Party Planning: Rosebud Ice Cubes

The first name I had for this blog was “I’ll pour the champagne”….it was a play on celebrating the little wins in life, and the fact that I have a ridiculous number of photos of me pouring champagne, like it’s all I do. Basically, I chase toddlers, but when I’m not chasing toddlers, a high proportion of my #selfcare involves days spent with girlfriends, celebrating big and small things, and pouring champagne.

img_0655

So, when my dear friend Margie introduced me to this idea a few years ago, I bookmarked it in my brain as the kind of small perfect detail I would use over and over again to make events feel particularly special. Rosebud ice cubes are an almost effortless way to ice your champagne for your next event – whether it’s a girls night out, a baby shower, or a bridal shower or luncheon with your besties.

In an ode to minimalism, these silicon ice cube molds can be used for all kinds of things, including other kinds of ice (stay tuned for glitter ice!), and various crafts. I use ice cube molds for sorting with the kids, and as snack trays for picnics and travel (these have lids, which make snack-transport easy.)

img_0635

I made these ice cubes this weekend for a baby shower for one of my oldest and dearest friends. I love how the yellow pops with the gold foil of the champagne. Also, if you haven’t tried it yet, the Trader Joe’s Blanc de Blancs is my new jam for sparkling wine – perfect dry, bubbly and affordable. While choosing champagne last time at TJ’s, I watched five people in a row grab a bottle of this. Now, I buy it by the case, because when you have toddlers, you need to celebrate survival on the weekly.

Rose Ice Cubes

Materials needed: silicon ice cube trays (large enough to hold a flower); boiling water; 12-16 rose buds; 8 hours or overnight.

img_0633

  1. Boil water – we’re boiling the water because if it’s not boiled, the ice cubes don’t freeze clear – you don’t want foggy cubes
  2. Cut buds, and place them in the ice cube trays – in this case, I was a few short
  3. Pour over boiling water
  4. Freeze overnight
  5. Thaw for 10-15 minutes before popping them out
  6. Scatter at the top of a champagne bucket on top of your other ice.
  7. Note: these are not edible, and should not be placed in drinks!

img_0636

Enjoy!

Anatomy of a Fabulous Guest Room

When you move every two years, and live 2,000 miles away from almost everyone you know, you have a lot of visitors. Our house, for the past 4 years, has been an open door to countless visits from friends and family. What greater gift is there than the gift of a visitor?

When visitors are coming to my home, it feels like Christmas morning does to other people. My Christmas morning is when someone is in an Uber on the way to my house, and I have their favorite drink chilling, a bunch of surprises set up in their room, and a house that rises up to meet them.

img_4859

Over the years, I have honed my hosting style and I thought today I would share a few of the ways you can indulge your guests and make a stay at your casa as transporting as a stay at a fancy boutique hotel.

Linens: linens are step one to having a fantastic guest room. I swear by Jennifer Adams sheets and we have them on all of our beds. We just bought a fresh set for our guest room. Many people use their old towels, but good, large, soft towels are a must for your guest room.

A fuzzy blanket: alone time is good for everyone, even during visits, and I want guests to feel like they can retreat to their room for a good cat nap or snuggle up with a book. I love the totally decadent blankets from HomeGoods like this one.

A robe: I remember reading that Martha Stewart gave her guests cashmere robes and scoffing. Now, I realize the value of one. Guests may want to sneak downstairs for a cup of coffee, or they may need to dart between rooms to borrow something, and a robe is a really lovely thing to hang in the closet since most people don’t travel with one. I’m obsessed with this Jennifer Adams one which cools in the summer and warms in the winter, and can be unisex.

Slippers and/or fuzzy socks: I either buy slippers for my guest, or give them a pair of fuzzy socks to wear when they’re here. Or if you’re really special, you get these.

IMG_0496

The gift of pajamas: I love giving people a set of pajamas when they arrive. After years of buying expensive Soma pajamas, my friend Gina turned me onto these from Target that are as soft, as lovely as anything I’ve owned, and I have bought them for tons of friends. They look expensive, and more importantly, they look great without a bra because they are black. When you’re a guest in someone’s home, sometimes some proper pajamas are just what you need to wear downstairs in the morning. They also come in a version with pants.

img_4861

Treat jar: I have had a treat jar in the guest room for as long as I can remember. I fill it about once a month with treats I pick up at HomeGoods. No chocolate craving will go unsatisfied in this house! I picked up the jar at HomeGoods, but this one is adorable from Target.

img_0498

A sign with things you need to know: I recently hand-lettered this one and did some watercolor. I like to include the wi-fi password, and any other applicable details. In this case, we installed a charging station on the nightstand, so guests wouldn’t have to dig around for an outlet, and we keep a tupperware of extra toiletries and towels in the closet.

Closet: I think it’s helpful to leave 5-10 empty hangers in the closet, as well as any extra linens, pillows and a fan if the room doesn’t have one. I also include a hair dryer in the closet.

