Friday, April 29, 2016

That Time Emma Fought A Snake. And Won.

When we were just a family of three with our little Matthew, I became very adept at dealing with a child whose list of fears was longer than Santa's "Naughty List." Loud noises of any type, the dark, big dogs, small dogs, bath water, running water, any type of water, sand, mashed potatoes...I'm telling you, the list was endless. We still have to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for a gigantic breakdown from Matthew on the 4th of July because the noise from the fireworks are too much for him to handle. We only survived last year because we gave him hunting ear plugs that cancelled out most of the noise, enabling him to enjoy the sights of the fireworks without the scary booms and hisses. When we had Emma, we were prepared to rear a child with similar fears and worries as her big brother. However, we soon discovered that Emma has absolutely no fear.

Emma's courage is mostly a good thing, although it has resulted in a couple hairy situations. She has attempted to pet a few dogs that were less than friendly, although their rabid barking failed to deter her from extending her hand out to every animal she spies. This is the reason she has been bitten by a goat, a llama, a horse, and (almost) a hog. The first time I took her to Lake Erie, she quickly ran into the surf and was almost overcome by a wave. While that moment completely terrified me and nearly convinced me to never ever bring the kids near a body of water again, Emma's love of the water never waned. For the most part, I admire and enjoy her tough, edgy demeanor and wouldn't change it for the world.

Emma's courage is pretty limitless and we recently discovered that this applies even to slithering reptiles that make both her father and brother cringe. Paul's greatest fear, other than spiders and worms of unusual size, is of snakes. To illustrate this point, Paul and I encountered a snake while taking a walk on our honeymoon and Paul instantly dropped the hand of his new bride and went bolting the opposite direction down the path. Let's just say, Paul's daughter is a bit more brave than that.

A couple weeks ago, the weather was so warm and enticing that we decided to head out to the woods for an afternoon hike. The trail is rustic and winds throughout several woods, creeks, and gorges. Emma insisted on walking all by herself for the first time - we would normally carry her in backpack carrier hoisted high on Paul's shoulders. Paul's back was thankful for the reprieve. Emma started out strong on our hike, but soon was distracted by all the new, blooming flowers and began to dawdle because she was more interested in picking an impressive bouquet than continuing onward. Paul stayed behind to encourage Emma to walk faster while Matthew, Lucy, and I went on ahead.

As Matthew and I approached a curve in the trail, we spied a group of teenagers huddled around something off to the side. They were pointing, taking pictures with their iphones, and shouting, "A snake! Oh gross! A snake!" I hurried up ahead to see for myself (and also because I wanted to be sure that they were not planning on harming the snake) and found a snake holding a frog by its leg. The poor frog was chirping loudly as it struggled, but the snake had such a strong hold on it that the poor thing could not get away. I can't begin to describe what sad, desperate sounds that frog was making, almost as if it was begging us for help. The teenagers were laughing and remarking that this was "the perfect example of Natural Selection at work." (Ehh...not really, but I didn't think this was an appropriate "teachable moment".)

Anyway, it was about this time that Paul and Emma caught up with us. I was looking around for a stick to use to try to free the frog from the snake. Before I could find one, Emma had shoved her way to the front to see what all the commotion was about. When she took one look and saw the poor frog desperately trying to escape, she immediately bent down and grabbed the frog, pulling him away from the snake: "Let go you bad snake! Let go of the frog!" The snake would not give up it's prey, and Emma was in a veritable tug-of-war. I gently told her to let go out of fear that between the two of them, the frog would end up with a broken limb. Paul then took a stick and lightly snapped it against the tail of the snake. At the impact, the snake let go of the frog and Emma once more got in there and scooped up the poor frog and cradled it gently, "It's ok, you poor frog. I have you!" The frog stayed as still as could be. We then moved the snake off the path and then went in search of a creek where we could safely drop the frog off.

We finally found a creek opening just off the path and Emma set the frog down gently in the water. The little frog immediately took off swimming in little circles, so happy to finally be free and safe. He swam a quick lap and then came close to the edge of the water where it sat, staring at us solemnly, almost as if it were thanking us for the rescue.

