Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reflections From The Birthday Girl

I turned 31 on Tuesday.  And I did what any self-respecting, brand new 31 year old would do...

I baked myself a cake that looked and tasted like a giant Oreo.

It was a sweet ending to a week of special birthday celebrations!  My friends had brought me a surprise cake and spent a fun evening playing Scrabble with us, my mom threw me a delightful surprise brunch where all my girlfriends wore aprons and luscious Southern fare was served, and my husband, kids, and I spent a beautiful day at the beach.  

And actually, I did a lot of reflecting in between the celebrating on the life lessons I have learned from the ages of 20 to 30.  I pondered what insights I have gained through the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful of the past decade of my life.  I could honestly write for hours about this, but I chose to narrow it down to three statements....

I do not know everything.  

When I was in college, I claimed James 1:5 and started praying for wisdom, trusting that God would indeed give it to me as the verse promises.  Through the years I have asked and seen Him grant wisdom liberally to me, and it has been invaluable as I have encountered so many interesting situations as an adult.  However, the more wisdom I gain, the more I realize how much wisdom I need.  The more I know, the more I realize how much I don't know.  The more I learn, the more I realize how much I have to learn.  At 31 I have come very far, but I have a long, long way to go.  I do not know everything.

I cannot do everything.

One of the lies that we as women often believe is that we can do it all.  Interestingly enough, as women have bought into this lie and tried to be and do everything there is more depression, dissatisfaction, and discontentment than ever before.  By nature, I am an overachiever and people pleaser.  I like to work hard and make people happy.  I like to take on a lot of roles and do my part to change the world.  Even though I grew up with a very wise dad who talked a lot about balance, I sometimes lost mine.  I would take on too much and become overwhelmed physically and emotionally.  Having kids changed a lot for me; it was when I realized how much I was responsible for their health, development, and well being that I became a better manager of my time and priorities.  I realized that I cannot be effective to mentor, lead, and care for others if I am not properly taking care of my husband and kids.  I awakened to the fact that when we try to do it all, something or someone always gives.  I have learned that sometimes busy is good, and other times busy is just busy.  And I have been amazed that as I have tried to intentionally lead a balanced life putting God and my family first, I have seen God use me as this love for them overflows into the lives of others.  In fact, I am still able to accomplish quite a bit and am better at what I do when I admit I am not superwoman and I cannot do everything.

God is everything.

He is my savior, my redeemer, my truest friend.  My comfort, my shelter, my defender.  My stability, my rock, my protector.  My first love, my next breath, my only hope.  He is the beginning and the end, the creator and sustainer of all things.  He is above all, through all, and in all.  He is the giver of abundant life on earth and eternal life in Heaven. God is everything.  

So as I blew out the birthday candles on my giant Oreo and embraced another year, I could do so joyously acknowledging that I do not know everything; I cannot do everything....

But God is everything!

Baking Cake Balls!

So, I kept hearing all this talk about cake balls, and wanted to know what was going on in the world.  I googled them and wow, this is a recent baking sensation!!  You can find site after site with cake ball recipes and variations, and some talented people out there do some unbelievably creative decorating with these!  My favorite site was, a great place to browse and drool and be awestruck and inspired.

Of course I had to try my daughter and I got to work one day and made our first batch.  Here is the basic cake ball recipe.  You bake a basic boxed mix cake...

After it cools a bit but while it is still somewhat warm, crumble the cake up and mix in a jar of frosting.  You can use different flavors of your choice.  I chose chocolate cake and chocolate frosting since, well, you can't go wrong there in my opinion! 

Next you roll the gooey cake/frosting mixture into balls and dip them into chocolate (since cake and frosting isn't sweet enough of course).  I used melted chocolate chips.  The dipping is the hardest part since you have to dip while it is freshly hot, before the chocolate hardens.  And at first we messed up, and our cake balls looked like cake daughter said she felt like "I Love Lucy" (she is a fan and loves the classic job switching episode)!

This is because not all recipes I looked up said to let the cake balls harden in the refrigerator or freezer before dipping.  After I figured out this was the problem, I put the balls on some dishes lined with wax paper and let them harden before our next attempt at dipping...

And then the dipping went quite well!  As long as the chocolate was freshly melted that is...

