Friday, November 16, 2018

Halloween Candy Cookie Cake

This week was brutally busy. I'm not even sure with what but I went to bed exhausted every single evening. Part of the reason was due to the fact that Paul was traveling for work this week and being the sole caretaker for the kids really does take a toll on me. When Paul comes home, it at least gives the kids another body to annoy, complain to, or climb all over besides me! Plus, Daniel has been going through a super fussy period at night. He used to be the best sleeper and is now waking up multiple times at night. My guess is teething but that's pretty much what I blame any fussy behavior on at this age. I know it will pass, but right now it seems as if I will never experience a restful night of sleep every again!

So, that's what's up with me. Here's a little update on each of the kids because they've all had pretty interesting weeks.

Let's start with Lucy. She woke up bright and early on Tuesday of this week and decided from here on out that she was no longer a little girl, but a puppy. Not just any puppy, but a puppy named "Ruff Ruff." In fact, she will correct me any time I refer to her as "Lucy" and not "Ruff Ruff." Now, Ruff Ruff is very specific about how she wants to be treated. She has been known to give me prompts "Pet my head" or "Tell me to do some tricks" or "Put my water on the floor so I can lick it like a dog" (I decline to indulge that request). She loves to play fetch and initiates the game by scratching my leg while I am working in the kitchen until I bend down and toss whatever toy she has in her mouth into the next room so she can chase after it. Just like any overly-energetic puppy, Ruff Ruff never seems to tire of this game. The worst part about having Ruff Ruff around, at least in my humble opinion, is that I never know when I am going to be gifted with a wet, warm, saliva-drenched lick on the back of the leg. Ruff Ruff strikes at any time with this sign of affection - while I am making dinner, nursing the baby, or reading a book - and it makes me cringe every single time. I personally will be very happy when Ruff Ruff leaves and Lucy returns. But, as I type this out, it is Friday morning and Ruff Ruff is rolled in a ball, pretending to sleep at my feet, occasionally letting out a bark. Really hoping Lucy returns before we have to go to church tomorrow for Matthew's First Communion.

Matthew is very excited about receiving his First Communion and Confirmation on Saturday. He has been looking forward to this day for a long time and has studied very hard to prepare for it. He chose Saint Francis to be his Confirmation saint because Saint Francis loves animals and, in the words of Matthew, that means "he probably loved dinosaurs too and since I want to be a paleontologist, Saint Francis would be a good patron saint for me." I failed to tell him that I actually did a little research to see if there was a patron saint of paleontology and there is, but it isn't Saint Francis. It's Saint Augustine. Who ironically is the son of Saint Monica, my saint namesake. But regardless, Matthew has his heart set on Francis. He actually had to write a short paper about Saint Francis for his Confirmation class. In order to properly research his paper, I bought a biography of Saint Francis for him and he read it eagerly, cover to cover. When it came time to write his paper, I sat him down in front of the computer and urged him to type out what he had learned. The result was a plethora of information about the good saint but in a jumbled format and order that gave me a glimpse into the manic nature of Matthew's third-grade brain.

One of my favorite lines read as follows: "Saint Francis saved a village from a wolf. He told him to stop doing bad things and the wolf was fed by the people for the rest of his life. We actually don't know if it was a girl or a boy wolf. So we should just say it was a girl/boy wolf."

It's the little details that he obsesses over.

Matthew is actually turning into quite the little writer. He has been avidly writing a bunch of short stories, inspired by the sights, sounds, and experiences of his daily life. My favorite project of his, a short story he wrote for creative writing class in school, is called "Every Fig." If you are familiar with the Bible, you may recall a story in the Gospel where Jesus rebukes a fig tree. Matthew decided to write that story from the fig's perspective. It was hilarious stuff. Basically, in the story, the hardworking figs receive a promise from an angel that their tree will never catch fire. But then, Jesus came along. I was in stitches as Matthew retold what he wrote. It was pretty creative. I've been very proud of him this school year. He had been excelling in his schoolwork and even won the music award this quarter.

