Family Traditions

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I love December–it’s my birthday month and I do enjoy Christmas. (although Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday)

I grew up with a mom who liked Christmas–her mom died the day before my 9th birthday and they played the Christmas song Winter Wonderland for her because she loved it so much. But my dad HATED Christmas. Hated it. He would miss family dinners and pretty much hide out until it was over, which wasn’t fun for my brothers and I.

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Of course, I grew up and married someone who hates Christmas. So the boys stay with me for Christmas each year and spend Thanksgiving with their dad. But my sweet husband likes celebrating. He also prefers Thanksgiving but loves doing fun things together and loves making my birthday special and loves seeing the boys’ faces on Christmas morning.

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For years we’ve gone to his parents’ house, but its five hours away. We have a great time and it’s good to get some Grandparent time in, but this is our first winter in this house and we love it here. We want to create special memories here and start to find out special traditions that work for our little family. So this year we are staying home.

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Last night was my big boy’s Winter music program and baby G and I went to cheer them on. In other years they were shy but not this year. They sang and danced and Peachy played the bell (Monkey was on bell duty last year) They were adorable and so proud of themselves.

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Afterwards I offered to take them to dinner. It’s been a while and they love dinners out. They couldn’t decide where they wanted to go and each one vetoed every idea the other had. I was driving in the general direction of home when I saw an option: IHOP.

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I am kind of a food snob and usually would NOT consider IHOP a viable option, but the boys have never been and what kid doesn’t like pancakes for dinner?! So we went and of course they LOVED it. We all had pancakes and bacon and eggs and hashbrowns and hot cocoa and it was a blast.

On the way home we blasted the AC/DC Pandora station and were enjoying it so much we drove around our neighborhood and the one next to ours and checked out all the cool Christmas lights. Some houses really went all out! When we got home we kept the party going and turned off all the lights and turned on the Christmas tree lights and danced around our living room to an old Iron Maiden record. As I spun around under the twinkly rainbow lights with my 3 sweet boys dancing beside me I was the happiest Mama ever.

Our lives are so hurried–rush to school, rush to finish homework and get in bed…it’s nice to just stop for a minute and enjoy each others’ company and do something different just for fun.

We still plan on baking Christmas cookies–both for us and for the children’s shelter nearby. We plan on making ornaments to add to our already-full tree. (I love unpacking each ornament from the years before) We plan on have a big Christmas Eve dinner–and we can each open one small present and a huge Christmas Day brunch and gift extravaganza.

I’m so grateful for the chance to give my babies experiences they will always remember. I still to this day dancing around under our tree with my mom and two brothers. It was Wham! and not Iron Maiden, but the feeling is the same and I know these moments are fleeting.

What traditions have YOU created with your special people?

Baked Sunday Mornings: Antique Caramel Cake

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I really, really love caramel and I wanted to make this cake, but I wasn’t able to line up a dinner party play date for my family so I didn’t want to make a full cake and have it go to waste. Plus, I was able to get some cute, boy-friendly cupcake decorations that I wanted to try out for my guys, so I opted to make a batch of cupcakes instead.

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The batter was quick and easy to make although I was wondering how caramel-y it would end up tasting.

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It used a bit of vinegar at the end and it made me laugh to realize the brand was “Lady’s Choice”–should I be offended?

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I had lots of help from my little cupcake-loving guys. G “helped” fill the cupcake liners and M helped me make the frosting. I forgot to whisk in the heavy cream at the right time, so I added it at the end. Luckily it didn’t mess anything up. Sometimes it’s hard to focus when baking with 3 little boys running around. I *did* add a tablespoon of vanilla extract to the frosting. I don’t think I’m capable of making a cake (or cupcakes) without vanilla in some form.

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I ended up doing spooky red sparkes/knives for the big boys, rainbow sugar sprinkles for baby G, pink sprinkles for me and crystal salt flakes for my sweet man. I ended up “testing” two before I even frosted them, they made about 17 cupcakes, but I did overfill a few of them so they probably should have made closer to 20.

