Thursday, December 27, 2012

Whirlwind Holiday

Blink ... and, now it's over.

I don't know how it happens. We spend so much time preparing for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, and in the blink of an eye, they're over. 

For months, we did a countdown in our house. First for our darling daughter's second birthday, then a few weeks later, for Christmas. The babies' anticipation grew and grew, especially once we pulled out the Advent Calendar and then the Christmas decorations. 

And, in a blink, it's over. 

It was a fabulous celebration, one that lasted three full days in our house. And, although,  my goal is to keep the Christmas spirit going for as long as possible, it's sad to see it go so quickly. In our house, we're still listening to Christmas music. (If I had my way, we'd be listening to the cheerful and heart-warming tunes through the summer, but hubby would never let that happen.)

But, I digress ... 

Our little gingerbread house.
This Christmas, we started pulling together our own family traditions. With a 3 year old and just-turned 2 year old, we haven't had time to really create our own little family traditions. But, we're working on it. 

Two weeks before Christmas, we built our annual gingerbread house. Mommy took over ... just a little bit (the babies were too busy licking the icing off their fingers and eating as much candy they could sneak out of the bowls). 
Grandma's sugar cookies. Iced
in good Christmas spirit by our
little darlings.

So, when Christmas arrived, I made sure the girlies led the sugar cookie decorating efforts. We started baking my grandma's sugar cookie recipe on the first Christmas Eve after we had our first daughter. We've followed through that tradition. The girls were really into the decorating this year, and enjoyed it almost as much as they enjoyed eating the icing.

Since we are hundreds of miles away from our folks (both sides), we try our best to incorporate the traditions that meant the most to us into our newfound family traditions. 

For Christmas Eve dinner this year, we were blessed to have my brother, sister-in-law and nephew join us (they live locally and spent the holiday here this year). I made homemade sauerkraut pierogies (courtesy of my husband's grandmother, Gram), crab cakes, french onion soup and roasted carrots. It was incredibly important for us to have a meatless dinner, a tradition my husband and I both grew up with. I couldn't remember the pinch and flatten method for the pierogies that Gram taught me several years ago. So, instead, I pulled out my rolling pin -- gasp! -- and cut out little rounds that I molded into perfect little sauerkraut-stuffed pillows. My husband kindly told me how tasty the pierogies were, but I know they didn't hold a candle to Gram's. We'll just have to keep working on it, and next year, I'll remember the pinch and flatten method.

Rainbow cookies from the top.
And, below, here's a look
at the tasty layers.
My husband also requested a special treat for Christmas Eve dinner: Italian Rainbow cookies. Now, until he made the request, I knew very little about these colorful treats. In fact, I don't think I'd ever tried one. But, he's been making the request for months. So, we agreed that I'd make them for Christmas Eve dessert. And, so I began the LONG and grueling task of making these little brutal, albeit super delicious, beasts. 

Had I known the work that goes into these cookies, I probably would have put up my hands and walked away before even starting, but my husband insisted, even after the cookies turned into an hours-long project. He kept saying, "Don't you remember last week you were complaining you were in a cooking rut? I'm just trying to help you out." (Remember this, as he repeated this on Christmas Day when I was making the hours-long beef bourguignon.) 

If you've ever had these almond petit cakes, you'll know they're delicate in texture, moist and hit many complex notes on the palette. They're quite tasty, but so much work. I've sworn I will never again make these little treats, so my hubby better savor all 96 little sweet cakes. (I've included a copy of the recipe I adapted below.)

After the girls ripped open their packages on Christmas morning and savored all the goodies that Santa brought them, we headed over to my brother's and enjoyed sharing pecan rolls, something we had every Christmas when we were growing up. In my humble opinion, nothing says Christmas morning more than the scent of  warm cinnamon filling the air, and it was something we missed in our own house this year. But, my hubby and I were incredibly touched that my brother took the time to make these yummy pastries for us to enjoy on Christmas morning.

Searing the meat.
So, with nothing cooking in the kitchen on Christmas morning, I was due for a little challenge in the afternoon: beef bourguignon. In the Washington area, one of my favorite restaurants is L'Auberge Chez Francois. We try to get there once a year -- for our anniversary -- and I always order the beef bourguignon. I don't know what they do, but the dinner transports me to a different time and place. So, with that delicious meal in my mind, I had my work cut out for me. 

Sauteing the veggies.
I started marinating the meat two days before Christmas, but the real work didn't set in until Christmas afternoon. After an hour sauteing vegetables, searing the meat, and preparing the "sauce," the beef braised for three hours. The intoxicating smell filled the house, and my hubby kept asking, "How much longer?"