Luggage rack: it took me a while to find one of these, but I think I wasn’t looking in the right place. I picked mine up at the Habitat for Humanity Restore for $10 or you can buy one here.

Welcome sign: I used to use a chalk board sign and write welcome and the weather for the week. Now, I use a felt letter board and usually put Welcome and a photo of the guest and us together.

Ear plugs: I leave a little tumbler of ear plugs in the guest room at all times.

Toiletries: I keep a lot of little toiletries around from hotels, and I also stock the shower and bathroom with Beautycounter faves.

Fresh flowers: always the perfect touch- sometimes I clip a few from my table arrangement and put them in a bud vase, and sometimes I make an arrangement especially for the room. This makes the room complete.

Personalized coffee mugs: all of the grandparents have personalized Shutterfly coffee mugs at our house- if you watch our kids, you get one and I bring them out just when they visit – each one includes photos of each grandparent with the kids. I set these out in the morning next to the coffee maker in the morning.

What are your ideas for hosting? What special things do you do for guests? 

Minimalist Gift Giving

The world is in a temporary Japanese tizzy over Marie Kondo, and 79.9%* of Americans spent their 3-day MLK weekends cleaning out their stuff. The process of going through your items, thanking each of them and purging them is both batshit crazy and cathartic. Taking bins of stuff to Goodwill and giving away all of your worldly possessions feels so good in the moment, and it is, but sticking with the KonMari style of living requires a constant vigilance about what you bring back into your house, and it pretty much means never going to HomeGoods or Target again, am I right?

img_5280

True story: After being a slave to it for years, I gave up my Amazon Prime membership a year ago. I took away my easy access to the goods. Despite the fact that I live in America where anything can be purchased at every moment, because I have two kids, I never get to stores to buy anything. The last time I took my kids they used their tiny devil fingers to drag every single SKU price tag in the grocery store to the end of the aisle so it looked like the stuff at the end cost $1.99.99.1.69.4.29.2.49×1000. And I had to run out and change my name and stop shopping there. But, I digress.

img_6752

Attempting to live a more minimal existence is about a thousand tiny little decisions you make every day, and with kids it is way more complex because you only get caught throwing away your kids’ crap oncetwice, ok three times before you realize you are guaranteeing they will be in therapy one day. I used to think it was crazy when I bought something used and the mom asked me to come under the cover of darkness to pick it up. Like, lady, just tell your kids you’re selling it, why don’t you? Now, I get it. I’m that lady who sells things under the cover of darkness and then collects my mat money the next day.

One of the areas that has had an extra challenge in my life is gifts. Since I Marie Kondo’d over a year ago, a process that took over 6 months, I have become more conscious of the gifts we give and receive. So, when my wise friend Fontaine made a post this week about gift ideas she loves for people, it inspired me to post this list, many borrowed from her and crowd sourced, in an attempt to give you all some new ideas for gift giving all of the KonMariers in your lives. Really, these are just thoughtful ideas for people you love, who have everything, or who are hard to buy for or who you just plain want to make happy.

Your Partner

  1. Take the kids away for a weekend or longer and let them have the house to themselves for a bit. Moms- we never get to be in a quiet house- we always have to leave to get peace- amiright?
  2. Pre-arranged and paid for girls or guys night out or trip with friends. This is particularly good for husbands who have great friends but never make plans with them, but always want to. 
  3. Fly in a good friend for the weekend, or vice versa. This is the best. Import a bestie.
  4. A surprise golf/spa/shooting/wine tasting/pick your poison relaxation day.
  5. Pre-arranged date night – surprise them, book the sitter and get a reservation and an uber. I love to tell my husband at 5 pm when we’re both losing our minds to go get dressed, because we’re getting out of jail.
  6. Get their car detailed or install an autostarter for the winter (my #1 gift this year)
  7. A date jar – filled with ideas that they get to choose from for the year. Get creative.

For Friends/Family

  1. Subscriptions: there are so many now. A subscription to a great magazine (I’m looking at you Magnolia Home). A subscription to a clothing service for a friend who has lost weight or has a new job. A subscription to the meat of the month club (it exists!)
  2. A jar of soup! Double your recipes – give a jar away every week – I do this every single week, and I love to surprise people with a jar of homemade soup.
  3. A copy of a favorite book with a handwritten note as to why you thought they would enjoy it, why it made you think of them, etc. I am buying this book for everyone this year. I will routinely buy 4-5 copies of a book I love just to have something to give a friend when I need something. Girl, Wash Your Face is another great gift book, as is Michelle Obama’s book.
  4. A contribution to a charity that you know is meaningful to them. Write them a card telling them you donated on their behalf.
  5. Print out a photo from memorable time together and frame it. HomeGoods FTW. Most gorgeous frames.
  6. For a milestone – a Boombox is a curated box of memories and cards. Long gone are the days of scrapbooking- this makes collaboration so much easier.
  7. A class together: from cooking, to watercolor – classes are much more fun together, and you get to spend time together, too. I got my mom a gift certificate for her and 3 of her tennis friends to go drink wine and paint a canvas this year.
  8. A gift certificate for a few hair cuts- most men have to get their hair cut every 2-3 weeks, and if you know where a woman gets her haircut, you can treat her there

For kids:

  1. Consumables – art supplies, playdough, watercolors, stickers, and crayons or markers. Drawing pads, washi tape.
  2. Homemade playdough- you can make this with your kids with three ingredients and give it in ziplocks with a note added – the making can be a great activity for a rainy day.
  3. Experiential gifts- a day together, a museum or indoor play space membership, classes.