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I was happy with the way they turned out–very rich and caramel-y without being too sweet. I didn’t add any more caramel on top, but I did sprinkle a bit of kosher salt on them to contrast with the sweet caramel. Everyone in my family also gave them two thumbs up.

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I had to take a work call when I had five minutes left on the timer and forgot all about the cupcakes for about 8 minutes. I yanked them out in a panic, afraid I had ruined them. Even though they were a bit darker on the tops than I would normally allow, the finished cupcake was fine, not dry at all.

I will definitely make these again, both as cupcakes and as a layer cake. Go see how the recipe turned out for my fellow bakers!

Next up: Chocolate Velvet Walnut Fudge with Olive Oil and Fleur de Sel.

Spooky Saturday Night

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It was hard to narrow down what to do over the weekend to celebrate the Halloween season. Haunted hay ride? Zoo trip? Museum event? Pumpkin patch? I had a few ideas, then a friend on Facebook let me know that R.L Stine, one of my boys’ favorite authors was speaking at the Texas State Cemetery after dark.

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I am eternally grateful to R.L Stine and authors like him for creating books that capture my boys’ imagination. When they were learning to read, all of the early readers were boooooring to them and I was worried that they would not learn to love books the way I do. I spent hours googling early readers, graphic novels and chapter books that were more on the gory exciting side for them. Of course R.L Stine came up.

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Before R.L (“Bob”) went on, a man named James Preller read from one of his newer books. I’ll definitely add him to our list of spooky, boy-friendly authors.

After the reading Mr. Stine walked past me and I said hi. He told me that Griffin was cute. I wanted to thank him for helping my boys become book lovers, but all I managed was a smile. I think he got it. Authors have always made me far more starstruck than movie stars. The line for autographs was super long, and most of the people there were adults, oddly enough. My boys didn’t have the patience to wait, the three of them wanted to shine their flashlights at the headstones instead.

What spooky things have YOU done so far for Halloween?

The Great Pumpkin

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It’s finally fall(ish) and our first pumpkin of the season went into the oven. I haven’t used gross canned pumpkin in many years. I had once figured fresh was a pain, or wouldn’t taste right or would be expensive. Not only is that just not true (one good-sized pie pumpkin can bake three-four pies) but fresh just tastes better and isn’t artificially orange. (fresh pumpkin bakes up brown, an orange pie or other baked good is a surefire canned giveaway)

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Baked Elements has instructions for making pumpkin puree from a fresh pumpkin, but I didn’t use directions since I have done it lots of times before. I just poke holes (or employ two stabby 8 year to do the job) and put the pumpkin on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake on 225 and go do other things.

This time I started in the evening and by the time it was done (a fork will pierce the skin very easily) it was bedtime so I turned the oven off and left the pumpkin to hang out in there overnight.

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The next day I cut off the stem, reached inside and scooped out most of the guts/seeds (the fun part) then cut it into quarters. Using a fork, I gently scraped off the rest of the stringy bits and seeds Those went into a colander to be cleaned later. Using a large spoon I scooped out the flesh and scraped the skins clean.

The pumpkin chunks went into a large bowl with a lid (there are about 4-5 cups) and when I am about to use the pumpkin in a recipe I will toss a cup or so into a strainer and drain any liquid off before putting it into the food processor to blend until smooth.

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I almost always roast my seeds but this time I used the Baked Elements book and made the Toasted Pumpkin Seed Brittle.

Brittle is so so so easy, and I’m happy most people would assume it was difficult: it makes great gifts when tucked into a cute tin. This recipe is salty and sweet and cinnamon-y and makes me (and all my guys) very happy.

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What side are you on? Team Canned or Team Fresh?

8/8 Cupcakes

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I am so grateful to have a good kitchen this year. Last year for my boys’ birthday I made some pain-in-the butt cupcakes in ice cream cones for school.

My kitchen then was small and cramped and making over 40 cupcakes was in exercise in masochism. I made chocolate cupcakes for their actual party last year and I loved the recipe so much that I decided to use it again this year. It makes a moist, springy cupcake and a rich, delicious cake.

