Saturday, December 15, 2012

it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

I absolutely love the month run up to Christmas.  We bake, decorate, listen to Christmas music and attend holiday events.  I can't help but smile and feel warm and fuzzy inside.  It's my favorite time of the year.
Adelaide had her very first holiday concert at ICS.  The kindergarten, first and second graders performed and both Justin and I got choked up.  The kids are just so precious.  Addie's favorite song was called "I want to be an elf" and she had performed it for me for the past two weeks.  It was wonderful to see her and her classmates all performing together.  Their music teacher, Mr. Olaf is clearly adored by all the children.

We attended a Christmas bazaar looking for Christmas gifts that turned out to be less Christmas bazaar and more carnival.  The girls loved the bouncy castles, face painting, cotton candy and kid rides.  Justin and I were left feeling like we needed to stand in front of our open freezer with a sweater on holding a cup of spiced cider.  The girls have no concept of what a Christmas bazaar should be like so in the end Justin and I simply forgot to adjust our expectations.

Justin started reminiscing about his favorite childhood cookie that his grandmother made.  When she passed away the recipe went with her.  Suddenly, I had a new challenge to locate a recipe and try to replicate his beloved walnut filled, powdered sugar covered rolled cookie.  It turns out the cookie is a Polish Kolacki.  The joy on my husband's face when he ate one of my attempts at the Kolacki's was priceless. I could almost see him slipping back to his boyhood Christmases with his grandparents.  Now we have another delicious cookie added to our Christmas cookie repertoire.  
Every year I make almond rocca as a holiday treat. It's a family tradition and I believe I was standing at the stove stirring the candy spoon and staring at the candy thermometer long before I could do long division.  Trying to master this basic candy making technique at almost 8000 ft above sea level, has proved to be a challenge.  Water and candy boils at a full 22 degrees cooler than sea level so trying to get my candy to hard crack without the butter separating out again was touch and go for a bit.  The candy came together and I sold my first 5 batches at Market Day this Friday.  My husband was devastated that it was all gone though so I have some more candy to make this week along with our traditional Christmas cookies.

I had the bright idea to turn locally grown and sold decorative berry branches into wreaths for the house.  I busted out my floral wire and tied up some pretty gorgeous wreaths.  The only trouble is keeping them fresh. I have to give the wreaths a bath at night to water them and a few have been forgotten and started to dry.  The dried berry wreaths are still pretty.  I'm kind of amazed that I'm the first person to think of this.  No one in Ethiopia is selling these type of wreaths and the berries are so cheap.  It cost me less than $5 to make the large white berry wreath.  I feel like there is business to be done in the wreaths here!  I did sell one at the market on Friday.

We enjoyed Breakfast with Santa on Saturday morning.  The girls all wore their red dresses.  I was thrilled to see Ashlynn in Addie's first Christmas dress.  I get a little teary when I think about it being the last time that sweet dress gets worn by one of my daughters.  Santa was a no-go for Ashlynn and Arabella, but Adelaide stood with Santa and presented him with a drawing she had created as well as cheerful "Merry Christmas".  Everyone had ice cream.  Right? Because Christmas just isn't the same without ice cream, bouncy castles and temporary tattoos.

Friday, December 7, 2012

gingerbread house project

Making a gingerbread house with my daughters for Christmas was top on my to-do list this year.  This Friday I took the entire day to plan and create our first from-scratch gingerbread house.  It was just as much fun for me as it was for the kids.

I used this template from Martha Stewart. I held sheets of paper up to my computer screen and just traced out the pieces. I used my own gingerbread recipe.  After my dough had hardened in the refrigerator, Bella and I rolled it out and cut out the large pieces for the house as well as smaller trees and add-ons like triangle bushes and flower boxes for under the windows. We baked it and then let it cool. Any gingerbread recipe will do as long as the gingerbread hardens after baking enough to assemble the house.

The basic frosting recipe is one I use for sugar cookies because it hardens nicely and tastes great.  I used a double batch of this frosting.  I left most of the frosting white but scooped out a small amount to tint green for our trees and such.

