Friday, January 20, 2017

Easy Homemade Ice Cream Cake

Well, we survived the annual "birthday week" without much of a functioning kitchen. Matthew and Paul have back to back birthdays in January and I always insist on them celebrating apart even though it would be so much easier just to combine them. I was a little worried about what food I was going to make the boys for their birthday dinner, but Paul left me with no choice other than going out to eat. I was a little relieved. However, I still wanted to make them some type of cake or dessert, even if it was only semi-homemade.

What Paul REALLY wanted for his birthday dessert was delicious but slightly involved Apple Pie Layer Cake. I really wanted to make it for him, but after experiencing how difficult it has been to make basic things like sandwiches and pasta without countertops, a kitchen sink, a functioning dishwasher, and a pantry that is still scattered throughout various corners of the house, I decided to make an ice cream cake. Paul loves ice cream - he can almost never turn down a scoop. He also absolutely loves the Dairy Queen ice cream cakes and I knew I could make a better one at home with better ice cream and flavors more suited to his tastes. However, it would definitely still have that wonderful middle layer of fudge and chocolate cookies.

And just look how excited Paul was to have this cake...

As easy as this cake is to assemble, it actually was still a bit frustrating with the limited space. You have no idea how many volunteers I had when I started unloading the ice cream, fudge sauce, and oreo cookies from the freezer and fridge. Of course, I quickly learned my little helpers were more interested in quality control in the form of sampling all the ingredients rather than actually assembling the cake. The most difficult part of this recipe, aside from slapping away dirty little fingers constantly trying to dip into the ice cream, was chopping up the Oreo cookies. And, if you have a food processor, that will take less than 20 seconds.

It probably would be easier to make the ice cream layers if you let the ice cream thaw a bit at room temperature. You could even dump it into a larger bowl and just stir it a bit until it softens. I did neither of those things and just used my ice cream scoop to fill my springform pan and then flattened everything down with a mallet. Worked great and I'll probably do it that way in the future.

In less than 15 minutes, I had a fully assembled ice cream cake that just required a long chill in the freezer before decorating. The afternoon of Paul's birthday, I made fresh whipped cream, removed the ice cream cake from the pan and transferred it to a serving platter, and then "frosted" the tops and sides with the whipped cream. Emma insisted on a finishing of confetti sprinkles for a festive touch.

The cake then went back into the freezer until we were ready to eat it later that night.

Between the five of us (Lucy was all about this cake) we finished maybe 1/4 of the cake - it's super rich. But having leftover ice cream cake is not a bad thing at all! Well wrapped, it will actually keep better than regular cake because you can store it in the freezer for longer than it takes a layer cake to stale! A lot of times during "birthday week" the whole family gets so sick of cake because we eat it for about 10 days straight before we finally finish it all. Not a problem with this recipe.

This cake was very much loved by my birthday husband and a complete lifesaver for me during this crazy remodel. If you are in need of an easy cake idea for whatever reason, ice cream cake just might be your answer. And I guarantee that it will taste better than Dairy Queen's.

Easy Homemade Ice Cream Cake

2 (1.5 quart) containers of ice cream (use two different flavors of your choice - we used Chocolate Coffee and Caramel)
1 package of Oreo cookies (or store brand)
1 cup of hot fudge sauce (or more)
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Line a springform pan with two large pieces of plastic wrap. Make sure to leave enough extra to cascade down the outside of the pan. This will help with the removal of the cake later.

Take one quart of your ice cream and scoop it evenly into the bottom of the pan. Then, using a large spoon, spatula, or mallet, smash it into an even layer. Put the pan in the freezer as you prepare the middle layer.

Finely crush about 3/4 of the package of cookies by hand or in a food processor. You can use the whole package if you want a thicker layer. Heat the hot fudge sauce for a couple seconds in the microwave or just until it is pourable. You don't want it too hot, but just warm enough so that it will easily slide out of the container. In a medium bowl, mix the crumbs and a little of the fudge sauce at a time to form a sticky, crumbly mixture. It should hold together and crumble when you press it between your fingers. Stop adding hot fudge when you feel the consistency is right.

Remove the cake from the freezer and drizzle a thin layer of fudge over the top, if desired. Crumble the cookie mixture over the top. Press lightly to adhere. Return the cake to the freezer for five minutes.

After five minutes, take the cake back out of the freezer and scoop the remaining quart of ice cream over the top. Press into an even layer and smooth the top. Cover the top with an additional layer of plastic wrap and return to the freezer until frozen solid.

To make the whipped cream, beat the heavy cream and sugar in a mixer with a whisk attachment until stiff peaks form. Remove the cake from the freezer, remove the sides of the springform pan and invert the entire cake onto a cake platter. Peel away the rest of the plastic. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the whipped cream. Use an offset spatula to add some peaks and swirls to the top. Decorate with additional fudge sauce, cookies, or sprinkles. Return to the freezer until ready to serve.

