Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Blueberry Crumb Bars

Since she began walking, Lucy has just blossomed into the cutest, most adorable petite person you ever did see. She adds new words to her vocabulary every day. Her current favorite phrase is repeating "All Day" over and over again. The phrase comes from the very last sentence of one of her favorite board books about a little curious little dog - "and they went outside to play all day." For some reason, that line really resonated with Lucy and she has been waddling around here repeating "alllll day"...well, quite frankly all day every day. She's also discovered the wonder of music and has displayed quite the singing voice with a particular penchant for "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Old MacDonald." There is nothing cuter than watching Lucy twirl around, swinging her fat little arms, while singing, "E-I-E-I-O!" There is nothing cuter.

Unfortunately, I am beginning to witness a little "sister rivalry" happening between Emma and Lucy. Although she would definitely classify herself as a "big girl", Emma still likes to be cuddled, held, and catered to like a baby at times. Whenever a story is read, she likes to sit in my lap and she will, on occasion, be asked to be spoon fed. No worries, that last request is always refused. Whenever Emma needs a little more attention from me, Lucy immediately becomes enraged. Even if she is perfectly content and playing with a toy on the other side of the room, the moment she sees me cuddling Emma, she gets up and begins her mad dash across the room towards her property, angry little arms flailing, her face all scrunched up in a look of pure disgruntlement, and her tiny little voice loudly wailing, "Mama! Mama!" They regularly fight over me. And while at times I have to stop and marvel at my sudden popularity, most of the time I find it pretty irritating.

Between Matthew and Emma fighting over every nonsensical thing under the sun and Emma and Lucy fighting over who gets to love on Mom more, I often feel as if I am losing my mind. What if we were to suddenly add a pet to that mix? While at times I think having a pet could be nice, I'm really not wild about opening up my home to another creature whose bathroom habits I will need to monitor on a daily basis. Ever since our wonderful cat Riley died suddenly last year, the kids have been petitioning for a new cat. Paul, on the other hand, has sworn that he will never again endorse having a cat as a pet but he is fully willing to adopt a large dog. And everyone knows that dogs are way easier to keep than cats, right? His logic is that he needs a dog to "walk me" so I stop bugging him to take strolls in the evenings. A pretty expensive and time-consuming way to avoid a little bit of exercise.

The kids are still petitioning for a cat. So one day, Paul and I took Emma down to the cat orphanage to pet a few cats. While we were there, I also thought I'd look around and see if any of them seemed to be a good fit for our family. The experience ended up backfiring a bit because Emma, for some reason, started following around the most disgruntled kitty in the whole place. The fur ball kept hissing, spitting, and whipping it's tail at Emma but she just kept on following him around. "Look, Mommy, the kitty likes me! He's talking to me!" she declared as the cat snarled and spat in her direction. Both Paul and I tried our best to direct her towards the other, more friendly animals in the room but we weren't successful and before too long the inevitable happened. The cat scratched and bit Emma.

Emma's feeling were so hurt by this sudden act of violence from her new friend that she began to weep uncontrollably. Paul carried her to the car and we quickly left. On the way home, Emma continued to sob while I spoke to Paul about the other cats we had seen at the sanctuary. I had just finished telling him that none of the cats had the lovable personality Riley displayed and Paul agreed saying, "Yeah, I don't think we're going to have another cat as a pet." From the back seat came Emma's words of agreement: "Yeah! Cats are MEAN!" Guess our little trip cured her of any desire to adopt a new cat.

Other than sibling rivalries, a very destructive toddler, and debating over the pet situation, life has been good! Especially now that blueberries are in season. Blueberries are my favorite fruit to pick and I love that the season lasts nearly two months. The berries at the beginning of the season are more tart, but the berries at the end are the biggest and sweetest you've ever had! Any type of blueberry works well in one of my favorite treats - these blueberry crumb bars. While looking through the archives, I was shocked to see that I have never shared the recipe before on my blog. Obviously, it is time to remedy that.

