Thursday, December 31, 2009

3 Kid-friendly New Year’s Drinks

I don’t know if I admire or pity parents who let their kids stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Frankly, about 9:30pm, I just tell my kids, “close enough,” and have them head to bed. It’s not that I’m a party pooper—well, maybe it is—but the kids don’t really care whether it’s midnight or ten as long as they get to stay up a little later. And my kids get a bad case of the crankies (and yeah, maybe I do too) if they stay up too late, so I keep to a decent bedtime, even on New Year’s Eve.

That’s not to say I don’t celebrate the passing of another year with my kids. We love to hang out with friends, play games and watch movies. This year, I’m even putting my kids in charge of a few of the drinks to share with friends. I have a drink for each of my kids to mix up. For the youngest, it’s something really simple—a pitcher and a big spoon is all the equipment she’ll need. My middle child can handle something a bit more complex, so she’ll get to break out the mixer. And my oldest, she’ll need to taste-test her concoction to get it just right. So if you’re looking to get your kids more involved in the New Year’s Eve preparations, why not let them mix up one of these three drinks. I’ve listed them from easiest to hardest. Tell me which one was your favorite!

Easy Sparkling Fruit Drink
3 to 4, 8-ounce cans fruit drink (my favorite is the Jumex kind, Strawberry & pineapple make an excellent combo)
1 2-liter bottle seltzer water (NOT tonic water)
Frozen fruit, optional

In a large pitcher (preferably plastic) mix the fruit drinks and the seltzer. Let your child use a wooden spoon to mix. To add a decorative twist (and so that the drink doesn’t get watered down) I use whole, frozen fruit as ice cubes. You can have your child put a couple of fruit pieces in each cup.

Purple Paradise
1 half gallon heavy cream or whipping cream
1 carton purple, seedless grapes (NOT red grapes)
*Other fruit can be substituted

A good neighbor made this drink for me once and my youngest child has requested it ever since. The only ingredients are fresh fruit and cream—what’s not to like?! She purchased the large, purple grapes at Sam’s Club, but if you can’t find them, no worries. Any fruit will do, even a combination. You can even throw ice cubes into the blender if you want the drink icy and thick. Personally, the intense purple color is unusual—not to mention tasty, so I highly recommend the grapes. You can toss ‘em in whole. Also, thin the drink with some regular milk for a lighter taste. If you like your drinks a little sweeter, you might even need to add a bit of sugar.

2 cans coconut milk
1 10-ounce bag frozen strawberries (or fresh!)
1 10-ounce can pineapple chunks
honey (about 2 Tablespoons)
cinnamon (about 1 ½ teaspoons)

My husband came back from a business trip and described this amazing drink he’d had. He asked the waiter for the ingredients so we could try it at home. The waiter mentioned it’s a traditional Argentine drink. I have no idea of the drink’s origins, just that the unusual combination of coconut milk, cinnamon, honey and fruit is a hit with my kids. (You can use light coconut milk too.) All of the ingredients listed are really up to your taste preferences—not a real pineapple fan? Don’t add ‘em. Love cinnamon? Add plenty. Want a chunkier mixture? Add more strawberries. The final combination is amazing and surprisingly satisfying. Put all the ingredients in a sturdy blender and give it a whirl. Tweak the honey and cinnamon at the end.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Resolution Not to Have a Resolution

I don't believe in New Year's resolutions. I know, I know, knocking resolutions at this time of year is a bit like saying "Bah, humbug," at Christmastime. But it seems that the idea of "resolutions" have become commercialized in much the same way the big red guy has overtaken December. Don’t believe me? Just check out the ads in your local newspaper Sunday—tell me if every grocery store ad doesn’t feature Lean Cuisine on the first page, on sale, with something along the lines of “Eat healthier in 2010” in bold letters. It’s almost like Kroger is telling me my New Year’s resolutions better be to lose weight, exercise more and take a daily vitamin. Sure, all good ideas, but do you ever keep a resolution that’s handed to you in the Sunday paper? Me neither. Instead, I like to make gradual, doable changes in my every day life versus trying to change everything, all at once…starting January 1.

So this year I’ve resolved to not make any New Year’s resolutions. Anyone else care to join me?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Crispy, Chewy, Yeasted Waffles

If you’re looking for something easy and yummy on Christmas morning or for a special breakfast any time over the holidays—here you go. Yeasted waffles offer a more complex, rich flavor than your standard mix-it-and-cook-it variety. This will take some planning ahead on your part, but it’s easy work. The results are something between a funnel cake at the amusement park and a quality Belgian waffle. (I’ve tweaked this from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.) This is what we’ll be having Christmas morning, how about you?


