Sunday, May 26, 2013

Spring has sprung

Well, kind of.  It's still chilly most days, but for a week or so we got those nice warm days and cool evenings that make eating dinner al fresco appealing. Some of my fondest memories of last summer are eating breakfast and dinner on our porch with LE.

Instagram photo June 2012

We had a couple of sunny days this week when we spent time on our front porch and driveway eating dinners, playing with chalk, and greeting our neighbors as they passed by. 

The biggest challenge is keeping curious baby hands out of mischief. We (John) just redid the mulch, and H sprint-crawls to the mulch to try to get as many handfuls in her mouth before getting caught. The other day, we got home from a long stroller walk to find that she had squirreled away a fairly large piece of dyed mulch in her mouth for the entire walk.

(P.S. I'm not sure if I'm going to be blogging again, but I did want to share these photos with those who aren't on FB.)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Hannah at 4 to 5 Months

Hannah is 5 months old today.
I still don't see how it is possible for 5 months to have gone by already. Jeez.

I think the natural thing to do as parents is to compare your children's characteristics, especially when they are babies since the differences are all innate. It's not a matter of saying one is better than the other. They're just different.

Comparisons happen even before the baby is born. People ask how the pregnancy is compared to the last. For us, the real difference happened at birth. When the doctor placed Hannah on my chest right after she breathed her first breath, John and I looked down at her lovingly and said to ourselves, "Who are you?!"

She looked so different than LE. She still does. It's amazing how much we think LE's perfect and so, so beautiful. But yet, we think Hannah's perfect and impossibly cute.

Look at our little baby. Those cheeks and neck that make her give the widest smile when squished. Those lashes... the one thing she shares in common with her sister.

Hannah is loud and loves things that are loud. She wakes up happy but loud... yelling or screeching with excitement while slobbering on her hands or grasping for her toes. The sound of the vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, coffee grinder, or a running bathtub makes her flap her arms and legs with excitement. LE, on the other hand, is just getting over her fear of those noises and still clasps her ears in expectation of noises that aren't even that loud (like the Kitchenaid mixer on medium).

Hannah concentrates very intently on bringing things in with her hands. She played contently in the jumperoo for 45 minutes the other day. Another day, she played on her play mat for the 40 minutes that LE and I worked on a craft for her daddy. 
Instagram photo
She's a happy baby who doesn't have to be held nonstop. My back thanks her. On the other hand, John and I are a little sad that she doesn't like to melt her whole body into us and snuggle a while. Sometimes I just squeeze her anyway even though she tries with her whole body to push up off of my chest in an effort to get out of the snuggle hold. I'm thankful that she doesn't need me to hold her constantly, though, and that when it's nap time, I'm able to put her down to do other things. 

Despite not wanting to cuddle, she won't take a bottle (or pacifier, but I don't care about that). Sigh. I'm not giving up hope! Two weeks ago, we had Hannah's 4 month check-up and got the go-ahead with rice cereal. We're hoping that the cereal will be the gateway to the bottle. 

Here she is right before her first bite (out of focus):

Success! She didn't hate it. She actually does quite well with it now, opening her mouth for bites.

Sweet baby, Hannah. I can't smell her or squish her enough. Her coos are endearing, her arm flapping funny, and her giggles contagious. 
Instagram photo
(On a side note, Hannah is long and lean for her age. She's at around the 90th percentile for height (half inch taller than LE at this age), 50th for weight for age (LE was 40th), and 15th percentile for height to weight (LE was 11th). She's supposedly extra strong for her age and healthy all around.)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Bits of Cheer

I don't know why, but I find this moment quite sweet. 

My little LE just after her long midday nap, curled up on the chair, sitting quietly eating a snack and looking out the window into the snow covered backyard. I love how the glass door lets in so much sunlight, especially when it reflects off of the white snow. On particularly cold days, little bits of cheer-- like the clementines in the teal bowl and the potted bright green parsley in the sunlight-- offer a quick boost of spirit that makes me smile to myself every time I stop to notice.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Christmas recap, continued (baking edition part 3)

I'm not sure why, but I didn't do a good job documenting these cookies while I was making them. Maybe it's because I was trying to package these cookies up to give to neighbors. Maybe it's because I knew that I'd be revisiting them soon.