Suddenly, as we were wishing it goodbye, a noise came from the brush behind us and a biker appeared at the top of the ravine, speeding towards us. We quickly jumped out of the way but then watched in horror as the biker seemed intent on crossing the creek at the shallow point where our poor frog friend still sat.

I know what you must be thinking. After all that...the frog then gets squished by the biker? Thankfully, no...the biker missed him by mere inches. After the biker passed, Emma asked fearfully, "Daddy, did the biker squish my frog?" After that, we encouraged the frog to swim towards deeper, safer waters by nudging him a bit and then he was off! Free to live another day.

Paul and I were both so proud of how courageous our little Emma was that day. She was so determined to save the life of that frog and a scary snake was certainly not going to deter her from that mission. I love my tough little girl, but I think I need to start teaching her a couple things about snakes. I don't want her to try petting a rattler next.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Millionaire's Shortbread

This past weekend, we celebrated the conferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation on my little sister Amy. I love all of my sisters greatly, but Amy holds a very special place in my heart for she is also my goddaughter. Months ago, she humbled me greatly by asking me to sponsor her as she prepared for her Confirmation. I was honored to be chosen and felt blessed that the role of being her sponsor naturally syncs with the responsibilities I already carry as her godmother - to mentor her and guide her in the Catholic faith as she grows and discerns her vocation. And, honestly, I benefit greatly from this as well because there is nothing like having someone looking up to you as a role model to force you to keep your own life in check!

Amy chose Agnes for her Confirmation name because she feels a strong connection to Saint Agnes, a first-century martyr who died at the age of 12 or 13 for refusing to compromise her purity. Amy spent quite a bit of time choosing her saint's name, almost embracing the name of Saint Gianna at one point, but, in the end, she really identified with Agnes' commitment to chastity and purity. So, Amelia Grace Agnes is now her name!

At one point during the Confirmation Mass, the candidates all stood and renewed their baptismal promises. I got a bit emotional during this part because I remember so well the day 14 years previously that I made the baptismal promises on the behalf of an an infant Amy at her baptism. Now, it was truly moving to witness her reciting the promises with such fervor and commitment as she heads quickly towards adulthood. She has made her own mind up to be committed to Christ and a witness of his love to the world. Witnessing such faith in someone so young is always incredibly moving.

When we were walking up to the front of church for Amy's turn to be anointed by the Bishop, Amy was shaking like a leaf - she was so nervous! I loved seeing how seriously and reverently she received the sacrament. I know God has wonderful plans for this sweet young lady with the most gentle heart. I pray that she will always love God and her faith as much as she does today. Saint Agnes, pray for us!

Doesn't Amy look cute? I love the dress she wore. Catherine and I worked on her hair for about an hour. I was thinking that it would take maybe 20 minutes tops to curl, but she has so much hair! It took us almost 90 minutes to finish!

Random funny story, I bought the pink dress I wore for Easter at Macy's and actually called my sister Catherine immediately afterwards just to say "I just bought a dress that you would LOVE!" Well, turns out I was right because she actually already owned the exact same dress and we found that out because we both wore that dress for the Confirmation Mass. And similar shoes. Sister twins! Catherine thought it was oh-so-funny and said that it reminded her of the days when we used to match on purpose. I think she is remembering the days that she used to try to match me on purpose and I used to get so annoyed with it! Little sisters!

My Mom also wanted me to share the lovely ice cream cake she made for Amy's party following the Confirmation. Isn't it beautiful?

She did some lovely piping around the borders of the cake, but then accidentally dropped it when she tried shoving it back into the freezer, hence the slightly "squished" appearance. She requested a picture to be taken as evidence that I don't get any baking talent from her. And Paul was just happy to be eating ice cream soon, so he proudly took a picture with her. Ignore all my Mom's negative comments and just know that the cake was really delicious. Even Emma took a break from her sandbox play - where she pretty much spent the entire weekend - to slowly and deliberately enjoy a gigantic slice of cake.

Amy is also graduating from 8th grade this May and, as a present to her from our parents, she is coming to live with me for a month during the summer! I am beyond excited for her to stay and have already planned a whole slew of activities and road trips for her to experience during her time with us! Amy also shares my love of sweets and baking, so of course I want to do lots of baking and cooking while I have a dutiful live-in dishwasher (haha...just kidding Amy...or not!).