Let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before slicing with a heated knife. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Family Portraits: A Miserable Ordeal

Every time we add a new kid to the family, Paul and I like to go into a studio and have a professional take a family portrait of us and a few of just the children. Unfortunately, things have been so busy since Lucy arrived that we had failed to make it in even though I bought two separate Groupon deals for local portrait studios and let them expire simply because I could not seem to nail down a time to drag everyone in there and get 'er done. After taking down all our framed photos in preparation for painting, I noticed that Lucy was not in any of them. If you were to walk into our house, you would still think we only had two kids and that they were about three years younger than they are now. I resolved that we would get those pictures taken.

I waited and finally found a good deal at a local studio and made a reservation a few days before Christmas. Then, Lucy took a nasty fall and came up with a bloody scratch under her left eye. That appointment got cancelled.

I then scheduled another appointment immediately after New Year's and Lucy once again foiled my plans by running into a door and adding a bulging bruise to the side of her cute little face. That appointment also got cancelled.

Finally, seeing that both Paul and Matthew had Martin Luther King Jr. Day off, I scheduled the appointment once more for that morning. The night before, Matthew and Emma got into a skirmish and Emma (who has been in a scratching phase) gave Matthew a terrible scratch that extended from the middle of his forehead all the way down to the middle of his cheek. I threw up my hands in despair! I was never going to get these pictures done without one of the kids looking like they had just come from a rugby match. Paul told me not to cancel it and we spent a bit of time rubbing lotion and other facial products into Matthew's face in the hopes that the swelling would go down. Thankfully, it was a surface scratch and barely broke the skin. The next morning, Matthew woke up looking pretty decent and I figured that I would just photoshop the rest of the scratch away. I gave my boys a haircut, bathed the girls, dolled everyone up as best I could (with the exception of Paul...he dressed himself!), and then headed to the appointment.

We arrived right on time, which is truly incredible for us, and the gal at the front desk informed us that there was another family in the studio at the moment but they would be with us shortly. Unfortunately, by "shortly" she meant another 30 minutes which proved to be a bit disastrous for our crew. The kids started to get antsy and, in an effort to relieve some of their pent-up energy, began taking laps around the room. Lucy, in particular, ran in small little circles so fast that I was sure she was going to be sick. Before we had left, Paul had insisted that both girls wear their hair down and I blow-dryed, styled, and had it looking pretty and shiny right before we left. Now, with all their rambunctious activity, Lucy's mane was hanging in her face making her look a bit savage and unkempt while Emma's fine blonde hair was sticking up ever which way thanks to the static. When our turn to be photographed finally arrived, Paul and I tried our darnedest to pat and smooth all the loose hair into place. Then came the fun part.

With the exception of Matthew, who was being surprisingly cooperative, our family proved to be impossible to photograph. Emma kept giving this weird tiny smile with glazed eyes that made her look like she was drooling and only half awake in every take. And that was only when she actually sat still and looked into the camera because she was more interested in bopping about and writhing when we tried to pose her. Lucy refused to smile or even look in the right direction, or kept creeping her tiny finger into her left nostril. Paul and I looked just looked tired, tense, and a tiny bit angry. "Maybe we should take a break from the group shot and try a couple individual pictures of the kids," the photographer said after about 100 takes failed to produce a decent shot.

So, we posed all three of the kids together and tried to capture their love and adulation for one another. At first, we tried having all three kids sit together, with Lucy in the middle, and Matthew and Emma's arms around her. Well, that caused a mutiny because heaven forbid they be allowed to touch one another. Next, we tried having all three kids lay on their stomachs, their chins resting in their hands, and smiling sweetly into the camera. Lucy refused to stay in this position and kept making a beeline for the door and her freedom. Emma kept dropping her face down to the ground the second before the photographer took the picture. Matthew wouldn't stop covering his entire mouth with his hand. And on top of everything, the girls' hair was so full of static that it kept drifting into their mouths and standing straight up so we had to stop and comb it/wet it down every couple minutes which of course induced more tears and tantrums. Overall, that pose was an absolute mess.

We finally got a decent shot of the kids sitting together on a cushion only because I was hiding right behind Lucy and holding her in place so she would stay put. Paul, in the meantime, kept making funny faces and telling jokes while the photographer just kept taking pictures. Out of about 60 clicks, we got one that worked. 

Next, we tried taking a few pictures of just Lucy. I like to have an individual pose of the "newest" child. I was really unhappy with these overall. It wasn't the photographer's fault, but rather largely because Lucy would not stay still. She also kept pulling at her hair and making weird faces (none of them cute or photogenic). All of us tried our best to coax a smile out of her from the sidelines - Matthew, Paul, Emma, me. We worked on her for a while and this was the best shot we got.

Meanwhile, Emma was raiding the props in the back of the room and Matthew had the sudden urge to use the bathroom. We took a small break before attempting to get a group shot once more. Paul just wanted to forget the whole thing and run but we had already paid for this session and I was determined to walk out with a decent family picture. Thankfully, there was nobody scheduled immediately behind us because our 15-minute session had already taken 90 minutes. I was so grateful to the studio for being so patient with us and allowing us to keep trying to coax a decent shot out of our kids. They wanted us to walk out with a decent picture as much as we did. 

