Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snowbound



Another experience to add to our list of 'new life experiences'. We became snowbound late Friday night. We had a heavy snowfall that left us trapped at our house. We heard the reports of the impending snow... but really paid it little heed. I went shopping (twice) on Friday for provisions for my husband's birthday party - and was met with an onslaught of panicked shoppers. It wasn't until I was at the check-out, standing behind another five people with laden carts (with every check-out the same), that it occurred to me that, perhaps, I should be buying provisions?!

Nah. I decided. It appears that our experience of snowstorms in Chicago was quite a misleading example: snowplows were ready to catch the first snowflakes before they hit the road, stores remained open, and really, not too much snow would fall. It was just really cold. Not too much of an imposition at all.

When some of our friends were not able to make it to our party on Sunday as their road (and ours) had not been cleared, it began to dawn on us that this whole storm-warning thing did have some credence. We instructed the kids to go easy on the milk. Our other guests (neighbors) were able to make it to the party once a clear passage had been shoveled between their driveway and ours.

Darling husband did a massive effort clearing our driveway - some 70 meters long covered with almost 2 feet of snow - attacking it with Olympic-like fervor. We were very sad to hear that a neighbor, whom I had just met a couple of weeks earlier, passed away after having a snow-shoveling-provoked heart-attack. He was only 52. I instructed exuberant snow-shoveling husband to take it easy. This whole beautiful, soft, fuzzy, romantic snow thing has a sinister side.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

First snow


What excitement. The first snow of the season fell in our OWN garden yesterday! This was the first snow we haven't had to share... EVER! What a joy to have our very own snow. For my husband and I, snow is still quite a novelty - having grown up in snow-free areas. Our children have grown up with snow in Chicago - but in a purely urban environment so we had to share our snow in the parks, and on the streets... and it was often just too cold to make a park trip to have a quick snowball fight.

Yesterday we built a snowman together. It was difficult for me not to dominate the building process... given that I was just as excited as the kids. Our neighbors gave us some sleds to play with and my husband burnt off a number of calories carting the kids around until way after dark. My husband made a big pot of Wassail that he had seen his food-hero Alton Brown make. After the kids were in bed, we crashed out on the couch after imbibing this old-fashioned concoction. You can find a version of the recipe here (we made half quantity).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Rake's progress...

We can not get over how many leaves our lovely lush oak trees had been harboring over the Summer... that is until they blanketed the ground! Not some light flimsy blanket either, but akin to one of those heavy, bulky feather eiderdowns of long ago. Not one blanket either, but several blankets being laid down in succession. That damn rain doesn't help - it only escalates our problem, bringing down extra leaves and making the act of raking even harder.

We attempted to rake these leaves... and rake... and rake. We bought a tarpaulin to shift the leaves to the forest at the back of our property. We moved the leaves... moved some more... moved yet more. We built our own Rocky Mountain range of leaves - and with leaves from less than a quarter of our garden!

We sighed and started to remember the number of leaves one had to rake in an apartment: a few minutes to vacuum errant Christmas tree needles and a moment to clean up the leaves dropped from a vase of flowers. Ahhhh... them were the days.

What on earth possessed us to buy 2½ acres liberally peppered with leaf producing machines. Caveat emptor and all that - but why on earth did no one warn us about the hours... nay, days and weeks of raking ahead of us?!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Master 3 turns 4!


Our darling Master 3 turned 4 years old today. My husband and I breathed a huge sigh of relief... we managed to raise him to 4! At times we didn't think we would get this far... as he raced to an almost certain doom or as we trekked off to the ER. Our 'middle child' is frustratingly 'individual', master of his own destiny and was assured to be 'challenging' from an early age. A real conundrum, he has had some behavioral issues at school (totally within his control) yet is the most loving, compassionate and sharing child. He continually astounds, annoys, aggravates and amazes us. We hope we can raise him to a ripe old age as it will be a real revelation to see what he eventually becomes.

Master 4 was extremely happy with all of his birthday gifts. a real sense of wonder and a love for toys means this child loves anything. This makes me happy as we can avoid many of the 'commercial' type toys that his big brother adores. The 'winner' toy was a Melissa & Doug Treehouse.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Pumpkin Cookies


 I was all prepared to make a pumpkin pie: I had measured the spices, steamed the pumpkin, retrieved the pie shell... only to find that it was the wrong type! I wasn't prepared to make pastry at short notice, nor let the pumpkin go to waste... so I made cookies instead!

I found this recipe over at Designmom.

