Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Swedish Cinnamon Buns

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of the Lenten season. For us Catholics, it is an opportunity for fasting, prayer, reflection, and reconciliation in order to strengthen our relationship with God. Everyone knows Lent is coming because McDonald's and all the other fast food places will suddenly be heavily adverting their various fried fish sandwiches because, on Fridays in Lent, us poor Catholics must abstain from meat. With a Filet-o-Fish in one hand and a Shamrock Shake in the other, we Catholics are ready for Lent!

I've been trying to talk about Lent with my kids with the hopes that we might just some small sacrifice to perform together as a family. In the past, we have typically done something food-related. We gave up cheese for a couple years but that actually proved to be extremely difficult and we almost always ended up making one to many exceptions. We also tried abstaining from meat for the entirety of Lent, but Paul almost had a nervous breakdown so we had to quit that. I decided to conduct a Lenten-themed interview with my two eldest children in order to devise an appropriate Lenten resolution for our family.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Do you know what Ash Wednesday is?

Emma: No.
Matthew: Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a day that we get ready for Jesus and pray a lot.

What also happens?

Matthew: No Alleluias and no glorias.

What do we get on our foreheads?

Matthew: Ashes.
Emma: I don't know.

What is Lent?

Emma: I don't know.
Matthew: It's supposed to be where we celebrate about Jesus died. And we celebrate that he does the body and blood on the Last Supper.

Typically during Lent, our family gives something up. Can you think of something that you can do without for 40 days?

Emma: Water or food.
Matthew: Or Sweets!

Two years ago, we gave up cheese for all of Lent.

Matthew: Why? Cheese is not a sweet.

Right, because we were giving up cheese not sweets. Do you want to give up cheese again?

Both: NO!

Why don't you want to give up cheese?

Emma: Because I like cheese too much.
Matthew: Because that's what God told us to do.
Emma: Mommy, can I have a slice of cheese?

Ok. So we're getting off track here. Do you guys want to give up TV? No TV for 40 days. 

Emma: No.
Matthew: How about sweets?
Emma: Yes. Sweets!

If we give up sweets, that means no candy, no desserts, no ice cream, no sugary breakfasts...

Matthew: And no cupcakes.
Matthew: I said NO cupcakes Emma because those are sweets!
Emma: I KNOW that Matthew.
Matthew: We gave it up.
Emma: I have a good idea, we should give up Cupcakes Mommy!

So, it appears that sugar will be off the table with the exception of Emma's birthday. That pretty much eliminates any and all baking for me, so I wanted to make one, last treat before placing a big ol' piece of packing tape around my sugar jars for the next 40 days. I have had this recipe for Swedish Cinnamon Buns pinned for a while mainly for two reasons:

Reason #1: I cannot resist any baked good that contains Cardamom
Reason #2: I wanted to learn how to shape these pretty buns! They are so gorgeous!

This recipe is made by making up a basic sweet dough. First, you scald the milk and simultaneously melt the butter. Mix your dry ingredients together (including some fresh-ground cardamom!), then slowly incorporate your cooled milk mixture and egg and knead until smooth, elastic, and just a bit tacky. Let rise one hour and make a cinnamon paste while you wait. Roll the dough out, spread with the cinnamon paste - which takes a bit of patience - and then fold in half and cut the dough into strips. Now, I watched a YouTube video because I am a very visual learner but I can assure you that the shaping is super easy. You take each cut strip and twist it a few times before snaking it around one end of it to form a little rosette. Tuck the ends under, seal them, and then place on your baking sheet. Quick, easy, and beautiful!

These babies tasted best slightly warm from the oven. They are airy and light in texture, reminiscent of a croissant and are not nearly as sweet as their more well known cousin, the cinnamon roll. The cardamom in the dough is just subtle enough that it adds a hint of mystery flavor, certainly making its presence known to the diner but not in such an aggressive way that its identity is readily determined. I would have probably preferred a little more cardamom, but I know that a lot of people are scared of it (including my husband) so the amount called for in the recipe is probably just perfect for most people. A bit of orange zest added to the dough would be a wonderful addition. One of these buns enjoyed in the morning sunshine with a hot mug of coffee was the perfect way to begin the last day before Lent. Goodbye, sweet baked confections. See you in 40 days.

Swedish Cinnamon Buns (Kanelbullar)
adapted from Treats

For the Dough:
1 cup whole milk
3 1/2 ounces (7 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 large egg
4 cups (500 grams) bread flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 packet (1/4 ounce or 7 grams) instant yeast

For the Filling:
3/4 cup (150 grams) brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (60 grams) unsalted butter, soft

For the Egg Glaze:
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons coarse sugar

Place the milk and butter into a saucepan over low heat and cook until the butter has melted. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to around 115 degrees (have patience!) and then mix in the egg.

Place the flour, cardamom, sugar and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer attached with the dough hook and mix together.  Add the instant yeast and mix thoroughly.  With the mixer running slowsly, add the liquid mixture and then increase the speed to medium and mix to form a rough dough. The dough will appear sticky at first, but keep kneading it with the mixer and it will eventually come together and form a smooth, tacky but not sticky dough. It will take a good 7-10 minutes. When the dough feels smooth, elastic, and air when pressed, it is done kneading.

