Thursday, December 29, 2011

BlogHer Book Club Review: The Magic Room

I'm always excited to receive new books, especially books that haven't been published yet, and I was especially anxious to read Jeffrey Zaslow's The Magic Room, remembering the joy I took in finding my own wedding dress many years ago (ahem, not too many, though). Though the book was sweet and relatively enjoyable, it didn't provide the magic for me that I was hoping it would.

The book is set up to have each chapter essentially standing on its own, focusing on the Becker's Bridal in Fowler, Michigan. Jeffrey Zaslow visited the salon dozens of times and focused on telling the stories of six women choosing their dresses from Becker's. The stories aren't simply of the trying on of dresses but of how the women got to the point they're at. Between each chapter of a woman's story, backstory of Becker's which has been at its location since 1934. After each woman's story is told, the later chapters further the stories of each woman, but for me, they weren't sufficiently differentiated enough for me to recall which woman was which, so I had to do a lot of flipping back and forth to keep things straight. I wish the stories had been compelling enough that I wouldn't have had an issue remembering who was who.

I was fascinated simply by the history of Becker's, which has remained in the family for four generations now. I would have been content simply hearing about that history instead of sharing the spotlight with the women, some of whom I frankly didn't like. It made the book fairly disjointed for me, but on the plus side, it also meant I could pick it up and put it down fairly easily since each chapter was so self-contained - and relatively short.

This probably isn't a book I would pick up to read on my own, but it isn't my style in the end. And were I to read this not a part of the BlogHer Book Club, I think I probably would have skipped the chapters on Danielle and Heather and the like and instead focused on Becker's - from the back office manager who essentially becomes the character of Franck to make brides more comfortable to how the store transitioned ownership from Shelley's parents to her, which was not a planned, smooth transition.

Not surprisingly, there are tons of things to discuss about the book, whether you've read it or not. Join us at the BlogHer Book Club discussion where this week we're talking about our own experiences of visiting the "magic room" and choosing our wedding dresses. What was yours like?

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of "The Magic Room" by Jeffrey Zaslow for review purposes. I was also compensated for participating in this campaign, although all opinions remain - as always - my own.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tasty Tuesday - Egg Nog Cookies

Yes, I posted a cookie recipe last week. And yes, Christmas was two days ago, but I have another great cookie recipe that I just have to share. First of all, I can't be the only one with egg nog left in the fridge and no desire to drink any more of it, can I? Second, I entered this cookie into a local cookie contest, and it won so of course I have to share with you, right? That's what I thought.

Egg Nog Cookies

1 c granulated sugar
1 c brown sugar
1 c butter, softened
1 t vanilla
3/4 c egg nog
2 eggs
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 t fresh ground nutmeg
2 t cinnamon
4 1/2 c flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar until it comes together again. Add the vanilla and egg nog, then beat again. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well with each addition. Add the baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon and mix well. Add the flour, stirring slowly until mixed.

Drop heaping spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet or sil pat and bake 14-17 minutes until lightly browned just at the very edges. Let cool on a piece of waxed paper or the sil pat to keep them soft and chewy. While they are still warm, sprinkle them with a little extra cinnamon to make them look extra pretty, something I neglected to do but wish I had.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Personality Is Expressed Through Letters To Santa

I know it's already the day after Christmas, but I was busy having fun with my family and spending time with the wee ones, so I have a few posts about Christmas that will be coming up... after Christmas. Somehow, 10pm after a full day of entertaining and being entertained isn't an appealing blog writing time. Besides, I had present to wrap and a house to clean.

On Christmas Eve, the wee ones deposited letters to Santa beside the cookies and milk (and carrots) that we left for him. I had no idea they'd written letters, as it was something they'd apparently took upon themselves to do. Once they went to bed, I scooted back downstairs to read them and promptly started cracking up. They are so my children.

Little Miss wrote her very first letter, very formal and asking for several things that I didn't know she'd wanted. Fortunately, she was very happy with what she did receive. The Angry Birds stuffed animals have been well used already - with the pigs kidnapping Woody and the birds sailing down the stairs with their signature cry trying to knock the pigs away and then saving poor Woody. She's got an imagination.

