Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Perfect Gift

Christmas is just days away! Are you ready?

Christmas shopping can be incredibly stressful, but overall I really enjoy picking out gifts for people. Well, most people. The one exception to this rule is my dear husband. The most difficult people to shop for are the ones who tell you, "Oh, I'd like anything! I'm easy!" And that's exactly what Paul says: "Surprise me! I'll love anything! You know I'm not picky!"

The thing is, he is kind of picky. Actually, he's very picky and quirky about what he likes. But he just doesn't know it until something he most certainly did not want is staring him in the face. But ask him ahead of time what he does want in order to spare him disappointment and he's really not sure what to say!

Each year, I'm tempted to put bows on our children and tell Paul, "I've already given you the greatest gifts you can ask for!" But I'm worried one of them will have an accident or talk back or something and spoil the whole charade. Plus, Paul is a materialistic little miser and enjoys getting stuff.

For our first Christmas, I hit the gift-giving out of the park by buying Paul a pair of slippers. He wore them every day from the moment he got home from work until the tread wore down so badly that I got him a new pair seven years later. Since then, it's been slightly downhill and most of the things I buy for Paul get returned or used as an expensive closet placeholder. And I normally think REALLY hard about what to get him. Some of the gifts I look back on and wonder why I thought they would be such a good idea, like the miniature ping-pong table. I have no clue why I thought he would like that. Neither did he. He unwrapped it and looked at me with a confused expression and said: "I don't get it."

There were other things that I thought he legitimately wanted. One such example was that time Paul pined for a miniature Keurig that was introduced the year that k-cup brewers really started becoming popular. I saw that Kohl's was having an incredibly sale on them that lasted only four hours on a single day. They also noted that the number of coffeemakers they had in stock were very limited. I bundled a then-baby Matthew up and took him out to Kohl's in the middle of snowstorm while Paul worked late at GE. I managed to snag the very last one they had in stock and then waited in line for nearly two hours to purchase it while Matthew whined and complained. I was so proud of myself for finding such a great sale and for actually securing one of the coveted Keurigs! Then, Christmas morning came and Paul opened his gift and then told me that he had done the research and had determined that Keurigs just keep accruing costs because you have to keep buying the pods and it wasn't worth it to him. So back to the store it went.

Then there was the Christmas when I bought Paul a hand held back massage machine thingy. He was always asking me for backrubs and I figured this way he could do the work himself. He looked pretty freaked out when he opened it and mistakook it for a shower head at first. I tried to explain my logic but could tell by how high his eyebrows remained stuck to the top of his forehead that he wasn't thrilled with it. Come to think of it, that might have been purchased the same Christmas as the miniature ping-pong table. I must have been pregnant or slightly out of my mind in some other way because that was obviously not a great year for me.

After sharing with you some of my gift giving blunders with Paul, let me tell you about a time where I truly gave Paul what he wanted for Christmas. That was the year that I gifted Paul with 50 pounds of salt. And this was by his request.

Paul had become curious about the new fad of cooking on a salt block. Large blocks of Himalayan Pink Salt were being sold and marketed as having wonderful cooking properties due to its ability to retain very high temperatures of heat, making it a great tool for simultaneously searing and flavoring meat, vegetables, or what have you. When I heard that Paul was interested in this, I thought he was just plain crazy. But, I didn't really have any better ideas so I ordered a large block of salt off of Amazon along with a cookbook to guide Paul in his cooking journey and it was easily one of the least researched yet bet received presents I have ever given anyone. Paul was thrilled. The first thing he made with that block of salt was some ice cream. That was no bueno. He followed up that failure with some seared scallops and shrimp. Those were fantastic.

A block of salt. Who would have thought?

Since receiving that gift, Paul has served many good meals from his salt block. A few bad ones here and there as well, but that salty ice cream will always be the absolute worst. The other day, Lucy requested quesadillas for dinner and Paul decided to break out the salt block again and host an unconventional dinner spread: Build-Your-Own-Quesadillas-on-a-Salt-Block!

We had all the trimmings for quesadillas arranged: the avocado, the cheese, the chicken, tomatoes, peppers, onions, salsa, and chips! Paul had the salt block heat up in a 400 degree oven for two hours (it takes a while to get it fully hot - but once it's heated, it stays hot for hours!). Then, we brought the hot salt block to the table and set it in the center. Everyone was able to assemble their quesadillas and then melt the cheese and sear the outside of the tortilla on the salt block. They were delicious and the kids had a blast cooking their own dinner right at the table!

I guess the whole point of this blog post is that if you, like me, are never quite sure what to get your significant other for Christmas, consider a salt block. Maybe they are a weirdo like my husband and will absolutely adore it! Then you can make your own salty ice cream in the comfort of your own home! If that isn't an incentive to buy one, I don't know what is!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Gingerbread Cookie Butter Oatmeal Cookies

This time last year...

