Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Trip to the Zoo

On a recent, gorgeously sunny day in June, Patrick and I spontaneously decided we should go to the zoo.  We'd been talking about becoming members of the zoo for a long time, and seeing as they had recently sent me a $10-off-your-membership coupon, it seemed there was no time like the present.  Claire was scheduled to have her weekly play date with her buddy James, so we invited him and his mommy along, too.  Ends up they were thinking the same thing.  After all, gorgeous sunny June days in Seattle do not happen very often.  And kids (and these parents) love the zoo.

It had been ages since we had been to the Woodland Park Zoo, and I was excited to see some of the new enclosures/exhibits.  We entered by the penguins, and they were putting on a show.  One of the little guys was zooming back and forth passed the underwater window, right in front.  I wheeled Claire right up so she could get a good view.  I don't think penguins are her thing.  She pointed to the bird, but she didn't get excited.  Sigh.  Oh well, there was much to see, so we moved on.

At the petting zoo, Claire became much more animated.  I had been looking forward to seeing Claire show off her animal sounds while at the zoo, because this would be the first time she was seeing the animals in real life.  She does a wicked elephant and lion sound.  But wouldn't you know, the animal she talked to was a cow.  I didn't even know she knew how to say "moo".  Goes to show she soaks words up whether or not she chooses to use them.  Here she is pointing at the cow:
We walked all around the zoo, pointing out the various animals to Claire, and of course making the appropriate sounds whenever we could.  She eventually showed off her elephant sound (though, of course, not when we were at the actual elephants) but sadly her cute little lion's roar never happened.

Her buddy James seemed to have a great time as well.

It didn't occur to me until about halfway through the zoo, when Claire started to lose it, that she might want a slightly higher vantage point.  Poor kiddo, I'm still a little behind the 8-ball about these things.  Next time, I promised I'll let her out more.  Here she is enjoying the meerkats, since she could actually see them! Angela and James enjoyed them, too. :)

We stopped by the Raptor House for a little break and figured we ought to take a family photo because we are not very good at remembering to do that.  Patrick is our resident photographer, and I am absolutely terrible about remembering to take pictures of him, too. 
Look at my daughter.  I have no idea why her leg is up, but she stayed like that for awhile, so it must have been comfy.

Then Claire took her hat off, and being the stellar mommy I am, I put it back on without looking, while talking, which meant I didn't pay much attention.  Hmmm.

I swear I can hear Claire thinking, "Mooooooooom".

Soon after we decided it had gotten plenty warm enough and we were in need of an ice cream to cool off a bit.  Patrick and I opted for the "deluxe" cone.  Ends up this means it is coated in a THICK layer of chocolate and the toppings of your choice.  I went for coconut.  It was tasty but WAY too much.  I got to this point and called it good.

Next time, I think I'll just go for the normal, non-deluxe cone.

Patrick took some awesome shots of the animals while we were there.  Here are a few of my faves,

I especially like this guy.  He lifted his head as if to say, "I see you there."
And here's Patrick's favorite.
Every time he sees this picture he grins.  I love it.

Patrick has become quite the photographer.  Seriously, many of his shots are frame-worthy.  We're gonna have to find some wall space to display his work.  We're gonna need more walls.

And here's the family photog himself.  Had to make sure he was included in the zoo photo shoot :)

So, a great time was had by all on our first family trip to the zoo.  I'm excited we bought memberships so that we can go back whenever we want.  Patrick is already planning his next shots, so he's excited, too.  Have you been to the zoo lately?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

S'mores Pie
(aka Recreating a Restaurant Recipe 101)

Awhile back, Patrick and I had a fabulous dessert at Black Angus called S'mores Seduction.  It looked a little something like this (image found here):

It was absolutely delicious, the perfect blend of chocolatey brownie, graham crackers, toasted marshmallow, and vanilla ice cream.  I knew it was something I had to try to recreate.  Now, I've never recreated a restaurant recipe on my own before.  Previously, I've only searched online to recreate a recipe, but I figured this was a simple enough dish that I could do it on my own.