Friends In Need

  1. A cleaning service – this is a huge blessing for those who are struggling and may not need meals
  2. Offer to set up a MealTrain for them – it is free, takes five minutes and can be adjusted/set to their preferences.
  3. Offer to make a grocery run for them, get their list, do the leg work and treat them
  4. Deliver a freezer meal- sometimes when people are in need food pours in, and then it goes dry- a freezer meal with clear instructions can be really nice for people to have on hand for when they need a meal.
  5. A regular “walking” date  (love this one, Fontaine!) is the gift of your time with no obligation for either of you to spend money.
  6. A regular night of support – when a friend’s husband was away recently for a month around the holidays, I put myself on her calendar every Wednesday. It took away the need for communication, and made it easy for me to support her. I brought dinner, and fed our kids.

img_6687

For New Moms

  1. Offer to come and help with housework. Hold the baby while she showers, and do a few loads of laundry, unload the dishwasher. Don’t stay too long.
  2. Offer to watch the baby while the new parents take a walk or go to lunch for an hour. Often, it’s hard to find someone willing. Or, offer to take the baby on a walk while the parents take a nap.
  3. Offer to pick up groceries
  4. Frozen lactation cookie dough balls that can be baked anytime
  5. An appointment for a blow out at a blow dry bar while you walk the baby around in the stroller

img_3694

For a Hostess

  1. Everyone offers to bring something for the meal, but how many people think about the next morning? My friend Emily pioneered the idea of bringing delectable homemade or bakery muffins or croissants and fresh juice or coffee with a little note for “after the guests are gone!”. Your hosts will be thinking of you the next morning
  2. A mason jar of flowers; include the tops to the jars so they are functional once they are done as vessels; you can use old jars from spaghetti sauce and clean them up. One friend likes to give a set of 4 mason jars so they can put little pops of color around the house.
  3. A potted succulent that doesn’t need a lot of maintenance and can be displayed inside or outside.
  4. I love to bring a basket of fresh farmers berries (see above) and a vintage berry basket.

I’d love to keep adding to this list as you think of more ideas – so post in the comments or in the comments on the Facebook page and I’ll add!

*completely made up statistic

Plus One (advice from the trenches)

My friend Kelley does really hard things like, say, hiking for hours to the top of tall snowy mountains with her skis on her back (meanwhile I’m complaining about having to park in the 2nd row at Target) and then skiing down, and then doing it all over again like twenty times, all before lunch. Sooo, it really said something to me when she texted saying that she’s freaking out about having a toddler and a newborn . I mean, how could a mama who literally climbs mountains be afraid of a little 2:1 action. But then I realized I had a whole phone’s worth of texts from recent mamas of two asking for advice, venting, or both.

One text string really epitomized the struggle. It was the quintessential: my toddler is freaking out and hates the baby, I’m tired and feel like I’m not enough, and oh, yeah, do you know a good vasectomy doctor? If you had to sum up the struggles of a new mama of two, this would do it.

When I made the transition from one to two kids two and a half years ago, I was the first among my primary friend group to have two children. In addition, mine are fifteen months apart, and my husband traveled for periods of time totaling about six months of the first year. I owned the hashtag #twoundertwo and wore it like my badge of honor. I ran the race that year, and learned a lot, and continue to learn so much about how to juggle the needs of two kids, find time for myself and my marriage, and laugh and somehow thrive throughout it all. So, today I’m sharing a few of my tried and true strategies for juggling two.