Make these, You can use any kind of fruit you want really. You just might need to play around with the thickening agent depending on the types of fruit you are using (think peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, or raspberries). However, this blueberry variety is my personal favorite.

Blueberry Crumb Bars
Ever-so-slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold unsalted butter
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of one lemon
4 heaping cups fresh or frozen blueberries
1/2 cup white sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9×13 inch pan and line with a parchment paper sling.

In a medium bowl, stir together 1 cup sugar, 3 cups flour, and baking powder. Mix in salt and lemon zest. Use a fork or pastry cutter to blend in the butter and egg. Dough will be crumbly. Pat half of dough into the prepared pan.

In another bowl, stir together the sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice. Gently mix in the blueberries. Sprinkle the blueberry mixture evenly over the crust. Crumble remaining dough over the berry layer.

Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until top is slightly brown. (This took an extra 10 to 15 minutes in my oven.) Cool completely before cutting into squares.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Crafting with Kids: Painted Rock Garden Bugs

Summer is going by so quickly. I believe that Andy Williams was very much mistaken when he sang about Christmas being the most wonderful time of the year for as much as I love sleigh bells, hot cocoa, and celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is the sweet summertime with its sunny skies, warm temperatures, and outdoor activities that I look forward to most of all! Unfortunately, there is something about summertime that suddenly makes time just take off in a sprint and that's how I feel this summer has been so far: An absolute whirlwind!

Paul has been busy tearing up our deck and making our backyard an absolute hazard. He told me the other day on his way to work: "Don't let the kids go out on the deck, they might get splinters. Actually, just don't let them in the backyard period because there are probably nails and pieces of wood all over the grass." Fantastic. Don't let the kids outside when it's summer. We've been taking full advantage of the parks in our area.

This was the massive graffiti session that took place right before the deconstruction of the deck began!

In between ripping up the deck and getting a killer farmer's tan, Paul has also been grilling a lot. I am so so grateful that he loves to grill because I really hate having the oven on when it is hot and humid outside. Hamburgers, brats, and smoked fish have been go-to dinners and Paul is always more than willing to grill anything. However, he did have a teensy little accident the other day when he was grilling barefoot and a hot coal tumbled out onto the grass from the chimney starter he was emptying and he stepped on it with his big flat foot. The result was a big blister and a whiny husband. The invalid sat nursing his sore foot with ice and a manly pink washcloth while I was forced to finish the grilling. I was smart and wore shoes. And burnt the hot dogs.

Beer to numb the pain in his foot. 
The kids and I have busied ourselves with lots of beach time, visits to local farms, hikes, and the occasional craft or project. Matthew and Emma both love to paint and "help" me with creative additions to the house. Matthew has actually come up with some pretty awesome craft ideas that have turned into fun projects that we have all enjoyed. However, Emma is the one who came up with the most recent family project. While taking a walk around our neighborhood, Emma pointed out a stone she had spied in a flower bed that was painted like a ladybug. To my horror, she picked it up and declared that she was going to take it home because "it is just so cute!" I told her that it wasn't ours and told her to put it back. She did, slowly and reluctantly, and we continued on our walk. A short while later Emma, still thinking about the cute rock she had left behind, asked, "Mommy, can we make some of those?" I thought that was a great idea and told the kids that we could make them for our new flower bed!

Paul and I are very proud of the new flower bed in front of our house. There used to be these nasty juniper bushes filling that spot, but we dug them out last summer and planted a whole bunch of cute little flower plants in their stead. The plants all flower at different points throughout the summer and fall, so the logic behind the planting was that there would always be some type of flowers blooming. So far, we have been successful in that nothing has died on us! Matthew already added a couple mini American flags to the flower bed so I thought a couple painted rocks would also be a nice personalized touch.

While Emma was very excited to be painting ladybugs, Matthew suggested that we also paint some bees. I collected some outdoor acrylic paints as well as a glossy sealer for our rocks, and then we headed to the beach and the creek to search for flat, smooth rocks for our project. While we were out collecting, Matthew found one particularly ugly, scraggly-looking rock and he declared that he was going to paint it to look like a Woolly Mammoth. Having no idea what he was talking about, I just agreed that he could keep it and kept on collecting rocks.

