Category Archives: Drinks

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.


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!


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.


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
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.

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
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
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!

Poppin’ Pluto Dance Floor
IMG_3328 (2)
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
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.

Warming Up

Hello again!  Please forgive my LONG absence.  The semester is done.  I had a fantastic time back in the classroom, but it’s also nice to have mental space for creative writing… and eating.

Now that I get the chance to write here again, I feel the need to warm up a bit, to flex that part of my brain that writes creatively rather than academically.  That is part of why I named this post “Warming Up.”  The other part is that it is COLD here!  We’re back from our short winter wanderings (which were awesome, by the way…), but it doesn’t take long in our home warmed only by a wood burning stove to reach near arctic conditions if the stove isn’t in use.  Just a couple of days without a fire burning or people cooking and it takes a solid day of big fires in that stove to make it possible (forget about pleasant) to walk on our wood floors without serious slippers.  The floors will suck your life force right out of your soles.

So that first day back as we unpacked, kept the fire burning, and tried to find the rhythm of our schedule again, all I wanted was a nice pot of this spiced Masala Chai simmering away on the stove.  Well… that and a nice scone to go with the chai… but one step at a time.  A shopping trip is necessary before the scones can be a reality, but the chai is ready to go.

Masala Chai is a hot, spiced tea inspired by Indian culture.  “Masala” more or less means “mixed” or in this case “mixed spice,” and “chai” means “tea.”  So the next time you order a “chai tea” at your favorite coffee shop, know that you are ordering a “tea tea.”  😉  Making your own chai gives you a double bonus, not only do you actually know what spices (and no additives or preservatives) are in your tea, but it makes your house smell awesome as well.

Here are just a couple of thoughts about making yourself a lovely pot of chai.  First, it might sound odd to add whole black peppercorns to your tea.  Don’t worry.  This won’t make your tea taste like pepper, but the peppercorns (like the cinnamon) add a nice, warm spice to the tea.  It’s the warmth that you feel in the back of your throat that feels like it’s warming you from the inside out.  Second, the spiced tea is finished with milk and brown sugar at the very end, so you can add more or choose to add less based on individual choice.  I generally make mine with skim milk, but whole milk would make a wonderfully decadent version, or non-dairy milks could be substituted in as well.  Coconut milk would be great, as would rice or almond milk.  Just be aware that if you use sweetened rice milk, you might want to hold back on some of the brown sugar so the chai isn’t too sweet.  Also almond milk can add a bit of bitterness to the chai, so you might want to add a bit more brown sugar to balance things out.  Enjoy!

Masala Chai
12 green cardamom pods
1 tablespoon fennel seed
12 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 ½ inch piece of ginger root
10 black peppercorns
7 cups water
6 bags of black tea (regular or decaffeinated)
3+ tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup milk (any kind will do: skim, whole, coconut, rice, etc.  Just know that almond milk can add a bit of bitterness)


  1. Gather all of your ingredients so you’re ready to go, but don’t combine anything yet since two of your ingredients need to be prepped. Crush the cardamom pods with the back of a large spoon to release more flavor during boiling. There is no need to peel the ginger (you can if you prefer), but slice it thinly into matchsticks.

    The spice ingredients for the chai.

    The spice ingredients for the chai.

  2. Combine the cardamom, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon stick, ginger root, peppercorns and water in a saucepan large enough to hold 8+ cups of liquid.

    Make sure your saucepan is large enough to easily hold the boiling liquid, as well as the sugar and milk added at the end.

    Make sure your saucepan is large enough to easily hold the boiling liquid, as well as the sugar and milk added at the end.

  3. Bring the spice mixture to a boil and let it bubble away vigorously for 5 minutes.

    The boiling spices will start to make your kitchen smell fantastic.

    The boiling spices will start to make your kitchen smell fantastic.

  4. Remove the pan from the heat and let it steep for 10 minutes.

    Not much is happening yet, but you can start to see the change to your tea base as the spices steep.

    Not much is happening yet, but you can start to see the change to your tea base as the spices steep.

  5. Add the tea bags to the pan, place it back on the heat and bring to a boil. Once bubbling reduce the heat and simmer the tea gently for 5 minutes.
    The color changes immediately after adding the tea bags.

    The color changes immediately after adding the tea bags.

    After the steeping the tea starts to have the gorgeous majogany color.

    After the steeping the tea starts to have the gorgeous mahogany color.

  6. Strain the mixture into a heat-resistant bowl, discard the spices and then return the tea to the saucepan.
    The spices have done their part, imbuing the tea base with amazing heat and flavor.

    The spices have done their part, imbuing the tea base with amazing heat and flavor.

    The strained masala chai tea base.  All that's left now is to tweak the flavor to taste.

    The strained masala chai tea base. All that’s left now is to tweak the flavor to taste.

  7. Stir in the brown sugar and milk. Taste the masala chai and add more sugar if you prefer it sweeter. Serve immediately.
    Oh yeah...

