Friday, December 30, 2011

A Year of Many Blessings

I don't often review a year as it comes to a close but this year, 2011, was so full of memorable moments for me that it seems fitting that I should look back and count my many blessings with thankful remembrance.

These are only the highest of highlights in a year brimming with special memories.

I began the year in an unusual way by painting, exhibiting and selling my first ever acrylic work of art. Despite that encouraging start, I haven't had the inspiration or courage to pick up a paint brush since!

At the beginning of 2011 I got to spend some precious time with my grandsons when they came to visit.

Having all of my kids together at once is the best of all possible joys in any given year.

One of several milestones was the marking of thirty years of marriage to the most loving and loyal man on the planet. I gave my groom his first ever wedding band. (He got to choose between two designs and by his choice revealed how much he has changed in thirty years.) He is working hard at getting used to wearing it.

My little wedding cake business kept me more busy than ever in 2011. I delivered thirty something something wedding cakes (I lost count) and baked a bazillion cookies. With a couple newspaper articles, a photo in a bridal magazine and internet attention, I am ever so grateful for work that I find fun and challenging in these times of corset tightening in the wedding industry.

One of the surreal events of the year was my trip to Oklahoma to hang out at The Lodge with my daughters and grandson. We got to bake some pie, hang out with the Phillips girls, ride some horses and...

...oh yeah, the one and only Ree Drummond was there too. She made me swoon over cheesy bacon grits.  That weekend still has a surreal aura to this day. I watch the Pioneer Woman show on Food Network and feel a certain deja vu every time.

As I approached the mid century mark of my life I managed to accomplish a long held goal. I swam solo across Lost Lake a couple times followed by an early morning Labor Day swim across the Columbia River with 400 other water lovers. I am thankful for the good health that gives me the opportunity to do this. And yes, I'd like to do it again!

After decades of driving station wagons and mini vans with one or more child car seats strapped in the back, I made a mid-life transition to a spiffy little car with no child seat in sight. It's just right for a wedding cake or two and I am having fun driving it.

I spent the whole month of October as well as my milestone 50th birthday waiting with my daughter and her family for this little guy. He was worth the wait. It was the highest privilege to witness his birth and welcome him into the world. Despite that joy I learned what real homesickness feels like as I missed my husband, other family members and home like never before.

Being absent made my heart grow fonder. It's been a great year. I'm looking forward to what the next one may bring.

May you also be so richly blessed with love and family in 2012!  Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Family Music Making

One of my very favorite things in the world to do is to make music with my children. These days I don't get enough opportunities to do so but I know with the little boys just beginning to embark on their music education there will be more in my future. I now understand why my own dad tried so often to get me to play with him when I was at still at home. He didn't have a very big repertoire on the guitar and mine was completely different from his so I found it difficult to play with him. I also hadn't had much of a music education aside from a couple years of piano lessons and wasn't very good at improvisation and jam sessions. He grew up without any music education and expected me to be able to play without one too. But after my kids got involved with orchestras I had the opportunity to play orchestral percussion and I learned so much during my years with them. The learning curve was steep and long but my playing and musical understanding improved greatly.

Several of my kids have had music lessons and opportunities but the two that have stayed with it are Katie and Seth. Both of them took piano lessons but Katie also learned the flute and played in a couple orchestras. She even had the privilege of playing flute in an orchestra in Zurich while she was living in Switzerland. Seth dabbled with the cello while he took violin lessons and eventually took up guitar, mandolin and viola also. He has played with numerous orchestras, participated in a concert tour to Europe and had several solo concert performances on violin. He is currently playing viola with an orchestra in the city. He definitely has the musical talent and ability to play by ear that my dad had wished I had.

Back in 1999, when Seth was nine years old and Katie was sixteen we played Ashoken Farewell together at a church talent show. Seth ended up bringing down the house that day by burning up a few fiddles tunes and winning the first prize.

When I was in Michigan with Katie in October, waiting for a baby, we occupied ourselves by playing music. Jonah hadn't really heard his mommy play flute or his grandma play anything so he at least was mightily impressed. He even put a tip jar on the piano and would add his homemade money to it whenever we played. We also entertained a few Amish visitors who stopped by to use the phone. They don't play or hear instrumental music of any kind in their communities.

My playing is not of the caliber of my kids. My old fingers and slow brain just can't keep up with them but I have fun none the less. I wish my dad were here to participate too. He'd love to see his grandkids keeping the family music-making alive.

If you don't have an aversion to mistakes (mine!) and out of tune pianos, this was the way families enjoyed music before the invention of Ipods and CDs.

