Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2009!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Perfect Sledding Hill

There is a park called Lindsay Gardens in the neighborhood where I grew up. It's the park we did everything in; little league games, the annual church 4th of July Breakfast, ice blocking in the summers, hanging out with my friends there in high school. But perhaps the best part about Lindsey Gardens is the killer hills, awesome in the summer for rolling down and even better in the winter for sledding.
Because of a killer snowstorm on Christmas night, we stayed at my sisters house and the kids got to go sledding there the next day, with tons of fresh powder and their cool older cousins Zeke and Hayden. Here's some great photos that seem like they could have been taken 30+ years ago during my childhood:

The top of the sledding hill..

...to the bottom.

Zeke started okay at the top of the hill...

But was overcome by the powder halfway through the run...


But finally made it to the bottom in one (cold) piece.

Hayden had a little more finesse on his new snowboard:



Jack wiped out in the power on his first run, so he spent the rest of the trip on the playground:


Even though we don't get to live where I grew up like I'd like to, its fun to see Max and Jack creating some of their own childhood memories in the same place I did.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Ombama

Now we know why he's so unflappable.
Namaste, America.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Nap

Today I am taking a nap. I have had days and days of lots of people and lots of parties and fun and Christmas and driving and errands and baking and shopping and friends and family, and now I need to rest. Sleep is a beautiful thing.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Learning To Fall

I rarely have epiphanies during yoga, usually because I am thinking of all the things I have to get done as soon as yoga is over. But today, I had a great one, and I think it had to do with the fact that we had a teacher that I had never had before. He taught a really great class, but it was totally different than what I'm used to. Because it was all new to me, I had to really concentrate on what was going on, so the usual to do list wasn't running through my head, and I was able to really focus. One of the poses we did during class was a balance like the one in the photo, but with our arms extended to the sides like an airplane. It was challenging, but I was amazed how easy it was for me to get into because I didn't know what to expect, and I didn't over think it. Of course, since this pose does require a lot of balance, I did fall out of it a couple of times, but I noticed something interesting when I did; I liked the way I fell. I didn't make a loud thump on the floor (which I sometimes do), but I fell out of it, my toe tapped the floor lightly, and then I lifted it right back up and got into the pose again.
This seemingly small experience reminded me of something I heard on NPR a while back by a writer named Jon Caroll:

Last week, my granddaughter started kindergarten, and, as is conventional, I wished her success. I was lying. What I actually wish for her is failure. I believe in the power of failure.
Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.
Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as "she who has broken many pots." If you've spent enough time in the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about cooking. I once had a late dinner with a group of chefs, and they spent time comparing knife wounds and burn scars. They knew how much credibility their failures gave them.
I earn my living by writing a daily newspaper column. Each week I am aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I don't set out to write it; I try my best every day. Still, every week, one column is inferior to the others, sometimes spectacularly so.
I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I've never done before, something I'm not even sure can be done.
My younger daughter is a trapeze artist. She spent three years putting together an act. She did it successfully for years with the Cirque du Soleil. There was no reason for her to change the act -- but she did anyway. She said she was no longer learning anything new and she was bored; and if she was bored, there was no point in subjecting her body to all that stress. So she changed the act. She risked failure and profound public embarrassment in order to feed her soul. And if she can do that 15 feet in the air, we all should be able to do it.
My granddaughter is a perfectionist, probably too much of one. She will feel her failures, and I will want to comfort her. But I will also, I hope, remind her of what she learned, and how she can do whatever it is better next time. I probably won't tell her that failure is a good thing, because that's not a lesson you can learn when you're five. I hope I can tell her, though, that it's not the end of the world. Indeed, with luck, it is the beginning.

Through remembering this short essay and this little acknowledgement of my grace while falling, I was reminded that one of the most important things I've learned from yoga is how to fall and not be afraid of it, and to even act gracefully when poses fall apart or don't happen at all. I'm really trying to remember this in my day to day life, that things fall apart, but really, I can act with grace or like a big, lumbering idiot. The choice is mine, and from now on, I'm going for grace.

