Friday, December 31, 2010

End of Year Newsletter

I decided against doing Christmas cards this year.  For the amount of work involved, and the excessive amount of time I was spending thinking about how/when/where to capture the perfect picture, it just didn't seem worth it.  

So for the two people who really appreciate cards from us, I'm sorry.  

And for the other two who are still reading, I give you the Huff Family Newsletter.  I'm posting this on New Year's Eve, so I feel I can still call it a Holiday Newsletter AND a 2010 recap.  Click twice to enlarge into readability.  And you're welcome.    



Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Snow Day, Part I

It started snowing on Sunday morning.  A wet, heavy snow that I knew would turn to ice that night.  I shovelled at about 10 am, wanting to get a jump on it & make sure we would have a clear path out for church.  In the end it was a wasted effort because it just kept coming & coming.  

Monday morning, I woke up at 6am to begin again.  I shovelled for 75 minutes (5" of snow over an inch+ of ice), then frantically got the kids up & going for school.  Silly Mama - forgot to check the school closures... because why would school be closed from a few inches of snow???  There was blue sky for Pete's Sake!  We re-routed to the grocery store to stock up on ice melt & turkey burgers, then headed home to warm up.  

Enter Snow Day, Part I



They "played" in the snow, but it didn't last long.  -9 degrees is not conducive to play or snowman building.  We learned the hard way.  

After hot chocolate and grilled cheeses sandwiches, the crafting & Mario Kart competitions began.  


I finally finished my door snakes, just in time for the frigid weather.  Know what they are filled with?  Kitty Litter!  It's a little dusty, but much cheaper than buying beans or rice.


We also caught up on some Advent Activities such as making a "Gingerbread" House.  Both the kids pitched in to decorate, and of course we had to add a mascot - a glittered triceratops to guard our precious abode.  Every home should have one.  Big Sis started her sibling gift for J, and we'll finish that up during Snow Day, Part II (today!).  

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Attack of the Christmas Mice


They look simple, but making 25 of them was a little ambitious for early December (much cutting of felt).  Thankfully, I started a few weeks in advance & did one step each day.... and enlisting the forced labor of my 1st grader didn't hurt either.

I think the end result is totally worth the effort.  I hope her classmates love them as much as she does!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Remains

Remember this from yesterday's baking disasters?  


Well, after I finished sobbing quietly into gently cupped hands, I wiped away my salty remorse & bagged up the remains.  

Today was filled with errands and I was finally able to sit down at 1 pm for a hasty lunch.  Chili consumed, I opened the bag of cake crumbles & popped a piece in my mouth.  It was chocolatey, cinnamony goodness.  It was delicious, delightful, delectable.  I wanted more, and probably could have consumed every crumb if decorum and my jeans would have allowed.  It made me want to go out and buy a proper Bundt pan.  If I eat this for breakfast, I may do just that.

In the meantime, here is the recipe.  Make this tonight, then give it to someone you love.  Because if you don't get it out of the house you may eat the whole thing in 24 hours.  This recipe is from The Food Librarian, and I can see why it's her favorite Bundt recipe.

Cinnamon Chocolate Bundt Cake
Recipe from The Food Librarian.  

1 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1/4 cup + 1T (or 5T) cocoa powder

2 cups AP flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 t salt
1 1/2 t cinnamon

1/2 cup buttermilk
1 t baking soda

2 eggs
1 t vanilla


  1. Bring to a boil in a pot: water, oil, butter, cocoa powder.
  2. In a large bowl, with a whisk, combine flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon.
  3. Add the chocolate mixture to the flour and mix until combined.
  4. Add the buttermilk and baking soda and mix. 
  5. In a small bowl, mix the eggs and the vanilla.  Add to the batter and combine.  
  6. Pour batter into a greased 10 or 12-cup Bundt pan.  Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30-35 minutes (start checking it at 25 minutes).  
  7. Cool in pan. 
  8. Top with a dusting of powdered sugar or a simple glaze of powdered sugar mixed with milk or water.    

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cooking Disasters

In the last 24 hours, I have burnt 2 batches of toffee (4 pounds of butter & 4 cups of sugar GONE) and I destroyed a DELICIOUS cake.

The first batch of toffee was my fault - heat too high.  The second batch... I don't know.  It was going well, then it separated & burnt.  I stirred for an hour before I finally gave up.  I really think that a big part of my problem is the electric stove.  The temperature gauges are inconsistent & attempting to make minor adjustments either turn the heat too high or too low.   

I DID manage to make a half batch that turned out well.  Not fantastic, but good.  I changed pots, burners & recipes... and when I began to heat the sugar & butter, I walked away from it.  When I came back it was bubbling & I checked the temperature then immediately poured it over the nuts.  Easy-peasy, and put my previous hours of stirring to shame.  

And then there was the cake.  


The recipe was amazing - a Cinnamon Chocolate Bundt Cake.  My pan was inferior.  I attempted to use a silicone mini bundt pan & despite a profuse application of sprayed lubrication, everything just stuck & fell apart.  

I may be done with Christmas baking for this year.