Painting the rocks was so much fun! The kids were surprisingly helpful and not messy at all. Emma helped with painting the bodies of the bugs black and then Matthew, Amy, and I added the details. I was very impressed with Matthew's painting skills. When he puts his mind to things, he is surprisingly neat and detail-oriented! The paint dried very quickly so we didn't have to hang around long to see our project finished. Amy sprayed them with the sealer and allowed them to dry overnight just to be sure and soon they were ready to be scattered outside. The kids were so excited to help me distribute the rocks in the flower bed. I think they look pretty cute!

Oh, and Matthew did paint his Woolly Mammoth and carefully put it next to his Cosmos plant to "protect it from the garden spiders." I think it's pretty cute - see the trunk and tusks he painted on it? He grew that Cosmos plant himself during Kindergarten and brought it home at the end of the school year. We planted it in the garden along with the rest of the flowering plants and it has just thrived. Matthew is very proud of it.

Next, we are going to paint larger, flat rocks with the kids' hand and feet prints and we are going to set those up along the retaining wall. That was Amy's suggestion but she abandoned us before we had the chance to finish it. I think I'm going to have a rough time getting Lucy's footprints without her here to assist me in holding the child down long enough to get a good print!

If you are in search of a fun, easy, and semi-enjoyable summer activity, I highly recommend painting some rocks for your garden! I love that these little mementos will be around for a while as little reminders of fun, lazy summers with my kids while they were young.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Fruit Pizza with Citrus Glaze

We have had the pleasure of hosting my sister Amy for half the summer. The kids have loved having her around to play with them during times when Mommy is at her busiest and I have loved having an extra pair of hands to help me with the kids in addition to her companionship and friendship. Unfortunately, our time together is coming to a fast end and I am already sobbing into my pillow just thinking about the upcoming separation. Parting truly is such sweet sorrow. I don't know if I can go back to how things were before when it was just me, myself, and I chasing the kiddos around but I'll have to find a way to manage! She better head back this way next summer!

One of Amy's defining characteristics is her intense and passionate love of all things sugar. This girl craves Coca-Cola as if it is necessary for survival. She could eat ice cream and cookies morning, noon, and night. I rarely spy her without a box of candy in her hands. She is a serious addict. As a family, we ate a lot more sugar than we normally do when Amy was around - not that anyone minded! We made cookies and dessert quite a bit and ate a ton of ice cream, and our excuse was "because Aunt Amy is here!" Every day Aunt Amy is around is a day to celebrate with sweets!

One of the desserts Amy wanted to make while she was out here was a fruit pizza. Matthew had eaten a fruit pizza sometime during the school year when one of his classmates had brought one in for her birthday celebration and he had enjoyed it so much then that he was ecstatic when Amy set about making her own version. However, he really wasn't much help and Amy was a bit disappointed in his lack of interest in the actual construction of this fruit pizza. His only contribution was picking out the stems from the blueberries. Emma, on the other hand, was a little bit more heavily involved in the project. I'm not sure whether her involvement was desirable or not, but she was right at Amy's side the entire time, sticking her grubby fingers in every single component and taste-testing for quality control. We had a couple frustrating moments when placing the fruit on top in a pretty pattern and Emma would come out of nowhere and start picking the blueberries and kiwis off the top and popping them into her mouth. She just wanted to eat it! Ironically, when we served her a big slice later, it was much too late and she was too tired to eat it. However, she did polish it off for breakfast the next morning.

This is a good, classic summer dessert! The cookie base is quite good - great, actually - and we all enjoyed it very much. We served it for dessert when Lucy's godparents came up for a visit. Such a great visit - we always enjoy seeing these two - and the kids love their "Aunt" Jen and "Uncle" Pat. We had a really low-key meal of burgers but it was nice to have a special dessert to finish the night with them!