Friday, December 26, 2008

This Post Sent From My iPhone

Well, not really, because I'm still a little remedial, but I did post the title of this post from my iPhone, so it's kinda, sorta true. So, as you may have guessed, I got an iPhone for Christmas, and I am totally convinced this thing could do my taxes if I just find the right button. I do believe this little beauty could change my life as much as my iPod did. Really, I love it way more than any girl should love a piece of electronic equipment.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is Max singing his favorite Christmas carol, "Angels We Have Heard On High," so for a little Christmas gift, I thought I'd share:

video

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas To All, And To All A Good Night

Tonight we got ready for Santa with the boys by putting out the Reindeer Food they made at Jack's school Christmas party. It is oatmeal ground up with gold glitter, and the kids are supposed to spread it around on the front lawn on Christmas Eve to help Santa's reindeer see our house better. I love to see the seriousness in the boys while performing this task, and the faith they have when it comes to the lies we tell them about Santa. Every year I wonder why we keep it up and lead them to what will inevitably end in disappointment. It seems a little bit cruel at times, and maybe we shouldn't, but I still love memories of when I still believed Santa was real. I guess that's why I do it.

Jack spreading his Reindeer Food. He wanted to leave a little pile on the front steps.

Max took to the task and spread his Reindeer Food on our lawn and the neighbors. Way to spread the joy, and its a good thing our lawn is really tiny this year.

We also left cookies for Santa, and Jack loved holding the plate for me while I loaded it up with treats for Santa, and took his job very seriously.

Little Jackie Lou Who, who was one more than two.


Having kids at Christmas is really where it's at.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas I Made For My Family: One English Trifle, One New York Style Cheesecake...

By Christmas Eve each year I like to have all my running around done so I can focus on baking and getting ready for Christmas. I have been assigned desserts most years, and part of that is making an English Trifle.
My English Grandma made these each year for us as we were growing up, and now the tradition has been passed on to me. I loved my Grandma's trifles, although she did take a lot of shortcuts. I knew that she always used canned fruit cocktail, red Jello, custard from a mix (although it was Bird's from England) and cool whip on the top, but I was shocked to learn from my Aunt that she used Twinkies with the cream hollowed out for her sponge cake. Not being a fan of shortcuts, I decided to take the longer route when I make mine. After living in England I learned how to make my own sponge cake, and I make my own custard, use real whipping cream, raspberries, and, well, I still use the red Jello. It just wouldn't be the same without it.
I love making the trifle each year because it reminds me of my Grandma and Grandpa and the fun Christmases we spent at their house. They lived just down the street from us so we would go down for dinner and festivities Christmas night. We would open presents, hang out with my cousins, and have a great time. My favorite memory of Christmas with my Grandma and Grandpa was when one of us got the Queen album The Game and we put it on their turntable and all danced together to Freddie Mercury's high notes, including my Grandpa. They were a lot of fun, and I miss them dearly. Here's some photos of putting together the trifle:

In my best Yorkshire accent: "'Ere's me homemade sponge" for the trifle. It looks pretty good when it comes out of the oven, but then I have to take the beautiful golden skin off so the sponge is exposed to soak up the Jello. The mixture of the cake and the Jello is really the magic of my Grandma's trifle.

The stirred custard I make for this and my berry fruit tart I make in the summertime. It's not difficult, but it does require 7 - 10 minutes of constant stirring. It's worth it.

The trifle will stay halfway done until tomorrow, when I will add a layer of custard, a layer of (real) whipped cream, and top it with fresh raspberries.

The New York Style Cheesecake was my addition a few years ago. My family loves cheesecake (especially my Dad), and I started a quest to make the perfect one, and finally did it with the help of the recipe in The New Best Recipe Cookbook. It's the only one I've ever made that doesn't crack. Those Cooks Illustrated people are geniuses, I tell you. I top it with fresh raspberry sauce and raspberries, and, If I may say so myself, it's rather fantastic. It's nice to have a little bit of American me thrown into our English Christmas traditions, and I look forward to seeing what the next generation adds.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sugar Waffle Spectacular

Ever since I got back from Belgium in October, I have been trying to perfect the Liege Sugar Waffle like the one I had in Lueven. I can't say I have yet, but I invited a couple of friends over to try them today, and the whole thing kind of snowballed into a full on Pre-Christmas Sugar Waffle Extravaganza with nine adults and thirteen kids. It was crazy in our small condo, but tons of fun. Here's some photos:

The Pearl Sugar Waffles. My waffle iron doesn't get hot enough to completely melt the sugar, but they're pretty good anyway. My last batch was better though. One day I will make the perfect Liege Pearl Sugar Waffle, mark my words.

