Ranting Tuesday

I am shy. Painfully shy. Always have been; probably always will be.  When I was little, it was a “problem”; something I had to “work on.” So I tried. And I tried. But quiet was always safe. And polite was always comfortable. It was (and remains) easier – much easier – to hide behind my books; to stand back; smiling (or sometimes not), but (mostly) quiet and reserved.

Me at a very young age. Too shy to even smile.

To me, any conversation could lead to confrontation. And I hate (underline, hate) confrontation – even when it’s only imagined. I simply don’t want to offend or slight or anger anyone.  Ever.  When I do (or when I think I do), my worry and guilt overcome me, weighing so heavily that it becomes a physical pain. I find myself replaying the situation over and over again in my head, agonizing every little word and sigh and sound.

When I need something, or want some help, I try to ask in the most delicate way possible, reassuring whoever it is that, “Really, it’s not a big deal. If you can’t do it, do NOT worry. You really don’t have to. I’m sure I can do it myself. I promise no bad feelings! Here are 5 reasons why you really don’t have to! Please, feel free to say no!”  Because – you know – asking someone for a favor is pretty offensive stuff. Or so I seem to think.

My shyness – and hesitance to speak – can be so bad that even when something is bothering me, or worse, actually physically hurting me, I still keep quiet. For example, when I get my hair cut and the hair dresser washes my hair and asks if the water is too hot, I always say no. Even if it’s scalding my brain. Because, again, if you tell the lady that she accidentally turned the knob too far, or that my scalp is a little sensitive, she’ll probably hate me. Or slap me. Or turn the knob even further to the right.

Hell, when I was 17+ hours into labor, a labor in which the epidural “did not take” (what the hell, how does that happen?!) I was too nervous to tell the nurse that I was in pain and instead, tried to carry on a polite conversation with my doctor, mid-contraction. “Yes, it does hurt a little bit, but please, don’t worry. Are you feeling okay?…”

It’s so bad that when my husband and I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I saw myself in the guy running for his life. Despite knowing that (spoiler alert!) Stellan Skarsgard is the murderer, Daniel Craig – not wanting to tip his hand, or turn down a drink, or, most importantly, offend the psychopath –  somehow says yes when asked if he wants to come in, alone, to the crazy person’s torture palace.  Not to get too weird, but I would be that person.  Better to accept the invitation, and keep my mouth shut, than to disappoint the murderer.

Look, I’m not saying I haven’t had my moments. There are plenty of times (many of which I regret – and many of which my husband can attest to) that I’ve been mean, or hurt someones feelings or just been a downright bitch.  But as good as that sometimes feels, when it comes down to it, speaking up is never as good, or comfortable, as silence.

Or at least, it never was … until I had a baby – a beautiful, curious, amazing daughter; a daughter I love so much I often fear my heart might explode. She brings me so much happiness, so much joy, so much love, that tears sometimes come to my eyes just at the thought of her. A perfect (if occasionally stinky) angel, barely 30 inches tall and 20 lbs small,  with the unique ability to make my heart stop … and my mouth open.

Motherhood really is amazing. The shift in my priorities, the ability for my body to function on 3 hours of sleep 6 days in a row, the natural instincts that just kick in and tell me what to do in specific situations in which I have zero knowledge and zero experience; it truly is amazing. When a helpless, little baby is put into your arms, a small innocent child that you’ve barely known for 5 seconds, the universe shifts and all the things you believed to be true, all the things you thought you knew about the world, about people, about yourself, they all fall away. Instantaneously. Because at that moment, nothing else matters. Not how you look, or how your clothes (don’t) fit, or how you feel like you’ll never, ever, again run a mile without collapsing in pain. Or that you will never sleep soundly again, or that your social life will be, well, nonexistent for the foreseeable future; that showering will become optional; that sitting down to eat a meal with your spouse, without spilled milk, screaming, or a stinky diaper, will quickly become a thing of the past; that your long-held fear of confrontation can suddenly and involuntarily be overcome. None of it matters. There’s your baby, and keeping her safe from harm, and fear, and disappointment, … and then there’s everything else.

