Friday, January 25, 2013

Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies

Well, here's my "new" cookie recipe for the month of January.  I have the Cook's Illustrated Cookbook and I decided to try their recipe of an old classic.  I have been trying lots of chocolate chip cookie recipes over the years, but realized that I have tried my most trusted cookbook's recipe.  Shame on me!

These cookies were so delicious, that the first batch I made was gone the very first day, something that never happens in my house- for real. So, I made another batch the very next day.  I hope this is an indication to you of how much we all enjoyed them.  The method of making the cookies was different than any other I've made before.  You brown the butter first, so you are going in with completely melted butter, which is something that is normally taboo in a cookie recipe.  Then you do a mix and rest period- not sure exactly what it does, but the cookies turn out soft, gooey, and great!

I did all this by hand, and normally I won't try a recipe I don't think I can use my mixer with.

Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies:

Oven: 375'

1 3/4 c flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
14 TBSP unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
1 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1) Whisk flour and baking soda together in a medium bowl and set aside.

2) Melt 10 TBSP of the butter in a skillet over medium heat.  Cook until butter is browned and has an aroma, about 3 minutes.

3) Transfer browned butter into a large bowl and immediately add the remaining 4 TBSP butter, stir until butter has completely melted.  Add brown sugar, sugar, vanilla, and salt to the melted butter and whisk until incorporated.

4) Add egg and egg yolk to butter mixture and whisk for 30 seconds.  Set bowl aside to rest for 3 minutes.  Then whisk again for 30 seconds.  Let it rest for 3 minutes and whisk for 30 seconds 2 more times.

5) Using a spatula, fold the flour mixture into the wet ingredients.  Mix until combined.  Slowly fold in the chocolate chips.  Drop evenly onto prepared baking sheets (I like to use parchment paper).  Bake 10-14 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through.

Source:  Cook's Illustrated Cookbook

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Organization Before and After: Kids Game Closet

I used to keep my kids games out of their reach at all times.  I did this for three reasons:  so they could not make a huge mess when they did not clean the game up after themselves, that the pieces would not be lost, and that they would not destroy the games.   In Japan, the games were on the top shelf of a closet and were stacked so high, I never felt like getting them down, because it ended up like a game of Tetris trying to get them back up.  In our new house, it started off the same way, but the closet wasn't as big and we had more games- they were everywhere and I just did not like it.
I started thinking about the fact that we did not play the games very often because they were tucked away and that the kids could not decide to play a game on their own because they couldn't reach them.  I realized that in the end, they are kids, they are going to wreck stuff, they are going to lose stuff, and yes, they are going to make messes.  I did not buy the games to look pretty on a shelf or to maintain their value so that I could sell them underpriced at a yard sale.  

For all you parents out there, something to really think about- how many toys/games do your kids have that you limit playing time with because they were really expensive and/or you don't want it destroyed. I ask you this:  "why bother buying it then".  In this case- who are you really buying the toys for?  The kids or you?  Buy things for the right reason- if it's expensive because it's durable, that's great, or because it's made with less chemically, cheap materials- fine- but just because you paid a lot of money for it is not a reason to not let them play.  Make smarter decisions when you buy stuff for them, that's what I've been doing.  I don't buy things I'm going to worry about, and I certainly stopped buying things that I wished I had had when I was a kid, hoping I'd relive some childhood dream.  
I decided I wanted to give my kids access to all the games, but I was stumped on how to do it.  I am not good at rotating stuff, so I did not want to even cross that bridge.  I searched a lot online and did not really find too much.  I ended up flipping through a Better Homes and Gardens Organization magazine last summer and seeing a picture of a shelf with the games placed vertically instead of horizontally.  I was sold!  I set up an IKEA expedit shelf that we already had in our coat closet.  I alphabetized the games and laid them in there.  I had a few that were too wide so I put them up top with the adult games.  There were a few too many, so I placed one  horizontally on top in a few of the compartments.  
On top of the shelf, I placed all the smaller boxed games.  I used a canvas bin to stack them to keep them from falling all over the place.  There is a bowl in front of the canvas bin for all the random pieces we find in the couch or on the floor after a game has been put away.  Every Friday, one of my kids gets the job of putting the pieces back in the appropriate game and making sure the games are all put away neatly.  
I try to enforce a rule of only one game out at a time per kid.  The littlest one is having a hard time with this, but in the end, she still has the responsibility of cleaning up the games she had out and it's easy enough for her to do.  My kids definitely play their games a lot more now and that makes me happy!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Honey Apple Almond Layer Cake