½ teaspoon instant yeast
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
8 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
2 eggs
1 Tablespoon wheat germ (opt)
Zest of one orange or lemon (opt)

The night before the big breakfast mix up your dry ingredients and then whisk in the milk and butter. A few lumps are just fine. Cover and place at room temperature. Yes, ROOM temperature for at least 8 hours.

The next morning: Heat your waffle iron. Crack the eggs carefully adding the yolks to the overnight mixture and putting the whites in a separate bowl. Whip the egg whites until they become stiff and then gently fold them into the other batter. Slowly fold in the zest, if desired or dried blueberries or any other dried fruit.

Serve right away with syrup and a dusting of powered sugar.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rethinking the Santa Question

I ruined Santa Claus for my oldest when she was just five. I was a newbie parent at that point. I remember vividly driving in the car with my daughter strapped in her booster seat in the back when she asked, “Mom, is the Easter Bunny real?” I debated in my mind what to say. I kept thinking that for a five-year-old the idea of some large, furry animal coming into your house and leaving you a basket—even if it was full of goodies—had to be scary. It conjured up all sorts of horrifying amusement park clowns for me. So I spilled. “Well…the Easter Bunny is something fun that mom and dad do for kids.” Proud of myself for such a simple—yet loving and age appropriate answer—I kept driving.

Then came the follow-up. “So, if the Easter Bunny isn’t real what about Santa?” It never occurred to me that my daughter might link the two. Large, furry bunny—large, furry old guy. I shoulda figured. Stumbling through an answer, I mentioned something about, If you don’t believe then you won’t get any presents, or something similarly terrible, confusing and stupid.

With my other two children I haven’t made the same mistake when it comes to the Santa question. I just smile, and say, “What do you think?” When the time is right, they seem to just know and understand the whole magic that comes with keeping the Santa idea going. Turns out what parents have sensed for years has some scientific merit. That’s right—the Santa myth we sometimes feel guilty about perpetuating—is a part of a child’s normal, healthy cognitive development. Tied in to developing empathy and a host of other emotions, a strong sense of imagination (Santa included) can help children become caring, well-rounded adults. Now, I’m not saying that if you don’t do Santa at your house you’re some sort of bad parent. Not at all. Just that parents can feel good about keeping Santa alive and well--whether you want to justify it with some sort of scientific study, or you just enjoy embracing Santa as much as your kids do.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

THE best bread you'll ever make

Raise of hands—who thinks they can’t make bread? Don’t worry, no one’s watching. Admit it, the thought of using yeast in baked goods scares you almost as much as the upcoming SpongeBob marathon on Nickelodeon.

I once thought I couldn’t make bread either—turns out, it is all about the recipe. My good friend Melissa made this bread for me when she invited my family over for dinner one night. “I wish I could make bread like this,” I told her. “You should try this recipe. It’s really easy,” she said. Sure it is, I thought sarcastically. I didn’t believe her at all. Still, I dutifully copied down the recipe fully intending to throw it away once I got home but instead decided to give it a try. I’ve been making loaves at least once a week ever since.

And the best part about making this bread is it’s a stress reliever. Seriously, follow me on this: Once the dough is mixed, you have to (or rather, get to) punch it down every 10 minutes. My middle child calls it “beater” bread. Now I’m no food science expert, so I’ve no idea why the punching makes this bread so good (probably has something to do with the two tablespoons of yeast in it), but I can tell you it does do wonders for the bread and your psyche. Give it a try—even my brother-in-law made perfect loaves the first time with this recipe.

Ready for your house to smell like baking bread over the holidays? It’s good to the last crumb (if you can find one!).


2 ½ cups warm water
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon salt
2 Tablespoons oil
6 cups flour
2 Tablespoons yeast

Fill a measuring cup with the warm water and then add the yeast and sugar. Let it sit for three to five minutes (bubbles should form, letting you know that the yeast is active). There are a couple different ways to mix up the dough. Sometimes, I beat half the flour with the wet ingredients with my handheld mixer. The dough will get a little unruly after you add the full 6 cups and you’ll spend more time kneading, but the end result is still perfect. Lately, I’ve been using my food processor to mix up the dough. If you have a large upright mixer, that will work well too. In a large bowl, or the food processor bowl, add six cups of flour and the salt. Mix. Add the oil to the wet ingredients and then gradually pour in the yeasted liquid to the flour (again, if you’re using a handheld mixer you should only use half the flour at first, then add in the rest until the mixer won’t mix any longer). Pull the dough out onto a lightly floured cutting board and briefly knead until smooth. Place the dough into a large, oiled mixing bowl (I spray mine with cooking spray) and cover with a slightly moist kitchen towel.