Basic frosting
4 Tbsp unsalted butter softened
2 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp cream
1/2 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

Foil and frost the garden or lot for your house first.  I used my hot glue gun for the house assembly because my children and I would not have had the patience to wait for the frosting to dry and harden enough for decorating.  The glue worked out really well.  It may not be edible but it was a piece of cake.  Martha suggest a caramel syrup is used that hardens nicely.  Ingredients like corn syrup and brown sugar are at a premium in my kitchen right now. I didn't want to waste ingredients on a for-show-only project.

We did use frosting to stick all the trees in the ground and for placing the candy on and around the house.  We touched up the shingles and other white piping at the very end.  The icicles were my favorite part.

Some other fun touches were the marshmallow snow men with real sticks for arms.  Arabella loved making these.  I tied up cinnamon sticks for a bundle of fire wood and I made a gingerbread lamp post for the front door.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

creative freedom

A friend of ours asked me to create a birthday "something" for a friend of hers who is celebrating her birthday with a hike this Saturday.  Her and her friends are hiking up a mountain and I was tasked with creating something that can have a candle stuck in it and eaten at the top.  Is that a fun task or what? I love being given the creative freedom for something like this.  

I immediately decided I was going to make a sugar cookie cake.  It can be disassembled for packing in a backpack if needed.  I am providing a little bag of icing for any fixes that are needed.  The candle can be stuck in that little blog of icing at the top.  

I like that the cake ended up resembling a Christmas tree.  I tinted the icing two shades of teal but after the assembly and the silver balls it really looks more holiday festive than I had initially imagined.  But I like it and I hope the birthday girl does too.  Her friends can help her eat the cake or the individual frosted cookies I made to go on the hike as well.  
I think if I were to do this again for a birthday in any month other than December (where I wouldn't want the cake to look like a tree), I'd use a variety of fun birthday colors for the frosting and sprinkles.  The star shaped cookies really make the tree have branches so maybe those could be eliminated as well.  

This was a lot of fun to make and decorate.  Do you like sugar cookies?  They are one of my guilty pleasures!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

birthday cake love

I love making birthday cakes.  I simply adore the fact that my job allows me to create beautiful birthday cakes for other people's kids too.  Please!  Ask me to make your child's birthday cake, I can't get enough of this!

This cake is a four layer, 8 inch round, vanilla butter cake with vanilla bean frosting.  Tinted pink of course! The birthday girl is turning 4!

Prices are over at Ladytroupe Sweets.  Everything is in Ethiopian Birr. If you're curious the exchange rate is 17 Birr/$1 US.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

bed head on Ash

My sweet baby still looks angelic with her first real case of bed-head.  This is a good sign because it means her hair is growing!  She woke up from her nap exceptionally happy. All giggles when she saw Bella.  She just kept running into my arms for bear hugs.  Ashlynn is a great huger. She wraps her little arms all the way around my neck.  

what's cooking in my kitchen this week

"our" fisherman who came to the villa at Diani Beach every day to sell us his catch of the day

I've found I have a lot less time to blog about what I'm cooking for dinner or baking for my family these days.  In fact, I have less time to blog in general.  The more "real" life that is going on, the less time I have to sit down and write.  It's funny how it works.  When I'm busy and I can't blog; words swirl around in my head.  I'm constantly thinking of blog titles as life happens all day long.  I simply have so little time to actually blog.

With the burial of my camera I don't even have pretty pictures to show you.

Anyhow, life is so good right now and everything I am doing, I am enjoying, so having more "real" life occupying me is not a bad thing at all.
Having our week long holiday in Kenya was a lovely cooking break for me.  I baked a lovely pecan pie for our Thanksgiving meal that week but other than that I buttered some toast for the girls in the morning and that's about it. We had a personal chef at the Villa and he made the most amazing seafood feasts for lunch and dinner every day.  I had an entire weeks break from cooking and I was so grateful for it.  I came home with a renewed energy to create meals for my family.
I'm back to cooking this week.