For those of you who don't read six-year-old:
Dear Mr. St. Nicholas
I would like all of the Puffles in Club Penguin, including the gold Puffle and silver and a bronze and rainbow. I would like some Club Penguins and a Woody that you could pull the pull string and everybody in Toy Story and please give me all those stuff.

Fortunately, Woody was waiting for her Christmas morning from Santa, as was an Xbox Toy Story 3 game. Amazingly, I'd had the foresight to buy her a bunch of Toy Story 3 figures months ago, and those were wrapped under the tree. I haven't heard a word - yet - about there being no Puffles under the tree, but I'm still waiting!

Mister Man took a slightly different and more utilitarian tack:

His translation:
I set things up in fractions by four in Harry Potter and Star Wars (And yes, he did put the trademark marks by both Harry Potter and Star Wars.) It cracks me up that he does that every time he writes either of them. What does he mean by setting things up in fractions?

He was careful not to be too greedy and to only mark the items that he truly wanted because some items are more desirable than others. Note that some are 0/4 (stars?) while some are 2/4 and others 4/4. Apparently some items are more desirable than others.

That said, I am happy that the wee ones aren't focused purely on gifts at Christmas. Mister Man proudly announced to the entire church during the Christmas Eve service that the best thing about Christmas was Jesus being born. Ironically, the priest was aiming for gifts so he could talk about how we all need to say thank you for all the gifts we receive in life. They both told me that they would be happy with any gifts they got, even if they didn't get the ones they'd asked Santa for because they knew that people were thinking about them - and that the size of their gift piles Christmas morning doesn't mean that they're loved because you can't buy love.

Then again, maybe they're just snowing me, knowing what I'm hoping they'll say. Either way, we had a very merry Christmas, and I hope your day yesterday was happy and peaceful, regardless of what you were doing.

So what was your favorite Santa letter?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Random Acts of Zhu Redux

The Christmas shopping I need to do for family and friends is nearly complete, just a couple days before Christmas. I have full faith that I'll get it done, not only because I know what I still need to buy and have time to do it but more importantly because I am financially secure enough to do so. More and more of the families near where I live don't have that same security, and many have no funds in their budget for basics such as coats and mittens, let alone fun toys.

There is an awesome charity organization near me that does something about all this, and has been since the 1930s. Barrington Giving Day is an organization dedicated to making the holiday season doable for many families who otherwise have not nearly enough. On one Saturday, months and months of work by an entire community from schoolchildren to businesses to families and individuals culminates in a morning of giving. All the coats and hats and mittens and books and blankets and toys and diapers and formula have been placed into the middle school gym by volunteers, including lots and lots of students. Every family in the district who is on free or reduced lunch is invited, as are many seniors in the community who are struggling.

Although the organization collects enough to promise each family that comes items, the line starts early the night before in the hopes that they can get the "best" of the items and ensure they get what they need. In fact, as I dropped off items myself at 3pm on Friday, there were already women waiting - as they would wait all night outside in the Chicago cold to get essentials and what they need.

Why was I there dropping off items on Friday? Donations had already closed - and yes, I provided my share. I was lucky enough to have been chosen by Cepia to be a part of their Random Acts of Zhu again this year. I was thrilled to be chosen again, especially as I had gotten an email from the director of the program in August asking if it was possible I might have a similar donation again this year. The ZhuZhu Pets I had been able to provide last year were the hit of the day and one of the first toys gone. Fortunately, Cepia sent me twenty-six boxes of ZhuZhu Pets and accessories, something that shocked my FedEx guy!

I was beyond excited when I received my packages, as were the wee ones. Little Miss had helped me with my delivery last year, and Mister Man was anxious to be able to step in and make a difference this year. I love that not only can the wee ones be involved in this, but they really get and appreciate the giving behind it. In fact, both the wee ones have already asked to donate one of the toys (each) they received from my husband's family at our early Christmas. That is the kind of attitude I love and truly hope to foster in them.