Then we decorated them, patriotic style since this was around Memorial day.  But as you will see if you google these, the sky is the limit with decorating!

We also made some pretty sparkly ones...

These made a ton, so I handed them out and had quite a few taste-testers...and received lots of rave reviews! The chocolate/chocolate combo made them taste like truffles.  If you have never made these, you should try them - it's a messy, fun process and a delicious outcome!  They are perfect with a tall glass of cold milk.

I'm considering trying them soon with red velvet cake, cream cheese frosting, and chocolate almond bark.  If I do, I'll let you know how they turn out!

Until then, lots of love and happy baking!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Favorite Things Father's Day Lunch

My husband is an amazing husband...thoughtful, gentle, humble, kind, strong, loyal, stable, consistent, romantic, God-fearing, faithful...I could go on and on!  But one of the things I absolutely love about him is that he is a wonderful dad to our two children.  So on Father's Day I wanted to do something special for him - and I decided to make him a "favorite things" lunch.  Now, I will preface this with the fact that some of his favorite things aren't the healthiest, so you health food purists out there may not enjoy this!

But he loved it, and I suppose that's what matters!

My inspiration for this meal actually started when I saw mini Nathan's hot dogs made into pigs-in-a-blanket at our local Publix...personally, I can't stand hot dogs but my husband loves them and Nathan's are probably second on the list of the kind he loves best (first being Vienna Beef which are found in Chicago).  And he loves this was an easy main course!

I set the table with Wrigley Field plates since the Cubs are high on the list of favorite things...

And since french fries are also among his favorite foods (I warned you this wasn't health class), I found some awesome french fry seasoning at Crate and Barrel...

As well as some red, white, and blue french fry wrappers which fit with the Cubs theme...bought some frozen Ore-Ida waffle fries and this is what they looked like when done...

When we were dating, we used to go the park and drink IBC root beers and talk for hours, so I picked up a case of those...

And even though fruit is not his favorite, I served watermelon since it fit the meal and of all fruits, he likes melons the best.

I set a special place at the table for him...

And then surprised him with one of his favorite desserts at the end of our meal!  It was while he was eating this that he said, "Babe, you gotta blog about this." 

All I did was imitate one of his restaurant faves...a giant chocolate chip cookie, baked in a small cast iron skillet, and smothered with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup...but he just thought it was the best thing!  If you have a little skillet you could do this as well, or you could bake it in a small round baking dish.  It is so easy, and extremely delicious!  The best part was it put a huge smile on my husband's face, and I was just happy to make him happy.  He gives so much to our family and I never want to take that for granted.  Happy Father's Day Jimmy!  I am gratefully loving being on this journey of life together.  

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Pasta Carrabba! (Or Something Like It)

I married an Italian.  Not a tomato, olive oil, proscuitto, and olive loving Italian...a pasta loving Italian.

One of his favorite dishes is the Pasta Carrabba (minus the mushrooms) at Carrabba's.  Since I love making meals my family enjoys, I decided to make my own version for him the other day - and it put a smile on his handsome face!

Here is Pasta Carrabba, the inexpensive and easy way...

I took chicken breasts (which I had gotten on major sale at Publix for around $3) out of the freezer and let them thaw.  Then I cut them in strips and sauteed them in generous amounts of olive oil and fresh garlic. (If you are looking for a good garlic press, I am still using the one I got at a Pampered Chef wedding shower 9 years ago.  They make a good one.)  Then I took a box of Walmart brand fettucine (around 88 cents) and boiled it with some more olive oil in the water.  Meanwhile, I cooked a package of steam in the bag peas (Publix brand, bought on sale for 99 cents) in the microwave.  After the fettucine was cooked, I stirred in the chicken, the cooked peas, more fresh garlic, some parmesan cheese, and two jars of Bertolli alfredo sauce (also purchased at Walmart).  The dish is actually served with mushrooms - I left them out since my husband doesn't like them - but if you put them in, you could just sautee them in olive oil and garlic before you sautee the chicken and then add them in add the end.  And of course you could make your own alfredo sauce too, we were just in a busy week and honestly, this brand was pretty tasty.