Although Elizabeth's beef bourguignon wasn't as "magnifique" as that at Chez Francois, it was tender, complex in flavor and, in a word, delicious. We paired the beef with roasted red potatoes and a roasted pear salad. My 2 year old loved the beef, "More chicken Mommy!" (She's 2 and calls every protein "chicken.") 

Christmas dinner.
My husband declared that the beef is our family's new Christmas tradition, and even suggested we have a "round 2" for New Year's.

We definitely are guilty of eating our way through the holidays -- and our belts need to be loosened a bit. But, we built off some of our childhood traditions (sauerkraut pierogies and cinnamon rolls) and created some of our own new ones (beef bourguignon and Italian rainbow cookies (ahem, can you tell my hubby "edited" my post?)). 

It was a tremendous holiday, and I'm so incredibly grateful for the precious time with family and the yummy foods that will help frame our memories in the years to come. 

... and, in a blink, it's now a memory.

* * *

Rainbow Cookies (adapted from Bon Appetit) 

Prep Time: 5 hrs | Cook Time: 2 hrs | Makes: 96 | 
Difficulty: Hard

  • 2 Tbsp. plus 2 cups unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
  • 6 large eggs, separated
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
  • 12 oz. almond paste (not marzipan), chopped
  • 2 3/4 cups plus 1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. red food coloring
  • 1 tsp. green food coloring
  • 3/4 cup orange marmalade, heated, strained
  • 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped, melted
Preheat oven to 350°. Line three 13x9x2" metal baking pans with foil, leaving overhang; grease with 2 Tbsp. butter; set aside. Put egg whites in bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk; beat until soft peaks form. Slowly add 1/3 cup sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a large bowl; cover; chill.

Using the paddle attachment, beat almond paste and remaining sugar on medium-low until incorporated, 4-5 minutes. Increase speed to medium-high; gradually add remaining butter. Beat until fluffy. Beat in yolks, then flour and salt. Fold in whites in 2 additions.

Divide batter evenly among 3 bowls. Mix red coloring into 1 bowl and green coloring into second bowl; leave third bowl plain. Spread 1 bowl of batter into each prepared pan; smooth tops. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until just set, 9-11 minutes. Let cool in pans.

With a pastry brush, spread half of marmalade over green cake. Using foil overhang, lift plain layer out of pan. Invert onto green layer; discard foil. Brush remaining marmalade over plain layer. Lift red layer out of pan; invert onto plain layer and cover cake with foil.

Top with a 13x9x2" pan. Weigh down pan with several heavy canned goods to compress cake layers. Refrigerate at least 4 hours and up to 1 day.

Remove cans, top pan, and foil. Transfer cake to a waxed paper-lined baking sheet.

Spread half of chocolate over cake in a thin layer. Freeze for 10 minutes. Cover with waxed paper, invert the baking sheet on top, and flip cake. Uncover and glaze with remaining chocolate. Freeze 10 additional minutes.

Trim cake to 12x8". Cut crosswise into six 2"-wide strips. Cut each strip crosswise into 96 1/2"-wide cookies. Store in an airtight container.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Virginia, We Have a Problem: Dinnertime Rut

"If I could muster the strength, I might try a '365 homemade dinners expedition,' making a different homemade gem every night for a year. But, with a crazy work schedule -- that isn't showing mercy -- to weekly migraine attacks (how much fun is that? *noted sarcasm*), I'll just do these little friendly bets with the hubby. Who knows? Maybe in January, I'll kick off a 90-day bet of 90 different, unique homemade dinners for 90 days. Anyone can do anything for 90 days, right? Right?"
Spinach and feta quiche.
Yummy, but it's turning into a rut!
So that's what I wrote in November. At the time, my husband started buying secret ingredients at the store. For some reason, he thought we had entered the world of Iron Chef. We were in a groove. Each week, I'd scour the Internet, finding several new recipes each week. I'd find ways to use his crazy secret ingredients. Some weeks I didn't cook everything on my menu; on bad days, we'd have leftovers or I'd make a go-to easy backup. But, I was trying!

Well, in the four weeks since that post, we've hit the "wall." Or, I've hit the wall, and I'm dragging my family along for the ride.

We're doing great on the homemade, don't get me wrong. But, I find myself cooking the same thing week after week. I'll mix it up with a new recipe every now and then, but the creativity and exploration are few and far between. I've had one new recipe on my "menu" for three weeks: spicy dijon chicken. It sounds delicious. So, what did I do with the chicken? Ummm ... see the picture to the right: Mexican rice bowl.

Last night's Mexican
rice bowl with rice, chicken,
fresh pico de gallo and
and homemade guacamole.
Who's complaining? No one ...
Not really, but it's turning into
the "same ole, same ole."
Honestly, I can't fathom even 10 days of unique dinners at this point. What was I thinking? 90?!