I've been making all sorts of crepes lately.  They are super easy and you can fill them with almost anything.  I was thrilled to come back from Kenya and find that my new cookbook Crepes: 50 Savory and Sweet Recipes had arrived.  The basic versatile crepe recipe in this book is wonderful.  It calls for browned butter. Browned butter makes everything taste amazing!  All those nutty notes.  Another revolutionary tip in this book is to make the crepe batter in the blender.  Awesome!  So easy and no more lumps.  Anyway, the first recipe I tried was the ricotta blintzes with blueberry-lime sauce.  It's a dessert crepe; essentially a sweetened ricotta filling with lime zest enveloped by a crepe that has been browned in a skillet and then baked in the oven to perfection and dusted with powder sugar.  The kicker is the blueberry lime sauce which I will be making double batches of just to have in the refrigerator for pancakes and all sorts of things.  The blueberry lime sauce is what made these blintzes delicious.  I learned a few things from making this dessert.  My daughters don't think cheese is a worthy reward for eating their vegetables and Justin can only tolerate ricotta in lasagna.  OK fine, I admit it.  I ate the rest of these for breakfast the past few mornings.  If you like crepes; get this cookbook.  If you like sweetened ricotta in a not-too-sweet dessert; try the blintzes.  I loved them.  My family is nuts.

Blueberry Lime sauce-adapted slightly from Crepes (I have to share this because I absolutely love blueberries and I bought a bag of frozen blueberries off a friend of mine who is packing up to leave Ethiopia this month.  I don't know where she found them but I am so glad I snagged them from her.  The entire rest of the bag is going in a pot to simmer and turn all syrupy for this weekend's pancakes)
2 cups frozen blueberries (or if you are totally lucky-fresh blueberries)
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp grated lime zest (just the green outer skin)
1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice

Simmer the blueberries and the sugar in a saucepan over medium heat .  Add 2 Tbsp of water, cover and let them bubble and cook for 5 minutes.  Uncover and cook another few minutes until the berries have collapsed and all the juices start to turn syrupy.  Turn off the heat and let the sauce cool a tad.  Add the lime zest and juice and taste.  Add a pinch of salt and more lime juice if needed.  Store for a week in the refrigerator OR smother homemade pancakes with this delicious elixir.  Oh, how I have missed blueberries!

For dinner the other night I stared at a pound of ground beef for much too long trying to decide what to do with it.  When I stare too long I almost always go to Smitten Kitchen (thank you Dani!) and punch my ingredient in her search tool and see what comes up.  Sure enough, typing in ground beef gave me the bright idea to make sloppy joes.  Smitten Kitchen doesn't call hers sloppy joes but that what this recipe is folks.  Just as sloppy, but much more tasty than the McCormick's sloppy joes seasoning packet we used to eat as kids.  I don't ever completely follow the recipes I find.  My version of this beefy chili had the same spices but in different concentration.  A quarter cup of chili powder is just crazy.  I added 1 tsp of my chili powder and then cursed myself because I knew it would be too spicy for the kids.* I use the recipe as a guideline.  Adding cider vinegar added great flavor by the way.  I'm sure Deb's recipe would be delicious if you followed it down to the letter but I also believe that a perfectly delicious version of sloppy joes lies somewhere in the heart of all of us.

I'm not sure Sloppy Joes could ever be photo worthy but here you go anyway.  
*You CAN save dinner for your kids if you accidentally add a bit too much spice.  Instead of pulling out a box of mac n' cheese you can do what I did that night.  Spoon out the portion of your meal that your kids will eat.  Place it in another pot and add either water, or broth until the spice is appropriate for them.  In the sloppy joe case I added tomato sauce until the spice level cooled off. My husband and I enjoyed the spicy portion without complaints from the kids!

The key to these sloppy joes was the idea of slathering it on a biscuit.  I made sour cream chive biscuits and they were a huge hit.  Make these biscuits for your own version of sloppy joes (the girls couldn't stop giggling about what dinner was called) or just make these biscuits for the heck of it.  They are delicious.  Super easy and fool proof!