    Oh yeah…

    A delicious mug of masala chai.  All that's missing is the scone...

    A delicious mug of masala chai. All that’s missing is the scone…

  8. Left over chai can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator and reheated on the stove or in a microwave. This chai is great with a lightly sweet scone, like my Blueberry Cinnamon Scones.

Click here for a printable version of the Masala Chai recipe.

The Long May Weekend – A Year Later

To be honest, I don’t know a lot about Queen Victoria whom the long May weekend commemorates. We still feel repercussions from the Victorian era, such as white wedding gowns and a penchant for prudery. The Queen also plays a memorable role in “The Pirates! Band Of Misfits” in which she wields a mean scimitar. I hadn’t even been aware that she had her own day in Canada until last year when I flew out to Vancouver Island on the long weekend to look for a place for our family.  I had only this one weekend and some substantial internet house browsing in which to find the home we would move to in a few short months.

Such began an epic weekend of rental house hunting with my mother-in-law, Ruth, and my sister-in-law, Erin. We would learn quickly that house hunting online is much like online dating…  Everyone lies.  The pictures are all glamor shots from years if not decades earlier, the houses all looked much cleaner online, and in the case of a couple of our visits the picture can’t quite convey the… shall we say scent… of the actual building.

We called ourselves Little Man’s Angels, an all woman team who were finally answerable to my toddler son.  Even though he was back in the States during our adventure, Little Man became our litmus test for whether or not a property was even worth considering.  Unfortunately most of the places that we visited were not viable. In fact, right after visiting one more decrepit, dirty property in a long line of decrepit, dirty properties with questionable potential for child safety I was starting to wonder if I was being too picky. I must have mumbled something positive about the house when Ruth looked me in the eye and stated that while Dave and I were welcome to live in that house, her grandson would certainly not. I almost cried from relief.

The houses we toured in the greater Nanaimo area over the course of the weekend were memorable. One was so small that it should have housed dolls, not real people. Another reeked of stale tobacco and we later learned a man had been violently killed on a nearby street a few months earlier. Another had a blind driveway that led onto a busy street, not to mention a pile of human feces on the back porch. Another had strange fabric draped from the ceiling, holes punched in the walls, and boasted that it came with an outdoor plastic play house… mind you the playhouse had been used as a chicken coop for three years, but that’s nothing that a little spray bleach can’t take care of right? Right…  The one thing that all of the properties shared was that online they looked and sounded amazing.  I started to panic about our prospects.

Then we saw the property on the farm and I think I heard angels sing as a single ray of sun broke through the clouds and lit the house.  The building itself is nice, but the biggest draw was the farm itself and the surrounding landscape.  The idea of Little Man’s first long term memories being shaped here feeding chickens, petting horses, being chased by sheep…  The three of us looked at each other and had to resist the urge to rush into a jumping group hug.

Later we would begin the pattern that would haunt us for the rest of the move.  Just as things would start to look up, something would come crashing down.  No sooner had we called to secure our rental of the farm house then the great situation fell apart almost instantly.  We almost lost the house when its occupants at the time lost the home they were bidding on, and in fact it was only a few weeks before the actual move to Canada that we learned we’d be able to move in.  Other things would happen as well, but for the purposes of this post, it wasn’t until when Dave and his dad pulled up to the house with the moving van filled with all of our belongings and pulling our car with the cats that I truly let myself believe that things would work out.

The farm house is not perfect, but it has turned out to be a great decision. Almost a year later Little Man still asks to go back to our blue house in Iowa, but I don’t think he misses the house as much as he does the proximity to his favorite zoo and his child care provider.  We’re making friends, we live in a beautiful place, and are finding favorite places that we like to go back to over and over again.

Now that we are at this Long May Weekend one year later the main thing that keeps coming to mind is gratitude.  I’m grateful for the hilarious memories from our house hunt. Grateful that Ruth and Erin were able to take the time (and insanity) of that visit with me. Grateful that we live on such a beautiful island; in such a great home; close to the sheep, pigs, Little Man’s Ladies (aka the chickens), and horses; in a place full of potential for more fantastic adventures and memories.

With the thought of gratitude in mind, I planned a simple meal for the barbeque.  My goal was for something that wouldn’t take much time, leaving more time to be with Dave and LIttle Man, but also something full of flavor that Little Man would devour without us having to focus on getting him to eat his dinner.  Thankfully I was successful.  Little Man gobbled everything up and we were all able to have a nice family dinner full of laughs and stories. It was a perfect commemoration of the House Hunt Long Weekend. I hope that one or more of these recipes can give you a similar experience with your family or friends.

Menu: Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks, Mustard Seed Rice, Simple Grilled Zucchini and Mushrooms, and Mango Lassi.

Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks

Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks
2 tbsp. Tandoori paste
¼ cup plain, fat free yogurt
3-4 garlic cloves, finely grated
2 inch fresh ginger, finely grated
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tbsp. canola oil
10 chicken drumsticks


  1. Combine all of the ingredients except for the chicken in a large bowl.
    The marinade ingredients.

    The marinade ingredients.