When Paul and Matthew returned, we gathered once more and tried for a family photo. It didn't work any better. Emma had completely given up and could not be encouraged to smile. Lucy began to wail. Matthew was still cheery, but his patience was wearing thin. Finally, I asked if there was another photographer in the studio who might be able to aid in making sure the kids were looking in the right spot. A second photographer was ushered in and this lady was awesome. She was loud, she was funny, she knew how to pose people, and she knew how to work with kids. She walked into the room and completely took over. She changed up how we were sitting and began acting silly and telling jokes. Matthew and Emma thought she was hilarious while Lucy was absolutely terrified of her. So terrified, in fact, that she stopped crying and messing around and just sat still. Perfect. Emma and Matthew laughed and laughed as the camera clicked three times. Three shots later, we had the best picture out of the entire two hour session. Real smiles on Matthew and Emma - even showing off Emma's dimples. I was happy. And we were finally done!

We arrived back home completely exhausted but happy that we will not have to sit for another family portrait for at least another two years. It was a frustrating and miserable experience that neither of us are eager to repeat anytime soon. Anyone else find family portraits completely overwhelming?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Bringing Up Peyton

Peyton has been adjusting marvelously to our family, a wonder indeed considering we brought him home in the midst of a massive remodeling project. Our kitchen is located in the center of our home and we decided that now would be the best time to put into motion the replacement of the cabinets, countertops, backsplash, lights, and window. We have been planning and researching for this project for a couple years and finally took advantage of an awesome sale and pulled the trigger.

It all started with a door. Paul was helping me set the table one day and went to our utensil drawer to retrieve some forks and the drawer completely fell apart. He confidently told me it could be fixed. He went to the hardware store and bought all the necessary components and then proceeded to repair the delinquent drawer. He thought he had it all brand spankin' new but the repair did not hold and the drawer broke again within 24 hours. From there, each and every cabinet began to fall apart. The cabinets were coming out of the walls, all the doors were splitting and cracking, and the cabinet below our sink was so rotted from a leaky pipe that a large hole was forming. Plus, our countertops were cracked and scratched and the backsplash was starting to crumble due to the mortar being improperly mixed and applied when installed a few years ago. We began researching and planning a remodel but shied away due to cost, timeline considerations, and fear of committing to the project. One night this summer, Paul was helping me in the kitchen again and went to get a serving spoon from his nemesis the drawer and it fell apart once more. "THAT'S IT!" he declared, "WE ARE GETTING THIS FIXED!"

And from there, we seriously buckled down and planned our remodel. Of course, I don't think either of us really expected to have a puppy running around the exact same time. Not to mention a puppy that has to go outside to pee every hour on the hour. But we do and so we have learned to deal.

Peyton has proved surprisingly easy to housebreak - relatively speaking. I read some pretty petrifying horror stories online about the difficulty pet owners have experienced in training their pups to let them know it's time to go outside. Sure, we have had a few accidents but Peyton is already going to the door when he needs to be let down or, if he is in his crate, barking desperately. The first couple days were a little rough just because we had to take him out every 45-60 minutes voluntarily so he would get used to the idea of going outside, rewarding him after each successful visit. Being vigilant like this ensured that we had no accidents in the house. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to get up at night (every 3 hours) to get him outside but my wonderful husband has been voluntarily picking up that job. Nearly two weeks later, things are much more relaxed with Peyton in the house because he does communicate his needs to me and has honestly mastered the whole pottying thing. He's a smart boy. Of course, it helps that he is extremely motivated by food. That puppy will do anything for the tiniest morsel. He's also figured out that the best place to sit during mealtime is directly under Lucy's high chair. That's where all the goodies come raining down.

The biggest challenge with house training Peyton has honestly come from the construction end. As I mentioned earlier, the kitchen is in the very center of our home and there are nails, construction equipment, pieces of trim, braces, screws, screw drivers, power tools, drywall, and lots and lots of boxes everywhere. There are about a million things a stupid little puppy can chew on, swallow, and kill himself with. I caught him trying to eat insulation one day and thankfully caught him before he could break off a piece. In addition, he adores our contractor and takes a beeline for him whenever he gets the chance. This meant that one of the days he got stepped on accidentally because he came up behind the guy and surprised him while he was in the middle of drilling. A nice pat on the head and Peyton was happy as could be, his tiny tail wagging wildly.

The one plus side of training our puppy during this time is that he is a great distraction for the kids. My kids would usually be the ones bothering the contractor, asking him questions, or quizzing him on his favorite dinosaurs (ok, so Matthew was doing that earlier). With the puppy around, they spend a lot of time in the basement chasing him around, playing fetch, and getting him all wild with tug-of-war. They love him so much.

