Friday, September 30, 2016

French-Style White Bean Stew

Every night when I strap Lucy into her high chair and place her meal in front of her, I have exactly five minutes before she will pick up her plate and shove it towards me while declaring: "All done!" Naturally, the rest of us are usually not finished quite so quickly and the little lady has to wait before we release her back into the wild. She finds this very displeasing and then will spend the remainder of dinner whining and demanding her freedom. It's horribly annoying and a very unsatisfactory dining experience after all the work effort that normally goes into cooking dinner.

Because of this awful habit, Lucy rarely cleans her plate. Unless we have pizza and then she is sure to polish off at least three slices (but will pick the pepperoni off). However, the girls is not opposed to trying new things. She is always wandering around the house putting random objects in her mouth. Normally I will be fussing about vacuuming or folding laundry and Lucy will wander in with her mouth wide open and her tongue sticking out while making an "Ahhhhh" sound. This means that she put something unpleasant in her mouth and now requires my help fishing it back out. Usually it's a piece of lint, a toy (!), or a bit of paper. When outside, I have to monitor her very closely because she loves to try eating all the plants she can find. I'm constantly slapping grass, pieces of the rosebush, or the hydrangeas out of her tight little fists. She won't ever touch a bit of the salad I put in front of her for dinner, but she's all about neighborhood foraging.

Lucy's random taste testing took an all time low this week while we were at the grocery store. I had written out a list of items we needed on a small piece of notebook paper and was reading off of it as we navigated throughout the store aisles. Lucy noticed my list and swiped it out of my hands. I was so distracted by my shopping that I just let her hold it. However, when it came time for me to glance at it again to ensure that I had bought everything, the list was nowhere to be found.

"Lucy, did you drop it?" I asked her as I began to visually search the floor of the aisle we had just walked down. Unable to find it, I glanced back at Lucy and noticed her mouth was full. Full of my list! She had jammed the entire piece of paper into her cheeks. I fished it out and found it almost completely dissolved and illegible. I scolded Lucy and she grinned sheepishly. When we got home from shopping, I tried to feed her a snack of Greek yogurt but she wouldn't have any of it. I guess that piece of notebook paper filled her right up!

The recipe for today is another meal that my kids wouldn't touch. But I didn't make this with their taste buds in mind. I made it for Paul. His favorite thing about the cooler months are the warm, cozy meals that are typically made during them. He loves soups, stews, chilis, casseroles, and basically anything that should be served with a side of crusty bread. This recipe for chicken cassoulet is right up his alley and it was the perfect comforting, easy, filling dinner to serve during a very stressful work week. Like I said, the kids, with the exception of Matthew, wouldn't touch it and just ate bread for dinner but the rest of us loved it. I'm a big fan of meals that can be made in one pot and this recipe fit that bill perfectly.

French-Style White Bean Stew
adapted slightly from Cook's Country Feb/March 2016

Note: The original recipe called for the stew to be served with homemade toasted croutons scatter atop each serving, but we chose to skip that and just made some garlic bread as a side.

1 tablespoons olive oil
2 (5-7 ounce) bone-in chicken thighs, trimmed
8 ounces garlic sausage or bratwurst
1 onion, chopped fine
1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (15 ounce) can of navy beans or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season well with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 10-inch heavy skillet or dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add chicken, skin side down, and sausage and cook, rotating sausage occasionally but leaving chicken undisturbed, until well browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to plate.

Add onion, tomatoes, and 14 teaspoon salt to now-empty pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in broth and wine and scrape up any browned bits. Add beans and stir to combine.

Add chicken, skin side up, sausage, and any accumulated juices to bean mixture and ring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until chicken registers 175 degrees, about 10-15 minutes.

Remove lid, increase heat to medium-low, and continue to simmer until sauce is slightly thickened and liquid falls just below surface of beans, about 10 minutes longer. It's really loose when you first take it off the heat (as it is in my picture above) but will thicken upon standing. Sprinkle with parsley right before serving.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Apple Pie Bars

While sorting through my photo archive, I came across some fun pictures I had forgotten about from a visit to my parents' house a couple months ago. On this particular visit, Mom and I took my kids and a couple of my younger siblings to the zoo. We had a great time except for getting absolutely drenched by a sudden cloud burst. Highlights for the kids included petting a sting ray, watching the very active sea lions swim about, and chasing the peacocks. The Fort Wayne Children's Zoo is definitely one of the nicest zoos we have ever visited. Not too big, very clean, very beautiful, and with lots of well-cared for happy animals to enjoy!

No idea what was up with the punk faces in this photo. Matthew and Bruce just think they're so cool.

The highlight for me was making friends with this very weird little monkey.

Cooler temperatures means our days to walk the zoo are numbered before we become too encumbered by snow and frigid wind. The best part about Fall is the many varieties of local apples that are finally appearing in the supermarket and the roadside farm stands. The kids and I are going to the orchards to pick some apples later this week and Matthew has a long list of apple treats he wants to help me make and apple pie is at the top of his list. He wants me to enter the Apple Pie Contest again this year. We'll see if I have time for that!

