Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Third Birthday's the Charm

Henry was born three years ago on Halloween. He surprised us all by arriving 10 days before his due date. John and I had actually just arrived home from a Halloween party when I yelled from the bathroom, "Oh no. OH NO!"

"What do you mean 'oh no'? 'Oh no' is not good!" John shouted back on the other side of the door.

"Something is happening! I think this baby is coming!! He is NOT SUPPOSED TO COME YET! THIS WAS NOT MY PLAN!!"

I didn't want him to be born on Halloween, I was afraid his birthday would always be overshadowed by costumes and coffins and candy hysteria. Besides, I only had half of my "before the baby comes" to-do list checked off.

I tried crossing my legs and using mommy-baby telepathy to tell him to stay put. I tried to ignore the piercing contractions by burrowing under the covers and pretending to sleep. Surprisingly, none of my labor-stalling techniques proved effective.
There are only so many costumes that work when one is 9 months pregnant.
Despite my best efforts, our little pumpkin entered the world at 6:45am on October 31st. We flipped a coin to decide his name (Mommy won!) and Henry Thomas became the newest member of our family.

Although his early and somewhat complicated birth was a bit of a trick, our Halloween baby was decidedly a treat.

By the time Henry's first birthday rolled around, he was already on his way to becoming the middle child. He had a sweet little party in between the Halloween festivities, and since family was already gathered, we decided it was also the perfect time to reveal the gender of baby number three.

Happy birthday, Henry, you get a baby sister!

When Henry turned two, we were up to our elbows in small children and so exhausted by the business of the season that the best we could manage was two candles in a cookie.

So for birthday number three we decided it was high time to give Henry a celebration to remember. 

Yes. This is 3. 
On Halloween, his actual birthday, he woke up to his favorite breakfast and opened some gifts from Mom and Dad. True to his age, he ate approximately three bites and then scampered off to play with his presents.

The evening was spent trick-or-treating on our street. Jack had been eagerly anticipating this day for weeks (Halloween, not Henry's birthday), and had passed on his excitement to his brother. As we went door to door, I noticed Henry seemed a little confused. "Come on, Henry," I urged, "let's go to the next house!"

"But Mommy, I want to GO to Trick-or-Treat!"

Apparently, all his brother's stories of candy and chocolate led him to believe that we were going to actually GO to the magical land of Trick-or-Treat where a hot cocoa river flows through lollipop trees and children are allowed to color with Sharpies on every visible surface, or whatever exists in a three-year-old's fantasy.

It seems he was not expecting to stumble around in the dark, bypassing giant light-up spiders and creepy porch-sitting ghosts, in order to wait for strange grown-ups to fish around in a bowl and hand him a Tootsie Roll.




All in all, Henry was quite suspicious of Halloween. Also, true to his age, halfway down the street he decided he did not want to be the Incredible Hulk. He actually wanted to be a giraffe. Unfortunately, I did not happen to have a giraffe costume in my pocket, so he was forced to suffer through the rest of the night as a beloved superhero while people filled his bucket with free candy.

Fortunately, his birthday celebration did not end on Halloween. We had a few surprises in store for our little green monster.

Over the past few months Henry has developed a slight obsession fascination with animals. Animal toys, animal books, animals of all shapes and sizes, if it moves and breathes and is not a human then Henry LOVES it. 

Luckily, there just happens to be an exotic animal haven about an hour away from us. That weekend, we headed down to the Lazy 5 Ranch with Grammie and Pappy. We excitedly told him that we were going to a really fun zoo where he could pet some animals.

"Can I pet horsies?" he asked.

"Yes! They have horses!"

"And bull cows?!?"

"Yes! They have bull cows!"

"And ALLIGATORS?!?"

"Well, no, you can't pet alligators...but they have barns!"

"I LOVE BARNS!!!"


As we drove up, it was clear that this time, this birthday event exceeded even his 3-year-old expectations.
"Hello, llama in pajamas. Why are you backing into a wall? My sister and I give great hugs."

The Lazy 5 Ranch is basically a drive through petting zoo. Not only are visitors able to pet all sorts of exotic animals from giraffes and camels to llamas and longhorn cattle, the ranch also gives out buckets of feed in order to ensure close-up interaction. Visitors can opt to drive through the ranch in their own cars or ride a horse-driven wagon around the property. 

We chose to go all out for this occasion. Wagon ride, here we come!


Henry was so excited, Grammie had to restrain him from launching himself at the emus.

"Look, Mommy, a reindeer! I LOVE REINDEERS! Look, Daddy, a llama! I LOVE LLAMAS!"
On the subject of cow tongue, he remained ambivalent. 



Sometimes I fear that Henry gets overlooked, sandwiched between his two siblings, so my heart was full as I watched my sweet boy soaking in a day all for him.

At three-years-old he is his own little person. He is good-natured and curious and full of mischief. He is not afraid to pick up spiders. He imitates everything his big brother does and has become an expert at making his little sister giggle. This summer he tasted a frog "to see if it was yummy." (It was not). I have seen him, belly to the ground, engrossed in the activities of an anthill for a solid 20 minutes (which is the equivalent of 5 hours in adult time).