Place the dough in a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Place somewhere warm and allow to rise until doubled in size, about an hour.

Line two baking trays with parchment paper and set aside. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, flatten into a rough rectangle and then roll out until approximately 10" x 14" in dimension.  For the filling, mix the brown sugar, cinnamon and butter together to form a smooth paste. Using a spatula or spoon spread the filling evenly across the dough. I found a small spatula to work the best. Be patient and careful not to tear the dough!

Fold the dough in half lengthwise and cut in half crosswise. Cut each half into nine strips. Working with one strip at a time, twist the entire strip a few times to give it a bit of a spiral appearance. Then, with your left hand holding one end, use your other hand to gently snake the strand around the left end, forming a rosette shape. Tuck the ends other and pinch to seal. Transfer to the baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough. If my words are not making any sense, watch this YouTube video. It's very helpful.

Roll the dough along the long edge into a sausage. Using a serrated knife or dental floss cut into twelve rounds. Place onto the prepared baking trays and cover with a kitchen towel. Allow to rise until almost doubled, about 45-60 minutes.

Whilst proving, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When ready to bake brush the buns with a little beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar, then bake in the preheated oven for about 20-22 minutes or until golden brown. Best served warm.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Chicken Orzo Salad with Cranberries and Feta

Meet my new favorite meal to eat any time of the day. I would be unable to turn down the leftovers even if they were offered me for breakfast because, my friends, this dish is just so damn delicious.

There is a sweet story behind this dish. While we were in the thick of our kitchen remodel, the phase where I had no sink, no dishwasher, no cupboards, no countertops, and piles of sawdust and nails littered about everywhere, a really sweet friend of mine called me up out of the blue and told me that she was bringing me dinner that night. Now, this friend has a full life of her own - three kids, one an infant, and a husband busy completing his residency program in another city, She is a busy, busy woman but felt compelled to offer me a sweet act of kindness in the middle of our crazy, hectic remodeling project. I almost collapsed with gratitude. We had been subsisting on pizza, ramen noodles, and microwave dinners, so a bonafide home cooked meal sounded downright celestial! I was so touched that she wanted to do something so generous for our family.

And the meal she brought was this wonderfully light, tasty, and completely addicting Chicken Orzo Salad. This meal hits all the notes: part salad and part pasta it is salty from the feta cheese, savory from the chicken, sweet from the cranberries, and just a tiny bit bitter from the addition of the arugula. The whole dish is tied together with a scrumptious lemon-balsamic vinaigrette with just a touch of honey for added flavor and sweetness. Oh my. This recipe catapulted to the top of my favorites list. It can be served warm, chilled, or at room temperature. All ways promise a perfectly satisfying meal.

A picture of the puppy just because puppies are cute!

Thank you, thank you, thank you to Jessica for this wonderful recipe! This is what I will be cooking for myself when Paul is out of town on all his work trips. Normally, it's cold cereal and yogurt for me, but this is so much better. I hope you make it and enjoy it as much as we do.

A note on the chicken, if you roast chicken breasts for the salad, I highly, highly recommend brining them first. It both seasons the chicken and helps seal in moisture to ensure that it does not dry out in the oven. It's almost a guaranteed way of ensuring juicy, moist chicken. Just combine four cups of water with a scant 1/4 cup of kosher salt and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk vigorously until the sugar and salt have dissolved and then submerge your chicken in the brine. Refrigerate for at least one hour, but no more than four. When ready to cook, remove the chicken from the brine, pat lightly with paper towels to remove any excess moisture, and then season with pepper, if desired. Roast at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until a thermometer reads 165 degrees. That's it! It's easy and makes extremely moist, tasty chicken every single time. Nothing ruins a salad more than dry, tough chicken.

Chicken Orzo Salad with Cranberries and Feta
from my friend Jessica

For the Dressing:
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons honey

For the Salad:
1 pound orzo
2-4 cups sliced chicken (brined and prepared as stated above or use rotisserie chicken!)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
4-6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup toasted walnuts or pine nuts (Optional)
Handful of chopped fresh parsley (Both Jessica and I omit this)
Generous fistful of baby arugula, chopped (Not a fan of arugula? Use spinach!)

Cook orzo to al dente according to the packaged directions. Drain immediately. Toss with a bit of olive oil (I used about a tablespoons or so) and then toss with half the dressing. Let cool for about 10 minutes and then add all the rest of the ingredients and the other half of the dressing. Let chill or serve. If serving later, you can choose to add the greens right before serving if you don't want them too wilted. Either way is delicious.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Easy Chicken Pho

Paul and I love trying new foods and dishes from around the world. We have been very fortunate to be friends and coworkers with so many first-generation immigrants who have been more than generous enough to have our family over to share in an intimate meal of their favorite recipes from their culture. We have discovered so many exciting and unique flavor combinations and recipes from our friends and we always love having the opportunity to learn how the art of cooking is accomplished in different parts of the world. Most recently, a friend of mine from Bosnia had us over for lunch and introduced me to some very unique "pita" as well as some delicious potatoes. I love learning from the experiences of others!

