Category Archives: Baking Love

Breakfast Snack Cookies

Somewhere along the way we developed a morning routine of Little Man waking up and heading to the couch for a little TV, a drink of juice and a snack to tide him over until breakfast.  I don’t mind this window of quiet since it buys us a bit of time to start moving (and thinking).  Neither Dave nor I are particularly quick or quick witted first thing. What I’ve tried to do for these morning snacks, is find something that still registers as a treat for him, but that I can feel good about giving him to eat.  For Little Man, the greatest treat in the world is a cookie so treats in that form are generally a big hit.  Then I just wanted to make one that was as choc full of goodness (and tastiness) as I could come up with.  Enter the Oatmeal Peanut Butter Snack Cookie.

Once you move beyond the fact that they are delicious, they are also wheat-free, vegan and low FODMAP compliant, though none of those labels sound particularly tasty.  So if you’re going just for taste, ignore those last few disclaimers and get ready for a deliciously chewy cookie that you can feel good about feeding your family for breakfast or snack… or for treating yourself to as well.

With these, or pretty much any kind of cookies, I like to bake off a dozen right away for snacking and then freeze the rest in logs for slice and bake cookies.  For one thing that keeps me from eating an entire plate of cookies immediately since I don’t have a massive pile of cookies in front of me, but it also lets me vary things for Little Man in the mornings for snack time.  One of the things I read while researching Little Man’s dietary issues, is that especially if you have a picky eater, you should never serve your child the same thing two days in a row for breakfast.  Since Little Man is a picky eater and has the dietary issues, it felt like we were only feeding him two different foods for breakfast.  So now I try to have 4-5 breakfasts that I cycle through on any given week.  For us that’s often pancakes, eggs/toast/bacon, waffles, baked oatmeal, french toast, and a Dutch apple baby (baked pancake).  This is also why I like to keep homemade frozen pancakes, waffles, and bread in my freezer.  I make a batch of something and then freeze a good amount of it for use later in the week.  It’s not a perfect system, but it lets me rotate things through for Little Man and hopefully keeps his taste buds ready for new things to try.  FIngers crossed…

Oatmeal Peanut Butter Snack Cookies
I love that I can give these cookies to my son without feeling guilty about the ingredients, and the fact that he loves them because they’re delicious. Loaded with oats and peanut butter, these cookies give a good boost of fiber and protein, as well as a bit of chia goodness to round things out. I like to bake off a dozen and then freeze the rest of the dough in logs so I can bake more  whenever I want. Just add 5 minutes to the baking time if baking from frozen.

Ingredients:
2 tsp. chia meal (see note*)
2 tbsp. water (plus ½ cup for use later on)
¼ cup margarine, softened
1 cup creamy peanut butter
½ cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups rolled oats (not instant)
1 ¼ tsp. baking soda
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a small bowl combine the chia meal and the water, and let it sit for 5 minutes. This becomes your chia egg (aka egg replacement).
    IMG_3923

    All you need to make your own chia meal is a bag of chia seeds and a coffee/spice grinder.  This lets you create a healthier chia meal since your freshly ground meal retains more of the essential oils.  Store bought chia meal is much older and the oils have started to dissipate.

    IMG_3926

    It may not be pretty, but this peppery-gray goo (aka egg replacer) is full of nutrients, and helps wheat-free recipes hold together.

  3. In a large bowl or stand mixer, beat the margarine and peanut butter until fluffy. Add the chia egg, brown sugar and vanilla and beat until combined.
    IMG_3927

    Getting the margarine and peanut butter ready.  I use a good quality soy-free margarine.

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    The beaters make fast work of blending my ingredients together, but you can do this by hand or with a stand mixer depending on your “tool” of choice.

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    These are the last ingredients for using the beaters (or stand mixer).  From here on out you will want to use a spoon to combine the remaining ingredients.

    IMG_3931

    And here is your lovely batter, ready for the best parts… the oats and chocolate chips.

  4. Add the water, oats and baking soda, stirring by hand with a spoon or mixing on a lower speed in a stand mixer so the oats do not get too broken up.
    IMG_3933 (2)

    I like to stir this part by hand with a spoon so the oats do not get too broken up.

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    Just missing the chocolate.

  5. Stir in the chocolate chips, and use two spoons to portion and drop tablespoon sized dough balls onto the parchment lined baking sheet, about 2 inches apart.
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    This is Little Man’s favorite part since he needs to play Quality Inspector and make sure that the chocolate is fit for people to eat.

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    Since this is an egg-free batter, the raw dough is safe for snacking on.  Little Man is not generally lucky enough for this, however, since I like to keep as much batter for cookies as possible.

    IMG_3943

    I did not use a scoop to form these cookies, just the old-fashioned method of two teaspoons.  If you do use a scoop, press down on the center a bit to flatten the cookies so that they cook through well.  This batter does not spread like some others do.

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    More cookie love.

  6. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, then allow to cool on the baking sheet for five minutes. Remove the cookies to a cooling rack and cool completely (of course, you should munch on a couple while they are still warm… just to make sure they are good). These cookies tend to be more fragile than cookies with lots of flour, but their taste makes up for any potential fragility.

    IMG_3955

    Since there is no flour in this recipe the cookies can be a bit fragile.  Let them sit on the tray for 5 minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.

  7. The dough can also be rolled into a log inside plastic wrap and frozen for slice and bake cookies. When you want the cookies, simply pull out a log, unwrap the portion you want, slice off cookies and place them on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Bake at 350° and check after 10 minutes. They may need a couple of minutes more since they are baking from frozen. Enjoy!
    IMG_3946

    I like to bake off a dozen of the cookies fresh, and then save the rest of the batter as freezer rolls to bake whenever I want them. So start with a sheet of plastic wrap and dump a portion of the batter onto the center of the plastic.

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    Form the batter into a log-like shape using the sides of the plastic.

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    Don’t feel that you have to be too precious about the thing and roll the perfect log.  No one is looking, so if your cookie log isn’t perfect it is no big deal.  And if anyone wants to critique your cookie log shape… perhaps they are not worthy of your cookies.  Just a thought.  😉

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    Sometimes the cookie logs do not last long enough in the fridge or freezer for me to label them.

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    The finished beauties.

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Now I just need a cup of tea and I will declare it snack time.


Note
: Chia seeds lose their awesome oils quickly once ground, so try not to buy them pre-ground as chia meal. Make your own chia meal by blitzing up chia seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor. You can also do the same with flax seeds, or make oat flour by blitzing up whole oats (not instant, please). Store any extra chia meal in the freezer to keep it fresh.

Click here for a printable version of the Oatmeal Peanut Butter Snack Cookies recipe.

Adventures with FODMAPs – Lactose Edition and Amazing Cornbread with Maple Butter

As I’ve written earlier, we are in the midst of the dubious pleasure of testing different food groups for reintroduction into our son’s diet.  After following the 10 week low FODMAP food regimen we finally saw healthy changes in Little Man, and then began the exciting and worrisome task of testing the various FODMAP groups to see which one(s) are triggers for him.  Based on the suggested plan for testing the different groups, we started with the Polyols (aka fruit alcohols).  They went suprisingly well, and buoyed by our success with the polyol FODMAP food tests we dove right into the lactose tests.  There are numerous categories of FODMAPS (discussed in a previous post Adventures with FODMAPs – Polyol Edition) and each one needs to be tested in order to find which FODMAP foods or food groups might be triggers for Little Man.  Alas, our previous good fortune was to be short lived.

We started our lactose trials with Little Man’s favorite food in the world; boxed mac and cheese.  A couple of weeks ago Little Man and I were in the grocery store doing regular shopping and we came across the aisle with his favorite brand of mac and cheese.  He stopped dead in his tracks, jumped into a wide stance with his arms out like he was going to hug the shelf, and immediately broke into a happy dance singing about his love for mac and cheese.  Full on singing at the top of his lungs in the middle of the aisle.  While he was dancing out of pure unadulterated joy, my heart was breaking since I knew that we were in the middle of the strict FODMAP diet, so he couldn’t have this food that obviously he’d been missing.  Luckily this brand also carries one style of gluten-free mac and cheese, so I picked up a box for him to enjoy when we started the lactose test.

