regular Christmas baking schedule from now on. After all, it's a sure-fire way to make my Paul super happy!

Dark Chocolate Almond Roca
from King Arthur Flour

1 cup (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 cups chopped almonds, toasted (I used salted and roasted almonds and I loved the extra salt!)
2 2/3 cups semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

In a large, deep saucepan, melt the butter. Stir in the salt, sugar, water, and corn syrup, and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil gently over medium heat, without stirring, until the mixture reaches hard-crack stage (300°F on an instant-read or candy thermometer). The syrup will bubble without seeming to change much for awhile, but be patient; all of a sudden it will darken, and at that point you need to take its temperature and see if it's ready. (If you don't have a thermometer, test a dollop in ice water; it should immediately harden to a brittleness sufficient that you'll be able to snap it in two, without any bending or softness). This whole process should take about 10 to 12 minutes. Pay attention; too long on the heat, and the syrup will burn.

While the sugar mixture is gently bubbling, spread half of the nuts, in a fairly closely packed, even single layer, on a lightly greased baking sheet (a half sheet pan works well here). Top with half the chocolate.

When the syrup is ready, pour it quickly and evenly over the nuts and chocolate. Immediately top with the remaining chocolate, then the remaining nuts.

Wait several minutes, then gently, using the back of a spatula, press down on the chocolate-nut layer to spread the chocolate around evenly.

While the candy is still slightly warm, use a spatula to loosen it from the baking sheet. When cool, break it into uneven chunks.

Store cooled candy tightly wrapped; it'll stay fresh for a couple of weeks at room temperature. Freeze for longer storage.

Yield: about 24 big bite-sized pieces.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Matthew and the Epiphany

Matthew was really fascinated by the Three Kings over Christmas. He was sorely disappointed that our family manger scene was missing them. I explained to him that we would collect them someday, but he couldn't wait that long and substituted some dinosaur figures of his own for the Wise Men. When we went to Midnight Mass for Christmas, he was very excited to see the baby Jesus, but was ecstatic to find all three Wise Men were clearly in view, camels and all.

Matthew was back in school before the feast of the Epiphany and his teacher discussed it in great depth with her students. I was particularly proud of Matthew when I was told that his teacher was trying to remember the names of all Three Wise Men and clearly named "Balthazar" and "Gaspar" but was completely blanking on the third. My cheeky son raised his hand and said: "It's Melchior!" She was impressed.

On the way home from school on the Feast of the Epiphany, Matthew told me that Father David had come to their classroom to do a "classroom blessing" where he wrote the names of The Three Wise Men in chalk above their door. This "house blessing" is traditional done on the feast of the Epiphany to ask God's grace on the home and all who abide and visit it. Since the classroom is Matthew's home away from home, he was particularly excited and couldn't wait to tell me about it. Well, would you guess his surprise when I informed him that we had had the same blessing done to our house nearly three years ago and the chalked initials of the Three Wise Men is still clearly visible above our front door? As soon as he got home, he ran right over to the door and started squealing with excitement when he saw the letters!

It's so awesome to see him so excited to learn!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The World's Best Coffee Cake!

If asked to name my favorite breakfast sweet, I would normally automatically say cinnamon rolls. However, after making and enjoying this really awesome coffee cake, I have to admit that I would probably take a slice of it over cinnamon rolls every single time. It's incredibly moist and has a hefty amount of buttery crumbles made up of brown sugar, cinnamon, and chopped pecans. Enjoying a slice with a hot cup of coffee is one of the greatest ways to wake up on a chilly morning. As an added bonus, it is so easy to whip up. No waiting for yeast to proof and dough to rise. The cake is mixed, baked, and ready to eat in less than an hour. The only slightly difficult step is whipping egg whites - but you'll need to burn some calories during that arm workout so you can have an extra-large helping of this cake. Believe me, you'll want it (the cake, not the sore arm muscles).