I have to watch Emma with the treats though. She broke into the puppy treat bag and fed him a bunch of them for doing absolutely nothing. Now he hounds her diligently hoping that she will overfeed him again. Like I said, this dog is very food-motivated.

I'm looking forward to having most of the project done by February. In the meantime, I am cooking by microwave, crockpot, or rice cooker only. My workspace functions as my dining room table and partial pantry. The rest of our pantry is in the laundry room which also functions as the dishwashing center since we do not currently have a working sink in our kitchen. It's been tight and feels a bit like camping. My crockpot has been my greatest friend during this time. Since meals have been quick out of necessity, I have been able to spend more time with the pup and focus on training him and getting him used to our schedule. It has honestly been mutually beneficial!

Emma and a very unhappy Lucy eating lunch while I prep dinner for tonight. See our microwave,
coffeemaker, and crockpot are in the mess somewhere there. I'm trying be organized but it has been so difficult!

Laundry room/pantry/dishwashing center. I  had just finished washing
 a load of dishes when I snapped this picture.

We will have Peyton 100% housebroken by the time this kitchen project is complete for sure. Honestly, the potty issues haven't been the most challenging part of taking care of him so far. Getting him not to eat the mulch or pieces of bark outside has been far more frustrating. In fact, the other day I was taking him out for a walk and he started digging in one of the neighbor's garden beds and retrieved a three inch piece of bark. We continued walking when suddenly he stopped still and began making a noise that can be described as something between a wheeze and a choke. I knelt down and pried his mouth open to find that the piece of bark was stuck on his front canine and because of this predicament he was unable to dislodge the rest of it from his throat. I pried it off his tooth and threw it off into the distance and of course he took off to chase it because that moment of asphyxiation was so enjoyable he wanted to experience it again. Keeping him alive has been majorly challenging.

Oh, and a little side note on Paul's nemesis, the utensil drawer. It took its final revenge on Paul during tear out. We couldn't get it to come out of the cabinet since it was so warped in the back.  "Stupid darn DOOR!!!!" Paul was so mad. It took quite a bit of effort but we finally dislodged it, after which Paul declared: "HA! Victory is mine!" I believe he has a mini bonfire planned one of these nights.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Thick, Chewy Gingerbread Cookies

I am well aware that nobody is in the mood for a cookie recipe now that Christmas is officially over and diet season has begun. I'm also pretty burnt out from all the Christmas baking BUT I wanted to be sure to record and post this perfect recipe for thick and chewy gingerbread men. Gingerbread is definitely the favorite Christmas cookie in this household. My kids love everything ginger and molasses flavor, something I find so bizarre because when I was younger I absolutely detested molasses. I have since developed a fondness for it, but only in the last ten years. Every Christmas, we have tested a different recipe for gingerbread and, while pleased with the results overall, I had yet to find a truly outstanding one for gingerbread cutouts. My search is now over. This recipe produces a dough that has a perfect balance of molasses and spice, is easy to roll out, and bakes into a cookie that is sturdy but not a bit crispy. Some gingerbread is so crunchy that I feel as if I'm going to chip a tooth while taking a bite. Not the case with these cookies.

I had a blast piping icing to make some cute gingerbread men and women. I also saw an idea in a magazine for turning the gingerbread men shapes upside down and decorating them to look like Rudolph. The kids loved this idea as evidenced by the fact that the reindeer cookies were the first to disappear (within the first 48 hours after baking!). Using a batch of royal icing, pipe whatever designs you like to make the feet of the gingerbread men look like antlers. Then, attach candy eyes and a gumdrop (for the large reindeer) or a red m&m (for the small reindeer) for the nose. Voila! Easiest cookie decorating ever.

These cookies will definitely be added to our permanent Christmas baking schedule!

Thick and Chewy Gingerbread Cookies
from Baking Illustrated

3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup (6 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces and softened slightly
¾ cup molasses
2 tablespoons milk

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process flour, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt, and baking soda until combined, about 10 seconds. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture and process until mixture is sandy and resembles very fine meal, about 15 seconds. With machine running, gradually add molasses and milk; process until dough is evenly moistened and forms soft mass, about 10 seconds. (Alternatively, in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, stir together flour, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt and baking soda at low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Stop mixer and add butter pieces; mix at medium-low speed until mixture is sandy and resembles fine meal, about 1½ minutes. Reduce speed to low and, with mixer running, gradually add molasses and milk; mix until dough is evenly moistened, about 20 seconds. Increase speed to medium and mix until thoroughly combined, about 10 seconds.)