The house smelled wonderful because of all the olive oil and garlic...and it made a huge pot.  I separated half of it to give to my parents (who always give us their leftovers) and put the other half in the fridge to heat later in the day (I made this meal early because we were in the middle of VBS week and dinnertime would be rushed).  I googled a recipe for Red Lobster type biscuits (another one of my husband's faves) and made them with Bisquick and a five Italian cheese blend instead of cheddar.  Brushed with butter and garlic powder, they were also a big hit.  

Restaurant faves made at home and on a budget.  Gotta love that!  

Prepare and Gustare!!  (Italian word for taste; enjoy; relish)

Work of Art

My five year old daughter is super creative and crafty.  She draws these fantastic pictures and comes up with these interesting creations on her own almost daily, and I just love it!  She amazes me. My three-and-a-half year old son is not as interested in such things yet...he is more apt to kick a ball with full force,  jump off of a coffee table, or bang his drums.  He does occasionally like to paint and do projects with us, but overall it's not his thing, at least not now.

That's why I thought it was the cutest thing ever when he ran up to me the other day, super excited to show me a picture he had drawn on his own.  He said it was a family of snakes, and each of the four reptiles were named after our little family.

Now, is that not the most brilliant drawing of a snake family you have ever seen in your life??  I think it's absolutely a work of art! That's my sweet boy, keeping it simple and real.  And I love it.

Good Morning Beautiful

It's late, and honestly I'm pretty tired as I write this. But as I reflect on this day my mind keeps going back to a few moments this morning that reminded me of how blessed of a girl I am.

It started when my sweet daughter came into our bedroom and climbed in our she snuggled up to me, she said, "Momma, sing 'Good Morning Beautiful.'"  She knows that when she was a tiny newborn baby, I used to sing the chorus of that country song to her each morning as I snuggled my beautiful firstborn.  This morning as  I sang her the sweet lyrics, she nestled right next to me and for a moment we were still and warm and cozy and quiet.  

Then after I had given the kids their breakfast, I started making my own coffee and oatmeal when my husband, sweaty from his workout, came into the kitchen.  As he sometimes does, he started dancing with me, our bare feet moving on the hardwood floors as the water boiled and the kids ran around.  I love dancing in the kitchen.  As we swayed back and forth, all of a sudden I felt little arms wrap around our legs, and someone else started swaying with us.

It was our son, still in his Cars pajamas.  I scooped him up and we began to dance together, his sweet arms wrapped around my neck and his soft cheek pressed against mine.  He is at an age where almost daily he tells me he is going to marry me, and I say absolutely.  As we twirled and swayed through the kitchen, my husband told him he was the only boy allowed to cut in on me, and he would accept the interruption.  I smiled.

It's funny, our lives are very imperfect.  Those precious family moments happened right before I headed out to a doctor's appointment at the women's center to follow up on my February biopsy. We are normal people who have health issues we'd prefer not to have, piles of laundry that never get folded, bills that somehow need to be paid, kids who sometimes throw temper tantrums, and grown-ups who occasionally get impatient and stressed.  We face struggles just like everyone else.  But our love is deeply rooted in Christ, and it is real and strong.  I was reminded of that this morning.  In those tender moments, I felt undeservedly blessed and very, very grateful.

And on this June morning, the lyrics to "Good Morning Beautiful" struck a chord within me.  Life is up and down.  It can be confusing and chaotic. But it's still a Good Morning Beautiful Day.  I see the beauty and the blessings.  And I am gratefully content.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

My Favorite Big Fat Greek Pork Roast

The other day on my facebook status, I mentioned that my mom was making her delicious pork roast with olive oil, lemons, and garlic.  Several people commented that they wanted the recipe, and after eating it that evening and being reminded how amazingly succulent it is, I thought I'd share!

I had to ask her how she makes it because I never have actually made it, I've only eaten it....and in large amounts because it's extremely addictive!

So here's how my mom makes her Greek Pork Roast....

Take a big, fat pork loin.  Use a knife to cut slits in it, and stuff the slits with fresh garlic.  She uses a ton, like a whole half of a garlic clove.  Douse the roast generously with olive oil.  Season with salt, pepper, and oregano.  Cut up red potatoes and surround the roast with them.  Add more of that fresh garlic to the potatoes.  Season them and douse generously with olive oil.  Squeeze the juice of three lemons over the meat and potatoes.  Cook at 350 for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.  Enjoy the aroma that fills your home as this dish cooks, and enjoy the happy dance your taste buds do when they try it.  (That was my advice, free of charge.) 