Merry (4th day of) Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Making Tradtions in the Kitchen

One of the most special parts of Christmas is the food. Every household in every culture that celebrates this holy day has some unique menu item that adds special memories to the occasion both with its making and its eating.

The main food traditions I remember as a child were special Christmas cookies and homemade fudge. Christmas was the one time we would make rolled and cut cookies in shapes of stars, trees and gingerbread men that were decorated with icing. We would frost the cookies with colored icing and decorate. Many families do this I think but believe it or not, I did not continue that tradition in my house.

When my firstborn was little I looked for a cookie that she could help make and I found one in a Good Housekeeping magazine (my go-to recipe source in the early days!). It was a simple cream cheese dough with chopped walnuts. They were just dropped on a cookie sheet and topped with a chocolate chip (or two or three). So easy for a little toddler to do. We have made those every year because so many years we had little ones around to help. My firstborn now makes these cookies with her little helpers. That's how a tradition is born I guess.  For the first time in our family history we almost didn't have any this year but the kids finally made them the other day while I was out shopping.

There are a couple other things I started making in the early days of our family that have carried through to today. One is our Christmas morning sweet rolls, filled with cream cheese and iced with strawberry jam. The recipe came from Betty Crocker (my second go-to source for recipes. I had no Martha Stewart in those days!) There have been a few years when I tried to make something else for Christmas morning, like Grandma's fruit and nut wreath, and my attempts were met with loud lamentations from the family. They insist on the strawberry cream cheese rolls. That is also how traditions are born.

Another is our smoked salmon spread for our Christmas Eve post church buffet. This is a newer tradition established after we moved to the Northwest. We also always have some kind of wild game (venison, elk or bear) in the form of summer sausage provided by the hunters in our family.

I am really interested in hearing about these special food traditions in other families. If you have a few minutes of time I would love to hear about yours, especially if you don't live in America! I love to learn about the Christmas celebrations in other countries and cultures too. Please share!

Back to the kitchen...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Results of Persistant Maternal Persuasion and lots of practice!

After a year of piano lessons, Samuel and Peter had their very first recital last Sunday. It was held at a local retirement home (assisted living facility) which was much better than having it at a church with only family members attending. The residents of these places always enjoy having contact with children and don't mind that they were all beginning level players.

Samuel did very well despite his nerves.

And Peter surprised me by playing with so much expression!

They will get a chance to play again for an audience when they repeat these pieces at church, Christmas Eve, as part of the preludes and postludes of the service.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Random thoughts in a rare moment of quiet three days before Christmas

Amazing fact of the day: December has been the driest month of 2011 in our part of Oregon. We haven't had rain or snow and it's setting records. December drier than July and August?? Weddings rained out in August?? Crazy man. The employees at the ski resort on the mountain are playing cards and reading books, waiting for the season to start.

So it's three days until Christmas and here's where I'm at:

Done with cookies.....finally!!!

After several late nights and some time addressing envelopes in a doctor's waiting room....the cards are in the mail.

Most, but not all of the shopping is done.

Began the marathon of wrapping. Have miles to go.

Grocery shopping without a list means I brought home more than enough.           I think.  Even if I forgot something, we will eat well and be thankful.

Church is decorated, children's program is practiced, memory work is learned, song rehearsed. All set to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning worshiping and focusing on why we do any of this.

I have absolutely no idea what I am making for Christmas dinner. Gonna wing it!

How about  you?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

An Old Fashioned Birthday Cake

I had a birthday cake order this weekend for a young lady turning 90 years. The friend who was throwing the party said the birthday girl was very specific about the cake that she wanted. She wanted a cake like the one her mother made her when she was a girl (in the 1920's!)

Her mother made her a white coconut cake with buttercream icing and sweetened shredded coconut on the icing.

The only decoration she wanted was purple sugared violets, like her mother made.

I have made sugared blossoms including violets, roses and lilacs, but I told the client that I couldn't get any violets to crystallize for decoration this time of year. She told me to buy them on the internet. Of course, everything is available on the internet. For a price.

I found some and they arrived in time for the party but these babies were $2 a piece with the shipping.

But they were worth the price because these sweet blossoms were absolutely perfect, delicate and fragile, crystallized violas with every detail of a fresh flower. And completely edible!

The cake was large and the flowers were few. I debated about clustering them in the center but they were difficult to arrange since they were perfectly flat and easily broken. I opted for this.

There were a few for the extra gluten free cake. I grouped three in the center and I thought they were sweet.

I hope they had the appropriate nostalgic effect.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cookie Week

It's Cookie Week in the Fleur Cakes kitchen. I'm baking cookies, not for our own festivities, but for gift boxes that are given to clients at Expertec. Yes, they fix cars and trucks there but really, delicious homemade cookies are their thing. So the clients don't get free oil changes at Christmas, they get cookies.