Having only one cookie tray meant I had to make two batches. The first batch wasn't very successful - but the second was better as I made the cookies much smaller (heaped teaspoonfuls rather than tablespoonfuls). The cookies spread so make sure to leave lots of space between cookies. These cookies are very soft and are best eaten within a couple of days. I felt a little more color was needed so I added some color to the glaze. Color could be added to the cookie dough give a nice subtle orange tinge (if pumpkin flesh is light in color).

OLD FASHIONED SOFT PUMPKIN COOKIES

Ingredients
2½ cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp salt
1½ cups sugar
½ cup butter (1 stick), softened
1 cup pureed pumpkin
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

Glaze
2 cups powdered (icing) sugar
3 tblsp milk
1 tblsp melted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract

Method
Preheat oven to 350℉. Grease baking sheets.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and set aside. Beat sugar and butter in large bowl until well blended. Beat in pumpkin, egg and vanilla extract until smooth. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto prepared baking sheets.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until edges are firm. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely. Drizzle glaze over cookies.
Glaze
Combine glaze ingredients in small bowl and blend until smooth. Add color to glaze if desired.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Post-Halloween post



Such a delayed post... but I thought you might like to see the kids in costume.

This was the first year we had to contend with rain on a Halloween night- what a shame. With such long walks in our neighborhood, this seriously curtailed the trick-or-treaters. This was also our first Halloween as 'householders' and we had to be prepared for trick-or-treaters arriving. As we have a long driveway, I sat near the road with a candy supply, while my husband took the kids out treating.

Master 5 worked out his own costume using pieces from a skeleton costume, and a cape and cap my mother had lovingly made him. He started off being a 'dead magician' with an oversized hat... but when he added the devilish horn cap, he looked quite frightful. Master 3 dressed up as a 'mighty knight' and Little Miss wore a hand-me-down Koala suit. I was so happy that we managed to avoid 'commercial' character costumes.

One of our neighbors threw a Halloween party on Friday evening - complete with lots of games and tasks for the kids: crafts, apple bobbing, ring toss, musical pumpkins, donut-eating (on a string - no hands!). This was so wonderfully unexpected and so-well organized.

Master five quickly designed his jack-o'-lantern and I carved it for him. Thankfully we left this to the last minute as the squirrels ate all our decorative pumpkins and were not shy about eating carved pumpkins either (the macabre remains of a devoured head greeted us the next morning).

Monday, October 26, 2009

More Pumpkins!


I made a promise of donating a dozen decorated cupcakes to Master 5's school fair... without realizing that we were out of most of the ingredients I needed (thanks to my husband's pancake making!) Once I bought the ingredients, and the cakes were made late at night, I had a small window of opportunity to decorate the cakes on the day they were due: between picking up Master 3 from preschool, wrapping a birthday present, ensuring Little Miss had a nap, packing for the family's night away in Northern Virginia, and picking up Master 5 from school. I bought a packet of pumpkin-shaped candy while shopping that morning, and thought that these might be used somehow. With little time to plan, I decided I would make mini-pumpkin-patch cakes.

It is a bad habit of mine to attempt something new when there is no room for error. By the time I had finished decorating the 12th cake, I thought I had just about worked out how to pipe an icing leaf! I also wish I had given some consideration as to how these would be transported - a difficult task while juggling children and a 'delicate' decoration.

We didn't make it to the school fair as we were attending a birthday party. This was a shame as I was hoping to witness my very first 'cake walk'.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pumpkin Soup (with a Thai twist)


With all the abundant pumpkins and squash about, we have been eating a little more pumpkin of late. Beyond Pumpkin Pie and Jack o'lanterns, pumpkins are not such a regular food item in the US. Pumpkin Soup, however, seems to be gaining popularity.

My favorite pumpkin for soup is the Butternut Pumpkin (as it is known in Australia, but referred to as Butternut Squash in the US). I generally make my soup with onions fried with cumin seeds, cubed pumpkin, chicken broth, and cream. I make this dish more kid-friendly by sprinkling with crisped bacon bits (bacon cut into small squares and cooked in the microwave between sheets of paper towel for 2 to 3 minutes or until crisp), and/or serving soup with cheesy garlic bread (crusty bread slices spread with garlic butter and grated (sharp cheddar) cheese and baked in the oven for 10 minutes or so).

I have been frantically searching for a recipe I used several years ago that used Thai flavors including coconut milk and a very pungent 'blachan' or shrimp paste. I had little luck in my search, but happened upon two recipes that 'kind-of' were like what I was looking for. The recipes are here and here. I combined these into my own version below...