This recipe for Apple Pie Bars is not new. I have been making these bars for over eight years now and they are still a family favorite. I posted this recipe in during the very early years of this blog and it instantly became the most popular recipe and held that spot for nearly a year. It has since been forgotten, but we love it so much and think it's such an insanely easy and wonderful treat to share with friends and family that I am pulling it out of the archives, jazzing it up with some new pictures, and bringing it to your attention once again. Since I have made these a gazillion times, we tend to like them with a bit more butterscotch chips than the original recipe calls for and the addition of one cup of coarsely chopped and toasted walnuts. The bars soften even more as they sit and really take on a gooey, apple pie texture about 24 hours after baking. That is how I like them best.

Matthew, Emma, and I made this most recent batch of Apple Pie Bars together. Lucy contributed some quality control in the form of taste-testing the butterscotch chips and diced apples. She also provided some mood music by baby-babbling her way through "Angels Watching Over Me", "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Let It Go" at the top of her lungs. Matthew was extremely helpful by volunteering to peel the apples for me, a task I truly abhor. Twenty minutes later, Matthew had precisely peeled exactly one apple. So I ended up having to do some peeling anyway. While I was distracted doing that, Emma started eating teaspoonfuls of baking soda and drinking the vanilla extract. I then banished her from the kitchen and finished off the baking with Matthew alone. Thus is baking with kids. Or just Emma. Most kids beg to sample the chocolate chips; Emma sneaks the baking powder and raw flour.

When fall comes around, forget pumpkin pie or apple crisp. These cookies are the first thing we pull out of our oven!

Apple Pie Bars
this recipe first appeared on the blog in 2012

1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and finely diced
1 cup butterscotch chips (we like to heap it!)
1 cup lightly toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 13x9 baking dish.

Using a stand mixer, beat the oil, sugar, and eggs until fully combined (about 2 minutes).  The mixture should be thick and pale yellow.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and spices.  Add to the sugar mixture in the mixer and beat until completely combined.  Using a sturdy spoon or spatula, fold in the apples, butterscotch chips, and walnuts.  The batter should be very thick.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.  Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes - 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out with only a few, moist crumbs attached.  Be careful not to over-bake.  Let cool slightly on a wire rack.  Serve the bars warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

S'mores Cookie Bars

All summer long, Matthew and Emma begged and pleaded for me to allow them to host their best friends for a sleepover. I wasn't opposed to the idea at all, but we were so busy all June, July, and August that it wasn't until the first weekend in September that we finally were able to have our dearest friends Sophia and Bella over to spend the night. We asked Matthew and Emma what they wanted to do with the girls during their time here and they both agreed that the best sleepovers involve bonfires, hot dogs, s'mores, movies, and popcorn. Easy enough. We bought hot dogs, the biggest marshmallows you've ever seen in your life, and lit the fire outside about 45 minutes before the girls arrived so that it would be nice and hot for them to cook their dogs and roast their marshmallows.

Well, by the time they arrived, some menacing clouds had covered the sky and a nasty thunderstorm seemed imminent. Within 10 minutes of the girls' arrival, the skies opened up and we began to be pelted with a torrential downpour complete with booming thunder and large lightening bolts. And there went our bonfire. A few minutes later, we discovered we had our very own personal waterfall flowing into the basement and the kids excitedly helped Paul contain it and clean up the mess it caused. For the kids, the flood control may have been the most exciting part of the evening.

In the end, we cooked hot dogs on the stove top, ate indoors, and watched the rain put out the fire Paul had so carefully built outside. When all plates were cleaned, the kids asked, "But what about the s'mores?!" The only solution was to come up with a fun way to make the classic campfire treat inside.

Using a basic sugar cookie base with the addition of some graham cracker crumbs for authentic s'mores flavor, we made a bar cookie sandwiching the irresistible combination of chocolate and marshmallow. A breeze to put together, the entire pan was out of the oven and cooling before the kids finished getting into their pajamas, although several games of tag and hide-and-seek that certainly slowed that process! While still warm, the cookies are gooey and melty and almost need to be eaten with a fork to avoid getting sticky fingers. If you let them sit until completely cool, they take on the texture of a super soft, chewy cookie that slices really neatly. I honestly can't decide which way I liked them better. The kids went crazy for them and the girls begged to take the leftovers home. I honestly probably prefer these cookies to classic s'mores and was almost grateful to the rain for inspiring us to whip up this creative, less messy version.

S'mores Cookie Bars

1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/3 cups flour
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 ounces milk chocolate Hershey Bars
1 bag miniature marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter, brown sugar, sugar, egg, and vanilla together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder, and salt. Slowly beat the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. Press half the dough into a greased 9x9 pan.The dough was a bit sticky but persevere! Once pressed into the pan, completely cover the dough with a layer of Hershey bars. Then, toss on enough marshmallows to completely cover the chocolate.