Making cookie gift boxes is a challenge. I have to choose cookies that will package well. That means no soft cookies that will stick together or frosted cookies that need lots of room to keep their neat appearance. I don't include elaborately decorated cookies with royal icing because I want cookies that will be moist and delicious with every bite. Just like wedding cakes. The beautiful royal icing and fondants are lovely to look at but not the most delightful to eat. I choose flavor over fancy.

I give careful thought to the selection of cookies too, trying to give a variety of flavors. This box contains the must-have holiday chocolate and nuts, but also mint, lemon, cranberry, dates, caramel and cream cheese. I try to make cookies that are both nostalgic and uncommon enough that they won't be appearing on every other cookie plate available at the party. This year there isn't as much variety in the shapes of the cookies as I have done in previous years simply because I didn't do any rolled and cut varieties.

The cookie selection is turtle brownies, date pinwheels, chocolate mint snow caps, lemon cream cheese wreaths and cranberry pecan noels.

The cranberry pecan noels have been included every year in these Christmas cookie boxes because it meets all my criteria for flavor, packaging ease and holiday appeal. I thought I'd share with you how I make them.

These are actually a Martha Stewart cookie recipe. I'll let you get the ingredients list at the link. I can always count on Martha to have well-tested recipes that work every time. I find myself tweaking a lot of the recipes too with good results.

The predominant flavor of this cookie is butter so it is vitally important to use the best tasting, quality butter. Of course I say this about everything I bake. Especially pie crust. Cakes too. So when do you not use best quality butter. Um.....never. And please, only real vanilla. Again, the best flavored cookies are made with the best flavored ingredients.

I'm a snob and not ashamed to say it.

Using soft butter and white sugar, beat them until they are fluffy. Walk away from the mixer and fold laundry or something. Come back five minutes later and find sweet fluffy goodness. Beating the butter and sugar to this extent will give your cookies a more tender crumb with the sugar thoroughly dissolved.

Mix in the rest of the ingredients as directed. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a piece of plastic wrap.

Shape the dough into a log and then wrap in the plastic. Continue to roll the plastic-wrapped dough to get all the bumps out for a nice smooth log that will yield nice round cookies.

Each one of these is one recipe. I don't divide the dough as the recipe instructs and don't find it too big to handle. Refrigerate the log for several hours or overnight until firm.

Slicing the log with a serrated knife leaves the cookie with nice color from the cranberries and nuts.

These cookies are so easy! Just lay them out on a cookie sheet to bake.

These are tender and buttery with the holiday flavor and color of cranberry and pecans. They ship well too for your far away gift recipients.

What kind of cookies are you making this year? Any good recipes you can recommend that meet my gift box requirements?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Getting in the Spirit

Do you ever use Groupon? Or Living Social? Or any other internet coupon/discount service? I've gotten a number of deals through these services but the latest one I used was a real gift. I got a great bargain on a night's stay at Skamania Lodge, nestled in the forest, high on a hill, across the river in Washington. There are great views of the Columbia River Gorge from their location.

I've been to the Lodge a number of times- they have some wonderful Christmas concerts- and this year I delivered wedding cakes there, but I have never had an opportunity to stay and enjoy the full range of comforts it offers. The lodge packages were always out of our budget so when the Groupon deal came along last October (while I was separated from my husband by thousands of miles) I jumped on it and bought the offer. We had to use our purchase this month before it expired despite the fact that December is a pretty difficult time to get away from the To Do list at home. It turned out to be well worth the effort.

The Lodge was beautifully adorned for the Christmas season.

My husband and I were tremendously impressed with every aspect of our stay: the atmosphere, the amenities, the service and the attention to detail. We've stayed in a number of places around the Northwest and this get away was by far the best.

The large community living room with the massive fire place and Christmas tree was the most popular spot of all. The comfortable seating and the freely available hot drinks worked to lend a relaxing atmosphere that was hard to resist. There was a library, gift shop and of course restaurants with fantastic menus. The golf course and spa ensure complete vacation opportunities. We thoroughly enjoyed the salt water lap pool and spa pools (four of them were available!) If you are ever in the Northwest, I highly recommend that you stop by the Skamania Lodge. We will definitely go back.

A little treat was a holiday cocktail demonstration. I got to learn how to make a Spanish Coffee and a White Chocolate Martini.

The Lodge was completely booked when we were there. Google was hosting their Christmas party at the lodge. Google has a new facility down the road in Oregon.

 It was wonderful to see that the employees brought their families for the stay. The Lodge was full of babies, toddlers and children. What a special Christmas memory for those young families to stay altogether at this unique place.