    The marinade ingredients combined.

    The marinade ingredients combined.

  2. Add the drumsticks to the bowl and toss until they are evenly coated. Use your hands here to really spread the marinade over the chicken.  Cover and refrigerate the chicken for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

    Tossing the chicken in the marinade is best done with your hands.  It's a bit messy, but roll up your sleeves and dive on in.

    Tossing the chicken in the marinade is best done with your hands. It’s a bit messy, but roll up your sleeves and dive on in.

  3. Preheat your grill or grill pan over medium/medium high heat. The marinade is predominately yogurt based, so you may need to grease your grill to make sure the chicken doesn’t stick. Grill the chicken over medium heat for approximately 45 minutes or until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Serve and enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the recipe for Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks.


Mustard Seed Rice

Mustard Seed Rice
1 tbsp. brown mustard seeds
1 tbsp. canola oil
1 ½ cups white basmati rice
3 cups hot water
Salt and pepper


  1. Gently heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the mustard seeds. Cover the pan when the seeds start to pop, and shake it periodically to keep the seeds moving. Be careful not to burn them. When the seeds stop popping, about 30 seconds, add the rice and stir to combine. Stir the rice every now and then to let it just start to brown. This should take just a couple of minutes.
    Sizzling the mustard seeds in the oil.  When they start popping, cover the pan to prevent a mess on your stove.

    Sizzling the mustard seeds in the oil. When they start popping, cover the pan to prevent a mess on your stove.

    Popping mustard seeds.

    Popping mustard seeds.

    Sauteing the basmati rice with the mustard seeds and oil.

    Sauteing the basmati rice with the mustard seeds and oil.

    Browning the rice.

    Browning the rice.

  2. Carefully add the hot water to the pan. The pan is already hot so it will sputter and steam when you add the water.
  3. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and cover the pan. Simmer the rice for 15 minutes, and then remove it from the heat. Let the rice sit with the lid on for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork. Spoon the rice into a serving bowl and enjoy.

Click here for a printable version of the recipe for Mustard Seed Rice.


276Simple Grilled Zucchini and Mushrooms
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1 ½ inch thick half moons
5 cremini mushrooms, cut into pieces roughly the same size as the zucchini
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves
Salt and Pepper

  1. This recipe is more a method than anything else. Use whatever vegetables that you have at hand. I chose zucchini and mushroom because they taste great with a bit of the grill’s smokiness.
  2. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and toss until the vegetables are evenly coated.
  3. Skewer all of the zucchini on one or two metal skewers, leaving a little bit of room between the pieces so they can cook evenly. Set these aside on a baking sheet. Do the same with the mushrooms. Set them aside with the zucchini and drizzle any remaining marinade over them all. Let them sit for 15-20 minutes.
  4. Grill over medium to medium high heat until the vegetables start to char and are cooked through.
  5. Remove the vegetables from the skewers, being careful of the hot metal. Toss the vegetables together in a bowl and serve. Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the recipe for Simple Grilled Vegetables.


271Mango Lassi
2 cups plain, fat free yogurt
2 cups frozen mango pieces
1 cup milk
1 tbsp. honey


  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.
  2. Taste to see if it needs more mango or honey. Adjust seasoning, blend again, and serve. Enjoy!

Click to get a printable recipe for Mango Lassi.

Our Victoria Day bbq dinner: Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks, Mustard Seed Rice and Simple Grilled Zucchini and Mushrooms.  Little Man already made off with his Mango Lassi, so it wasn't available for a glamor shot.

Our Victoria Day bbq dinner: Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks, Mustard Seed Rice and Simple Grilled Zucchini and Mushrooms. Little Man already made off with his Mango Lassi, so it wasn’t available for a glamor shot.

I woke up to the snow…

I woke up to the snow, but didn’t really give it much attention (other than groaning at the delay of Spring) until I tried to step outside for a quick jaunt to visit “the ladies” to gather some eggs.  I say that I “tried” to step outside since at first I couldn’t tell where the steps up from our basement were.  The three squat steps from our basement door to the driveway had been reduced to a fluffy hill of snow, with no indication of where each individual step might be.  I stood there for a moment, confused, as if trying to remember what the landscape was supposed to look like.   In my defense I hadn’t had any coffee yet, and my only goal was to get the eggs quickly so that I could make breakfast in time for the gold medal men’s hockey game between Canada and Sweden.

So I girded myself, clutched my egg basket tightly, and plunged outside into what I hoped was the path to the hen house.  I more or less found the stairs and with my sorely abused pink Uggs, plowed my way up the low rise.  With each step my boots disappeared into the 2+ feet deep drifts, and with each step some snow made its way into my boots.  Who needs coffee, a little snow inside your sockless boots will get you going in the morning.  Snow hat flopping.  Egg basket dangling.  Balance swerving with each step into where I hoped the path to the chicken house lay.  I was a picture of beauty and grace, and hopefully I was the only witness to my progress.