Now here we are testing the lactose/dairy FODMAP category and Little Man got his boxed treat.  I had to make Dave and myself a separate box, since I think that Little Man was prepared to defend his mac and cheese with whatever plastic utensil was at hand.  We had to control his portions or I think he might just have eaten the entire thing.  The left overs he devoured for lunch the next day.  Luckily there weren’t any ill effects from this beloved food.  So we continued.

The next evening we moved on to testing the lactose group with feta, a low lactose cheese.  We gave some to Little Man just to eat with dinner (primarily since when he heard I was using feta, he came and begged for tastes) and some blitzed up in a delicious walnut and feta dip that we hadn’t enjoyed in months.  Seriously, you’ve got to try this dip.  Dave and I used to make this often as a part of a meze (Greek for little dishes) meal.  Little Man fell on that feta like a hungry wolf pup, gobbling up both the plain feta and the dip.  We then watched him like a pair of hawks, and didn’t notice any unfortunate symptoms over the course of the next day.  With that false sense of security we continued.

The following evening we had a dinner of delicious shrimp quesadillas with cheddar cheese from Pioneer Woman.  Now, when testing FODMAPs you need to be careful to only test one category at a time.  Otherwise if you are trying to test for lactose with a quesadilla (something that contains both lactose and gluten), then if you get a reaction you won’t know which category was the culprit.  That’s a long way around to say that we needed to make these wheat-free quesadillas.  I haven’t found gluten- or wheat-free store bought tortillas that I like, so I made spelt tortillas and they were great.  I’ll share that recipe soon in a separate post.  The quesadillas were seriously delicious, and again we didn’t notice any bloating or other symptoms.  So we moved forward again.

For this day we had cumin-spiced chicken and butter pasta for dinner.  The butter pasta is a simple and serious comfort food for Dave.  We used to eat butter pasta for dinner sporadically in graduate school when we needed a fast, comforting, and dead cheap meal.  It’s simply spaghetti (in our case a gluten free variety) tossed with a little starchy water from their boiling liquid, a good amount of butter (we used a nondairy variety since that’s what we had in the house), and a wonderful handful of Parmesan cheese (the real stuff please).  When we make this for ourselves, we also toss in a handful of finely chopped Italian parsley and chives. Little Man is in a “no green” phase of eating right now, so for this test we left them out.  He does, however LOVE Parmesan.  We gave him a couple of little shards to munch on while he also gobbled up the pasta.

It was after the butter pasta meal that we did finally see those unfortunate symptoms that we’d been both watching for and dreading.  Poor Little Man had a distended tummy for a couple of days and was understandably low in energy and appetite. In this case we don’t think that the culprit was necessarily the Parmesan, but the accumulation of lactose over the last few days.  We would later test Little Man with a snack of a good quality raspberry yogurt, and see these unfortunate symptoms appear again.

The appearance of those symptoms for Little Man after eating dairy products was both disheartening since we have to be careful with those foods for him, but it was also somehow reassuring since we now at least know one of the food groups that is a trigger for him.  Now that we know this trigger, we can do our best to avoid them or at least to plan around them so that he can still enjoy his favorite dairy foods from time to time, we just have to be sure to limit as many high FODMAP foods as possible around those meals.  The key with FODMAPs is that they are cumulative, so each time that they are eaten they build upon the last.

So the good part is that we’ve identified a solid trigger for Little Man, and of course the downside is that it’s a category that is insidious.  You never realize the number of foods that contain dairy until you start looking for it.  For instance we learned that some hotdog brands contain milk powder.  And, yes, we found that out after feeding the to our son.  Doh!  So now we are taking a week to get Little Man’s system back on track and then we’ll experiment with the joys of fructose FODMAPs.

Another plus from our experiments with lactose has been the discovery of an amazing substitute for honey butter.  Before things went sideways with Little Man in the lactose testing, I had plans for a meal that was basically an excuse to have cornbread with honey butter.  That is one of Little Man’s favorites, but both the butter (lactose) and the honey (fructose) are high FODMAPs and are therefore victus non grata (unwelcome food).  It was a super simple switch, but that evening I tried making a maple butter by switching out the honey for maple syrup… and my goodness… where has this been all of my life?  I now try to find more excuses for making corn bread just to have this maple butter again.  You’ve got to try it.

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Awesome Cornbread and Maple Butter
Ingredients
:
1 ¼ cups yellow cornmeal
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup chia meal (see note)
¾ cup whole wheat or spelt flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup milk (cow, almond, soy, coconut…)
2 eggs
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup softened margarine or butter
2 tbsp. maple syrup (the real thing, please)

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°. Grease an 8-inch cast iron pan or baking pan with butter, margarine or coconut oil, and place the pan in the oven to heat while you make the batter. Preheating the seasoned pan is what gives the bread an awesome crispy crust.

    Preheating the pan (preferably cast iron) before adding the batter creates a deliciously crispy crust.

    Preheating the pan (preferably cast iron) before adding the batter creates a deliciously crispy crust.

  2. In a large bowl combine the cornmeal, chia meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk the ingredients together to make sure they are well incorporated.
    The dry ingredients.

    The dry ingredients.

    Whisked dry ingredients.  The chia looks alarmingly like black pepper, but soon it will blend in nicely.

    Whisked dry ingredients. The chia looks alarmingly like black pepper, but soon it will blend in nicely.

  3. In a small bowl or large measuring cup combine the milk, eggs and olive oil. Gently beat the eggs to start combining things.
    I like to mix the wet ingredients together in a large measuring cup rather than dirty another bowl.

    I like to mix the wet ingredients together in a large measuring cup rather than dirty another bowl.

    The wet ingredients don't need to be perfectly blended, but give them a good spin before adding to the dry ingredients.

    The wet ingredients don’t need to be perfectly blended, but give them a good spin before adding to the dry ingredients.

    IMG_5059

  4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until they are just combined. Do not over mix, or this will give you tough cornbread.

    The spelt and chia cornbread batter is darker than a standard recipe, and the flavor will be more rich as well.

    The spelt and chia cornbread batter is darker than a standard recipe, and the flavor will be more rich as well.

  5. Carefully pull the prepared hot pan out of the oven and pour the batter into the pan. Gently smooth the top, and return the pan to the oven.
    IMG_5068
  6. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out dry.
    The hardest part is letting the cornbread cool before digging in.

    The hardest part is letting the cornbread cool before digging in.

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  7. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the softened butter or margarine with the maple syrup. If you over soften the butter, don’t worry. Just mix it all together and stick it in the freezer or refrigerator to firm up a bit. You can also add a bit more syrup for a sweeter flavor, if you like. Transfer the maple butter to a small serving bowl.
    It's rare that I remember to set butter out to soften on the counter, so I generally need to use the microwave in short  second bursts.

    It’s rare that I remember to set butter out to soften on the counter, so I generally need to use the microwave in short second bursts.

    I was a bit over judicious in my maple syrup pour for this picture.  If this happens to you, just do the same thing that I did and add a bit more softened butter until you get the consistency that you like.

    I was a bit over judicious in my maple syrup pour for this picture. If this happens to you, just do the same thing that I did and add a bit more softened butter until you get the consistency that you like.

    After a few moments in the freezer or minutes in the refrigerator, this too soft maple butter was perfect for use.

    After a few moments in the freezer or minutes in the refrigerator, this too soft maple butter was perfect for use.

  8. Once the cornbread is fully baked, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool for about 10-15 minutes. Then slice the cornbread and serve it with the maple butter. I love serving the cornbread in the cast iron skillet right on the table alongside a small crock of the maple butter. Enjoy!

Note: Make your own chia meal by blitzing up chia seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor. You can also do the same with flax seeds, or make oat flour by blitzing up whole oats (not instant, please). Store any extra chia meal in the freezer to keep it fresh.

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Click here for a printable version of the Awesome Cornbread and Maple Butter recipe.