As we arrived at the middle school and began unloading my very full car, I was amazed by the sheer amount of everything headed into the gym. I had seen it last year, of course, but just how much is needed to fulfill the needs of all the families invited surprised me again. There were 330 families who came from the invited list, along with another 63 walk-in families. Every one of them was able to receive coats, hats and gloves for every member of the family (including adults), as well as a book and a toy for each child. There were another 414 families who couldn't attend and 148 senior families, all of whom will receive a $50 grocery store card to purchase food for the holidays. As much as this warms my heart, I also breaks my heart just a little bit.

For the moment, I will bask in the joy, knowing that so many children are able to have a Christmas - and simply stay warm - because of the generosity of so many within our community. I was beyond thrilled to be a part of it through Cepia and the Random Acts of Zhu for 2011. The idea behind donating via bloggers to capture local needs says so much about the philosophy of the company. I know it isn't just me thanking them, and they deserve every ounce of thanks they can get.

I know Barrington Giving Day isn't the only charity out there making this holiday season less bleak for someone. And with the economy stuck in a rut, there are more and more people needing help. Is there something near you that could use just a little bit of help from you?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Letter v2011

I finally received my Christmas cards today. At this point, my friends and family are going to think they're getting a card from me only because they sent one to me. It definitely isn't the case, but ... for some reason I can't manage to order them in time to get them earlier.

That's a big part of the reason I'm posting so late today. I made a deal with myself that I wouldn't post until every card was in the envelope, addressed, and stamped. I'm happy to report that they are now complete and ready for the mail tomorrow morning - hoping they still manage to get there before Christmas (obviously before Hanukkah is a lost cause).

In our cards, we always send out a letter to catch our friends and families up on our lives. It's also a great way for me to put a one page punctuation on our year - something that can go into the wee ones' memory boxes for them to read down the road.

Our cards also always include a photo of the wee ones - especially now that I've started using photo cards to make them more personal. The photo choices were limited this year, unfortunately - though not for lack of trying. This is the photo I ended up using. Honest.

Happy Holidays! For some reason – perhaps because both Mister Man and Little Miss are in school full time – this year seems so much like a repeat of last year, and that isn’t all a bad thing, I don’t think. I even only received my cards a couple days before Christmas once again. I’d say “oops” but that’s been done already.

Mister Man is still at his Catholic school and now in Second Grade. It’s hard to believe that he’s eight years old and will be making his First Communion in May. How is he possibly that old? He’s still doing Tae Kwon Do and has progressed through the entire little kid program. It’s so fun to see him doing his forms – kibon and jun-ji – and to watch him grow in confidence and maturity. He is also continuing in Cub Scouts. He’s greatly looking forward to cave (muddy!) and museum (fun) camping with Jeff again in a couple months, as well as running in the Pinewood Derby (Scouts is the one thing I don’t do). Last year, he took third place with his gold painted, Roman Lego-themed car. It was pretty cool.

Little Miss is also enjoying her first grade year, still in the program where she hears Spanish all day, except lunch, music, art, gym, and recess. It’s amazing to listen to her – especially her accent. I’m happy she’s gotten into the program and made such good friends in it. She is also a scout, although a Daisy. She’ll be selling her cookies for the first time this January (so let her know if you want any!), and she loves all the activities our amazingly creative co-leaders come up with. No, I am not one of them, although I am Cookie Mom. She’s continued with her gymnastics and is now on the preteam at her gymnastics facility, which is designed to have her start competing next year, though I’m not sure we want her to do that quite yet. She loves what she’s learning to do, which is all we care about. It is pretty cool to see how she is just one step shy of a front handspring on the vault, though.

Little Miss broke her arm at her birthday party this year, which of course we held the week after school got out in June. That made for a very quiet summer for them, with much less pool time than we’d anticipated. They did have summer school classes that they enjoyed for the first half of the summer. Just before school began again, my dad and I took them to Minnesota for the State Fair and to see a Twins game, both of which were a hoot. Although we had to pull them both from school for two days, this is something we’ll try to keep doing as long as we can. We again managed to get to Disney twice – once over Spring Break for a conference that was an incredible, pampered experience and again in October. They’re already asking to go again, but I think it’ll be a little while!