Now, for the fun part! For the next 50 minutes, you’re going to punch down the dough every 10 minutes (so, four punching rounds). Set a timer at each ten minutes then punch away--you may need to dust your fist with flour. After the last punching session, let the dough rise for 10 minutes. Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and separate it into two balls (or three, or four, depending on the size of loaf you want). Let the dough rest for about five minutes before kneading it and rolling it out to a thick rectangle (about one-inch), then roll up the loaf tightly as you would a jelly roll. Place the loaf onto a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover with the kitchen towel and let it rise for 30 to 60 minutes (I once forgot about the bread rising and it went for nearly 90 minutes without any problems). Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Flying Christmas trees

By the time I turned ten, I no longer believed in Santa Claus or red-nosed reindeer--but I did believe in holiday magic because I knew that Christmas trees could fly.

Christmas came early for our family in 1985. In the holiday rush, my mom decided to forego our family tradition of taking whole family to retrieve the perfect tree in favor of dad taking the two youngest girls, my sister and me, to find whatever was left over. No measuring to ensure the ideal height or endlessly circling the tree to find one without any unsightly gaps. That year we walked with dad right to the section with the red tags marked “6-foot trees, strong, short needles.” We didn’t care if it was Evergreen or Douglas Fir, just that it didn’t shed too much on the carpet when we forgot to water it.

It took two minutes for dad to decide on a tree, my sister and I complaining the whole time that we were freezing. It was two weeks into December and we were both in our preteens, which meant buying a Christmas tree had long ago lost its appeal.

We went to the same tree lot every year. The lot would appear a few days after Thanksgiving with little white lights all round it. The staff was always eager to sell the tree, but customer service stopped there. They didn’t even attempt to help you put it on your car—or secure it. Dad wouldn’t have accepted help anyway. “Let me just get this on top,” dad said, struggling through grunts, cracking tree branches and scratching paint as he hoisted, or rather dragged the tree onto the top of the car. For dad there was no need to put tarp on the top of the car to put the tree on, just like there was no need to put gloves on your hands—“It’s not snowing.”

With the tree on top, my dad got in the car. I lost the race to say, “Shotgun” first, so I had to sit in the back of the car. Dad rolled down my sister’s window and mine. “Kayla, you grab the front part, Kris, you’ve got the back,” dad said as he turned the key and started the engine.

“You’re not going to put ropes on?” my sister asked in disbelief. She already had been dragged into Christmas tree buying duty and now she was going to have to embarrass herself further by hanging out the car holding the tree. Me, I’d gotten used to dad’s logic. It seemed like a waste of time to rope the tree down to the car, I mean wouldn’t gravity kick in and hold it down? I was no physics brainchild.

I hung dutifully out the back window not giving a second thought to our ridiculous scene. One twelve-year-old hanging out the front window, gloveless, clinging to the top branches of an evergreen and an ten-year-old on the other side stretching out the back window holding the fuller parts of the tree. Come to think out it, I’m glad I lost the Shotgun race—it was much easier to hold the back of the tree instead of the front.

We’d made it less than a mile before our tree blew off the side of the car. Dad wasn’t angry—not even irritated. He stopped the car just past the median in the middle of the road, put the hazard lights on and headed across two lanes of traffic holding out one hand. The cars stopped for him as he dragged the tree back to our station wagon and hoisted it on yet again, scuffing up more paint as it went and leaving a path of broken branches.

Our house lay a few miles away in quiet neighborhood, but dad didn’t bother with the route with the small hill—it took longer. Instead, we headed right up the big hill, past the middle school, while our tree headed down. This time dad pulled into one of the hill’s side streets and headed back into the street, hand outstretched. No anger or irritation. By this time, my sister was refusing to hold the tree so dad stepped in and drove with one hand on the steering wheel and the other out the window of the car. I switched sides to balance our tree on top of the car. It was getting harder to find a decent-sized branch to hold onto on the bottom of the tree but I wrapped my fingers around a few needles and hoped we’d make it home soon. Dad must have had a better grip on it than my sister and we made it home without anymore flights by our well-traveled tree. (I think it also had to do with dad driving slower once one hand was stuck out the window.)

