Monday, December 31, 2012

The Last One of 2012

It's been a pretty amazing year, that's for sure. Maybe one of my favorite ever. I mean, what could be better than traveling around with your best friends and cool little family? We've certainly had a lot of adventures, seen a lot of pretty things, been reunited with a lot of good friends and traveled a lot of miles. In fact, if you counted all the miles we've driven or flown this year individually and lined them up end to end, they total over 48,000. That's enough to drive around the equator. Twice.

And those miles have not been in vain. I have loved having Ellie and Olivia as my little travel buddies. They are great sports on road trips, and they're always excited about "a-wen-tures." And, of course, Steve is an excellent travel companion, too. We both have the travel bug as of late, and it's fun to always be thinking of the next place we want to go together. Plus, I'd like to thank his employer, Moss Adams, for sponsoring many of our trips. For an accountant, Steve has a pretty cool lifestyle, if I do say so myself. And it has been wonderful to reunite with friends both near and far many times over the year. It's not very fun when all your friends move away. But it is fun when you get to go visit them in places like Austin, Baton Rouge and San Francisco.

It's always difficult for me to figure out how to recap an entire year. Chronologically? Categorically? Photographically? Linkilly (that's when I repost links, obviously)? So I went with Instagramically this year. Because I like that Instragrams sort of capture our everyday life... the regular stuff, as it were. With two squirmy kids I don't always feel like I can bring along my expensive camera, so I'm grateful for the relatively good quality provided by my iPhone 4S's camera. I think it does pretty nicely. Plus, I enjoy the fact that Ellie and Olivia really like to look back through all my pictures and remember the fun times with me.

So if you're ready for the longest, most Instagram-filled post ever, may I present a little recap of our year.

In 2012:

We saw a lot of pretty skylines:
Main Street, Disneyland, California
La Jolla, California
San Francisco, California
Downtown San Francisco
Spokane, Washington
Honolulu, Hawaii
Houston, Texas
(More after the jump.)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The One With the Christmas Dinner

We had a lovely Christmas in our first home this year. My family came to visit from Idaho. It's always fun to have Christmas with my family because my mom is a great cook and we have a fabulous food, which is one of the reasons I love Christmas so. That and Christmas songs and lights and glitter crafts. 

Anyway, it was fun to decorate for Christmas dinner, which was out in our garage that is about to be converted into the girls' bedroom. (Fancy, I know.)
Just a few hydrangeas and pink roses arranged by my mom amongst tons of candles and some ornaments, and of course, gold glitter. We had berry pretzel salad for starters, followed by a green salad with spinach, craisins, pomegranate, sunflower seeds, croutons and poppyseed dressing. And then twice baked potatoes, green bean casserole, and pork wellington - which is quite a feat of engineering (in which I am not very involved). And a pecan pie cheesecake and a chocolate toffee almond pie for dessert.

After dinner we went to see the lights at Peacock Lane and then watched the Muppet Christmas Carol, as per tradition. Well, except that the tradition is becoming more and more that we fall asleep to the Muppet Christmas Carol, but whatever. And we played games and introduced the new family members to Nertz, which is the best card game ever.

And look at this picture from Christmas morning. The girls got a kid-sized piano from my mom. They love it. And they look ridiculously adorable playing it. They probably need piano lessons...
Ellie and Olivia also got a pink oven and we gave them pizza and cookie making sets to go with it. They walked around all day in their new princess dress-up shoes and made sure everyone got more than their fill of pizza and cookies. It was very fun.

Did you have a Merry Christmas? I do hope you did.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The One With the Almond Roca Cookie Bars

This recipe was inspired by a box recipe I found a couple years ago at CostCo. But now I don't have to depend on the box and can make it myself all year round. Which I might have to do because this is Steve's favorite.
Almond Roca Cookie Bars
  • 1 package Betty Crocker Sugar Cookie Mix (if you don't want to use this mix, see my recipe here for Almond Roca Cookie Bars from Scratch)
  • 1 cup + 2 Tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup almond roca bits, either made from scratch or crushed from Heath or Skor candy bars
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
In a medium bowl, use a pastry cutter to combine the sugar cookie mix and 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter. The mixture will still be dry, but the butter should be fully incorporated. Press into the bottom of an ungreased 9x13 inch glass pan. Use your fingers to make sure the mixture is evenly distributed and packed firmly. Set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 5 Tablespoons of butter and the brown sugar, stirring constantly to make sure the butter and sugar are fully incorporated. Once this is achieved, add the remaining 5 Tablespoons of butter and continue to stir as the mixture comes to a rolling boil. Allow the mixture to boil for about a minute and then pour over the sugar cookie mixture, spreading evenly with a spatula. Place in oven and cook for 16-18 minutes, until caramel is bubbly.
Remove from oven. After one minute, sprinkle the almond roca bits over the cookie bar. Allow to cool  in the fridge for about two hours. Set cookies out and let them come to room temperature before cutting into squares.