Cooking with Kids

When I first started cooking with Little Man, he couldn’t yet walk.  I would hold him on my hip and press his little hand around a long wooden spoon and let him “help” me stir whatever I was making.  As he grew older, I started asking him to help me cook or bake and he would gleefully dump in a cup of flour that I’d filled for him.  Sometimes he would drop the entire thing into the bowl, measuring cup and all.  Even if all he did was add in a premeasured scoop of flour, he would tell his Daddy proudly that he’d helped make the muffins.  Now more and more it’s not me asking him to come and cook with me, but if he sees me making anything in the kitchen he comes running up asking to help, dragging a stool in his wake.

Little Man helping me stir ingredients in a measuring cup in our tiny Iowa kitchen.

Two year old Little Man helping me stir ingredients in a measuring cup in our tiny Iowa kitchen.

I don’t want this to sound like a fairytale of always awesome cooking experiences.  In fact, there are numerous times when I ask Little Man if he’d like to help me cook or bake and his answer is a curly haired blur of “no” as he runs off to do something else.  But, since I’ve taken the time to slow down and get him involved with baking special treats or snacks, as well as making pancakes or stirring dinner, he now thinks of cooking or baking as something that can be fun to do and he often helps me in the kitchen.

Here three year old LM has his first ball of bread dough to play with.

Here three year old LM has his first ball of bread dough to play with.

Cooking with kids is a completely different ball game from the cooking you do on your own, and for some people it can be incredibly stressful.  When I first learned that I was pregnant with Little Man, I knew that I wanted to have special cooking times with him, and I also knew that I was going to have to change how I worked in the kitchen.  I was a good cook, but often got stressed out when trying to cook with someone in the kitchen with me.  If Dave was in our tiny kitchen as I cooked… forgetaboutit… not good.  Around the same time there were numerous T.V. series about people learning how to host television cooking shows, and much of what they were learning was about how to cook nicely with others and how to teach cooking.  I started watching these shows and trying out their advice so that I could learn to play nicely with others in the kitchen, and hopefully be able to teach my son both how to cook but more importantly how to love cooking.

The Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, also had mini

The Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, has  cooking workshops for kids. LM got to color his own chef’s hat and then make a turtle cup cake.

Learning how to cook with Little Man has taken quite a bit of trial and error, but now it’s something that we both look forward to.  For me, the three main goals for cooking with kids that I try to be mindful of are to:
1. Choose a time to cook when you aren’t pressed for time
2. Embrace the mess
3. Focus on the process not the product

LM is helping Dave grate cheese last Mother's Day for wraps to bring on our picnic.  I'm not sure how much cheese actually made it to the wraps, and how much was

LM is helping Dave grate cheese last Mother’s Day for wraps to bring on our picnic. I’m not sure how much cheese actually made it to the wraps, and how much was “sampled” by the chefs.

Timing is Everything!
There are days (and quite a few of them) when I simply need to get dinner on the table.  There’s not a lot of time to mess around, I just need to get into the kitchen, get dinner going and onto the table asap.  Those times are not the best for cooking with Little Man.  I do my best to never turn him away if he asks to help me cook, but it’s taken lots of practice for me to be able to do this, and frankly there are times when it wouldn’t be safe for him to help me (like even shallow frying or browning meat/veg with splattering oil).  This is why when I know that I will be making something that is calmer, that is a particular favorite of Little Man’s, or when I know that I can be more relaxed with when a dish or treat is done then I invite Little Man to come and cook with me.  I try to be strategic when I can.  There are even certain dishes that he loves that I require he cooks with me, like boxed mac and cheese.  If you want to see a great Pavlovian-dog response with Little Man, shake a box of mac and cheese in his vicinity.  You’ll see his eyes widen, back straighten, and curls bounce as he runs to see if he heard that rattle correctly.  So now, if we’re having boxed mac and cheese, then he’s the one making it (just not the draining of the hot pasta part yet), with my help of course.

It’s the issue of time and timing that I’ve had to work on the most for cooking with Little Man.  As with anything else dealing with kids, if you are stressed about it your child will be stressed too.  I had to practice this, but it’s almost like a deep breathing exercise.  Just accept the fact that if it normally takes you 20 minutes to get a pan of muffins into the oven, when you first start cooking with a child that time could easily double, but that’s OK.  The goal isn’t speed here, it’s teaching your child how to cook, how to enjoy cooking, and most importantly getting to spend some special time with you while doing so.  If it takes you a few more (or many more) minutes to cook something together, then those are bonus moments that you get to spend together doing something fun.

These were LM's birthday cup cakes to bring to day care.  I found little sprinkles all over the kitchen for days.

These were LM’s birthday cup cakes to bring to day care. I found little sprinkles all over the kitchen for days.

Embrace the Mess!
Much like giving up control of your timeline, especially when first learning how to cook with your child or when cooking with a young child you need to accept the fact that it’s going to get messy.  Just ask my husband (or mother-in-law… wait… on second thought don’t do that…), I am not the most organized or cleanest cook out there.  I’ve gotten better over the years, but I tend to leave a swath of destruction in my wake (just check out the background in the banner image of this post… wait, no don’t do that… its too messy).  I’ve been practicing being better, specifically as an example for Little Man as we cook, but I have a bit of work to be done there.

That said, I am trying to cook cleaner, so when I first started baking with Little Man it was hard for me to let him do the scooping of ingredients on his own.  I would scoop the flour/sugar/spice, hold the measuring cup or spoon over the bowl and only then let him dump the ingredient in.  The reason I did this was partly based on Little Man’s age at the time, and partly based on my own desire to control the potential chaos in my kitchen.  You know best the abilities of your child, and if you aren’t sure of his/her abilities in the kitchen then start with what you are comfortable with and move up from there.  Just remember that your child learns and develops at an astonishing rate.  You (meaning me too) need to remember to let your child push his/her abilities from time to time to see what they really can do.

Increasingly Little Man asks if he can do any of our cooking or baking tasks “all by” himself.  Since baking particularly needs to be pretty precise, I will still often scoop and level a measuring cup or spoon, but then I hand it over immediately to Little Man who will then move it to the bowl and dump it.  Especially at first there was quite a bit of spill over with a winter-esque coating of flour and/or sugar across the kitchen counter when we were baking.  But that didn’t matter.  He could dump an entire cup of flour on the floor… much like I myself did last night… and it wouldn’t matter.  We would look at each other then bust up laughing.  I’d help him do the correct measurement, and then we’d stop to clean up the mess together.  As with anything else in life worth learning, you are going to make a mistake from time to time.  It’s important that we give our kids the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them as well.  This also gives Little Man practice in cleaning up, but he doesn’t mind doing it with me since it’s all a part of the cooking game.

I love how serious he is here with his mixing bowl, as he whisks dry ingredients together.  The flour cloud must have subsided by the time I took the picture.

I love how serious he is here with his mixing bowl, as he whisks dry ingredients together. The flour cloud must have subsided by the time I took the picture.

It’s About the Process Not the Product
This last goal for cooking with kids really sums up the previous two about letting go of stress about time and cleanliness.  If your muffins are the ugliest in the world, that’s just another part of the great story that you’ll tell for years.  And who knows, even though they look a mess those ugly muffins might still be delicious.  If you make something that is a complete flop, inedible to the core, again this can become part of family lore and it can also be a great opportunity to call in reinforcements like the local pizza delivery place.  The only thing that matters is that you were in the kitchen cooking with your child.  Period.  End of story.

If you are going to cook, at some point you are going to fail in spectacular proportions.  I, myself have had some doozies.  For years Dave would not let me make mashed potatoes since mine were insipid at best, watery and under/over seasoned at worst.  Then there was also the first Thanksgiving meal that I made him.  That shall not be spoken of here.  There was also the time that I didn’t just “over caramelize” the kale chips at my mother-in-law’s house, I incinerated them.  I’m not even sure there was any forensic evidence left of those “chips” that had started out as a beautiful head of expensive kale.  Perhaps a fancy chef could have used them as a kale ash garnish for something, but for me that fail was so spectacular the only thing I could do about it was laugh and deposit my creation in the organic bin.