My brother-in-law, Paul's identical twin Peter, is very much of the same mindset. He is lucky enough to live in Los Angeles where he has access to an endless variety of foods to try and experience. If I had to pinpoint his favorite cuisine at the moment, I would probably say it was Korean but that probably changes for him on a monthly basis. While visiting us one time, he kept raving about an awesome Pho restaurant near him. I had heard of Pho but had no idea really what it was nor where I would be able to try some. No place near here makes anything like that...anymore. There is actually a broken down building near the airport that apparently used to be a Pho restaurant, at least from the looks of the barely legible sign that still hangs from the front entrance. Obviously our town was not ready to welcome Pho.

Pho (pronounced f - ah) is a Vietnamese street food consisting of a bowl of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and a meat, usually chicken or beef. In Vietnam, people eat it at all times of the day. It was introduced globally as a result of the massive emigration of refugees during the Vietnam War and became popular in the United States during the 1990s. Of course there are many different styles and interpretations of Pho and individual bowls may be doctored up to the diner's preference thanks to the wide variety of accompaniments typically served with the dish, including fresh herbs, vegetables garnishes, spicy pastes, and dipping sauces. I learned all this in an article I read in the Wall Street Journal - the same article that included a recipe for an authentic Chicken Pho that inspired me to finally try this much-heard about dish.

This was a really fun recipe to make! There is a bit of dicing and more than a few steps, but everything flowed seamlessly from one step to the next and I never once felt rushed or stressed during the preparation, even with more than a few interruptions from my needy little midgets. While the broth was simmering, the entire kitchen smelled so wonderful. Matthew and Emma both commented on how delicious it smelled before peering into my pot to see what was cooking and making a face of disgust.

This is the typical chaotic scene going down as I'm finishing up the last touches to dinner.
Dad's home and everybody wants to wrestle.

When I set out to make this, I was pretty sure none of my kids were going to touch it. But frankly, I've gotten to the point where if they don't want to eat what I make, then they can wait until breakfast. None of them are suffering in the weight department, especially the little girl who has been giving me the biggest problems with eating her dinners as of late. Yes, I mean Emma.

But much to my surprise, when I served up heaping bowlfuls to each and every one of my babies, not a sound of complaint was heard. They were completely silent other than the sounds that ensued as they slurped up their noodles and the occasional comment, "This is so good, Mommy!" Who would have thought?

This recipe was a delight to make and a joy to eat. It tasted so refreshing, light, and comforting. Paul's only complaint was that he found it a little difficult to eat - we had to use both a spoon for the broth and fork for the rice noodles - because he couldn't manage to get the slippery rice noodles to stay on his fork. In all honesty, nobody else really seemed to have issues with it. Paul just hates it when his food outsmarts him.

If you're looking for a great ethnic dish to add to your meal rotation, try this at home!

Easy Chicken Pho
from The Pho Cookbook, as seen in The Wall Street Journal

Note: We doubled this recipe for our family and it was more than enough. I had the leftovers for lunch two days in a row!

For the Pho:
1 (3/4-inch) piece ginger, peeled
2 large scallions
1 bunch cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 whole clove
4 cups low-sodium chicken roth
2 cups water
1 (8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 ounces dried, flat rice noodles
3 teaspoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the Ginger-Dipping Sauce (they say optional, I say essential):
1 packed tablespoon peeled and finely chopped ginger
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon seeded and finely chopped jalapeno

To Garnish:
Bean Sprouts
Thai Basil
Lime Wedges
Sliced Chili, such as Fresno, Thai, Serrano, or Jalapeno

Slice the ginger into 4-5 rounds. Smack the ginger with a mallet or flat side of a knife to bruise. Thinly slice green parts of scallions to yield 3 tablespoons and set side for garnish. Cut remaining parts of scallions into pinkie-size lengths, then smack to bruise. Chop leafy tops of cilantro to yield 2 tablespoons and set aside for garnish.

In a 3-4 quart pot over medium heat, toast coriander seeds and cloves until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add ginger and scallion strips to pot. Stir until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Remove pot from heat, wait 15 seconds or so to briefly cool, then pour in broth.

Return pot to heat and add water, remaining cilantro, chicken and salt. Bring a boil over high heat, then lower heat to medium-low and gently simmer until chicken is cooked through, yielding only slightly when pressed, 5-10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a bowl, flush with cold water to stop cooking, then drain. Let cool, then cut or shred into bite-sized pieces. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Meanwhile, continue simmering broth until reduced by about one-third, 20-25 minutes.

While liquid simmers, soak noodles in a bowl of hot water until pliable and opaque, about 15 minutes. Drain, rinse, and set aside.

Make the ginger sauce by combining all the ingredients in a small bowls. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Once broth is done simmering, place a fine-mesh sieve over a 2-quart pot. Strain the broth and discard the solids - you should have about 4 cups of broth. Season with the fish sauce and sugar.

Bring the both to a boil over high heat. Put noodles in a strainer or sieve and dunk into hot broth to warm and soften, about 1 minutes. Remove noodles from pot and divide between bowls.