Take a piece large piece of parchment and spread it out on the counter. Pat the remaining cookie dough into a square approximately 8x8". Carefully (I had Paul assist me) flip the dough onto the marshmallow layer and carefully peel away the parchment. Pat and tuck the dough into the corners and sides of the pan and press lightly down to ensure that it is fully sandwiching the filling.

Place the pan in the preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown. Let stand a bit for the ingredients to settle before slicing and serving. They are a bit messy and gooey, but that's part of the fun!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Mazurka Bars

Nearly a month ago, Matthew began the first grade and I can barely believe it! The school year has treated him well so far and my worries about how little real schoolwork we did together over the summer were entirely unfounded. In the three short weeks he has been in school, I have already seen a remarkable improvement in his penmanship, reading, and spelling. He absolutely adores his teacher and reminds me on a daily basis that "Mrs. Smith is really, really pretty!" His girlfriend Lillian (yes, they are apparently still an item) also has the same teacher and Matthew was over-the-moon about that. I've had to watch those two walk to class together holding hands nearly every morning.

The morning of Matthew's first day of school, he woke up bright and early, pulled on his uniform, and then excitedly milled about until it was time to go. Unfortunately, he had to entertain himself for a good three hours before school began since he chose to get up at 5:30 AM. Not to mention, his sisters were little bums that day and I had to practically drag them out of bed in order to make it to school on time. Emma was largely uncooperative for the pictures. In fact, while I was snapping these few sweet shots of Matthew and Lucy together, Emma was lying prostrated on the pavement behind me and kicking her limbs while protesting almost everything I was asking her to do simply because she was angry that I had separated her from the comforts of her bed.

She did eventually shape up and took a group picture with her siblings. I love comparing this image of the three of them to the back-to-school photo captured the previous year. What a difference a year makes! Why must they grow?

A lot has happened during these three short weeks of the school year. The kids and I participated in a 5K benefit race for the school. Paul chickened out and chose to go biking with a group of coworkers instead. Matthew and I did a couple practice runs in anticipation of the race and I was really impressed with his endurance. The plan was that Matthew and I would jog together while I also pushed both girls in the double stroller. Matthew was so excited especially when we picked up our race packs complete with our shirts and numbers. However, when the morning of the race dawned, he was completely unmotivated when he saw that it was storming outside. Rain or shine, I was determined to complete the run so I packed all the kids up and headed out in the pouring rain to the race location.

"But Mommy! We might get hit by lightening if we run in the storm!" Matthew worried aloud.
"Don't worry Matthew! I'm sure Father David has been praying really hard for good weather. It'll clear up!" I replied.

Amazingly, as soon as we arrived, the skies cleared a bit and the rain stopped just long enough for us to complete the race before it began pouring once more. It was truly a miracle.

The race was so much fun! Matthew whined after mile one but then finished strong. Emma was an awesome cheerleader, always encouraging me to go faster and cheering the other runners along. Lucy was a miserable, cranky mess who completely started freaking out once we hit mile two so I ended up pulling her out of the stroller and jogging with her on my hip for the remainder of the race. The girls and I crossed the finish line a few minutes ahead of Matthew and it was so fun to watch him come in towards the finish line. He loved seeing us, our pastor, his teachers, and friends cheering him on as he sprinted towards the finish line. He finished 51st out of 207 and I was so proud of him! It was so much fun to participate in the run as a family. Next time, we have to get that slacker husband of mine to join us.

The final, not-so-fun notable event of the school year so far was the outbreak of lice on the noggins of two of our children. Matthew and Lucy were both infested while Emma, Paul, and me were spared. Treating lice was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life thus far. I cleaned, sanitized, bagged, shampooed, and scrubbed every item in our house and picked through every single piece of hair on Matthew and Lucy's head until I was sure that I had eliminated every louse and louse egg. I'm no smoker, but if I were, I would have gone through at least six packs a day during what I am now nostalgically referring to as "Lice Week.". I was so stressed out that I barely slept! Thankfully, we have eliminated the problem and Matthew is back at school completely lice-free and I am making it a personal goal to never, ever allow those nasty parasites to freely munch on the scalps of my children again!