Emma is also excelling at school. Socially that is. She is a bit of a troublemaker at school because she so loves to make others laugh. The result is that she is often disruptive at inappropriate times in her classroom. She has been sent to the Principal's office on more than one occasion. Matthew, whose classroom is directly next door to Emma's, has been able to witness his sister being reprimanded on more than one occasion. This actually helps me out a bit because I can obtain all the juicy, gossipy details from Matthew before confronting Emma about what happened.

Despite her troubles, Emma is very well liked by both students and teachers alike at the school. Matthew has actually been very annoyed at how much the girls in his class baby and adore Emma, often "taking care of her" during recess. Emma has a knack for getting others to do favors for her. An extra example of this would be when some men came to our house to deliver our new kitchen table. They arrived at the same time I pulled in with my carload of kids fresh from school pickup. I asked them to give me a minute as I carried in Daniel, Lucy's shoes, and an assortment of mail we had just collected from our mailbox. When I came back outside, I saw Emma walking between the two delivery men, one of them carrying her backpack, another carrying her shoes and coat. She was instructing them where to put her things once they got inside. She's a bit of a prima donna.

Emma made my week very eventful by feigning illness three out of five days. The first day, the school nurse called to tell me that Emma had been complaining all morning that she felt like she was going to throw up. After a nap in the sick room, she still wasn't feeling perky, so I was asked to bring her home. The minute she got into the car, she began requesting to dip into her Halloween bucket, followed by a high intensity game of chase with Lucy (I'm sorry, I mean Ruff Ruff). Obviously she wasn't feeling too awful. I should also mention that she ate plenty during her "sick time" at home so I was pretty sure she was manipulating people as usual. So, when I got another call from the school two days later stating that Emma was making the same complaints, I told them to tell her to knock it off and get back to class. And (surprise, surprise) she never once threw up.

On a positive note, Emma has been spending all her free time paper crafting. She's been working diligently making many beautiful paper flowers that are now decorating our home. She also made a crown for Pumpkin Bear. She's a crafting maniac.

And little Daniel...he's rolling everywhere he can and getting frustrated that he's not more mobile. He shall be crawling any day now and I can already forsee the destruction! Even with his limited mobility, he still manages to roll over to a cabinet of choice, open it, and expel all the contents! I'm going to be in big trouble when he really starts going!

He's wearing some of his Dad's old clothes in these pictures. So cute.

The kids also had rosary club this week. It's held once each month at their school and basically involves them spending an hour after school making rosaries for missionaries while praying the rosary with their teachers and friends. Matthew and Emma both love it. I had promised the kids that I would send in some snacks for club this month, so I raided the candy bags once again and came up with this lovely Halloween Candy Cookie Cake. It made for a fun and eye-catching treat for the kids and they all raved about it! They loved finding different fun-size candy bars in each bite - apparently each kid had two slices (I did try to cut them as thin as I could!). This was a fun way to use up some of that candy...although I honestly feel as if I haven't made a dent! There is still so much left!!

Halloween Candy Cookie Cake

For the Cookie Cake:
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg plus 2 egg yolks, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups leftover Halloween candy, roughly chopped (use mini candy bars, m&ms, peanut butter cups, etc)

For the chocolate frosting:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft
1 and 1/2 cups confectioners sugar, more if needed
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons heavy cream, more if needed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray a 9" pie plate with non-stick baking spray; set aside.
In a large bowl add the melted butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar; beat well until combined. Cool for 5 minutes, then beat in the egg, egg yolks, and vanilla. Add in the flour, cornstarch, and salt and mix until just combined. Be sure not to over mix here! Fold in the chopped candy bars. Spread the mixture into the prepared pie plate (it will be very thick), smooth the top, and bake for 35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the edges are completely set, and the center of the pie is only slightly jiggly.