My poor, abused boots disappearing into the snow they were not designed to handle.

My poor, abused boots disappearing into the snow they were not designed to handle.

Once I retrieved the eggs, I realized that I hadn’t considered the difficulties of returning to the house through the deep snow with a basket full of eggs.  Luckily both the eggs and I returned to the house unscathed, if a bit frozen around the edges. With the eggs secured for breakfast I put together a “fancy” version of Eggs-in-a-Hole.  In the spirit of the gold medal game I used a maple leaf cookie cutter to cut the Canadian symbol into our toast.  Little Man got the more traditional torn out hole for his toast to accommodate his Scrambled-Eggs-in-a-Hole.

A fancy version of Eggs-in-a-Hole in honor of the Canadian men's gold medal hockey game against Sweden.

A fancy version of Eggs-in-a-Hole in honor of the Canadian men’s gold medal hockey game against Sweden.


Alas my yolk broke for this picture, but in my defense my fingers were still frozen and I really wanted to get the food served so I could watch the game.  Little Man’s toast was torn to accommodate the volume of his Scrambled-Eggs-in-a-Hole.

My well-intentioned ode to Canadian hockey.

My well-intentioned ode to Canadian hockey.

After breakfast and with two gold medals in hockey for Canada we donned whatever snow-sort-of gear that we had (we are still woefully under equipped for weather) and ventured outside.  The snow came up to Little Man’s hips, and he was not impressed until we got him out onto the “sort of plowed” road where he could run and move more easily.

The snow came up to Little Man's waist, yet his dad doesn't seem to mind.

The snow came up to Little Man’s waist, yet his dad doesn’t seem to mind.

Trucking down the "sort of plowed" road.

Trucking down the “sort of plowed” road.

Hoops, anyone?

Hoops, anyone?

When we couldn’t take the cold anymore, we retreated back to the house.  Little Man had a well deserved warm bath, and then we all were treated to steaming mugs of Auntie Erin’s Hot Cocoa.  The past present to ourselves on our Big Snow Day was an afternoon nap.  Bodies tired out from playing in the snow.  Bellies warm and filled with cocoa.  Toddler snoozing in the other room, and us sprawled gracelessly across the bed.  It was heaven.


A fairytale wilderness

A fairytale wilderness

A Corn Maze and the Making of Fall Traditions

When Dave and I first started dating I was surprised to learn that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving also; though their holiday is a month earlier (on the second Monday in October).  I’d always thought of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American holiday, but in fact it is not.  The importance of the Thanksgiving meal, however, does vary greatly between the two nations.  In Canada, or at least on Vancouver Island, there no displays in stores, no Thanksgiving-themed commercials, no chatter about getting together with family, or trying to figure out long distance travel to get home for this one evening.  Instead, all the focus seems to be on Halloween, complete with fireworks.  Our cats will not be amused…

With this difference in Autumn celebrations, I feel out of sync with the season.  Halloween seems on time, but the fact that Thanksgiving is already over leaves me feeling like I’ve missed out on something important.  We had a great Canadian Thanksgiving, and we will be celebrating American Thanksgiving come the end of November, but in the meantime we’re trying to carve out some new Fall traditions and get into sync with our new community.  In Nanaimo that means a trip to McNab’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

The day we went was a little late in the season, since it was after Thanksgiving (Canadian) and most of the really big pumpkins were gone.  However, they had tons of small to medium pumpkins, a local school fundraiser with all the homemade baked goods my heart could ask for, and the corn maze was still in full swing.  I was already feeling nostalgic for Iowa since a much-missed friend was throwing a fall celebration party with all of our friends, and we had just passed the dates for two of our favorite things to do in Iowa; the Farm Crawl and the Brews and Muse Festival at Peacetree Brewery.  Oh, friends, we were sure missing you on those weekends (especially those friends who shall remain nameless but kept sending emails and Facebook comments about the delicious new brews from Peacetree that we were missing out on… trisky hobbits that you are).

So with homesick hearts we went looking for new traditions at the pumpkin patch.  I assure you I never thought in my life that I’d say I was homesick for Iowa, but I’m getting sincerely tired of leaving places behind that have become home.  In our quest for new traditions to make this place home, McNabb’s did not disappoint.

Even after living in the American Midwest for five years, I had never been to a corn maze.  At Farm Crawl there was a corn maze, but I was always more interested in Pierce’s Pumpkin Patch, the borscht served at Coyote Run Farm, and the amazing preserves, people and brew (Peacetree again…) at Blue Gate Farm.  So McNab’s was my first time to be in and amongst the corn.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Surrounded by corn... like being back in Iowa.

Surrounded by corn… like being back in Iowa.