As part of my New Year's Resolutions, I want to continue to get better at food photography.   A friend of mine and I decided to do a food photography challenge to hold each other accountable.  I had seen another blog that did a challenge where they made every recipe out of a food magazine- while it appealed to me, there are just a lot of recipes, I know I couldn't stomach, particularly those involving seafood.  I do want to expand my taste palate, so we are using food magazines as our source, and this month we chose a Honey Apple Almond Layer Cake from the Food Network Magazine.  I'm not usually keen on making cakes from magazines- I like to stick to my favorite cook books (Cook's Illustrated, Baked, Pastry Queen)- so not only was this a completely new flavor of cake, it was a new cake recipe source.

My overall review is that the cake came out pretty good.  I think it was not as sweet as your traditional vanilla or chocolate cake and for those of you looking for something different, give this a try.  My favorite part of the cake was the frosting.  It is almond flavored swiss meringue butter cream- for those of you unfamiliar with swiss meringue butter cream, it is a very fluffy light frosting, that you can pile on  high without feeling disgusting from the sweetness.  However, in this case, the cake was very dense, almost like a pound cake, so if I made the cake again, I would use a thicker frosting, such as a traditional buttercream.  The apple butter layer in the middle was not overwhelming and complimented the cake well.  I feel like the brushed honey could almost be skipped, I'm not sure it made that much of  a flavor difference.  I opted to top the cake with cinnamon red hots, because I just thought it would compliment the apple butter, as opposed to slivered almonds.

The thing that excited me most about this cake was frosting it.  My husband got me a rotating cake stand for Christmas and I am wondering how I lived without it.  It is definitely awesome and any serious cake baker should add it to their wishlist now!

Honey Apple Almond Layer Cake

Oven:  350

2 sticks unsalted butter
2 cups all purpose flour
1 TBSP baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 TBSP vanilla
1 1/4 cup whole milk

4 egg whites
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla
2 sticks unsalted butter (room temp** see note below)

3/4 cup apple butter
3 TBSP honey
2 TBSP water

1) Preheat the oven to 350.  Grease 2 9" cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

2) In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

3) In mixer, beat the butter with the sugar on medium-high until fluffy (~3 minutes).  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Add the eggs one at a time.  Scrape down the sides, then beat in the vanilla.

4) In alternating batches, starting and ending with the flour mixture, add in flour mixture and milk.  Scrape down sides after last flour addition and give one final mix until smooth- do not overmix or cake will be very dense.

5) Evenly divide the batter in the two prepared cake pans.  Bake in oven for 30-35 minutes, rotating halfway through- a cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean.  Let cakes cool for a few minutes, then invert to remove cakes and let cool on baking rack.

6) Once cakes are completely cool, make the frosting.  In heatproof pan (or double boiler) set over a saucepan of simmering water, whisk egg whites and sugar.  Heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture reaches a temperature of 160'.  Remove from heat and pour into bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment.  Beat on medium high until completely cool and stiff white peaks form- will sort of look like marshmallow fluff.  (If you have never made swiss meringue buttercream before, here is a great tutorial/video).  Once it is at this stage, switch to the paddle attachment.  One TBSP at a time, drop in the butter and beat on medium.  Eventually the frosting will thicken like pudding and you will notice a different sound of it slapping against the paddle.  After you have added all the butter, scrape down the sides and beat in the almond extract and vanilla.
**If you run into a problem where the frosting is too runny or looks curdled because you did not use room temp butter - like I did- go here to find out how to save your frosting- it saved mine!

7) To assemble the cake, use a bread knife and level off the bottom layer- place it on a plate or cake stand.  Heat the honey and water in a saucepan until simmering.  Brush half of the honey mixture onto the bottom cake layer.  Drop the 3/4 cup of apple butter onto this layer, and spread out to about 1/2" from the edges.  Place the top layer of the cake on.  Brush the remaining honey onto the top layer.  Frost the cake, starting the the sides.  Set some frosting aside for decorative edges, if you want.