She is not even 16 months old, and yet I am already trying to tame my mother bear instincts. When a little boy pushes her over at Gymboree, I have to stop myself. I have to force myself to wait just one second and not rush over and take charge. To see how she’ll handle the situation, to see if she really needs me. More times than not, she bounces right up, no tears, no problem. Or when another mom says something like “She hasn’t said elephant yet?” with a shocked expression and an annoying flip of the hair, I resist the urge to roll my eyes, keep my hands in my pocket, and just smile, as politely as possible. Yeah, I could – and I want to – roll down the extensive list of words she does say, the signs she uses and the mind-blowingly cool things she does every single day (like mimicking what an elephant says).  But I just smile, breathe, and walk away.  For the moment.

But when the time comes, I will be there to wipe away tears, to kiss every bump and bruise, to hug away fears, to comfort her through every insecurity and reassure her after failures. To tell her she is beautiful even when she doesn’t realize it, to encourage her to think bigger, and to love her when some stupid boy doesn’t. I will be there. Always. And I will do my very best to pause when necessary. To let her handle her own situations and learn to believe and trust in herself.

But you better believe when bad moments do come, when she does need me, when someone hurts her, threatens her, causes her pain, I will NOT be shy. I will not be afraid of offending anyone, of hurting someone’s feelings or of raising hell.  Because when you’re a Mom, and your little baby is in distress, shyness is no longer acceptable.

(End rant. I promise my next post will be food related.)

Black Bean Burgers

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I have a lot of respect for the people in my life that have chosen to go meat-free. I really am not sure how they do it (I don’t think I could! and I don’t think my husband would be onboard), but I have nothing but respect for their decision and believe it to be not only a healthy choice, but also an honorable one. Although I am not quite ready to give up meat just yet (I’m a Kansas City girl after all!), I have been trying to make a conscious effort to serve more vegetarian meals in my own home. But when it really comes down to it, I am not that creative. When you are used to serving chicken, beef or pork almost every night, it can be a bit difficult to come up with interesting and appetizing meals without those staples. Lately, I’ve been sticking to vegetarian soups, pizzas, and pastas, which are good and all, but can get boring after a bit.

So this week I knew it was time to get adventurous with one of my favorite vegetarian meals. I love black bean burgers. I order them fairly often when we got out to eat, yet had never attempted to make them myself. I was actually getting a little irritated with the PGC this summer when they continued to list “Black Bean Burger”on their menu, yet never seemed to have them available. So this Tuesday I sent my husband an email at work. I warned him that I’d be making black bean burgers for dinner that night and then set out to create them.

I had saved a recipe from the New York Times awhile back and pulled it out to be my guide. I started by pulsing 2 cups of cooked black beans in the blender until they were chunky. I then added 2 cups of whole cooked black beans to the mix along with 1/2 cup of panko, 2 eggs (not sure what the substitute would be if you are trying to go vegan – any suggestions out there? A flaxseed mixture of some sort?), chopped scallions, fresh basil, cumin, oregano, and red pepper flakes. I mixed the ingredients together and started to form my patties.

I then covered them and put them in the refrigerator to firm up a bit. The molding of the patties had made them a bit sticky and I knew that wouldn’t work too well when I went to cook them, plus the husband hadn’t left work yet, so I had plenty of time to spare.

Once I got the daily “heading out soon” text message from Adam, I pulled the burgers out of the refrigerator, sprinkled them with salt and pepper and started to heat up my pan. I cooked each burger in a dry pan for about 4-5 minutes each side, making sure to only flip them once. While they were cooking I prepared our toppings of avocado, tomatoes, spinach and red pepper, plus Adam’s favorite buns (I usually go for whole wheat, but since I was already serving bean burgers, I thought Adam should at least get his favorite white buns). Along side the burgers I served sweet potato fries.

I have to admit Lyla was not a huge fan. She made quite the interesting face after taking her first bite. But, the burgers were VERY spicy, so I was expecting rejection. In the future I will pull out enough for one burger before adding the red pepper flakes so that Lyla can enjoy a non-spicy version. Instead, Lyla was treated to a different dinner, one that included her favorite yogurt.

But even though Lyla did not get to enjoy the burgers, Adam and I did greatly. They were packed with flavor and had a great kick to them. Adam liked them even more than I expected and has requested them to be included in breakfast Saturday morning to go along with his eggs. We might not be ready to commit to a meat-free lifestyle, but I am pretty sure we are up for at least one meat-less meal a week. I think it’s time I found a good vegetarian blog to follow…

Ribfest

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I grew up on the world’s greatest barbecue. I’m from Kansas City, so I got to sample, then, sometimes, stuff myself on Oklahoma Joe’s, Jack Stack, and Gates.  And I’m a Thesing, which means I got something even better: my Dad’s ribs.