The day was perfectly foggy for an Autumn trip to the pumpkin patch, and we headed off to the maze first.  We had a great time trying to get lost, and searching (often fruitlessly) for the little markers hidden in the paths.  Apparently the markers haven’t been moved in years so the locals all know where they are, but since we’re new the hunt was still fun.  Once the chill of the maze started to get to us, and the enclosed space of the corn from Little Man’s viewpoint started to wear on him, we took the Hay Ride tractor to the pumpkin patch.  Here we selected a couple of pumpkins, had them measured and then heaved them back to the tractor, wishing we had brought the stroller to carry our pumpkin booty.

Hmmm... Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

Hmmm… Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

As we got off the tractor at the front of the farm, we ran into some friends from town, and hung around the fire pits chatting.  That is the sort of thing you miss when you move often; the regular meeting of friends in public places.  Little Man ran around with their kids, visiting the piglets and goats, and climbing massive downed stumps.


When Little Man finally started showing signs of wearing down and needing lunch, we headed off for lunch.  We could have stayed there for hot dogs, but the morning was cold and we all wanted some warm, inside rest.  So we headed for Coco Café in Cedar.  The café’s name is an acronym for the Cedar Opportunities Co-Operative, whose mission is to provide developmentally disabled adults with employment opportunities within their community.  This year the maze was dedicated to Coco’s, and I had heard of it before as well.  It has the reputation of being a nice little café with cozy atmosphere and good, local food, for good prices.  Perfect.

Walking into Coco Café I caught a glimpse of our little family in the glass door; all looking cold, dazed, hungry, and distinctively muddy.  Inside I ordered a hot cocoa, and Dave got coffee.  Little Man was very pleased with my drink choice, and did his best to polish off my whipped cream before I could get to it myself.  Dave had a Thai Curried Chicken Panini with a green side salad.  Little Man had the grilled cheese on an awesome whole wheat bread; and I had a massive bowl of Beef and Barley soup complete with a good-sized hunk of warm Pumpernickel, rich with molasses.  Dave’s Panini was great, and we were both impressed with the salad.  After our time in the Midwest we had come to loath side salads since inevitably they were tasteless piles of wilted, ice berg lettuce buried under a mound of not-cheese.  At Coco Cafe even the side salads were great.  Not a hint of iceberg lettuce to be seen, but only dark, lovely salad greens with a homemade vinaigrette.  Little Man liked his sandwich, but preferred my cocoa; and my soup was divine.  It was full of great vegetables, barley and beef, the broth was rich and stew-like with a good amount of black pepper.  This soup was a perfect example of why homemade soup is so much better than the stuff from a can.  All in all we had a great, home style lunch that did not break the bank, and which warmed us up from our stomachs to our fingers and toes.

On the way back home, Dave struggled to keep Little Man awake so that he could take a nice long nap at home.  Little Man, for his part, did his best to hide behind his Pooh Bear and fall asleep.  In the end we all had great naps, and ever since I’ve been fixated on hot beverages.  I want drinks that I can hold in a real mug, not paper or factory made, but something made by real hands, something that fits nicely between my palms, and warms me from the fingers on out.  And that brings me to my family’s Wassle; a hot mulled cider that fills the home and the heart with the aroma of the holidays.

This recipe for wassle comes from my dad’s side of the family, and just a whiff of this simmering away in the slow cooker makes me think of “family.”  I don’t mean “family” in the sense of just the three of us, but of gatherings of loved ones, whether or not you are biologically related, where you can just relax and be at home.  In fact, it’s worth making this wassle just for the aroma.

When Dave and I first made this wassle for our friends-who-became-family in upstate New York, their first comment was “mmmm… this is good…” followed quickly by asking if we’d ever tried this with rum.  We hadn’t.  We did.  It was delicious.  But I have to say, this wassle is amazing on its own and doesn’t need any accoutrement.  What sets it apart from other mulled ciders I’ve tried is the mixture of apple cider with pineapple, orange and apricot nectars.  Cardamom and cinnamon round out the spiciness of the hot, hot drink, and are key to its aroma.  There is no added sugar, the juices are sweet enough as it is.  So if you’re having friends/family over and want that scent of the holidays that will stop them in their tracks the minute they set foot in your home, this is the wassle for you.  The only problem will be getting them to leave later, since it’s so nice to just sit with loved ones while cradling a mug of this wassle in your hands.

Wassle (A Hot Mulled Cider)


4 cups apple cider

4 cups unsweetened pineapple juice

1 ½ cup apricot nectar

1 cup orange juice

6 cinnamon sticks

1 tsp. whole green cardamom


  1. Pour all juices into your slow cooker and turn it on to high.
  2. Place the cardamom pods on your cutting board and crush them with the back of a spoon or flat of a knife.  Alternatively, crush the pods in a mortar and pestle (I just can’t find mine since the move…)
  3. Add the cinnamon and crushed cardamom to the slow cooker.
  4. Cover and heat until pipping hot, then turn the slow cooker down to low and simmer the wassle for 25 minutes.  Enjoy!
  5. Optional: float a new cinnamon stick in each mug.

