Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Not-So-Perfect Cheesecake

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in"
 -Leonard Cohen
I don't have much of a sweet tooth. I'd rather skip the pumpkin pie for an extra helping of mashed potatoes and gravy. To be honest, I don't care much for pumpkin pie at all, which is how cheesecake snuck it's way into our Thanksgiving in the first place. 

Cheesecake is one of the few desserts I do enjoy, so ever since I became old enough to contribute to the Thanksgiving menu, I've made a pumpkin cheesecake in lieu of the traditional pumpkin pie. Over the years, it's become one of the staples that I associate with Thanksgiving -- turkey, stuffing, pumpkin cheesecake. It's light and creamy with the perfect amount of cinnamon-y pumpkin flavor. Unfortunately, there is one flaw in my cheesecake that bugs me to no end each year. Every year I bake it and every year it cracks.

I usually disguise the crack with whipped cream, but this year I was determined to make a perfect Pinterest-worthy pumpkin cheesecake.

I stayed up late one night researching no-fail cheesecake baking methods. Some recipes swear by the water bath technique. Others suggest adding a little cornstarch to the batter. Whatever tricks and tips the recipes recommend, they all preach the importance of cooling the cheesecake very slowly. Whatever you do, DO NOT open the oven door while the cheesecake is baking, which would cause a dramatic temperature decrease. Some bakers even suggest leaving the cheesecake in the oven for an hour after baking to let it cool gradually.

This year, with the help of a handsome little sous chef, I put all of this advice to work. We added cornstarch to the batter, I prepared the water bath and shut the oven door with my fingers crossed.

Periodically, I peeked through the oven window. My cheesecake was progressing beautifully. I've done it! This will be the year I make the perfect pumpkin cheesecake! I triumphantly declared to myself. Then I heard a little voice behind me,

“Look, Mommy! Our cake is going to be so yummy!” I turned and to my horror, saw my son peering in at the cheesecake, the oven door hanging wide open.

I screamed. I stomped. I threw a dish towel on the floor. I may have banged my head against the refrigerator. It was not pretty.

And then I saw little tears beginning to well up in my son’s eyes, “I’m sorry, Mommy, I just wanted to peek at our yummy cake.”

Our cheesecake came out of the oven with a crack this year. Actually, it was more like a giant crater. And somehow, despite the crack, it was still delicious.

Also, I'm an idiot. 

Who cares about baking the perfect cheesecake? I'd rather bake a million cracked ones with my son. Who cares what's on the table as long as we're around it together?

This year, I'm thankful to gather hand-in-hand with the people I love.

This year, I'm thankful for my children who are teaching me not to focus on imperfections, but on the beauty in the flaws.

This year, I'm thankful for my husband who loves me, cracks and all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Baby's Smile

It's my very favorite way to start the day. Not with coffee or a brisk run, not with a long, hot shower (though I hear those are lovely), but with my baby's smile.

As I crack open her door I spy her in her crib, facing away from me. She stiffens as she hears the noise and cranes her neck to investigate.

Then she sees me. 

"Who's that? It's MOMMY!!!!!"
And she smiles. It may start with her lips, but it quickly spreads across her joyful face, her eyes twinkling, and radiates all the way down to her curly, kicking toes. It’s my MOMMY! her smile shouts. 

It is love, as only a baby can express: a gummy mouth open wide and tiny hands flailing in excitement. 

These, I think, are special smiles that babies reserve just for their mothers. Daddies are strong and scratchy and silly, but Mommy. Mommy is the soft, warm haven that gently guides her to sleep. Mommy is the constant companion whose hip provides the perfect perch.  Mommy is the steadfast beacon for which she searches when the unfamiliar creeps a little too close.

So, Sweet Girl, this Mommy is relishing your joy-filled smiles. I'm collecting them and holding them close because every new day pushes you closer to childhood and further away from this precious little bundle of affection wrapped around my hip. 

I know that one day soon your smile will turn to a frown as I tell you "No!" 

I will pull you back as you try to toddle off by yourself. You will scream and fuss when I brush your hair or, heaven forbid, make you eat a vegetable or put on shoes. And I will take a deep breath and remember these smiles.

I will hold tight to these happy smiles when, one day, you storm off as I tell you that you're not allowed to watch that movie, or wear that skirt or go out with that boy. 

I will cling to these smiles when our relationship becomes a constant push and pull of wills, you attempting to to exert your independence and me still trying to shelter and guide, because you will always be My Baby

You see, I was only meant to be your haven, your companion, your beacon for a short while. I am a place holder, really, standing in the gap, meant to point you to the One who gave you to me.

These smiles will be the tokens I keep as I learn to let go.  

So now, while you are My Baby, grinning just for me, I am hoarding your special smiles each morning. I am trying to memorize your happy little mouth and I am giving thanks to God that I have been blessed to know My Baby's smile.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I'm Doing a Marathon!! Well, Sort of...

I learned early on how to participate in athletics
without actually participating in athletics. 
Ok, I'm not actually running in the marathon.

The last time I did any sort of running was for cheerleading practice back in high school. Our coach made us run one mile in 10 minutes or less after each practice. I usually ran it in 9:59, staggering across the finish line, gasping for breath, MERE SECONDS AWAY FROM DEATH. At least that's how I remember it.

No, I will not be running at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh Marathon & Half Marathon.  I will be stationed under a nice shady tent surrounded by delicious cupcakes. I mean, somebody has to man the tent! Those cupcakes aren't just going to hand out themselves!

Maybe I should back up a bit.

You might remember, about a year and a half ago, I joined up with some friends (and our kids!) to hold a cupcake bake sale to raise money for Sixty Feet.

Sixty Feet is a non-profit organization that is very dear to my heart and I am so excited that it has been selected as an official charity for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh Marathon!