My dad is what some might call a hobbyist. In his very limited free-time, he does a lot. And he does it well. He’s a photographer. A wine connoisseur. A boater. And a biker (think spandex, not leather). But as much as I love his pictures, and enjoy his taste in wine,  it’s his BBQ talents that I appreciate the most.  Maybe it’s his passion for science, and, in particular, his interest in chemistry.  Maybe it’s his patience, the necessary result of 35+ years of marriage, and 6 children (including 5 daughters). Or maybe it’s just that he’s really freaking smart. But whatever the reason, the man has mastered both the smoker and the grill.

I remember many weekends as a kid playing outside with my siblings and sneaking up and around the back of the deck, and through the sweet, smoky haze to watch my dad at work on the driveway: soaking wood chips in his huge, yellow Tupperware bowl, lighting and tending the coals, and gently mopping the meat. Inside, I’d watch with wonder as he carefully created his speciality rub, meticulously measuring and combining spices, sugars and mustard, then smothering slab after slab of baby backs and wrapping them in foil. With his hands a gooey mess, and his arms full of ribs, he’d ask someone to open the door. I always volunteered. I wanted to help; to be close to, and part of the magic. So I raced for the door, cleared a path, and became his shadow.

I miss those days. And I miss those meals. Summer in the Thesing family meant many things – tubing and skiing at the lake, long walks with my mom, and the occasional squabble between sisters.  But it always meant Saturdays and Sundays and birthdays and holidays with my family. And dinners around a big wooden table, with piles and piles of BBQ goodness – ribs, tenderloin, chicken, turkey and fish.

Mary and me on the boat at Lake Lotawana.

My Dad and Fiddle.

Sisters!

A little tubing; showing the little ones that this form of tubing is not scary.

My Dad’s smoker, always going. Lake in the background.

Happiness. The whole family. 2010.

Too often, my mom calls and tells me the whole family is heading to the lake; that they’ve packed up the coolers and raided the wine cellar; that my nieces are bringing their floaties and going to try tubing; and that my dad is planning to fire up the smoker.  On those days (and many others), when the conversation ends,  I can taste the sweet, spicy bark of a perfectly smoked brisket and I can hear the laughter of my favorite people.  On those days, I really wish I was home.

A few weekends ago, we brought some of home (er … my old home) to Pittsburgh. We invited the family over, uncorked some wine, and created, then celebrated, our very first Rib Fest.

I entrusted the smoker, and all the responsibility that came with it, to my husband.  Having watched my dad, and having previously smoked a brisket, he was up to the challenge.  For his first set of smoked ribs, he did pretty well.  Really well, in fact.  You’d almost think he was from Kansas City. Almost.

Lyla and I worked on the side dishes and dessert. Our spread included Asian slaw

corn bread

and baked beans (not pictured). And for dessert, my Blueberry-Lemon Bundt Cake.

Lyla, of course, was a huge fan of ribfest. Between the company, the attention, and the messy possibilities that barbecue sauce created, she was in heaven.  Before dinner, as the guests waited for the meat to cook and rest, she put on a show, distracting and entertaining them with new tricks and toys.

She’s a HUGE Pirates fan.

Her fancy new swing!

It was a wonderful ribfest filled with great food and delightful company. But even so, I will always long for those days; my dad at the smoker, my family enjoying each other’s company. I hope to not have to miss too many of those family weekends, but for the times I cannot make it, we will have to do with Kansas City barbecue in Pittsburgh. And with football season finally upon us, we have plenty of good excuses for additional fests. This city needs a lesson in what it’s been missing by focusing too much on chip-chopped ham, pierogies and sandwiches with fries on them (yes, I am shaking my head right now.) And I hope that someday soon enough, Lyla will look back and with a full heart remember her house filled with our family’s laughter, hearts filled with love and her tummy filled with KC’s best.

We are thinking smoked turkey for this weekend’s Steelers game…

Cake Decorating

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As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts (and alluded to in my last), I’ve been wanting to learn how to properly decorate a cake for some time now. I still have some learning to do and have really only been working on the basics but thought I’d share some pictures of my practice cakes and cupcakes.