The recipe I want to share with you today is right up Amy's alley - it's sweet, salty, crunchy, and very reminiscent of a certain popular candy bar. Millionaire's shortbread is apparently British in origin and features a shortbread "biscuit" bottom, a chewy caramel center, and a smooth, shiny, chocolate topping. It's rich and indulgent but also something that would not be such a bad treat to serve with coffee (or "a spot of tea" if we are to truly pay homage to this cookie's origin). The only thing I would possibly change about the recipe is perhaps a touch more salt added to the shortbread layer although Paul told me not to change anything because to him it was perfect as is and thus I have presented the unadulterated version of the recipe below.

All THREE of my children loved this recipe, a rare thing for sure since there is always at least one child who wrinkles their nose at whatever it is I've lovingly prepared. Emma and Lucy actually sat right at my feet chewing on the extra bits while I photographed the nicer-looking cookies for the blog. Lucy in particular would have eaten the whole batch had I not cut her off. That girl loves chocolate.

If you're a fan of the Twix bars, this is definitely the cookie for you!

Millionaire’s Shortbread
from America's Test Kitchen

Important Note: To ensure that the caramel filling has the perfect texture, use an instant read thermometer. Grating a portion of the chocolate is important for getting the chocolate to set properly. The small holes on a box grater work well for this task. Stir often while melting the chocolate and monitor the temperature by holding the bowl in the palm of your hand; overheating the chocolate will cause it to set poorly. For the neatest looking results, slice the shortbread with a serrated knife using a gentle sawing motion.

For the Crust:

2½ cups (12 ½ ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (3 ½ ounces) granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the Filling:

12 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup packed (4 2/3 ounces) dark brown sugar
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ teaspoon salt

For the Chocolate:

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated

For the Crust: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottom and sides of 13- by 9-inch baking pan with aluminum foil. Combine flour, sugar, and salt in medium bowl. Add melted butter and stir with rubber spatula until flour is evenly moistened. Crumble dough evenly over bottom of prepared pan. Using your fingertips and palm of your hand, press and smooth dough into even thickness. Using fork, pierce dough at 1-inch intervals. Bake until light golden brown and firm to touch, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack. Using sturdy metal spatula, press on entire surface of warm crust to compress (compressing crust while warm will make cutting finished bars easier). Cool crust to just warm, at least 20 minutes.

For the Filling: Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add sugar and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is homogenous and sugar is melted, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in sweetened condensed milk, increase heat to medium-high, and bring to boil. Cook, stirring constantly and scraping corners of saucepan, until mixture registers 235 degrees, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in salt. Pour over crust and spread to even thickness. Let cool until filling is just warm, about 20 minutes.

For the Chocolate: Microwave 6 ounces chopped chocolate at 50 percent power, stirring every 15 seconds, until fully melted but not much warmer than body temperature, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 2 ounces grated chocolate, and stir until melted, returning to microwave for no more than 5 seconds at a time to complete melting if necessary. Spread chocolate evenly over surface of filling. Refrigerate shortbread until chocolate is just set, about 10 minutes. Let set at room temperature for at least 1 hour before cutting.

Using foil, remove shortbread from pan and transfer to cutting board; discard foil. Using serrated knife and sawing motion, cut shortbread in half crosswise to create two 6 ½- by 9-inch rectangles. Cut each rectangle in half to make four 3 ½ - by 9-inch strips. Cut each strip crosswise into equal 10 pieces. (Shortbread can be stored at room temperature, between layers of parchment, for up to one week.)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Lucy's Favorite Green Monster Smoothie

I first made a "green smoothie" a few years ago when Matthew was about a year old. It had peanut butter, bananas, and, of course, spinach in it. It wasn't so much green as a sludgy, grayish-brown color. It was not good. Paul took one sip and just about threw up. He still tells people about the time I tried to poison him with my "salad smoothie". Because of this, I stepped away from the blender and never joined the green-smoothie making craze.

