Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter!!!  I hope your celebrations were happy, that new memories were made, and old traditions upheld.  That chocolate, bunnies, and egg hunts aside, we remember the reason we all rejoice today.  These first two pictures in this post absolutely crack me up.  So much more interesting than happy children, smiling at the camera, no?  Ha ha.  

Charlie, my Easter ham! 

Typically, our Easter is spent hosting brunch for my parents.  But this year they were in Chicago visiting my brother and his family. Spending a holiday without family seemed a little sad to me.  It just wouldn't feel quite the same.  Luckily our good friends, who practically feel like family, were staying in town and without plans so they joined us and made a rather dreary and wet Easter morning feel a whole lot brighter.  

As for what I made.... Ham with a mango, brown sugar and mustard glaze, fennel and potato gratin,  green bean salad with dill and lemon, sour cream coffee cake with maple icing, blueberry muffins with iced lemon glaze, fresh fruit and mimosas.  {I love to use the orange, peach, mango juice from Trader Joe's for the mimosas}

 {This is the reality of entertaining with children.  Thanks Matt, for eating seconds! Thirds?
This photo makes me laugh.  At least Emma kept you company!}


I may have spiked the food, because the following occurred after we ate...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Recipe | Sugar Cookies + Vanilla Buttercream Glaze

In town there is a little pink bakery, with pom-pom trimmed roman shades hanging in its single picture window, called The Sweeterie and it sells the BEST cupcakes and sugar cookies.  It's right across the street from the elementary school, just above our Starbucks.  About once a week we stop in, Andrew always gets a double chocolate fudge cupcake and Charlie always gets an iced sugar cookie.  They are each packaged up individually and we take them downstairs where I usually get a coffee.  If the weather's nice we sit outside and chat about Andrew's day at school.  Charlie looks forward to seeing what cookies will be on display since the owner changes them up depending on the season and upcoming holidays.  This Monday he thought he hit the jackpot because the shamrock cookies were 2 for the price of 1. Score!  

Well, I have a confession, I was jealous of her cookies.  I think Charlie dreamed about the icing.  He happily eats my sugar cookies but he practically inhales Sweeterie cookies.  I don't think it's the cookie so much as the icing.  They use a very creamy, buttery glaze that just melts in your mouth.  They aren't as spectacular as a cookie decorated with royal icing, because the icing isn't as firm, but they taste ahhhh-mazing.  I have tried to politely coax the icing recipe out of the shop owner and I think I'm getting close, but in the meantime I'm still tinkering with mine.  I stopped using only royal icing, even though it is still me preference for decorating.  I tried an icing recipe with corn syrup on Valentine's Day, it left a nice shiny finish and Charlie liked it better than royal icing, but the flavor still wasn't Sweeterie good.  So, for his class Easter party I gave it another go and created my own vanilla buttercream glaze.  The result was so good.  I think the flavor is identical to the Sweeterie icing.  The finish still looks a bit different, so I'm probably not through tinkering, but I'm grateful to have a version that Charlie happily devours. This will be my go to icing from now on.  {note: I did use my traditional royal icing to pipe on the details. He didn't seem to notice or mind.}  Link to my sugar cookie recipe is here.

Vanilla Buttercream Cookie Glaze

1 stick {1/2 cup} unsalted butter, softened
4 cups powdered sugar {I recommend sifting IF using organic powdered sugar, otherwise no need}
1 tsp vanilla
4 TBS milk
6 TBS heavy cream

Combine butter and sugar in an electric mixer with the paddle attachment. Add vanilla.
With mixer on low, very slowly add milk in a continuous stream.
Then add cream, also very slowly.
Slightly increase mixer speed and mix until very smooth.
The consistency should be nicely spreadable but not runny.
**The key to an ultra smooth buttercream is to add the milk + cream slowly.  If you add it too fast it will curdle or have bits of unmixed butter throughout**

The icing will set up a bit, but will not be completely firm. I added sparkling sugar to the bunnies and let them sit for a couple hours before I piped on the details.  They were very firm when I finished.  I made another batch using a thicker version of the glaze for piping and they set up fine but were not as firm as those I did for school, so I would not recommend stacking them.