(And yes, that is mint green ceramic tile you see under my cake.  This is one Klassy Kitchen I'm cooking in!)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Visit to Santa

Saturday morning's Advent activity was a Visit to Santa.

Back story: After talking it over, we decided this was the only decent weekend to make it happen, so I did a quick envelope switcheroo, and began to mentally prepare myself for the havoc of a Saturday with Santa.   This preparation apparently included the following delusion: "Santa opens 2 hours before the mall does.  If we get there a little before everything opens and put our name on the list right away, we should be able to get in and out pretty quickly."

Apparently arriving at 9:30 was also the idea of at least 50 other families, and signing in immediately gave us an 11:30 return time to see Santa.  Le sigh.

Here's what we did to kill the time:
  • Dropped off letters to be mailed to the North Pole.  
  • Waited in line for hot chocolate. 
  • Waited in line for snacks. 
  • Took pictures of kids running. 
  • Took pictures of kids next to trees. 
  • Took pictures of kids next to poinsettias. 
  • Took pictures of kids next to garland. 
  • Found a locker to dump our outerwear.  
  • Visited the bathroom 3 times. 
  • Visited Lego store. 
  • Watched Big J run - FOR AN HOUR. 

Mailing a Letter to Santa.  They had a really neat setup where the kids can post a letter & it gets sucked up a long tube to the top of the mall (3 stories up) & "sent" to Santa.  The Postmaster was really great & made each child feel special as they handed over their precious lists.   


In the inner sanctum, waiting to see Santa.  


The Big Man himself.  J has been SO EXCITED to see Santa, but we weren't sure what would happen when he saw him up close.  Sis went first, then J joined her & he did great!  Spoke up loud & clear, and there was no apprehension at all.  
I really liked that we had the option to take our own pictures (as many as we wanted) for just a few dollars (as opposed to the package deal for almost $40!).  

A successful day.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent


Well, here it is.  It's hung a little crooked, and I had a heck of a time hiding the Command hooks I used to mount it (hence the ornament clusters & bows).  But I think it's really cute, and Big Sis is SO excited to open up an envelope each day.  I chose to go with activity based ideas, so I wouldn't have to spend a lot of time scrambling for stuff to put in the envelopes or plan anything too elaborate.  So for the next 24 days, we will (in no particular order):
  • Make gingerbread houses.
  • Write out Santa Wish Lists.
  • Read a Christmas story.
  • Watch a Christmas movie.
  • Drink hot chocolate with marshmallows from our Christmas mugs.
  • Make a Christmas card for someone special.
  • Go for a drive to look at Christmas lights.
  • Visit Santa!
  • Attend the Ward Christmas Party.
  • Call Grandma & Grandpa and sing Silent Night or Jingle Bells.
  • Make paper snowflakes.
  • Color a picture using only red and green crayons.
  • Write a Christmas letter to someone who lives far away.
  • Bake Christmas cookies.
  • Make a present for your brother or sister.
  • Make and decorate a Christmas stocking.
  • Check out a Christmas book from the library.
  • Help make gifts to give our friends.  
  • Help make presents for Malaina’s class.
  • Make peppermint ornaments for the tree.
  • Make chocolate covered pretzels.
  • Choose and donate a toy to someone less fortunate.
  • Wrap your Christmas presents!
  • Make glittered animals for decoration.
  • Put on your Christmas PJ’s and go to bed early! 
The making of the calendar took far less brainpower than the planning of the activities. Between Daddy being gone, school, extracurriculars, and strategic planning (no WAY am I taking them to see Santa on a weekend), it took a lot of thought to match the days and the activities.  I think we're in good shape, and Big Sis is already looking forward to coloring a picture with just red & green crayons tonight.  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thirty

And here we are, at the end of the Daily Blogging Experiment.  It was good for me to be forced to write for all 30 days, and I am better for it.  While I won't be repeating it in the near future, I think November was a most excellent month to try this out.  And in the spirit of November, which to me means THANKS, I leave you my final, grateful post.



I am grateful for so much in my life.  I am not going to bore you with a laundry list of how much I love my family, or how thankful I am for Diet Coke (if you've been here a few times, you already know my feelings on these particular subjects).  I'm just going to cover all my bases and tell you how thankful I am for my Heavenly Father.  Life is not always simple, easy, or fun, but he is always watching out for my family and I.  I know that the trials that are placed before us are given because we CAN endure them, and that we are richly blessed when we endure to the end.  I also know that while he does not always answer my selfish, pleading prayers, the answers he does provide offer insight and direction which do always make me better.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Twenty Nine

I came across the most enchanting book today.

This is Paris by Miroslav Sasek, was first published 50 years ago, but is timeless and charming.

He describes the large and small details of the city, from the flower girls to the gendarmes, the Seine to the Louvre.  His illustrations are bright and detailed, his wording simple.  It captures the charm of one of my favorite cities.