Thanks Amy for everything you've done for us this summer. I'm seriously in tears thinking about you leaving! And not just because I'll miss having an excuse to eat dessert every day!

Fruit Pizza with Strawberries, Blueberries, and Kiwi

For the Sugar Cookie Crust:
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 and 1/2 cups (190g) spoon & leveled all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 and 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

For the Topping:
8 oz full-fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups (240 grams) confectioners' sugar
1-2 Tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sliced Strawberries, blueberries, kiwi (or whatever combination you prefer!) 

For the Glaze:
1⁄2 cup fresh orange juice
1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 cup water
3⁄4 cup sugar
3 -4 tablespoons cornstarch

First, make the sugar cookie crust. In the large bowl of a stand mixer, cream the softened butter for about 1 minute on medium speed. Add the sugar and beat on medium speed until fluffy and light in color. Beat in egg and vanilla. Scrape down the sides as needed.

In another medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cornstarch together. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Once completely combined, cover the dough tightly and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 11-inch tart pan. Remove chilled cookie dough from the refrigerator and press into the bottom and sides of the tart pan. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the edges are very lightly browned. Be careful not to overbake!. Allow crust to cool completely before decorating.

While the crust cools, use the time to chop/slice the fruit. Refrigerate until ready to decorate!

To prepare the glaze, combine orange juice, lemon juice, sugar and corn starch in a saucepan.
Cook on medium-low heat until thickened. Allow the sauce to cool completely before using.

When ready to decorate, make the frosting. Using the stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Carefully add the confectioners’ sugar and 1 tablespoon of cream. Beat for 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and 1 more tablespoon of cream if needed to thin out. Beat for 1 minute. Spread in a thick layer over the cooled sugar cookie crust. Decorate with fruit by overlapping in concentric circles. Brush the glaze over the fruit to make it all shiny and pretty!

Cut into slices and serve. Leftovers keep well in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Strawberry Cream Cake

Have you ever watched the sun set with those you love most?

We are privileged to live in an area where the beauty of the sunsets rival those seen along the shores of Hawaii. Having never been to Hawaii, I can't really corroborate that claim but that's what the locals tell me. Regardless of the validity of that statement, I can attest that the sunsets here are truly breathtaking. If the weather cooperates, we can experience this small miracle every single evening. Because that's what a sunset truly is - a miracle, a daily marvel that occurs necessarily in order for life on earth to continue. I can't help but rejoice in the goodness of God as I watch the gorgeous colors paint the sky as the sun slowly slips beneath the horizon. It's a perfect moment, taking the whole family down to the beach, sitting close together on the wet sand and, just for a few precious seconds, all is quiet as we enjoy being in the presence of such beauty. We have watched the sun set twice this summer so far and each time I wonder why we don't do so every night!

Everyone enjoys going down to the beach in the evening. We normally stop at this cute little ice cream shop on the way there and bring it to the beach with us. The kids get all sticky and nasty, but then I just send them into the surf to wash the sugar from their hands. Even with ice cream, Lucy was pretty cranky this particular time and only wanted to be held by me. The waves rushing into the shoreline scared her a bit, but she got over it once she began playing with rocks. Matthew and Emma would have jumped right in to go swimming if I had let them even though I thought the water was pretty cold!

Looks like Matthew did jump right in at some point! Can you believe this kid used to fear water? A running faucet would send bring him to tears. Look at him now!

Emma was in 7th heaven because she loves to be messy. Mud, dirt, sand, water - this girl loves to get down and dirty and the beach is pretty much the only location where that is 100% okay!

So beautiful! Do you think we took enough pictures?