We all make mistakes.  Frankly these mistakes in cooking mean that we are trying something new, and hopefully we can learn from what went wrong, making our cooking better for the next time we try that recipe.  Like my “blackened” kale chips, I learned to watch crisping kale like a hawk, never taking my eyes off of it.  From your cooking mistakes you can learn to make your own cooking better, as well as letting your child learn from mistakes too.  What is most important here is that you deal with the mistake with grace (and maybe even some laughter), try to troubleshoot it to see if it can be fixed (more learning moments here), and if all else fails you clean up together and try again (or call for take out).

LM loves chocolate and I love all of the healthy ingredients I get to sneak into his snacks.

LM loves chocolate and I love all of the healthy ingredients I get to sneak into his snacks.

Getting Started…
The best way to get started cooking with your child is to choose a recipe that is a sure fire hit with your child, as well as being one that fits your comfort level in the kitchen.  For me, that “dish” was boxed mac and cheese.  It’s not even a recipe, really just more of following instructions on the box.  What was important for me was that this is something that Little Man LOVES, that we could pull off quickly before his attention span faltered, and that turns out the same every time.  The first time “we” made mac and cheese together, all he did was dump in the sauce mix and stir the milk in for a few seconds before he decided he wanted to go play.  No problem.  He played and I finished off our masterpiece.  For lunch that day he was super impressed with himself that he had helped Mommy make the food.  As Little Man has grown more confident in the kitchen, I keep finding new things for him to do.  I think that the first actual recipe we did together was for Banana Chocolate Muffins (see above picture for the results).  From that point on I made a point of asking him to come and cook with me whenever I was following a recipe for a dish that I knew he would particularly like (such as pancakes), as well as letting him join in when ever he asks.

What I’ve started to do recently is to ask Little Man if there is something that he would like to make with me in the kitchen.  Right now that question still stumps him a bit since he doesn’t know the options he has to choose from.  So if he seems stalled, I suggest a couple possibilities that I know we have ingredients for and let him choose.  I think the next thing we’ll try is to flip through one of my cookbooks with pretty pictures and see if something catches his fancy.  Let’s just hope he doesn’t choose some form of fancy souffle.  But you know, even if he does choose a souffle, something that I’ve never made before, and even if it is a magnificent flop, we’ll have a blast doing it.  I might just be sure that I have the ingredients for some Not So Traditional Chocolate Chip Cookies stashed away… just in case.

Here are my favorite recipes to make with Little Man:
1. Mini Chocolate Cupcakes
2. Auntie Erin’s Cocoa
3. Cheddar Chive Scones
4. Marie’s Hummus
5. Mom’s Latkas
6. Perfect Spelt Pancakes (also Perfect Whole Wheat Pancakes)

Enough chatter, get out there and cook with your favorite kid or kiddos.  And if you have any tips that have worked for you, please let me know in the comment section.  I’m always interested in learning more.

Based on my outfit, I must have just come home from teaching, jumped into the kitchen, then grabbed LM for some Mommy time while making dinner.

Based on my outfit, I must have just come home from teaching, jumped into the kitchen, then grabbed LM for some Mommy time while making dinner.

Friendship Cookies and Good Bye Tears

Sometimes there are things that I want to write about, but the moment is a bit too close at hand.  I started to write this post last August after a dear friend from Pella and her family visited us for a couple of days in the middle of their epic road trip from Iowa to British Columbia and then back down to the Oregon coast.

Dinner on the Deck

Dinner on the Deck

Visiting the fairy doors at Neck Point.

Visiting the fairy doors at Neck Point.

We’ve done a lot of moving around, Dave and I.  From various apartments in upstate New York during graduate school through our impromptu academic tour of the American Midwest and now to Vancouver Island.  Most of these “homes” have not lasted for more than two years before we move again following the job market.  In each of these places we have been blessed with some amazing friends.  The kind who we may not see for a year (or more), but the minute you are back in contact it’s as if you were never apart.  Conversations pick up as if we had just been chatting yesterday, and it is this effortlessness that makes it all the more gut wrenching when you have to leave them again.

Learning to skip stones at Neck Point.

Learning to skip stones at Neck Point.

Also checking out the gorgeous sea life in the shallow waters.  Can you see all the tiny crabs?

Also checking out the gorgeous sea life in the shallow waters. Can you see all the tiny crabs?

Sailing cork boats at Transfer Beach, Ladysmith.

Sailing cork boats at Transfer Beach, Ladysmith.

Which brings us back to the post that I started last August.  Little Man still talks about Iowa as a place that he wants to go back and visit.  In fact, he consistently talks about how “tomorrow” we need to catch a plane and go to Iowa then to China to visit his Kung Fu Panda friends.  At first I thought he assumed that all travel must go through Iowa since that is the last place that he traveled from on our move here.  So we pulled out the globe and his map and I showed him how Iowa is in no way closer to China than we are here.  Then Little Man explained to me that the goal was to visit Iowa and his blue home (our house there was painted blue with a scarlet front door), then to travel on to the Jade Palace in China.  Ah…

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When our friends came out to visit from Iowa, it was as if we’d just parted company the day before, not the year it was in real time.  We played, the kids played, and we ate, drank and talked for hours.  It was fantastic.  And as is often the case, the better the visit is, the sadder the departure.  We had already taught Little Man the Turkish tradition of throwing water on the vehicle of loved ones who are leaving to ensure that they must come back soon.  So as they were getting into their car, Little Man was urging me on quickly to grab a container of water to make sure they came back.  We dowsed the car, and are still waiting with baited breath for them to return.

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He was quiet as we went back inside after their departure.  We closed the front door and Little Man looked out the window watching their car disappear around the corner into the woods.  Dave scooped Little Man up and took him to the couch in his arms.
“Daddy, what does ‘sad’ mean?”
Little Man’s head was bowed so all I could see were his golden curls, not his face.
“Sad is something we feel when we are upset.  Are you sad that your friends are leaving?”
A nod of curls followed by, “Do you cry when you feel sad?”
“Yes, some times we cry when we feel sad,”  Daddy said.  “It’s OK to cry when we feel sad.  It’s OK to cry.”  Daddy folded him in his arms as Little Man’s face crumpled into tears.

Paparazzi taking photos of dinner.

Paparazzi taking photos of dinner.

We had to treat our Iowa friends to some locally caught salmon.  This time packet grilled and seasoned with ginger, garlic, chives and soy.

We had to treat our Iowa friends to some locally caught wild salmon. The salmon was packet grilled and seasoned with ginger, garlic, chives and soy.

Dave's famous... I mean, Joe's famous potatoes.

Dave’s famous… I mean, Joe’s famous potatoes (Cabin Grilled Potatoes)

This much sauteed kale with garlic, came from...

This much sauteed kale with garlic, came from…

this much rainbow chard that came from...

this much rainbow chard that came from…

my glorious garden.  I can't wait to see it lush like this again!

my glorious garden. I can’t wait to see it lush like this again!

I stood in the kitchen, “good bye” tears in my eyes, and tried to gain control.  My “plan” had been to hold it together for Little Man’s sake, so I could comfort myself with tears later after he was asleep.  No such luck.  So instead I baked.  The known movements of measuring, portioning and stirring were comforting, as was the aroma from the oven.  For this moment, for me at least, the main point wasn’t the special treat to eat afterwards, but the actions and senses leading up to it.

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That visit spurred me on to try to find Little Man more friends here on our island.  He was only 2 1/2 when we left Iowa, but all of his little friends that he’d known since birth were now far away and it’s hard (even for a little guy) to break into a community like Nanaimo where many people have lived for generations and don’t know what it’s like to be new in a place and friendless.  Now, to celebrate when we make new friends or for special play dates (generally outside ones where errant chocolate chips won’t ruin someone’s couch), I like to make a baked treat to bring along.  Sometimes this means mini-muffins or scones, but what we’ve started thinking of as special treats with friends are cookies.

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One of my favorite comfort foods is an old fashioned chocolate chip cookie.  However, the “old fashioned” part has had to be updated a bit for our current dietary requirements.  My goal here was to take that standard recipe for a delicious chocolate chip cookie with crispy edges and a chewy center loaded with chocolate chips, and make it into something that while it would be a stretch to call it “healthy” I could feel good about feeding my child and offering to other children (and parents, of course).  So in my case that meant getting rid of the wheat and using spelt flour, which still has some gluten for texture but has less of the gastro-issues than wheat has, and sneaking in some chia meal to up the “goodness” value.