Almost smooth, almost.

Simple heart with star-shaped filling. Not too exciting. Just starting slow.

Random practice cupcakes. Some not so good.

Pompom Flower done by hand before transferred onto cake. May be one of my favorite flowers.

Ribbon Rose by hand. Love these!

Ribbon Rose Cake with shell border. Getting better!

I’ve really enjoyed practicing these different techniques although I must admit it is very time-consuming. Hopefully with more practice I’ll become much faster! Now I just need to find some people to eat all these cakes and cupcakes! We have way too many! I’ll share pictures of other cakes and other techniques as I get better :)

Up next, Ribfest!

Chicken Salad Sammich

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We’ve been keeping busy these last few weeks. We’ve had a three-year wedding anniversary, and a trip to beautiful Bedford Springs to celebrate said anniversary;

a Bucco game;

a 61st birthday party for Opa; a couple tennis matches, and a handful of runs;

She’s working towards her future athletic scholarship.

some trips to the pool, a few play-dates, and several story-hours; plus, daily park outings, garden tending, and – per Lyla’s request – bird watching;

not to mention a classical concert, in which an increasingly musical 13-month old discovered her love for the 76 trombones.

Our meals have been here, there and everywhere in between. We sampled a few of Pittsburgh’s best and new restaurants, and enjoyed some of our favorite staples at the Golf Club.  We dined at friends’ homes and feasted on my father-in-law’s famous paella. And tried various treats at a 19th century resort, a 21st century ballpark, and places somewhere in between.

But when at home, I’ve been relying on the quick and easy, especially on the nights that the husband is walking in the door just as I’m on my way out. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had tacos, slow-cooked honey chicken, pulled pork, and even eggs. They’re quick and easy meals, but that doesn’t mean they’re not healthy and delicious. My two favorite quickies were Mediterranean Stuffed Zucchini (thanks to Lydia!) and chicken salad sandwiches (or, as my yinzer husband says, “sammiches”) on homemade buns.

As my zucchini pile continues to grow (I’ve had to give them away!), it continues to make its way into our meals. This last week instead of being thrown into a dish or onto the side of the plate, they were stuffed.

Super delicious and amazingly fast and easy to prepare. I am loving the versatility of the zucchini right now.

One of the Fischer family staples is my chicken salad (recipe below). I love chicken salad but usually avoid it at restaurants and in grocery stores because I fear it is made with full fat mayonnaise and other not so healthy items. So instead I make it at home, where I can do it just the way I like (with less mayo, and a lot more crunch). And this time, I even made my first attempt at sandwich buns, which turned out better than expected – (although they were closer to Adam than Lyla in size).

We’ll have to keep coming up with a few quick and easy meals as our schedule looks just as busy in the upcoming weeks. With a fundraiser, a few classes, a big, end-of summer rib-fest this Sunday, a trip to Soergles, a couple of weddings, three doctor’s appointments, 1 big race to run, and even bigger one to sign up for (the husband finally agreed!) we are going to need a few more easy, go-to meals. And maybe even a few special desserts… rumor has it someone’s birthday season is fast approaching…

I’ll post this one soon!

Chicken Salad Sandwiches

Season two chicken breasts with salt, pepper and Fox Point Seasoning (aka Lake Shore Drive Seasoning). Bake at 350 degrees until done. Shred chicken in large bowl and add to it a small scoop of light mayonnaise (just enough to moisten), a sprinkle of onion powder, salt and pepper, lots chopped carrots, sliced cherry tomatoes and chopped fresh parsley from the garden. Taste and add seasoning as necessary.

Scoop salad on to freshly homemade buns and serve immediately. Any leftovers are wonderful when eaten cold the next day.

Garden Update: Ratatouille Provençal

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We’ve had a string of ridiculous thunderstorms the last few weeks. Violent bolts of lightning followed by house shaking thunder. Incredible, tree-bending wind and torrents of rain.  When the storms came in the afternoon, Lyla would stand at the back door and watch in awe, hands and face pressed up against the glass, equal parts scared, impressed, and amused. But when they came at night (and most of them did), she was totally unaffected.  While Adam and I would startle at each flash, and struggle to sleep between the thunder, Lyla slept soundly, and quietly.  With each thunderous crackle, I waited for Lyla to cry, but she never did.  The storms would come and go, and Lyla would keep on dreaming.  Of course, an hour later, once the storm had passed, and I finally drifted back to sleep, I’d hear a mumble, a scream, and a bunch of crying.  A bolt of thunder can’t wake Lyla; but the rumble of her tummy always does.