  1. Spoiler alert: it’s still all about your toddler: funny thing about toddlers, with rare exception, they make babies look easy. The world will still revolve around your bigger kid for a while, and that makes it a bit easier. When you first became a mama, you went from leisurely mornings reading the NYTimes to…. leisurely mornings reading the New York Times with a swing in the center of the living room or your boob popped out. Now that you’re a mom of a toddler, the only leisure in your mornings is athleisure, and it’s what you sport to the morning playdate/music class/doctors appointment. Now that your baby is here, just insert them into the toddler’s schedule. This is how 2nd children become so chill. They never drive the bus, they’re just along for the ride.
  2. But really, it’s all about your toddler; ignore your baby, sometimes. In the heirarchy of needs, babies really know how to get our attention – their cries are, I believe, designed to attract their mothers in the wild, and so when they cry, and milk leaks out, and fibers of your being scream “go to them”…try to resist, sometimes. I found that letting my son cry while I tended to my toddler almost always ended up just A-Ok – usually with him putting himself to sleep, or just chilling out after a while. Meanwhile, progress was made on helping toddler with her shoes, getting out of the house, getting dressed, or finishing something. I don’t think I let my older kiddo cry for more than 5 minutes when she was a baby, but my son, he routinely cried while I did my entire getting ready routine. This strategy works and results in a less needs-driven baby.
  3. Try to match their schedules up, for survival. A lot is going to depend on whether you are home with both kids, but I am a huge proponent of matching the baby’s nap schedule to the toddlers ASAP. Trust me when I tell you, your survival depends on it. If you have one kid napping all day long, your life is going to feel like a game of whack-a-mole – familiar? I put my son on one nap at 4 months – he grabbed cat naps in the car, but see #1 – the toddler had things to do and people to see, and we couldn’t be stuck at home for naps, so I kept him awake, and put them both down every afternoon for 3-4 glorious hours. By the time the woke up, I had just about regained my sanity. Don’t indulge your baby with crib naps or you’ll have a cranky toddler and cranky mama.
  4. Paper. Plates. I should own stock in Chinet. I for real credit almost my entire existence to paper plates. It is nearly impossible to serve breakfast to two little ones, dress yourself in athleisure, dress your kids, and get out of the house if you have dishes to do, and I for one, like to use my 20 minutes a day of Daniel Tiger to put on deoderant and spray myself into a snowball of dry shampoo, rather than using it to do dishes. Paper plates. Paper bowls. Chuck them. Get out in to the world and come home at lunchtime to a clean(ish) house, not a sink full of dishes. Note: if you are solo parenting, this strategy should also apply to dinner time because aint nobody can face a sink of dishes coated with food that no one even barely ate once they finish doing solo bedtime.
  5. Put them in the same room: we are huge fans of room sharing. More room for guests/helpers. More room for workout equipment and/or an office. No crazy back and forth at bedtime. No duplicates of stuff. Once you have a sleeper-through-the-nighter – get them in the same room. They will entertain each other in the morning and night, and you’ll get more of your space back.
  6. Everything belongs to everyone: this is big. In our house, everything, except for our one most precious lovey, belongs to everyone. This cuts way back on the amount of “mine!” battles. You may have to get creative in explaining this to your todder depending on his/her age, but you can handle it. I usually invoke God in these situations- God knew our family would have four, and when you got this gift, it was for all of us!
  7. Leave both kids with your partner as soon as humanly possible. It is hard to explain how hard it can be with 2:1, so you should give your partner the opportunity to experience it before too long. You will inevitably feel bad doing this, and think he can’t handle it (not to stereotype, but most of my readers are women), but trust me, the sooner you do it the better. For him to give you the support you need, he must understand. When you come home, he will look like he’s seen a ghost. This means it has worked.
  8. Leave both kids with other trusted caregivers as soon as humanly possible. Funny story, we left our two kids with our dear friends when our son was 4.5 months and our daughter was 20 months. I had a tremendous amount of anxiety about it- mainly about them waking up in the middle of the night. Turns out they were dreams, and with only one roll off the couch and a frantic call about being out of breast milk (she later found it underneath the Ben & Jerry’s like 4 months later), the night went off without a hitch. We got ridiculously drunk and acted like people without children, and our friends were initiated into the feel of having two. They still call us, so I consider it a success. If you never ask, you’ll never know. You’re better parents when you get breaks. You will need 10x the breaks than you did with one. Parents of 3 and 4 kids, I am guessing you need regular breaks like every 2-3 days in order to survive. Also, buy those people chocolate. They deserve it (see cake above).
  9. Keep it real: there are going to be a LOT of tears in your house for the first year. You’re going to lock eyes with your partner across the table and think “this is our life” with the utmost pride and contentment about as often as you’re going to lock eyes with your partner and mouth the words “what the f did we do to ourselves” during that first year. It gets easier, and harder, and then easier again, I think. I mean, I’m still in it.
  10. Lean on your tribe. So many milestones in parenting would have been impossible without my tribe. When one kid is hellaciously sick. When you are hellaciously sick. When you need to run to a public restroom in a park with your toddler and you need someone to watch your baby for a moment. When you’re stuck under a nursing baby and just need a friend. When you’re solo parenting and facing an entire Saturday alone. When you’re solo parenting for weeks and you need adult conversation delivered to your living room. Surround yourself with supportive people who make you laugh, build your confidence and can handle your crazy.

I hope some of this resonates or at least gives you a laugh. One book I could not have lived without is Siblings Without Rivalry. I recommend it to all new moms of two along with this Superhero cape which I like to buy for new big siblings. Also, because kids, my mind is a seive- so I might remember more and add to this post later. As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

New Year, New Soup (Instant Pot Ham, Chickpea and Swiss Chard)

Well, that was fun wasn’t it? We all ate a little too much pound cake, drank a little too much champagne, gorged on a little bit too much brie, and it was damn good while it lasted. Now, in addition to scribbling out 8s and writing 9s on our checks, we’re back to the gym (ouch, I could barely even wash my hair today after 8000 tricep exercises) and reinserting vegetables into our repertoire. I, for one, love this time of year. It’s a good time of year to set intentions (my preference over resolutions), and I love the opportunity to get back to the healthy meals and regular bedtimes we thrive on.