As I’ve written before, there’s no need to go out and buy a special bag of chia meal.  If you have chia seeds at home, all you need to do is pour some of the seeds into a coffee grinder or food processor and blitz them up.  Creating your own chia meal has the added benefits of making all the great nutrients of chia more easily accessible to your body, and there is less chance of a stray whole chia seed getting into your dishwasher and growing like a chia pet.  If you don’t have chia, but do have flax seeds feel free to use them the same way.  If you have neither, then you can simply replace the amount of chia meal for a flour of your choice, or even oats.

Enough talking, let’s make some cookies…

Not So Traditional Chocolate Chip Cookies

Not So Traditional Chocolate Chip Cookies
Ingredients
:
2 cups spelt flour (or whole wheat)
¼ cup chia meal (see note)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) good quality dairy free margarine (or butter), softened
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 375°. Set aside an ungreased baking sheet.
  2. Combine the spelt flour, chia meal, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Set this aside.
    I was making these cookies more or less in the dark since Little Man was having a hard time nodding off that night.  So if the flash seems a bit harsh, that's because it was the only light source.

    I love how the chia meal always looks like I’ve just dumped a ton of black pepper into a recipe. Trust me, it will work its way in unobtrusively soon.

    See, the chia meal is whisked into the rest of the dry ingredients and away it goes.

    See, the chia meal is whisked into the rest of the dry ingredients and away it goes.

  3. Combine the softened margarine (or butter), sugars and vanilla in a large bowl either by hand or with an electric beater or stand mixer. Make sure the mixture is smooth and creamy.

    There's no need to use any other tool than a large spoon and a little elbow grease to combine the wet ingredients here.

    There’s no need to use any other tool than a large spoon and a little elbow grease to combine the wet ingredients here.

  4. Add the eggs, one at a time, to the butter mixture, combining well.

    Adding the eggs, one at a time.

    Adding the eggs, one at a time.

  5. Carefully add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, stirring slowly at first so that you don’t create a flour cloud by beating your ingredients too enthusiastically. Make sure that the dough is smooth and thoroughly combined.

    I did the sizing of the bowls backwards in this picture, so this step might look a little different for you.  It will still taste amazing in the end.

    I did the sizing of the bowls backwards in this picture, so this step might look a little different for you. It will still taste amazing in the end.

  6. Add the chocolate chips, stirring just to distribute them throughout.

    I'm surprised that Little Man didn't sense the chocolate being added to the bowl and run out in his pjs requesting a sample.

    I’m surprised that Little Man didn’t sense the chocolate being added to the bowl and run out in his pjs requesting a sample.

  7. Using two spoons (or a small scoop if you are feeling fancy) scoop out and drop tablespoon-sized portions of dough onto the baking sheet, spacing them a few inches apart since the dough will spread while baking.

    The dough is a little glossy here since the cookies had been in the oven for a minute or so before I remembered to take the photo.

    The dough is a little glossy here since the cookies had been in the oven for a minute or so before I remembered to take the photo.

  8. Bake the cookies for 9-11 minutes or until nice and golden brown. The cookies should not look wet in the middle, but will be soft when you take them off of the tray.  Don’t worry, they will firm up as they cool. Remove the tray from the oven and let the cookies sit for about 5 minutes before moving them to a cooling rack. They can be cooled completely or served immediately. Just warn little mouths about the potential for hot, melted chocolate chips.
    Perfectly golden.

    Perfectly golden.

    Dangerously ready to eat.

    Dangerously ready to eat.

  9. You can continue baking the cookies until the dough is done, or take any dough that you don’t wish to bake now, form it into a log on plastic wrap, cover it securely and keep it in the freezer until you are ready to slice and bake the cookies. You may need to increase the baking time by a few minutes, so watch them carefully towards the end. The dough can be frozen for up to a few weeks.  Enjoy!
    You can freeze cookie dough to make your own slice and bake cookies, ready whenever you want them to be.

    You can freeze cookie dough to make your own slice and bake cookies, ready whenever you want them to be.

    No, the cookie log does not need to be perfect.  You are just going to slice and bake it so don't waste too much time making the perfect cylinder, unless you have a food stylist snooping around in your freezer.

    No, the cookie log does not need to be perfect. You are just going to slice and bake it so don’t waste too much time making the perfect cylinder, unless you have a food stylist snooping around in your freezer.

Note: Make your own chia meal by blitzing up chia seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor. You can also do the same with flax seeds, or make oat flour by blitzing up whole oats (not instant, please). Store any extra chia meal in the freezer to keep it fresh.

Click here for a printable version of the Not So Traditional Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe.

All these need is a glass of milk.

All these need is a glass of milk.

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And a friend.

Walking at Neck Point.

Walking at Neck Point.

The Reckless Abandon of Sunshine on Easter

Growing up in Southern California, our Easter egg hunts were always outside in the gloriously warm sunshine.  In fact, there was often a bit of hurriedness to our egg collecting fueled by concern over finding all of the chocolate eggs before they melted in the sun.  Here on Vancouver Island we’ve learned that early Spring time might be cool and sunny, or it might be dreary and wet, or it could be any number of different temperatures and dampness factors changing every quarter hour or so.  It’s best to be prepared for anything, and simply to enjoy whatever weather comes your way.

While Easter dawned sunny, it was still quite frosty in the shade and a good jacket was required.

While Easter dawned sunny, it was still quite frosty in the shade and a good jacket was required.

We all enjoyed bunny bum pancakes.  The tail is made from a dollop of butter topped with shredded coconut.

We all enjoyed bunny bum pancakes. The tail is made from a dollop of butter topped with shredded coconut.

Little Man decided that his bunny heeded eyes and a nose as well.  I think he was just lobbying for more chocolate chips, but it worked.

Little Man decided that his bunny needed eyes and a nose as well. I think he was just lobbying for more chocolate chips.

We were mentally prepared for just about any kind of weather for this Easter, while having all fingers and toes crossed for sunshine since we were having five families over for a lunchtime potluck and egg hunt.  We knew that we could all crush into the house and have the egg hunt downstairs if need be, but it would be so much nicer outside! In the end, we were blessed with one of the most beautiful Easter afternoons that we’ve had in years.  While it wasn’t So Cal warm, we could be outside without jackets, sunglasses were needed to not be squinting into the dazzling light, and the grass was dry enough for the kiddos to roll around with reckless abandon.  It was fantastic, and we hadn’t even gotten to the food yet.

The kiddos are diving into their Easter potluck feast.  Ears and sunglasses abound.

The kiddos are diving into their Easter potluck feast. Bunny ears and sunglasses abound.

After the kiddos got to run around a bit, we gathered them together on the back deck to get them started eating and then the adults joined in.  Our table was overflowing with food.  We provided pulled pork sandwiches, a green tea punch, and a chocolate cake for dessert.  Our friends also contributed a seven layer dip with chips (they did it as a five plus two layer dip, thoughtfully leaving the two dairy items on the side for those with dairy intolerances), a sun dried tomato pasta salad, Easter Bunny white chocolate bark, stuffed potato skins with cheese and bacon (some graciously set aside for vegan cheese), black bean dip with veges, a Thai peanut broccoli salad, and other Easter treats.  To say the least, no one left hungry and even the adults looked like we could all use an Easter nap.

Our amazing Easter spread!  Pulled Pork sandwiches, coleslaw, dips, chips, salads, Easter treats, it was a wonderful lunch.  See below for recipes for the things that we brought to the table.

Our amazing Easter spread! Pulled Pork sandwiches, coleslaw, dips, chips, salads, Easter treats, it was a wonderful lunch. See below for recipes for the things that we brought to the table.

Please ignore the messy kitchen, and focus instead on the handsome pastry chef and the amazing cake he is decorating.

Please ignore the messy kitchen, and focus instead on the handsome pastry chef and the amazing cake he is decorating.