I think I will purchase this for Big Sis' birthday.  I've already promised her a trip to Paris when she turns 16 , and this will be a lovely way to tantalize her with a tiny piece of the City of Light.
(Don't worry, as we get closer I'll give her the choice between college tuition or the trip)

Twenty Eight

In gathering my advent calendar activity ideas, I included "Drink hot cocoa from our Christmas mugs".... assuming that I had Christmas mugs.  Turns out I was sadly, sadly mistaken.

Seriously, Christmas china for 12 and I don't have any matching mugs??

I'm thinking of trying out out Design Mom's idea for DIY Monogram Mugs.  Big Sis LOVES to get crafty, and if I re-mix the Advent activities, I can get two days worth out of the project (making them, then using them).  It was challenging to come up with 24 Christmas activities, and I will gladly dump a weaker one for a craft this fun.

 (image from Design Mom - seriously, how cute are these???)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Twenty Seven

Big Sis switched schools this year, and it has been a change for the better.  The teachers seem more interested, the parents more involved, the learning accelerated.  Despite being mere blocks from each other, the change in schools also came with a change in demographics.  With our 'starving student' status, we are definitely in the financial minority, but thankfully the focus on designer kiddie jeans and status backpacks seems to not yet be affecting the first grade.

While waiting for dismissal last week, I overheard 2 moms discussing teacher gifts.  I was taken by surprise when one stated that last year she gave her son's teacher a $25 Starbucks gift card and travel mug, $25 in movie tickets, AND a $25 gift card to her favorite restaurant.   $75 in gifts for a teacher???  I was planning on a homemade goodie basket, but now..... well, it's still gonna be a homemade goodie basket.  I don't mean to minimize the impact a great teacher has on a student, but my budget does not support $75 in "thanks".  Is that the expectation???

Do you get gifts for your kid's teachers?  Do you spend this much?  Am I a cheapskate?
(The last question is rhetorical.....)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Twenty Six

Our mini-Thanksgiving was a delicious, exhausting success.  It's amazing to me that I can spend all day in the kitchen & the meal is demolished in 20 minutes.

One new recipe I tried this year was for green bean casserole.  I grew up on the creamed-soup-and-canned-beans version, and for 2010 I wanted to do a bit better.  I went with Alton Brown's recipe from Food Network, and I loved it.  I was also surprised at how simple it was, and how much more flavorful it was.  If this is a tradition in your family too, I urge you to try it from scratch.


Best Ever Green Bean Casserole



Ingredients

For the topping:

  • 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons panko bread crumbs
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Nonstick cooking spray

For beans and sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1 pound fresh green beans, rinsed, trimmed and halved
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 12 ounces mushrooms, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup half-and-half

Directions

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.
Combine the onions, flour, panko and salt in a large mixing bowl and toss to combine. Coat a sheet pan with nonstick cooking spray and evenly spread the onions on the pan. Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake until golden brown, approximately 30 minutes. Toss the onions 2 to 3 times during cooking. Once done, remove from the oven and set aside until ready to use. Turn the oven down to 400 degrees F.
**I had big problems with the onions.  Not sure if my oven was running hot, but my onions were more Extra Black than Extra Crispy.  I would probably try frying them next time.  
While the onions are cooking, prepare the beans. Bring a gallon of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil in an 8-quart saucepan. Add the beans and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and immediately plunge the beans into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside.
Melt the butter in a 12-inch cast iron skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to give up some of their liquid, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and nutmeg and continue to cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute. Add the broth and simmer for 1 minute. Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the half-and-half. Cook until the mixture thickens, stirring occasionally, approximately 6 to 8 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 of the onions and all of the green beans. Top with the remaining onions. Place into the oven and bake until bubbly, approximately 15 minutes. Remove and serve immediately.  

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Twenty Five



Are you a Black Friday shopper?

I've been there, done that, and feel no need to repeat it.

I was waiting in line at a store the other day & another customer was recounting last year's Black Friday adventures while waiting for Wal-mart to open.  "Oh yeah, we were out there at 1am with our lawn chairs and our blankets, just talking to everyone around us!  It was great!".

Sorry if I'm a wet blanket, but waiting out in front of a store, in the cold, in the dark, for 3-4 hours, with 250 strangers, so I can save $20 on a DVD player is NOT my idea of a good time.

My feelings are further confirmed by the rain dripping down outside my cozy window as I type this.

The last time I did Black Friday was back in Des Moines.  I was pregnant, so I was up at 4am anyway.  I hit Old Navy (store open, no line), the mall (3 stores, no lines, out in 20 minutes), Target (arrived as doors opened, purchased 2 movies & 1 toy - spent longer in the checkout line than my total time in the store), and Toys r Us (horrendous line, bought nothing).

Total shopping time: 2 hours.  Psychic toll: still TBD.

It's hard not to get caught up in the hype to SHOP NOW.  I feel the pressure even more because 90% of my shopping is done and wrapped.  Today my inbox was flooded with deals, and it's hard to resist the lure of 30, 40, or even 50% off.  Sure, I can always pick up just one more thing..... But will she even notice?  Will he even play with it for more than a day?  