Sometimes, out of the blue, he will rush up, give my legs a big squeeze and whisper "I love you, Mommy," and give me a quick little kiss on the knee before dashing away.

He has playfully pressed himself into every crevice of my heart.






We ended the day at home with dinner and cousins and cupcakes - animal cupcakes, of course!

Adorable fondant cupcake toppers made by SWEETandEDIBLE on Etsy



"Mommy, this is the best day ever!" he grinned.

Happy birthday to Henry, the best Halloween treat of all.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Joann's Overnight Cheese Grits


I am always on the lookout for great go-to recipes. You know the kind; amazingly delicious, yet surprisingly simple. The kind of dish that always gets recipe requests when you take it to a party. The kind of dish that requires you to beat off your husband and children in order to save said dish for party.

I recently came up with an idea for the best way to find a no-fail, crowd-pleasing recipe. Here it is:

1. Find a pastor's wife.
2. Ask for her go-to potluck dish.
3. Make that dish.

Chances are that the pastor's wife has attended more church suppers than she can count and has eaten more potluck dishes than she can even name, managing to snag several amazing recipes along the way. Or, if she's like my friend Lisa (also a pastor's wife), she has ample opportunities to test out her own recipes on the congregation until they are "go-to ready". (Lisa's yummy recipes available here.)

It just makes sense. These women must have a whole collection of go-to recipes. I bet the Food Network could do an entire series on it: Today, on this episode of "Church Lady Cooks," Tater Tot Casserole and Jell-O Salad! 

On second thought, maybe we should just give Lisa her own show.


At our church, our pastor's wife Joann, has a famous recipe for cheese grits that gets passed around the congregation as often as the offering plate.

 Joann's recipe is, of course, amazingly delicious, yet surprisingly simple. And it's always a hit.

I'll admit, growing up I never liked grits. I always thought grits looked like somebody mixed up a batch of Elmer's glue and wet sand, and they kind of tasted like that too. But that was before I learned the secret to amazing grits. And that secret is CHEESE. 

This recipe is basically a poorly veiled excuse to eat an obscene amount of butter and cheese, which is great, because I am always looking for an excuse to eat cheese.
***

Begin by boiling 3 cups of water. Then add 1 cup of stone-ground grits (not instant).

Stir regularly for 10 minutes.
Keep stirring! Luckily, this is the hardest part.
Add a stick of butter to help the grits not taste like glue and sand.

And seasoned salt...

...some beaten eggs...

...and the star of the show...

...CHEESE!!

Spread into a greased 9x13 pan. Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight. In the morning bake uncovered at 325 for an hour.

I got a little fancy here and added some ham after the cheese.



In the version below, I used white cheddar and added some cooked breakfast sausage and green onions! Oh, the possibilities!


Thanks, Joann!

OVERNIGHT CHEESE GRITS

3 cups water
1 cup grits (white or yellow stone-ground, not instant)

1 stick of butter 
1 teaspoon seasoned salt 
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar 
2 beaten eggs

The night before you want to serve bring 3 cups of water to a low boil. Stir in the grits and boil on low for 10 minutes, stirring regularly. After ten minutes remove from heat and add all the remaining ingredients. Spread into a greased 9x13 pan. Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight. In the morning bake uncovered at 325 for an hour.


NOTE: If you want to make it more like a casserole you can add ham or sausage or even some veggies (diced pepper, green onion, etc). If you use ham or sausage, OMIT the salt.

If you are serving a crowd, you can double the recipe and still bake and serve in a 9x13 pan!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Kindergarten is Kicking my Butt

Jack started kindergarten this year. He has a summer birthday, so instead of sending him to full-day kindergarten at an elementary school, we decided to send him to a half-day kindergarten at a preschool. We are treating it more as a Pre-K and planning on sending him to full-day kindergarten next year.

We're considering this "Kindergarten: Round 1" and I'm so glad because kindergarten is kicking my butt.


Don't misunderstand me, Jack is doing great! He loves school. He can't always tell me what he is learning, but he never forgets what he ate for snack or which friend played what Power Ranger at recess. Thank goodness for newsletters from the teacher.

I, on the other hand, have been somewhat blindsided by this rapid change of pace that comes with having a school-aged child. If I've seemed a little scarce lately it is because all of my mental energies are being harnessed by this thing called kindergarten.

Just getting out the door in the morning is like my own personal Mommy Hunger Games, except that in The Hunger Games Katniss battles vicious monsters and opponents in order to stay alive and I am trying to get 3 small children dressed, fed and in the car in order to get to school on time SO IT'S BASICALLY THE SAME THING.

No matter how early we get up, no matter how much preparation is put in the night before, countless OBSTACLES arise to keep me from my goal as the precious minutes tick away. It's like some crazed gamesmaker is behind the scene plotting ways to make me lose my mind. Quick! Topple an entire box of Cheerios on the floor! Hide the shoes! And as soon as they're walking out the door, MAKE SOMEBODY POOP!! MWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!
Curse you, Seneca Crane!!
Sometimes I look towards the sky to see if someone has sent me a little parachute package of Xanax BUT NO ONE EVER DOES.
"Those are not the clothes I put you in!!"
Most days I call it a success if Jack makes it to school wearing actual clothes instead of a costume. I give myself bonus points if his hair is free of food debris.