Scrape dough onto work surface; divide in half. Working with one portion of dough at a time, roll ¼-inch thick between two large sheets of parchment paper. Leaving dough sandwiched between parchment layers, stack on cookie sheet and freeze until firm, 15 to 20 minutes. (Alternatively, refrigerate dough 2 hours or overnight.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Remove one dough sheet from freezer; place on work surface. Peel off top parchment sheet and lay it back in place. Flip dough over; peel off and discard second parchment layer. Cut dough into gingerbread people or round cookies, transferring shapes to parchment-line cookie sheets with a wide metal spatula, spacing them ¾-inch apart. Repeat with remaining dough until cookie sheets are full. Bake cookies until set in centers and dough barely retains imprint when touched very gently with fingertip, 8 to 11 minutes, rotating cookie sheet from front to back halfway through baking time. Do not overbake. Cool cookies on sheets 2 minutes, then remove with wide metal spatula to wire rack; cool to room temperature.

Gather scraps; repeat rolling, cutting and baking in steps 2 and 4. Repeat with remaining dough until all dough is used.

Once cookies are cool, decorate with royal icing, if desired. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Cioppino, Presents, and a Puppy for Christmas

Even though the Advent season was as long as it could possibly be since Christmas Day fell on a Sunday this year, it seemed to fly by. As usual, our high aspirations for how we were planning to prepare our hearts and the hearts of our children for the true reason for the season fell a bit short. We did, however, successfully adhere to prayer and reflection together as a family in front of the manger scene and Advent wreath each night for prayers, followed immediately by singing a few verses of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", "Silent Night", "Beautiful City", and "Away in the Manger." The kids mostly enjoyed it: Matthew was enthusiastic each and every night, Emma got sent to bed early for disrupting prayers on more than one occasion, and Lucy took the opportunity to channel her inner monkey by climbing every chair and table in the dining room while the rest of us prayed.

Soon enough, it was Christmas Eve. The day started off bright and early by a call from our grocer to inform us that they would not be able to completely fulfill our seafood order for our Christmas Eve Cioppino since their shipment of Littleneck Clams had failed to arrive. For those who do not know, we eat a seafood dinner featuring a seafood stew called Cioppino - a generous mixture of sea bass, shrimp, scallops, and clams and/or mussels in a tomato broth. We all look forward to it every year. We were a little bummed to have to confess the clam shortage to Matthew since he was the one who was looking forward to them the most. He was a little disappointed, but quickly brightened up when we headed to the store to pick up our order and a bright idea popped into his little noggin: "Can we use King Crab legs instead?' He had spied the long, pointy legs and claws in the window of the seafood department. Knowing crab was going to be a bit of a hassle to crack and eat during dinnertime, Paul and I purchased only enough to ensure that each person would get one full leg - plus a large claw for Matthew.

The rest of the afternoon was spent tidying up the house, baking ciabatta for the stew, and prepping the cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. The kids enjoyed snacking on cheese and crackers while watching The Santa Clause and Paul baked a batch of his famed Candy Cane Crisps. Matthew and Paul then cleaned and prepped the fish for the Cioppino while I made the broth. We also made a quick batch of mac and cheese for the refined palates of Emma and Lucy. We weren't going to waste the seafood on them if they were just going to regurgitate it.

Then, we sat down to pray and feast!

Afterwards, we tried to get the kids bathed and settled down for the long night ahead. We always attend the midnight Christmas Mass which is not for the faint of heart with or without kids. One by one, we dressed the kids in their Christmas best and did our best to make them look presentable for church. They all looked slightly anemic and exhausted this year but none of them slept a wink before we left for Mass - not even Lucy, which was a big surprise.

We got to Mass about 20 minutes early, found seats towards the front, and sat down to enjoy the beautiful decorations and melodic voices of the choir. That was when Lucy decided to start voicing her displeasure. I walked her to the back for a bit and let her play with the drinking fountain but when Mass began to start, I lugged her back to the pew. We all stood to begin singing "Silent Night" and Lucy let out one last moan before I felt her weight heavy against my shoulder. She was out before we sung "all is bright." From there, the kids began to fall like flies. Matthew made it to the second reading before tipping over onto his side and napping atop our pile of coats. Emma held out the longest, holding her daddy's hand until the middle of the homily when she too succumbed to exhaustion. Paul and I enjoyed a very peaceful and beautiful Christmas Mass while our three cherubs snored behind us in the pew. It was perfect.

We got home, slipped them into their pajamas, and tucked them in bed. When everyone was quiet, we began the arduous task of finding the gifts we had wrapped and hidden throughout the house over the past few months and place them carefully under the tree. Bedtime for us was not until around 3:00 AM. It was a bit brutal.

Matthew woke us bright and early at 8:00 AM, which is actually sleeping in for him by a couple hours. We were grateful. We allowed him to go downstairs and peek in his stocking but told him he had to wait for Emma and Lucy before we could start opening gifts. We put on "It's a Wonderful Life" and ate Christmas cookies while waiting for the gals to arise from their beauty rest. Lucy joined us soon afterwards, and Emma followed not long after that. It was really funny when we heard Emma come down the stairs because she was already whining and fully prepared to make our lives miserable. However, when she saw the bulging stockings and the piles of gifts under the tree, her grumpy face transformed into the biggest dimpled grin.