{The cookie above is piped with a thickened buttercream glaze. 
I just wanted to show you the difference vs. piping with royal icing
as in the first picture in this post.}

And a quick word about the packaging... The "ribbon" is a gingham seersucker fabric I bought at, wait for it, Walmart!!  To make it into ribbon, just cut along the longest side about an inch or two, then rip by hand till you get a "ribbon."  

I also like to use paper grass in packaging, not just the bottom of the basket! For Easter baskets, I take the big chocolate bunnies out of their packaging and put them in little bags with paper grass and ribbon too! And I use the paper grass inside large Easter eggs as filling.  I thought it would be a cute way to fill up bags with cookie too.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Never Ending Winter | Snow Day Pictures

In early March, we had enough snow to close the schools.  Truthfully, the roads were fine but every child had their fingers and toes crossed, praying for a snow day and thankfully our school district obliged.  Our winter has been long and cold. We've had snow here and there but not of the typical big blizzard variety so this was the first {and likely only} snow day they will have this school year.  We were lazy.  It was just me and my 2 little {well, one little, one medium} guys for the day.  Soup simmered, we watched movies, kept the fire on, and I drug out the snow suits and boots one more time.

Though I'm definitely over winter, there is something magical about snow, even when it falls in March.  More magical in December, but still something to behold.  Especially wet, heavy snow that clings to all the trees and branches, almost like icing.  Charlie spent the late morning outside with buddies, Elliot + Carter.   They attempted snow fort building, but were more successful at just eating or throwing it. After about and hour and half outside, they hastily stripped out of their wet clothes in exchange for superhero costumes and raced around Carter's house before, ever so briefly, pausing for lunch.  The best part about these three is that they get along so well together.  I can almost look at these pictures and imagine them 10 years from now still hanging out.  Their Mamas happen to be two of my favorite people too.  It's such a serendipitous thing when that happens!  You can't force it - sometimes you want your children to be best friends with your friends and it just doesn't click.  We all live steps from each other houses and all three will be in kindergarten in two years.  I do look forward to watching this trio grow up together.

I know it's only a matter of a few years before they start walking to each other's houses or school, riding bikes together to the pool, or sledding down the hill at Dale Park without us.  (Maybe by then us mamas can actually have a conversation without an interruption every 20 seconds. :))  Truthfully though, it will happen faster than I think and faster than I'm prepared for it to happen.  Andrew is my proof of how quickly the little years disappear.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

An Evening with the Barefoot Contessa | My Official {long} Recap

For those of you that follow me on instagram, you already know I was rather heady with excitement earlier in the week as my mum and I packed up and headed north for a little road trip to see my ultimate celebrity crush and cooking idol, Ina Garten.  As part of her Foolproof book tour she was speaking at select locations around the country in a program called "A Conversation with the Barefoot Contessa."  Truthfully, I had no idea about the event until Jimmy mentioned it to me late last summer. In the past her book tours NEVER come near Cincinnati so I'd given up hope that I'd ever see her close to home.  When he heard about her plans to visit Cleveland, Ohio {about 4 hours north of here} he was on the phone the minute the tickets came on sale and bought two for me.  He made the hotel arrangements, dinner reservations and took off work to watch the boys, all so I could go enjoy myself.  Lucky, I know.

The evening was to include an on stage interview with audience Q&A, followed by a book signing/meet + greet with Ina.  I was very much looking forward to meeting her face to face, gushing a bit about the influence she has had on my cooking, and treating her to something I made.   Ina is like the Julia Child of my generation.  Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for a lot of us.  Next to my mum, Ina has had the biggest impact on not just on how I cook, but also the way I think about food and sharing it with the people I love.  Unfortunately, the book signing was canceled with this event so, regretfully, I did not get my moment with Ina.  I did however bake her something.  {A glazed lemon, blueberry, yogurt loaf cake}  Not one of her recipes, but one that I tried about a month ago and knew she would love.  I packaged up 4 thick slices in a berry crate with a pretty blue linen dish towel and little handmade tag.