Speaking of the munchies, my kid always comes home from school absolutely starving which is why it is always helpful to have some kind of snack on hand for him. I don't know if it is the age or the fact that he is growing even taller but Matthew has had the most voracious appetite lately. Last year, it was pretty common for him to come home from school with most of his lunch untouched but this year he has been demolishing everything I pack for him. In addition, he always requests an after-school-snack. I've been trying to have some type of treat on hand for him to munch on such as these Mazurka Bars. Mazurka bars are a traditional polish dessert made for special occasions that feature a buttery crust sandwiching fresh fruit. If you've ever been to a Great Harvest bakery, these mazurka bars are reminiscent to the addictive treat they sell called Savannah Bars. With an oatmeal and coconut base, these sweet treats are topped with fresh seasonal fruit and make a pretty hearty snack guaranteed to keep you energized until dinnertime. I used peaches and blueberries in mine because that's what we had on hand, but really you could use anything - thinly sliced apples, strawberries, pears, raspberries, blackberries - the choice is yours. Just don't overload them too much or they will be soggy. Although I have not yet tried it, I'm sure using a jam or preserve of your choice instead of fresh fruit would also make a great filling!

Mazurka Bars
adapted from Cakespy

For the Pastry:
1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 3/4 ounces (1/2 cup, firmly packed) shredded coconut
3/4 old fashioned or quick cooking (not "instant") oatmeal
2 ounces (generous 1/2 cup) toasted walnuts, cut medium fine

For the Fruit Filling:
Sliced peaches, blueberries, apples, pears, or fruit of choice, thinly sliced - enough to create a thin layer of fruit
Sugar to taste (usually a few tablespoons)

Adjust a rack to the upper third of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place the Flour, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. With a pastry blender cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the coconut, oatmeal, and walnuts.

Place half (about 3 cups) of the mixture in an unbuttered 8-inch-square cake pan. Press it evenly with your fingertips. Cover with a piece of wax paper and with the palm of your hand press against the paper to make a smooth, compact layer. Remove the wax paper.

Taste the fruit and toss with a bit of sugar until the sweetness level is satisfactory.

Place the fruit slices in an even layer. Sprinkle the remaining pastry evenly over the filling and repeat the directions for covering with wax paper and pressing smooth. Remove the wax paper.

Bake for 60-70 minutes until the top is barely firm to the touch.

Cool in the pan before serving for neater looking cuts. Can be served warm with ice cream or at room temperature as a snack!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Grilled Chicken with Savory Peach Sauce

Five years ago, Paul and I were taking a drive through the countryside when we stumbled upon a sign indicating the presence of a pick-your-own peach orchard in the area. We followed the sign and arrived at a small family farm with a couple acres of peach trees. We grabbed a bucket and filled it to the brim with the biggest, juiciest, most fragrant peaches you ever laid eyes on. We bought about fifteen pounds of peaches that day and vowed to go back for more but then got too busy and peach season was over.

In the years that followed, we have tried and tried to get back to that same farm to pick more peaches but the weather unfortunately has not been too kind to the peach trees in our area. Due to the freezing temperatures and slow thaw of the winters, the peach trees all either died off or went dormant, refusing to produce any fruit the following summer. Paul, being the passionate stone fruit lover that he is, was especially choked up about the demise of the peaches.

However, this summer we heard a rumor that the peaches were back! Thanks to a mild winter and a little TLC from the area farmers, the trees were filled with peaches fresh for the picking! Paul and I waited until the moment we heard the farms were ready to plan a trip to pick as many peaches as we could. The day came and the kids and I were at the YMCA outdoor pool when Paul came to join us. Instead of swimming, he told the kids to get dressed and pile in the car - it was time to get some peaches! The kids all whined and moaned for they wanted to keep swimming.

"I don't like peaches!" Matthew the whiner wailed, to which Paul replied, "Too bad, kid. Get in the car!"

The kids continued to protest the entire way. The early evening is not their best time of day because they are tired, grumpy, hungry, and generally lots of fun to be around. The farm is located about 30 minutes from our home, so we had a bit of a trip but made due by playing the most obnoxious children's music CD at full volume until Paul and I had migraines - an Australian Bob Dylan-esque musician singing folksy tunes about animals. Each of his approximately three minute songs have about three lyric lines that he repeats over and over, for example:

"An African Zebra. A Zebra! 
A Zebra is What I am. 
African Zebra. I am not a horse!" 

The kids could listen to it all day long. Paul and I can stand about half a minute.

When we finally pulled up to the farm, we were about 15 minutes away from their posted closing time so Paul hopped out hurriedly to make sure we weren't too late to start picking while I began unstrapping the kids from their car seats. I suddenly saw Paul stumble, look down, and quickly fish out what looked like a large, wet rodent from a large bucket of water. I hurried over to see what he was doing and saw that he was cradling a tiny, four-week-old kitten. The poor thing had somehow fallen into that bucket of water and was not breathing. We held it close, rubbed its back, and it started to choke, spit up some water, and then started breathing quickly once again. I wrapped the kitten in my shirt because it was shivering so hard and the kids ran over from the car and began to congratulate their Dad for saving the kitten's life.