Let me back up.

I got it in my mind that I wanted to make lace cookies. I tend to trust Cook's Illustrated as the baking authority, thinking they've done way more testing than most others-- way more than I have! As far as baking goes, they have not steered me wrong yet.

On the other hand, I knew that we had John's late grandmother's recipe for lace cookies that I had never tried out. So, I did what every normal person would do-- I had a bake off and blind taste test.

LE and I started with Bebe's recipe, following it almost exactly. Even before they went in the oven, I declared them the winner for simplicity. Cook's Illustrated tends to overcomplicate most things, so I couldn't imagine their recipe being easier than this.

The one fatal flaw in Bebe's recipe is that it says to bake them on foil, which creates a stuck-on mess after baking. Stick with parchment or a Silpat, and they'll turn out great. Secondly, I fiddled with the recipe's per-cookie dough size to yield a cookie closer in size to what John remembers.

The cookies have a traditional dough (it's the one pictured above that LE's scooping with the too big cookie portion scoop) and bake into a flat, delicate cookie that is easily crumbled. The middle is slightly chewy due to the oats, and the flavor is buttery and sweet (no surprise there, given the ingredients!). Their chip-like, airy texture makes them really hard to stop eating. We even got feedback from a neighbor that he's not a cookie person, but he likes these cookies.

Bebe's cookie is the smaller cookie on the bottom left and the Cook's Illustrated lace cookie is the larger one with chocolate.
By the time I started the CI recipe, I was a bit tired, which is probably why I didn't take any photos of the process. I plan to revisit this recipe soon, though, and I'll take plenty of photos along the way.

This recipe was noticeably different from the start; you don't use a mixer and heat it on the stove. The dough is syrupy instead of fluffy. Once again, I followed the recipe as written, and it was arguably just as simple as Bebe's. The cookie resulted in something like a very thin toffee, much like a Trader Joe's lace cookie. It's relatively sturdy and breaks into shards as opposed to crumbs.

Strangely, after eating countless Bebe lace cookies, I was not a fan of these CI cookies when they came out of the oven. I could taste the brown sugar more than I liked. John and I both declared Bebe's recipe the clear winner.

Interestingly, though, after I gave my tastebuds a sugar rest, I tasted the CI cookie again and loved them. Sandwiching a bit of ganache between two cookies led to a cookie that I ended up finding irresistible. I also like that you can get creative with the CI cookie; you can shape it into a tube and fill it with whipped cream, make it into a shell shape, or sandwich two together with chocolate, like I did. I'll definitely be revisiting these soon.

So, in the bake-off... it's a tie. To me, both cookies are good but too different to be compared. Maybe this verdict shouldn't be allowed, but both cookies are really tasty for different reasons.

If you're looking for a sweet, delicate cookie that doesn't need to be packaged up-- try out Bebe's recipe. If you're looking for a lace cookie that's a bit sturdier and similar to toffee-- go with the CI.  Either way, you can't go wrong!

Bebe's Lace Cookies
Shared with permission.

1 stick butter, softened
¾ c sugar
1 tbs Flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 c old fashioned oats (original recipe calls for quick oats)

Preheat oven to 350.

Cream butter and sugar together in a mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add the rest of the ingredients and beat well. Drop in 1/2-3/4 teaspoonfuls onto a parchment paper or Silpat lined cookie sheet, at least 2” apart.

Bake 7 minutes on the center rack. Let cool for about 5 minutes and then gently transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely. You'll be able to fit 8 cookies on a regular half-sheet baking sheet.

Cook's Illustrated Lace Cookies
Make on a dry day to prevent chewy cookies; oats are traditional but this recipe calls for pecans. 