THAI-INSPIRED PUMPKIN & COCONUT SOUP

Ingredients
1 ½ pounds peeled and cubed Butternut squash/pumpkin
Vegetable oil / spray oil
1 tblsp chopped lemongrass (soft white, internal stem only)
3 red fresh birdseye chillies, seeded and finely chopped (or less, to taste)
2 tsp shrimp paste (Blachan)
4 cups water (or vegetable / chicken broth)
1 small onion, chopped
1 (13½ oz / 400ml) can coconut milk (unsweetened)
2 tblsp lime juice
1 tsp salt

Cilantro / kaffir lime leaves / basil / grated lime zest to garnish


Method
Preheat oven to 400℉. Peel pumpkin and cut into cubes. Very lightly coat with vegetable oil and spread onto baking tray in single layer (spray olive oil is good for lightly coating pumpkin). Bake in oven for 30 minutes or until cooked and very slightly browned.

In large pot, fry onion, lemon grass and chilies in 1 tblsp vegetable oil until onion is translucent. Hold your nose and add shrimp paste. Cook for one minute.

Add water or broth and cooked pumpkin. When heated through and pumpkin is soft, puree using a stick mixer. (take care not to splash yourself with hot soup).

Mix in coconut milk and salt to taste.

Reheat soup to serving temperature. Stir through lime juice. Serve soup garnishing with choice of chopped cilantro, torn basil leaves, finely shredded lime leaves or lime zest.

Notes
If time is tight, pumpkin can be added to soup raw (roasting helps to intensify flavor).
Shrimp paste is highly pungent and can knock your socks off. It is available in Southeast Asian grocery stores. The Cooks Thesaurus suggests using Anchovy paste or anchovy fillets mixed with a bit of water as a substitute.

If available, Kaffir Lime leaves are perfect to add to the soup as it cooks - and make a nice garnish if sliced very finely

The soup was a little 'hot' with 3 chillies. Perhaps one would have been sufficient for younger palettes although Little Miss loved the soup and ate three servings! Master 3 ate his without (too much) complaint while Master 5 complained of burning lips and demanded water be on hand (but still ate it!)

Use approximately half the water/broth to begin with. Add more after coconut milk has been added if soup is too thick .

Lemon Huggles

Master 3 is big on *huggles*. This is his description for a hug or cuddle... with a very unique theming element. A 'squash huggle' is the most popular variation where we hug each other very tightly and make appropriate 'squished' sounds. A 'group huggle' includes as many family members that are available. A 'tummy huggle' often ends with a raspberry being blown on the recipients tummy.

I was intrigued when the request was made the other day for a 'lemon huggle'. Anything 'lemon' in nature is not unusual for Master 3 as it is his all time favorite flavor. However, a 'lemon huggle...?!? I asked him to describe it to me. He told me matter-of-factly that one needed to "put some lemon in your mouth... and then give a huggle" as if it was so totally obvious and I was just so clueless.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Play Dough

Master 5 is constructing an artwork at the moment using the theme 'beauty is'. I asked him to brainstorm ideas for what 'beauty is'... he came up with a list, including "hundreds of colors of play dough mixed together". I thought he might somehow be able to incorporate play dough in his artwork - so went in search of a recipe - so we could mix up a variety of colors (but not necessarily hundreds!)


I have been put off by play dough recipes in the past - due to the vast quantities produced, or the massive amounts of cream of tatar required (an expensive addition when all one can buy are small containers at high prices).

I found the following recipe over at Moms who think blog. This blog also includes a number of edible dough recipes!

Here is the recipe.

PLAY DOUGH

Ingredients
1 cup flour
½ cup salt
1 cup water
1 tblsp oil
2 tsp cream of tatar

Food coloring

Directions
Place all ingredients except food coloring) into saucepan. Cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until a ball forms (ingredients form a stiff dough).

Divide dough into several balls. Carefully mix color gel through each ball of dough until desired color is reached.

Store in a ziploc bag or covered container.

Notes
I have been using the Wilton color gel food coloring. I was recommended this brand by my friend Jo - who always came up with 'dramatic' looking cakes - the colors of which I could never obtain with the supermarket food dyes I had been using. These gel colors have been a good investment as they have lasted a number of cake and cookie events.

In the future I will buy bleached, cheap flour - it seemed a little extravagant using organic, unbleached and unbromated flour for this purpose ;-)

Apparently, cream or tatar is a by-product of wine-making.... so if you have a vineyard handy, this might be able to be purchased it in large quantities for a reasonable price.

This is the artwork produced by Master 5. He won first prize at his school and at County level. He won a Highly Commended at District level. 