I first made this soup 8 years ago with leftover ham from my first Thanksgiving with my husband, and I’ve been in love with and tweaking this recipe ever since. It’s bold with flavor, and can be adopted to either the slow cooker or the stove. It’s cheap to make (I’m looking at you Christmas bills), and really versatile (smoked turkey would make a great substitution if you don’t eat pork).

I love how the hearty swiss chard stands up to the smokiness of the ham and the texture of the beans. This soup is a symphony of colors and flavors and one of my all-time favorites. As y’all know, I make a big pot of soup every Monday to eat for the week and this is going to be a great week. Make this (you can easily double it if you have the 8qt Instant Pot, and put some in a jar to give to someone you love (or who needs your support this week). You won’t regret it.

There are so many reasons why I love soup, namely:

  1. It’s super affordable to make
  2. It uses up extra pantry items
  3. It’s a one pot meal – less dishes and clean up
  4. It can be made in the Instant Pot (AKA black magic maker)
  5. It’s a great way to hide vegetables for picky eaters, er toddlers
  6. It’s easy to heat and eat for daily lunches (usually in a mug)
  7. It’s low carb/low starch and usually quite healthy

So, without further ado:

Bean, Ham & Swiss Chard Soup

3 slices of bacon, chopped (if you don’t eat pork, you can easily omit)

1/2 cup of chopped onion or 8 cloves of chopped garlic, or both, depending on your preference or what you have around

2 carrots, peeled and diced

4 stalks of celery, diced

1 cup of diced, smoked ham from a smoked ham steak  (or the same amount of smoked turkey or even smoked chicken)- dice in 1/4 inch chunks

1 can of chickpeas or black eyed peas (or even white beans), drained and rinsed

1 can of fire roasted diced tomatoes, including juice

1 small bunch of swiss chard, washed thoroughly (doesn’t need to be dried)

4 teaspoons of better than bouillon chicken

4 cups of water

red pepper flakes to taste

salt and pepper to taste

First: Start by using a scissors to cut the central rib out of each leaf of your swiss chard, and when you have your leaves destemmed, roll them gently like paper tubes, and using a scissors, cut them into 1/2 inch thick ribbons.

Instant Pot directions: saute chopped bacon until crispy (2-4 minutes); do not drain; add vegetables (garlic, onion, carrot, celery) and sautee until softened, about 4 minutes; add ham (or other meat) and beans and tomatoes, add BTB and water, and red pepper flakes if you are using. Add swiss chard. Set Instant Pot to manual and 0 minutes. Natural release and taste for seasoning. Depending on saltiness of the ham, you may not need any additional salt.

Stove top directions: saute chopped bacon in the bottom of a heavy dutch oven or pot until crispy (2-4 minutes); do not drain; add vegetables (garlic, onion, carrot, celery) and saute until softened, about 4 minutes; add ham (or other meat) and beans and tomatoes, add BTB and water, and red pepper flakes if you are using. Add swiss chard. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer for one hour on low. Taste for seasoning. Depending on saltiness of the ham, you may not need any additional salt.

*Soup pictured with perfect, apt tea towel which was a gift from my lovely friend Chelo, and on my new vintage tray. Inspired by my friend Ashley who has about 25 of them, I’m amassing an army of these things from rummage sales and the Restore, and using them to feel civilized as I serve the kids their waffles during Sesame Street.

 

Clove Oranges (Toddler Style)

Minimalism at the holidays is a tough one. It’s one thing to say you are going to buy less, store less, decorate less, but its challenging to achieve that during a time of year when the world seems to be calling: spenddddd moneyyyyy on meeeee. One way I combat the buying/storing problem and the overwhelmingness of boxes of decor is by using natural materials for indoor decor. This year, Trader Joe’s delivered with evergreen garlands and wreaths, and we incorporated berries from our holly bushes inside. Still, I was jonesing for a centerpiece for this weekend and loathe to bring another item into the house. Then I remembered the retro simplicity of clove orange pomanders.

IMG_9241

I’m not crafty. I’m not saying I don’t have vision or creativity, but I seriously lack the patience to follow through on crafts, and every time I try to do them with my kids, I end up regretting it, re-upping our memberships to places that are not-home and getting out of the house no matter what the temps or the inertia.

Still, every once in a while I need an activity that isn’t messy to fill an hour of time, and I have a certain nostalgia for these clove oranges that I grew up making. Pomanders apparently date back to medieval times, but the modern iterations like these have been popular since I was growing up in the 80s (and maybe before? Chime in if you know, my googling is coming up short).