8 tbs unsalted butter
1/2 c light corn syrup
3/4 c dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
6 tbs all purpose flour, sifted
1 c pecans, chopped fine
1 tbs heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350.

Bring butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup to a boil in a medium pot over medium heat (approx 6 min), stirring frequently. Take off heat and stir in the rest of the ingredients. Stir until smooth (or as smooth as you can with pecans in there!).

Drop syrupy batter onto a parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet in teaspoonfuls, 3" apart. For a regular half-sheet baking sheet, you'll be able to fit 6 cookies. Bake on the center rack for approximately 7 minutes, looking for the cookies to spread thin, start to darken, and come close to stop bubbling.

Let cool for 5 minutes on the sheet before carefully transferring to a cooling rack to cool completely. If you're going to shape into a tube, shell, or cone, let the cookies sit for a shorter period when taking them out of the oven. Then, carefully shape and let cool. If making ganache filled sandwiches, dollop about 3/4 tsp ganache in the center of a cooled cookie and gently press another cookie on top. Allow to harden completely before serving (you can refrigerate them to speed up that process).

Store plain cookies in an airtight container at room temp for up to one month, though you have to really have a lot of will power to allow them to be in your home for that long. Decorate or fill with ganache up to a week in advance.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Christmas recap, continued (baking edition, part 2)

After winning Bridget's book (from Bake at 350) this December, I got a little excited to decorate cookies. Plus, I knew it would be a fun activity for LE and me to do. Once I started, I didn't want to stop. It was a lot of fun for me even though it kind of makes a bit of a mess during the prep.

I didn't actually receive the book until January, but I was familiar with Bridget's recipes and website already. I coupled the recipe with some helpful tips that I have mentally filed away over time from a few different cookie blogs:
  • Use two clean yard sticks or wooden dowels on the counter to roll on so that your cookies come out perfectly uniform in thickness. You have to roll less dough at once, but it's foolproof.
  • Roll out your dough on top of wax paper/parchment/Silpat as well as with a piece of wax/parchment paper between the roller and dough in order to eliminate the need for flouring your surface.
  • Bake your cookies on day the day before you prep your icing and decorate to prevent energy burn out. Decorated roll out cookies create a lot of dishes and mess (especially if doing alongside a child). 
  • Start with the right supplies to make it easy. For beginners, everything aside from the mixer can be purchased at a craft store, like Michaels, with coupons to make it inexpensive. Grab at least two squeeze bottles, disposable piping bags, some couplers, and piping tips (I used a size 1, 2, and 3). According to the cookie experts (not me), the AmeriColor gel food colorings and Ateco meringue powders are best in quality/taste, though you could definitely make do with the Wilton brand ones that you'll find at Michaels. 
  • Use tall glasses with damp paper towels at the bottom to hold your piping bags when they're not in use.
  • Try to come up with designs that only use 2-3 colors to simplify how many bags/bottles/mess you'll create.
  • Freeze your cut out dough on the cookie sheet for 5-10 minutes before it goes in the oven. This helps the cookie keep its shape while baking.
These cookies were made with Bridget's gingerbread recipe and royal icing recipe (also found in her book), which is firm enough to package up and stack without crumbling yet still chewy and soft. I'm not a gingerbread cookie person (or so I thought), but I found myself enjoying these. 

Simple Bite's Aimee also reviewed the recipe on her blog, which is where I won the cookbook and got the idea to use this gingerbread recipe to begin with.

Also, LE decorated her own cookies next to me. She helped me roll out the dough and press down the cookie cutters. Then, she had her own baking sheet with a bowl of pink icing (surprise, surprise!), some sprinkles, and a spoon to pour the icing onto her cookies. This let our 2 1/2 year old do hers without needing help while I decorated mine.

(Christmas recap, baking edition part 3 is coming tomorrow!)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Christmas recap, continued (Baking edition, part 1)


We had a lot of fun baking in December, and I've been trying to make up excuses to do it all over again. Let's see... we have lots of birthdays, Valentine's Day, a couple of happy hours...