We have so much stuff already, and from Christmases past, I know that more than 3 or 4 gifts for each child results in a glazed look & sensory overload.  So once again, I am fighting the siren song of Target/ the mall, and opting out of Black Friday.  

Instead, I'll be at home, slippers on, hot chocolate in hand, assembling my tree & watching the rain fall gently outside.

I salute you, soggy shoppers.  May victory be yours & may your credit cards not burst into flames.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Twenty Four

Do you Groupon?

I am usually the last one to the party when it comes to a trend, a hot topic, or the latest & greatest.  But in this case, I think I was right on time.


Groupon is a marketing site which offers a different deal every day.  It promotes local businesses and services, and can be customized by your city or zipcode to reflect promotions that will best fit you.  Groupon usually highlights a deal that is 50-90% off, and a minimum number of people must commit to buying the deal before it 'tips' and opens to everyone.   Sometimes deals found in other cities can be redeemed online, so it offers even more options if you're willing to check it out.  Although there are many days when I don't take part, so far I have bought the following:

  • $25 for $50 of Gap merchandise.
  • A mani/pedi for $25.  (Can't wait to use this!)
  • Half-off Detroit Science Center tickets (ended up paying $24 for 4 tickets, which included an IMAX movie & also allows us to go to the Children's Museum on another day).
  • $25 for $50 in merchandise from Nordstrom Rack.  
Most of the deals have an expiration date of several months out, so no need to fear purchasing & not being able to use.  I've seen deals for restaurants, hotels, attractions, yoga, personal training, teeth whitening, clothes, jewelry, cupcakes, and much more.  Check it out!  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Twenty Three

I am indecisive on what to post about today.  We got some GREAT news, but it's not something we want to share with anyone (and NO, I am not pregnant - stand down, family members!).  So I will go with the mundane.....

I've created our Thanksgiving menu, and while it's not earth shattering, I am very excited to try my version of this Spiced Apple Cream Cheese Danish Braid.  Because I am lazy, I am going to make a more quick-and-dirty version.  I'm skipping the homemade dough & subbing in puff pastry, but I'll do everything else as written.



Apples - good
Cream Cheese - good
Puff Pastry - good
Powdered Sugar Drizzle - good

I can't go wrong!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Twenty Two

Christmas Wish List
  1. Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker
  2. Subscription to Cook's Illustrated 
  3. iTunes gift card (which I will use to buy Seasons 2 or 5 of Mad Men)
  4. Nikon 50mm f/1.8d Lens
  5. All-Clad Stainless 1, 1.5, or 2 qt. sauce pan with lid
  6. Kate Spade online gift certificate.  They have AMAZING sales online & I have my eye on a few lovelies. 
  7. Speedo Women's Air Seal XR Mirrored Goggles in pink or teal.  
  8. I love these dessert plates from West Elm.  Or these.  
  9. Crate and Barrel set of 3 bakers.  The red is so cheery!  
  10. I NEED a cupcake carrier.  This one is fab.  


Pssst..... one of these has already been crossed off.  
And I didn't even have to buy it myself!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Twenty One

Haircare

Does any woman LOVE her hair?  I mean unequivocally, would change nothing, has tresses of spun gold sprinkled with diamond dust, shake-it-out-Jen-Aniston, LOVE her hair?  

I don't.  While I'm a tad vain about mine, the texture is annoying, the current color drab, & the cut in desperate need of h-e-l-p.   

As frustrating as it can be, it always brings me a surge of joy when I find something that really works.  

The texture of my hair is wavy.  Not curly, just a bit wavy.  Enough so that when it's humid it poofs, when it's cold it goes limp, when it's clean it's got volume galore (with a crown of frizz), and when it gets misted on it looks near perfect.

It's a PAIN.  Living 5 miles from Lake St. Clair means that here my hair gets more than enough humidity to make it a near-embarrassment.  Mousse doesn't work, gel doesn't work, leave-in conditioner doesn't work.


But I found a magical mix that does.  I mix a dime-sized amount of gel (any cheap gel - I currently have the $2.54 tube of Garnier Fructis) with a quarter sized dollop of Kiehl's Cream with Silk Groom (fyi - $19/ 4oz... I still have 3/4 of a bottle which I bought last December).  Separately, these two are as ineffective as the New Orleans floodwall.  Mixed together and finger-combed through my hair and it's glorious! No frizz, no weird waves, no sticky spots.

I've also started drying my hair with a cotton t-shirt, and amazingly, this too is helping to keep the halo of frizzies at bay.  I have yet to try "plopping" my hair, but it's next on my list.  

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Twenty

A review of the exercise program I did this summer:

If you have a TV and live in the Northern Hemisphere, you have probably seen the infomercials for the exercise programs P90X or Turbo Jam.  They've played for the last several years & while I'd heard bits and buzz about them, I didn't think too much about it.  I admit my curiosity was piqued by Turbo Jam - a kickboxing/ dance-y workout featuring Chalene Johnson.  I put off purchasing it because the cost seemed a bit high & I didn't really see the benefit to buying another exercise DVD.  I finally got my hands on it this summer, and within a few weeks I bought Turbo Fire, her newest high-intensity program.