We learned later from the farmer that the kitten was one of a litter of three. He had no idea how that little kitten had fallen into that bucket, especially since it was less than a month old and not capable of climbing anything too high. We dried the kitten up a bit more and then left it to sit in the sun while we went to pick our peaches. We explained to the kids on the way to the orchard that had we not left to pick peaches precisely when we did, that kitten would have drowned. Suddenly, upon seeing themselves as kitten saviors, the children puffed up and stopped whining and were actually helpful in lugging buckets back and forth from the peach trees. Afterward, they got to play with the rescued kitty and his two brothers. That, of course, was the highlight for them. They begged for us to adopt one of the kittens but a strict "NO" was uttered by their father. We are not ready to replace Riley just yet.

Ice cream on the porch. Trying out a weird filter on the camera. Thoughts?

We have used our pounds and pounds of peaches to make all kinds of treats - kolaches, cobblers, pies, and cookies. However, some savory items were made as well, such as this peach sauce we served over grilled chicken. This meal was kind of a throw-together affair and I concocted the sauce using some wine we had leftover in the fridge, some of the fresh peaches, thyme sprigs, a touch of mustard, and a bit of butter to finish. Paul was skeptical, especially when he saw me add the mustard, but upon tasting it he told me that I HAD to record what I did because he wanted me to make it again. I also thought it was incredible and would especially be great served with pork chops or pork loin. Something about the sweetness of the pork would pair really well with this sauce. However, it was really great on the chicken too. While it was fantastic with our fresh peaches, I'm sure it can be made with frozen peaches as well!

Savory Peach Sauce

Note: This sauce would be a great accompaniment to either pork or chicken!

12 ounces fresh peaches, peeled and pitted
1 1/2 cups dry white wine (we used a chardonnay we had leftover)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1-2 tablespoons butter

Cut the peaches into 1″ chunks or slices. Add your peach chunks, white wine, 1/2-cup sugar, 1/4-cup cider vinegar, and 2 sprigs of thyme to a small saucepan.

Bring sauce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the sauce has reduced to approximately two cups, remove from heat. Find and discard the thyme sprigs, then add the final tablespoon of rice vinegar, one tablespoon of Dijon mustard, and 1 tablespoon of butter. Whisk together and put back over low heat to thicken slightly, about a minute more. Taste, add more butter, salt, or pepper if desired.

Serve over meat of choice!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Czech Kolaches with Blueberry and Nectarine Filling

On our way back from Montana, we decided to take a slight detour and spend a couple days in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. We did not choose to visit this area because we are big Packers fans nor did we wish to witness the Tall Ships Festival that was in town that weekend, although seeing a gigantic floating rubber duck in the middle of the glistening lake as we drove past was very neat! No, the reason for our little detour was to meet up with my side of the family to "czech" an item off my Dad's bucket list by attending the annual Czech Kolache Festival held every year in the Green Bay area. My Grandpa is 50% Czech and his Dad, my grandpa, was 100% Czech and extremely proud of his heritage. One of the most famed and celebrated Czech traditions is the baking of Kolache, a puffed piece of sweet bread with an indented center that is filled with a fruit or cheese topping. Apparently my Grandma used to make the most wonderful Kolache and my Dad has pined for Kolache that lives up to the ones from his childhood memories.

So, to Green Bay we went. On the morning of the Kolache festival, we met up bright and early and headed to the festival location at a historical barn located in the middle of acres and acres of green farmland in Kewaunee. My parents were already there and had already picked up a huge sampler of kolaches for everyone to try.

"Monica, this is so creepy," my brother Mark whispered to me, "there are tons of old people walking around here that look just like Dad!" I couldn't disagree with him. There was something in the faces of every attendee that made us think that there must be some shared ancestral commonality. It was truly bizarre. However, it was truly wonderful to see so many people, so many families, come out to celebrate their heritage, their faith, their traditions. The festival began with Mass in the social hall and there was standing room only for all the chairs were accounted for long before Mass began. Everyone was so friendly, sweet, and cheery that it felt almost as if, just for having some connection to the Czech Republic, all of us gathered there were considered part of one giant extended family. There was lots of food, lots of music, some crafts for sale, and some great family time.

I bought my Dad a couple pins with phrases like "Czech Me Out", "Happiness is Being Married to a Czech", or "I married a Czech and still have my Sanity" and he, Mark, and Mom proudly wore them the rest of the day. Dad was totally in his element that day and it made my heart swell.

My Dad, the happy Czech, and my Mom, who loves to remind us kids that we are just as much Lithuanian as we are Czech.

"Of course I'm right, I'm CZECH!"

The kolaches were truly the highlight of the festival for most people there. The line to purchase kolaches was so incredibly long and the festival program claimed that that more than 20,000 kolaches were sold the previous year! My parents purchased a wide variety for all of us to sample, including cherry, strawberry-rhubarb, cream cheese, raspberry, and apricot. All 30 kolaches were gone in a matter of minutes. They were so light in texture and not overly sweet that it was easy to eat more than one. I loved the strawberry-rhubarb, but surprisingly the apricot filling was especially memorable. Emma ate three kolaches on her own, although she kept insisting that they were "donuts" because, clearly, at the tender age of three she knows everything. I really loved them and Paul was surprised by how much he loved them. If they're Czech, they have to be good!