While the storms haven’t been great for my sleep, all the rain has been a blessing for my little garden, which is now growing out of control.  It’s August 1, and my plants are the greenest they’ve ever been. I was worried after one particularly violent storm that my tomatoes and zucchinis might be in trouble. They looked so sad and pathetic, with their leaves forced to the ground by the high winds. But they popped right back up as soon as the sun came out.

Each morning Lyla and I venture out back to check on everything and last week we found a very pleasant surprise. Several of our zucchinis were ready to be harvested. With one slow turn, our first zucchini snapped of the plant. Lyla was very pleased.

Biggest zucchini I’ve ever seen! The others have not been this big.

The zucchini plant, which my husband refers to as “Jurassic Park.”

This guy needs another day or two.

Love the flowers. Am planning to make stuffed zucchini flowers for dinner one night soon.

Just a couple of weeks ago, as we suffered through day after day of 100 degree heat, and oppressive humidity, I had almost given up hope.  Because of our move, and because it’s hard to cultivate a garden with a babbling baby at your side, the garden hadn’t gotten my full attention.  Plus, we got a late start; it wasn’t until early June that we got the seeds in the ground.  But now,  everything – even the jalapenos and tomatoes, which were only planted just recently – is prospering.

Parsley

Oregano

Now, as my pile of zucchinis continues to grow (just picked another two today!), I need to find recipes that highlight their freshness and flavor.  Recipes like the one I used the other night, for Ratatouille Provençal.

Ratatouille Provençal (adapted from Joy of Cooking):

I started off by chopping up my eggplant and the two biggest zucchinis from the garden.

I then sautéed them in olive oil over medium heat. After about 10 minutes, I removed the vegetables from the pan.

Then added one sliced onion plus a little more olive oil to the hot pan. Once the onions were tender, I added in a chopped red pepper and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Next I added two fresh, chopped tomatoes, thyme, a bay leaf and a bit of crushed red pepper. Most recipes wouldn’t call for crushed red pepper, but I wanted to add a little heat and a bit of a heat to my dish. After fully seasoning the veggies, I turned the heat down to low and let the flavors meld together for about 5 minutes before adding the zucchini and eggplant mixture back into the pan. I covered the pan and let it all simmer for 20 minutes.

Before serving I added fresh oregano and basil leaves right on top and then dished it up along side of a loaf of homemade bread.

It was surprisingly filling and very tasty. It was a meal the whole family could enjoy – and one that we all worked to make happen.

Lyla wishes everyone happy eating!

Weekend Wrap-Up: Bar Food

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This was not our “best ever” weekend. We were supposed to head to Quincy for the Fischer family reunion, but had to take a pass. The husband is studying for his second bar (I very much dislike the bar, as I am sure the husband does as well as every other lawyer out there) and could not afford to take time away from the great blue books known as Barbri. The poor guy has had a miserable two weeks, which in comparison to the two months he spent prepping for the Wisconsin bar, seems like no time at all – of course, that was not our “best ever” summer either. He’s had few, if any, breaks, been stuck at the Sewickley library for hours on end, hasn’t shaved in God knows how long (your congratulatory gift, Adam, will be a razor) and I know he is missing Lyla. Every once in a while I’ll just hear a huge sigh from the other room and I just feel awful that he is doing this yet again.

So instead of making our way west to hang out with the Fischer crew, eat Maid-Rites, see the sights and take a dip in Spring Lake, we were here. All three of us wish we could have been in Quincy, so much so that we tried to live vicariously through the emails. I tried to picture The Pier and the Mississippi River; tried to imagine what the milkshakes tasted like and these sandwiches that are “kind of like a hamburger, but not” that I’ve been hearing about for the last six years; tried to pretend we were swimming out to the Spring Lake dock, and that Lyla was stealing Cheerio’s from her 9-month old cousin Will (Or is it second cousin? Or first cousin once removed? I’m not that good with the whole genealogy thing). I tried to think of the stories we would have heard and shared with Ann, Bob, Melissa, Jane, Kevin, Connie, Jim, Jeanne, Chris, Tom, Maureen, Jaclyn, Jon, and all the rest of the Fischer clan.