Most of our possessions were in boxes. We knew it was to be the last Christmas in our Pennsylvania home and we were preparing ourselves for the mental and emotional heartbreak that comes with saying goodbye to people and places that had come to be a part of us. I was pregnant with Daniel and on rest for placenta previa, rest that was much easier to accomplish since my foot was also still on the mend from a break that made mobility a bit more cumbersome. My knee scooter was my best friend. Our home was for sale, and we were having open houses every weekend leading up to Christmas. We also had found our current home and were in the process of purchasing it with the help of our amazing realtor who has become one of our dearest friends here. There was so much unknown on the horizon. Would we like our new home? Would the children adjust well in their new school? Would we be able to find a community like the one we enjoyed in Pennsylvania? How would I adjust being even further away from my family?

And now here we are...

The tree is trimmed, the winding banisters leading upstairs are covered with lights and garland, and we are eagerly preparing to celebrate our very first Christmas in Colorado. When we look back on how chaotic and stressful our lives were at this point last year, we can't help but feel so grateful that we not only survived that period in our lives but that we came out on the other side so happy and adjusted in our new home. We have been loving it here in Colorado - the sunshine, the beautiful scenery, the kind people. We are still forming our community and working on making friendships, a process that is innately slow and cannot be hurried, but we have already made some wonderful connections that we feel so blessed to have.

The kids are disappointed that we do not have as much snow on the ground as Erie would have had by now. In fact, we have no snow at all. What little snow that does fall from time to time quickly melts in the bright sunshine that beams down on us daily. I love it, but the children lament that they are unable to build snowmen, forts, or snow angels. However, Matthew did get to travel into high country to try his hand at skiing as I mentioned in a previous post. I promised that I would update you on what he thought about the skiing experience and all I have to report is that he did not complain about it one bit. He came back tired, exhausted really, but had very little to say about his day on the slopes other than that he wanted to go to bed and sleep. Believe it or not, that is a very good sign. If he had absolutely hated it, we would have heard about it. Matthew is much more vocal about complaints. He'll get back on his skis a few more times this season with Paul. The girls will take lessons together next winter and hopefully I'll get to ski with them as well. We are hoping that skiing will give them a whole new appreciation for the snow.

One thing I never did with the kids in Pennsylvania was go out of my way to visit Santa and have our pictures taken with the big guy. My kids have never been all that into Santa, mainly because Matthew has always said, "Santa creeps me out." And I had absolutely no problem with not going to the mall or somewhere and standing in a big long line to take a picture of my kids crying while sitting on the lap of an old guy dressed in red. No, thank you.

SO I have no idea what possessed me this year to take my kids down to the historic district of our little suburb where a Christmas market was being held and one of the most realistic looking Santas you will ever see was present hearing the Christmas requests of the children of Denver. Lucy announced that she wanted to visit Santa and I, being the sucker that I am, decided to do bundle everyone up and take them down there. When we arrived, about 20 minutes before Santa was supposed to arrive, the line of parents and kids was stretched out up and around the town square. I was informed that from where I was standing in line that it would be about an hour until we actually had our turn with Santa. I told the girls to forget it, but Lucy acted so disappointed and heartbroken that I was once again bamboozled into staying put.

So, we waited for over an hour and slowly inched our way closer and closer to meeting Father Christmas. The kids also became more and more tired and grumpy with every minute we had to wait. There were carolers entertaining the crowd and a real estate company was also passing out free hot chocolate so it wasn't complete torture to wait. But, it still was a long time.

Then FINALLY, we were next in line. I yanked Lucy out of the double stroller to prepare her for the big, highly anticipating meeting with Santa and what do you think she angrily tells me?

"I don't want to see Santa!"

You've got to be kidding me. After waiting in line for over an hour because LUCY was the one who wanted to see Santa in the first place? Oh, HO HO're definitely going to be seeing Santa, young lady.

When our turn was called, Emma happily leaped forward into Santa's arms and began feeding him lies about how well behaved and angelic she has been all year. Lucy, however, proceeded to burst into tears and yell: "I DON'T WANT TO SIT ON HIS LAP! HE'S SCARY! NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOO!" She wouldn't stop wailing as she collapsed into a heap at my feet while simultaneously completely wrapping her little body around my ankles.

At this point, I pretty much hated my life.