My husband’s academic team had great success last year, something he’s very proud of. They just won a tournament last weekend, so he again has high hopes. His moment of excitement came in August when he was called to tape for an episode of an unnamed game show. He and Michelle spent three days on site, visiting and staying with some of her friends while episodes taped. It hasn’t aired, so don’t ask how he did. We can’t say (or we won’t get paid!) until it airs. Between all his extra curriculars at the schools, he somehow still manages to play baseball in the summer – and this year played fall ball, too. Life is a little interesting around here!

The adults of the family also headed to Italy for two weeks in July with two other couples and spent time in Rome and Cortona. It was an amazing vacation, especially the villa atop a mountain where they stayed for a week, with cooking classes and wine tastings and more. Michelle is about ready to move to Italy, but that pesky teaching job gets in the way. This is something they would both like to do again someday, with the wee ones when they’re older.

Michelle has completely adjusted to staying at home and “not working” which basically means doing something all the time, generally for someone else. She’s trying to remove that “sucker” tag from her forehead, but agreeing to be Cookie Mom proves she’s not there yet. The hope is to have Mister Man with Little Miss at her school next year, which would mean only one PTO expecting volunteer hours – that would help a lot. Oddly, it’s not been an exciting year, but it’s certainly been a satisfying one!

I hope that your year has brought you peace and happiness.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tasty Tuesday - Molasses Cookies

I host an annual cookie exchange now. Really, it isn't so much about the cookies as it is about getting together with friends and actually having some time to spend together, chatting and enjoying each others' company. Of course, cookies are involved, and it's all yummy. Just like with bake sales, I don't want to choose something obvious and similar to what others do. I also happened to have just cleaned my cabinets - two days of pulling everything out, tossing it or cleaning it, washing the inside and outside of the cabinets twice and letting them dry then putting everything back again - and discovered a partially full jar of molasses.

That made the decision easy, right?

Molasses Cookies

2/3 c vegetable oil
3/4 c brown sugar
1/4 c granulated sugar
1 egg
1/4-1/2 c molasses
2 1/3 c flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t ginger
1/4 t nutmeg
1/2 t cloves
Additional white sugar for rolling (1/3-1/2 cup)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease your cookie sheets (or get out your sil pats).

In a bowl, beat your oil and sugar until it’s lightened in color and has come together nicely. Add the egg and beat well again. Stir in the molasses (use ¼ if you aren’t huge into molasses or closer to ½ cup if you like the stronger taste – we went about halfway between). Add the baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves to the batter and mix well. Slowly stir the flour into the dough. This will be a stiff dough, more so than a chocolate chip cookie dough and definitely less sticky. The cookies will still be fine.

Prepare a small bowl with the extra granulated sugar. I use my dough baller to portion these out to make a smaller cookie. It made 40 cookies for me, but you can make larger cookies, too. Place a single portion into the sugar bowl and gently roll in in there. You can shape it a bit in the sugar, but don’t push the sugar into the dough. Set them onto your baking sheet, and bake for 9 minutes for smaller cookies potentially up to 11 or 12 for large cookies.

When you take them out, not all the tops will have cracked yet. That’s fine. So long as you’re starting to see cracks in many of the cookies, you’re good to go. If you want your cookies soft and not crunchy, leave them sitting on the sil pat to cool, or put them on a sheet of wax paper. It makes a huge difference. I let mine cool for three or so minutes, then carefully lifted my sil pat to place it on the counter and let it cool the rest of the way. Fortunately, I have three sil pats, so I could rotate them through the batches as I was baking. If you don’t have enough sil pats, the wax paper works just as well.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Third Time's The Charm?

Today was Little Miss's holiday program. Nope, not a Christmas program - in fact, not one song sung mentioned Christmas or Santa or anything along those lines, although one song was a Hanukkah song, which made me giggle. The notes home from the teachers request that we send out children in their Sunday best - though with no need to buy new clothes - and the assurance that they would not play outside and thus risk harm to their spotless outfits.