Divide the chicken and place on top of noodles. Garnish with chopped scallions, cilantro, and pepper. Adjust broth seasonings to taste. Return broth to a boil, then ladle into bowls. Enjoy with any or all of the garnishes! Serve individual bowls with the ginger sauce on the side for dipping the chicken. I also personally liked dolloping spoonfuls of the sauce into my broth - it was so refreshing!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Red Velvet Poke Cake

Valentine's Day is tomorrow and everyone around here is so excited for "the day of LOVE" as Emma calls it. Traditionally, I always serve a special breakfast on Valentine's Day morning where I decorate the table in hearts and a red tablecloth and serve everyone a fancier-than-normal breakfast. Last year, we had Eggs Benedict and Heart Shaped French Toast. This year, I am making Double-Chocolate Pancakes with Strawberries and Chocolate Sauce. Nothing like a bunch of sugar to start off the day. With every sugar high, comes a sugar crash so I'm hoping there will be some good napping from the girls in the afternoon. Later in the evening, Emma's favorite babysitter is coming over to hang with the kids while Paul and I escape for a night out. Valentine's Day is also the anniversary of the day we started officially dating 12 years ago. Twelve years. Yikes! Twelve years before we started dating, I was six. Ridiculous how fast time flies when you get to be an adult.

Valentine's Day holds a special sense of urgency for Matthew this year. Earlier last week, he came home very despondent and mopey from school and, instead of commencing his usual round of duking it out over trivial matters with Emma, chose to quietly sit on the couch looking thoughtful. I asked him if he was feeling alright and felt his perfectly cool forehead. He told me that he was upset about Lillian. For those who might not be aware, Lillian has been Matthew's "girlfriend" for nearly two years. She's a sweet, spunky little girl who, in addition to openly declaring her intent to marry my son, has been a very good friend to Matthew. However, Matthew had just been informed that Lillian no longer loved him. "She wants to give her love to Nate! I need to figure out a way to get her to love me!" said my very depressed little boy. Oh Matthew, I very much doubt this little girl is your one and only.

Nevertheless, Matthew very carefully selected a valentine to bring to Lillian tomorrow. I'm sure that a tiny card featuring a pair of grinning, bright yellow minions that reads Bananas Over You! is just the ticket. Wish him luck. I listened to his woes, but offered no advice. He suggested that I should tell Lillian to stop loving Nate and to love him again, but I told him he's on his own. I don't want to be part of this love triangle they've got going on.

Speaking of your loved ones, I made the PERFECT dessert for your Valentine's Day - this gorgeous, moist, incredibly indulgent Red Velvet Poke Cake. And the good news is that if you are looking for a last minute addition to your celebration, this cake is incredibly easy to throw together. I made the cake in a jiffy while watching a movie with Paul and then let the kids decorate it the next morning. They were thrilled with the red color, but disappointed that I didn't bake it in a heart-shaped pan. Sigh. They find fault with everything.

However, nobody found fault with the flavor of the cake. We ate it tonight since Paul and I are not going to dine with the kids tomorrow night and I am shocked to announce that this might be the first time in my entire baking career where every single one of my children cleaned their plate. Emma is notorious for just sucking the frosting off her slice of cake and leaving the actual cake part behind, so completely saturated with her saliva that it is incapable of being saved or passed to another still-hungry taker. This time, however, she polished off both with gusto and then thrust her plate forward and sweetly asked for another slice. No, one slice is plenty of sugar before bed. Sugar has an extreme effect on Emma especially. Lucy and Matthew are both currently sleeping peacefully but I can still hear Emma bouncing off the walls upstairs.

Despite any consequences that the sugar intake might have on your littles, you really should make this cake. It's awesome. Even if you're not a lover of Red Velvet Cake, make this. Paul and I both kind of hate Red Velvet but loved this. It'd be a great cake for any occasion, not just Valentine's Day.

Happy Valentine's Day! I'm bananas over y'all!

Red Velvet Poke Cake
from Brown Eyed Baker

For the Cake:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 small bottle of Wilton's Red Food Coloring
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1 can sweetened condensed milk

For the Frosting:
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
Generous pinch of salt
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 1/2 - 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar, depending on how sweet you like it
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Make the Cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9×13-inch pyrex pan.

On medium-high speed, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to high and add the eggs. Scrape down the bowl and beat until well incorporated.

In a separate small bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, vanilla extract and red food coloring to make a thick paste. Add to the batter and mix on medium speed until completely combined. You may need to stop the mixer to scrape the bottom of the bowl, making sure that all the batter gets color.

Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add half of the buttermilk. Add half of the flour and mix until combined. Scrape the bowl and repeat the process with the remaining buttermilk and flour. Beat on high until smooth, about 1 minute.

Again, reduce the mixer speed to low and add the salt, baking soda and vinegar. Turn to high and beat for another 2 minutes until completely combined and smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, smoothing the top into an even layer with a spatula. Bake until a thin knife or skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes.You can also do the "touch test" for cake, by lightly pressing into the center of the cake with your finger and releasing. If the cake bounces back quickly, it is ready! If your finger indentation stays, close the oven door and let it bake a little longer.