I have made this cake quite a few times over the years. The family chose to make it for Christmas breakfast this year since it can be made the day before. It definitely  made for an easy, relaxing breakfast that everyone raved about. The cake originally comes from The Pioneer Woman's website where she has it labeled as "The Best Coffee Cake Ever." I can't say I disagree with her in the least. This is the only recipe you'll ever need when the craving strikes for a good, old-fashioned, coffee cake. Trust me.

World's Best Coffee Cake
from The Pioneer Woman

For the Cake:
1-1/2 stick Butter, softened
2 cups (scant) Sugar
3 cups Flour, Sifted
4 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Salt
1-1/4 cup Whole Milk
3 whole Egg Whites, beaten until stiff peaks form

For the Topping:
1-1/2 stick Butter, softened
3/4 cups Flour
1-1/2 cup Brown Sugar
2 Tablespoons Cinnamon
1-1/2 cup Pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat egg whites and set aside.

Cream butter and sugar. Add flour mixture and milk alternately until combined. Don't overbeat. Fold in beaten egg whites with a rubber spatula. Spread in a well-greased 9 x 13 (or LARGER!) baking pan. A cake pan with higher sides would be best.

In a separate bowl, combine topping ingredients with a pastry cutter until crumbly. Sprinkle all over the top.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until no longer jiggly. Enjoy warm or allow to cool to room temperature. Either way is awesome.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Christmas Exit Interviews

Matthew is back in school, Paul is back at work, and we'll be taking down all our Christmas decorations this weekend. Looking back over the past couple of weeks, I have to say that this has been one of the happiest Christmas seasons I have ever had. I loved sharing in the wonder of the season with my little cherubs and really enjoyed cutting back on some of the stress of preparations and focusing on just being present with my kids. Because really, that's truly the greatest gift I can give them.

On the gift side, the kids were spoiled. From "Santa" (or Mom and Dad), Matthew got a couple different LEGO sets, a slot car set, some books he wanted, and a few new games. Emma received lots of new sparkly skirts, her Hello Kitty winter hat, a stroller for her baby dolls, headbands, bracelets, and a necklace. She also received a new jewelry box with a twirling ballerina. She often winds it up, sets it on the floor, and then twirls along with the ballerina figure. It's pretty cute. Paul made out with some new winter boots, a giant 25 pound slab of Himalayan Pink Sea Salt (don't ask me...he wanted it), fleece-lined jeans, a Chick-fil-a Cow Calendar (that was the kids' idea), and this book. Oh, and he also got about 30 pounds of his favorite hard-to-find candy: Chicken Feet! My husband refuses to grow up.

Paul got me a new winter coat (which I love!), some more Polish pottery pieces, and an iPhone 6. I have now finally retired my 15-year-old flip phone and entered the world of smartphones. I sent my first text message ever the day after Christmas. I'm hooked.

To close out the Christmas season, I conducted a short interview with Matthew and Emma to collect their thoughts on our holiday together.

Christmas Eve dinner. Emma was napping on our bed and missed the seafood dinner.
She had scrambled eggs and eggnog later and was perfectly fine with that, especially since we
lit a little taper candle so she could have a "candlelit dinner" all by herself.

What was your favorite part about Christmas?

Matthew: When I came downstairs and saw that Santa ate his cookie.
Emma: I not know.

(At this point, I began to question whether this was a good idea or not...but we persevered)

What is your favorite Christmas Song?

Matthew: Santa Clause is Coming to Town
Emma: The Grinch song!

What was your favorite present?

Matthew: Legos!
Emma: My Elsa doll and my Ariel doll!

What was your favorite cookie?

Matthew: Gingerbread men!
Emma: Cedric! (her decorated sugar cookie)

What was your favorite Christmas Story?

Matthew: How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Emma: Lily! (Not a Christmas book, but a current favorite)

What was the best gift that you gave to someone this Christmas?

Matthew: My little pony "Pinky Pie" that I gave to Emma. And the puff ball snowman I gave Lucy.
Emma: The LEGO watch for Matthew.