Click here for a printable version of the Wassle recipe.

pumpkin 2

25th Post and Counting…

This is my 25th post on The Sheep Are Out…, a blog about our lives on Vancouver Island.  We’ve lived on the island for about 3 ½ months, and are starting to get a feel for the area.  We’ve wrangled sheep (and our toddler), explored the ocean coastline, played in what feels like a myriad of parks and playgrounds, and begun a quest for the best fish and chips in the greater Nanaimo area.  We feel closer to family (at least our north-of-the-border family) and farther from friends; though that equation is starting to shift as we are making friends here now too.

Little Cowboy touring his new acreage.

Little Cowboy touring his new acreage.

As inevitably happens with any move, it starts to feel impossible to have lived anywhere else.  We know where things are in the house… mostly (please don’t ask for anything in any box in the basement).  We know where to go in town for great sushi or for Little Man’s favorite fried rice.  We know which grocery stores carry the foods we want, which gas stations are the fastest to get in and out of, and where we most want to go when we have the rare chance for a baby sitter.  In short, we are starting to find our feet.

We all know who's the boss here, right?

We all know who’s the boss here, right?

In honor of this 25th post, the recipe I am sharing with you is for what I’ve named the Manic Monday cocktail.  Right after the semester started for Dave, there was a Monday that left us both a bit frazzled around the edges.  It was one of those days when it feels like the wheels are just about to leave the track, but you might be able to hold on for just a moment more.  To celebrate that crazy day being over, I made these Manic Monday cocktails and we toasted the survival of our own little tornado of crazy.

End of a long day.

End of a long day.

In the spirit of joyful survival; to all of our friends and family that we’ve found here; and to our friends and family who we would love to come and visit… Cheers!  May your home feel like home.  May your days be filled with family and friends.  And may you come visit us soon!


Manic Monday Cocktail

Makes one cocktail


1 ounce dark rum

1/2 ounce orange liquor

1/2 ounce lemon juice

1 ounce mango juice

Ice cubes

Optional: lightly sweetened citrus soda


  1. Put all of the ingredients into a cocktail shaker and secure the lid.
  2. Shake vigorously until the metal shaker gets nice and frosty.
  3. Strain the ingredients into a rocks glass with new ice.  This is a great opportunity for ice spheres if you have the forms.
  4. Optional: Top the cocktail with about an ounce of a lightly sweetened citrus soda if you want something a bit brighter.  I love the extra sparkle on a hot evening, but if I want to taste more of the mango then I just keep it simple.

P.S. For those of you who would prefer an alcohol free cocktail, and let’s face it sometimes it’s nice to serve a fancy drink without the booze, try mixing equal parts of mango juice, orange juice and the sparkling lemon soda.  Delicious, refreshing and a special treat for those who can’t have or don’t want the alcohol.

Click here for a printable version of the Manic Monday Cocktail.

Poking at a Wood Fire

To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world.
~Charles Dudley Warner

This week I lighted my first fire by myself.  For many this may be a mundane occurrence, something mastered years ago and now done as handily as tying your shoes.  I, however, am a city girl who grew up in a semi-arid desert where fires were not needed, and in fact can be looked at with great suspicion since half the state tends to burn down each year.  I’ve been camping and gone to cookouts where fires were lit, I’ve gathered wood and cooked/flamed marshmallows on fires, and I’ve done my share of poking at a wood fire with a good, solid stick.  Up until this week, however, I have never started a fire by myself.  But now the weather is changing and we need a fire in our basement wood stove.

Since we passed the first official day of fall I’ve noticed our neighbors stocking up on firewood to last through the winter.  The piles of neatly stacked logs are quite impressive, and I want to build up our plentiful supply as well.  I’ve been teased by the gentle smoke perfuming the chill Fall air, curling out of other chimneys.  Our chimney, on the other hand, had no smoke since we had not yet lit a fire in our stove and I wasn’t sure how to fix that situation.  Up until now I’ve never had use or need of a wood burning stove and had no idea how to light one.

I also have to admit that I don’t like feeling incompetent.  I don’t like having to ask people for help, but I’ve trained myself to do so when I must.  And I certainly don’t like being reliant on other people for the basic necessities of life… like fire.  So when the weather got colder and all my neighbors started taunting me with their curlicues of smoke, I broke down and asked both Dave and my landlord how to use the wood burning stove.  The Farmer gave me a bemused look and said that you light a fire in it, as if this is something that anyone can do, like tying your own shoes.  And for many it is that simple, but for me whose most recent experience with lighting a fire literally involved flipping the switch in our room at the resort… Let’s just say that it wasn’t such a simple idea.  Dave’s response was not much better.  He shrugged his shoulders, said he wasn’t exactly sure (he’s a city kid too) but that we’d need kindling, and then he went on to do something else leaving me without answers and without fire.  In Dave’s defense, I think he was acting out of self-preservation.  The man is always hot, and has never been able to wear sweaters even in the coldest of Januaries.  So anyone with ideas of Christmas presents for Dave that consist of sweaters, save your money.  He’ll love them, try one on even, and then break into a dripping sweat and tear the thing off.  I think in our current predicament Dave is concerned that the stove might heat up the house too well.  I, on the other hand, am more of a lizard.  Give me a hot rock and some sunshine (with the appropriate… or excessive… sun protection required) and I’m happy.  I wanted that stove lit, and I wanted it lit yesterday.