When we got home my sister rolled her eyes as she stepped out of the car, “Dad, we should have used ropes. I’m not doing that again.” My dad said nothing. He carried the tree into the house like a fisherman carries in a prized trout. At this point, I was coming to understand that the pride in his smile came not from the tree, which was now missing branches and shedding to the point of balding. Dad was proud that he was right—he didn’t need ropes, just faith that the laws of nature didn’t apply to him. And that he could run fast enough to catch a flying Christmas tree.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Simple Goodies Teachers Love

Okay, who else cringes every December when your child comes home and says: “Mom, can we give cookies to Mrs. ‘My-Favorite-Teacher’ for Christmas”? Then here’s the clincher, “And can I help you make them?”

With everything else going on in December--from the end of basketball season (x2!), holiday concerts, making/buying/wrapping/sending presents to family far away, shopping for family and friends nearby—I’d rather pay my few dollars toward a group gift for a teacher and be done with it. But when your 8-year-old comes to you asking for something special for her teacher it’s hard to turn her down (without feeling guilty, right?).

In the past, I’ve had my kids do something easy, like put the bow on the plate of goodies, but more recently I’ve stumbled on holiday cookies that are not only easy to make, but your kids can actually HELP you make them. And they really will be HELPING, not making a bigger mess that you’ll have to clean up later. Ah, now I’ve got your attention. Let me add more interest—the cookies have inexpensive ingredients, make dozens in minutes and they travel well. That’s right, when your kid crams them in her backpack, even after you’ve told her not to, the treats will still arrive in tact at school (as long as she doesn’t sit on them in the bus).

No, I don’t send my child off to the Kroger pastry shop for an afternoon with a baker there, instead I follow in the steps of the semi-homemade diva Sandra Lee and add some dazzle to store-bought cookies. I can’t believe I’m about to reveal my go-to cookie dish (seriously, I made them this weekend for a holiday get-together and everyone kept asking my recipe. I just smiled and changed the subject). Here goes. I find coconut cookies at the dollar store. (Yes, Dollar Tree. Sometimes they don’t have them so I resort to Oreo’s, but the coconut cookies really are key.) The cookies come in packs of three dozen, rectangular bars.

At home, I melt white candy coating and let my kids dip the cookies into the coating, then the coconut. (I’ve tried to make the cookies fancier by using real white chocolate—trust me, it just doesn’t melt as well and tastes awful.) If you want to get really festive you can color the coconut with green food coloring, but I think they look best white—and it’s easier. Lay them out on waxed paper to firm up and you’re done. I can make three-dozen cookies in 15 minutes start to finish. That’s enough for three or four teachers! Plus, added cool-mom points, my children helped me!

Note: If your kids hate coconut, you can try the double-dip method with just about any store-bought cookie—Chips Ahoy! paired with holiday sprinkles or lemon shortbread with dried ginger or coconut. They’re all good to the last crumb!


This particular recipe is embarrassingly simple, but irresistibly good. Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell anybody that it took you only minutes to make them!

Store-bought cookies (coconut preferred, see picture as a reference)
White, candy coating
Shredded coconut
Holiday sprinkles (opt)

Lay out sheets of waxed paper. Melt four squares of white chocolate in small, glass or ceramic, microwave-safe bowls. I use eight-ounce sized ramekins. You can also use two bowls instead of one if you want your child to have her own bowl and for you to have your own. I usually set the microwave for two minutes at half power. While the chocolate melts, lay out a plate with the shredded coconut. Stir the melted coating with a fork. Dip ¼ to ½ of the cookie into the coating and then into the coconut. Lay the cookie on the waxed paper to set. You can dip the cookie completely in the coating (meaning both sides), but you’ll go through more chocolate this way. I dip so that only one-half of one-side gets submerged. The coconut-topped coating should set within two to three minutes--then you’re ready to load the holiday plates. That’s it!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

All I want for Christmas...

Every year I ask for the same thing for Christmas...socks.

Now I know that socks aren't as glamorous as, say, a diamond necklace. Okay, the Kay's Jewelers commercial might not be so catchy if it ended with "Every Kiss Begins with Socks." But it would work at my house.

The way I see it, holiday gifts should be all about those items you wouldn't normally buy for yourself--and high-quality socks top my list. Admittedly, most of the items on my wish-list for Santa this year are entirely practical. While I'd like to blame the economy for my fetish for unglamorous gifts, I've always asked for the unconventional at Christmastime.