Message In a Bottle

I love glass bottles.  When I was younger my aunt always drank Coke out of the old green glass bottles and when we would come for a visit, she would let me drink as many as I wanted.  I thought I had tasted no better beverage in my life.  To this day I still get excited when I see a bottled Coke!

When my husband and I were dating, we spent much of our time at the parks in our college town.  Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we loved sitting in the sunshine during the cool, crisp fall air or fresh spring breezes.  We would sit on a blanket and talk for hours, often eating Twizzlers and drinking IBC Root Beer, Cokes, Stewart's Orange & Creams, or other sodas in glass bottles.  I still have some of those glass bottles from those special days.

For the first few years of our marriage, those bottles sat on the windowsill in the sunny yellow kitchen in our little townhouse.  I put a Gerbera Daisy in each one.

The other night, in a heartbreaking moment when I desperately needed it, God brought to my mind a verse from Scripture.

Psalm 56:8 "You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book."

I absolutely love that!  So often we think God has forgotten us when we are hurting, but rather He is wiping our tears away, collecting them in His bottle.  He isn't overlooking our painful experiences, rather He is writing them in His journal.  When I read this passage, I can almost hear Him whispering, "Sweetheart, I see you and I know what's going on.  I love you and I won't forget this...I'm writing it down, and I will take care of you."  And I picture Him putting my tears in a bottle like the ones I keep that hold so many memories.

That night I pulled some of those bottles out of my pantry and put them on the counter as a reminder of this verse.  They have sat there for the past few days, and make me smile when I see them.

It's like my own message in a bottle.

And I have to say, I also find comfort in the following verse, Psalm 56:9...."On the very day I call to you for help, my enemies will retreat. This I know: God is on my side."

There it is.  If we know Him, love Him, and trust Him, He sees our pain...He writes it down...He remembers....He bottles our tears....and He is on our side.

Take comfort on the journey my friend.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Spotlight Savings!! (Eye Makeup Remover)

When I was first married and could go to the store once a week, buy several bags of groceries for between $30-$50, and was only taking care of two adults, I didn't really worry about buying generics.

For the past few years I have bought almost anything generic I can find! With the increased costs of groceries and the growth of our family, I have just plain had to.  And usually it's fine.

One area I worry about though is cosmetics.  When I was in 9th grade and wearing cheap makeup for some plays I was in, I had some horrible skin reactions to them that wouldn't go away.  Through middle school and early high school, I had experienced other similar reactions, and was diagnosed with Seborrheic Dermatitis.  I was instructed by the dermatologist to use baby shampoo, Dove Soap, and Clinique makeup.

After adolescence, this pretty much calmed down and though I went to real shampoo, I still use Dove Soap and either Clinique or mineral makeup like Bare Escentuals.  Most products last a long time and Clinique still does great bonuses, so it's not too bad.  But the most consumable product I use is eye makeup remover.  And it seems to be getting more and more expensive.

So I tried an off brand.  And it was so lousy I felt like I was scrubbing my eyeballs off every night.  And if I just used hot water, it had to be burning hot water and all I did was end up looking like a raccoon with a cabinet full of stained washcloths.  So I bought the real stuff.

However, I was out again...and had suffered the burning water/raccoon eyes/ stained washcloth routine for a few on a Target run I picked up some of their brand.  It was around $4.00.  And guess what?  It WORKS!!

So, I had to share this spotlight savings with you, in case any other girls out there are trying to tighten the budget without scrubbing off their eyeballs or ruining every washcloth in the house.  :)

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Other Reminders of Edification

I have a friend who is absolutely dear, and everyone who knows her would probably describe her that way.

She makes the best chocolate chip cookies that my husband is crazy about, and I make Snickerdoodles that her husband is crazy about.

One day she and her husband came to my rescue in helping me with a surprise project for my husband.  I promised Snickerdoodles as a payment.

It took me a few weeks, but I dropped them off one afternoon to their house.  It was the day after Memorial Day, so I stuck some flag picks in the cookies and delivered them in a blue glass pan.