Pretending we were at Spring Lake. Sadly, no “big blue slide.”

But the husband needed to focus and rest up and Lyla and I needed to be with him to provide support, encouragement and study food. I am well aware that the food you put into your body can help or hinder performance, both physical and mental, so as the husband flipped through flashcards and practiced essays, Lyla and I got to work on some homemade brain power.

Our late Friday night study session. Exciting stuff, let me tell you.

Friday night brought pizza, because well, that’s our Friday tradition. But I topped it with some actual nutrients like sautéed eggplant, red pepper, diced onion, and spinach, as well as mozzarella and fresh basil. I was able to get the crust super thin, my thinnest yet, and told the husband it was time to carb-up – he needed fuel for his last weekend of cramming. Maybe it was just because pizza-time is undoubtedly better than study-time, but Adam said it was my best yet.

Thin Crust Eggplant Pizza >; Rule Against Perpetuities

For Saturday’s lunch I used up the remaining eggplant to make eggplant stackers. A healthy dish bursting with fresh flavors (recipe below). I’ve made this dish a few times before and always love it. It’s healthy, it’s quick and it’s really yummy.

Since the eggplant stackers are not calorically dense, I whipped up an appetizer of artichoke bruschetta to keep Adam fueled until dinner. This was my first time making this and I was super pleased with the results. The husband declared it a “must make again” appetizer. (Again, he was pouring over his Property notes at the time, so take his review for what it’s worth). It included artichokes, tomato, red onion, parmesan cheese, a bit of light mayo, salt and pepper – all on homemade bread.

As dinner rolled around, I wanted to focus on protein to keep him full and focused and Vitamin B1 (thiamine) to convert his carbs into energy – just what the husband needed for his last kick to the finish line. To do so, I served up barbecue pineapple swiss chicken, one of my own childhood favorites, along with a green salad for extra vitamins and minerals.

Obviously, I still wish we could have seen and spent time with Adam’s extended family, and that Lyla and I could have finally experienced Forrest Avenue, St. Francis, and Spring Lake. I’ve seen pictures of Adam’s grandparents’ house (the one his dad grew up in) and heard countless stories about his week-long summertime trips there; about the “dinner-time” (read: lunch) feasts his Grandma Fischer made (fried steak, homemade french fries and coconut cream pie was a typical Tuesday afternoon); about his ridiculous mid-day Chipwich snacks at the 19th Hole (I love you, honey, but there’s a reason you had to go to the “husky” department); about fishing and catching fireflies with his Grandpa Fischer; and about how cute, and quaint, and full of love 719 Forrest was.

But as much as I really wanted to be there, to put a real picture next to those stories, being at home was the right place for Lyla and me this weekend. My husband has stood next to me through my toughest of times. He is my rock and my inspiration on my worst days. He offers me endless encouragement and always assures me that I can achieve the impossible. I just hope that I have been able to do the same for him as he prepares for this nerve-wracking test. One more day of studying. Three more brain power meals to go. And then the celebration will begin, because I have no doubt that just like in Wisconsin, he will kick some serious bar exam booty.

Eggplant Stackers (adapted from Cook Yourself Thin)

Mix together one part oil and one part balsamic vinegar. Add the juice of half a lemon. Slice an eggplant into rounds and lay on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and then brush with the oil mixture. Broil the eggplant for about 10 minutes, flipping halfway through. Remove from oven.

Take the biggest eggplant round and top with a slice of tomato. Season with a bit of salt and pepper. Top with fresh basil and a sprinkle of feta cheese. Add another layer of eggplant, top with homemade tomato sauce, feta and basil. Add another layer of eggplant and top with tomato sauce and feta only. Repeat with the remaining eggplant to make additional stackers.

Bake at 350 degrees for 5-7 minutes or until the cheese begins to melt. Top with fresh basil and serve.

A Visit from Grandma

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Last week my mom flew from Kansas City for a little visit and the chance to see our new home here in Pittsburgh. It was a wonderful week, one I had been looking forward to for a very long time and, as always, ended up going by way too fast. After Lyla had given her grandma a tour of her new, big-girl room, the rest of the week was dedicated to searching for the perfect accent pieces to decorate the house, a series of morning runs, some time spent tending my ever-expanding garden, and of course, cooking. Lots of cooking.