The elf helper was yelling at me to start taking pictures to capture this beautiful moment with Santa. I couldn't move because Lucy was so tightly wound around my legs and my camera was buried in the diaper bag in the back of the stroller. I awkwardly shuffled over towards it, slowly dragging a little limp Lucy along with me, and pulled the camera out to hopefully snap a quick photo of Emma with Santa before leaving the wretched place with my tail between my legs. Without even looking into the viewfinder, I snapped a couple quick shots and then encouraged Emma that we had to beat it. She happily waved goodbye to Santa and I shoved everyone else out of the way to make way for the next parents.

And these were the treasured shots I captured...

At least we got a coupon for free cookies and a couple candy canes out of the deal. And I will never, ever, ever be doing that again.

And speaking of cookies, it's time for a cookie recipe! What clever segue that was! Not much really to say about today's recipe except that they were a new recipe I decided to try this Christmas season and they certainly paid off in flavor. In a word, these are simply scrumptious or "scrummy" as Mary Berry would say. My kids love everything gingerbread or molasses flavored. When I asked them what cookies they wanted to help make for Christmas, ALL of them wanted "gingerbread men" and nothing more. As a child, I don't remember being particularly drawn towards gingerbread flavors, so this fetish must come from Paul who also adores molasses anything. Another thing Paul adores is cookie butter - particularly the Trader Joe's variety. So, when I spied this recipe and noted that it not only contained ginger and molasses but cookie butter as well, I knew it had to result in a tasty treat. This recipe has quickly found a spot in the "favorites" file. The kids have already eaten a dozen or so and would have eaten more had I not cut them off, stashed the remainder into a tupperware, and hidden it atop our refrigerator where they all are fortunately still too short to reach.

If you get your hands on a jar of cookie butter, make these! You can find the Biscoff brand of cookie butter in the aisle with the peanut butter at most major grocery stores or, of course, if you are blessed enough to live near a Trader Joe's, their cookie butter is pretty amazing. Lucy enjoyed a few spoonfuls before the rest was dumped into the cookie dough.

Gingerbread Cookie Butter Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks, 8 ounces) butter, softened to room temperature
1 2/3 cup (14-ounce jar) cookie butter (see note)
3/4 cup (5.5 ounces) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (5.5 ounces) packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 cups (7 ounces) quick oats

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. (Just always always always do this for cookies)

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl using a handheld electric mixer), cream together the butter, cookie butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and ginger until creamy and fluffy, 1-2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Add the molasses, vanilla and eggs and mix until well-combined, 1-2 minutes, Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the flour and quick oats and mix until combined (don't over mix, just mix until evenly combined and no dry streaks remain).

Scoop the dough into balls about 2 tablespoons each (I use my #40 cookie scoop) and place a couple inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake for 10-12 minutes until set around the edges with a few cracks on top but still soft in the middle. Let the cookies rest for a few minutes on the baking sheets.
Remove the cookies to a cooling rack. The cookies stay soft for a couple days stored well-covered at room temperature and freeze well, too, for several months.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Cranberry-Orange Breakfast Buns

Next to Christmas and their birthdays, our kids look forward to their Feast Days more than any other day of the year. For those who are not Catholic and unfamiliar with the concept of feast days, each of our children is named after a saint of the church who functions as their patron. In our case, we have Saint Matthew the Evangelist, Saint Emma of Lesum, Saint Lucy, and Daniel the Prophet. When a person is declared a saint, a certain day during the calendar year is designated to function as the "Feast Day" of that saint, or a special day designated to acknowledge, commemorate, and remember them. Typically, a saint's feast day is the day of their death as it is the day in which they joined God in heaven. Saint Matthew's feast day is in September and Daniel's is at the end of July. Lucy and Emma's saints both have their feast days in December.

On their feast day, our children have the privilege of selecting their favorite meal for dinner as well as a dessert of their choice. Typically, without fail, every single one of our kids chooses not to have their loving mother who is actually a decent chef prepare dinner by requesting takeout pizza. I actually make pretty dang good pizza but they always explicitly request that the pizza must arrive at the dinner table packaged in a greasy cardboard box. Maybe their tastes will evolve one of these days.

But Lucy's feast day, which falls on the 13th of December, gets an extra-special event each year because hers is a particularly important feast day in both the eyes of the church and my family. Since I was a little girl, we always celebrated the feast of Saint Lucy, one of the greatest female martyrs, with a special candlelit breakfast. While I was growing up, usually the youngest girl helped Mom serve the rest of the household a breakfast in bed, but that slowly evolved into everyone awakening for a candlelit breakfast complete with a fully set table, some type of sweet bread or coffee cake. My protein loving husband required that I add in an egg dish of some sort because apparently we cannot survive on bread and sugar alone.