Our experiences at the Czech festival inspired me to make some kolaches to share here as soon as we came back from our trip. Apparently, kolaches were traditionally made as a wedding dessert but now are served as a breakfast sweet, dessert, or snack. Each Czech family has their own "family recipe" for kolaches and, while there may be some subtle differences in preparation, most recipes seem to be quite similar. Some call for sour cream, some for scalded milk, some for butter, others for shortening, some are sweeter than others, and, of course, the filling can be whatever you imagine although purists will claim that apricot or cream cheese are the only truly traditional ones. For my kolaches, I have a couple different recipes that I have fiddled around with but I like the one from Cook's Country the most because it is very similar to a lot of traditional recipes I have spied in Czech cookbooks (I paged through a couple at the festival) and it is also the most straight-forward. It does include a struesel topping that is not normally seen but, in my opinion, is a smart addition for a bit of textural contrast.

For the filling, I use whatever fruit I have on hand and this time that just happened to be blueberries and nectarines. I actually really liked the nectarine filling and those I shared these kolaches with agreed that it was their favorite as well, so I am including it below.

Try these Czech pastries and enjoy a little taste of my family heritage! Or, as my Dad - King of the Puns - would say: "Czech Them Out!"

Czech Kolaches with Fruit Filling
adapted from Cook's Country

For the Dough:
1  Cup  Whole Milk
10  Tablespoons  Butter, melted
1  large Egg
2  large Egg Yolks, whites reserved
3-1/2  Cups  Flour
1/3  Cup  Sugar
2-1/4  teaspoons instant yeast
1-1/2  teaspoons  Salt

For the Filling:
10 ounces fruit (blueberries, nectarines, peaches, cherries, pineapple), fresh or frozen - be sure to dice the fresh nectarines or peaches into bite sized pieces
5 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons corn starch

For the Streusel:
2  Tablespoons -plus- 2 teaspoons  Flour
2  Tablespoons -plus- 2 teaspoons  Sugar
1  Tablespoon  Butter, chilled and cut into 8 pieces

For the Egg Wash:
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk

Grease a large bowl, set aside.  Whisk the Milk, Melted Butter, Egg, and Yolks together in a 2-cup measuring cup (the Butter will form lumps).  Whisk the Flour, Sugar, Yeast, and Salt together in the bowl of stand mixer.  Fit mixer with the dough hook, add Milk mixture to the Flour mixture, and knead on low speed until no dry flour remains, about 2 minutes.  Increase speed to medium and knead until dough clears the sides of the bowl but still sticks to the bottom of the bowl, about 8 to 12 minutes.  If the dough hasn't cleared the bowl after 12 minutes, add more Flour, 1 Tablespoon at a time, up to 2 Tablespoons.

Transfer dough to greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Let dough rise until doubled, about 60-90 minutes.

To make the streusel, combine the Flour, Sugar, and Butter in a small bowl and rub between your fingers until mixture resembles wet sand.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

To make the fruit filling, combine fruit, sugar, and cornstarch in a bowl.  Mix well. Microwave, covered, until bubbling and thickened, about 6 minutes, stirring halfway through cooking.  Mash with a potato masher or leave as is for a chunkier filling.  Let cool completely before filling kolaches.

After the dough has finished rising, line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.  Punch down Dough and place on a lightly floured surface.  Divide Dough into quarters and cut each quarter into 4 equal pieces.  Form each piece into a smooth, tight ball.  Arrange 8 balls on each baking sheet and cover loosely with plastic wrap.  Place the baking sheets in the oven, replace the water in the loaf pan with 3 cup Boiling Water, close oven door and let rise until doubled, about 90 minutes.

Remove baking sheets and loaf pan from oven.  Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour the bottom of a 1/3-cup measure (or a 2-1/4-inch-diameter drinking glass).  Make a deep indentation in the center of each dough ball by slowly pressing until cup touches sheet.  The perimeter of the dough balls will deflate slightly.

Gently brush the Kolaches all over with the Egg-Milk mixture.  Spoon filling into the Kolaches, about 1-1/2 Tablespoons per Kolache.  Sprinkle with streusel.  Bake until just golden brown, about 25 minutes, switching and rotating sheets halfway through baking.  Be careful not to overbake! Let cool on pan for 20 minutes.

Serve warm.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Week in Montana

After the hectic, tiring, and slightly stressful affair that was our road trip out west, upon reaching our destination we were able to enjoy a relaxing and joyful week with our Montana family. The kids were so excited to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins! It was a fantastic reunion. Here are a few highlights from our trip based on the photos from my camera. Beware, there are many, many images to follow!