The other day my friend came over to practice some music for a worship set at church, and she returned the blue pan.  In it were some of her chocolate chip cookies.  She said she had always heard that when someone delivers food to you, you should never return their pan empty.

It is so like her not to leave something empty, but rather filled up.

You see, when I think of this friend I think of the word edification, which is a Biblical word. Literally, to edify means "to build up."  My friend looks for ways to practice edification, which is admittedly rare these days in a world where most people seem to go out of their way to tear others down.

This friend shares this gift with everyone around her.  I am not the only one who could share stories of receiving her famous chocolate chip cookies, or an encouraging note in the mail, or some kind words when they were needed most.  I am not alone in my gratefulness for her friendly smile, positive attitude, and ability to find something uplifting to say.

The pan filled with cookies just reminded me of how beautifully she shares the gift of edification.  And sure enough, a day or two later I received an encouraging note from her in the mail.  And sure enough, it was at a moment when I really needed it.

Thank you Cindy, for building up, not tearing down.  Your edifying spirit is a gift to all of us.

Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. (KJV)

Ephesians 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (NIV)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Blissfully Delicious Almond Cake

Quite a few years ago I acquired a Longaberger cookbook filled with delicious recipes, beautiful photography, and creative ideas.  I had always had my eye on an almond cake recipe in the book, but had never made it.  While coming up with ideas for what to make for Memorial Day, I came across this recipe again and decided to try it.

It called for 8 oz of almond paste, which I had never used.  I searched Publix for it, and couldn't find it.  I asked several employees who searched as well, and they couldn't find it either.  I had given up and gone to the checkout line when a young employee (who I think was named Brad) came running to the counter with a can of almond paste that he had found, randomly it seemed to me, with the ice cream toppings!  I left with an appreciation for a store that still believes in customer service, which is hard to come by these days.  Too often our inquiries or questions are met with a grunt and a dismissive answer before any effort is even made to see if someone could assist...I was once again reminded why I really do love shopping there!
When I got home from the store, I started my afternoon of baking.  I made snickerdoodles, a peach and blackberry cobbler, and the almond cake.  All turned out delicious, and I think this may have been the best cake I've ever made...the ingredients make it taste gourmet, like something from your favorite bakery.  When my mom and husband tasted it, they both said it tasted like something from The Cakery, a bakery we loved in the city I grew up in.  After it cooled I inverted it on a cake stand, sprinkled it with powdered sugar, and garnished it with blueberries and raspberries.  I was going to add mint leaves, but they were out of them in the produce section...perhaps I'll have to start my own herb garden!  It was lovely, and as I said, was blissfully delicious.

Heat oven to 350 and line a 9 inch round cake pan with buttered and floured wax paper.  Cream 1 stick unsalted butter, 3/4 cup sugar, and 8 oz almond paste until light and fluffy.  Add 3 eggs, 1 tsp almond extract, 1 tsp vanilla, and 1/4 tsp orange extract and mix well.  Add 1/4 cup flour and 1/3 tsp baking powder  and mix until blended.  Pour into pan and bake 40-45 minutes.  Cool in pan then invert onto serving plate.  Garnish as desired, then relax and enjoy this decadence!

A Place To Hang My Aprons

I love to cook and bake, and I love wearing cute aprons while doing so. 

Some of my aprons reflect things I love...

Some just make me feel good...

Others are flirty and fun...

And some are sassy and make me smile...

The other day, my mom bought me an early birthday present that she knew I would be crazy about, and she was right.  She gave me a place to hang my aprons, complete with a little magnetic chalkboard for each day of the week.  The black and off-white colors matched my kitchen beautifully, and it filled an empty wall perfectly.  I love that my mom knows me so well.  I love that she modeled for me the way a woman can be the keeper of her home in a way that makes it a safe, warm, happy place to be.  I love how she daily put love into the details and inspired me to do the same.

As a stay at home wife and mom, I spend a lot of time in my kitchen.  Most days I prepare three meals plus snacks for my family.  Since it is the heart of our home, I enjoy making it a space I love.  It is probably my favorite spot in our house. It is often messy and busy, but filled with lots of warmth, activity, and love.  As I give the gift of homemade meals and happy memories to my husband and children, I am thankful that I have been given the gift of a family to serve and a special place to hang my aprons.