IMG_9251

I started to wonder if I could adapt clove oranges to toddlers, so first I thought- Halos! What toddler doesn’t love a halo and they are perfect for small hands. Next, I realized that if I left the clove placement to chance, I would end up with one orange with 87 cloves in a bunch, and one with 2 cloves spaced out randomly.  I figured that if I could make the holes for the cloves with skewers, that my kids could practice their hand-eye coordination and put the cloves in the holes. Keeping in mind that my 2.5 year old still won’t put his own socks on and wants to be fed airplane style, I didn’t have high hopes.

IMG_9248

Turns out that this was a wonderful way to spend an hour before dinner. Both kids enjoyed having the holes pre-pierced – I forgot how hard you have to press to pierce the skin of the orange, and they both loved this activity (at ages 2.5 and 3.5).

IMG_9253

So, if you’re looking for a non-messy, relatively cheap and easy project with the kiddos that results in a totally delectable smelling house, pick up some halos and a jar of whole cloves. You can also glue gun ribbons on if you want to hang these on the tree, and I’m told you can dry them and save them for future years. I probably won’t be doing that, but they’ll be on my table until after the New Year.

IMG_9288

 

 

Family Traditions: Peppernuts

One of the best parts of getting married for me was marrying into a family rich with it’s own traditions. The Morford clan is known for its epic board game collection, its hereditary ping pong skills, biscuits and sausage gravy, and….peppernuts. Pepperwhats? The first time I went home with my husband for Christmas almost 8 years ago, I was introduced to the oddest cookie I’d ever seen. It looks like a dog biscuit, and yet it’s perhaps one of the most addictive treats I’ve ever known. They are tiny and crunchy and can be eaten by the handful. The Morford men are known to receive pillow cases full of peppernuts at the holidays, although in my time I’ve only seen them in huge tupperwares and jars. They are a staple at Christmastime.

IMG_9240

Few things make my husband happier than sitting down at night in front of a football game or Netflix cuddled up with his bourbon and his jar of peppernuts. And since few things make me happier than my husband, I’m intent on filling his peppernut jar annually. From the beginning of my relationship with my husband, it was clear that I would take on the tradition of baking them annually, and I hope I will be able to carry forth that tradition and pass it on to my kids.

After years of apprenticing my mother-in-law in the kitchen, I have taken on baking these myself for the past two years, and two years ago it dawned on me that the rolling of the dough is quite similar to playdough. This gave me the idea to host a peppernuts party for toddlers who could easily roll the dough in balls, snakes, and cut it with plastic knives into the thumb-sized nobbins. Last year, I hosted 20 toddlers for the first annual Peppernuts Playdate, and this year I’ll host at least half a dozen.

IMG_3178 (1)

Another tradition I have picked up from my in-laws is service to others, especially this time of year — so each year, I dedicate my peppernuts party to someone. Last year it was military kids, and this year, its to the Peninsula Food Bank. Baking and donating go so well together.

IMG_3147

So, if you’re looking for an easy, addictive cookie that lasts for weeks (months, really), and can be made by toddlers and non-bakers alike, I urge you to add the peppernut to your holiday baking repertoire.

The recipe I inherited is somewhat vague, so I’ve included it here with some of my notes on how to make the baking process go smoother.

Peppernuts (taken from the German pfeffernusse)

 

IMG_9110

This recipe, made in full, will use the better part of a 5 lb bag of flour (which you won’t even find listed on the original recipe card). You can feel free to half the recipe, and it halves quite easily.  The “half batch” will make enough to fill two large tupperware containers, or 6-8 tins.

 

 

 

 

IMG_9222

Full Recipe

3 cups sugar

3 cups shortening (Crisco)

2 cups light corn syrup

1 cup cream (I use whipping cream)

1/2 cup milk

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 eggs

IMG_9227

I recommend a stand mixer for this recipe, or a very large bowl and a hand mixer. Regardless of what you use, you will need to make this in two “batches.” In the bowl of the stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or in your large bowl, add half of the sugar (1.5 cups), Crisco (1 cup), and corn syrup (1 cup). Add one egg. Add 1/2 cup cream, 1/4 cup milk and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. cloves, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon baking powder. Once incorporated, using a full 5 lb. bag of flour, start adding small amounts of flour. Keep adding until the dough is the consistency of playdough – if you are using a stand mixer, it will start to lock up- don’t let it burn out the motor, but when it starts to lock up, that is enough flour. If you want to measure, there are about 17 cups of flour in a 5 lb bag- so you will need somewhere between 8-9 cups. Scrape out the dough completely, but don’t clean the paddle or the bowl. Put the dough in a large tupperware container or bowl.

 

Repeat the entire process with the other half of the ingredients until the bag of flour is gone.

Prepare a sheet pan with parchment or silpat.

IMG_9229

Taking about 1 cup of dough at a time, roll into a ball and then into two “snakes”. Using your thumbnail as a guide, and a knife, cut thumbnail sized chunks of dough and place them on a sheet pan. They won’t puff up much so you can put a lot of them on the pan and quite close together. Bake for 15 minutes at 350. They are done when they are slightly brown on the bottom. Cool slightly (2-3 min) and then you can use your hand to knock all of the cookies off and onto a baking rack (they aren’t delicate).