What is your favorite Christmas tradition?

Matthew: Playing in the snow with Emma
Emma: Playing with my Hello Kitty hat! (ok....)

What was the best food you ate for Christmas time?

Matthew: Shrimp and Seafood on Christmas Eve.
Emma: Crackers.

What was your favorite part about midnight Mass? (They loved going this year)

Matthew: Seeing the Baby Jesus in the manger at the end.
Emma: The lights, the candles, and JOY TO THE WORLD!!

Cooperation for photo sitting is always indirectly proportional to age.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Decadent Double Chocolate Mint Cookies

Christmas was pretty green this year. So green, that we were playing outside in the sunshine on Christmas Eve. It was glorious. Of course, now Old Man Winter has decided to barge over to our side of the country and bring mountains of snow and frigid, arctic temperatures that make us want to remain in bed huddled under as many blankets as possible. And by "us", I am solely referring to Paul, Lucy, and myself.

Emma and Matthew welcomed the snow and cold with much enthusiasm. When Emma woke up the other morning after our first real snowfall, she glanced outside the window casually and began to squawk: "Snow! Snow, Mommy! SNOW! Can we please play OUTSIDE?!"

I might be alone here, but I really detest the kids playing outside in the snow. Here's why. First, we have to gather all our winter gear and find a place to store it. We have a very small hall closet and cramming it all into there is pretty difficult. Then, we have to properly dress each child in their head-to-toe snow gear. Snow pants, gloves, scarves, hats, coats, heavy socks, and boots. They're so bundled up, they can barely move. And most little kids do not understand the concept of gloves. Then, after about 45 minutes of preparation, they finally head out the door. They spend close to 10 minutes wandering around outside, carving little pathways throughout the backyard or constructing a leaning tower of ice and calling it a snowman, before they are back inside begging for hot chocolate. And then you have to get them all underessed, put everything away, and then make hot chocolate. Which someone always spills everywhere.

It's good wintertime fun, right?

I am very please that the past few days, Emma and Matthew have actually spent quite a bit more time outside than normal. Emma loves to sit and make snow angels. Matthew built a snow fort. Both kids have enjoyed using the snow-covered swing set. And, every once in a while, I would glance outside and see Matthew working diligently on his fort and completely unaware that Emma is sneaking up behind him with a huge snowball to throw in his face. So cute. I've actually surprised myself so far and enjoyed sending them outside to play.

The recipe I wanted to share today is another new-to-me Christmas cookie that I made with my Mom. This ended up being our favorite cookie. Really, I knew it was going to be good because it has Andes Mints in the dough. I was completely blown away by how much me and everyone loved them. Paul was so incredibly sad when I ended up giving 90% of them away to teachers and friends as gifts. He just about cried. I promised to make another batch, but I never got around to it. I'm certainly not going to wait until Christmas to bake another batch - they're just too good to only make once a year!

Decadent Double Chocolate Mint Cookies
from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

1 cup (8 ounces) butter, cool room temperature (not warm or overly soft!)
3/4 cup (5.5 ounces) lightly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup (3.75 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs (3.5 ounces)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (2 ounces) natural, unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup (3 ounces) finely chopped Andes mints
Additional 1/2 cup finely chopped Andes mints for rolling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In the bowl of an electric stand mixer (or in a large bowl with an electric hand mixer), cream the butter, brown sugar and white sugar together until well-mixed, 2-3 minutes.
Add the eggs and vanilla extract and mix.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.
Add the dry ingredients to the batter and mix until just combined. Mix in the chocolate chips and 1/2 cup chopped Andes mints until combined and no dry streaks remain.

Scoop the dough and shape into heaping tablespoon-sized balls and gently roll the tops into the additional crushed mints, pressing lightly into the plate or bowl of crushed mints so they stick to the top of the cookie dough ball.