The unwrapping began! Matthew received several games, Lincoln Logs, a Ninja Turtle Sweatshirt, Star Wars action figures, a soccer ball, a baseball bat and glove, and some art supplies. Emma received a Calico Critters house complete with a few furniture pieces and characters, a Paw Patrol play set, a nightlight for her bedroom, and a couple puzzles. Lucy opened a baby doll, a doll bed, and a couple cute board books. Paul was pleased to open a Seiko watch he had been eyeing, a couple movies, a new pair of slippers, and a new winter hat (a gift from Lucy and Emma - mainly Emma because she insisted that Paul was in need of it).

The kids look so serious in all the pictures we took of them opening presents. They really were very excited and happy...I promise!

It took Lucy about 30 minutes to unwrap this gift. She would tear the paper a little bit and then get bored, walk away, and eat some more goodies from her stocking. She required lots of encouragement and a little help from her more-than-willing brother and sister. When she finally saw what was in the box, she began to unwrap with a bit more enthusiasm!

I received the biggest surprise of my life from Paul this Christmas. I opened a new pair of winter boots, some cold weather clothes, and then a leash. Then, I opened a box containing a flip-over dog. Paul began to joke about how I have always wanted a dog as he attached the leash to the fake pup. The kids then took turns walking around the house with the leashed stuffed animal. You would think this would have been a major hint to me about what was coming next, but I honestly thought it was one big gag gift because Paul pulls stuff like that all the time. Then, I opened a set of food bowls and Paul showed me a picture of the beautiful baby Golden Retriever he had adopted for me along with the news that we would be picking him up from the breeder by the end of the week. I was flabbergasted. Absolutely shocked. He completely knocked my socks off.

You see, Paul and I had discussed the possibility of adopting another animal since I missed having a pet after our beloved cat died two years ago. We were leaning towards switching gears and raising a dog since we felt that would be a more appropriate family pet. We agreed that a Golden Retriever would be our dog of choice and Paul was especially excited about the idea of having something around the house to "walk me" since I was always begging him to go on family walks with me. I like my exercise. We even went so far as to look up breeders in the area and talk to several friends of ours who had beautiful, well-behaved Goldens. However, we were both skeptical about expense, maintenance, and stress in training the animal that we pretty much dropped it. At least I thought we had dropped it. Apparently Paul had continued to research and plan and reserved a puppy for me as soon as he heard that the best breeder had a new little of pups ready in time for Christmas. Again, he got me good this year.

When asked what I was going to name our new little puppy, there was no doubt in my mind what I would choose: Peyton! I will always admire and respect Peyton Manning as one of the most upstanding celebrity role models for young men. When I told Paul we were going to name the pup after Peyton, he rolled his eyes and said, "I should have known."

And yes, we will be saying "Omaha!" when we throw him a ball instead of "Fetch!"

The kids were a little confused when we told them we were getting a real, live puppy. They still thought the "dog" was the fake animal Paul had me unwrap. I think they finally got the picture when we made the drive into the country to bring Peyton home later in the week. And it was love at first sight for all three of them. This dog has gotten so much love and affection in the time he has spent with us. Emma especially dotes on him like crazy. She almost never leaves him alone. She likes to lay in his dog bed, reading books while he sleeps next to her. He loves all the attention and seems to thrive off human contact, even preferring to sleep on our feet on the cold floor over his comfy dog bed just because he needs to be near us. He's the sweetest little guy.

What was the biggest surprise you ever received on Christmas?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Plays, Planes, and Santa Cow

Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year to you and your family! We enjoyed a wonderful yet hectic Christmas season before diving head first into a gigantic kitchen remodel as well as tackling the monumental task of house-breaking my Christmas present. I have been a terrible blogger over the past couple weeks and am just now starting to collect my thoughts and wits enough to finally type out a recap of all the happenings of the past few weeks.

Let's begin by reflecting back to the first week of December...

Matthew's first grade class put on a Christmas play and Matthew was very excited for the performance. For weeks leading up to the big show, he would hum the songs he would be singing around the house while telling us how excited he was for us to watch and how much we were going to love it. It was truly adorable and I began to really look forward to it. Then, Paul received a work assignment that would involve traveling for a couple weeks. The designated departure date was slated to be the day before Matthew's big play. Paul was crestfallen when he discovered that and, with the song "Cats in the Cradle" playing through his head, spent the next couple days frantically trying to negotiate a different flight time in order to see the play. He was successful and booked a flight leaving bright and early the morning immediately following the play.

We headed to the school approximately 1 hour prior to the beginning of the show. We attended Mass as a family for the vigil of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and then decided just to head over to the school a bit earlier than stated in the school newsletter. Well, thank goodness we did because there were hardly any seats left in the gym. We managed to find a spot on the bleachers immediately to the left of the stage. And then the fun began.