Now you know my top request from Santa, what's yours?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cereal and Christmas Trees--Announcing the contest winner

We have a winner...

If you haven't had a chance to go through the entries to the LeapFrog Tag Jr. contest, you should take a look. Sarah E. Ludwig the mom/voice behind ParentingByTrialandError was the guest judge.

In the end, she decided on Fokxxy's story of joy at finding food under the Christmas tree. Let me explain: As a child in a family of six, Christmases were often lean. One year, most of the gifts under the tree were wrapped packages of food. Not candy or chocolate, but everyday items like jars of pickles and cereal. For a child who often had to share her cereal, receiving her own box--with her name on it that no one else could touch--was the perfect gift. I believe Fokxxy's story resonated with many of us. I know our family's Christmas tree won't be crowded with nearly as many presents this year as last. Reading Fokxxy's thoughts, however, is a reminder that kids don't need a pile of presents to feel loved.

So this year I'm taking a lesson from reading all your stories (including CBear's, which was a close second!): Christmas is all about creating memories, not just pretty packages. More to come...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Creamy Bacon-Potato Chowder

Digging out the last Thanksgiving leftover from the plastic container at the back of the fridge, I must admit I’m done with making big meals for a few weeks (and with turkey!). Once I’ve had my fill of turkey sandwiches, followed by turkey nachos, and of course a day of pumpkin pie for breakfast, I crave different flavors and meals that require minimal cleanup (not like the mountain of dishes I went through on 11/27 and we were only taking a few side dishes to my brother’s house, not doing the whole shabang).

For easy meals that make the whole house smell good and warm me up I like to make a big pot of soup. Sorry, I mean chowder. See, if I tell my family we’re having soup they think it’s an appetizer—not the entree. But if I say we’re having “chowder,” then it makes for a meal.

Usually, when I’m making a soup (did I say soup? I mean chowder…or stew), I break out the crockpot. But for this particular recipe, cook it over the stovetop using one pot. Sometimes to make sure the potatoes get tender, I’ll use a couple pans, but I promise it’s easy cleanup.

Another added plus with chowders: your ingredients don’t have to be exact and neither do the cooking times. You’ll notice that I do offer both here, but if you have some extra chicken or diced, cooked carrots on hand, throw ‘em in!

So if you’re looking for a simple meal with all the comfort food favorites—like potatoes, bacon and corn—you’ll love this creamy combo. Don’t forget to make some warm muffins or toast bread to go along with your chowder.

Here’s the recipe:

Creamy Potato-Bacon Chowder

6-8 slices of bacon
4 medium-sized potatoes (I prefer red ones, but any variety will do)
1 medium onion
1 ½ cups milk (or more if you want the chowder thinner)
1 can cream of chicken soup (or mushroom)
1 can of corn
¾ cup sour cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Cheddar cheese, grated (optional)

In the original recipe, you fry the raw, diced potatoes in the bacon until they become tender. After years of trying, I’ve never found that the potatoes get soft enough so I add another step. Trust me, it’s worth one additional easy-to-clean pan. I’ve streamlined this recipe so that start to finish your meal should be ready in about 30 minutes.

First, add a medium-sized pot of salted water to the stovetop. Peel and dice your potatoes until they’re about the size of a kernel of corn. If you can’t get them that small, don’t worry, just remember that it will take more time for them to cook in the boiling water. The smaller the potato the faster they’ll cook. I boil the potatoes until they’re tender when pierced with a fork.

While your potatoes are boiling, dice the onion and cut the bacon into 1/4 –inch strips. I usually just cut them with my kitchen scissors. Once your potatoes are halfway cooked (in the other pan), add bacon to a large, heavy bottomed pan. Cook the bacon until almost crisp, then add your onions. Keep your eye on the potatoes; drain them once they’re tender. With the bacon cooked through and the onions sautéed until they’re translucent, you’re ready to add the potatoes. Cook those as you would hash browns--stirring frequently and allowing the sides to brown. Add salt and pepper as you sauté the potatoes.

Add the milk and cream soup to the bacon-potato mixture. Bring to a gentle boil and stir. Drain the corn and then toss it in. Reduce the heat and bring the chowder to a slow simmer. Stir in the sour cream. That’s it! I like to top each serving with shredded cheese. Also, you can make this chowder a day ahead—it reheats beautifully.