Saturday, March 31, 2012

Balloons and Bubbles

8:09 PM 2 Comments
I love planning my kids' birthday parties, in large part because I love anything with a theme. For Finn's 1st birthday, we had a baseball theme. We requested that all guests wear their favorite sports apparel and I made a carrot cake rendition of U.S. Cellular Field (complete with pinwheel scoreboard) that was frosted with Alton Brown's avocado frosting (don't knock it 'til you try it!):

Over the next few birthdays, we had dogs...

...and silly monsters

...and pirates.

Emmett is my March baby, and for his first birthday we went with a St. Patrick's Day theme:

Which brings us to this year - Emmett's second birthday. Emmett, like pretty much any two-year-old I know, loves balloons. We often joke we should get rid of all the toys and just buy a helium tank and a sack of balloons. He loves to dance with them and chase them and bat them around and look at us through them. So, for his birthday, we went with a balloon theme.

We held his birthday party at my parent's house, and my mom went to town putting balloons all over the house:

For the first time, I did not make the birthday cake. This broke my heart a little bit, but because we were traveling the day of the party, it made more sense to order from the bakery near my parent's house. It was delicious - chocolate cake filled with bananas and covered in white whipped cream. I asked them not to decorate it at all (they thought I was nuts) and instead filled the top with balloons - I used water balloons (filled with air, not water) tied to kebab sticks broken to different lengths.  Thanks, Pinterest, for the simple, fun idea. Emmett loved it.

You know what else two-year-olds love? Bubbles. Finn remembered this, I guess, because weeks ago he asked me if he could get Emmett a bubble machine for his birthday. We had it up in Galena and the boys had a blast dancing in the bubbles. It has since become a regular feature in our yard - anyone have a good recipe for homemade bubble solution?

 Balloons and bubbles. It's fun to be 2.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

They built a swing set. I made muffins.

1:43 PM 1 Comments
As mentioned previously, Sean and his father spent a few days over spring break constructing a swing set in our back yard. So what used to look like this... looks like this!

These are the guys who built it...

...and these are the guys who watched.

And here are a few pics reminding us why we wanted a swing set:

While Sean and his dad put the finishing touches on the set on Saturday morning, I threw together a quick batch of muffins. A few comments about this:

  • Muffins are one of those things that remind me how quickly and easily one can bake something homemade. They typically require only about fifteen minutes of hands-on time. I feel that way about scones, also. 

  • Muffins are also one of those things that I love because you generally have what you need to make them. I had no intention of making breakfast on Saturday morning - we were planning on stopping somewhere on our way out of town. But as the last few swing set details were still underway, I decided very last minute to make them. And boy were they yummy.

  • The recipe comes from an ancient paperback Betty Crocker cookbook. It doesn't even have an ISBN. I use the term "paperback" very loosely, as that implies that the book is bound when, in fact, the book has fallen into four sections and is held together by a rubber band. I believe, however, that everyone needs one cookbook on hand for the essentials.  This is the one I turn to if I need to make a basic white sauce, or pancakes from scratch. 

  • I got to wear my new apron for the first time. It was an early birthday gift from my in-laws. Not at all relevant to the muffins, but isn't it cute?

And now, onto the recipe. Included below is the basic sweet muffin recipe included in the quick breads chapter of Betty Crocker's Cookbook. There are several variations that follow. I made Apple Muffins and used chopped pecans in the topping.

Breakfast Muffins
Yield 12 muffins


1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup oil
1 1/2 cups flour (I used half white and half wheat)
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease bottoms of 12 medium muffin cups.

Beat egg. Stir in milk and oil. Mix in remaining ingredients just until flour is moistened. Batter will be lumpy.

Fill muffin cups two-thirds full. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Immediately remove from pan.

  • Apple Muffins - Stir in 1 cup grated apple and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Sprinkle with Nut-Crunch Topping: Mix 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup chopped nuts, and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Bake 25 to 30 minutes.
  • Blueberry Muffins - Fold 1 cup fresh blueberries or 3/4 cup well-drained frozen blueberries (thawed) into batter.
  • Cranberry Orange Muffins - Fold 1 tbsp. grated orange peel and 1 cup cranberries, cut in half, into the batter.
  • Surprise Muffins - Fill muffin cups only half full. Drop 1 tsp. jelly in center of each and add batter to fill cups to two-thirds full.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spring Break Edition: Vegetarian Moussaka for a Crowd

12:59 PM 0 Comments
Whew! It has been an absolute whirlwind since my last post, filled with all kinds of fun that, over time, I will get around to writing about here. In brief, my husband had the week off for spring break, my in-laws came for the better part of the week, we took three separate road trips, Sean and his dad built a swing set, and we celebrated my baby boy's second birthday -- twice.