I typically change up what sweet we serve for Saint Lucy day. My Mom always made this Cherry Almond Coffee Cake growing up which still has my heart but I can't help but try new sweets when given the opportunity. So, this year I made these Cranberry-Orange Breakfast Buns that I spied on the Smitten Kitchen website. I love the combination of cranberry and orange and still had half a bag of frozen cranberries leftover from Thanksgiving that I knew I had to use up before someone accidentally spilled them all over the bottom of the freezer.

I loved how easy these, like any cinnamon roll, were to prepare and bake the next morning. Paul and I are typically up before 5:30 most mornings, so this did not require me to skimp on my sleep to ensure they were ready in time. The scent of orange zest and butter wafting through the house was a calming way for the children to awaken. Matthew was the first to wander downstairs: "OOOooooh! Mom! What are you making? It smells so good!"

When it came time for feasting, the girl of the day - Miss Lucy - felt very special indeed and loved her breakfast. Along with the Cranberry-Orange Buns, we served scrambled eggs, thick cut bacon, and hot cocoa. Everyone left the breakfast table filled to the brim. Except Matthew, who begged me for another one of these buns to eat. I can't blame him for trying to have another, these rich little sweets were certainly delicious and we all loved them. It was a nice change from the typical cinnamon roll and, in my opinion, possibly even better tasting. A very special treat indeed to be enjoyed on a special feast day!

Cranberry-Orange Breakfast Buns
from Smitten Kitchen

For the Dough:
4 large egg yolks
1 large whole egg
1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
6 tablespoons (85 grams) butter, melted, plus additional to grease pan
3/4 cup (175 ml) buttermilk
Zest of 1 orange, finely grated (to be used in dough and filling, below)
3 3/4 cups (470 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting counter
1 packet (7 grams or 2 1/4 teaspoons) instant dry yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt, or more to taste
1 teaspoon oil for bowl

For the Filling:
1 1/2 tablespoons (20 grams) butter
1 cup (190 grams) packed light brown sugar
1 cup (115 grams) fresh cranberries
Orange zest leftover from above

For the Icing:
3 1/2 tablespoons (55 ml) orange juice
2 cups (240 grams) powdered sugar
Zest of 1/2 an orange

In the bottom of the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the yolks, whole egg, sugar, butter, buttermilk and 3/4 of the orange zest together (saving the rest for the filling). Add 2 cups of the flour along with the yeast and salt; stir until evenly moistened. Switch to the dough hook and add the remaining 1 3/4 cups flour and let the dough hook knead the mixture on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes. The dough should be soft and moist, but not overly sticky. Scrape the dough into a large, lightly oiled bowl (I usually scrape my dough briefly onto the counter, oil the mixing bowl, and scrape the dough back into it) and cover it with plastic wrap. Let dough rise at room temperature until doubled, which will take between 2 and 2 1/2 hours.

Melt the butter and set it aside. In a food processor, pulse the whole cranberries until they’re ground to a coarse rubble, but not fully pureed. You’ll need to scrape the machine down once or twice. Set them aside.

Assemble the buns: Butter a 9×13-inch baking dish, a heavier ceramic or glass dish is ideal here. Turn the risen dough out onto a floured work surface and roll it into a rectangle that is 18 inches wide (the side nearest to you) and 12 or so inches long. Just estimate. If it is a little longer and thinner, it'll be just fine! Brush the dough with the melted butter. Sprinkle it with the brown sugar. Scatter the ground cranberries over it, then the remaining orange zest.

Roll the dough into a tight, 18-inch long spiral. Using a sharp serrated knife, very gently cut into 12 pieces. Arrange the buns evenly spread out in your baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to 16 hours.

The next morning, take your buns out of the fridge 30 minutes before baking and allow them to sit on the countertop to warm a bit.. Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Bake your buns until they’re puffed and golden (or read 190 degrees on an instant read thermometer), approximately 30 minutes.

Transfer pan to a cooling rack and let cool slightly. Make the icing by whisking the orange juice and powdered sugar together. Spread a little on each bun, or drizzle it over the whole pan. Serve immediately.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Cranberry Pear Crumble

Let me tell you a story about the time Matthew conquered the Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot.

Our little neighborhood association, like so many others, puts on a largely informal Turkey Trot the morning of Thanksgiving. I enjoy running as my workout of choice. I enjoy the challenge of increasing mileage and bettering my pace. Paul hates running. To his credit, he did try to run with me a couple of times and concluded that he, unlike every other person on the planet, was not built for running. He could be an awesome runner, but his genetics prohibit him from realizing his potential. So, I'm used to running alone for the most part.

Then, Matthew grew up and decided that he wanted to run with me. We would go for jogs here and there and even did a few races together. At his school, he joined the running club and did very well there. His coach even called him out as being one of the better distance runners in his grade. So when I decided to do a Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day, I assumed that Matthew would have no problem running it with me. I signed him up and told him about it later.