Remove the cake from the oven and immediately poke holes all over the top of the cake with a fork. Gently pour the entire can of sweetened condensed milk over the warm cake. If it pools along the edges, use a spoon to scoop it up and redistribute it on top. Allow the cake to cool completely before frosting and decorating.

To make the frosting, use a stand mixer with the whisk attachment to whip the butter and cream cheese on high speed for about 5 minutes, scraping the bowl down as necessary. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the powdered sugar until all is incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix to combine. Increase the speed to medium high and whip for a few minutes until the frosting is light and fluffy, scraping the bowl as necessary. Taste and adjust sugar and salt to your preference. Spread the frosting evenly over the top of the cake and decorate as desired. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

 Linking this post up with Tuesday Talk at Sweet Little Ones.

Sweet Little Ones

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Honey-Chipotle Vinaigrette

One of my favorite things to make and eat is salad. I could eat salad all day, every day if I could, with the exception of for breakfast. I have not really found a good breakfast salad as of yet, but stay tuned! To me, the hallmark of a great salad is a really fantastic dressing. Bottled dressings, while usually sounding great based on the description on their labels, often are disappointing when it comes to flavor. Making your own dressing is both simple and quick, not to mention it will truly make your salads shine. I love whipping up unique, tasty dressings, tossing them with fresh salad fixings, serving it to even the biggest salad skeptic and then sitting back and watching them convert to my side of the salad debate. Salad is awesome. I converted Paul. He never once ate salad during our entire time in college - and we had a pretty awesome salad bar in our cafeteria. Now, he actually looks forward to my salads. The difference is in the dressing.

Speaking of fantastic dressings, this Honey-Chipotle vinaigrette is no exception. I whipped this up on a whim, inspired by my love of pairing chipotle peppers with sweet fruits and vegetables. I was compiling a make-your-own taco salad bar for dinner, including seasoned taco meat, tomatoes, corn, black beans, diced avocado, crushed tortilla chips, cheese, salsa, and sour cream. I decided to make this vinaigrette last minute because I did not really want to load my salad down with sour cream and cheese. This proved to be one of the best decisions I have made in a while since this vinaigrette was the perfect compliment to the salad. Paul could not stop complimenting me as he ate his salad, his greatest compliment being: "You really should start bottling your dressings. This is awesome!"

So despite the horrific lighting, I decided to snap a couple photos and share the recipe here! Yes, I am using tiling samples to prop up my plates. We are currently selecting tile to use for our kitchen backsplash and I just need to pull the trigger already and start installing it. My goal is to have it finished by this weekend and get us one step closer to finishing our kitchen remodel. We are so close! It's just finishing up with some of the details now that all the big stuff is done.

But back to the dressing. This can be customized to your taste. If you want it a little sweeter, add more honey. If you want more of a kick, add more adobo sauce or puree an entire pepper. This paired great with a full loaded taco salad but also was snappy enough to dress up a plate of simple greens.

Honey-Chipotle Vinaigrette

3 T red wine vinegar
3-4 T honey
1 teaspoon salt (add more or less to taste)
1 tablespoon adobo sauce (from a can of chipotle peppers)
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon oregano
14 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup light olive oil or vegetable oil (if using olive oil, make sure it is very neutral in flavor)

Add the vinegar, honey, salt, water, adobo sauce, cumin, garlic powder, oregano, and pepper to a blender. Turn the motor on to blend. With the motor still running, drizzle in the oil until the salad dressing comes together and emulsifies.

Serve immediately or store covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Scout Sunday

The day Matthew has been looking forward to most, second only to Christmas and his birthday, is Scout Sunday. What is Scout Sunday? Never heard of it? Well, neither had I up until Matthew started talking about it and even then I thought it was something he had made up. Basically, it's just a Sunday where all those involved in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or Scout leadership are acknowledged and given a special blessing at Mass. Afterwards, all scouts eat for free at the monthly Knights of Columbus breakfast. Matthew absorbed all this information into his little noggin and concluded that Scout Sunday was simply another day for us to express our complete adulation and worship of him.

Matthew talked about Scout Sunday nonstop for weeks leading up to the glorified day. By the way he was talking, he was setting himself up for some major disappointment.

"Will they give presents to all the scouts on Scout Sunday?"

"I'm going to wear my uniform all day on Scout Sunday and everyone who sees me will say 'Happy Scout Sunday, Matthew!'"

"As soon as I wake up on Scout Sunday, you and Daddy have to tell me Happy Scout Sunday before anything else."

"I get to have a special dessert on Scout Sunday, right Mommy?'

By the time Scout Sunday actually rolled around, Paul and I were incredibly sick of hearing about Scout Sunday and all of Matthew's wild fantasies about it. However, we soon realized that there are some major perks to parents on Scout Sunday as well.

Perk #1

The resident scout was so excited for Scout Sunday that he willingly and happily went to bed without the usual complaints and requests for multiple, long stories. (Such as "Happy Birthday to You!" by Dr. Seuss...never read it? It's horrible.)

Perk #2

The resident scout was so excited for Scout Sunday that upon being awoken by his tired Mommy at 6:00 AM, he put up no fight or requests for extra sleep or complaints about having to head to Mass so early and bounced out of bed and dressed in his uniform.