PostSecret

image from post secret.org
This morning I listened to an interview with Frank Warren - the man behind the idea for PostSecret. I had heard vague things about this project in the past, so it was good to finally know the name of the project and find out a little about the original intent.

The project commenced in 2004 with Frank requesting anonymous postcards be sent to him, describing a personal secret. The postcards must be homemade. The response was huge and Frank still receives some 200 postcards with secrets, via mail, per day. This is in addition to the 'online' secrets he receives via email, Twitter, etc.

Beginning as an experiment, this project has consumed Frank's life and he now does speaking engagements, has written a couple of books, and has assisted in many ways he had never fathomed - including being questioned by the FBI, assisting in Suicide prevention programs, etc.

Fascinating, compelling, upsetting, uplifting... and at times scary! 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Things I have learned in my life so far...

all images from stefan sagmeister site
This is a lovely site. It began as a project by Stefan Sagmeister as a list heading in his diary... and grew into a collaborative project with people submitting imagery relating to things that they believe in or are 'fairly sure about'. There are some lovely and original photographs, montages, video and slideshows - using typography in interesting ways to describe a message or thought.

Photographs by:
Rachel Katstaller & Eduardo Lovo - Designing makes me happy
Marie Loïc Sénamaud - Every Aquisition weighs me down
Ruxandra Duru - Beauty Inspires Me

Found via a Twitter on mapbrisbane

Saturday, October 10, 2009

What's for lunch?

Coolish rainy afternoon... what's for lunch? How about some goat cheese toasties?

CHÈVRE TOASTIES

Ingredients
4 oz soft goats cheese / chèvre
2 slices ham, chopped
½ large onion, chopped
1 tblsp olive oil
2 tblsp chopped herbs (parsley, oregano, basil)
6 slices crusty bread

Method
Preheat oven to 400.
Gently heat olive oil until fragrant. Fry onion until softened and golden in color.
In small bowl, combine cheese, onion, ham and herbs.
Spread onto bread and bake in oven for 15 minutes or until topping is warm and bread crusty.

Notes & Variations
Add some paprika or freshly ground pepper for more adult tastes.
Use thick slices of baked ham (leftover Christmas ham is perfect) or fry several chopped bacon rashers with onion (omitting olive oil).

Friday, October 9, 2009

Doh the deer!

As I raced to get my camera to take a photo of the *cute* deer in our backyard, it decided to help itself to my basil! I was horrified to see that the deer had decapitated seven full-blooming chrysanthemum plants earlier this week... although I thanked them for resisting the temptation to eat them before our Little Miss's garden party.

When we moved in to our house, I mentioned to several neighbors my plans to plant a vegetable garden next season. This statement was met with non-subdued guffaws and wishes of 'good luck'. Witnessing up to nine (yes, 9!) hungry deer in our garden at one time, and being informed that deer can easily jump 8 feet from a stationary position... means that a vegetable garden might indeed be a challenge.

I tried to thwart devouring deer by planting herbs close to the house. Obviously, with the deer adding my herb garden to their smorgasbord, this hasn't been totally successful. I now declare it deer season in our garden. My planned arsenal of weapons is going to include an exuberant 3 and 5 year old with flailing arms, and some strategically placed cayenne pepper.

Does anyone else have any suggestions?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

52 Suburbs

all images by Louise Hawson
I was really inspired by the 52 Suburbs project undertaken by Louise Hawson after reading an interview with her at Inside Out. The year-long project is based in Sydney, Australia - Louise's home town for over 30 years - and focusses on one of Sydney's 637 suburbs each week. I totally agree with her philosophy of forcing herself to look at a city through tourist / new eyes to "search for the beauty in the 'burb". Louise sees this beauty in people, architecture, history and nostalgia, nature, a fair share of tattoos and the purely mundane.

I love how Louise juxtaposes (most often two) beautiful images, using texture, shape, color, pattern, number, ethnicity, concept... as the relationship.

All photographs by Louise Hawson

Monday, October 5, 2009

Kia Hing-Fay

all image by Kia Hing-Fay

What a delight to reconnect with an old friend Kia. I was checking out the Australian Inside Out blog site and came across Kia's gorgeous crocheted rattles, digit dolls and applique kits. With a unique name like Kia Hing-Fay, it had to be my lovely friend from Brisbane! We had lost touch when Kia and her husband Chris moved to the UK... then we left for the US. I'm always amazed how the internet can play such a role in reconnecting broken links.