I love the summers in our area! We have the beaches, lush forestry surrounding us for hiking and exploring, and endless miles of farmland and orchards brimming with fresh produce all summer long. We have fresh strawberries ripening by the end of May. Raspberries, Blueberries, and Cherries are at their peak beginning in early July, followed by peaches in August. We took my sister Amy strawberry picking and I was absolutely in shock by how big and beautiful the berries were this year. We go every year regardless of how good the crops are, but due to the cold, lingering winters over the past two years, the strawberry plants have sported only a few, small berries. But not this year! The plants were brimming with big, juicy, bright red berries that were perfectly sweet! Usually, it takes us a bit of time to pick our usual 8 quarts worth of berries. This year, we were finished in less than 20 minutes. Poor Lucy had just settled down into a comfortable spot in the field where she could feast on the berries in front of her when we snatched her back up and headed towards the car because it was time to go!

One of the things we simply had to make with our bounty of berries is this Strawberry Cream Cake. If I had to pick a favorite summertime dessert, this would be my pick. It tastes like strawberry shortcake, only in cake form. The whipped cream cheese frosting is so good with the berries and the filling is unbelievably addicting. Now, this cake is over-the-top with perfectly ripe, in-season strawberries but I have also made it with the sad, anemic berries found during the month of January and it still turned out great with just a touch more sugar added to the filling. Everything comes together really easily for this cake and it is truly a show-stopper. My sister Amy was pretty obsessed with it. She has been begging me to make it again for the 4th of July. We shall see.

Strawberry Cream Cake
from Cook's Illustrated

For the Cake:
1¼ cups (5 ounces) cake flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon table salt
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
5 large eggs (2 whole and 3 separated), room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the Strawberry Filling:
2 pounds fresh strawberries (medium or large, about 2 quarts), washed, dried, and stemmed
4–6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Kirsch
Pinch table salt

For the Whipped Cream:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup (3½ ounces) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon table salt
2 cups heavy cream

Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a round 9 by 2-inch cake pan or 9-inch springform pan and line with parchment paper. Whisk flour, baking powder, salt, and all but 3 tablespoons sugar in a mixing bowl. Whisk in 2 whole eggs and 3 yolks (reserving whites), butter, water, and vanilla; whisk until smooth.

In a clean bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the remaining 3 egg whites at medium-low speed until frothy, 1 to 2 minutes. With the machine running, gradually add the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, increase the speed to medium-high, and beat until soft peaks form, 60 to 90 seconds. Stir one-third of the whites into the batter to lighten; add the remaining whites and gently fold into the batter until no white streaks remain. Pour the batter into a prepared pan and bake until a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then invert the cake onto a greased wire rack; peel off and discard the parchment. Invert the cake again; cool completely, about 2 hours.

Meanwhile, make the strawberry filling. Halve 24 of the best-looking berries and reserve. Quarter the remaining berries; toss with 4 to 6 tablespoons sugar (depending on the sweetness of the berries) in a medium bowl and let sit 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Strain the juices from the berries and reserve (you should have about ½ cup). In the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, give the macerated berries five 1-second pulses (you should have about 1½ cups). In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, simmer the reserved juices and Kirsch until the mixture is syrupy and reduced to about 3 tablespoons, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the reduced syrup over the macerated berries, add a pinch of salt, and toss to combine. Set aside until the cake is cooled.

When the cake has cooled, place the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the speed to low and add heavy cream in a slow, steady stream; when it’s almost fully combined, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks, 2 to 2½ minutes more, scraping the bowl as needed (you should have about 4½ cups).

Using a large serrated knife, slice the cake into three even layers. Place the bottom layer on a cardboard round or cake plate and arrange a ring of 20 strawberry halves, cut sides down and stem ends facing out, around the perimeter of the cake layer. Pour one half of the pureed berry mixture (about ¾ cup) in the center, then spread to cover any exposed cake. Gently spread about one-third of the whipped cream (about 1½ cups) over the berry layer, leaving a ½-inch border from the edge. Place the middle cake layer on top and press down gently (the whipped cream layer should become flush with cake edge). Repeat with 20 additional strawberry halves, the remaining berry mixture, and half of the remaining whipped cream; gently press the last cake layer on top. Spread the remaining whipped cream over the top; decorate with the remaining cut strawberries. Serve, or chill for up to 4 hours.