Last year was a challenge. In Chicago, it had snowed a lot and the children had to wear snowpants and boots just to get to school. I had dress Little Miss in a Christmas dress and carefully styled her hair.

As I watched the other grades come on stage and perform, I patiently waited for Little Miss to appear. So many of the children had beautiful outfits and gorgeously dressed hair. I was jealous of the sparse hair Little Miss still had in kindergarten, but at least she'd look good with what she had. As her class trooped onto the stage, I heard my mother gasp next to me.

WHY is she wearing those shoes? my mother demanded in an angry whisper. I could only shake my head and shrug. Oops? I think I had told her to pack her change of shoes in her backpack but hadn't been clear on which shoes those should be. She was still cute.

This year, things were to be different. I offered Little Miss a choice of two different dresses she could wear, and she chose a cute red one with Christmas trees and such on it. I had her go back upstairs and find a headband to make her hair look cute, then brushed it for her again. I went so far as to send her hairbrush with her to school so she could brush it again before the performance - like my hair, hers tends to look like it's never seen a brush five minutes after brushing. Though it hasn't truly snowed in Chicago yet, it did pour rain yesterday, so I sent Little Miss to school in her "show boots" and ensured that her party shoes were in her backpack. I reminded her to change into them once she got to school. I swear I did.

Unfortunately, I think my mom repeated herself word for word. Well, almost word for word. I'm pretty sure she switched out "boots" for "shoes" since well, she is wearing boots this year.

On the plus side, she wasn't the only one wearing boots, I noticed. And there was a part in the song where she had to do a rolling motion that I think explains a nightmare she woke up with a few weeks ago.

There's always next year, right?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bye-Bye Pull-Ups!

I've written frequently, fifteen posts to be specific, about potty training. Specifically I've written a ton about Little Miss and our potty training issues and challenges. Part of it is simply that Little Miss has a lot of personality.

Though Little Miss has been potty trained during the day since she was two and a half. Nighttime though has been a completely different issue. She simply hasn't stayed dry, as many tactics as we've tried. She's now well past her sixth birthday and still wearing Pull-Ups that are soaked through each morning. Honestly, she just doesn't care. And I decided that it's not a big deal. At some point, kids in school will let her know that it's just not ok to still be in Pull-Ups, and what child goes to college with Pull-Ups? Until that day, she stays in Pull-Ups because I've seen the consequences of leaving them off and done far too much laundry because of it.

Recently, I had a meeting to go to that I couldn't escape. It was an evening meeting, and my husband was coaching, so a sitter was on her way to my house. I had to get the wee ones into bed before she arrived and would have just enough time to do so. As I was finishing up with Mister Man, Little Miss ran up to me.

Mommy, I'm out of Pull-Ups! she exclaimed excitedly, expecting me to have them magically reappear in her drawer, I'm guessing.

Sweetie, I have to leave in five minutes. I can't do anything for you. I have a meeting tonight, and your sitter will be here in five minutes. Remember how we've talked about how you need to tell me when you're starting to get low on Pull-Ups (one of the problems with an older child in Pull-Ups is that said child independently gets them for herself) instead of when you're out? You're sort of stuck tonight, I explained as gently as I could while internally bemoaning the additional laundry I would have to do the next morning.

But Mommy, I have no Pull-Ups left, she repeatedly, perhaps thinking my answer would change.

Sorry, Peanut. You're going to have no choice tonight. I can't get Pull-Ups tonight because the stores will be closed by the time I get home. You must stay dry tonight. Got it?

Ok, Mommy, she smiled at me sweetly.

And amazingly, she was dry the next morning. For the first time, my waking her up at 10:30pm had an impact. I heaved a sigh of relief. She had no school that day, so after we dropped Mister Man at his school, I headed to Costco with her to run some errands.

Ok, Peanut, I explained as we walked into Costco, we can get Pull-Ups now so that you have them to wear tonight.