Matthew was very excited to hear about the race. But, his excitement quickly turned to concern: "But...I haven't practiced running around here."

He had a reason to be worried. We live in a very hilly area. We have lots of high ridges and very little flat ground. The race course around the neighborhood looked to be quite difficult with all its elevation changes. Matthew was used to running flat courses for the most part.

"You'll be fine!" I assured him. And I really thought he would be.

So, bright and early on Thanksgiving morning, we registered and got a free t-shirt and did a few stretches in preparation for the great race. There were a couple hundred other people gathering by the starting line and Matthew excitedly began pointing to each and every person, "We are going to beat that guy, and that lady with the weird hat, and that guy and that guy and those kids...."

I cut him off and told him not to be overconfident. I'm certainly not the fastest person in the neighborhood and I'm pretty sure he's not either.

When it was time to start, Matthew and I lined up towards the front and then...we were OFF! We flew through the first half mile, well ahead of the rest of the pack. I was so proud at how hard Matthew was working. His arms were pumping, his legs were flying, and he was chatting, laughing, and having a grand old time. Then, suddenly he fell silent and his pace began to slow. I slowed right along with him but continued talking to him to try to encourage him. Suddenly, he burst into tears: "I HATE this! This is horrible! Why would anyone do this for fun?"

I told him that he's done this before and reminded him that he enjoys running. He spat back: "Yeah, but I HATE all these hills!! They are so hard!"

I told him to walk if he needed to, but he didn't really slow. He just kept going, complaining about how much his lungs hurt (although he was talking really well so I could tell that he was hardly gasping for breath) and how cold it was outside. The whining continued for the next mile or so until Matthew announced flat out that he wanted to quit. I told him that we were still a ways from home so we would have to walk a fair distance to get back there anyway, so he might as well finish the race, walking, running or otherwise. He decided to stop and walk for a bit at that point. Only his definition of walking was akin to a very slow crawl. It was at this point that I grabbed his arm and began pulling him along with me up the last big hill. And he had the audacity to ask: "Mommy, can you carry me? I can't move any more!"

I told him he had to be joking. Besides, the finish line was less than a quarter mile away. So, I made a deal with him. Let's run as hard as we can to the finish line. The faster we go, the sooner this perceived ordeal will be over.

"Ok...." he sniffed. Then, we began to sprint. We sprinted down the block and circled around our neighborhood park. Matthew began whimpering again but I egged him onward. When he saw the finish line, he suddenly regained his enthusiasm and triumphantly ran across. When his time was read, I informed him that he had beat his last 5k by nearly five minutes.

"WOOO-HOO! I did AWESOME Mom! That was so much fun! Let's do it again! Oh, and I BEAT you Mom because I crossed the finish line FIRST!" Matthew crowed as he fist pumped the air.

What a difference 20 seconds makes. He went from being defeated, beaten, and exhausted to cocky, triumphant, and arrogant. He had beaten incredible odds to become a running legend in his own mind. He actually asked me if he had earned a trophy. No trophy, but he did earn a banana and a bottle of water.

And that is how Matthew conquered the Turkey Trot and secured his new PR in a 5K of 31  minutes and 33 seconds. I also managed to secure my worst time in a 5K. It was a historic day for all.

Since this monumental feat of athleticism occurred on Thanksgiving Day, it seems fitting to share with you a new dessert I tried for our post-turkey sugar binge: Cranberry Pear Crumble. This recipe was so good, so delicious, so refreshing, so festive that it will most certainly make an appearance at future Thanksgivings. I'm actually debating about serving it as part of our Christmas dinner. There is just something magical and festive about the combination of sweet pears and tart cranberries. I love the light pink color the cranberries lend to the dish - so pretty to look at as you scoop individual portions. I loved this slightly warm with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream but it honestly didn't even need it as it was so delicious on its own. I baked the crumble in pie pans to make it look like pie since I didn't make an actual pie this year - I simply ran out of time! Thank goodness this recipe was easy and quick to prepare or we might not have had a dessert for Thanksgiving this year.

BUT, the single best part about this crumble was the leftovers! We enjoyed them for breakfast in the days following Thanksgiving. I was so sad when it was finally all gone. But like I said, I might be making another batch for Christmas.

If you love pears or just want to try a different dessert this Christmas season, give this easy crumble a try!

Cranberry Pear Crumble
adapted slightly from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

2 to 3 pounds ripe pears, peeled and diced (6-7 cups, about 5 medium pears)
12 ounces (about 3 cups) fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped in half or lightly pulsed in food processor or blender
1 cup (7.5 ounces) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup orange juice (can use fresh juice from orange), apple juice or cranberry juice

For the Crumble Topping:
2 1/2 cups (12.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
14 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9X13-inch baking pan. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the pears, cranberries, sugar, tapioca flour or cornstarch, orange zest, and cinnamon. Stir well. Add the juice. Stir to combine.