Top the warm cookie cake with extra candy, if desired. Transfer cookie cake to a wire rack to cool for at least one hour before topping with frosting (if using) and slicing.

To make the chocolate frosting, sift together the confectioners sugar and cocoa powder, whisking well to ensure it is free of lumps.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until creamy; about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low and slowly add the sifted sugar/cocoa powder, alternating with the cream, then add the vanilla and salt. Once all of the ingredients have been added, beat on high speed until light and creamy, about 2 minutes.

Scrape frosting into a piping bag fitted with an large star tip or other decorating tip of choice and pipe onto the cooled cake. Enjoy the sugar rush!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Twix Blondies and a Halloween Recap

This begins my annual Halloween post. The post I write every year detailing what my kids wore on Halloween night, what their Jack-o-lanterns looked like all lit up and glimmering spookily in the night, and, at the end, a recipe utilizing a small portion of the pounds and pounds of candy they collected from our neighbors. This recipe for Twix blondies is definitely one of my absolute favorite ways to use candy bars in baking. My kids collected an exorbitant number of fun size Twix bars this year and they are more inclined towards the sugary sweets rather than the chocolate so they were more than happy to donate their Twix for this recipe. Plus, I just portion the blondies out and freeze them individually wrapped to use in their lunches in the coming months. So, they still get to eat their candy, just in a re-purposed manner. So don't feel too sorry for them. My sisters always tease me about using my kids' candy for baking.

But before we get to this incredible recipe, lets recap how the kids looked in their costumes. We actually trick-or-treated three separate times because we're insane and really enjoy standing in long lanes while waiting for our turn to beg for candy. Instead of putting together new costumes for the kids, I just told them to hunt through their dress up box and find something to wear. Unfortunately, that didn't work too well for Matthew who has grown so tall over the past year that nothing fit him. He had his eye set on dressing up as Spider-man after seeing a costume at Costco while we were shopping. I told him that he could earn the costume dollar by dollar by performing extra tasks around the house. Matthew diligently pulled weeds, raked the yard, picked up dog poop, and dusted furniture, eventually earning enough to purchase his costume. He was proud.

Emma also wanted to earn enough money to purchase a new costume. She had spied a fairy costume at Costco and I told her that she could do the same as Matthew and perform extra chores to earn it. She worked hard for a day and earned a total of three dollars before deciding that it was just too much work and abandoning the project. She chose to be Princess Belle while trick-or-treating at the zoo and then switched to wearing Matthew's old dragon costume when the weather got more chilly. She was perfectly happy with her choice and the dragon costume strangely fit her personality.

Lucia, my sweet little girl, was the only one of my children who did not complain for a new costume. Rather, she was more than happy to wear a different costume from her dress up box for each trick-or-treat outing. First, she was Doc McStuffins, wearing the same costume she wore last year, at the Boo at the Zoo. Then, she decided to be Minnie Mouse, complete with wearing a pair of my pumps. I really had to talk her out of shuffling around in those. Finally, for the chilly Halloween night, she wore a baby elephant costume she had found in one of our clothing bins that I had completely forgotten about.

And baby Daniel was a character from the 100 Acre Wood each time, Tigger first and Eeyore second. Paul wasn't too happy with the Eeyore costume since it was a pink and purple color and little old ladies kept coming up and telling us how beautiful our baby girl was, but it didn't bother me. Eeyore is a boy after all and someone telling me my baby is beautiful is always a welcome compliment.

And once again, I could not get Paul to dress up in a costume so he just went as a grumpy old man. I went as a tired Mom.

As typical, we began Halloween night with a simple dinner of subs and pizza. Lucy picked out decorations for the table, including "spooky spider" napkins and plates. Emma made a hand out of popcorn and candy corn at school that she just had to have displayed in the center. The kids ate well before lighting our jack-o-lanterns on the front porch. I actually helped carve the pumpkins this year, but I'm really not so great at it. Emma wanted me to make a spooky cat and while I was carving it I accidentally cut out the ear and dislodged the whole body from the circle meant to hold it intact. I propped it up with toothpicks long enough to have it lit, but by the end of the night the entire thing had fallen out of the pumpkin. Epic fail.