She looked at me like I'd grown a third head. Mommy, I'm done with Pull-Ups. I don't need them anymore, she snorted at me disdainfully.

I looked at her and shook my head. I suppose I'll take one night of potential laundry in the hopes that I won't have to buy another $30 pack of Pull-Ups. And you know what? She was right. She stayed dry. We continued to wake her up an hour or two after bedtime for several weeks afterwards to ensure that we could help her get into the habit. Though we had two nights where she didn't make it to the potty recently, she's now begun to wake herself up to go.

And I think we're finally done with Pull-Ups. And yes, this is the post that I've been putting off writing because I'm afraid to jinx myself. And if I have sheets to wash tomorrow, I know who to blame.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tasty Tuesday - Tomato Basil Cups

I love the holidays and entertaining and baking. This past week, I hosted a cookie exchange (the cookie recipe comes next week, I promise) with friends, and we had a blast. I also made a Pillsbury recipe (see my post on why over on my review blog) - or at least my take on a Pillsbury recipe. It was absolutely delicious and so easy to prepare. In fact, when I hosted bunco on Friday, I made it again because it was so quick and easy and yummy.

Pillsbury has the original Tomato Basil Cup recipe on their site, but you know me. I had to adjust it and tweak it. And I think I like my changes.

Tomato Basil Cups
1 8 oz package cream cheese
1/2 c fresh Parmesan (or, ahem, more)
12 cherry tomatoes (or more)
1 1/2 T dried basil
2 T milk
1 package Pillsbury Grands, original flavor
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and grease your muffin tins. This makes 16 servings, so grease the right number of tins. If you have only 6 count tins, add a bit of water to the cups that will be empty to keep the tins from warping in the oven without something baking in it.

Make sure your cream cheese is as room temperature, and mix it with the basil, milk, and Parmesan. Add a little salt and pepper to taste. It doesn't take much, as the Parmesan is already salty.

Gently split each Grand in half, peeling it apart with your fingers. Stretch each round of dough slightly and place it in an empty muffin tin so that the edges are atop the tin. Place a dollop of the filling inside the Grand. Remember that the cream cheese and Parmesan will be very rich, so don't put too much in there.

Quarter the cherry tomatoes, and carefully place three tomato quarters atop each cup. Or cut up more tomatoes and put more there, but three seemed to be a good fit, though these were large cherry tomatoes.

Bake at 350 for 10 or so minutes, until the dough is a beautiful golden brown. Serve immediately or at room temperature and watch them disappear!

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, December 12, 2011

She's Got A Lively Imagination

I'm lucky that my parents live very close to us and have a great relationship with the wee ones. They do the vast majority of our babysitting, and when they don't see the wee ones "often enough" in their minds, they beg to come over and hang with them. It isn't all sunshine and roses - we have some boundary issues - but it's a huge relief when I have two children who need to go two different places and only one adult is available. Thus, my mom picks Little Miss up every week at school to take her to gymnastics.

My mom being my mom has a hard time following the rules. She doesn't just go inside the school to the hallway and wait there patiently with the other mothers. Unfortunately, Little Miss's classroom is just around the corner from where the parents wait, and if you peek around the corner, you can see into her classroom - and watch them pack up their backpacks from their lockers in the hallway at the end of the day. Needless to say, this is frowned upon, as it's distracting to the students. My mom doesn't care; she just wants to see her granddaughter, regardless of the rules.

I discovered how much an issue this was when my mom accused me one day of planting stories with Little Miss. I looked at her blankly, truly having no idea what she was talking about, but she didn't believes me and insisted that I must have told Little Miss what to say. I hadn't. My dear child simply has an interesting and vivid imagination.

Little Miss told my mom that she had to stop peeking around the corner at her. Why? Because it isn't allowed. And not only that, but the school has cameras to watch for people doing this, and if you get caught, the police will come to take you to jail. Little Miss didn't want her grandma to go to jail. And no, I have never once used the threat of police or jail or anything like that to scare her into behaving. I have absolutely no idea where she came up with the story, but she knows now that Grandma doesn't believe her and figured out that it was a made up story.