Place a couple inches apart on the prepared baking sheets and bake for 10-11 minutes. Be careful not to overbake. The middle should be very soft.

Let the cookies cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet and then remove to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Perfect Sugar Cookie Cut-Outs with Whipped Buttercream Icing

There are 12 days of Christmas, right? And on the 7th day of our Christmas, the kids finally decorated sugar cookies. I love all the baking and cookie-making that is traditionally synonymous with Christmas preparations, but for some reason decorating sugar cookies is something I actually dread. The kids are usually super messy with it and there is a lot of preparation and clean-up behind the whole process. On top of that, both Paul and I really hate sugar cookies. Paul finds them kind of boring and I would much rather be eating something with chocolate.

So, we kind of dragged our feet when it came to decorating the cookies this year. Matthew and Emma begged us on a daily basis "Can we decorate cookies?" We kept putting it off in favor of other tasks we needed to complete. Plus, Matthew usually asked to decorate cookies after dinner as we were getting everyone bathed and ready for bed. Perfect timing, kid.

In the end, we just ran out of time before Christmas day, but who says you can't do a fun activity like this during the other 12 days of Christmas?

The kids were thrilled when we finally got around to it! I ended up baking all the sugar cookies the night before while Paul took a very cranky Lucy for a late-night drive in the car in a vain attempt to get her to sleep. I tried this recipe on a whim because it did not require softened butter and there was no chilling period for the dough. To my absolute surprise, this was by far the best recipe I have tried yet for cut-outs. The dough was a dream to work with, the cookies turned out nice and sturdy, and the taste was crisp, buttery, and reminiscent of a really good animal cracker.

The next day, we made a whipped buttercream icing to decorate with and I tried dipping a piece of one of the cookies in the icing (for quality control, of course) and was blown away by the flavor. Who would have thought that I would end up loving the frosted sugar cookies this year?

I made sure to decorate a few simply with the icing and sprinkles and set them aside for Paul and I to enjoy. Then, I just sat back and watched the kids do their thing. After watching them, I'm really glad I iced a couple of cookies quickly before they really got busy. They kept licking the frosting spoons and sticking their sticky, goobery hands in all the decorations. Needless to say, these cookies will not be gifted or shared. They had a blast making them and it was fun to see them have such a great time.

Matthew was especially proud of his "Frosty" and "Mr. Grinch" cookie. Emma made a "Mr. Cedric" cookie. If you have no idea who Mr. Cedric is, he's the villain from Sofia the First. If that still does not clear it up, don't worry about it. The finished Cedric cookie looked nothing like him anyway. And Matthew's "Grinch" cookie was the cut-out of a stocking that he covered in green icing followed by a handful of jelly beans. Not really sure why that makes it the Grinch but I that's probably just because I don't have their imaginations.

Guess Who Else Loved The Cookies?

I want to save both of these recipes for next year because, like I said, this was the best-tasting, easiest-to-work-with, sugar-cookie-cutouts I have ever made! I might just go eat one now.

Perfect Sugar Cookie Cut-Outs
adapted slightly from Bake at 350

3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 c sugar
2 sticks butter, cold & cut into chunks
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350.

Combine the flour and baking powder, set aside. Cream the sugar and butter. Add the egg and extracts and mix. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat just until combined, scraping down the bowl, especially the bottom.

The dough will be crumbly, so knead it together with your hands as you scoop it out of the bowl for rolling.

Roll on a floured surface to about 1/4" to 3/8" thick, and cut into shapes. Place on parchment lined baking sheets (I recommend freezing the cut out shapes on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before baking) and bake for 10-12 minutes. Let sit a few minutes on the sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Whipped Buttercream Icing
3 cups confectioners' sugar
1 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Generous pinch of salt
2-3 tablespoons whipping cream

Beat the butter until creamy in the bowl of a stand mixer. Carefully add the sugar, vanilla, and salt. Add the cream gradually, as much or as little as you want depending on how thin you want the frosting. Beat the heck out of it. Done!