We had to wait with a very impatient Emma and a very grumpy Lucy for the show to begin. The time was getting dangerously close to bedtime and both girls wanted nothing to do with sitting still or staying in the bleachers. Not to mention, bleachers are not the safest locations for toddlers, especially klutzy toddlers. Paul was going out of his mind chasing Emma out from under the bleachers and I was trying my best to keep Lucy from falling between the seats. After what seemed like hours, the lights dimmed and the show began. In marched a sea of little children dressed like angels in white robes and sparkling gold pipe cleaner halos. Paul got the camera out and started filming as I skimmed the mob trying to pick out the cherub that was our son. He wasn't hard to miss since he is the palest kid in the school - that and he was waving madly and at us instead of singing the song along with his classmates. Once all the students gathered in the front of the stage, we lost Matthew. He was smack dab in the middle and we could barely see him. Emma kept asking, quite loudly, for us to point Matthew out to her but it was nearly impossible for us to successfully do so and she began to suspect that Matthew was not there at all.

Can you spot Matthew?

The majority of the play consisted of the students singing various songs, both traditional and obscure, while various props and special characters paraded on and off the stage. Although the production was cute, I could tell Paul was tiring of listening to the sound of hundreds of tiny voices singing out of tune. When it came time for the kids to sing "Silent Night", he stopped filming and turned to me and whispered, "I just can't anymore. This is one of my favorite songs and it is being mangled." I think he was starting to reconsider rearranging his travel plans. After 30 minutes, we were both checking our watches and imagining the moment we could leave. Are we terrible parents? We just were not enjoying it as much as we thought we would. Emma and Lucy certainly didn't help. There was more than one shriek out of them.

Thankfully, it did end and Matthew was so happy and pleased with himself. that was the most enjoyable part for me! And I was very proud of him because, when his head did occasionally pop into view, I could see how loud he was singing. He was really into it. We celebrated his stage debut with some ice cream and our little thespian went to bed happy.

And the next morning Paul left for his long work trip. He did not return until shortly before Christmas Day.

So, the kids and I spent the time baking as many cookies as we could together, preparing the house for Christmas, and singing lots of Christmas carols at night around the manger scene. One of the activities the kids really wanted to do was build a gingerbread house. I had high aspirations of designing and baking my own gingerbread for an elaborate gingerbread village but I quickly realized that I had neither the time nor the energy. After speaking with my sister-in-law, she suggested that I use graham crackers in place of actual gingerbread. So, one night after the kids had gone to bed, I pulled out my serrated knife, whipped up a batch of royal icing, and then cut and pasted the crackers together to make a crude "village" of three homes with a modest sidewalk connecting them. The next day, Emma and I picked out all kinds of different gumdrops, peppermints, and m&ms to decorate them. When Matthew came home from school, I surprised him with the houses, set a large bowl of royal icing in front of him and Emma along with all the different candies, separated into different bowls, and let them go to town. They ate some of the sweet as they went along, but overall I think they did a fantastic job creating their little "gingerbread" village. We used it as our centerpiece for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner. I had to keep it high on top of one of our tallest bookshelves until that time because Emma kept trying to eat it.

I also took the kids to various Christmas themed activities around town. It was a little difficult doing so without him since several of the events were things we had traditionally done all together. One of the things Matthew kept begging me to do was take him to go see Santa. Now, Paul and I don't really do the Santa thing. The kids believe in the tradition on their own and we don't really dissuade them from it but we don't encourage it either with the exception of as a warning to Emma. Emma has been going through a very difficult phase as I alluded to earlier and Santa has actually been very helpful in correcting her behavior since her run-in with him at Toys R Us. We were rushing through the store one afternoon picking up a couple gifts for our godchildren when from across the store Santa Clause himself, seated on a red velvet throne and flanked by a couple elves, started waving at Emma: "Ho Ho Ho! Would you like to sit on my lap, little girl?"

I was in a bit of a rush and a little peeved at my little co-shopper for her churlish antics that morning, but there was no line so I let Emma saunter over to chat with him. She walked right up and immediately listed off the two things she wanted for Christmas: Paw Patrol toys and a little pink hippo that shoots.The first thing he asked her was, "Have you been a good little girl this year?" Emma looked over at me sheepishly and then turned back to Santa and answered truthfully: "No." Santa began to tsk and reminded her that "good little girls do not get any presents from Santa on Christmas. You need to listen to your Mom and do what she says because Santa always checks in with Mom and Dad before delivering presents on Christmas Eve."

Emma nodded solemnly, "Ok. I will, Santa!"

Since Emma was no fully aware that Santa was on my side, I began admittedly using that knowledge to my advantage by reminding her of it consistently throughout the days and weeks leading up to Christmas. It was actually very useful.

But, other than that, I really don't encourage the Santa thing. And I really didn't want to take Matthew on a special trip to the mall to stand in line and see Santa Clause and then get the pressure from the photographers on site about purchasing an image depicting this memorable moment in my children's lives. However, I did take them all to see Santa Cow at our local Chick-Fil-A. This outing was a lot of fun. We ate breakfast with Santa Cow, did a couple crafts together, and enjoyed the time together. The kids loved it. Lucy was especially enamored with Santa Cow for some reason while Emma was completely unimpressed. Every time Santa Cow visited our table, she visibly shriveled up and refused to look at or acknowledge him.