It wasn't a big week for cooking (though I do have a yummy muffin recipe I'll share at some point) and definitely not a time for crafting, but it was a week to celebrate being together with family, in various combinations. We spent some time with mine, some time with Sean's, and some with all of them together. In fact, this past weekend was the first time that our two boys were with all four of their grandparents at the same time. I wish it happened more often.

In the earlier part of the week, we rented a beautiful little cabin in the Galena region of northwestern Illinois and spent a few nights there with my mother and father-in-law. We often rent vacation homes together, so we've learned a few tricks over the years. One of the most useful things I've learned, especially since having kids, is that it's a good idea to have a meal ready for the first night. After multiple hours on the road, no one (particularly the one-day-short-of-two-year-old) feels like using restaurant manners. So I made a casserole over the weekend, froze it, and stuck it in the oven upon arrival in Galena. We grabbed some bread, wine, and salad on our way into town and had a delicious meal together.

This is one of my favorite dishes, and I remember very clearly how I first came across the recipe. Many years ago, Sean had a really fantastic graduate assistantship, wherein he worked for Family and Graduate Housing at the University planning social events for residents. There were many international students who lived in the Family and Graduate Housing apartments, and Sean spent a lot of time that year with students from all over the globe. Among them was a couple, Kostos and Angeliki, from Greece and Cyprus, respectively. In December of 2005, we were invited to their wedding celebration. It was held at a bed and breakfast in the heart of rural Illinois - really, it wasn't close to anything or anyone else. The woman who did the cooking worked very hard to research and prepare Greek dishes for the event, and I absolutely fell in love with this vegetarian take on moussaka.

This recipe does take a bit of time to prepare; I generally roast the eggplant a day in advance to break it up a bit. The moussaka can be frozen, but I have found it is best to defrost it before baking. This is a very rich dish and perfect served with thick slabs of bread for sopping up the juices.


Vegetarian Moussaka
Adapted from Bon Appetit


3 lbs. eggplant, unpeeled and cubed
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 cup finely chopped peeled carrots
1 cup finely chopped celery
4 garlic cloves, minced
12 oz. portobello mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed, and diced
1 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 cup grated Parmesan
4 oz. diced feta cheese

6 tbsp. butter
7 tbsp. flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten

Cover 2 baking sheets with paper towels. Sprinkle eggplant with salt. Arrange in a single layer on towels. Let stand 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove eggplant and paper towels from baking sheets. Pat eggplant dry. Oil same baking sheets. In a large bowl, toss eggplant with 1/4 cup olive oil. Arrange in a single layer on baking sheets. Bake 10 minutes. Turn eggplant and rotate pans in oven. Continue baking until tender, 10-15 minutes more. Cool. (Can be done a day in advance. Refrigerate.)

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Saute until onion is very tender, about 12 minutes. Mix in garlic then mushrooms. Saute until juices evaporate, about 10 minutes. Mix in oregano and cinnamon. Add tomatoes and parsley. Cook until thick, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Lightly oil 9x13 baking dish. Arrange half of eggplant in single layer in dish. Spoon half of tomato mixture over the top. Sprinkle with 2 tbsp. Parmesan and half of the feta. Repeat layering with remaining eggplant, tomato mixture, 2 tbsp. Parmesan and the remaining feta.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour.. Stir 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk. Simmer until sauce thickens, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Whisk in 1/2 cup Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. Gradually whisk beaten egg yolks into sauce. Pour sauce over vegetables in dish. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.

Bake moussaka until heated through and sauce is golden on top, about 45-55 minutes (longer if chilled). Cool 15 minutes before serving.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Baked Potato Soup in Bread Bowls

6:28 AM 1 Comments
I've been trying to grocery shop every other week instead of every week; no reason, really, except that I'm constantly tweaking my grocery habits to find what works best for our family so I thought I'd give this a shot. There are definite upsides to less frequent shopping - it makes me plan very carefully, it means one less big trip to the store with two kids in tow - but there are downsides as well. Case in point: when I made the grocery list, it was cool and rainy and rather March-like, so I planned for lots of soups...and for the last few days it has been in the lower eighties, sunny, and warm. Really, nothing says spring like a steaming bowl of Baked Potato Soup, right?

Weather aside, this soup was absolutely delicious. How can you go wrong with a recipe that, as a final step, instructs you to throw in two blocks of cream cheese? This is another slow cooker recipe - I promise to get back to "fast" cooking one of these days, I'm just loving my new cookbook!