Spread the fruit mixture evenly in the pan.

For the crumble topping, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, granulated sugar, and brown sugar. Add the melted butter and stir until the mixture forms pea-size and slightly larger clumps.

Crumble the topping evenly over the fruit.

Bake for 45-50 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden. Once removed from the oven, let the crumble rest for 15 minutes (the filling will thicken a bit as it sits). Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Mojo-Roast Pork and Cubanos!

Tomorrow will be Matthew's first day on skis. Here in Colorado, little kids ski for free during the winter season and the resort of your choice will even provide them with free lessons if they are complete novices. Paul and I both grew up in Montana where learning to ski at a young age is a necessity as it is so ingrained in the culture up there. When we moved here, one of the perks of being so close to the mountains, we assumed, was that we could get back on skis more easily and teach our children how to ski as well. Paul in particular is an excellent skier who has been out to the Montana slopes several times since we have been married. Last time I went skiing was when I was pregnant with our first baby. The conditions were terrible - very icy - and I took a bad fall. A couple weeks later, I lost the baby. The doctors assured me that the fall while skiing had not disrupted the pregnancy, but I wasn't so sure and as a result haven't been back on skis since. Paul is determined to get me back on the slopes next winter when we can leave Daniel for longer periods of time. But for now, Paul's focus is getting Matthew learning to ski and, hopefully, also learning to love it.

When Matthew first found out about skiing, he was excited to learn. He was practically bouncing off the walls when Paul took him to the sporting goods store to purchase ski gear and lift tickets. We found it was less expensive to purchase kid skis and boots than it is to rent them, so Matthew walked out of the store the proud owner of his own pair of bright red ski boots and skis. He tried them on at home for his sisters and me and then carefully propped them up in his closet in anticipation of the day he would get to use them. We purchased him a slightly used, high-quality ski coat, gloves, thermal underwear, and goggles to keep him warm and protected at 12,000 feet elevation. Matthew was just about ready to get out and ski. His first, all-day lesson was scheduled and set for December 8th.

Last night, at dinner, a few days before his scheduled lesson, Matthew announced that he no longer wanted to ski. "You never asked me my opinion! You just signed me up without my permission!" he whined.

Paul just about blew his top: "What do you mean?? You have been excited! What about all the time you spend parading around in your new ski gear in front of your sisters and Mom? At any point you could have said you didn't want to go!"

Matthew continued reiterating that he didn't want to go: "I'm afraid I'm going to be blown off the mountain!"

At this, we all laughed and attempted to quell his fears because they were ridiculous. Then Emma piped up: "You can take me! I want to learn how to ski. I'm going to be a good skier because I never give up!"

This is true. She is exceptionally stubborn.

Emma's enthusiasm enraged Matthew. If we ever want to motivate Matthew to do something, all we have to do is ask Emma to do it first and suddenly Matthew will spring to action. This even works for household chores, like taking out the garbage or picking up the dog poop.

"Emma, you can't learn to ski! I'm going to ski first!" Matthew snapped at her. The fight didn't stop there, and soon enough a grumpy Matthew was sent to his room for berating his sister.

While we cleaned up the dishes, Paul began to lament about whether we should be encouraging Matthew to ski or not. More than anything, Paul really wants Matthew to have a good experience on his first day so that he will enjoy skiing. A bad first day could taint his perception of skiing for life. That's when I suggested that maybe we should have signed Emma up at the same time so they could take lessons together. Those two are in constant competition with one another, in this case their combativeness could actually do some good. They could possibly drive one another to greater success.

Too late for that now. So Matthew will be hitting the slopes alone (Paul will be skiing too) on Saturday. We will see if he takes to skiing as much as his father hopes, or whether he will be sitting out the remainder of the season with his mother and his cute baby brother who is just so adorable right now that all the photos are about HIM.

Also, I shamefully have to put in a plug for my beloved alma mater and her football team. The Fighting Irish are headed to the playoffs! Daniel is particularly excited about it. This was taken during the USC game, which Daniel watched intently in between chewing on a package of diaper wipes.

So let's transition to the recipe for today. Actually it's a bonus day, for I have TWO recipes for you. This snowy, chilly weather is perfect for my favorite combination of foods - soups and sandwiches! My favorite sandwich in the world is one that incorporates all my pregnancy cravings between two slices of bread: pickles, mustard, and cheese. What sandwich is that? The Cuban Sandwich, or Cubanos to some people.