I carted that thing into the hotel, in a cab to dinner, sat with it on my lap for the whole presentation and didn't get to hand it to her. I find the whole thing a bit comical.  But I wasn't bringing it all the way to Cleveland and not getting it to her, so after her on stage performance I whistled down a crew member and had him bring it to her.  Not quite the same, and likely not eaten by her, but I'll pretend she sank her teeth into it and said something like "oh wow, this is soooo good. I can really taste the lemon zest and fresh blueberries." hahaha.

{interviewed by Michael Ruhlman, cookbook author + food blogger}

Ok, let's dish a bit... Ina was exactly the same in person as on TV {only prettier}.  Black blouse/pants ensemble and all.   You forget she's a multi millionaire/mega brand and feel like you are listening to a funny aunt.  One of the first things she said was that she knows Jeffrey comes across as a bit of a doofus on TV and she wanted to assure us he is nothing of the sort, that he is very brilliant! So cute. She blushed when she made a remark about the most loving thing you do with your husband {it wasn't cooking}, she said "s@#t" when she talked about her reaction to getting her original offer on the first Barefoot Contessa store.  She shared funny stories about disastrous recipe attempts "herring and beet salad" and a New Year's Eve she spent with Martha Stewart that had me almost crying tears.  Apparently, Martha called Ina at 3:00 pm on New Year's Eve one year and asked her and Jeffrey over for dinner.  By 7:00 pm Martha had an impressive and over the top dinner party.  After dinner she asked Ina to join her in the kitchen to help with dessert.  Ina was puzzled because she already saw a gorgeous lemon meringue cake topped with meringue snowman sitting on the counter.  But there they were, the two of them in the kitchen, Martha bustling about and chatting, all the while melting sugar {no measuring, no thermometer}.  Ina watched as Martha found a whisk and began cutting off the ends, talking and talking as she went through the motions.  And then out of nowhere Martha is swinging her arms around the room making spun sugar to top the cake. Ina said she was in awe and "exhausted" after they left that evening.  Can't you just picture it?

Ina admitted she is still terrified filming each of her TV episodes, that she is always convinced she will forget her recipes and ingredients.  She is not scripted on the show. She said she is naturally a nervous cook and a lot of times "fear" has been the best motivator at different stages in her career.  She enjoys the business side of things as she much as she does the creative/cooking side. This surprised me.  She attributes her success to doing what she loves and luck.  She spent a lot of time talking about the evolution of her brand.  As a former Brand Manager,  I found this part of the talk to be the most fascinating.  She describes the process as a very organic one, saying that she didn't set out to create a brand, but she did set out to create an experience and a feeling {ultimately what a brand is}.  From the moment she started her first shop she wanted the experience of shopping there to be "Fun."  It should "feel like a party."  Ina wants people to feel welcome, loved, and have fun.  That core experience has always been at the heart of what she does, whether as a shop owner, TV personality, or cookbook author. She described stepping into her store, the type of music that was playing, the way coffee and samples were laid out, the way the screen door slammed, how all these elements were intentional on her part, how they all worked together to make the customer feel good.  That same experience is still true in her work today.

Despite all her success and her inspiring lifestyle, Ina still manages to be completely relatable to so many people.  She seems so genuine and real.  Everyone feels like they are her biggest fan, everyone feels like they know her and could sit down and strike up a conversation.  She almost feels like family. Crazy, I know.

I stood in line to ask a question but didn't get called.  I had hoped to get her talking a bit about social media, like food blogging and instagram.  Maybe next time. And there will be a next time, because she is already hard at work on a new cookbook!   True to form, I was far too caught up in enjoying the experience rather than capturing it behind the lens.  I wish I had taken more pictures! The theater district was impressive {second in size only to NYC} and the theater gorgeous.  The restaurant was excellent too, Lola's, in case you find yourself in downtown Cleveland!