Paul's parents live in a beautiful home tucked away in the mountains outside of Helena. A few years ago, they added a large pond to their backyard complete with a dock, a boat, and a zip-line. The weather was absolutely beautiful and very, very warm most days we were in town so the kids spent a lot of time playing out by the water. Paul's sisters Amy and Ali often came to join us up at the house for these swimming sessions and brought all our little nieces and nephews along with them. Matthew was especially excited to be reunited with his cousins Benedict and Stevie - those boys are wild together but I loved seeing them interact!

The zip-line was lowered a bit during one afternoon in an attempt to get the children to actually consider taking a trip across the pond while holding on for dear life. Surprisingly, every single one of them gathered up enough courage to try! I was especially surprised to see Matthew volunteer to be the first victim. It had actually been Emma's idea to go on the zip-line at all. However, once the line was lowered enough for her to grab, Emma refused to give it a try: "No! I'm just a little girl!" We finally got her to go, but only after every single one of her cousins had a turn and her poor Aunt MaryRose agreed to catch her in the water. Such a whiner.

One of the highlights of the week was attending the Last Chance Stampede Fair with Grandpa and MaryRose. Complete with rides, animals, shopping, and food, we were fortunate to go at a time when the fair was not completely overrun with people!

As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by a bunch of friendly horses. Nearby was a bucket full of treats that you were allowed to feed to the horses while you petted them. I gave the kids a lesson in how to properly feed a horse without having your fingers bit off. They were a bit squeamish about it, but had it handled pretty well by the end. I just love horses. Such beautiful creatures!

The kids loved petting all the horses and ponies at the entrance, but the animal that really captured their fancies was the Polish Chicken. Both kids for some reason thought that chicken was the cutest, funniest thing they had ever seen. They were thrilled to find one wandering around the little petting zoo set up. That was the most docile chicken I've ever encountered, he just melted into the crook of the arm of his holder and seemed to love being petted.

The little goats, on the other hand, were not quite so docile. Fairly aggressive, they would push and prod to investigate whether you had treats to offer them. If they found you were empty-handed, they would deem you uninteresting and move on to their next victim. Emma, of course, chose the lone pregnant goat to hug and that poor goat was a bit sensitive about her swollen midsection. After enduring a third squeeze from Emma, she got a bit upset and tried to bite her. And that was the end of the petting zoo.

Emma's favorite part of the whole fair was riding the Ferris Wheel with Grandpa. I was a little worried that she would make it all the way to the top of the wheel, realize just how high she was suspended in the air, and then panic. I was happy to be wrong - she enjoyed the entire ride although she did request to sit on the same side as Grandpa by the end of the ride. Matthew rode with MaryRose which forced me to take a ride up in the sky with that guy I married. Luckily, he's mighty cute.

See Emma peeking over the side there? So cute!

Then, MaryRose took the kids on a Tilt-a-Whirl. You won't catch me riding one of those things, but the kids were so happy. It was a hoot watching their laughing faces go spinning and whizzing past.

It was so hot at the fair that we ducked inside one of the buildings to get a reprieve from the sunlight and found that they were putting on a reptile show for the kids! The kids and I snagged pretty decent seats and enjoyed seeing all kinds of neat, slightly terrifying creatures. Matthew even got called up onstage at one point to hold the Red Box Turtle. He was thrilled! He was even more excited when, about 10 minutes later, I volunteered to hold the giant yellow python in front of everyone. Emma was a little disturbed and I could hear her little voice pleading with me to come back and sit down the entire time I was up front. I think she was afraid that the snake was going to eat me. She couldn't have been too scared because immediately after the show was over, she went right up to the front and petted that big yellow snake. Matthew refused to go anywhere near it so he hid in the back with Paul (who was also refusing to go anywhere near that snake) until Emma and I were finished.

We attempted to take a family photo with all the members present after dinner one evening. This proved to be extremely difficult with all the kids. The most uncooperative member of the group was definitely Emma. Out of the 20+ outtakes from this photo session, 90% of them were spoiled by Emma's antics, whether they be sticking a finger up her nose, squeezing the life out of Uncle Steven's cheeks, or kicking and punching the back of poor Uncle John Paul's head (what John Paul ever did to deserve such abuse, I will never know!) Here are my favorite outtakes - just look at Emma beating up on her poor uncle.

This photo was the best of the bunch - and Emma is still being a twerp.

And then when the time came to take a photo of all the grandkids together, Matthew sort of melted behind Lucy. It is nearly impossible to get an entire group of little kids to smile at the same time. And not just smile, but smile sweetly and naturally, not robotically. Most of the outtakes from the pictures of just the grandkids involved Emma digging for gold in her nasal passages.

A final picture depicting Grandma and Grandpa and their growing group of grandchildren. I think this turned out pretty cute!