First, however, we needed to get wood.  Out here you can order wood to be delivered to your door or you can do what most people do, which is to cut and split your own.  For an insanely reasonable amount of money you can get a permit to harvest lumber from the tops of trees cut down last year by the lumber companies.  Then you fill up your truck, cart the logs back home, and get to work.  For us, that means a chain saw to cut the logs into serviceable size, and then an ax to split them apart.  Our landlord has already made one trip to get timber, and Dave will be joining him on another trip this weekend.  Last night Dave went outside to make sure his chainsaw was in functional condition, and ended up portioning all of the logs with our landlord, making short work of the task.  Little Man and I went outside to visit the lumberjacks, and I was curious to see where the log splitting would be done since I fully intend on being a part of that.  When I asked our landlord about the splitting he eyed my foot gear worriedly.  Apparently pink Uggs are not appropriate wood splitting shoes.  I’ll have to work on that.

The next day I had just put Little Man down to nap and was in the office typing away when I realized that I wasn’t just cold, but even my nose was freezing.  Enough.  I was tired of waiting, and yes, I was annoyed at the idea of having to wait on a man to rescue me.  I was going to get a fire started in that stove, or burn up all our kindling in the process.  There is an anthropologist (who does not deserve to be named here) whose main claim to fame is a theory that men (and I do mean “men,” not the English language’s poor attempt at using a masculine word to define a group of people made up of both men and women) developed bipedalism (the ability to walk on two legs) because of their need to hunt.  His theory goes on to literally leave women at home near the empty cook fire, pregnant, hungry, cold and on all fours, waiting for their menfolk to walk home and feed them.  Yeeeeesssssss…  That is one lonely man…  I digress, but the point here is that there was something about the simplicity of fire equalling heat that galled me since I could not produce it.  I did not want to wait any longer to be granted the knowledge of how to create fire.

So I went downstairs armed with one of those long barbeque lighters (I wasn’t ready to go full Survivorman… and besides, I don’t think we own a flint striker) and approached the stove like one does a beast that you don’t think will hurt you, but you’re just not quite sure.  I opened its maw, put in the log, and then looked at it, trying to remember any tricks about starting a fire from my childhood camping days.  I knew that I needed kindling, so I took all of the splinters of wood that Dave had made and tossed them into the stove as well.  Anyone who knows anything about starting a fire should be cringing right about now.  Then I remembered something that Dave said about using newspaper.  So I found a box of wadded up newspaper that had been used as packaging from our hundreds of moving boxes, and stuffed that into the stove as well.  Then I sat back on my heels and puzzled at my mess.  That couldn’t possibly work.  Eventually I figured out that this should be more of a layer cake affair, with wadded up newspaper at the bottom, kindling laid out on top of that and then the log on top of my pyre.  All the time I’m messing with this I keep asking myself how many PhDs it takes to light a fire.

The set up...

The set up…

Then I lit the newspaper at the base of my pyre, sat back on my heels again and smiled at my accomplishment.  That is until the newspaper smoked up, and the smoke started pouring into the room.  A quick flail at the damper to open it, and soon the smoke was coursing through the chimney, joining the scented offerings of my neighbors.  I sat there for quite some time, enjoying the crackle of the wood and the scent of its burning.  Then I heard Little Man stirring upstairs through the monitor and I closed the stove’s door.  The effect was instant.  I went from having a live, crackling, aromatic fire, to something that looked a lot like the Christmas channel with burning logs but the sound was turned off.  All evidence of “fire” disappeared with the sound and scent dampening of the door.  However, the heat continued to radiate, and while I missed the sound and the scent it was good to know that the fire was safe inside its home while we were safe inside ours.


I had achieved fire and for one night at least had heated our home.  I would later learn that to start my prized fire I had used a king’s ransom of kindling, as I told Dave of my accomplishment and he stared morosely at the pile where all of his lovely kindling had been.  The upcoming forecast shows a couple days of higher temperatures, and then we will drop down again.  That should give us a chance to restock our supply of combustibles, and I will definitely be more frugal with our supplies.

Our own Christmas Burning Log channel.

Our own Christmas Burning Log channel.