Janell enjoying a waffle.

Steve being the Emcee for our Christmas Trivia game with the kids, and everyone got a prize. Gotta love the dollar store. Jack was very proud of his.


And for those who didn't want waffles, there were Krispy Kreme Original Glazed.

I was so glad that so many of my friends, old and new were there. Thanks for coming! By next year I will (hopefully) have perfected the recipe, got a new waffle iron, and have a bigger house, so maybe we can try this get together again.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Snow Angel

I remember when I was in first grade we didn't get any snow until after Christmas, and this was the first time that I realized this could happen. In my child's mind I thought that one could not exist without the other, and I was sorely disappointed when Christmas came and went without a trace of the white stuff. I was a little afraid that was going to happen again this year when we were getting 60 degree temperatures in November, and I have been bracing myself for the disappointment the boys (and I) would feel.
One morning getting into the car Max spied his sled sitting up against the wall of the garage and admitted that he was feeling sad that he couldn't go sledding. It kinda broke my heart just a little bit, but I told him that it should snow soon, and we would be sledding before we knew it. He said he was going to say a little prayer that it would snow, and I told him to go for it, although I was a little doubtful, but still hopeful at the same time. If anyone's prayer for snow is going to be answered, it'll be Max's. You can imagine my joy as I was standing in the line at Target later that same day and I looked into the parking lot and saw the snow finally coming down. I was so glad that Max's little wish was granted, and I was much happier too.
Today we had a major storm and as I walked to get the mail tonight the snow was halfway up my calf. Now that's what I call a snow. My wish for one more year of Max thinking that Christmas and snow can only come together came true too.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Raspberry Cream Cheese Tarts a.k.a. Heroin Cookies

As I've mentioned before, many of my favorite parts of Christmas are food related. I worked at a cute little bakery called Mrs. Backer's Pastry Shop for a couple of years in college, and it totally gave me the baking and decorating bug from the experiences I had making cookies, writing on cakes, and seeing people's happy faces when they were able to buy the same cookies they had eaten at Christmas when they were kids (Mrs. Backer's has been around for going on 60 years). Backer's was also a tradition for our family; not only did we have their beautifully decorated birthday cakes almost every year, my older sister Angela, my Dad and I all worked there.
My very favorite cookie made by Mrs. Backer's was their Raspberry Cream Cheese Tarts, which are petite fold-over, raspberry jam filled cookies with snowy white icing. I iced many a tray of these while working at Backer's, and ate way too many too (the Backer's encouraged tasting to ensure quality, which probably had something to do with the fact I gained 10 pounds while working there). I always wanted to make them myself, but never got the recipe, so I was out of luck. A few years ago I decided to try putting together my own recipe. Theirs had a pastry crust made with cream cheese, but I made mine more like a sugar cookie crust with cream cheese, and I added almond flavoring, which in my opinion is the perfect compliment to raspberry.
I've taken to calling these Heroin Cookies because of the reaction I get from people when they taste them. I started getting so many requests for them I decided to put them in the Christmas cookie boxes I make each year for our neighbors. Then the whole thing just snowballed. One of my neighbors told me she hides them from her kids because she thinks they don't appreciate them enough. I always take them to Christmas parties and have had tons of people tell me they are their favorites. At Mirjam's Advent party the other night one of her friends told me she actually dreams about these cookies. I guess people like them.
I have had many requests for the recipe, especially from our favorite neighbors Guy & Nikki. I was always a bit coy about giving it out, and when we moved Guy & Nikki said we could only go if we left the cookie recipe with them. I didn't do it, not out of selfishness, but more out of being overwhelmed by movingness. So, in the spirit of the season, I have decided, for the first time anywhere, to share my Raspberry Cream Cheese Tart recipe. I feel like I'm giving away my superpower, so be sure to use it responsibly.