All photographs by Kia Hing Fay

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Virginia State Fair



We picked up Master 5 from school yesterday afternoon and drove straight to the Virginia State Fair, just north of the capital Richmond. We were curious about what it involved and how much of an agricultural emphasis it might have. As it turns out - not as much as we are used to. In Australia, the local 'show' or 'Ag show' was always a must-go-to event. At least for my and my husband's families - who were rural-based. Given that this was the *state* fair in a state of almost 8 million people, we were expecting something a little larger... our 'local' small-town shows were much bigger events.

We started our visit at the agricultural side, looking at producers stands, giant pumpkins and various livestock. Thankfully Master 5 didn't find a 1000+lb at the pumpkin patch (at 60¢ per pound!) The kids spent some time in the best sand-box alternative: a corn-box! Our Little Miss was entranced by the animals, particularly the baby animals at Young McDonald's Farm.

Intrigued by the unusual names for fair *food*, we decided to try a few items that we had heard about. As a family, we sampled flavored honey, fresh apples, BBQ pork and beef (with sides of coleslaw and beans), a funnel cake, elephant's ear, fried Oreos, toffee apples... So much sickly sweetness - I was very surprised that we walked away not feeling really ill!

After we ate, we visited the rides. What a hit. We had to drag the boys away before it was too too late. Going along on a 'school night', and a Tuesday night at that, was a great idea as the crowds were manageable and the boys didn't have wait times for rides. We will be back next year.

Garden Party


Our new garden provided the perfect excuse to hold a garden party to celebrate little Mietta’s first birthday. We were joined by friends David, Bernadette, Aidan and Mikayla, Gabrielle, Craig, James and William (our ‘Virginia’ friends from Australia and Chicago). 

Having moved only two weeks before meant we weren’t as organised as we hoped to be... but managed to rustle up a party anyway! Paul decided he was going to relive his birthday past - and rustled up some chocolate crackles and fairy bread (with imported copha and hundreds & thousands). I made ‘garden themed’ sausage caterpillars, cupcakes and grilled/roasted/fresh vegetables. 

The weather was beautiful and the lovely established trees in our garden provided a wonderful shady setting. We didn’t need to organise any party activities as WE HAVE A BACKYARD! We hadn’t realised the potential to entertain seven kids so effortlessly with forest to explore, a treehouse and space to run, hide and generally ‘muck-about’ in.

Be sure to check-out my ‘alternative’ blog over at rumsummum.blogspot.com

Photo: Mietta enjoyed her birthday cupcake


POST NOTE May 2013: 
This post originally appeared in my previous blog: gearon.org 

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pumpkin Patch





Yesterday we visited a *real* pumpkin patch. Our experience of pumpkin patches has been limited to a wholly urban experience whilst in the City of Chicago with crates of identical pumpkins delivered to an inner city park. These were wonderful events for us due to the novelty value and festival atmosphere.

There really was something special about yesterday's visit to Miller's Farm: being transported to the pumpkin patch via a 'hay ride', then immersing ourselves amongst several varieties of growing pumpkins, still attached to their vines. It was an ideal opportunity to explain to the kids how food is produced.

Our eldest had a hard time choosing amongst all the pumpkins. That is until he had found the largest he could find - some 35 pounds worth! Master 3 was happy with a modest white-skinned pumpkin. Our Little Miss was content to frolic amongst the vines.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

New born babies

image by Thierry Bouët
Before I had children, I was accustomed to seeing the TV / movie 'newborn' - a robust, alert and rounded baby, covered in strawberry jam and cream... and thought "Awww. How cute!" During the prenatal classes we attended while expecting our first baby, we were shown a slideshow of shriveled, scratched, red, asymmetrical and emaciated babies. The room full of first-time expectant parents collectively sighed for the poor parents that received these very odd looking creatures. Our midwife explained to us that this is what newborns actually look like. The class then gave a collective, slightly horrified, shudder. We had all obviously been sucked-in by the six-month-old-baby-posing-as-newborn from TV. Although, I think we all were convinced that our babies would not look quite this *awful*.

After giving birth to our first child, we met the most-beautiful creature we had ever laid eyes on - and so not like those other ugly newborns. Obviously our photos lie - as the baby in the photos does not look quite as beautiful as we seem to remember him being. That is the thing about newborns... they are so incredibly special (once you have laid eyes on your own)... and look this way so fleetingly, changing so rapidly once in the outside world.

I was impressed by a series of photographs I had seen eariler this year. French photographer Thierry Bouët took a series of photos of newborns, within their first hour of life. Now I don't look at such photos with horror - but appreciation, joy, happiness... and with teary eyes. See the slideshow and audio commentary here.

Of course, I had to revisit our own little beauties...



Top photograph by Thierry Bouët bottom photographs by Anne