Now, as an owner of a powerful Vitamix blender, I decided to give one of the green smoothies from the Vitamix recipe book a try and I fell in love. So refreshing! So healthy! I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved it. I was greedily slurping down my smoothie, when I suddenly became aware of a tiny little person, not quite two-and-a-half feet tall, flapping her arms wildly while hooting like an owl in an attempt to get my attention. Lucy saw me enjoying that drink and wanted a taste of it herself. I gave her a spoonful and she gulped it down, then froze every muscle in her body as she processed the taste and temperature of this unexpected treat, and then smiled and greedily demanded more. And more. And more. Pretty soon, tiny little Lucy had drank half my smoothie. My other two little wards were a little too turned off by the flavor to give it a go, but Lucy was hooked. I made this smoothie again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that (there was a huge sale on grapes and oranges so I had plenty of materials). Each time I brought out the blender to make this, Lucy would get very excited in gleeful anticipation of her new favorite drink.

This is a fantastic green smoothie and the only one that I have truly loved. You really do not notice the spinach at all and the sheer variety and amount of fruits in the mixture make a very refreshing, energizing drink. I have been drinking this immediately following my workouts and I believe it has been instrumental in helping my body recover and hydrate after an intense sweat session. I love how great I feel after drinking a huge glassful! Plus, I'm really enjoying my new afternoon tradition of splitting a smoothie with my baby.

Lucy finds the drink energizing as well.

If you have also been a bit skeptical about green smoothies in the past, I think this one could possibly change your mind!

Green Monster Smoothie
adapted from the Vitamix Recipe Book

1 frozen ripe banana
1 cup fresh sliced pineapple
1 1/2 cups red or green grapes (the green grapes will give you a more vibrant green color)
1 orange, peeled
1/8 teaspoon lime zest (optional, but good)
1 1/2 cups spinach
2 tablespoons honey, sugar, or agave (I never add this - it's sweet enough)
1 cup ice

Add all ingredients in the order listed. Blend until smooth. Pour into chilled glasses or, if you're a baby, a cup with a tight-fitting lid. Your floor will thank you.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Blueberry Lemon Cake

I cannot express enough how much I love to bake and decorate layer cakes. There is something therapeutic about baking the layers, making the frosting, and then carefully spreading the frosting over the layers. Maybe it's also because cake is usually very much appreciated and the effort of making a cake rarely goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. Everyone loves a really good slice of cake. Everyone that is, except for my strange little children.

Each year, my kids get to choose the cake flavor to be their birthday cake. Normally I have to really encourage Matthew to think beyond the boring, unimaginative flavors of chocolate and vanilla in order for him to pick a flavor that is a bit more exciting and unique. Emma, on the other hand, had been adamantly requesting a Blueberry Lemon Cake for her birthday for the past several months. I was so excited by her specific request and carefully selected the perfect recipe to make. I worked all afternoon baking and decorating the cake. I chose to decorate it simply with extra blueberries, some coconut that I colored to look like Easter grass, a couple chocolate eggs, and a few chocolate chicks that I had found at the grocery store. The chocolate chicks were so cute and reminded me of Emma's love of ducks and birds so I thought that they would be perfectly fitting decorations for her cake. The birthday girl was quite pleased with the final product.

However, after we had sang to Emma and she had blown all the candles out, she did not care to even try the cake that she had so passionately been requesting and looking forward to eating for months! I was heartbroken! I had worked so hard and was so excited to watch her enjoy eating a slice of the cake. I just about cried. Paul reminded me that this happens pretty much every birthday with each kid. They are just too excited and overstimulated after a day of attention that the last thing they want to do is sit down and eat. They'd just rather be running around and playing with their new toys. He's so right, but it's a bit depressing nonetheless. Matthew made up for Emma's lack of interest in cake by eating an entire gigantic slice and singing my praises the whole time. Matthew is not much of a dessert lover, so that was an incredible compliment!

This cake is such a beautiful, elegant treat! A lemon-kissed buttermilk cake with juicy blueberries suspended throughout enveloped in the most deliciously light and creamy whipped lemon cream cheese frosting - what is not to love? It's definitely one of my favorite layer cakes.