Normally I take a million pictures when I bake, but somehow (exhaustion!) I skipped that this time. I chose to make owl cupcakes because that is their school mascot, and whooooo doesn’t like owls??!

Here was my inspiration:

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And here was my finished cupcake. I used Reese’s pieces instead of M&M’s because they are all the colors I needed and I wouldn’t have to worry about not having enough brown or orange. (Luckily we don’t have any classmates with peanut allergies this year!)

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The kids seemed to like the end-of-day sugar rush but by then all I could think of was getting out of the heat and into some jammies. Luckily when my husband came home he made me this:

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I skipped the ganache this time and went with a basic chocolate buttercream but I highly recommend using the ganache if you are making this as a cake. It is tasty and shiny and beautiful. It also works for cupcakes, but in this case I wanted the Oreos to stick to the buttercream. I was afraid that once the ganache dried it would be hard to smoosh the Oreos into.

Perfect Chocolate Cake:

(Makes two 9″ rounds, one bundt or 18 cupcakes)

Cake:

2 eggs
2c. sugar
2c. all purpose flour
1/4tsp. salt
1/4 c. buttermilk (or 1/2 c. milk+1tbsp. white vinegar–I’ve done both and they both are fine, but this time I used actual buttermilk)
1tsp. vanilla
1c. butter, softened
4 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 c. boiling water

Ganache:

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate (baking chocolate or chocolate chips)
1c. heavy cream
6 tblspn. light corn syrup
1c. heavy cream

Cake:
Preheat oven to 350. Combine flour, sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a smaller bowl combine buttermilk, eggs, baking soda (skip this if you used vinegar and instead add to finished batter just before baking unless you want a volcano science experiment) In a medium-sized heavy saucepan melt butter over medium-low heat. Stir in cocoa powder until combine. Add boiling water and stir well. Pour over flour mixture and stir until just combined. Add buttermilk mixture over and stir until well combined but don’t overmix.

Spray cupcake tins or bundt pan with cooking spray, fill 2/3 full and bake for 18 minutes and 40 minutes respectively. Butter 9″ rounds and line with parchment paper. Pour equal parts batter in each and bake for 30 minutes or until fork inserted comes out clean. Cool completely on a baking rack.

Ganache:

Heat heavy cream and corn syrup until it reaches a simmer. Pour over chopped chocolate or chocolate chips. Whisk until smooth and shiny. Pour over bundt cake or dip the tops of each cupcake. For layer cakes, pour over first layer, add second layer and pour the rest on top, smoothing the sides. Let cool and dry before serving.

I have a feeling I’ll probably use this recipe again for G’s upcoming birthday. I used it last year for his birthday too. Not for him, he got a sugar-free hippie cake for his 1st birthday, but for the grown-ups and big brothers who were helping him celebrate.

Do you have a go-to birthday cake recipe?
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Baked Sunday Mornings: Oopsy Daisy Cake

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I loved this cake, but it came at a weird time. It really is a special cake, and would be perfect for a birthday. But it wasn’t anyone’s birthday and our A/C hasn’t been being freezing up so the house was a little warm-ish and I was baking and sweating and it wasn’t awesome. But I did have help:

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The name made me giggle every time I looked at it, I couldn’t help but think of this.

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The cake was a classic Baked cake, but with two layers instead of the three I’m used to with the other cakes I’ve made. (Sweet & Salty, Lemon Drop) I used local coffee and local organic chocolate (that was on clearance! I may have bought 4 bars, don’t judge) and the cakes baked up intensely dark and fragrant although they did seem to sink in the middle a bit.

That didn’t matter at all once I filled and frosted them. I always bake the cakes one evening and then frost the next day and that is what I did this time. I finished up the cakes at around 1am and for some reason after I added the chocolate and peanut toppings it just seemed like it needed to be a peace sign. I think I may have been delirious.

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The cake was well-received at home:

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and my kid-testers approved:

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I would definitely make the cake again, but it would have to be for a special occasion.

Go see what my fellow bakers made! Next up: Lime Tarragon Cookies with White Chocolate Lime Topping. (Yum!!)