The recipe is included in full at crockpot365. I used vegetarian bouillon instead of chicken broth, regular salt instead of seasoned, and reduced fat cream cheese with no ill effect. For toppings, I served chopped scallions, crumbled bacon, and sour cream.

I used my friend Maggie's recipe for bread bowls - so good, so easy, and so much fun for the kids! Her recipe is here (along with another yummy-sounding soup recipe).


Friday, March 9, 2012

Homemade Yogurt

7:43 AM 2 Comments
This is something I have always wanted to try, and if I had known how easy it was going to be, I would have tried it a long time ago. The ingredients couldn't be any simpler, the steps are very straightforward, and the end result is absolutely marvelous. I came across the recipe in Stephanie O'Dea's Make It Fast, Cook It Slow (it is also included in More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow, which I like even better) - but you can also find it on her website, A Year of Slow Cooking.

O'Dea recommends making this on a day when you are going to be around, as there are different steps to follow throughout the day. I started it at 8:30 am and put it in the fridge to drain around 9:30 pm. When we woke up this morning, we had a huge bowl of the thickest, richest yogurt imaginable.

A vertical spoon!

The recipe is included in full here. A few things to note:

- After the eight hour stretch, the yogurt is ready to eat.  If, however, you follow the suggestion to drain the yogurt, you end up with Greek-style yogurt, as thick as sour cream. This is mentioned in the notes if you read all the way through the recipe, but I'll detail it again here. Line a strainer with a few paper coffee filter and set it over a big bowl. Pour the entire contents of the slow cooker into the strainer and stick it in the fridge for a couple of hours. This separates the whey, which can then be discarded.

- I used full fat Vitamin D milk. From what I read on the website, you can use lower fat milk but then you might need to thicken it up with gelatin. Your call.

- The yogurt lasts for 7-10 days in the fridge, and you get a lot of it, so prepare for lots of smoothies. And the cost effectiveness is pretty startling, as detailed on O'Dea's site:

  • One 6-pack of yo-baby is $6.50 (24 ounces) 
  • One gallon of almost totally organic milk is $3.00 (128 ounces) 
  • One gallon of yobaby would be $34.67 or 10 times what it cost you to make it, more or less.

So go make a batch this weekend, and throw together some granola while you are at it!


Mmmm....smoothie! (cup design can be found here)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Perfect Rice Pudding

7:07 AM 3 Comments
In my last post, I shared a little bit about how my family celebrates Mongolian New Year, or Tsagaan Sar. I didn't include too much information about the food, or the fact that my amazing husband pinched over fifty meat dumplings (buuz) in the days leading up to the event, or the fact that my kids devoured the dumplings like they were Mongolian children. I also didn't include this slow cooker rice pudding recipe.

Disclaimer: Rice pudding is not typically served at Tsagaan Sar. There is, however, a kind of rice porridge (called "sootei bodah," or "rice with milk") that is sometimes served. I first incorporated this kicked-up recipe into our Tsagaan Sar festivities last year, and I vow to never again celebrate the holiday without is that crazy good. So rich, so creamy, so easy...and so worth sharing with all of you.

This is a great recipe for a dinner party, because you can make it in advance, dish it into the serving bowls, then chill it and have it ready to go at dessert time. It's also absolutely delicious warm out of the slow cooker, which is similarly easy for last minute serving. Although it is a slow cooker recipe, it's actually quite fast, with about three hours total cooking time.

Sadly, I failed to take a photo of the pudding before we ate every last drop. Instead I'll share this pretty shot of our Tsagaan Sar table.

Vanilla Rice Pudding


2/3 cup Arborio rice (the kind you use for risotto), rinsed and drained
1 13 oz. can evaporated milk
6 cups whole milk
1 1/4 cups sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 tsp cinnamon
whipped cream or fresh fruit (optional), for serving

1 - Coat the slow cooker insert with cooking spray. Combine the rice and evaporated milk in the cooker.

2 - In a large heavy saucepan over medium high heat, combine the whole milk, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Heat until bubbles appear around the edges to dissolve the sugar.

3 - Pour the hot milk into the cooker and stir with a whisk. Cover and cook on low until the milk is absorbed and the custard is set, about 2 1/2 hours.While cooking, the milk will be gently bubbling.

4 - In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, and cinnamon. Add about 1/4 cup of the hot pudding to the egg mixture and beat well to prevent curdling. Slowly pour the mixture into the pudding in the cooker, stirring constantly until well combined. Cover and cook on low for 30 minutes more.

5 - Serve warm or spoon into small dishes, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate to eat cold. Top with whipped cream and fresh fruit, as desired.