For the record, Emma did eat a slice of cake for breakfast the morning after her birthday. And she loved every bite.

Blueberry Lemon Cake
from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

For the Cake:
1 cup (2 sticks, 8 ounces) butter, softened to room temperature
1 3/4 cups (13 ounces) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
4 large eggs (7 ounces), room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups (12.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2 cups (12 ounces) fresh or frozen blueberries (do not thaw if frozen)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

For the Whipped Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting:
12 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) butter, softened to room temperature
4 1/2 cups (18 ounces) powdered sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of two 9-inch round cake pans with at least 2-inch sides with parchment paper and coat with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, sugar and lemon zest until light and fluffy, 4-5 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla until well-combined, 1-2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Stir the dry mixture into the wet ingredients and mix on low speed until just combined and a few dry streaks remain.
Add the buttermilk and lemon juice to the batter, and stir by hand, folding the batter until just combined.

In another bowl, toss the blueberries with the 2 tablespoons flour. Add the blueberries and remnants of flour to the batter and fold in by hand with a spatula or wooden spoon until just-combined. Be careful not to over-mix!

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pans and bake for 35-40 minutes until just baked through. The top will spring back lightly to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center should come out with moist crumbs but not wet batter.

Let the cakes cool for 5-10 minutes in the pans before turning them out onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

For the frosting, whip the cream cheese and butter together with a handheld electric mixer or with an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add the powdered sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice and mix on low speed (so the powdered sugar doesn't fly everywhere) until combined. Increase the speed to medium and mix until creamy, 1-2 minutes. Add the heavy cream and whip the frosting until very light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes.

When the cake has cooled completely, place one round on a platter or plate and spread the top evenly with frosting. Place the other cake round upside down on the frosting and press just lightly. Continue frosting with a thin spatula or offset spatula until the top and sides of the cake are evenly frosted. Store in the refrigerator, but be sure to remove 1-2 hours before serving!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Emma Turns Three

I have admittedly put off writing Emma's birthday post because I find it difficult to put into words what this special little girl means to me. Before Emma was born and it was just my buddy Matthew and I hanging out together, I used to think that I would probably be perfectly content to just be a mother of boys. When I found out I was pregnant again, I remember hoping that the baby would be another boy - and not just because I already had a ton of boys clothes and gear - but because I really had decided in my mind that I wanted to mother an army of little boys. But the minute Emma was born and I held my little girl for the first time, I forgot all about that and tumbled headfirst into a world of pink things, princesses, tutus, ponies, and butterflies and have never once looked back. Now I am a Mom to two precious little girls and I can't imagine life without them! But today, I just want to talk about my Emma.

Since the moment she was born, Emma has been the light of our world. She was our easiest baby by far - in fact, Paul and I briefly nicknamed her "The Baby the World Forgot" because as long as she was fed, we could stick her in her bouncy seat or the swing and she would just sit there contently, looking around or playing with her hands. She slept well at night, was extremely sweet-tempered, and very social. She also seemed to want to grow up a bit too fast - probably because she was in a big hurry to chase after Matthew. There was a time where we kept scolding Matthew for teasing Emma by taking toys from her or knocking her over. However, it wasn't long before we had to protect Matthew from Emma. That girl learned very quickly both how to press her big brother's buttons and how to defend herself from his shenanigans. Her speech was extremely advanced for any of our children and she could speak simple sentences by the time she was a year. It just seemed as if Emma was not a baby very long.

Now she is three years old and I can hardly believe it! She has grown into such a beautiful little girl who loves dresses and skirts, bows and ribbons, tea parties and tiaras. She might love all the fancy and dainty things, but this little girl is also one of the messiest eaters I have ever seen. Every meal time must involve Emma wearing a bib for she will find some way to saturate or stain her outfit! She also has one of the most doggedly determined personalities I have ever encountered. If she wants to button her own shirt, put on her own shoes, or buckle herself into the car seat, you better let her do it because she will fight you to the death. She is also highly picky when it comes to choosing outfits to wear, but thankfully actually has fairly good fashion sense. She loves her shoes, most especially fancy sandals, and always must have accessories with her, including her sunglasses and purse. She loves to read books, especially little small books she can easily stack together, and has recently been into drawing me pictures. If there is a flower growing in the yard, she will pick it. If there is an animal nearby, she will pet it. If there is a child playing nearby, Emma will quickly make friends. Everyone loves Emma and Emma loves everyone!