I started by thinking about the different layers of the dish. The bottom was a graham cracker crust.  Then there was a delicious brownie layer.  On top they had layered rectangles of Hershey's chocolate bars, marshmallows, and graham crackers.  Finally, they topped it all with a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The dish that is served in the restaurant is good for say 2-3 people.  I wanted to make this dish for a dinner party I was attending, so I decided to scale it for 12 people.  After thinking about how to best serve the dish, I bought the following ingredients ( I also used two eggs, 2/3 cup canola oil, and water I already had):

Here's the recipe I developed:

S'mores Pie

2 ready-made graham cracker crusts (the big size, I think 9")
2 brownie mixes (I used Ghiradelli Triple Chocolate)
2 eggs
2/3 c. vegetable oil
2/3 c. water
1 milk chocolate bar (I used Hershey's)
12 marshmallows
3 graham crackers
vanilla ice cream

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  In a large bowl, add the 2 brownie mixes, 2 eggs, oil, and water. 

Using a spoon, stir 40 times until just combined.  Pour half of the batter into each of the graham cracker crusts.
Thanks to Hannah for being my fabulous hand model :)
Bake for approximately 40 minutes.  The batter will be slightly undercooked.  This is a good thing.

Take the pies out of the oven. They should look like this:

Let stand for 10-15 minutes.  The pies will fall a bit, but that just means the brownie portion of the pie will be ooey-gooey goodness. :)

Preheat the broiler on your oven (if your oven has a hi/low broiler option, you want the hi broiler).  Break the chocolate bar and graham crackers into 12 rectangular pieces.  Place 6 pieces of chocolate around the edge of each pie.  Top each piece with a marshmallow.  Then stick a graham cracker in behind each marshmallow (a la a tombstone-- hmm this could be a good Halloween recipe... You could write R.I.P. in frosting on each graham cracker.  Just a thought).

Stick in the oven under the broiler for 3-5 min. just until the marshmallows get gooey and golden brown.  (Note: to help facilitate the gooey-ness, I kept the pies in the oven for awhile as it was cooling down after baking. The reason for this was that we didn't eat it immediately, but I think it was actually unintentional genius on my part.)

When you're done your pies should look something like this:

And, in case your mouth isn't watering yet, here's a gratuitous close-up of the marshmallows: :)

Mmmm, tasty, golden deliciousness.

To finish off the dish, I cut each pie into 6 pieces and topped each with a scoop of ice cream.  It got rave reviews from all.

I'm pleased with how my first attempt to recreate a restaurant recipe turned out.  However, Patrick and I agreed that next time we make this, we'll make the following modifications:
  • We'll make this in a 9x13 glass pan next time.  The sides of the graham cracker crust just crumbled away, and they aren't needed.  Plus, the 1/6 of the pie I made was probably way too much for one person.  A rectangular pan would allow you to cut pieces in a variety of sizes.  I'm thinking you could easily get 16 reasonable servings out of that. (Note: you might need less batter, and/or need to bake it for a different amount of time.  I'll have to play around with that.)
  • Instead of using big marshmallows, I think we'll just sprinkle mini marshmallows all around the dish.  That way the marshmallow flavor is more evenly distributed.
  • The chocolate bar was probably unnecessary.  Although it made the pie look more like a s'more, I think we'll leave it off next time.
So there you have it.  If you decide to try or tweak the recipe, I'd love to hear how it goes.  Do you have any restaurant recipe recreations that have worked well for you?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Step 1 in our Dining Room makeover

My husband knows me well, and knows I have always HATED to paint.  I love the look of painted walls, and we've had colors picked out for several rooms in our house, but I've procrastinated painting because I just didn't want to do it.  We've kept the majority of our walls the builders-standard beige they were when we moved in. It's an okay color, but it has been three years and I'm over the beige.

Patrick and I picked out the color for the dining room (Pure Earth by Behr), but I was more interested in repurposing and decorating the room.  Patrick finally put his foot down and said I couldn't decorate until the walls were painted, and that was the impetus I needed.