Raspberry Cream Cheese Tarts











Crust:

2/3 cup butter
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs

4 oz. cream cheese

1/2 tsp. almond extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp. salt


Filling:

1 cup raspberry preserves

Icing:
1 cup confectioner's sugar
2 oz. cream cheese

1/8 tsp. almond extract

1 Tbsp. milk (or more to reach coating consistency)

Crust: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together flour and salt; set aside. Cream together sugar, butter, and cream cheese until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Add eggs, one at a time and beat until incorporated. Add almond extract and mix well. Slowly add dry ingredients and mix just until smooth dough forms. Roll out on a floured surface to 1/4 inch thickness and cut int to 3" diamiter circles with a cookie cutter or top of a drinking glass.

Filling:
Put one teaspoon of raspberry preserves in the middle of each uncooked circle, and then fold over and press down lightly with fingers. Bake 12 - 15 minutes, or until the bottom of each tart begins to turn golden brown. Remove from cooking trays to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

Icing:
Combine softened cream cheese and milk in a bowl and whisk together until combined. Add powdered sugar and almond extract and continue to whisk until a thick but pourable consistency. Add milk a little at a time if nesesssary to reach the right thickness. Spread about one teaspoon on each tart and let stand to dry 1 - 2 hours.

Okay, there it is, my Christmas gift to the world. While I'm at it I thought I'd share my new favorite compliment for these cookies, Home Made Thin Mints, which have also made it into my cookie boxes for the last two years. This recipe is actually from Everyday Food Magazine, so I can't take credit. They call them Chocolate Wafer Cookies (probably for legal reasons), but they really are the much better, homemade version of the Girl Scout Cookie favorite.

Home Made Thin Mints













1 cup all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
12 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 teaspoon pure peppermint extract
Sprinkles, for decorating (optional)

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. With mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture; mix just until combined.
Form balls of dough (each equal to 1 teaspoon), and place on two baking sheets, about 2 inches apart. Dip the bottom of a glass in water, and flatten balls into 1 1/2-inch rounds (about 1/4 inch thick). Bake until slightly firm to the touch, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Immediately transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
Make chocolate coating: Place chocolate, peppermint extract, and remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt in a large heatproof bowl set over (not in) a saucepan of simmering water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes; remove from heat.
Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Set each cookie across the tines of a fork, dunk in chocolate, then tap underside of fork on side of the bowl to allow excess chocolate to drip off. Place cookies on prepared baking sheet, and decorate with sprinkles, if desired.
Refrigerate until chocolate has hardened, about 30 minutes, and keep chilled until ready to serve.

Happy Baking, and remember, you still need to invite me to your parties even though you know how to make these on your own.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Decorating for Christmas

Some of my favorite memories of Christmas involve decorating things; cookies, gingerbread houses, that kind of stuff. I have to admit, one of the things I was most looking forward to doing when I became a Mom was decorating cookies at Christmas with my kids. I am trying to take advantage of it while they are still young enough to enjoy it.
This year we did what has become an annual tradition, a Gingerbread House Decorating Party. It's usually pretty low key, and I get the kits from Costco and let the kids do their thing. How it usually goes down is the kids just hang out for about fifteen minutes decorating (but really it's more about sneaking the candy) and then lose interest and the Moms finish up. It's a lot of fun for all of us. Here's some pictures:

It really is hard to say what the best part of decorating gingerbread houses is; the decorating or the unsupervised bowls of candy.


Janell got all ambitious and made her own gingerbread house. She had some trouble with the roof, but it was nothing a little caulking and glue couldn't solve.


Even with all the candy consumption, the final product turned out pretty good, and then the kids watched some Christmas specials while the Moms cleaned up and talked.

Later that same day Steve's parents (a.k.a Granny and Grampy) visited from Arizona and Granny brought her special Christmas cookie cutters to make her traditional Christmas Sugar Cookies with the boys:

Jack enjoying the big and little gingerbread men, and helping Granny roll out the dough.


Max and Jack each got to do their own tray of cookies and decorate them however they wanted.

Isn't this what Christmas is all about? Food, fun, and memories with the people you love the most.