Little Miss still had a solution, however.

I know you miss me at school. I miss you, too. Here is a picture of me so that you can keep me close to you. I love you, too!

(Forgive her spelling, as she's in first grade and being taught only in Spanish, so her English spelling isn't where we would expect it otherwise.)

Seriously? How precious is that. Hilarious. Highly entertaining. Gonna give me grey hair as she moves into the preteen and teen years, but precious nonetheless.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why I Never Took An Elective Art Class

I love homework. Or maybe I shouldn't say that I love homework, but I certainly understand it and appreciate its value - to an extent. I get that repeating on his own what he learned earlier in the day helps to cement it in Mister Man's brain. The independence and responsibility that completing his homework fosters is a good thing for him, as it is for Little Miss. I'm not in favor of multiple hours of homework a night - especially not at this age - but that's not what we get. We get a completely manageable half hour or less a night, and I'm good with it.

There is also a monthly book report, which I've so far convinced Mister Man should be done early so that we don't have to stress about it at the last minute. He loves to read, so getting him to read the book isn't a challenge. And the skills he gains by being able to explain the book and character traits shown in the book and finding ways to support his statements with examples from the book is awesome. I love how this builds on what he does in class.

What I don't love so much is the extra project associated with the book report. I'm one of the people who never had a problem with word counts or writing term papers or the like (can you tell?). When given the option, I would write to my heart's content. I still remember in high school having to do a project for To Kill a Mockingbird that had to be "something creative." I chose to write a journal from the perspective of Scout. The extra projects Mister Man gets are all artsy crafty things.

That's not so bad when you're given directions, and we are. The problem comes with the expectations that the teacher has. She wants projects that show "effort" from a child. Our last one was to create a mask that showed the character traits of a main character in the book. Mister Man carefully colored many different pictures on a paper before cutting it out and attaching twine to make a mask that would sit on his face. He then created a legend for each symbol to describe its meaning.

When we received his book report back, he got good grades on his content and knowledge demonstrated. On the creative part, he got the lowest grade possible, including the comment, "Was this really your best effort?" (her emphasis, not mine) Actually, we thought he did a pretty decent job. We'd stepped it up from the first book report because he'd gotten only a so-so grade. At conferences, we asked her about it. She explained that she didn't want kids to just draw on the masks. She wanted to see "effort" which is defined in her mind as "something glued to the paper." Why gluing a feather shows more effort than carefully drawing and coloring one, I'm not sure... but we learned our lesson. (It also turns out that she had somehow missed seeing the legend that was stapled to the book report, which was part of her issue with his in particular.)

This time around, we discussed the mobile he was to make for his favorite scene. We talked about creating three different scenes to show the progression of action within the scene. We discussed what the scene would include. And then my mom watched the wee ones over a weekend and did their homework with them. When we headed to her house the next day, we saw a completed book report.

Yeah. By the way, that's supposed to be a king cobra attacking two people with an elephant stomping on it to rescue them. You can tell, right?

I can tell you right now what the teacher is going to say about this. My mom protested that he'd spent a lot of time working on it and put a lot of effort into it. Unfortunately, it doesn't show. I absolutely don't believe in parents doing their kids' homework and projects (though I can see that not everyone at my school has the same belief), but there are times where I can say that something needs to be done to a certain standard - if only to protect him from disappointment down the road when he's otherwise crushed by his teacher's commentary on his project. I tried to convince him to recreate it, but it was a no go.

Or it was a no go. The other day, he left the mobile on the ground. Our cats discovered the ribbons attached to it and chewed them off, ripping the paper as they did so. He now had to recreate his project. Bummer. I did none of the work, but I showed him how to trace the snake to make it look more lifelike. We discussed what to include in each scene and how to create it. And I think it looks a whole lot better, and he's really proud of it.