In the past two weeks alone, I've made roasted pear salad three times, Mexican three times, quiche (or frittata) twice. Whoa! Virginia, we have a problem.

How do I reignite things? How do I get my mojo back?

With Christmas a week away, I feel tired and overwhelmed. I'm super excited about baking cookies with my girls and I do have some really fun ideas for creating a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feast. But, between now and then? Ugh. 

I'm thinking roasted pear salad, quiche and Mexican. Repeat.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Birthday Party Success!

My little darling blowing out the candle on her
princess castle cake.
My Darling Daughter recently turned 2. I think she and her sister were counting down her birthday for months! When it came time to pick out the invitations, DD really wanted Barney. You know, the singing purple dinosaur who terrorizes parents' dreams... lucky for us (er, I mean sadly for her), they just don't sell Barney stuff anymore.

So, she settled on a princess party. Her sister loves everything princess. In fact, earlier this summer, we had a perfectly pink princess party for her 3rd birthday. I was a little sad my now 2 year old wanted a princess party, too, for no other reason than the hubby and I feel she hasn't had time to figure out what she likes because she likes everything her sister likes.

Anyway, we picked out some darling invitations for a purple princess party. DD's favorite color has been purple ... from the moment she popped out of the womb.

Then a few weeks before the party, DD no longer wanted a purple princess party. She wanted a pink princess party. Say, what??! Pink?

Distraught, I asked her over and over. "What kind of party do you want?"
"Pink princess," she'd say very sing songy.

I had to figure out a way to make her party unique from her sister's. I scoured online to find cake ideas, and came across the perfect one: a princess castle.

A few days before the party, DD emphatically declared she wanted a pink AND purple princess party. She wanted crowns, and dresses, and princesses, and shoes and a purple and pink cake. Yay! Individuality! (Well, kind of...)

On the morning of her birthday, she got just that. She was so excited when she saw her purple and pink cake for the first time, and the second and every time after that. At one point, she and her sister declared that they wanted to live in the cake. 

I take that as a birthday success!

~ ~ ~

Assembly of my DD's perfectly delightful purple and pink princess cake:

Every princess cake needs turrets. And what's more suitablethan purple and pink ... with sparkles? (Love thepurple and pink sugar crystals!)

Nothing better than hot pink and bright purple buttercream! 
Starting the assembly. 
Since DD's birthday is in December, I did the trim in "snowy" white.
Thank goodness for candied pearls. Added a nice
touch for the windows and doors.
Adding the final turret and the last bit of "snow."

The final product. Happy birthday baby girl!

The bottom tier was "manilla" for my birthday girl. I added a
berry compote in between layers. The top tier was a
dark chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Birthday Cake Fever!!

My youngest daughter turns 2 in the coming weeks (Mommy is trying to hold it together **sob.**) and I'm already preparing. 

My sweet princess has asked for a purple princess party. I've been researching online, and I think I've found the perfect cake to make.

Safari cupcakes and cake
for my older daughter's
first birthday. Her first
birthday is when I
learned the art of fondant.
I've always made my children's cakes: safari, teddy bear, Dora, princess cake #1. (Yes, it seems my girls are growing to believe that they're royalty.) Each birthday, the cakes get more complex and the decorations a little more extravagant. Those who know me well know I dream of opening my own bake shop someday. These cakes are my way of practicing my craft, getting a little more adept each time.

And for each celebration, I have a tendency to go overboard. (Who? Me?) One cake just isn't enough. I make a cake ... and cupcakes. Basically, I want everyone to be happy. My dad is allergic to chocolate, so I always make something non-chocolate and then something for those chocolate lovers (ahem, me, my hubby and children). I'm going to try to nip that this year, and just make a single cake.

For my older daughter's first birthday, I played with fondant. I made a perfectly delightful lion for her safari cake. The next few cakes, I practiced piping. With this cake, I'll practice architecture.

For each, I've tried a new recipe, trying to find a moist, light flavorful cake. 

My baby wants "manilla," even though her sister is pushing heavily for chocolate. I always get a little frustrated with white cake, but I'll see what I can dig up. (I might always resort to an apple spice cake, a way to celebrate the upcoming Christmas season, too.)

I hope to start the project soon. I'm very excited and can't wait to see her eyes light up on her birthday!

I'll post pictures after the big day. Wish me luck!

~ ~ ~

Photos from birthdays' past:

For my older daughter's third birthday, we went
pink princess! Arial is her absolute favorite.
To mix things up, I decided to add some
personality to her princess cake and
surprised her with a rainbow cake:

For our youngest's first birthday, we went with butterfly cupcakes
and a teddy bear cake. She didn't smash either.