First, it arrived within a week of ordering, and I was pleasantly surprised by the 'package'.  This was not just a couple of DVD's in a box.  The materials were all well written, comprehensive, and nicely laid out.  You receive the following:

  • Nutrition Guide
  • 5-day 'quick start' eating plan
  • Fitness Guide which breaks down the workouts
  • Schedule of workouts (what to do & when)
  • Lower body toning band
  • 12 workouts
Now, let me first say that this is not a workout for someone who has been sedentary or even mildly active.  It is designed for those looking for an intense cardio workout.  I admit it, my fitness level was not near what it should have been to begin this program.  But I persevered.  And with the guidance of the workout schedule (specifically, the Prep Schedule), I saw a huge improvement in my aerobic ability in a short amount of time.  

Let me tell you what I loved about this program:

  • This is not just a single DVD you do over and over and over.  With 12 workouts, you can mix and match and keep it fresh.  
  • Although most of the workouts are cardio, there is also sculpting, toning, stretching, & ab workouts.  
  • Because many of the moves are boxing/ kickboxing-derived, you work your core.  I don't have a flat stomach & probably never will, but this is the first workout that made me feel, after 2 kids,  like I DO have abs & that they CAN get stronger & toned.  Without doing a million crunches or planks!     
  • The Schedule of Workouts spells out what you do & when.  You exercise 6 days a week, and every workout is laid out for you.  If you follow the Prep Schedule, it builds you up with shorter workouts, and works in the longer sessions over the course of 9 weeks.  
  • Every workout shows modifications.  If you're not ready to do the jumps, the kicks, the high knees, don't.  Work up to it, or focus on improving your form so you can maximize what you CAN do.  
  • Most of the workouts have a "New to Class" option which breaks down each section before you do it.  This was super helpful in learning the moves and the routines.  
  • Each workout has a countdown timer so you can see how much time you have left, and the intensity of what's ahead.  
  • I enjoyed the punching.  There were days that it really helped to get the stress out!
  • Chalene's style is just right for me.  She is not 21 years old, with a Barbie-flat waistline.  She is not a drill sergeant.  She is encouraging & enthusiastic without being annoying.  
What I loved a little less about the program:
  • I'm not a Turbo Jam addict & I've been absent from group exercise classes for a while, so I had difficulty keeping up.  The first 2 weeks were challenging.  I was frustrated with the speed of the moves, and felt like I was never going to 'get it'.  And then one day I did.  I did the New to Class option for the first month, then segued into the full workouts.    
  • Although there is a good mix of workouts, I would have liked a few more stretching routines.  This is a little nit-picky, as I know I can grab another DVD from my collection and swap it out, but it would have been nice. 
  • I could not get these to play on the Mac.  
Net/net: If you are looking for a workout that is well-designed, effective, and supportive, I would recommend Turbo Fire.  It is cardio-intense, but is not as 'hard-core' as P90X or Insanity.  The cost may seem a bit high, but when you consider that you can pay $8-20 for one workout DVD, and this comes with 12 different workouts, it really is a great value for the money.  I like it so much that I have my eye on Chalean Extreme, her strength-training series. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Nineteen

Big Daddy and I have started swimming in the mornings.  If we are on the ball, we can drop off Big Sis at school, get to the Y right when Child Watch opens & squeeze in a few laps before water aerobics begins.

Although I never look forward to donning a swimsuit, the pool is usually in the 80's & it's a treat to let the warm water surround me as I watch the frost creep up the windows.

As much as I swim for moderate exercise (my shoulders are toning up nicely), I also swim for the sense of tranquility it gives me.  Unlike the gym, I don't have to listen to someone talk on their cell phone, hear them bray at an inane program, or splash me with their wayward sweat.  I can put my head under the water and watch the gentle blue ripples around me as I stroke my way from side to side.  If exercise is like free therapy, swimming is the active meditation that soothes.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Eighteen


Thus far, Thursday has consisted of the following:
  • Big Daddy is driving 11 hours round trip for an interview.  He'll be home around 1am.  
  • The coupon I was so excited to use today doesn't start until tomorrow. 
  • I broke the "pop hood" tab on his car when I took it in for a long overdue oil change (that might have been karma reminding us to CHANGE THE OIL MORE OFTEN). 
  • Big J had an accident while playing trains at Borders.  That kid seriously cannot think about two things at the same time.  And anything to do with trains will always win out over any other option.       
I think I'm done for the day.

PS - Am I just a big bore for not thinking the "Junie B. Jones" series is fantastic?  She seems very bratty and disrespectful.  I have not read an entire book, but what I have seen hasn't convinced me they are something I want my 1st grader reading.  Any suggestions for more appropriate early reader material?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Seventeen

I said earlier that I am excited about Christmas this year.  And I am.

What I am NOT excited about is my dear husband's departure in 3 short days.  Part of the reason we chose to leave Des Moines was to avoid the weeks and months of "interview rotations" hundreds of miles from home.  And thus far we have avoided the dreaded separation.  But the time has come to ramp it up, push through 4th year, and log some miles.  Fortunately it's only for 4 short weeks, but it does come at the beginning of the Holiday Season.  Although he is not much of a willing participant in the holiday prep, his presence enhances our every festive activity and I am already missing him.