Perk #3

The resident scout prepares his sisters for the wonders of Scout Sunday by telling them all about the delicious breakfast they will eat if and only if they are well behaved at Mass. Little sisters actually listen to the resident scout and are perfect angels during Mass.

Perk #4

The resident scouts promise for a delicious breakfast are realized and the whole family eats heartily from plates piled high with pancakes, french toast, sausage, and eggs. The children are especially thrilled with the unlimited juice bar.

Perk #5

Parents do not have to clean up the kitchen after Sunday breakfast. Everyone heads home happy and full. The resident scout is in a good mood because he ate approximately three pounds of free sausage.

So, in the end, Scout Sunday proved to be a great day! The whole family returned from church with full bellies and then we al went out for sledding. This was Lucy's first time sledding ever and also our first time bringing Peyton, but both of them (and the rest of us) had a blast. We were the only ones out that day, so we unleashed Peyton and let him run wild, The best part was listening to Lucy giggle as we sped down the hill in our sled. We even took a bad tumble once and both our faces ended up covered in snow, but all Lucy said was: "Uh Oh!" A quick dusting off of her face, and she was ready for another round. That girl definitely earned her mug of hot chocolate.

And since this post has been mostly about our little scout Matthew, I'm also going to share two sheets of paper that came home in his Friday folder. I'm especially curious about how his ambitious and very pious New Year's resolution is going.

So, how did you spend Scout Sunday? Next year, I'm totally making Matthew a button to wear all day that reads: "Have you Hugged a Scout Today?"

Friday, February 3, 2017

Lessons From the Terrible Threes

My least favorite age is three. Both Matthew and Emma were so much fun and enjoyable right up until they turned three, and then the trouble started. The whining, the defiance, the utter disregard for authority, the temper tantrums...all these lovely behavioral problems started at three. I've been in the thick of it with Emma for some time now, but a light is finally shining at the end of the tunnel. I've seen drastic improvements in her general behavior over the past couple months as I've learned how to maneuver her emotional drama. I thought that Emma was the most difficult to parent at this age, but Paul continually reminds me that Matthew was just as bad. It's funny how we forget things.

In an attempt to not forget the next time I have to go through this phase with another little person in approximately 16 months, I compiled a list of some of the lessons I have learned my second time through the Terrible Threes. Most of it is pretty common sense stuff but I've found that common sense goes right out the door with my parenting whenever emotions get involved - and a lot of emotion goes into dealing with a three-year-old.

1) Don't Threaten Unrealistic Punishment

All of us parents do this. We threaten our kids with punishments that we have no intention of actually carrying out. The one I hear Paul threaten Emma with all the time is: "I'll help you put on your coat and send you out the door to find another family to live with!" I'm the queen of the "I'm going to throw away all your toys if you don't pick them up" threat. Our kids aren't dumb, especially Emma. They are totally aware that these are empty threats and can call our bluff on it. In the end, we just get more angry, flustered, and defeated and no progress is made on behalf of their behavior.

2) Follow Through with Your Threats

When you do formulate a punishment that is realistic and appropriate, follow through with your threats. Make sure that you give the kid plenty of warning so that they are well aware that their actions have undesirable consequences. Then, be sure to follow through. Even letting a behavior go once can set you back quite a bit in progress, especially during this time. This "Terrible Three" phase is all about pushing boundaries and testing the limits. There have been several times with Emma that I have been too tired or busy to take the time to enforce the designated punishment for tantrums or back-talking, but if I don't I will pay for it the next day and the next. For example, we have a rule that if I find an unflushed toilet in the house then all the kids are punished with no TV for the day. This rule has been particularly painful to carry out especially during the kitchen remodel where there are times that Paul and I really need to focus on the project and could really use that TV to distract our kids from the buckets of plaster and nails strewn about. However, once I let it slack by even one day, I notice that nobody bothers flushing the next day. Follow through is key. If you say something, you better mean it.

3) Be Sure to Give Positive Reinforcement for Good Behavior.

Emma loves to be praised and I find that she is much more likely to repeat a good behavior if I consistently and enthusiastically praise her for it. For example, she always throws a fit in the morning when I ask her to get dressed, claiming that she is incapable of doing it by herself. However, I have noticed that if I have a "mini dance party" with her right after she finishes the task all the while telling her how proud I am of her, she noticeable glows and will willingly dress herself the next time I ask. It's ridiculously cute to watch her eat up the compliments. She beams and almost shrivels into herself, squeezing her head tight into her shoulders while giggling. Positive reinforcement is very important because it continues to reiterate to our children that our actions have consequences, reward for good behavior and punishment for bad! It can be difficult because it's one more thing you have to remember to do BUT the payoff is huge.

4) Yelling Gets You Nowhere

I don't know if most kids are like this, but mine do not respond well to being yelled at. They completely shut down emotionally. Matthew just tunes us out and becomes more defiant while Emma bursts into a dramatic crying fit. Not very productive since everyone just turns into an emotional wreck. You would think that knowing this would motivate us to yell less, but Paul and I really struggle with this since we both have explosive tempers. However, we have been trying to make it more of a priority to explain things to our children in a firm, but non-elevated tone of voice. My kids respond particularly well if I get down to their level, look them directly in the eye, and then speak. But yelling....it's just not good for anyone. Not for us, not for them.