Yes, indeed...  A chocolate cake layered with homemade chocolate rice crispies and topped with a chocolate coconut frosting that tastes better than chocolate mousse.  Life is tough.

Yes, indeed… A chocolate cake layered with homemade chocolate rice crispies and topped with a chocolate coconut frosting that tastes better than chocolate mousse. Life is tough.

Before we could get to napping, however, we had the Easter egg hunt.  After the adults finished eating, we sequestered the kiddos in our living room with the curtains drawn while half of the adults went outside to the front yard to hide the loot.  Each family brought filled eggs to share, so the front yard glittering with plastic eggs.  Then we released the hounds… I mean the kids… to fill their baskets.  Since some of the kiddos were older and faster than the others, we had a parent-led redistribution after the egg hunt to be sure that everyone had a good collection of booty.

Release the hounds... I mean the kids!

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Then the kiddos and adults got to play in the sunshine or wander over to meet the pigs, sheep and chickens at our landlords’ farm.  The trees were blossoming, the kids were laughing, the sheep were bleating, and it was one of the best Easter moments I’ve had in a long time.

If you want to share in some of the food we had for Easter, here are recipes for those items that we brought to the party.  The recipes for this post are a bit different since I was “in the party prep zone” when cooking and completely forgot to take any pictures while I was making the food.  Doh!  If there are any steps in the recipes that are hard to follow since there aren’t any pictures, or you simply aren’t sure about something, please send me a comment at the end of this post and I’ll get back to you asap.  Have fun!

Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

Fluffy Whole Wheat Rolls

Gluten Free Rolls – this recipe is not my own.  I followed the directions for soft rolls made with a Challah dough from the Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day book by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.  If you are getting into gluten-free baking, I highly recommend this book.  It makes the best tasting gluten-free bread that I’ve found to date.  Their bread has great texture and mouth feel without being grainy, and without using an obscene amount of corn starch.  Love it!  Click here for a link to recipes for rolls from their book.

Carolina Style Coleslaw

Chocolate Celebration Cake – This recipe is also not my own, but came from Jamie Oliver’s excellent Comfort Food cookbook.  The main differences for what I did was that I used spelt flour instead of all purpose, and I used an organic, puffed brown rice for the home made chocolate crispies.  I also used the same Chocolate Coconut frosting that I wrote about with Little Man’s birthday cupcakes from school.  Next time I think I’ll triple the frosting batch so that I can have some between the layers as well.

Any of these items (or all of them) would make for a fantastic outdoor picnic.  In fact, we will likely do a smoked version of a pulled pork sandwich for an outdoor party later this August.  I’m also toying with making cupcake versions of the chocolate celebration cake…  Stay tuned.  I hope you all are enjoying sunshine!  Our sunshine just went away for a couple of days, but I’m already plotting more outdoor fun as soon as the sun is back.  Or we’ll likely go outside to play in the wet anyway.  We’ve been cooped up inside for too long as it is.

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cake 4

A Space-Themed Birthday Party: The Food Edition

In my previous post (A Space-Themed Birthday Party: The Decoration Edition) I shared a few fun crafts and decorations for a kid’s space-themed birthday party.  Here I’m going to share a bit about the food that we served.  I’m still learning the ropes about choosing how much to try to pull off by myself and how much to purchase premade. When planning the food for a party, some of the best advice I’ve heard was from Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa fame.  Ina suggests choosing one dish from each of three categories: made from scratch, partially home made (taking some premade products and sprucing them up into your own dish), and completely premade (where the only labor should be opening the package and pouring its contents onto a platter).  Depending on the number of guests you can increase the number dishes from any or all of the categories, but just be sure that you don’t make your “made from scratch” category too prominent.  As I look at our Space Birthday party in hindsight, I front loaded the “made from scratch” category, but I’ll get the balance right next time.  😉

In my case I was doing good until I gave Little Man the option of homemade baked chicken strips.  With Little Man being dairy intolerant we have to be very careful with the premade food we buy, reading ingredient labels carefully.  Homemade baked chicken strips are a relative staple in our household, and one of Little Man’s favorites, so it seemed a “no brainer” to ask if that’s what he’d like for his party.  However, I didn’t take into account the quantity of chicken strips that we’d have to make and the fact that since we bought the chicken breasts frozen and defrosted them for breading and cooking, we would not be able to refreeze the left overs due to food safety concerns.  Oy!  The short version is that the night before Little Man’s party, Dave and I were up breading, baking, cooling and refrigerating homemade chicken strips until 1:00am.  Ugh…  Like I often say, I am a fast learner.  I shorten my learning curve by skipping trial and heading straight for error.  I do have to say that the chicken strips were quite tasty, especially with the homemade Dinosaur BBQ sauce.  Due to the late night processing, I didn’t even try to take photos so I’ll post that recipe another time.

In terms of partially homemade foods, we bought a massive bag of french fries from Costco and baked those up the morning of the party.  We also put together a Planetary Fruit Plate, similar to the Rainbow Fruit Platter we have done in the past.  The planetary shape was fun, but I think that the rainbow wins out both in terms of ease of putting it together, as well as the fact that whenever we do the rainbow shape the platter is devoured.

The Planetary Fruit Platter.

The Planetary Fruit Platter.

Rainbow Fruit Platter served on a rectangular bamboo cutting board.

Rainbow Fruit Platter, always a winner.

We were woefully short on the completely premade foods, with only a lovely bag of Cheezies specifically requested by Little Man.  Next time I’ll have this side more fully stocked.

Aside from the other food items, there are two things that I want to make sure we do from scratch every time; the cake and the punch.  Part of this is that it just seems special to put the effort into making his cake.  When I make the cake that means that Little Man gets to help me with the cake itself and the decorations, as well as the fact that I can control the ingredients ensuring there is no dairy and the sugar ratio remains something reasonable.  Someday we may need to put the cake into the premade food category, but for now I want to keep that fun for myself.  Similarly with the punch, it’s one of those things to make from scratch that takes a bit more effort than simply removing the cap off of something bought from the store, but the final product is so much better that I can’t stand the thought of the alternative.  The actual labor in making the punch isn’t much AND I can control for the amount of sugar, dyes and other unpronounceables used, staying away from the 50 shades of corn syrup and chemicals found in most store products.  Yuck.

Rocket Ship Birthday Cake

The birthday boy making off with a handful of rocket flames (aka M&Ms).

The birthday boy making off with a handful of rocket flames (aka M&Ms).

Sticking with our Space theme, Little Man had a rocket ship birthday cake.  This was a super simple shape to cut and decorate, and didn’t require any reinforcing of layers or fondant hoopla.  For the cake itself I used a Chocolate Wacky Cake recipe.  Apparently this is a type of cake made famous during the Depression Era as it doesn’t use eggs or dairy, two expensive items at the time.  It’s also a bit kooky in the little divots you make to hold the vanilla, vinegar and oil, swirling everything together in the pan you bake it in (If you so desire.  I mixed it with the divots in a bowl and then poured it into the pan.).  The only thing I wasn’t happy with for the cake was the amount of sugar.  For this one occasion I did not halve the amount of sugar used since I wasn’t sure what that would do to the cake itself.  I’ll try a healthier version next time… which might just be next week.  For the frosting I used the Vegan Chocolate Frosting that I wrote about in the Mini Chocolate Cupcake post, and it turned out amazing as always.  Here are the links for the cake and frosting recipes, as well as the cake shape.

Chocolate Wacky Cake: This cake can be done in a variety of different flavors, but is especially fantastic for anyone with egg allergies since it doesn’t contain any.
Vegan Chocolate Frosting: I’ve written about this “stupid good” frosting before since we used it for Little Man’s birthday Mini Chocolate Cupcakes.  The recipe comes from Chocolate Covered Katie and cannot be praised enough.  ‘Nough said.  Just try it.
Rocket Ship Cake Shape: For Little Man’s party I made one 9×13 cake in a rectangular glass baking dish, and that was plenty big for our modestly-sized party.  I love how the bits that you carefully carve off to shape the nose cone become the fins for the rocket.  Waste not…

Things got crazy and I don't have a full picture of the birthday cake, but this is the shape.  It was frosted with the amazing Coconut Chocolate frosting and embellished with M&Ms, Little Man's main request for the cake.