I knew there had to be a better way to prep a room for painting (I detest putting up painter's tape), so I did a little surfing on the web for ideas.  My first stop was my favorite go-to blog for all things home improvement, Young House Love.  I thought I remembered seeing a video tutorial for "cutting in" which would eliminate much of the need for taping.  I searched their site, found it, and watched it about 4 times to make sure I knew what to do.  (Find the video here.)  Patrick was kind enough to get all our needed painting supplies, and then I was set to try this out.

Now keep in mind, I am not a good painter.  I may have spent a summer painting houses when I was a teenager, but any skills acquired then were pretty much negated by the extreme fear I felt each day perched up on a 20-foot ladder.  I think I've mentally blocked the whole experience.  So I am definitely a novice-level painter.  But watching the video tutorial was edifying, and I began cutting in along the window frame with nary a piece of tape in sight.  I was amazed!  Could it really be so easy?  Yes, my lines were a tad wobbly in the beginning, but I was able to easily straighten them out, and as I worked, I got faster and faster.

Soon the entire window had been cut in, and I was moving on to the baseboards.  Then those were done and I painted around the kitchen pass through.  That was super easy, and I was feeling like a pro.  Time to tackle the ceilings.  This is where I had a bit of a hitch in my giddy-up.  Sherry (at YHL) had explained that the key to effective cutting in was keeping your brush at eye-level.  How in the world would I do that on the ceiling?

Luckily, Patrick was rolling paint beside me, and as I had been waxing poetic about the joy of cutting-in for an hour, he decided he wanted to give it a try.  Guiding him through the process helped me figure out how to maintain a fairly straight line from below.  After he finished the first wall, I took over, and not 5 minutes later, it was done!  Here's the finished room: 
The color definitely reads darker when the room is not in direct sunlight (see below).  I like it both ways, but now I'm not so sure about the drapes.  I think they might make the room too dark over all.  I may switch them out with the living room drapes to see if that helps.

The next morning, before I got all the painting supplies put away, Claire decided to check them out.  I think she liked them :)

She clearly inherited her dad's engineer brain because she spent a good 30 minutes trying to figure all these things out.

So, now that the room is all painted, I am super excited to start figuring the rest out.  I'll keep you posted. :)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Have You Tried These?

Happy Friday, y'all.

Ok, first let me apologize for my subpar photog skills.  Patrick is our resident photographer, and I have been too busy/lazy to take time to learn our camera as I should.  Being fearless, however, I took the camera off the auto settings to try for a better shot.  It's a bit blurry, but I applaud my initiative. :)

Anyhoo, back to the point of this post.  Have you tried these tasty little treats from Trader Joes?  They are so surprisingly good.  I picked them up on a quick trip to TJs last night.  They were supposed to be a Claire treat.  Ends up I think they'll be a mommy (and probably daddy) treat, too.

My little teacher heart was first attracted to the fact that these are alphabet-shaped cookies. Any chance to get Claire learning her ABCs, don't ya know. I figured they would be like Teddy Grahams, but they come in a big ol' tub at a great price.  They are the perfect size for Claire to pick up, and I don't feel too bad about giving her a cookie, because she has to eat 15 just to eat one serving!

Clearly, she's a fan.

When I got them home and tasted them, though, I knew I was in trouble.  They're like a snickerdoodle cookie that mated with a graham cracker.  Fabulous cinnamon-y taste in a soft-crunch cookie.  I'm in trouble.  Then I tried them with my coffee this morning. Yum to the yum. 

Are they the best little cookie I've ever had? Nah.  But will they be a tasty little treat for the three of us?  Absolutely!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Getting into the home improvement spirit...

Home improvement is something I think about.  A lot.  I have big dreams for how to improve our home.  The trouble is, my skills in the home improvement department are pretty much lacking, and to date, I've never really enjoyed it.  As such, I've had a big home improvement to do list for about a year now, and have only accomplished the "declutter" items.  I know how to do that.