First, we went on a mission to find a few accent pieces for the house, and although there is still much to be done, I think we had a pretty successful week. Here’s a little glimpse at a few of the finds:

And what could be my favorite find:

I’m in love with these chairs. Seriously, in love. They add a little extra something to our dining room.  Now we just have to protect them from wine spills and Lyla piggies.

By the end of each day, after sneaking in our morning run and ensuring that Lyla had a fast ride in the jogging stroller, after vigorously watering the garden and grass to keep it from dying in this insane heat and tending to the zucchini, tomato, and jalapeno plants and various herbs, after driving all over the greater Pittsburgh area (I’ve never spent so much time in Cranberry!), and lugging furniture in and out of the car, we were exhausted and in need of some good wine and good food.

My garden has been producing a LOT of oregano – so I was determined to use some of it up in one of our dinners. Although I had never tried it, I decided to experiment with an oregano pesto. To create it, I combined a large bunch of my fresh oregano with a bit of parmesan cheese, pine nuts, a few fresh leaves of basil, olive oil and salt and pepper. After blending it, I spread it over chopped potatoes and roasted them in a 450 degree oven for about half an hour.

I served them along side of marinaded grilled pork loin, fresh salad and a delicious Pinot Noir.

We broke Adam away from his studying and had a nice little family dinner filled with stories, laughter and a few tricks from Lyla. It was a wonderful week and I am so sad that it is over. It is sometimes really hard for me to be this far away from my family. I miss them all so much and I know Lyla misses playing with all her cousins. As much as I love our visits, every time we have to say goodbye, I end up missing my family even more. I’m hoping and (not-so) secretly scheming to get one of my siblings to move out here. Kathryn? (We may have a few connections in the healthcare industry); Mary? (There must be some Pittsburgh boys at TCU); John? (Um … need I say more?).  Plus, I can offer free room and board! And, Lyla says you’ll automatically be her favorite aunt (or uncle)! Just look at this beautiful city! Don’t you want to live here?

I am determined to make this happen, but until I do, there will just have to be many visits to and from KC. I know a little girl who is going to be racking up the frequent flyer miles. And Grandma, Lyla cannot wait for you to come back and visit her again. And bring Papa too! She’ll be waiting.

A Time for Cookies

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It’s becoming a bit of a tradition. Our Friday dinners have somehow turned into pizza and beer. But not any old pizza, homemade pies with hand-tossed (I’m getting pretty good at the tossing!), chewy, golden brown crusts, and fresh basil on top. And the beer is always some craft, handpicked by the husband. This Friday was no different, except for the dessert.

Heirlooms, hot sausage, onion, red pepper, fresh mozzarella, basil.

A few weeks back, my younger sister Mary told me about these cookies. I believe her exact words were “best decision I’ve ever made.” Since then, they have been in the back of my mind as something I had to make at some point in time…

Today should have been a good day. It’s Friday, the start of the weekend, the day most people look forward to all week. But this Friday just wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. Lyla woke up way too early this morning. She wasn’t her happy self. She was grumpy and fussy. Her teeth must hurt; her teeth sure are getting blamed for a lot lately. We made it through the early part of the morning only for Lyla to decide she didn’t really want to take her morning nap. I started to vacuum which only resulted in frightened tears and a quick end to the cleaning. Instead of napping, Lyla decided to smear jelly all over the floor I had just cleaned. Apparently a sparkling house was not in the cards. After cleaning up the jelly and cleaning up Lyla, I tried to get her to drink her milk (we just started cow’s milk last week). She hates it. She threw it on the floor. I cleaned the floor again. After the floor had been cleaned for the umpteenth time, I finally made my way out for a run, but it was a huge struggle. It was too hot, I was too tired and the air was just too thick to breathe in. I battled through it, made it to the end, but didn’t feel that great about it; so much for the runner’s high I was counting on. When I got home Lyla fell backwards and hit her head on the table. More tears, one big bruise. The husband called to say his weekend would be spent at the library studying for the bar (I hate the bar). I felt bad for him, I felt bad for us. A weekend without Daddy just isn’t as fun and is honestly a little lonely. I went to the store and in my rush realized I forgot my phone. I was flustered about forgetting my phone and ended up leaving my list in the car. This made me forget to buy butter (blame Mommy brain). Grrrrr. My mom called and said the whole family was at the lake and having a great time. My heart ached; I miss my family.