Sour cream and chive biscuits (adapted from a cream based biscuit recipe. I can't remember where I got the original)
2 cups flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp frozen unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups sour cream (or a combo of sour cream, heavy cream, or whole milk)
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Grate the frozen butter into the flour mixture using a cheese grater.  Using a fork mix the butter flakes in with the flour mixture.  No need for uniformity.  Form a well in the middle of the butter/flour mixture and pour in the sour cream.  Using the fork pull the dry in to the wet until the ingredients are barely combined.  Add the chives.  Using your hands knead the dough a tad so that it is combined.  Move the lump of dough onto a floured surface and press with your hands to make a 1 inch thick layer of dough. Use a biscuit cutter (or round-ish cookie cutter) to cut out rounds of the dough.  Place the biscuits on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet or a Silpat.  Sprinkle with a little salt. Bake for 12-15 minutes.  They were delicious cut in half while still barely warm and topped with the sloppy joe beefy chili stuff.  Perfect comfort food!  Addie even had a sloppy joe for lunch the next day at school. Score!

What have you been cooking?  How about baking?  I have so many custom orders this week for Ladytroupe Sweets that I don't plan to be at Market Day on Friday. I think I am going to use my extra time on Friday to make gingerbread for our first-ever, from-scratch, mommy-daughters, gingerbread house!  I can't wait.  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

the start of Christmas and the loss of a friend (an electronic friend)

I am known to be overly dramatic about things.  From others' perspectives it probably will seem that I am being too dramatic about the loss of my camera.  If you haven't been made aware of the tragedy; my Nikon D40 bit the dust about half way through our family trip in Mombasa.  My D40 has been with me since 2007 and I loved her like a fourth child.  It went everywhere with me; often stuffed in my diaper bag to capture Easter egg hunts, beach vacations, Filipino markets, horse drawn carts in the Ethiopian mountains and absolutely everything else.

I think I'm mostly sad because it was the first camera that really started my interest in taking photos.  Good photos.  It was a gift from my husband and my father-in-law helped him pick it out.  I lovingly carried it with me on all our travels. It was always wonderfully reliable and I'm really going to miss how comfortable it feels in my hands.

I take at least one photo of something every day.  Whether it's my children or a cupcake, I'm always snapping photos.  Without my camera I'm using a little Canon point and shoot that is grainy and blurry and just plain horrible.  But how can I miss Ashlynn's first coherent experience with  Christmas tree or Bella discovering Christmas for the first year that it all really clicks and she truly gets-it?  I can't.  So I apologize for the photo for the next few weeks.  Luckily, my lovely sister is arriving for Christmas and is bringing with her my brand new Nikon D7000.  Merry Christmas to me!

We have a huge 9 foot Christmas tree.  Addie and Bella both took turns trying to get the angel on the top while Justin held them on his shoulders while he stood on a stool.  In the end I had to bend the top branch down and guide the angel on before I stood it back up.  Ashlynn loved pulling the ornaments on the tree.  I'm happy to say than none of our decorations were broken on their travels from the Philippines to Ethiopia.  All the credit for this goes to Cora (Yaya) and her wonderful packing job.  She lovingly wrapped each and every ornament and arranged them safely in boxes after Christmas 2010.  Justin and I got a little teary unwrapping all her handy-work.  She left sweet notes on the boxes for us listing the contents inside; signing each note "love, Yaya".  Each and every Christmas we will think of Cora and how much she adored our Christmas tree and helping us decorate and pull it all down every year.  She used to say that she loved the ornaments (many of them generations old) because "each one is a memory".  Sweet Yaya!  We miss you this Christmas.

Anyway, the angel is in place and the 220 volt lights from Manila survived the move so we are in business for Christmas.

Oh, and does our mantel not scream to be decked out in Christmas red and green, or what?

Friday, November 30, 2012

camel rides on the beach

Adelaide and Arabella enjoyed a camel ride with their Daddy at Diani beach.  The owner of the three camels came by and stopped at the beach in front of our villa showing off the enormous beasts.   Two days before our departure, Addie was brave enough to ride which made her friend brave enough to try.  The next day all the kids wanted to go for camel rides.
They are truly magnificent beasts!