Easy as pudding pie. And super yummy. So far everyone who has tried these has liked them. So maybe that means they're a no-fail Christmas treat? Good for your neighbors and Christmas guests and all those important people.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The One With the Atlas Wreath

I made this before Thanksgiving and am just now on top of things enough to show you. And even though it's late, I think it turned out pretty cool.

I saw the idea at a DIY Christmas show I attended with my mom. The designer behind Inspired by Ellee was there showing us all kinds of cool stuff (seriously... the things she did with chalkboard paint = very fun!). But my favorite thing she had on display was an atlas wreath with the word "Peace" (as in Peace on Earth) in the middle. I spent the next day searching all over my hometown for book of atlases so I could make my own.
An old picture frame from goodwill, some wooden letters, glitter and a hot glue gun later, I had my atlas wreath. And I really love it. Although mine is more like Joy to the World.

I accented it with some of the trees I made last year for my Glittery Christmas Village, and a nativity from my grandmother. And even though I made this for Christmas, it might stay up a little longer than that. It's nice that it's not super Christmas-y color-wise, so I could probably get away with it for a bit. Right?

O, and this is what Olivia saw in the living room that she described as "berry cole" and "beau-iful." I have to say I quite agree with her.

The One With the Buttercrunch Almond Roca

Christmas is an excellent excuse for making candy, and lots of it! In our house we have to make an unusually large number of batches because too much gets eaten before it gets distributed... so then we have to make more.

This year I've been making lots of Mint Chocolate Fudge, Almond Roca and Almond Roca Cookie Bars (perhaps you sense a theme...). All of these are impressive, but surprisingly simple to make. It's almost a shame to give away the secret, but I will anyway. Just for you.

First of all, however, a few comments about making candy. I don't use a candy thermometer, but rather a cold-water test, which I will explain later. I've never needed a candy thermometer for this in particular, and you don't either. Also, candy can be kind of sensitive to things like humidity and elevation and such. I don't really know the variables or how to work around them. Sometimes I find that I will make a batch of the toffee and it just won't turn out well, no explanation. A few days later I'll get several good batches. But as long as you know what you're going for, you can do a little trial and error until you find what works perfectly for you in your humidity/elevation condition. The good news is that this is a really simple candy to work with - it's not extremely expensive, nor does it require a lot of complicated steps or ingredients, so really, it's the perfect place to begin. Don't be intimidated. It's mostly just butter and sugar.

That said, I'm going to give you my most fool-proof explanation so you can give it your best shot. I've marked a few items with asterisks to give further explanation at the bottom.

Buttercrunch Almond Roca
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup milk chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • Unsalted almonds, chopped small 
Prepare a cookie sheet by lining it with parchment paper. Set aside.
In a non-stick medium saucepan*, melt the butter, sugar and salt over low-medium heat. As the butter begins to melt, stir the mixture constantly and quickly with a whisk. Be sure to scrape the sides of the pot to make sure all the sugar is getting mixed in. Keep stirring until the butter and sugar are fully incorporated. You don't want any butter separated at the edges or sitting on top. Continue to stir and let your mixture come to a boil. Here, you are going to start watching for color change. Once boiling, stop stirring and let your mixture cook. It will gradually become an amber color as the toffee cooks. Once you have a medium amber color, perform your first cold water test**: Drop a bit of the toffee into a glass of cold water. Wait a moment and then remove your toffee and taste it for texture. If it is soft and easily rolls into a ball, you have reached the soft ball stage. If it is soft but crunchy, you have reached soft-crack stage. Keep cooking your toffee, stirring only as needed to keep the butter and sugar from separating, or to help the color distribute evenly. Intermittently check your toffee as it darkens by repeating your cold water test. When the toffee comes out of the water and is solid and crunchy (hard-crack stage), you know it is ready. Do not overcook your toffee or it will burn. Pour the toffee onto your prepared cookie sheet and even out with a spatula. It may not reach the edges of your pan, and that's fine.
Wait one minute and then sprinkle your chocolate chips over the toffee. Allow the residual heat of the toffee to melt the chips for a minute or two, and then spread the chocolate evenly with a clean spatula. Sprinkle with the almond bits. Once the pan is cool, place in refrigerator to set, about an hour. After it is fully set, break or cut the toffee into bite-sized pieces and enjoy!
You can store your toffee in an air-tight container at room temperature or in the fridge.

*I have found that a non-stick, coated saucepan is pretty essential for this. If you use a regular metal saucepan, the sugar tends to stick to the sides, which won't melt and crystallizes the whole batch when you pour it out.
**The cold water test basically accelerates the cooling of your toffee so that you can see the consistency that it will be when it is finished. If you like your toffee to be softer, less crunchy, remove your toffee earlier. And if you like it harder, let it cook a little longer.