I can't get enough of her hugs and kisses. Paul and I have always talked about how Emma gives the best hugs. And she does because she puts so much emotion and love into each and every one! I love how she will respond when asked to do something for me, "Oh of course, Mommy!" Or how, in response to hearing me tell her she looks beautiful, she will exclaim: "Oh thank you! That's very nice of you!" When tucking her in at night, she always wraps her arms around me, gives me a sweet kiss, and whispers in my ear, "I love you, Mommy. You are very special to me." My heart almost can't handle the emotion that floods it when I hear her say those words.

She loves to be tickled, hugged, and kissed and her laughter and her smiles are both so incredibly infectious. She also loves to dance, especially one-on-one with her brother as she pretends to be the princess dancing with her prince. She is extremely defensive and caring about her little sister and always refers to her as "Little Lucy". And "Little Lucy" loves and adores her right back.

Don't get me wrong, it is not all rainbows and sunshine with Emma, for she can be the most difficult child when she is in a bad mood. Her extreme stubbornness can be quite challenging at times and she has been known to throw the occasional spectacular tantrum. Thankfully, those have been few and far between. Out of all of our children, she has the most difficult time waking up in the mornings and usually requires a good 45 minutes after actually opening her eyes to truly wake up before she is capable of carrying on a conversation sans grunting and groaning. When we have to wake up early on Sunday mornings for church, Paul and I always brace ourselves before entering Emma's room. We usually begin by opening her door open, allowing the light from the hallway to flood inside and hopefully encouraging her to naturally wake up as she hears the sounds of the rest of the family getting dressed and ready for the day. On more than one occasion, she has simply gotten out of bed, slammed the door shut again, and climbed back into bed to resume her sleep.

But, I wouldn't change a thing about her - her spunk, her spirit, her energy, her zeal for life, her enthusiasm for beauty, her love of others, and her earnest desire to please. Words truly cannot describe what an honor and a privilege it has been to be her mother.

For our special little girl, I wanted to give her a very special birthday. However, this year her birthday fell on Good Friday and since this is a somber day of fasting, it didn't seem right to celebrate with cake, ice cream, and presents. So, we instead just gave her a couple extra hugs and deferred her birthday until the following Tuesday. Obviously, she did not notice or care but we did tease her at breakfast on Easter Sunday by telling her that she was already three.

"No! I'm two! It's not my birthday yet!" she cried.
"Actually, Emma, your birthday was last week but we decided to skip it!" Paul told her.
"What? No! I'm two! That's not true, right Mommy?"
"No Emma....but actually yes."

It was actually rather comical but she insisted that she was two years old until she blew out the candles on her birthday cake. She already has a fear of growing old.

On the day we actually celebrated her birthday, she woke up to find her room filled with two dozen balloons. She came downstairs to find her high chair covered with pink and purple balloons as well as a beautiful tiara and a new Princess Sofia cup. She was in heaven! She immediately put the tiara on (and if I ever called it a "crown" she would vehemently respond that it was not a crown but a tiara!) and began to tell me she was the "Queen of the Day." This made me think I had possibly created a birthday monster. I served her highness strawberry pancakes for breakfast along with chocolate milk in her new Princess Sofia cup. The meal received her royal seal of approval.

We had a great day together - dancing, having a tea party, coloring, and watching her favorite movie Frozen together. However, towards the end of the day, I could see her starting to become tired - and grumpy. I tried to convince her to take a birthday nap, but she was too wound up and excited for presents and cake in the evening. So, she just bounced on her bed for about 45 minutes before I decided the effort was futile.