The kids drew their own designs for the pumpkins. Lucy adamantly wanted a sad pumpkin.

Matthew went with a big, happy pumpkin. With eyebrows. He was very adamant about it having eyebrows.

And Emma wanted to the pumpkin face adorning the front of her favorite stuffed animal "pumpkin bear", a teddy bear inside a jack-o-lantern that she has been sleeping with the for the past couple of years.

It was a freezing cold night. The kids did great despite the frigid air with the exception of Daniel. He wanted none of it and made his opinion known. He lasted a grand total of three blocks before I turned around to take him back home. Lucy chose to join me. Daniel was much happier once we got him in front of a roaring fire which is where he wanted to be in the first place. I was secretly glad that he gave me an excuse to get home.

Matthew and Emma did a few more blocks with Paul before they also retreated inside. Not that they had any lack of candy. I don't think we have ever collected so much candy. I'm crying just thinking about all the cavities.

So when I took about 30 mini Twix bars to make these blondies, it did not make so much as a dent in the actual candy collection of these kids. And between you and me, I would gladly buy a bag of mini Twix just to be able to make these blondies. They are sweet, salty, and extremely addictive. They have a bit of a different texture than other blondies thanks to the shortbread cookies in the Twix bars and I personally just love it! So did Paul and all the kids. Way better than eating a Twix bar straight up.

Twix Blondies

3/4 cup butter, melted
2 cups light brown sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon flaked (or coarse) sea salt
2 1/2 cup all purpose flour
30 mini Twix bars coarsely chopped - about 2 cups worth.
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 9×13 baking pan with foil and coat with nonstick spray. Set aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment combine the butter and brown sugar on low speed. Add in the eggs, vanilla, baking powder and salt and mix until smooth.

With the mixer still on low add the the flour and mix until just combined.

Stir in the Twix and chocolate chips until evenly incorporated.

Spread batter into prepared pan and bake 25-30 minutes until the edges are set and the center is almost set.

Cool completely before cutting into bars.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Concord Grape Pie

After spending a few hours harvesting Mr. Wheeler's garden, we took home quite the bounty of fruits and vegetables, but had an especially large box full of concord grapes. Now concord grapes are delicious on their own, but I personally hate eating them because of their seeds. To me, they are hands down the best grapes for jam. Paul and I had already been planning to make a big batch of jam with them, but when we selected a recipe we realized we had enough grapes to make a quadruple batch, approximately 3 gallons of jam, with another couple quarts of fresh grapes leftover.

What to do with all those extra grapes?

That's when a very special memory that I had subconsciously tucked away somewhere in the deep trenches of my brain suddenly came to the forefront. When I was four months pregnant with Matthew, I attended a simple gathering at the home of a friend in Erie. Although Paul and I had been living in Erie for about a year, we still had not really made any close friendships. My boss at the time had tried to connect me with various families in the area and that was how I somehow got on the invite list for this particular party. Regardless, while snacking on zucchini bread and chicken salad, I struck up a conversation with a very friendly, bubbly, and intelligent woman named Jessica who was there with her husband Jesse. They had been married the year before me and Paul and, as I learned through our conversation, had a daughter named Sophie who was almost 18 months old. Jessica was so very excited to see that I was expecting and we chatted endlessly about pregnancy, birth, and parenting. I felt a great connection with her immediately but did not even think to get her number at the time.

Thankfully, Jessica's husband Jesse visited my office on business later the next week and I took the opportunity to slip him a note that I had quickly and rather sloppily written out with my name and cell phone number on it. I instructed him to give it to his lovely wife and have her call me.

A few days later, she did.