It's December. I only have five more of these this year to do for him. And how many more years of school for these projects? Spending hours and hours cutting out figures and creating scenes that "show effort" is not helping him to learn more about the book. It's not helping him get excited about reading. It is helping him hate art projects almost as much as I do, however.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Weirdest Kids Ever

It's official. I do truly have the weirdest kids ever. This was what I saw when I peeked outside on Friday morning while waiting for the bus and carpool to arrive.

Why yes, yes they are shoveling the garbage cans. With their shovels. For some unknown reason. Of course, this was also after I looked outside originally and saw Little Miss scraping snow off the top with her glove and then licking it. Ewww. Yuck. So. Grossed. Out.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tasty Tuesday - Pumpkin Chocolate Muffins

There was a bake sale at Mister Man's school last week. Remember those and how fun they were to pick and choose what you wanted from all the great bakers in the community, ooooing and ahhhing over the delectable delights? Most schools no longer allow this or just have store bought items (boo!), but we're lucky that ours still allows a bake sale from homemade goodies. Of course, I had to bake, too.

I couldn't choose something easy or simple that I knew a lot of people would be making. No brownies or chocolate chip cookies or sugar cookies for me. I had to find something that I thought would be unique for the bake sale but still appealing and somewhat seasonal. I finally decided to make pumpkin chocolate muffins, and they were awesome. Even better, they were dairy and nut free, so some students who normally can't purchase treats were able to enjoy them, too.

Pumpkin Chocolate Muffins

4 eggs
1 1/2 c granulated sugar
1 15oz can pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
3 c flour
2 t baking soda
1 1/2 t baking powder
2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t salt
2 c chocolate chunks (mini chips work, I chopped a bar of dark chocolate)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees (I always bake with my convection oven, which means I preheat to 300 for baking - mine has a great feature that recalculates the temp and time for baked goods using a convection). You can make these regular size muffins (about 2 dozen) or mini muffins (up to 8 dozen). Either grease your tins or line them with muffins papers.

Beat the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until it's lighter in color and has grown in volume. Add the pumpkin puree and oil, and beat again.

Add the baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt to the bowl and mix well. Add the flour and stir slowly until mostly blended. While there are still some white streaks add the chocolate chunks/chips. I would not use full size chips if you're making mini muffins. And the unique shapes that chopping a bar of chocolate adds was pretty cool in the muffins, something I would definitely do again.

Add the batter to the muffin tins, filling about 2/3 of the way full. Bake in your 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, until a tester comes clean (or they spring back when you touch them - with mini muffins, especially, I go for the touch test when baking). Let the muffins cool a couple minutes, then remove them from their pans. If your muffins are stuck to the pans, check out my cool solution. Because, yes, some of my muffins stuck. I successfully rescused them all, however.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How To Get Stuck Muffins Out From The Tin Without Ruining Them

If you haven't noticed, I love cooking. And baking. That doesn't mean that I don't have my issues while baking. I really hate it when I make something and it sticks in the pan. It's so frustrating to go through the effort of making something delicious and then having it ruined by not coming out when it's supposed to. I found a great solution.

Of course, nothing beats actually properly greasing your pans, but there are times when I think I greased every part of it but missed something. For muffins, I generally try squeezing the top of the muffin and twisting gently so that it releases. There is a portion of the time when the muffin top simply breaks off, of course. Those muffins simply need to be eaten.

When I had a few muffins start sticking last week, having a multitude of broken muffins wasn't an option. They were for a bake sale, and I had a minimum quantity I had to bake and didn't have the time or energy to make more. I had to find a better solution. After frantically taking a mental inventory of my kitchen, I found my new favorite tool.

My fondue fork was perfect. It was slim enough to fit down the sides of the pan without damaging the muffins, and it was long enough to give me leverage to be able to get the muffins out. It worked beautifully. I simply gently slid it along the edge of the muffin, trying to lever it out. If it moved, great. It not, I simply slid it sideways a bit and tried again. Not a single muffin stayed stuck. It was awesome.

I'm wondering if it would work with my molten chocolate cakes, too.... And yes, I'll share the recipe for the awesome pumpkin chocolate chip muffins I made tomorrow. Yum. And dairy free and nut free.

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