5) Quality One-on-One Time Goes a Long Way

I think this is the number one thing that has helped heal my relationship with Emma. Even as little as 30 minutes of my undivided attention - to read stories, build a couple puzzles, play a game, or play with her dolls - goes a long way towards improving her obedience and overall attitude. Thirty minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but it certainly is very difficult to find any amount of time that I can focus on just one kid without distraction from the others (or the puppy). I have been trying to make it a priority to focus just on Emma the minute Lucy goes down for a nap, as difficult as it may be for me with a pile of dishes in the sink that need washing or a couple baskets of laundry in the bedroom that need folding. Time with my daughter is precious and fleeting. I need to establish a good relationship and rapport with her today that we may continue to strengthen in the years to come. Today, we made some chai tea together, colored some pictures, and chatted about whatever floated through her sweet little head. It was wonderful.

6) Remember that the Same Sweet Person is Under There Somewhere

Back when Emma's behavior problems began, I used to lament that my sweet little girl was gone forever. I would look through older photographs of her and think, "Look at that sweet and adorable little girl that used to live here! Where did I go wrong?" It might sound ridiculous, but it's true. The thing I had to realize was that this is just a small phase in her childhood, a period of time that we need to get through.There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it will be here before I know it. I just need to persevere, keep loving her even during her worst moments, and know that the same sweet little girl I've always known is in there somewhere. Between the bratty fits and temper tantrums, I still get reminders of that - she still says her funny little phrases, loves to give kisses and hugs, and is always the first to comfort someone who is upset. She's still sweet, she's still kind, she's still my Emma.

To drive my final point home, here is a quote from just a little bit ago.

Me, while giving Emma a big hug: "I love you, Emma!"
Emma: "I love you too, Mommy."
Me: "You're the best."
Emma: "I know that."


As a sort of post script to this post, I received many requests for a picture of Matthew's award-winning drawing described in my last blog. Without further ado, below is a snapshot of it.

Impressive, no? Just as a comparison, here is a picture that Emma drew earlier today (I added the captions per her request). Now do you see why I wasn't all that impressed?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Happy 7th Birthday, Matthew!

Last week, Matthew went to our local children's museum with one of his best buddies to play for the afternoon. They were hosting a kid-sized career fair where young children could explore all kinds of professions in order to learn all about the exciting things they can be when they grow up. There was an impressive showing at this pint-sized career fair: a chef from Wegmans, a firefighter, a veterinarian with a full-sized Golden Retriever to demonstrate how checkups are given, an engineer from GE, and a police officer. I was a little disappointed they did not offer any presentations from a lawyer, mortician, actuary, fast food worker, or accountant so the kids would have a true representation of all their career options, but you can't have everything. Total sarcasm.

While Matthew was there, he entered a drawing contest for a prize package. All he had to do was draw a picture of who he would like to be when he grows up. I heard all about the contest when Matthew came back from the museum: "They will call you Mommy if they pick my picture to be the winner!" I nodded, smiled, but didn't hold my breath.

However, the next morning my phone did ring and it was a very enthusiastic lady from the Children's Museum informing me that Matthew had in fact won the drawing contest. She proceeded to rave about his picture for the next five minutes: "Oh we simply loved his drawing! It was so adorable! It was definitely our favorite out of the bunch! You have a budding artist on your hand...."

Matthew has been really into breakfast sandwiches lately. Makes for an easy and delicious birthday breakfast!

With so much high praise, I couldn't wait to take a peek at this picture myself. Matthew is very artistically inclined but a lot of times when there are a lot of distractions about he tends to rush through his drawings. I was impressed that it sounded like he had actually put some time and effort into this award-winning piece of art. So, immediately after picking the winner up from school, we headed downtown to claim the prize.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a very nice lady at the front desk who went to the office of the Director and informed her: "Matthew the contest winner is here". Matthew was feeling pretty important. The Director came out and shook Matthew's hand and told him once more how impressed she was with his drawing. "We thought it was so wonderful that you want to be a Paleontologist when you grow up. That is just magnificent!"

"Yeah I want to dig up Maiasaurs in Montana. I'd be a good Paleontologist," Matthew said proudly.
"I'm sure you will be. Your picture was just lovely. We all loved it so very much! We will have to show your Mom. It was the cutest thing - he drew a picture of himself digging up a dinosaur!" the Director said as she rummaged about her office for the drawing.

When she finally brought it out, I glanced at it and in all honestly could not believe that this archaic crayon sketch was the winning picture in their art contest. Matthew had clearly spent about 20 seconds scribbling out in orange crayon image that could be generously interpreted as being a stout a stick figure man holding a crude shovel next to a blob that was in the general shape of a dinosaur. Cavemen drew better pictures with far less. However, he had clearly written across the top: "I am going to be a Paleontologist." And thank goodness for that because otherwise I would never have known what was being portrayed in that drawing. Matthew beamed up at me proudly and I smiled weakly. Not your best work, kid.