What is Sixty Feet? It is an INCREDIBLE organization whose mission is to bring hope and restoration to imprisoned children in Uganda. Imprisoned children? YES. Their website can explain it a lot better than I can. Please take a minute to check it out. 

One of my favorite things about this ministry is that it was started by a few regular families; a few regular families that look a lot like my regular family. These regular families, living in the Atlanta area, learned of a need thousands of miles away in Uganda. They were deeply moved by the story of these suffering children. Rather than just shaking their heads, offering up a prayer and moving on with their day, they decided to DO SOMETHING.

They started Sixty Feet. I came to know about this organization early on and I have loved watching it grow, expand and spread across the country. I am blessed that my family and I have gotten to be a small part of it.

This spring my friend Kaylyn and I will be volunteering at the marathon on behalf of Team Sixty Feet. Today, I'm asking YOU to catch the vision and join the Sixty Feet family as well. Here are some ways you can help.

1. RUN!!
Sign up to run the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon as part of the Sixty Feet team! The race will be held in Raleigh, NC on Sunday, April 13, 2014.  Encourage your friends and family to participate, collect pledges and RUN! After the race, celebrate with a delectable cupcake party in the Sixty Feet tent! (That's where I come in, of course). For more information and to sign up, click here.

Not a runner? Don't worry, I totally get it. Keep reading to see how you can participate.

Do you live in Raleigh or the surrounding area? Would you like to join me under the shady, cupcake-laden Sixty Feet tent? Of course you would! We still need volunteers to donate sweet treats, cheer on the team and keep things running smoothly.

We are also in need of someone to host the team dinner at your home the night before the race! (Saturday, April 12th) Interested? Email me for more details!

Maybe you aren't local. No problem, I've got a couple more ways to help.

Each member of Team Sixty Feet has been challenged to raise $1,000 through fundraising. We may not be running, but Kaylyn & I have accepted the challenge as well! AND we have an anonymous donor who has pledged to match each donation we receive! Will you help us reach our goal by clicking here and donating on our fundraising page? (All donations are tax-deductible.)

Has your heart been touched in someway by learning about this ministry today? If so, help us spread the word! Share this blog post! Recruit your running friends! Recruit your non-running, cupcake-eating, money-donating friends! Like the SixtyFeet Facebook page to stay informed of the amazing work the Lord is doing in Uganda through regular people like you and me!

Finally, please pray that God will bless our efforts and touch lives through this ministry.

Thank you for letting me share this opportunity with you.

Update: 26.2 miles and a heck of a lot of cupcakes

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Autumn Leaf Sugar Cookies

Autumn Leaf Sugar Cookies: a colorful treat, perfect for any fall table!

Start with sugar cookie dough. Add food coloring. You'll end up with something that looks a lot like play-doh without the salty, bitter taste. 

Yes, here is a tutorial for sweet, sugary play-doh. Just try to keep your kids out of the kitchen when you're mixing up a batch of these! 

Start with sugar cookie dough (see recipe below), divided into equal parts. Add one part dough back into the mixer with a few drops of your color of choice. You may need to add a little extra flour to keep dough from becoming too gummy.
I doubled my dough recipe to create these cookies.
Lazy Baker's tip: Start with the lightest color first (yellow, in this case),
that way you don't have to wash the bowl between colors! ;)

Laziness paying off! Here comes orange!

If you don't have a stand mixer, you can put your dough in a plastic ziptop bag,
add the food coloring, close the bag and squish it around with your hands to mix in the color.

Yellow, Orange, Purpleish Red, Green 

Good rule of thumb: if you think your dough is too thick, it is probably perfect!

After your first round of cookie cutting, combine the dough and roll it out again.
I think the "second round" cookies make for the prettiest.

Why, yes, I do need new cookie sheets! (Hint, hint, Husband!)

Feel free to use my recipe for sugar cookie dough. But don't tell my mother. Her name is Nancy and this her her top secret sugar cookie recipe. Shhhh.....

Nancy's Sugar Cookies
I can usually make 15-20 cookies per batch of dough, however, it varies depending on the size of the cutter. In the photos above, the recipe is doubled. 

Blend Together:
1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tbsp vanilla
2 tbsp orange juice

2 1/2 cups all purpose unbleached flour
pinch of salt

Blend wet and dry ingredients together. 

I like to roll the dough into a ball and cover in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Sprinkle surface where you will roll out dough with flour. Sprinkle top of dough with flour and roll out dough to 3/8-inch thick (I use the width of my pinky as a guide, but if you have giant pinkies, that might not work for you. When it doubt, err on the side of thickness!) You may need to flip the dough around to roll it out. While rolling, check underneath the dough frequently to make sure it is not sticking (if it is, sprinkle with more flour). Cut into desired shape and place on a COOL baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees until cookies are set and barely brown on edges, about 5 minutes. DO NOT OVERBAKE!

NOTE: In order for the cookies to keep their shape, the dough needs to be cold. If you overwork the dough it will become too soft and the cookies will not hold their shape. You can even place your cut-out cookies on a plate or cookie sheet and pop the whole thing in the freezer for a few minutes to guarantee a perfect shape after baking!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The 10 Best Things about This Fall

1. thanks to Henry, these will forever be known as "Munkins" in our house

2. this hat

3. autumn-inspired artwork

4. my super hero squad

5. using your kids as an excuse to dress up

on second thought, who needs kids to dress up? costumes are awesome!
Apparently, Cookie Monster exists in the future (irons, however, do not).
6. trick-or-treating on wheels

7. this guy turned 2

Yes, those are 2 candles stuck in a cookie. Annnnd cue the middle child syndrome.

8. chocolate salted caramel cookies
Seriously. Go make them right now.
9. and these cookies

10. experiencing it all through the eyes of my children