Things got crazy and I don’t have a full picture of the birthday cake, but this is the shape. It was frosted with the amazing Coconut Chocolate frosting and embellished with M&Ms, Little Man’s main request for the cake.

Planetary Punch
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One of the recipes that I was most excited about trying for Little Man’s party was Planetary Punch.  The basis for this punch is the Apple and Mint Punch from Giada de Laurentis.  I quadruple the recipe whenever I make this for a party, and general cut the sugar in half.  What made the punch special for Little Man’s Space Party were the frozen juice spheres floated in the punch.  Dave has a silicon mould for making ice spheres for cocktails, so for the week leading up to the party we froze spheres of fruit juice (all fruit juice, none of the crazy corn syrup stuff here, please) in various hues to be floated in the punch as planets.  This would have worked perfectly… except that when making the simple syrup for the punch I ran out of white sugar and had to resort to coconut sugar instead.  While the punch still tasted fine, it was no longer a lovely shade of pale green, but instead the tawny shade of brown coconut sugar.  The planets were therefore a bit hazy to see through the punch.  I’ll be making it again in a couple of weeks with actual white sugar so that I can have the correct effect of the floating planets, and I’ll forward the pictures along when I do. 😉

The ice planets floating in space.

The ice planets floating in space.

While I did overload myself with a bit too much “from scratch” work, in the end we all ate well, yet managed to avoid the crummy tummies that sometimes results from party food.  Good naps were required by all.  Happy partying!

A Space-Themed Birthday Party: The Decoration Edition

Space, the final frontier…

I hadn’t realized how fulfilling it would be to write that line, and I have to admit that am rather pleased with myself for doing so.  🙂  However, this is not our final birthday frontier, but just the beginning.  Little Man is already talking about the party themes he wants to have next time, although to him “next time” means tomorrow.  Not gonna happen.  In the meantime, let me share with you some of the fun space-themed party decorations and foods that we did for Little Man’s fourth (how can he possibly be four years old already!?!?!) birthday party.

When we were giving Little Man options of what his birthday party theme could be, we had no idea that “space” would be such a difficult one to fill.  I figured that with all the cartoons, etc. there must be some options out there for plates and table cloths, right?  Not so much…  Luckily our local dollar store had a good selection that if not directly related to space (like a really cool bag of marbles that look sort of like planets) could be spun that way (like the little finger lasers).  Combine that with Pintrest, and we were off and running.
IMG_3352Here are some of my favorite things that we did.  I’ll post the food tomorrow.
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Decorations and Activities
Since there weren’t any nice space-themed decorations in the local stores (and I searched them all), I made most of the decorations with supplies from the local dollar store.  My main focus was on the cake/food table backdrop, but I also wanted to have a fun play area for the kids, as well as decorations that extended across the room to make it all look more festive.  My favorite things that we did are the Galaxy Backdrop, the Hanging Planets, a Poppin’ Pluto Dance Floor, a Rocket Ship and Glittery Stars.

Galaxy Backdrop

IMG_3294For the Galaxy Backdrop, I followed the directions from the excellent Elephant of Surprise website for Galaxy Pillowcases that could be used for floor/ground pillows.  I “upgraded” the project by using a twin-sized flat sheet so that I could use it as the backdrop on the wall above the cake/food table.  Aimee’s directions on the website are great, so other than the size difference between my twin flat sheet and her pillow cases the process was virtually the same.  Just be sure to use the real deal, cheap bleach.  I first tried this with my environmentally safe bleach and couldn’t figure out why the fabric didn’t bleach.  Ah well…  When using the “real” bleach, you should see the fabric change color almost immediately.  I ended up doing the spray bleach step twice since I didn’t quite get the results I wanted the first time.  Then after the galaxy sheet was washed and dried, the next two steps were to add a little white fabric paint and then some glow in the dark fabric paint.  Taa daa!

Here’s what you’ll need: a black twin-sized flat sheet, bleach, a spray bottle, white fabric paint, and glow-in-the-dark fabric paint. Elephant of a Surprise website link.

The swirled and scrunched sheet ready to be sprayed with bleach.

The swirled and scrunched sheet ready to be sprayed with bleach.

The bleach should immediately start to change the color of your fabric.  Here mine started to turn red almost instantly.  I let it do its magic for 10 minutes and then into the wash. I repeated this step twice to get the swirly galaxy that I wanted.

The bleach should immediately start to change the color of your fabric. Here mine started to turn red almost instantly. I let it do its magic for 10 minutes and then into the wash. I repeated this step twice to get the swirly galaxy that I wanted.

Here is the galaxy after the bleaching, washing and drying.

Here is the galaxy after the bleaching, washing and drying.

Then I randomly sprayed and sprinkled the galaxy with white and glow-in-the-dark fabric paint.

Then I randomly sprayed and sprinkled the galaxy with white and glow-in-the-dark fabric paint.

Hanging Planets
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This project was so much fun, and the effect of the Hanging Planets suspended in front of the Galaxy backdrop is pretty spectacular, so the DIY craftiness really paid off here.  Another bonus is that we are also in the process of “upgrading” Little Man’s room to change the decor he’s had since being a baby to actual little boy decor (Sob!).  After seeing his party decorations, Little Man asked if the Hanging Planets and Galaxy Backdrop could hang in his room, so now a Space-Themed bedroom is in the works and the major decor is something that resulted from his party.  That makes me doubly happy since the effort wasn’t only for his birthday, but now the decorations will be enjoyed for quite some time.  A further bonus is that all of the supplies should be available from your local dollar store, and if you do crafts with your kids you might have some of the equipment already.

Here’s what you will need:  9 styrofoam balls of varying sizes, bamboo skewers, 4-5 (depending in the size) florist foam blocks, an array of acrylic paints (I used combinations of red, blue, yellow, white and black), multicolored glitter, a wide foam brush, a smaller bristle paint brush, a plastic paint palette for mixing colors, push pins and golden crocheting yard.

Step 1: Cut the bamboo skewers in half, insert one end into the foam ball and then the other into a foam block. This will let you hold the “planet” by the skewer while you paint it, then you can put it back into the foam block to let it dry while you move on to another planet.  I was able to fit two planets each on the smaller blocks, and three on the larger one.  Just be sure that the balls don’t touch each other or it will smear the paint.  I then pinned planet names to the blocks so I could remember which ball was to be painted like which planet.  As you will notice, I also included Pluto.  While technically a Dwarf Planet, this party is more about fun than planetary fact checking.  And, I thought that my mom would like Pluto included here too.  🙂

Prepping your planets for painting and other awesomeness.

Prepping your planets for painting and other awesomeness.

Step 2: Paint a base layer of whatever the predominant color for that planet (for ideas see my color examples below).  To do this, simply remove the planet by its skewer from the foam block and use the wide foam brush to apply a good layer of paint to the planet.  The planet might spin a bit, and when that happened I just stuck the skewer in a bit tighter.  The goal here is to cover the sphere, not to be painstakingly precise with your color.  Once a planet is fully coated with the first layer of paint, return the skewer to the foam block and move on to another.  Make sure to let the paint dry completely before moving on to your second coat.  With 9 planets this shouldn’t be a problem, as by the time you get the base coat on all nine the first one should be dry again.  In terms of color choices, please remember that my field is not astronomy, and I painted these planets to more or less represent their “astronomical” look.  Google images helped with pictures of the planets, but I followed whimsy more than scientific fact in their creation.  See below for the colors I chose for each planet.

The base layers for Uranus, Jupiter and Neptune.

The base layers for Uranus, Jupiter and Neptune.

The base layers for Mars and Mercury.

The base layers for Mars and Mercury.

Step 3: Go back over each planet with a second coat of paint, adding whatever details can be individual to the specific planet.  Depending on the details you want to paint, use either the wide foam brush or the narrow paint brush or both.  I played fast and loose with planetary features here, so remember that the goal is fun not accuracy.  Jupiter got its storm, but I didn’t go into the detail to give Saturn 3-D rings.  Instead Saturn got rings painted around its equator.  Earth, as usual is the most problematic with the continents, but again this isn’t about a geography lesson.  Get the continents more or less on there, give Earth white on both poles and move on.