I already shared with you these little balls:
A month later, and I still can't think of anything I'd do differently when making them. They're definite winners.

 If you follow me on Instagram, you saw some of the chocolate mint ganache roll out cookies that I did for a cookie exchange that got cancelled.
John declared a few years back that he does not care for sugar cookies with royal icing. I was a little bummed to not get to play around with royal icing and cookie cutters, but I prefer other sweets anyway. I continued to follow two cookie decorating blogs-- Sweet SugarBelle and Bake at 350-- filing away tips and advice with the hopes that one of us would magically change our minds.

Fast forward to this year when we were creating Christmas traditions. A good rollout cookie is imperative for memory making fun! The Smitten Kitchen cookbook arrived just in time for the holidays, providing a recipe for brownie roll out cookies. Awesome! At first bite, this cookie was declared our Christmas tradition cookie for our family. I'd share the recipe with you if the cookbook weren't so new or if I made some changes to it. I didn't. Sorry! On Pinterest, you can find plenty of chocolate rollout cookies with recipes quite different but from reputable bloggers out there. Actually, Sweet SugarBelle did a trial batch of a few different recipes.

The hardest part was figuring out when the dark cookies are ready to come out, and I found that I preferred to err on the side of taking them out too early. I made a quick mint ganache from a bag of Andes mint chips (found in the baking aisle), half a bag of 60% chips, and about 1/2 cup heavy cream. After some trial and error, I found it was easiest to pour the warm ganache into a squeeze bottle, outline the cookies, and then fill it in. The ganache was thick enough to not drip over the edges of the cookie, and the heat from your hand keeps you from having to reheat the ganache. 

To add a crunch to the otherwise soft cookie, I went back and sprinkled a liberal amount of sugar sprinkles (or whatever they're officially called) over each, working in batches of about 5 cookies at a time. Doing this over a cooling rack inside a rimmed baking sheet made it super easy to clean up.

Since the exchange was cancelled, and I made so many, these managed to stay around the house for about a week before I packaged them up with the whole assortment of cookies for neighbors. I could taste a slight difference at that time, but not too much. These would be easy to make a few days in advance for a party. Oh, and I must add that the leftover ganache keeps for a long time as well (we finished it at about 2 weeks and there was absolutely no change in flavor or texture at that point); it makes a great, easy treat when spread over graham crackers. Don't ask me how I know that. ;)

As a little something to share during the cookie exchange, I quickly made these boozy little bourbon balls from the food blog, A Year In Food (recipe was posted to etsy). They were super strong the first day, but the Jack Daniels mellowed out after sitting plastic wrapped in the fridge for a day.

To make them without gunking up your hands, use a small portion scoop to dump a ball into a small piece of saran wrap. Then, wrap the saran wrap around the dough and roll in your hands like you would sans wrap. It took me way longer to type that than it did to make them-- it's really easy. And you stay clean.

Ok, that's all I have the energy for tonight. I'll continue with more cookies tomorrow!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Christmas recap continued again (family edition)

Ok, I'm finally back to the recap! I'll start with family Christmas stuff and the next post will be about the baking that we did in December. :) 

{Christmas photos were taken mostly with my phone or in very low light since it gets dark so early here and someone I know is wide awake before the sun rises in the morning.}

Butterfly wings and the red skirt are frequent accessories these days. 

LE loved looking at the presents under the tree, excited to wait until Christmas. She actually burst into tears when I opened one early. (Admittedly, I'm not very good about waiting to open presents, but that one had an instruction to open in advance.)

As I mentioned before, we saw lots of family around Christmas. We opened presents with John's parents the Saturday afternoon before Christmas.

Almost all of the photos of LE around Christmas are of her looking down at a toy or present:

We opened many presents with just our family of four on Christmas Eve evening, and opened the rest of our presents on Christmas Day morning. It was dark outside, and we looked a little rough, so we didn't end up taking many photos of our family.

