Saturday, November 1, 2014

Pumpkin Carving & Halloween Festivities

My last post was all about our trip to the pumpkin patch... naturally, this post has to include what we did with our pumpkin plunder after we were home. OK, technically, we waited a few days between our trip to the pumpkin patch and the actual carving (much to our kids' chagrin), but moldy pumpkins on our porch wasn't exactly the aesthetic Eric and I were aiming for.

The Sunday before Halloween, we whipped out a ton of old newspaper, covered the kitchen table, and went to work readying our pumpkins for their big night. Everyone got to design their own pumpkins, but once the kids realized the pumpkin carving tools came with templates, they opted to ditch their original ideas and go for some of the more complex designs we could pull off with the templates. For the most part, Eric and Annika teamed up to work on hers while Conor and I worked on his (please read as: I worked on the pumpkin while Conor stood behind me saying 'Are you done yet?')

Naturally, the kids favorite parts of the experience were gutting the pumpkins... but really, who doesn't get a kick out of that experience. How often do you get gross gunk all the way up to your elbows and not only is it allowed, it is encouraged??

This year, I purchased a new pumpkin carving tool: a carving drill. While (not surprisingly) it was a pathetic drill, it did work well as a precision knife. We just didn't use its motor and it was great for small cuts, such as corners of mouths and eye holes.

There's something about the smell of pumpkins (moreover, pumpkin guts) that really gets me in the holiday mindset. There are a few trigger events that tell me "NOW this holiday is truly under way" and the smell of pumpkins being carved is one of those triggers for me. It smells of fall, excitement, and ... well ... pumpkins!

About an hour after we began, our four pumpkins were proudly on display on our front porch, just waiting for Halloween night.

Conor sketching his pumpkin's face

Annika figuring out her original pumpkin design
Eric making the first cuts

Eric and Annika working on her pumpkin's face

Conor having fun with pumpkin guts

Our final results
(L-R: Conor's, Meredith's, Annika's, and Eric's jack-o-lanterns)

There's no point in carving pumpkins if there isn't a Halloween, right? The kids' excitement for Halloween really started bubbling out of control about 2-3 days before Halloween's actual arrival. The ideas of costumes, trick-or-treating, and Annika's class party were just about more than they could stand. The night before Halloween, Annika even wrote a note that said "Big day tomorrow" and stuck it to the bathroom mirror ... lest we forget.

Once Halloween finally arrived, Annika and Conor were practically buzzing with enthusiasm.

Weeks ago, Annika decided she wanted to be a ninja for Halloween. NO problem... well, sort of problem. Because of the school's costume guidelines of no weapons and nothing covering the students' faces, she's be in a black sweatsuit and explaining that she's a ninja. So, we convinced her to go to school as a cheerleader (she got to pick between her UW and Seahawks cheerleader outfits) and then could dress as a ninja that night. It took some convincing, but the promise of pom poms did the trick. (WHEW!)

After dinner, the kids donned their costumes and, we must say, looked freaking adorable!!! Conor in his pirate costume absolutely melted my heart. He was too cute for words. (Conor didn't have school that day, so no school costume issue for him.) Annika's ninja costume worked out beautifully. We put her in a black sweatsuit (applicable and warm) and her basic ninja hood. They looked marvelous and it really took very little effort on our part, which we were grateful for. :)

Once it was time to head out for trick-or-treating, it started to rain (naturally). Fortunately, the rain wasn't too heavy and not a constant. As we wandered down our street, we came across a couple of other families, one of which included one of Annika's classmates. We combined forces and wandered the neighborhood together. The kids had a marvelous time, and the parents enjoyed chatting and getting to know each other a bit more.

One great perk of where we live is a lot of our school families live in the area. When I was  kid, I was the only neighborhood kid in private school. That is anything but the case for our kids. Quite a few CKS families live within a stones throw of our house. We crossed paths with at least 6-7 CKS families while out trick-or-treating and a few more came by our house to get candy from us. I really do appreciate and value that school's sense of community.

After scouring the neighborhood for candy galore, we called it a night. The kids dumped out their plunder to evaluate their booty, choose a few treats to nibble on, and then they were off to bed. We were all pretty darned tired and grateful for our heads to hit our pillows.

Go Huskies!

Ninja Annika

Conor the Pirate and Annika the Ninja

Yo ho ho!!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Annual Pumpkin Patch Adventure

Each year (even before the kids were born), we make the trek to a local-ish pumpkin farm in Edmonds. This year, Eric and I greatly took the weather forecast into account when picking the day (and time) to go, and are so grateful that we did. It didn't rain until we were loaded into the car, with our farm animal fix taken care of and our pumpkins rolling around in the back of the car.

Fairbank Farm is a wonderful family-run farm that is only open to the public during October and we love going there. It has escaped the commercial feel many other pumpkin patches seems to have adopted, which I highly appreciate. It isn't  a "now that you've paid your entry fee, now pay to ride our train, pay to give feed to our animals, pay to have a picture taken here" place. It is a "pay your $4, here's a cup of food for the birds, have a lovely time" farm.