Things just weren’t going as I hoped. Other moms out there, I know you can relate! It wasn’t a bad Friday, it just wasn’t a good Friday. I was just in a bit of a funk. It was time for cookies.

These cookies include a graham cracker crust, topped with delicious cinnamon cookie dough filled with mini marshmallows and chocolate chips, topped off with a Hershey’s candy. They are amazing. They are addicting. I love them. My size 2 shorts do not.

Here’s to hoping Saturday is funk free. And here’s to knowing that even on truly bad days, it only takes a smile from this one to make it all better.

Butterfly Birthday Cake

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When I was pregnant with Lyla, I told my husband that I wanted to make every birthday cake for our children; that I wanted to give them something homemade and hand-crafted and totally original; and not (delicious as they may be) another Dairy Queen ice cream cake, or Prantl’s Burnt Almond Torte.  In retrospect, it was (and remains) an ambitious goal – particularly for a soon-to-be first-time Mom, with little birthday cake experience. Granted, I’ve made plenty of cakes, in a variety of shapes and flavors, from the dark chocolate coconut cake on Adam’s 25th, to the pumpkin sheet cake I made for his 26th.  But I’ve never shaped a cake into a cute little animal or created anything more than a basic swirl design with simple nut, berry or flower garnishes. And while I’ve wanted to take a cake decorating class for a long time now, our busy schedules and various trips/weddings have kept me from doing so. (I’m determined though to sign up for the August classes. It will happen.)

Still, Lyla’s first birthday party, “The Big One,” was set for June 23rd.  So I realized that I was going to have to come up with her first birthday cake all by myself – without the knowledge or know-how from any class. I wanted something cute and girly, but also something manageable that my amateur status could handle. After a little research I presented my husband with a picture (from Parenting Magazine) and told him it would be my inspiration for Lyla’s cake.  He was impressed; but I think he might also have been a little skeptical.

The day before The Big One I did the baking: two, round, 9 inch vanilla cakes. As they cooked, the whole house filled with the smell of vanilla. 40-minutes later, they came out of the oven golden and beautiful. After letting them fully cool, I covered them in foil and put them in the refrigerator; the real fun would start the next day.

Saturday morning, after getting Lyla down for her nap, I set out to create the cake. I took the two cakes and layered one on top of the other (flat sides together) and measured to the center point. From there I cut a diamond shape out of the center with the top point falling exactly in the middle of the cake. I removed the excess cake and then cut the two cakes in half. This is what I had:

I then took one of the cakes and flipped the pieces around so that the outsides of the cakes were touching and the cutouts were facing outwards.

I then made my frosting. A delicious buttercream made from butter, shortening, powdered sugar, vanilla, milk and red food coloring (to create the perfect pink for the birthday girl). I frosted the first layer of the cake, before adding the second layer and frosting the rest.

Next I wanted to outline the cake in dark pink frosting. Having used up all of my frosting already, I whipped up another batch and added a little more red and a splash of blue. Then, I piped the frosting along the outside of the cake.

At this point, the hard part was over! I was most nervous about cutting and shaping the cake and frosting the cut parts of the cake – I didn’t want bits of cake breaking off into the frosting. But luckily everything went well and I didn’t have any big mishaps! At last, it was time to decorate – the easy part!

I added M&M’s, sprees, gum drops and twizzlers to create the design.

To make the red stripes on top of the wings, I rolled out gumdrops and cut them before placing purple sprees on top. As I quickly discovered, the great thing about a butterfly cake is you can make it any color and decorate anyway imaginable. Because, as Adam said, “no two butterflies are alike.” Even though I think he’s confused, and thinking of snowflakes, this very unique butterfly made for the perfect first birthday cake!

As proof, here are some pictures from the party:

Lyla’s high chair all ready for the first taste of cake!

Opening presents!

Lyla is “soooo big!”

The birthday girl is ready for cake!

1 for 1 on birthday cakes.

Yum.

Happy first birthday Lyla Bear! I cannot believe that you are already one year old! Thank you for filling my days with so much joy and showing me the world through your innocent eyes. I am so proud of the little girl you have already become and I love you more than you will ever know. You are the best thing I’ve ever done and I am honored to be your Mommy. Tomorrow’s the real big day, the day my little baby girl becomes a toddler (and gets another slice – or two –of the Butterfly).

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