IMG_9231

Enjoy – they wont last long which is why we try to make 10,000 of them at once!

IMG_3169

Christmas Morning Monkey Bread

In our house growing up, there were two Christmas food traditions that stand out: we always went to the candlelight service on Christmas Eve at our church and picked up 20 lbs of Chinese food on the way home, and we always had monkey bread on Christmas morning.  Even as a child, I can remember swirling around the frozen rolls in the melted butter and tossing them in the cinnamon sugar. I suspect, now that I’m a mom, that my mom figured out early that cooking on Christmas morning was not very fun, and took her out of the action, so she came up with this hack to serve a beautiful pull-apart breakfast with minimal effort.

I’ve always loved the glossy brown finish on a Monkey Bread, it reminds me of Tarte Tatin, one of my favorite French desserts. This recipe is simple and easy, and can be made sometime the day before you want to serve it. Little hands can cut the biscuits, shake them in the bag with the cinnamon sugar, and put them in the pan. It serves a crowd in pull apart style and reheats moderately well (ask my husband, this is his favorite.) I love this monkey bread for any brunch, mostly because it can be served elegantly on a cake stand and it can be made the night before and doesn’t require a knife to serve.

IMG_4362

In past years, I’ve been adding a savory casserole to the mix because I’m not a big sweets in the morning fan. In Huntsville, the year we got married, I made toad-in-the-hole with local bangers and a yorkshire-pudding like dough and we celebrated with our British neighbor. Last year, it was a hash brown and sausage number that both the kids wouldn’t touch. For many years we have had my Aunt Karen’s famous Sausage-Spinach pies which makes two pies; I love to freeze one for New Years Day. I like the complement of something savory, and we usually end up eating on both for several days which makes the mornings easier.

Whatever the occasion or your family traditions, I hope you’ll add this to your spread sometime this year.

Monkey Bread

3/4 cup sugar

1.5 teaspoons cinnamon

3 cans of refrigerated biscuit dough; I use Pillsbury; not the flaky layers kind; you can use any kind of dough if you want – frozen rolls or even pizza dough, but biscuits work best if you can find them

1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, if desired

1/2 cup of raisins, if desired

1 cup brown sugar

8 oz unsalted butter, melted

Heat oven to 350 unless you’re making the night before.

Generously butter (using a paper towel to spread) a fluted bundt pan – don’t skimp on this step or your Monkey Bread won’t come out at the end and look gorgeous on your plate. Mix your sugar and cinnamon in a gallon ziplock bag.

Cut each biscuit in quarters. Add them to the bag and shake them around to coat. Layer them into your prepared pan, sprinkling nuts and raisins on each layer, if using (I do not). Mix your melted butter and brown sugar. Pour over the top of your prepared pan.

If you’re making in advance, stop, cover the pan and put in the refrigerator overnight. Take it out of the fridge when you wake up – a post-it on the coffee maker always helps me remember.

Bake for 25-30 min until lightly browned at the edges and turning golden brown. Place on cooling rack for 5 minutes before inverting onto your cake stand. Serve warm.

 

How I do: Teacher Gifts

IMG_9006

When you become a mom, you get indoctrinated into this whole underbelly of extras. Things you never knew you never knew. Cognitive leaps – what? Sleep regressions (had to look this one up). Hands free pumping bras. Taking turns vs. sharing. Baby led weaning. Playdates. And, eventually, when you are one of the lucky ones among us who gets to hand our absolutely delightful children over to qualified, loving teachers with seemingly infinite wells of patience, teacher gifts.

They sneak up on you the first year; some other mom casually asks at drop off- what are you doing for teacher gifts? That launches you into a paralysis of sorts. I’m here to help.

IMG_9003

In my extensive market research which is by no means supported by any statistical methods, 100% of teachers want cash money. But that seems a bit tacky, no? So, I’ll soften that to say that 100% of teachers want gift cards. Still, it just doesn’t scream “I need you in my life. You are the reason I can [insert thing you love doing alone here] alone. You are the reason I can visit the gynecologist or get a root canal without getting a babysitter. I love you.”

So, enter the homemade gift. Last year, I made mini marzipan dark chocolate scone loaves for the teachers, and wrapped them with parchment. The year before, I made homemade bolognese sauce for the teachers (Instant Pot!), and attached a package of organic spaghetti. This year, I’m looking to two of the most bad-ass Southern mamas I know, and poaching their recipe and sharing it with all of you.

In my profesh opinion as a mom for less than the length of a Presidential adminstration, teachers love the gift card + homemade item combo. And a card professing your love – don’t forget that part.

My little sweethearts delivered these to their teachers this morning and I already got this text: “you realize you’re one of those put together moms that everyone *wants* to hate but can’t because it’s adorable and you’re so nice, right? (I mean this as an utter compliment, by the way).” Life goals achieved.

Don’t skimp on your teachers. I made 18 mini loaves of this bread by doubling the recipe. That means everybody including the post man is going to feel loved this holiday season. And remember, a little red and white twine works for everrrrryyyyyyy holiday! Minimalist wrapping at its best.