Jessica invited me to attend the annual Halloween night at the local zoo with her and Sophie. Jesse had to work that night and she really did not want to attend alone. I thought it would be fun especially since I really had nothing going on since Paul was also working late that night. We met up at the very crowded event and had a wonderful time walking baby Sophie through the trick-or-treat lines ensconced in various locations around the dark zoo with what seemed about half of Erie's other youngsters. When Sophie had tuckered out from all the walking and candy collecting, Jessica invited me to come to their apartment to continue our conversation. I figured that Paul wasn't going to be home for another two hours, so I agreed.

At her apartment, I left my cell phone in the car - I still am terrible about keeping it on my person - and headed inside where Jessica and Sophie served me my very first slice of grape pie. I did not even know you could make grapes into pie! But then again, I had never lived anywhere where concord grapes, the plump, juicy, ultra-sweet grapes used to make jam, jelly, and Welch's grape juice grew so abundantly. That pie was a revelation. At first, I wasn't sure what I would think of grapes in a pie, but it was pretty fantastic. Jessica gave me a slice to take home to Paul who, unbeknownst to me, had come home early only to find our home totally dark and me missing. He had proceeded to drive all over the city, calling my cell phone over and over but receiving no answer since I had left it sitting in my car. He was filing a missing person's report with the police when I finally walked in. Paul sure wasn't happy with me, but that slice of pie served as a nice peace offering.

Through the years, Jessica has remained one of my dearest friends. From that first meeting, we have watched our families grow and now have eight children between us. Jessica was one of the first people to hold three out of my four children, and I'm certain if there wasn't 1,500 miles between us she would have been at the hospital shortly after Daniel was born as well. Our children are close friends with one another and my kids often think of Sophie, Bella, Maddie, and Francis more as cousins than friends. She and Jesse are the godparents of our daughter Emma and continue to have a wonderful, impactful presence in her life even with the distance between us. Our family misses seeing them on a regular basis, but I know that we will always remain close. They are family to us!

So, when debating what to make with all those concord grapes, I texted Jessica and asked for her recipe for that delicious grape pie because that recipe is more than just a list of instructions and ingredients to me. Rather, it's a precious memory of the day I met one of my best friends.

Concord Grape Pie
adapted slightly from Jessica's recipe

1 recipe or your favorite double crust pie dough prepared
1 1/2 lbs of Concord grapes (after removing from stems)
3/4 cup + 2 tbsp (6.0 oz) sugar
2 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
1 1/2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tbsp unsalted butter, softened

On a lightly floured work surface, roll 1 half of a double crust pie dough into a 15-inch round. Fit dough into a 9-inch pie plate, pressing it into the edges. Trim to a 1-inch overhang all around. Cover with plastic wrap; chill pie shell until firm, about 30 minutes. Repeat process for rolling out dough for the top crust. Transfer to a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the pie.

Wash grapes and discard any that are under-ripe, damaged and blemished.

Remove the skins from the grapes by pressing them between your thumb and forefinger. Put the skinless grapes in a medium saucepan. Reserve the skins in a small bowl.

Gently mash the grape pulp in the medium saucepan to release their juice. Cook over medium low heat until grapes come to a full boil, and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. Press the grapes through a fine sieve and discard the pits.

In a heavy bottomed pot: combine the grape pulp, grape peels and all the remaining ingredients . (You’ll have about 1 1/3 cups of pulp – add everything else and you’ll have about 2 cups) Bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring continually until the filling is slightly thickened and bubbly. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 400°F with a rack in the bottom third of the oven with a pizza stone or baking sheet on it.

Transfer the cooked filling to the prepared pie shell. Moisten the edges of the pie crust with water and attach the top crust, crimping the edges to seal the crust.

Cut six small slits in the crust to act as vents. Place pie on the pizza stone, protect the edges with a pie ring, and bake for 30 minutes at 400° F and then reduce heat to 375° F and bake an additional 25-30 minutes until the filling is bubbling. Cool on a wire rack for at least 3 hours before cutting.