There has been one day since school started when I woke up extra early, fixed his hair and pleaded with him to wear a collared shirt and stain-free pants. That day was picture day. Except, when I picked him up from school his sweet teacher said, "Jack looked so handsome today, but picture day is actually next week!" Unfortunately, since I had already spent all my effort on fake picture day, by the time real picture day rolled around I was like just wear whatever! I have 8,000 pictures of you on my phone anyway!

And if getting to school is a scene from The Hunger Games than coming home from school is exactly like The Shawshank Redemption. Or The Green Mile. Or any movie that involves prison where the inmates are making trouble and trying to escape and the warden is all DO YOUR HOMEWORK OR ELSE NO DINNER!!

But seriously, homework? I don't remember agreeing to homework when I brought my cuddly little eight pounder home from the hospital.

 On the first day of school Jack brought home a worksheet for homework and I realized that we did not have one pencil in the entire house. Sure, we bought all the supplies on the list for school, but it did not even occur to me to buy some supplies for home. And I am a former elementary school teacher. THE SHAME. That first day Jack completed his homework in purple crayon. OH THE SHAME!

One day last week he came home with this:

I don't know if I was more panicked over the words "Family Project" or "cut and glue."

Turns out it was "cut and glue" because when I went out and bought pencils for the house I totally forgot about kid scissors or glue sticks, but giant shears and rubber cement work just as well, right?
"Just don't inhale, Honey!"
Of course, then Henry decided he needed to use the "special glue" on his own "homework," and that is how we ended up trapped in the kitchen for an excruciating amount of time. Just like prison.

Thank goodness I get a re-do at kindergarten next year. Hopefully by next year we will be fully stocked on school supplies and I will have figured out how to get the kids out of the house without tears or bloodshed.

Otherwise, I will just have to play dumb and NEVER EVER admit to the teachers that I used to be one of them. What? It's not ok to complete homework in crayon? Well, it's not like I have a college degree in this or anything! OH THE SHAME.



Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Very Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

This chocolate chip cookie recipe has been perfected for years. It's been tweaked and fine-tuned, tested on everyone from potlucking neighbors to birthday partying kids. After countless hours in the kitchen and many, many batches, the Very Best Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe was created.

And then I stole it from my mother and claimed it as my own.
(And if that's not some sort of metaphor for motherhood, I don't know what is.)



These chocolate chip M&M cookies were always a hit around my house growing up and now I love making them with my kids too. No matter the occasion, when it comes to these cookies, there are never any leftovers.



Start with 2 sticks of butter, softened to room temperature. Just leave them on the kitchen counter a few hours before you make your cookies - no microwaving!

Extra-cute kitchen helper is recommended, but not required.

Mix all the "wet" ingredients together: butter, brown sugar, white sugar and vanilla. You can use a mixer, but mixing by hand works just as well too. 

Next, mix in 2 eggs. 
Be sure to pick out stray eggshells after Extra-Cute Kitchen Helper insists on cracking the eggs into the batter himself. 

Now add the "dry" ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt. Many recipes instruct to mix the dry ingredients together before adding them to the batter, but I've found it doesn't really make a difference either way in this recipe.

Personally, I have never liked the taste of raw cookie dough. 
I think Jack likes it better than the actual cookies.

Finally, stir in the chocolate chips! 

This dough can be made ahead of time and refridgerated until you are ready to make your cookies.

Roll out balls of dough to desired size. Mine usually end up on the larger side because I get lazy and don't want to be in the kitchen making tiny cookies for hours. 

If you're adding M&M's, press them into the tops of the cookies before baking. I love the M&M's because they add a wonderful, sweet crunch and help the cookies keep their shape. 

Bake at 375 degrees, on the middle rack, for 8-12 minutes. The baking time will depend on your oven and the size of your cookies. How do you know when they're done? As soon as the tops start to set and the edges brown, take them out!
Just a couple more minutes...

The most important step in this recipe just may be to NOT OVERBAKE. The cookies should still be doughy and gooey on the inside. (If you're worried about salmonella in raw cookie dough, just know that I've been eating theese cookies for years and I'm still here.)
Perfection!


And they're Henry-approved!




THE VERY BEST CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Makes 1.5-2 dozen

-2 sticks of butter, softened
-1 cup packed brown sugar
-1/2 cup white sugar
-1 tsp vanilla
-2 eggs
-2 3/4 cups flour
-1 tsp salt 
-1 tsp baking soda
-1 bag (12 oz.) chocolate chips
-M&M's (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Mix together the butter, brown sugar, white sugar, and vanilla. Then mix in the eggs. Next, mix the flour, salt and baking soda into the batter. Finally, add the chocolate chips.

Roll out balls of dough to desired size. Optional: press M&M's into the top of each cookie before baking. Bake at 375 degrees on middle rack for 8-12 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of your cookies. They are done when the tops start to set and the edges are barely brown.  

Finally, check out this resource for the science behind a great chocolate chip cookie!