When Patrick and I bought our condo, we never intended for it to be a "forever" house.  We thought we'd be here two, maybe three years tops.  Three and a half years later, we're still here, and it seems we'll be here for a while yet.   So, I guess it's time we start making changes that make it more like our "forever, for now" house.  I decided we should start with our dining room.

Our dining room is tiny.  As in 64 square feet tiny.  Long ago (when we first got married and settled in), we put in a bar height table and our only family heirloom, a beautiful hutch.  It was probably WAY too tight for the space, but with just Patrick and I,  it worked.  After all, the times when 4 people actually had to fit around the table were relatively few and far between.  And for our cookie decorating party it was awe-some because the table was the right height for standing-up decorating, and therefore fit a couple more people around it.
See how there's 3.5 people around one half of the table, with another 2.5 (unseen) people working around the other half (the room is so small it's impossible to get everyone in the shot)?

But when baby made three, we realized fast that our current setup was not going to last.  First of all, bar height table + high chair = not a great combo.  Plus, with the hutch in there, there was no room for the high chair anyway.  So, the hutch found a new life as a TV console (it was the perfect Claire-can't-get-to-the-TV-height), and we sold our bar height table at a yard sale.  Then the room just sat for a month while we decided what to do with it.

The first challenge was that I've been feeling a definite lack of work space in our house.  Pre-baby, Claire's room was my craft room/guest room.  I loved having all my crafting supplies easily accessible so that whenever the mood struck, I could pull stuff out, get my crafty mojo on, and then put things back easily.  When we turned that room into the nursery, my crafts got relegated to the top of my closet and all craftiness stopped.  The few times I've pulled out a thing or two to work on, they never made it back into their neat and tidy storage because I am too short to reach it!  So, I knew I needed to find a way to work some craft storage into the dining room.

The second challenge is that I want the dining room to serve as a dining room,  too, because being able to eat around the dinner table together is important to me.  That means the room needs to be able to serve two functions.  In 64 square feet.  That's not asking too much, right?  I mean, Ikea manages to design entire apartments in less than 200 square feet, so I figure I should be able to design a space to craft and eat dinner in with the space I've got.

So, I'm working on that.  I'm not quite there yet, but I've got ideas ready to implement. For now I've got a blank slate, and I think that's the best way to start.

Don't you agree?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Shredded Chicken Taco Meat

This tasty recipe was passed on to our family by a great family friend from our time is sunny California, Mrs. Rojas.  She (via my mom) taught me all I know about Mexican cooking. It's probably slightly modified from her original recipe, because I don't remember the recipe ever being written down.  Also, keep in mind that the spice measurements are approximate, and she be modified to taste.  I measure in the palm of my hand, 'cause that's how I roll.  Last but not least, you might want to wear gloves when dicing the jalapenos.  The oils from the peppers remain on your hands for a day or two and can irritate your skin (not to mention your eyes if you touch them!)

4-5 chicken breasts
3-4 jalapenos (depending on the heat of the peppers, and how spicy you like it)
2 Tbs oregano
2 Tbs cumin
1 medium onion
Chicken Stock (enough to completely cover the meat, usually 6-8 cups)

Dice the jalapenos and onion.  Put the chicken breasts in a large skillet and drop the diced jalapenos and onion on top.  Sprinkle with the oregano and cumin, and then cover completely with chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover.  The chicken should simmer for 2-3 hours, until meat falls apart when shredded.  (I check by pushing on each breast with the tip of my wooden spoon.  If the spoon goes easily through the meat, it's done.)  When there's about 30 minutes left of cooking time, I remove the lid so that some of the cooking liquid evaporates.  You need some of the liquid to keep the meat juicy, so if it starts evaporating too much, put the lid back on!

Remove the chicken from the heat. Shred the meat while still in the skillet. (I use my wooden spoon and a fork to pull apart the chicken.) Serve immediately.