In an effort to distract myself & the kids and focus on the positive, I think I will make an advent calendar.  We have traditionally used a pre-made, chocolate filled IKEA version, but I'm thinking something more like this is in order:

(Image from design*sponge via d.Sharp)

Supplies: Envelopes, numbers, baker's twine, clothespins & 25 brilliant little activities.  Part of the appeal is that I already have everything but the envelopes.  Hopefully a quick trip to Michael's will yield something appropriate (among the 15 other things I will inevitably leave the store with).  

It will also help to serve as a countdown to Daddy's return, as he won't be back with us until December 19th.  Let the crafting begin!  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sixteen

I've been quite adventurous in my cooking of late.  Yesterday I tried another new recipe that I share with you because it meets three of the critical criteria of main meals entering the monthly cooking rotation: tasty, can prep in advance, and easy.

Do not be daunted by the number of ingredients or steps of preparation.  Although next time I will do all my chopping & topping in advance, the time really flew by.  I can see myself making this on a Sunday morning & popping it in the oven immediately after church.  Any meal that can be hot in less than 30 minutes is a perfect Sunday dinner!


Chicken Pot Pie with Savory Crumble Topping
(from Cook's Illustrated)

Filling:

  • 1 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts and/ or thighs
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 2 Tbs. vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped fine
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled & cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 1 cup)
  • 2 small celery ribs, chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
  • 10 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced thin
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. tomato paste
  • 4 Tbs. butter
  • 1/2 cup AP flour
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 tsp. lemon juice
  • 3 Tbs. minced parsley
  • 3/4 cup frozen baby peas


Crumble topping:

  • 2 cups AP flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 6 Tbs. butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes & chilled
  • 1 oz. Parmesan cheese
  • 3/4 cup + 2 Tbs. heavy cream



  1. For the chicken: Bring chicken & broth to a simmer in a covered Dutch oven over medium heat.  Cook until the chicken is just done, 8-12 minutes.  Transfer cooked chicken to a large bowl.  Pour broth through a fine-mesh strainer into liquid measuring cup and reserve.  Do not wash Dutch oven.  Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. For the topping:  Combine flour, baking powder, salt & peppers in large bowl.  Sprinkle butter pieces over top of flour.  Using fingers, rub butter into flour mixture until it resembles coarse cornmeal.  Stir in Parmesan.  Add cream and stir until just combined.  Crumble mixture into irregularly shaped pieces onto parchment lined rimmed baking sheet.  Bake until fragrant and starting to brown, 10-13 minutes.  Set aside. 
  3. For the filling:  Heat 1 Tbs. oil in now-empty Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering.  Add onion, celery, carrots, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender, 5 to 7 minutes.  While vegetables are cooking, shred chicken into bite-size pieces.  Transfer cooked vegetables to bowl with chicken; set aside.  
  4. Heat remaining Tbs. oil in empty Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering.  Add mushrooms; cover and cook, stirring occasionally until mushrooms have released their juices, about 5 minutes.  Remove cover and stir in soy sauce and tomato paste. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently, until liquid has evaporated, mushrooms are well browned, and dark fond begins to form on surface of pan, about 5 minutes.  Transfer mushrooms to bowl with chicken and vegetables.  Set aside. 
  5. Heat butter in empty Dutch oven over medium heat.  When foaming subsides, stir in flour and cook 1 minute.  Slowly whisk in reserved chicken broth and milk.  Bring to a simmer, scraping pan bottom with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits, then continue to simmer until sauce fully thickens, about 1 minute.  Season to taste with slat & pepper.  Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and 2 Tbs. parsley.        
  6. Stir chicken-vegetable mixture and peas into sauce.  Pour mixture into a 13 x 9" baking dish.  Scatter crumble topping evenly over filling.  Bake on rimmed baking sheet until filing is bubbling and topping is well browned, 12 to 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with remaining Tbs. parsley and serve.   

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fifteen

Have I mentioned lately how much I love these kids?

Fourteen

Saturday was a day with no plans and no obligations, so we decided to break out the Groupon and use the Detroit Science Center tickets I had purchased at a buy-one-get-one free price.  This was an especially good deal as it included an IMAX movie.  Bonus: the ticket receipt is good for admission to the Children's Museum within the next 30 days.

Review:

We arrived at opening time, and had a surprisingly challenging time finding parking.  Most of the roads in the museum district are under construction, so we circled and weaved through a handful of parking options before finding one that was open for business.

The museum itself is also undergoing renovation, so it was somewhat confusing to get around.  You entered on one level & immediately descended to another, IMAX was even lower, and you had to go up to 4 to see the Planetarium.  I am hopeful that it will be easier to navigate when everything is completed.

There was a small area for the under 5 set.  This included a dress-up space with stage, water play, a diner, a bouncy ball space, and an enclosed play space for toddlers.  Cute, but small.  Amused my kids for about 30 minutes.