Matthew collected his prizes and took a couple more bows from a few additional members of the museum staff and then we headed back to the car. When we climbed back in Matthew proceeded to ask if we would be framing his picture and displaying it in the family room. I tried to gently explain to him, using the most tender and sweetest words I could muster, that the picture, while loved and adored by the museum, was really not the best thing he had ever drawn. I tried to emphasis that in a lot of his other drawings he uses much more color and adds far more detail and that is what makes them so wonderful. Please don't think of me as an unsupportive parent. I just know what my son is capable of and, trust me, that picture was reminiscent of something he may have drawn when he was three. Matthew himself agreed with me: "Yeah...I don't think this picture is very good because I just took two seconds to draw it. But they liked it so maybe we should frame it and let that lady hang it in her office!" I cracked up so hard. That lady really did seem to love it.

Matthew, Matthew, Matthew. He is now seven years old, a true milestone if there ever was one. I still remember turning seven. It as the birthday my parents always threw us a birthday party. I remember getting dressed up and sitting out on the front steps of our little house in Montana awaiting my guests beginning about an hour before the party was scheduled to start. Unfortunately, due to chaotic circumstances, I was not able to throw together a party of Matthew and I really do regret that.

The birthday boy, however, did not seem to care. He was just excited to FINALLY be seven: "Tomorrow I'm going to be SEVEN!" he said when I tucked him into bed on the eve of his birthday. He woke up extra early the morning of his birthday, around 5:00 AM to be exact, and came tiptoeing into my room, snuggled up next to me in bed, and whispered: "Here's your birthday boy!" I about wanted to cry. I still remember carrying him in my womb, feeling his little kicks, and excitedly anticipating the day he would be born and I would finally feel like a real mother, something I had always dreamed to be. I remember those first couple days after bringing him home and how freaked Paul and I were about taking care of our tiny baby boy - abstaining from flash photography, slathering his bottom in powder to avoid diaper rash, watching him carefully as he slept to ensure he was still breathing, playing the television at a volume only dogs could discern. We were such novices at the whole parenting thing and couldn't imagine every feeling any different. Now, in the blink of an eye, our firstborn is seven years old. He is reading, writing, and the proud older sibling to two little sisters. Paul and I are much more relaxed in our parenting but we continue to worry and stress over the future for our children, mainly hoping that we are doing our absolute best to ensure that they are instilled with sound formation and unshakable virtue. It's a work in progress and our job will never be perfect but I'm happy to say that despite any failings on our part as parents, not a day has gone by that I have not been so very proud of the sweet little boy that is my Matthew. He's a loyal friend, he's a lot of fun, he loves God and his faith, he's a whiz at math, he loves to read on his own but is always up for cuddling next to you to listen to a good book, he shares our love and enthusiasm for Star Wars, and he is an awesome older brother, especially to little Lucy.

He has grown so fast, so quickly. This memory popped into my newsfeed on Facebook the other day and I had to sit back and reflect on how quickly time has passed. I had completely forgotten about this incident but after reading about it in my own words, a wave of memories came flooding over me, not just of this particular moment but a number of moments where I could recall little Matthew - his expressions, his laugh, the way he would play with his hands as he babbled, and his ridiculously mischievous personality. Facebook has been great for reminding me of things I might have otherwise forgotten. This post was from January 2012 on what would have been Matthew's 2nd birthday:

"I'm making a banner for Matthew's birthday party on Saturday and I had bought some blue ribbon to hang it. I could not find it anywhere and was getting super frustrated rummaging through everything because I KNEW that it had just been sitting on the table. I jokingly asked Matthew: "Did you take Mommy's ribbon?" And he replied: "Yep!" and then headed over to his coffeemaker, opened the top, and proudly displayed my lost spool of ribbon carefully smuggled inside. I should have known."

Making Apple Pie on the floor with Miss Emma

Matthew requested that we dine at a cute little local pizzeria and we were pleasantly surprised by how cute, delicious, and enjoyable the experience was. The pizza was absolutely fantastic and Matthew declared the place his new favorite restaurant. Then, we went home where Emma and I had planned present hunt for Matthew. Emma and I came up with various places around the house to hide Matthew's gifts and then made little clues for hims to find leading him to them. He had a blast and Emma did a surprisingly good job at not giving away the secrets! After unwrapping his presents - books, new pajamas, a T-Rex shirt, a build-your-own mechanical dinosaur kit - it was time for birthday pie. That's right, Matthew is not much of a cake person but he loves his Momma's apple pie. So, earlier that day, I had used my floor as my countertop and made him an apple pie from scratch. It took about three times longer than it normally takes me but it got done and the birthday boy was pleased. He blew out every single one of his candles with gusto.

Yes, we still have Christmas lights up in the background. No judgment, please.

Matthew, you make your parents proud ever single day. You have such a sweet little soul and I admire how much you love your family, friends, and God. I wish I could keep you little forever, but I know that I must share you with the world because you have so much to give! However, no matter how many years pass by, you will always be my precious little boy. I love you, Matthew. And not just because you are an award-winning artist. Happiest of Birthdays to you!