Easy modification:  If you prefer dark meat (or want to save money), you can chicken thighs for one or all of the chicken breasts.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Claire's First Birthday- Part 2

Claire's actual birthday party happened the weekend after we returned from our cruise.  I had HUGE plans for this soiree, and I was excited to get going.  I will be the first to admit that this party was really for me. After all, Claire will only remember what we tell her and show her in pictures.  As such, I probably put in way too much thought and effort, but in the end, I had fun, and enjoyed the heck out of celebrating my big (little) girl!

Food was, of course, a major part of the party planning for me.  I tried to keep it simple so that prep was not a problem.  It was Claire's birthday, so I thought she should have her favorite.  To date, her all-time favorite food is my chicken enchiladas.  However, those take lots of prep, so I decided to deconstruct them and have shredded chicken tacos instead.  I love that the chicken tastes gourmet, but it's truly a set-it-and-forget-it deal until the very end.  (Recipe to come in the next post)

I paired the tacos with black and/or refried pinto beans, and a mixed green salad with homemade salsa vinaigrette. (Recipe found here)

For dessert, I went a little crazy.  Originally, Patrick and I planned to make cake pops for C's party.  He ended up having a crazy work week, though, and I was too busy to make them myself, so we scrapped that idea.  The thought of little cakes on a stick intrigued me, however, and I became obsessed with the idea of a mini-dessert bar.  After culling recipes and considering dozens of options (no joke), I went with one new recipe, and three oldies-but-goodies.  The winners were: my favorite chocolate chip cookies (Tollhouse, recipe here), yellow cake with choc frosting, brownies, and the new guy, spice cake (Giada's super tasty Halloween Spice Cake, recipe here).  All of these are actually full-size recipes, so I miniaturized them by using my tart pan for the brownies, spice cake, and yellow cake, and a super-duper small cookie scoop. Although I typically prefer to bake from scratch, I used boxed mixes for the cupcakes and brownies because I was looking to save some time.  The results were tasty, and all seemed to enjoy them.

My favorite were the mini spice cakes.  The recipe makes a moist, dark, almost gingerbread-y cake. I topped them with fresh whipped cream and sprinkled them with powdered sugar.

Claire enjoyed some of the treats from the dessert bar, but of course she had to have her very own cake to smash! I used half of the spice cake batter to make her cake.  I purchased a cute little cake pan from Michael's (6 inches, I think) and it made the perfect Claire-sized cake. (With whipped cream standing in for frosting.)

C clearly learned from her cruise birthday fete how to man-handle a cake and wasted no time here. (Worry not, I blew out the candle before letting her actually touch the cake.)  She dug right in and make quite the mess.  Good thing we ditched her dress beforehand.

Before the cake-smashing extravaganza, Claire opened her presents.  Claire is a lucky little girl, and got lots of fun presents.  Some of her favorites were a See'n'Say (classic), Violet- her own talking puppy, and a Corn Popper walker (I totally remember loving these as a kid).

As with any little one, the boxes her presents came in were equally exciting to Claire. (She's really into climbing things lately)

She liked the bubble mower out of the box, too. :)

No kids party is complete without games, but seeing as the two kiddos at this party are 8 months and 12 months respectively, I decided we'd do games for the adults instead.  I know how some feel about party games (cue the eye-rolling from my dad), so I kept them optional.  We had 2 games: Guess How Old?, and How Many Are There?.  Guess How Old? was a series of Claire pictures from Birth to 12 months.  People had to guess how old C was in each picture, and whoever guessed the most right won. (Congrats on the tie, Richard and Angela!)
 How Many Are There? was three jars filled with some of Claire's favorite treats: cheerios, cheese puffs, and graham cookies.  I counted out how many were in each jar (that's right, I counted out 490 cheerios, folks) and party-goers made their best estimates.  The closest guess to the actual number of snacks won (way to go Aunt Amy!).

All, in all, we had a great time.

Many, many thanks to my parents, Patrick, and Claire for the help (and/or good behavior while I worked).  I couldn't  have done it with out you!