Uranus, Jupiter and Neptune.

Uranus, Jupiter and Neptune.

What is key to this step is that the instant you finish with the secondary painting, have your glitter sprinkles ready and apply them immediately.  My planets were drying quickly, so if I hesitated for even a breath the glitter wouldn’t stick well.  For each planet I had my glitter jar opened to the correct color and a layer of newspaper laid out to catch the extra sparkles.  The moment I set my paint brush down, I grabbed the glitter and sprinkled away.  See my description of Mercury for an idea of what to do with the mixed glitter at the end.  Once one planet is complete, return its skewer to the foam block and move on to another.  Let the planets dry completely before moving on.  I let mine rest overnight.

The finished planets.

The finished planets.

Here are the color schemes I used for the planets:
Venus: Base coat of bluish green.  Secondary coat of bright green bands.  Green and gold glitter.
Earth: Base coat of bright, turquoise blue.  Secondary coat of green continents, with white at both poles.  Green glitter more or less on the continents and silver more or less on the poles.
Mars: Base coat of red.  Secondary coat of red with just a drop of black in random swirls.  Red and gold glitter.
Jupiter: Base coat of white with just a drop of yellow and brown. Purplish swirled band around the equator with a large swirly “eye” for the storm, as well as two yellow bands just off from the poles.  Purple and gold glitter.
Saturn: Base coat of muted yellow with a couple drops of purple.  Secondary bands of red and purple around the equator.  Purple glitter.
Uranus: Base coat of bright blue.  Secondary white and darker blue bands just offset from the northern pole and one near the equator.  Blue glitter.
Neptune: Base coat of bright blue.  Secondary coat of midnight blue (blue with just enough black so that you can still see a predominate blue color), applied not too evenly.  Blue glitter.
Pluto: Base coat of bright blue.  Secondary swirls of dark blue and yellow.  Yellow and blue glitter.
Mercury: Base coat of dark gray.  Secondary coat of black applied not too evenly.  Sprinkled all over with the combined dregs of sprinkles from the other planets.

Mars and Mercury were two of my favorites.

Mars and Mercury were two of my favorites.

Step 4: Once the planets are completely dry they can be suspended.  I cut varying lengths of golden crocheting yard and secured each end to a push pin.  I then put one end of the pin into a planet (close to where I removed the skewer) and the other end we pushed into the ceiling.  See more below.

Planets Backdrop
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Before you set up your backdrop, decide where you want the focal point of the room to be.  Position your cake/food table in that spot, then hang the Galaxy Backdrop above the table.  Decide on the order you want your planets hung in.  The plan was to put them in actual astronomical order, but as you can see in the picture I switched Mars and Earth.  Ah well… More artistic license I suppose.  I’ll get that fixed before hanging them in Little Man’s room.  The correct order should be from left to right: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.  Hang Jupiter first since that gives you your midpoint.  We then hung Mercury and Pluto on either end of the backdrop, and spaced the remaining planets between them.  We then hung a “Happy Birthday” banner across the top and wrapped a cool strand of changing color star lights around the whole thing.  Taa daa!
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Poppin’ Pluto Dance Floor
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This was almost one of my best ideas ever… almost…  I was inspired by the picture posted on Design Dazzle where for an outdoor party they simply unrolled some bubble wrap and let the kids run around on it.  For Little Man’s party, I knew we wanted to do some dancing and I thought that using the bubble wrap to make the dance floor would be perfect.  And it was… almost…  What I didn’t take into account was my sensitive child’s sensitive ears.  The other kids LOVED the popping bubble wrap, but Little Man was happier once the bubble wrap went away and he could groove to his heart’s content.
IMG_3348Here’s what you’ll need: 1-2 large rolls of large bubble wrap (not the tiny bubbles), clear packaging tape, glow-in-the-dark bracelets, rainbow light disco ball (optional but super cool)

Step 1: Decide where your dance floor (outside or indoor) will be.  Unroll your bubble wrap, cut it into long strips and then tape them together to make a square or rectangular “dance floor.”  We used 2 rolls for our area.  Then roll up your dance floor and stash it until ready to use.  Bubble wrap is near irresistible and unless you have armed guards protecting it, if it is laid down when the kiddos arrive, they will pounce.

Step 2: When you are ready to dance, activate and coil the glow-in-the-dark bracelets and place them on the floor where the dance floor will be.  The darker your room, the brighter the bracelets (aka planets) will be.  Unroll the dance floor over the planets, start your rainbow disco ball and unleash some tunes.  Little Man’s party dance music of choice is still Imagination Movers: Rock-o-matic.  It was awesome!

The DJ station.

The DJ station.

 Cardboard Rocket Ship
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There are a surprising number of cardboard rocket ship designs out there.  We wanted something that would be a great backdrop for pictures, but also that the kids could play in.  As long as it survived the party, I was happy.  It is just cardboard after all, and you should be able to get empty boxes for free from any selection of local stores.  Recycling can be fun!

Here’s what you’ll need: multiple large cardboard boxes, wide masking tape, a box cutter, spray paint, and acrylic paint.

For this craft I don’t have specific construction steps since this will vary wildly based on the shape and size of rocket you want to make.  I used a large cube-shaped box for the body, opening out the flaps and taping it all together to make a long rectangle.  If your “rocket” feels a bit unsecure in places, take some of your remaining boxes, cut strips from them and tape or hot glue these reinforcing strips on the inside of your rocket.  Once the body is complete, spray paint it silver.  After the silver paint is dried, shape fins for your rocket, hot glue them on and hand paint them dark blue with acrylic paint.

We made our rocket in two pieces so that it wouldn’t break whenever it fell over.  With another large box, shape a cone (or pyramid) top for your rocket.  Once the cone is shaped and secured with interior structural strips, spray paint it red.

After everything is dry, I cut a round window in the front and a door in the back.  Make sure your door is big enough for the kiddos to fit in, but don’t take it all the way down to the floor.  Leave a little bit that the kids need to step over in order to keep the base of your rocket strong.
IMG_3311Glittery Stars
IMG_3301Even though these popsicle stick stars (or snowflakes) are a pretty ubiquitous craft, I included them here since it was something that Little Man could have an active hand in creating.  I wanted him to be able to feel a bit of ownership in this DIY adventure, and to be able to see his art work hanging in the party space.

Here’s what you’ll need: : Large craft popsicle sticks, hot glue gun, craft glue, sticky jewels, silver glitter, silver and blue glass gems, sparkly yarn to hang them with.

Step 1: Adults, using a hot glue gun, glue two sticks into a plus sign.  Do this with the remaining sticks that you want to use.  Little Man and I made 8 stars, so we completed 16 of the plus signs.  Then glue two of the plus signs together to create the star (or snowflake) shape.

Step 2: Kiddos and adults, you can now bedazzle the stars to your hearts content.  I put a little glue on a disposable plate for Little Man and gave him a paint brush.  He could then paint the glue onto the bare star, and then place the glass gems.  Be careful to not use too many glass gems on a single star, since they can become quite heavy.  We used 4-5 glass gems per star, with the remaining space filled with sticker jewels and squiggles of glue encrusted with silver glitter.  Let your stars dry completely.
IMG_3301 (2)Step 3: Adults, once your stars are completely dry, cut lengths of your sparkly yard for hanging them.  Tie the ends of the yard together in a small knot, then hot glue the yard to the back of top arm of your star.  I used the knot in case some of our stars were heavy enough to pull the yarn through the glue, but if your stars are light you might not need to do this.  We then hung them across the ceiling with push pins.

The whole effect... except for lots of screaming... more or less.

The whole effect… except for lots of screaming… more or less.

I hope that you enjoy these ideas for a Space Themed kids birthday party.  Please feel free to share any other ideas that you come up with or that you’ve seen elsewhere.  I “pinned” a ton of ideas to my Pintrest page under Kids Birthday Ideas, and only had the time (and gumption) to pull off a few of them.  Have fun!

The party in full swing.

The party in full swing.