A good Cuban Sandwich consists of delicious roast pork, shaved ham, swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard piled high on a special, slightly sweet and chewy Cuban bread. The sandwich is pressed and toasted on a griddle until the cheese is all melty and the outside of the bread is golden brown and crunchy. It is the greatest combination of flavors in the world.

In order to have a good Cuban Sandwich, a good recipe for roast pork must be used. Anyone ever see the movie Chef? If you haven't, it's basically the story of a chef who leaves his career working in an upscale restaurant to make cuban sandwiches on a food truck. In the movie, they show him making this amazing citrus marinated, slow roasted pork that he uses on his sandwiches. The recipe was developed for the movie by famed chef Roy Choi and it is one of the greatest ways to use pork shoulder ever. I usually use his recipe to roast a large pork shoulder and then serve it sliced with mojo sauce and potatoes and salad one night for dinner and then use the leftovers to make Cuban sandwiches the next night.

If you don't have cuban bread, and really it is pretty hard to find unless you make it yourself, just use french bread. Actually, you can buy day-old bread from Jimmy Johns for practically nothing and it works PERFECT in this recipe.

In summary, make the roasted pork one night for dinner. Then, use the leftovers to assemble into the best cuban sandwiches this side of Miami. It's the perfect stay-inside-while-looking-at-the-snow-falling type of meal.

Have I mentioned that I'm so thankful I'm not the one freezing on the ski slopes this weekend?

Mojo-Marinated Roast Pork
from Roy Choi for the movie Chef, as seen on RecipeTin Eats

For the Marinade and Pork:
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup cilantro / coriander, lightly packed
1 tbsp orange zest
3/4 cup orange juice, fresh
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 cup mint leaves, lightly packed
8 garlic cloves
1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves, packed (or 1/2 tbsp dried oregano)
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
4 lb pork shoulder, skinless and boneless

For the Mojo Sauce:
2 tbsp lime juice
1/4 cup orange juice
Salt and pepper

Combine Marinade ingredients in a food processor and blend until the herbs and garlic are finely chopped. Alternatively, you can finely chop/mince the garlic and herbs then mix all ingredients in a bowl.
Place in a large ziplock bag with the pork. Place in the fridge overnight (in a bowl, just to be safe).
Remove the pork from the Marinade and bring to room temperature. Reserve the Marinade.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place the pork on a rack in a roasting dish (or on a couple of onions have, to elevate the pork). Cover with a lid or double layer or foil, slightly tented so it is not pressed tightly against the pork.
Place in the oven and bake for 2 hrs 30 minutes. Then remove the foil and return to the oven for a further 30 minutes to brown.

Remove from the oven and place on a plate, loosely covered with foil. Rest for 20 minutes before serving with the Mojo Sauce on the side. I decorated mine with pan fried slices of oranges and extra cilantro/coriander leaves.

To make the Mojo Sauce, place the reserved Marinade, the Mojo Sauce ingredients and 2 tbsp of the roasting pan drippings into a small saucepan. Bring to boil and add salt and pepper to taste. You might also want to add more lime juice or even a touch of sugar. Turn the heat down and simmer for 1 minute, then remove from the stove and set aside. Serve with the Pork!


2 thin slices ham
4 thin slices Mojo Marinated Pork
2 pieces of white baguettes , sliced in half (I used Jimmy John's Baguettes!)
Yellow mustard
2 thin slices Swiss cheese
2 or 3 dill pickles , thinly sliced

Heat skillet over medium heat. Add ham and pork slices, and cook each side until slightly browned then remove to a plate.

Butter cut sides of baguettes then place in the skillet, cut side down, for 2 minutes until lightly browned. Remove onto work surface.

Layer the bottom of the baguettes with pork, ham, then cheese and pickles. Cut, break or fold the ham, pork and cheese so they fit. Spread the cut side of the bun tops with mustard then place on the sandwich.

Butter the bottom AND top of the outside of the baguettes.

Heat skillet over medium high heat. Place the baguettes in the skillet, top with a sheet of baking paper then weigh it down with a heavy skillet or pot (use cans if necessary for extra weight so the sandwich compressed). Cook for 3 minutes on each side, until dark golden brown and crispy, and the cheese is melted.

Let sandwiches stand 1 minute before cutting in half. Serve IMMEDIATELY.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Lemon Lavender Cupcakes

Let me tell you about one of my favorite people in the whole wide world. This person is not one of my children nor my goofy husband; I give them plenty of feature time here and will pick up with discussing them tomorrow.

Today, I want to talk about my little sister Amy.

Amy, to put it eloquently, is simply the best. She is upbeat, easy-going, and smart. She also has a great sense of humor and infectious laughter, loves music, animals, and children, is a blossoming Beatles fan, possesses a great eye for photography and art in general, and has a faith life that is pretty deep for a kid her age.