The remainder of the museum is more appropriate for kids 8 and up.  Big Sis had a lot to see & do, but Big J was pretty bored.  There were displays showing a smelter and factory assembly line, a miniature Mackinac Bridge, nutrition, alternative fuel vehicles, rockets, and then general displays illustrating different scientific principles.

We watched the IMAX movie "Hubble" about the Hubble telescope.  It was impressive & educational, but the theater is domed & it was hard to lay nearly flat to get a total view of the 4 story dome curving above you. It was also hard to get the kids to focus on the movie, despite the fact that it was less than an hour long.



The planetarium was on the top level, and we caught the show "Your Guide to the Night Sky".  I give it a "C".  He only talked about locating 4 different stars, and told some very bad jokes.  It was also supposed to be 30 minutes long & ran over 45.

After spending almost 4 hours there, we exhausted our patience & the amount of exhibits.

Final grade: B-.  Best for kids ages 8 and up, unless you have a child REALLY interested in science, then maybe 6 and up.  I wouldn't go back again until they've finished the construction & only if I had discounted tickets.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thirteen

We don't have cable TV.  We made the switch when we moved to Michigan 18 months ago, and for the most part have been very happy about it.  Yes, grumbling can be heard when a West Coast football game is on & we miss it, or when our small digital antennae acts more analog, but for the most part Netflix and Hulu take care of the majority of our TV needs.

An unanticipated benefit has been the reduction of the "I Wants" on the part of Big Sis.  No inane commercials played during inane cartoons = less awareness of the HOT NEW TOY AVAILABLE NOW, WHILE SUPPLIES LAST!

However, I was slightly amused/ horrified when a momentary pause on channel 4's Saturday morning cartoons yielded the sudden desire for this:


This little beauty is Penbo, the Interactive Waddling Penguin with Bebe.   For only $78.95, she will speak gibberish, play hide-and-seek, and drop an egg out of her belly.  What 6 year old wouldn't want that??  I can see her playing with it for a total of 5.3 minutes before getting bored.  

My reaction?  I quickly turned the channel & started talking about books.  

Friday, November 12, 2010

Twelve

I just read an article in the NY Times on Chef's Tips for the Thanksgiving Meal.  Although it was a tad light on the tips & a touch heavy on the promotion of restaurants open on Thanksgiving, it made me think about Thanksgiving: The Day, and The Meal.


For me, part of the appeal of Thanksgiving: The Day is the thought of family gathering in one place to converse, play games, watch movies, snack, and of course eat The Meal.  Growing up, we often gathered at an aunt or uncle's home, potluck contribution in hand.  The children scattered in front of the TV or around the pool table, while the adults filtered in and out of the kitchen, circled around a card game, or gathered in front of the big screen.  The Meal was a feast, replete with butter and side dishes, cranberry glistening in the smoggy light of a California afternoon.  

Even now, far from family, I like to cook The Meal.  It may not have as many sides, and the bird is not quite as humongous, but without fail, the smell of turkey & browned butter in the air always signals the beginning of the Holiday season.  

My point, and I do have one, is that the article made me wonder about those who eat out on Thanksgiving.  Although I can see the advantages (no war wounds sustained from battling the supermarket crowds for the last can of pumpkin, no need to spend 22 hours in the kitchen, less than 8 loads of dishes to clean), I'm not sure I would feel right about gathering 'round a table laden with food without being able to slip off my shoes and unbutton my pants at the end of the meal.  Somehow I don't picture Daniel Bouloud winking in approval when Uncle Gustav nods off in a post-turkey-feast tryptophan coma.

Would you welcome a restaurant meal, relishing the chance to eat, drink & be merry without the bother of pre- or post-feast mess & stress?  Or is the planning and preparation a key part of the Holiday feast?          

Eleven

If you've got a cook in your life & are looking for a stocking stuffer or small, yet appropriate gift, I would recommend this:

Mini Measuring Glass from Sur la Table
MSRP: $3.95

I bought it on a whim, but it has been surprisingly useful.  I especially like that it has multiple measurements printed on the surface - Tablespoons, teaspoons, and ounces.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ten

Ten days of blogging and I am sick of myself.  I just don't want to make the effort to craft a scintillating post complete with pics which have been photoshopp'd to the limits of good taste.  So please tolerate this:

I am so excited about Christmas this year.  I can't even say why.  We're not travelling, we don't have big plans, and our budget is tiny.

I can't wait to take Christmas card pictures.

I am counting the days until the kids can see Santa.

I am searching for an advent calendar (one we can use year after year) to make the Christmas countdown more fun.

Most of our presents are bought or awaiting the final touches.  

The Christmas lights are hung outside & ready to be lit on Thanksgiving weekend.
(yes, we are those neighbors - who leave the lights up year round. What can I say?  I had to choose between pushing the issue of taking them down & risking not having them go up again.... or not). 


What about you?  Are you ready?  Are you dreading it?  Counting down the days to Black Friday?  