In addition to our Christmas preparations and activities, several good friends had us over for Christmas parties, dinners, and play dates. Within no time, two weeks had passed and we were ready to welcome Paul home again. Unfortunately, his return trip was majorly upset by weather across the country and he ended up stranded first in Denver then Chicago. From Chicago, he ended up swearing off getting a plane the rest of the way home and rented a car instead. He crashed at my sister Sophie's apartment in South Bend before continuing onward in the morning with his long car trip. When he finally made it home and pulled into the driveway, he was so excited to see us that he could barely wait to get inside. However, upon opening the door, he found only an empty house to greet him. Ironically, as he looked around crestfallen by the nonexistent welcome party, his cell phone beeped indicating the receipt of a text message from his mother that read: "Monica must be so excited to see you!"

Funny you should mention that, he thought.

The kids and I were at a party. I hadn't heard from Paul all morning about his ETA so I still decided to go. Plus, I knew Paul hadn't showered in over 48 hours and figured that he might enjoy unwinding and cleaning up before being accosted by the children. In the end, I think he did but he was initially disappointed. We made it up to him later by celebrating his return with lots of hugs and a delicious home cooked meal.

With our little family reunited once more, we were finally ready to start the final countdown to Christmas morning!

Lucy studying pictures of baby animals. This is what she was up to
while we were decorating the gingerbread houses.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Yum Yum Balls

Christmas is less than a week away and I have been enjoying the last few days at a slower pace than I normally do this time of year. I managed to completely catch up on my baking list by paring down and simplifying things quite a bit which has left me with some extra time to enjoy some fun activities with the kids.

First, we attended a soft opening of The Nutcracker ballet at our beautiful historic theater. Aunt Jen, my dear college roommate and Lucy's godmother, drove up from Pittsburgh to spend the day with us. It was her first time at the ballet and I think probably her last. Ballet is really not her thing (or mine!). However, the kids really enjoyed it and it was great that we managed to snag balcony seats where virtually no other person was seated. I pulled Matthew out of school so he could come with us and he was so excited. He had been dying to see the Nutcracker ever since he had learned that there was a scene involving the Nutcracker battling the giant mouse king! The battle scene lived up to his expectations and he was excited to discover that he was familiar with quite a few of the music numbers.

A few days later, we got dumped with even more snow. The previous couple feet we had received had actually thawed a bit but soon enough a new storm system rolled in and left us with even more snow than before. Thankfully, this snow was the fluffy, light variety - easy to shovel and fun to play in. One of my favorite moments this month was getting outside with Emma (Lucy was napping and Matthew was at school) and making snow angels, building a snow fort, and having a small snowball fight. It all started because I forced her to come outside and keep me company while I shoveled the walk. While I was working hard, she followed close behind me, pelting me with snowballs. I finally finished and whitewashed that little twerp and then we proceeded to play for a good hour. She was so happy and didn't want to come back inside even with the promise of hot cocoa. I could barely feel my toes when were finished, but the bonding time with my eldest daughter was worth the discomfort!

Speaking of Emma, I have been trying to encourage her to take a more active role in our Christmas baking. She usually gravitates towards eating the ingredients and the end product instead of participating in the actual preparation, usually citing exhaustion or boredom as excuses. Emma has the attention span of a distracted chipmunk, so if I was going to involve her in the baking, the recipe had to be quick and easy. First, I had her help me prepare a batch of bourbon balls. That went over so well that I decided to make a recipe that I had seen circulating on Facebook for the past couple weeks for an Australian treats called "Yum Yum Balls." Basically a sweet cookie bite prepared with crushed cookie crumbs, shredded coconut, condensed milk, and a touch of cocoa powder, I figured this would be another treat that Emma would be more than willing to help with. I guided her through the crushing of the cookies, combining of the other ingredients, and rolling of the balls. She especially enjoyed learning how to use the melon baller.

More than just a way to get Emma to help in the kitchen, these little treats made a nice addition to cookie gifts for teachers and friends. Ever the coconut lovers, my kids went wild for these. I also loved them - a nice, easy way to make a light truffle/cookie without all the fuss. They look beautiful too!

Yum Yum Balls
as seen on I Wash You Dry

Note: For authentic flavor, use Maria biscuits if you can find them. I found that my grocery store carried the Goya variety in the hispanic section. If you can't find them, use any digestive biscuit, graham cracker, or vanilla wafer crumbs.

2 cups crushed cookie crumbs
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 (14oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup toasted coconut flakes
Extra coconut for rolling

Combine the cookie crumbs, cocoa powder, sweetened condensed milk, and 1 cup coconut in a large bowl. mix until combined and sticky.

Roll into 1 inch balls. Coat the balls in the extra coconut. Chill in fridge until ready to eat. Enjoy!