There are a couple of shots of LE exploring her new dollhouse that Santa brought her (for the record, we are still undecided on whether our house will have Santa). Looks oddly similar to the dollhouse I won a couple of years ago that had lived on the top shelf of her closet. She has a ridiculously good memory and associates new things with other things she saw months ago, so I was completely surprised she didn't see the dollhouse and say, "That's just like the one that has been in my closet for 2 years!"
John was a good Santa and arranged other toys to go with her house for her to play with. 

We had an enjoyable, low key day with just our family.

The following day, we drove down to Chicago to see my parents and the entire Heil family who were all visiting Chicago for Christmas. It was a special time since it had been many years since they had all gotten together, and none of them had met the girls before (except my parents, of course).  Together, we all represented North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Somehow, I didn't get any photos of the group with my camera, but I know there are a lot coming to me from my parents' camera...

We only stayed in Chicago the night of the 26th. The 27th was a whirlwind of family! Separately, we saw my parents & all of the Heils, then my dad's parents (they live on the way home from Chicago), and then John's parents (who were back in Madison on their way home from northern Wisconsin). The only grandparent we missed out on seeing that day was my mom's dad, Gandaddy, who lives in Alabama. It was a fun but exhausting day! The girls did awesome, though!

This year, I was ready to get our tree early, but I was also ready to take it down early, too. On New Years Eve, we undressed the tree and hauled it outside. 

I will not miss the pine needles. 

This last photo is for those who wonder how we get our girls to take good photos. It's not always successful! The photo at the top of this post is ok... Hannah's not exactly chipper. It just went downhill from there. I think both girls were ready for their naps. ;)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Christmas recap (continued)

We had a blizzard which left all four of us housebound for a couple of days. We got 19 inches in a day.
Instagram photo taken from our 2nd floor
We stayed inside and did things like make clay ornaments. After they were dry, we colored Elmer's Glue with green food coloring and painted one of them green. The other two little ones were coated with plain Elmer's to protect them from grime over time.

LE had her first hot chocolate. She prefers it cold. Go figure.

LE made a Christmas tree from popsicle sticks that I trimmed with scissors (not easy to trim, mind you).  She colored the sticks with a marker (you could use paint), coated it well with Elmer's, and then applied little decorations.

We also made a Borax snowflake. I recommend making ones smaller than what we did if you want to do this as well. Maybe do them 2 inches wide and use wide mouth canning jars? They are really easy.

After the winds from the blizzard died down, we took the girls out to sled in our backyard and make snow angels, something LE had been requesting since the last small snowfall melted. We got them both bundled up but thought we'd put LE's mittens on outside.

Hannah cried almost from the moment she got stuffed into the Baby Bjorn. I got this photo of John pushing LE on the disc, and the next moment, LE was crying because her hands were too cold. We all headed back inside, officially making our adventure a bust. We spent longer getting dressed than we did outside. Oh well!

We made lots and lots of cookies. LE is super sensitive to noises, so even the mixer was a little too loud for her. I'll do a separate post on the cookie details. One day, we conducted a bake-off between two recipes to figure out which is our favorite. Another day, I made loads of chocolate rollout cookies topped with a mint ganache and sprinkles for a cookie exchange that got cancelled by the blizzard. On Christmas Eve, we made gingerbread cookies and decorated with royal icing (I'll let you guess which ones were LE's!). It was lots of fun, and our neighbors received most of them. :)

My dad's parents came up to visit one day. As you may have seen on Instagram, we think Hannah looks a lot like Grandma U.

LE's Godfather, Michael, stopped for a last minute visit, too. LE had a fun time playing with him for the evening.

And John's parents stopped by on their way up and back from northern Wisconsin, where they spent Christmas. Of course, LE picked out her Cardinals shirt to wear for breakfast with them.

I'll do a separate post on Christmas Day and the couple of days after. For now, this has already been an enormous post! December was a busy month!