Six Flavor Pound Cake

Heather and Cindy (mother-daughter duo) can bake. Just take my word for it. All of their recipes are to-die-for and last year when they delivered a cookie plate to my house, I levitated a little when I tasted this pound cake. Regular pound cake, while a favorite of my husband’s, has always been just a little too basic for me. I took platters of this to a cookie exchange last night and it rocked the room. It is aromatic, unexpected, and it has butter flavored Crisco for goodness sake. Let’s leave the trans-fats convo for another day. Your teachers need the crumb that this Crisco provides.

IMG_8966

3 cups sugar

1/2 lb butter (unsalted)

1/2 cup shortening (I used butter flavored because I do what Cindy says)

5 eggs

3 c. flour

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 cup milk

2 tsp each  (divided- half goes in the glaze) vanilla, almond, lemon, coconut, rum and butter extracts

1/2 cup water

1.5 cups confectioners sugar

you will need a tube pan – I used the 16 cup Nordic Tube Pan with excellent results. I’m really glad I bought this pan. If you’re giving these away, this will make 9 mini loaf pans each recipe. I used these which are fantastic quality. 

IMG_8970

Cream together in a stand mixer: room temperature butter, shortening and sugars.

Add eggs, beat until lemon colored.

In a small bowl, mix milk with extracts. In another bowl, mix flour and salt and baking powder. Starting and ending with milk, add them to the mixer alternating milk and flour until it’s gone. Beat, scraping down sides.

Bake large tube pan at 350 for 1.5 hours. Bake mini loaves on a sheet pan for 1 hour at 350, turning once if you remember.

IMG_8972

Cool on rack. Mix 1/2 cup water with 1.5 cups of confectioners sugar and 1 tsp each of extracts. Poke holes in the top of the pound cake, and pour on glaze or brush it on liberally.

How We Do: Family Photos

Brittany Maynard Photography-11 (1)

You’ll remember my tirade on Christmas cards, but I’m a true sucker for the family photo shoot. Still, because I can’t not have a controversial opinion on anything these days, between you and me, I’ve been feeling they’re a bit….overdone?

I grew up in a time of high-key photography. My mother is a professional photographer, and she owned her own photography studio for most of my life. She was a master of the portrait, and her studio was filled with props and backgrounds. Back then, we sat on bright white backgrounds held or sat on props.

Brittany Maynard Photography-23

Now, we drag our props into the middle of fields. We sit on velvet armchairs in fields of wheat, curl up our newborns on tufted stools on the beach and casually pose on perfectly antique trucks on Christmas Tree farms.

Brittany Maynard Photography-32

When one friend was looking for a newborn photographer last year, she was told there was an extra cost for siblings, an extra cost if the baby was more than 10 days old and an extra cost for coming to her home. Kind of reminds me of when I stay at a luxury hotel I’m spending way more, but everyone seems to cost extra.

Brittany Maynard Photography-27

Photo shoots have become so stressful that I’m relatively sure there isn’t a husband in America who doesn’t die a little inside when he sees the shared Google calendar invite. True story, I once fed my kids over 300 tic tacs to get through a Christmas Card shoot.

Brittany Maynard Photography-18

So, when I serendipitously met a fellow mama at ballet class for Marilyn, and she happened to be a documentary style family photographer, I jumped at the chance to spend a morning with my family, and her from a safe distance away, doing the things we love to do – exploring, walking, playing hide and go seek in the heart of our new town.  We scheduled the shoot, hastily chose outfits, and spent an incredible morning together. The images from that Fall morning perfectly capture the blessed imperfection of our lives right now.

Brittany Maynard Photography-44

Last Friday, I saw a grown woman in an adult sized floor length tiered pink tutu pull up her minivan, unload a gaggle of tutu-clad little girls, and a sad man dressed in a pink bow tie and head to her family photos. Now, maybe she loves tutus, lives in them, and they’re her happy place. If so, I expect she had a great morning, but I have a sinking suspicion she was on her way to the middle of a field to perch on top of a pink velvet couch.  I’m here to say: it’s ok for your family photos to be a reflection of who you actually are, instead of who you think you want to look like. There isn’t a single photo that you see in a magazine or on social media that isn’t edited. There are untold costs to the perfectly posed images we receive every year from across the country.

Brittany Maynard Photography-29

I urge you to look beyond the annual Christmas Card, and forward to when you won’t always remember exactly how it looked or felt to be in your family. You’ll forget the sassy expressions of your toddler, or the delicate eye raises of your husband. You’ll forget the way you looked at each other when you were trying not to crack up, or pointing out something to your kids. Capturing your family annually should be more than just capturing a still moment in time, it should be about freezing time so you can remember these days as they were.

If you’re looking for a new way to capture your family, I urge you to seek out a documentary photographer in your town. If you happen to live in mine,  Brittany Maynard is offering readers $50 off a family session if you book by March 1st. You can find her and book here. You’ll be so glad you did.