We got to see baby pigs (not quite as young as the ones we saw last year, but that's ok; they were still mighty cute!), a pony, pygmy goats, geese, ducks, peacocks, and turkeys. Inside the barn, the kids got to pet ducklings, baby bunnies, and chicks. We also observed a snoozing calf and were memorized by the hatching chicks in the  incubator.

After wandering around the animal area and daydreaming about having farm animals of our own (ok, that is more of my daydream than Eric's, but in my daydreams he dreams about having some of them, too! Oh, and I don't daydream about having the farm birds... only the mammals), we found a wheelbarrow and made our way to the pumpkin patches. After careful consideration and evaluation, each of us found a perfect pumpkin to take home. Conor found "THE" pumpkin about five or six times, but was able to (eventually) find "THE THE" pumpkin for him. Meanwhile, Eric and Annika seemed to hone in on their ideal squash quite easily.

While Eric paid for the pumpkins, the kids and I spent some time in the farm's play area. There's a full-size tee-pee, as well as a old-fashioned wagon, cutouts for photo ops, and a few bales of hay to climb. A few raindrops started to fall, which was our signal to exit stage left, and I'm so glad we did. Getting home without being sopping wet and covered in mud is a wonderful bonus.

As we walked back to the car, we saw the farmer who had just used his tractor to pull a car out of the mud. I stopped to tell him how much we enjoy visiting the farm each year and mentioned that Eric and I started visiting long before we had kids. The farmer seemed genuinely touched by this and just as I finished talking, he scooped up Conor and plopped him in the tractor's driver's seat. That boy was in hog heaven! He gripped the steering wheel with gusto and made happy tractor driving noises like never before. Of course, as soon as Annika saw him, she asked why she didn't get to sit up there. (Ahh... sibling rivalry!). We explained that there is only one seat and she'd get her chance. (Whew, crisis averted.) After her turn in the tractor's seat, we thanked the farmer again and made our way home. Within just a couple of minutes, the sky opened up and began dumping rain. Talk about timing! :)


Annika doing her pig impersonation

I've decided her name is "Big Mama"

Strike a pose!

Fluffy chicks
Headin to the pumpkin patch
Picking out pumpkins

Too small for carving, but I bet they'd make lovely pies!

The hunt continues

Mama and Conor... he didn't actually want
this pumpkin, but we needed a photo prop :)

Pretty sure that at this point, he was much more
excited about his dandelion pumpkins

Annika with our plethora of pumpkins

Ready to roll

My sweetie, two babies, our four pumpkins ... and a dandelion for good measure

In the wagon

Annika the scarecrow and Conor the pumpkin

Conor "driving" the tractor

Farmer Annika

I plan on doing a blog post about our pumpkin carving soon.
Until then, here's a picture of our final results :)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Our little swimmers

Yesterday, the current session for Annika and Conor's swim classes came to an end. The last class of each session typically includes a skills review/evaluation and then having some fun.

Conor's class got to ride in the pool's row boat so they could (a) have fun in a boat and (b) see how the skills they've been learning can have a practical application... a boat sinks = you swim, or at least float on your back. After the instructors pulled the boat around the shallow end of the pool for a bit, they slowly allowed it to take on water and sink. The kids were in life jackets and (for the most part) giggled with glee as their feet, legs, and tummies got wet. One little guy wasn't impressed with the experience, but everyone else (including Conor) had a marvelous time.

After their skills evaluation and boat excursion, Conor's class was given the opportunity to jump off of the diving board for the first time. Conor LOVED it and showed nothing but bravery and excitement the entire time.

Annika showed amazing growth in her swimming during this class session. Her crawl stroke and side breathing are really improving ... as is her ability/willingness to pay attention to the instructor instead of simply having fun and splashing in the water.

After her class' skill evaluation, her instructor started teaching the kids the very first steps of learning how to dive. He taught them how to kneel on the side of the pool and lean in head first. Annika didn't realize she was actually learning to dive until I told her after the class, which I found pretty entertaining. Her big takeaway from the deep end experience was they got to go to the bottom of the deep end twice. Unfortunately, it left her ears feeling a bit sore thanks to the pressure. I showed her how scuba divers clear their ears and that seemed to help a bit.

All-in-all, the kids had another beneficial and fun-filled swim session and we are so grateful for all that they've learned. I can't think of another sport lesson that is so important... lifesaving skills top just about everything else in terms of importance!

Happy swimming, our little fishies!



Daring Bakers' Challenge October 2014: Sachertorte

This month's Daring Bakers' challenge was a definite "11th hour" things for me! I'm pretty sure that someone hit the turbo speed button on the month, because it seemed to FLY by. Well, the day before the baking deadline, there I was melting chocolate, beating egg whites, measuring flour, folding, and baking to make my first ever sachertorte!

What, you ask, is a sachertorte? Simply put, it is a dense Austrian chocolate cake that uses beaten egg whites as a leavening agent, incorporates apricot jam as a flavor layer, and is encased in a poured layer of chocolate ganache. The key is to incorporate the egg whites without deflating them ... no easy task... and no tidy task, either.