But the best thing about Amy is her compassionate, loving heart. She has such a big capacity to love and cares deeply about each and every person she meets. Legitimately cares. You would be hard pressed to find someone with a bigger heart than Amy.

I'd like to think that Amy's beautiful nature is largely due to the fact that I supplied her with an impeccable role model while growing up. I was fifteen when Amy was born and my parents asked me to be her godmother, a role that I continue to take very seriously. But in all reality, I have pretty much nothing to do with how awesome Amy is. Even as an infant, she was always so sweet, so patient, and so ready to please. While growing up, she always tried her best to follow rules, obey her parents, and give her all at school. She also fostered a relationship with God that she has continued to grow and I have no doubt that her spiritual growth is the dominant force shaping her into the adult she is quickly becoming.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, Matthew was scheduled to receive the remainder of his sacraments of initiation: Confirmation and Communion. As part of the Confirmation process, he was instructed to select an adult sponsor, someone whom he greatly admires who will be able to help guide him in his faith journey. He took only a few minutes to think before deciding upon Amy. His choice did not come as a surprise to me and Amy was thrilled that he thought of her. I thought it was kind of neat because I had also been Amy's Confirmation sponsor just a few years earlier.

So, my Mom flew out along with my three youngest siblings - Amy, Susanna, and Bruce - to witness Matthew's reception of the sacraments. Amy got to sit with him throughout the entire 2 hour long Mass and held tightly onto his shoulder as Matthew walked up to be confirmed. Amy also was the one who informed the priest what name Matthew had chosen for his Confirmation - Saint Francis of Assisi - and got to watch close up as her eldest nephew was anointed with the blessed chrism oil. It was an emotional moment for me as a mother. I remember when my little baby boy was baptized and now here he was old enough to receive our Lord in the Eucharist and the Holy Spirit in Confirmation. I also remember my baby sister receiving all three of her sacraments of initiation and now she gets to stand as a witness and role model to my son.  How quickly time passes.

It was beautiful - every bit of the Mass. And when it was over, we had a little party with lots of cake.

Oh, and there is one more thing about Amy that I'd like to share. She likes to cook. More specifically, she like to bake. When she came out to my house this past summer, she baked quite a bit. One of the most amazing things she made were these Lemon Lavender Cupcakes. I am in love with lavender in cakes and cookies, so when this recipe intrigued her, I encouraged her to try it. Amy discovered after trying her confection that she was not in love with lavender flavored frosting. However, I found it delicious and so did Paul and the kids. Amy might be able to bake, but I'm beginning to suspect that she lacks properly formed taste buds. These were amazing.

If you're like Amy and are suspect of lavender in baked goods, keep away. However, if lavender-scented sweets are your jam, give these elegant cupcakes a go!

Lemon Lavender Cupcakes
recipe from Jessica Merchant

For the Cupcakes:
1-1/2 cup All Purpose Flour, sifted
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt
4 Lemons, Zest Freshly Grated
1/2 cup Unsalted Butter, At Room Temperature
1 cup Sugar
1 Large Egg
2 Large Egg Whites
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 teaspoon Lemon Extract (optional)
1/2 cup Milk
1/4 cup Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice

For the Lavender Frosting:
3/4 cups Unsalted Butter, At Room Temperature
3-1/2 cups To 4 Cups Powdered Sugar
1 teaspoon Dried Culinary Lavender, Finely Chopped
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 Tablespoon Milk Or Cream If Needed
1 drop Purple Food Coloring (optional)
Fresh Lavender, For Garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line a cupcake tin with liners.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Zest the lemons and set the zest aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy. Add in the sugar and beat on medium speed, scraping down the sides if needed and increasing it to high speed for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar and butter is fluffy. Beat in each egg and white until incorporated, then add the vanilla and lemon extract (you can also use a lemon baking emulsion) and lemon zest until combined. Beating on low speed, add in half of the dry ingredients until combined, then add in the milk and lemon juice. Add in the remaining dry ingredients and beat until combined.

Using an ice cream scoop or 1/4 cup measure, scoop the batter into the liners filling them 3/4 of the way full. Bake for 16–18 minutes, or until the tops are set. Let cool completely.

For the lavender frosting:
Add butter to the bowl of your electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat until creamy. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the powdered sugar and lavender. Increase the speed of the mixer, scraping down the sides if needed, beating the frosting until fluffy and combined. Beat in the vanilla extract.

If the frosting seems too thick, beat in the tablespoon of milk. If it seems to runny or too thin, you can beat in more powdered sugar ¼ cup at a time. Once the frosting is a spreadable consistency, drop in the purple food coloring and mix until evenly colored. Frost the cupcakes and top with a few lavender flowers if you wish.