We spent our time counting our many blessings and thanking God for every one. This short excursion provided another special memory for our already great year.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gingerbread Christmas

I was thinking that I'd like to make a big fancy gingerbread house this year but as usual I was too busy and uninspired to do more than think about it. So instead I am admiring the efforts of others that I am finding around town.

The boys and I stopped in to the art gallery to check out a few gingerbread entries in a small fund raiser they sponsored.

Each edible art work was made by a child and their helper. This one was created by a former nationally known wedding cake maker whom I admire very much and her little daughter.

It was easy to tell that this gingerbread house maker knew her way around a piping bag.

We loved this one with the peppermint gravel. The little girl, a budding artist, created it with her grandmother, a well known water color artist here.

I really enjoyed the imperfectly strung candy light string on this one and the candy cane porch. I think my boys got some good ideas for the gingerbread project they'll make during their Christmas school break.

This gingerbread scene, complete with a chugging model train, is in the lobby of the Skamania Lodge.

The fun of gingerbread house construction is all in finding creative ways to using all the candy. The licorice strings and rice krispie trees were imaginative.

There are more and more kits available to make these projects as easy as possible. We recently saw a kit with a finished building so that all that had to be done was to stick on the candy. We like to make our houses from scratch, including the paper patterns for the buildings.

I guarantee that when my boys see these photos, they will immediately make plans for adding a train to their project.

Do you make gingerbread houses at Christmas?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Not An Ordinary Birthday Celebration

I had a fun excursion yesterday with two of my sons and their friends. I got to attend my first ever winery tour and wine tasting, courtesy of my son Kris' girlfriend who was treating the group for a birthday gift for Kris.

Oregon has a prestigious wine country in the Willamette Valley, half way between here and the Pacific Ocean. Attention was drawn to it and the celebrated Pinor Noir grapes by the movie Sideways a few years back.

My meager wine collection has improved in quality and quantity ever since Kris started working at one of Portland's most revered restaurants. His interest in fine wine was piqued there and with his employment connections he has been able to get into Oregon wineries for the VIP tours. This time I got to go along because it was his birthday and, well,  I had a little to do with that!

At our first stop, the Andrew Rich winery, we were treated to a tasting by the owner and wine maker himself. He presented his best products.

We also got a brief tour of the production facilities.

Since the harvest this year was very late, as we experienced here with the garden and the orchard harvests, there was still some wine production happening in the warehouse.

It was great to get a peek at the wine in it's early stages.

Normally by December they are wrapping things up in this area. It still remains to be seen if the long cool summer will produce some good wines or not.

Our second winery stop was just next door at the Cana's Feast winery. This was a vineyard with a distinctly Italian style both in the winery's appearance and decor and in the types of wines they produce. It would be lovely to return to this area in the sunny summer for the full Italian effect but this time our visit was on a foggy, cold December day.

In their Cucina we were able to have some delicious antipasti with our libation.

The one bottle that really stood out at this tasting was their experimental vermouth. A rich, spicy wine with a lot of depth of flavor, this aperitif was my only purchase of the day. There are so many cocktail possibilities with this that it will be perfect for holiday celebrations.

At this point I felt we had had a good day and was ready to retire. But we had one more stop on the schedule and it was well worth the time.

At the Soter Vineyards,as soon as we stepped out of the car we were greeted by the sommelier with a glass of their famous bubbly Rose. Impressive!

This tasting was a true VIP experience. We got to try their finest wines in a lush setting.

Though we couldn't view the vast vineyards from the many tall windows, the roaring fire on this foggy day lent its own cozy ambiance.

I had made my son a birthday cheesecake which we broke out and shared by the fire with a few more glasses of the Rose.

We could have easily called it quits and been completely satiated- fat, sassy and happy- but no....there was more!

Dinner! At another prestigious Portland restaurant, clarklewis, a sister restaurant to the one that employs my son.

I've read about and wanted to eat at this restaurant since long before any of my dinner companions had ever tasted their first glass of wine. Since they were babies in other words. Well, not quite. But a long, long time!

So we gilded the lily of our day with some amazing food like Oregon black cod with Italian white beans, manila clams, pork belly, brussels sprouts and truffle oil...

And Garganelli, a pasta dyed with squid ink, served with chanterelle mushrooms, autumn squash, spinach and parmesan.

Are you swooning yet? I was...

Too stuffed to eat another bite, no one ordered dessert but the restaurant got word of the birthday and sent out a final treat- an apple crostata and rice pudding. We'd been digging into each other's plates all evening so sharing dessert was the perfect finish.

It was a special treat to spend this birthday of surprises with my son.

The memories of all the sleepless nights he has caused me are starting to fade...