I was actually really excited about this month's challenge because Eric and I have recently gotten hooked on a show out of the UK called "The Great British Bake Off" and one of the technical challenges given during one of the episodes was a sachertorte. The show is hosted by two well-known bakers from the UK: Mary Berry (isn't that the best name ever??) and Paul Hollywood.

As I worked on my creation last night, I had many thoughts running through my head, but the most prominent one was "What would Mary Berry say?" Would she think I whipped the egg whites enough? Would she approve of my folding technique? It tickled me how a TV host was so absently involved in my process yesterday. At one point, Conor asked if he could help me prepare the cake... of course, that was just as I was folding in the egg whites, which requires a more delicate touch than he tends to display. Instead, I had him help me sift the flour... much less mission critical, but still make him feel special! :)

I'd read about a number of people having difficulty with the poured chocolate finish provided by the recipe provided for the challenge, so I opted to hedge my bets and use Mary Berry's ingredients and quantities for that aspect of the cake, and I'm glad I did. The poured chocolate went on beautifully and turned out so smooth!

The final touch of a sachertorte is writing "Sacher" on its top. The recipe called for milk chocolate, which is something I'm not a fan of and ... it turns out ... don't even keep in our house. We have dark and semi-sweet chocolate galore, but no milk chocolate. I was concerned that the chocolates I had wouldn't provide enough of a contrast with the poured chocolate, so I opted to use white chocolate for the final touches.

Because of the late hour the sachertorte was finished last night, we decided to hold off on taking it for a taste test run until tonight. So, at this point in time, I have no clue how it tastes, but it sure looks pretty and it rose during its time in the oven, so I'm taking that as a win! :)

(please ignore the flash's reflection in the cake!)

The October Daring Bakers' challenge was brought to us by Korena of Korena in the Kitchen. She took us to Austria and introduced us to the wonders of the Sachertorte.

Update (10/28/14): We dove into the sachertorte last night and gave it a big thumbs up. The kids devoured it! To save us from eating the whole thing, I took the leftovers to work, and my co-workers happily finished off the remaining sachertorte goodness.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Our Surprise Concert

A few nights ago, Eric and I were doing our usual evening puttering around the house as we took care of little tasks and chores. Little did we know that the kids were up to something in the front room.

As I sorted socks and folded laundry, Annika and Conor were busily preparing a musical concert for us. Not only did they plan the music, they also took care of creating a legitimate venue. They commandeered a roll of birthday wrapping paper and taped it to the wall so they had a proper background. They also built a mini stage (about 2" off of the ground) using building blocks and books. No detail was left unattended to ... they even had glasses of water and bowls of clementine oranges on the coffee table, so their concert goers (aka Eric and me) had refreshments available during the musical performance. The piece de resistance was the handwritten invitation for us to attend a "?" in the front room. (They wanted to keep the performance a surprise as long as possible.) Impressed? So were we!

Not only were their preparations impressive, so was their ability to work together to accomplish a rather sizable project as a team. Not once during their preparations did we hear them argue or express frustration with each other. They were so quiet, we had no clue what they were up to.

Without further ado.... I give you Annika (on ukulele) and Conor (on drums)!!


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

September 2014 Daring Bakers' Challenge: Kolaches

Whoops!!! Funny how your life can get turned on its ear when you have surgery! My apologies for the delayed Daring Bakers' reveal post... my nap schedule and foggy brain got the better of me. (Side note: all is going well and I'm recovering quite nicely.)

In September, we Daring Bakers were challenged (once again) to create something I've never heard of. I think that is one of the main reasons I really enjoy these monthly challenges. Most of the time, I am creating something completely new and out of my baking comfort zone.

Basically, Kolaches are a yeast-based sweet bun that is formed into a sweetened cheese-filled purse and then topped with a dollop of plum jam and a streussel-esque topping. Amazingly, I had JUST made plum jam courtesy a friend who shared part of her plum crop with me, so I was ready to go without a store run. How great is that??

I thought these treats were quite tasty. They reminded me of a cheese danish in some ways. They were definitely best warm. Eric found them a bit too doughy for his liking, however. I took the extras to work (Lord knows I didn't need to eat the entire batch by myself!) and got rave reviews from my co-workers.

The September Daring Bakers' challenge was brought to us by Lucie from ChezLucie. She challenged us to make a true Czech treat - Kolaches!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Annika's First Soccer Game

Yes, it is official, we have a soccer player in the family. Annika is on her school's 1st grade soccer team (correctly, one of the 1st grade soccer teams ... it is so popular, they had enough kids for 2 teams!) and she is loving it.

The setup is ideal -- the kids practice one hour per week and then have one game per weekend. They learn the basics of the sport, as well as how to take direction and balance fun with maintaining a work ethic.

Soccer is an ideal outlet for her competitive nature, desire to run, and love of cheering on her peers. She doesn't feel the need to be the star of the team or hog the ball, but sure love kicking the ball down the field and wound up making two goals during their game this weekend!!

The kids played hard, were appropriately aggressive, and cheered on their friends like true good sports!

Run, Annika, run!!

Annika passing the ball

Trapping the ball

Post-goal thumbs up

Post-goal thumbs up with attitude