Paul's sister Amy and her husband were in the process of purchasing a new home when we arrived so they were quite busy with both the closing and the process of moving all their things. One of the days, Paul's older sister Ali and I took all the cousins to the park while everyone else helped with the move. We had a lot of little kids with us, but it was super fun and they were all pretty well behaved. Lucy just loved riding in the double stroller with little Elena. We walked to Barney park, a cute little city park that I frequented a lot with my parents and siblings when we were living in Helena many years ago. It certainly has changed. I immediately looked for the hill where my siblings and I used to sled down during the winter or roll and tumble down during the warm summer months. I could not believe how dinky and tiny it looked. When I was little, I thought that hill was gigantic!

The only casualty of the outing was Emma's bottom. The sun was scorching hot and Emma decided to go down the yellow plastic slide that had heated in the direct sunlight and burnt the back of her legs. However, she survived and later that same day Paul and I took the kids down to the Helena Walking Mall for a short jaunt and a bit of ice cream.

Matthew found this sign particularly amusing even though he had no idea what it said. He just knew it had something to do with dinosaurs and that was reason enough to snap a photo.

Speaking of Dinosaurs, one of the days, Paul and I took Matthew and Aunt MaryRose to visit the Museum of the Rockies. We mainly wanted to go because Matthew is going through a major dinosaur phase right now. He talks about them nonstop. When we go to the library, he begs to check out every book he can find about dinosaurs. He can pronounce most of those names better than I can and has declared his favorite dinosaur, in addition to the typical Tyrannosaurus Rex, to be Pachycephalosaurus. In fact, he has also expressed a desire to be a paleontologist someday and dig up dinosaur bones in Montana. "Do you think I would be a good paleontologist, Mommy?" he asks me constantly. You can do anything you put your mind to, little guy!

The dinosaur exhibits were extensive, informative, and fascinating! I learned quite a bit - for example, did you know that the characteristic horns on the skull of a Triceratops would change their orientation during maturation from adolescence to adulthood? The museum had an entire display of Triceratops skulls in different stages of development to demonstrate this trait. So interesting! Even Lucy just had to wiggle her way out of her stroller in order to get a closer look at some of the displays.

No trip to Montana would be complete without a bit of hiking. Paul and I snuck away for a morning hike one of the days. It was so incredibly hot, especially when carrying a sleeping, 30-pound baby on your back.

Of course Paul insisted that we take a couple goofy pictures once we had nearly reached the summit. Here he is making an epic final struggle towards the top...

...followed by a triumphant pose after conquering the climb!

There is no denying that this place is beautiful!

The kids loved their cousins! They looked forward to playing with them every single day. Of course there were differences in opinion, disputes over rules, fights over toys, but that's all to be expected. Bottom line is that the kids truly love one another. One of the most difficult parts of leaving was knowing that we were separating these kids once more.

However, Matthew and Emma really love and admire their Uncle Steven above all others. They enjoyed poking fun at him, wrestling with him, and swimming in the pond with him. Even now, they talk about him constantly: "Remember Uncle Steven? He's very, very funny!" I truly appreciated how much Steven loved to play with Matthew and Emma. It was especially nice how he would encourage them to eat their food during mealtime, something that I normally loathe having to do! Emma made him her little manservant at several points during our visit but he was more than happy to play the part.

Epic Shot.

One day, the kids and Paul spied a bunch of baby bass in the creek that runs along the side of the house. Steven and Paul decided to organize a fishing excursion to catch a bunch of the little fish and transfer them from the creek to the pond where they hopefully could enjoy more space and thus a happier existence. The kids were so very excited about this! They helped grab buckets, nets, and poles and made their way down to the creek to receive a lesson in fishing from Uncle Steven who caught the first couple rounds of fish. Then, he let each kid have a turn catching and reeling in a fish. They caught about 15 or so and then dumped them into the pond where they swam away happily. Like I said, Steven is really great with all the kids.

Well, except for Lucy the Grouch. Steven tried so hard to win Lucy over, but she did not change her demeanor towards him during the entire visit. If he came anywhere near her, she would clutch onto me and kick towards him as if to say: "Don't you dare think about picking me up!" She was certainly not very nice to him. Poor Steven. However, she really enjoyed both Aunt Ali and Uncle Jake. Paul thinks it's because she thought Jake's beard was a "kitty" and she is very into cats at the moment.

Still no smile, but she is not begging to be taken away. This means, she likes him!

Emma's favorite part Montana activity? Riding on the motorcycles with Grandpa. Grandpa dubbed Emma "Queen of the Motorcycle", a title that she continues to go by at home. Lucy even got the chance to take a couple spins around the property with Grandpa.

We enjoyed every minute we spent in Montana with our family and cannot wait to visit again. If you are ever trying to come up with a place to visit, consider making the trip out to visit the Rocky Mountain region. Beautiful sites, super nice people, and fun adventures await! I might be biased because that is where we both came from and where many of the people we love the most still reside, but all bias aside it is truly one of the best and most breathtaking areas of the country. I purchased a t-shirt during our visit that features a quote by John Steinbeck that perfectly sums up my feelings about Montana:

"I'm in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it."