See? It's really fairly simple. I think the hardest parts to master are stirring the right amount so that the butter and sugar don't separate, and removing the toffee from the heat at the right time. Some of this is a little trial and error, and will come to you as you determine your preference for consistency. If you have a difficult time at first, don't be afraid to try again. After all, it's just a little butter and sugar.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The One With the Christmas Pictures

Life around here has been nothing short of chaotic lately. O, well, except for when we went off to Hawaii for a week, just me and the hubs. Yeah, that was nice. But now we are playing catch up in a mad dash. Maybe I'll get around to posting some Christmas projects and candy recipes... or maybe this will be my only post this month.

But on to the Christmas photo shoot of the girls:

They are such sweet sisters. They are really getting to play with each other quite nicely. They do each others' hair and play dress up. And even share pretty well. Ellie has taken a very nurturing role as of late. I always hear her saying things like, "It's ok, little smoochy. I just had to go get my Piglet, but I am back now." And she's also interested in telling me all the things Livvy needs, like her blanket and her Minnie. And M&Ms, obviously.
Ellie is also pretty interested in family relationships. A few weeks ago she declared, "I am Piglet's mom." She therefore feels entitled to have Piglet around all the time, you know, even at church and preschool. She is very interested in making sure Piglet has toys to play and snuggle with, and that she gets plenty of water. And that she has band-aids and gets her diaper changed regularly. I guess she's as good a mom as any stuffed animal could hope for. But the other day she and Steve had the discussion about how Steve was related to Piglet if Ellie was his/her (Piglet seems to be a little transgender) mom. Eventually Ellie came to the realization that Steve must be Piglet's papa, as in grand-papa. Obviously. And the next day she came up to me and asked, "Are you Piglet's grandma?" Yes, I suppose I am.

A little while ago, after we read Olivia (the pig by Ian Falconer), Ellie asked me, "Are you a mama pig?" "No," I said, "I am a mama human." "What?!! You are not a mama pu-man. You are a regular mama!" A lot of Ellie's life is defined by being either regular or special. 

And the other morning as I was getting ready, Ellie came in and told me, "Mama, you look famous!" I don't know where she got that from, but I'll take it.

And she loves her Christmas songs. I get lots of requests throughout the day. Sometimes it's hard to figure out which song she wants when she asks for "Newborn King." But she's getting really good at singing them herself. She knows a lot of the words to a lot of songs. It's surprising. Except not really, in that she has always loved music. She gets that from her dad. Although I will say that some lyrics might still be a work in progress. For instance, Frosty the Snowman was a "hairy fairy soul."
She is into all things Christmas, really. She loves the tree. She helped decorate it this year. Although the success of the decorating could be described in an overheard, "I'm going to put Santa Claus right here next to the reindeer." All the ornaments she hung are on the same two branches. But don't worry, they get taken down a lot to be played with. 
And Olivia. She has become quite the declarative little person. She is very adventurous and adamant about her life. Nothing is a question in her mind. Everything is just an action, a proclamation. She rushes passed me and breathlessly yells, "I am running, mama!" or, unfortunately, "I am coloring on the door!"And she's a little independent thing. "Let me do it!" is her favorite phrase. I hear it twenty thousand times a day. Sometimes in an exasperated tone, sometimes in a little jingle, sometimes in a melodic song that goes on for several minutes. She's more interested in buckling her own seat belts and putting on her own shoes than Ellie is.
 She is also very curious about the human body. She always wants to check people's bellies. And she strips just about every chance she can. So if you come over to our house and she's in a very weird combination of clothing, that's just because we have to put her in as many complicated layers as possible to get a few moments of peace. Otherwise, I'll turn around from making breakfast and there she is, naked as a little jaybird. It's actually the cutest thing in the whole wide world. If only she wouldn't pee on things, I'd let her go around naked all day long.
And everything in Olivia's life is beautiful. "Beau-iful jacket, Daddy." "Beau-iful new boots, Mommy."
She is learning her name finally. I don't know why it took her so long, of all things. But she will now tell you, "I'm Wuff-a!"And also "It's Wuff-a's turn!"

But one of my favorite things that happened recently was when I started decorating for Christmas. Steve and I were wondering if the girls ever notice that we change things about their environment, hang new art, paint things, change the table decor, etc. I made a wreath and hung it above the fireplace one night while the girls were sleeping. The next morning as I was making breakfast, Olivia came into the kitchen from the living room acting very excitedly like she wanted to show me something. I followed her to the living room where she was pointing at the wreath and exclaiming in a lot of gibberish over it. I did understand a few phrases like, "berry cole" (very cool) and "beau-iful". It definitely made my day that she thought my project was so cool.

And finally, are you ready for the cutest picture you've ever seen in your whole life?

No, seriously. You have to be really ready. Because after you see it, you can't unsee it, and all other pictures will be ruined. Even if they are of your own kids.

Ok, probably not if they are of your own kids. But don't underestimate the cuteness.
I mean, really? Could she be any more adorable? And that big sister kissing her on the cheek? I am a lucky mama, that's for sure. 

They are my little sweethearts, and I love them so much.
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