It never fails that the scent of a wood burning fire makes me yearn for cocoa and flaming marshmallows.  One of our neighbors has not only a wood burning stove to heat their home, but also an entire cast iron affair complete with four burners (now I see where that name came from) and an oven all fueled by wood alone.  Their stove is gorgeous and I’m fascinated by it.  It has me looking at our own modest, but eco-friendly stove, wondering what kind of treats I could whip up using its top as a heat source.  A friend recently shared with me that in one of the bad snows a couple of years ago the power had gone out and since she had an electric stove with no electricity she ended up cooking a simple dinner of rice on the top of her wood heating stove.  I don’t need to resort to rice cooking on the fireplace yet, but maybe some popcorn… or hot cocoa… or perhaps a gooey cheese dip for a crusty, toasty loaf of bread…  I’m going to have to give this some thought.  And I would love to hear from any of you, if you have an idea of things to cook on top of a wood burning stove or open flame.

For now, I’m going to content myself with some hot cocoa, and this time at least will make it on our upstairs stove.  The wood burning stove in the basement is so efficient that it heats the area quickly, and I think that Dave would boycott.  The night of “my fire” I made Dave and I a couple of mugs of this awesome cocoa taught to me by my sister-in-law Erin.  Auntie Erin’s cocoa is dairy free, but you will not miss the lack of milk.  It tastes like gorgeous dark chocolate, without being overly sweet or thick like some dairy-based cocoas can be.  Don’t get me wrong, I love just about all food-products that come from a cow, including milk.  This recipe simply doesn’t need it.  If, however, you are dead set on a dairy-based cocoa, I have a suggestion for you below.  You won’t want to miss it.

Auntie Erin's Cocoa in two of the mugs I threw myself.

Auntie Erin’s Cocoa in two of the mugs I threw myself.

Auntie Erin’s Cocoa

(Serves 2)

The resulting cocoa is rich with dark chocolate, but is not cloyingly sweet like some of the premade mixes can be.  You can use regular measuring cups for this recipe, or do what Erin and I do, which is to measure with the mugs that you will be drinking the cocoa from.  That means that everyone gets a nice full mug of this deliciously dark, hot cocoa.  And please note that this recipe calls for real cocoa powder, not hot cocoa mix.  You can use whatever brand of cocoa powder you have on hand, but the better the quality of your cocoa powder the better this drink will be.  The main point is to taste your final cocoa before you pour it back into the mugs.  If you want it sweeter, add more agave.  If you want more chocolate, add more cocoa powder.  The first time you make it, try to be sparing in the amount of cocoa and agave you use.  It’s easy to add more to the drink, but it cannot be taken back out again.  Another trick that I use is after I pour the milks from the mugs into the saucepan, I partially fill the mugs with hot water to keep them warm until the cocoa is done.  I want my cocoa hot, not cooled down by a cold mug.s

I like to measure the milks in the same mugs that the cocoa will be served in.

I like to measure the milks in the same mugs that the cocoa will be served in.


1 mug of almond milk, unsweetened

1 mug of vanilla rice milk, sweetened is fine

2-3 heaping tbsp. cocoa powder

1-2 tbsp. dark agave syrup


Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk the mixture constantly so that it does not scorch and all the cocoa powder is slowly incorporated into the milks.  Once the cocoa starts to steam, dip in a spoon and taste for sweetness and amount of chocolate.  If you want more chocolate, add a bit more of the cocoa powder.  If you want more sweetness, add a bit more of the agave.  Pour into mugs and enjoy.

All the ingredients in the pan.

All the ingredients in the pan.

It's important to whisk constantly so that the cocoa does not scorch.

It’s important to whisk constantly so that the cocoa does not scorch.

Now the best part, taste testing to make sure there is the perfect amount of cocoa and sweetness.

Now the best part, taste testing to make sure there is the perfect amount of cocoa and sweetness.

Click here for a printable recipe for Auntie Erins Cocoa.

Now for hot cocoa that uses milk…

Nigella’s Feast Hot Chocolate

For those of you who would like more of a cow-based hit to your drink, the best hot chocolate I’ve had comes from Nigella Lawson’s Feast: Food to Celebrate Life cookbook.  This is my favorite cookbook, and if you haven’t checked it out before I highly recommend it.  Just about every celebratory meal I’ve had a part in over the last five years has come from this book; from an invitation signing party before the wedding (aka how to get your friends to help you with an impossible task by plying them with food), to a welcome home dinner for my fiancé with a Georgian feast as he came back from the Republic of Georgia, to our housewarming party in Indiana, the list goes on and on.

So let me stop here with the gentle nudge to check out the hot chocolate recipe in Feast for one of those nights when you just want to feel pampered.  Nigella’s hot chocolate is flavored with real dark chocolate (save some to nibble on while the milk heats), sweetened with honey and brown sugar, and spiced with a cinnamon stick and vanilla.  Cuddle up with a mug of this and a favorite book and you’re good to go.  Oh, and did I mention that it is laced with a little dark rum?  Silly me for forgetting to mention that…  It’s titled Alcoholic Hot Chocolate and is found on page 420.  Feel free to leave out the rum if you’d rather, but it’s delicious as is.