When Paul arrived home that evening, we headed up to Texas Roadhouse for Emma's birthday dinner. The kids had enjoyed Matthew's birthday dinner so much, that Emma requested the same location for her special day. Of course, being the health-conscious child that she is, she ordered Macaroni and Cheese and fries but barely touched it. Instead, she played with the peanuts and drank her weight in root beer. When the waiters and waitresses came over to give her a birthday "Yee-haw", she whined and moaned the entire time although normally she would eat up that sort of attention. She was definitely tired and beginning to suffer from Too Much Birthday Syndrome. However, she did not leave the restaurant without first having the balloon artist make her the most obnoxious glowing balloon headband.

When we got home, we opened her gifts and she delighted in each and every one. She and her siblings began playing with all her new treasures immediately - which included a new kitchen set, a new outfit and crib for her baby dolls, and a barbie in the likeness of Anna from Frozen. She also received several little sundresses for summer, but those were less exciting to her than the toys. When it was time for cake, nobody sang The Birthday Song louder than the birthday girl herself. Emma loves that song. When Matthew blew out Emma's candles on her cake, we had to light the entire thing again and do the whole ritual all over. After quite a bit of huffing and puffing, blowing and spitting, Emma finally blew out her own candles. And now she is three.

Shortly afterwards, the birthday girl suffered a bit of a sugar coma and had to be escorted to bed a bit early where she slept grandly before uncharacteristically waking up before the sun the next morning just so she could resume playing with all her gifts.

Emma Rose, we love you so much! We pray that you will always remain as sweet and dear as you are today. You are very special to us.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pasta with Ham and Broccoli

The weather has really been toying with us around here. One day we are enjoying beautiful, warm temperatures and sunny skies, and the next day we wake up to several inches of snow covering the ground. The kids have been really confused by all of this. Emma especially was majorly bummed when I told her that she had to exchange the sun dresses she had been sporting for her winter coat and gloves. "I don't like the snow! It freezes me!" she pouted. My thoughts exactly, young lady.

Even though the temperatures have plummeted once more, Paul and I have still kept our windows open in our bedroom. Our room heats up so much at night that the only way to keep it at a temperature that is bearable enough for sleep is to open both the windows. Well, we have yet to put the screens up on our windows and based on the early morning visitors we had last Saturday, it just might be time to get that little chore done. See, we were awoken early on Saturday morning by Matthew who was tapping frantically on Paul's shoulder to tell him that there was a bird trying to get into our room through the cracked window. Paul and I were pretty groggy after a rough, sleepless night with a fussy Lucy and told him to go away and leave us alone for a bit longer. We then tried to get back to sleep but were awoken by this frantic scratching sound coming from the window in our bathroom. We looked up to see a very large robin trying desperately to squeeze its way inside. Thankfully, it was a very fat bird and could only manage to twist itself in halfway before realizing the effort was futile. He did, however, leave a disgusting gift on the inside of our sill before flying away. An examination of the other window where Matthew had seen a bird trying to break in found the same gift. Like I said, those screens are going up!

Here is a great recipe to use up all that ham you might have leftover after making this amazing Cherry-Port Glazed Ham. This is a super simple and quick pasta dish that the whole family will love. You can change it up to suit your personal preferences by adding in some different vegetables, like peas instead of broccoli. Always serve with more cheese on the side for sprinkling on top. That's Emma's favorite part. She always requests a generous layer of "cheese snow" to be strewn over the top of her pasta. Smart girl.

And, if pasta is not really your thing, there is also this awesome soup or these mouth-watering sandwiches. Leftover ham is never a bad thing around here.

Pasta with Ham and Broccoli
adapted from Simply Recipes

3/4 pound shaped pasta of choice
2 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups diced ham (or more)
1 1/2 cups broccoli florets, cut into bite-sized pieces and lightly steamed
1/2 cup cream
1 cup of pasta cooking water (reserved from cooking the pasta)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper

Heat 4 quarts of water and 2 Tbsp salt in a large pot for the pasta. Once the water starts to boil, add the pasta and cook at a rolling boil, uncovered, until al dente, cooked through, but still a little firm to the bite (the low end of the cooking times given on the package). Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.

While you are cooking the pasta, heat the butter in a medium skillet on medium heat until melted. Add the minced garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the ham.

Stir in 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Stir in  1/2 cup of cream, Parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper.

When the pasta is ready, toss it with the sauce in a serving bowl along with the steamed broccoli and serve.