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Nine


Having kids requires a shift in thinking.  What works for you may or may not work for them.  
I have found this especially true of snow gear.  Those boots may be a great price, but if your two year old can't jam his foot into pull-on footwear, those warm boots will stay nice & warm in the closet.  

I came across these gloves at H & M & snatched them up.  They met the criteria: inexpensive, warm enough to do the job, waterproof so they can actually be worn for snow play, and ZIPPERED for easy on/off.  I never would have thought about zippered gloves for myself, but for kids.... GENIUS.  

Monday, November 8, 2010

Eight

It's barely the beginning of November, and yet I had the most difficult time finding the right size/color for Big J's Christmas outfit.... because what I initially wanted was already sold out.  The slightly snarky salesperson implied that I was behind the curve if I wanted that sweater, as they were long gone & not coming back.

Really?  

Halloween was last weekend.  

I consider myself a relatively prepared person, but apparently I dropped the ball by not having his outfit planned and purchased by mid-October. Fortunately, I found a better alternative so I think things worked out for the best.  


I love argyle, but wasn't feeling a cardigan (too "Mr. Rogers") or a sweater vest (this seems to be the default dressy option for boys & I am OVER it).  I think this is a great compromise - not too argyle, and not too plain.  I'm going to put this with black cords or grey pinstripe pants for pictures/ church, and then make it more casual with jeans.    

Now if the mall would just put up the tree, we might be able to capture our Christmas pictures before Big Daddy leaves for 4 weeks.  And yes, that is my Holiday optimism kicking in a little early....

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Seven

Winter's icy breath is descending upon us, and so help me -  all I want is comfort food.  I made this last week:

(Image from bbcgoodfoods.com)

Potato Leek Soup
  • The white and pale green part of 2 large leeks, split lengthwise, washed well, and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 pound boiling, potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
In a large heavy saucepan cook the leeks in the butter with salt and pepper to taste, covered, over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are softened but not browned. Add the water, the broth, and the potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice, and simmer the mixture, covered, for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. In a blender purée 1 cup of the soup, stir the pureé into the remaining soup with the parsley, and season the soup with salt and pepper.

It was so easy, and so good. I can see adding some clams, bacon, celery & carrots & turning it into a chowder.  In fact, I believe it's going on this week's menu right now. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Six

I keep a collection of cooking magazines for reference, and often thumb through past issues in search of a new recipe, a fresh idea, or just to look at the beautiful photography.  One day I came across a suggestion that has worked like a charm for me.

(Image borrowed from Whiskblog.com.  Yum!)

When making baked goods, recipes often tell you to butter and flour a pan - a step I often omit in favor of parchment paper.  When baking a layer cake however, I will usually use parchment on the bottom, then butter and SUGAR the pan.  The layer pops out without difficulty & I don't need to worry about streaks of flour besmirching my lovely cake.      

Five

(I had re-dedicated myself to blogging by promising myself I would post every day in November.  I have already failed.  In my own defense, Big Daddy came home early & then it got chaotic.  Whatever.  I'm back at it again).

Do your dreams speak to you?

I rarely remember my dreams.  I am either tossing and turning in the pursuit of sleep, or so exhausted that I descend into deep, dreamless nights.

Last night was more of the former, until about 4am, when I fell into a restless snooze.

I dreamt about a house.  A small house, with 3 bedrooms and high ceilings.  A house with smooth white walls and a fireplace with a crackling fire.  A house with dark wood floors and shining appliances.  A house with big windows in the back, with an unobstructed view of field, forest, and hills.  It was night outside and the house glowed with warmth, with light, with family.

(Image borrowed from Coastal Living online)

My interpretation of this dream is that I desire a home for our family.  We don't need anything spacious or fancy.  But I so desperately desire what a home represents in this dream: stability, permanence, comfort.

4th year has almost been worse than 3rd year in that thoughts of THE MATCH are all-consuming.  Will anyone want us?  Where will we go?  What will happen if we don't match?  What will happen if we do?

Is it February yet?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Four


I read this book last week.  I don't recommend it.

I had a pre-conceived idea of what it was about, and found it to be the near-polar opposite of that notion. The author seems to use the book as a forum to poke fun at her sad, twisted relationship with her mentally ill ex-husband and to (gently) mock her Mennonite family.  She also exercises her extensive vocabulary, which actually forced me to power up m-w.com a few times.  Kudos for that, Ms. Janzen.  As a college graduate with an advanced degree and a passion for reading, I pride myself on having an above-average vocabulary, but your PhD in the use of obscure verbiage was most impressive.

Most memorable line from the book (in reference to one of her brothers, a practicing Mennonite & father, who supported his daughter's talent in dance):

"Together my brother and I watched his daughter interpret the elemental concept of rippling water......it spoke volumes that this man, who knew nothing about dance and who had probably never danced a step in his own life, was prepared to go without a second car so that his daughter could ripple like water."

I like this line because I think it illustrates the desire that most parents have to give their children what they did not have, to support them in their dreams whenever possible.  If my daughter wants to ripple like water then I will do everything in my power to see that she gets that opportunity.