Source:  Adapted from Food Network Magazine, Jan/Feb 2013
Enjoy the cake!  If you make it, let me know if you liked it or not.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Workout motivation for moms (and everyone else too)

So, you'll be noticing more stuff on here about exercising and staying fit.  It's a big part of my life and I realized I don't share nearly enough about it.  I remember starting to feel competitive in Junior High when I did not want to lose in an obstacle course- I was running so fast, I tripped over my shoe lace and dove under a hurdle instead of jumping over it.  Since then, I've always loved running and haven't stopped since.

As a mom, I over hear a lot of excuses from other mom's talking while I'm waiting at school, the doctor, dentist, gymnastics, etc of why they don't exercise or can't lose their babyfat (10+ years later).  I've been in many many situations and I have managed to stay fit through it all.  I'm going to try to touch on some of my favorite or most common excuses and tell you how I got around them.

1) "I don't have the time."  There is always time to exercise.  No matter what, you can exercise anywhere, anytime.  Got kids?  Take them to the park, use the swing- pumping works abs and legs.  Get on the monkey bars- works your arms.  Run around and play tag- when's the last time you played an outdoor game?  Got to make dinner?  Don't use your mixer, do it by hand, you'd be amazed at the bicep workout you can get by hand mixing, it's good for your grip strength too.  Make a loaf of bread and knead it by hand- OMG, ten minutes of kneading bagel dough and you're already building those arms up!  Put away your food processor and chop veggies with a knife and cutting board- it's all in your arms.  Deadlift your laundry and carry it up and down the stairs- or even your kids for that matter.
GET UP EARLY!  I have become accustomed to getting up at least an hour before my kids and that's when I get my workout in.  It's a great way to start the day!

2) "My husband travels and I don't have anyone to watch the kids."  Welcome to my world baby!  My husband routinely travels out of the country for a week or two at a time and guess what?  I still exercise!  I live far away from family and I've moved so much, I'm constantly having to make new friends before I find people to help out with the kids.

Here's what I've done:
a) Join a gym with childcare- my kids weren't too keen as littles to go to child care, so I often took the bigger ones and left the baby home with my husband.  If he was travelling, I'd go outside and run.

b)I got two baby joggers, a double, then a triple.  Yes, I ran with three kids in the stroller, want to talk about a way to burn some steam?

c) I got myself some exercise videos that I enjoyed and knew I'd routinely do.  I got Power Yoga and Insanity- I do these often and they require no equipment, so they are easy to do from the living room.  When I lived in Japan, it was too expensive to join a gym, and there was no childcare at the gym anyways, (did I mention my husband was working 14 hour days, so all my exercise for those 5 years was done at home, with kids, or early morning before the sun came up).  Instead of paying for a gym membership, I used the money to buy different workout dvd's to see which one I liked.  The price of a video wasn't that much and was still cheaper than a monthly gym membership.  A DVD isn't necessarily preferrable, especially when you're working out alone, but hey, gotta get that workout in!
d) Taught my kids to ride bikes at a young age, now when my husband's travelling, they can ride their bikes alongside me while I run.

e) Joined a crossfit gym that doesn't have childcare, but doesn't mind if I bring in well behaved kids (and yes, I will bribe them to behave because a happy, destressed mom is much more fun to be around than a grumpy stressed out one).

3) "I had a c-section so I can't exercise."- I had 5 c-sections!  I took about a week off, then just started walking.  Almost every mother known to mankind has a stroller.  Put your baby in it and go.  Bad weather?- I'd head to the mall.  I walked almost everyday, starting with a half mile per day, after I had my kids.  I healed faster and fit back into my clothes in record time.  Recommended break from heavy activity for a c-section is 12 weeks.  I did not run or lift weights for those 12 weeks, just walked, and by the time I was ready to do normal activity again, it was not hard to get back in my routine.  I also did yoga about 3 times a week- actually prenatal yoga, I still do it now, just turn the volume down so you don't have to hear her talk about the baby in your stomach- lol.

4) "I'm pregnant so I can't do anything."- Again, been pregnant 5 times and exercised throughout all of them- not hardcore, just walking and weight lifting.  I ran for about 6 months in my first pregnancy, but I kept having to go to the bathroom, and it got annoying, so I stopped.  The weight lifting was light weights, but I kept it up all the way to the end of my first three pregnancies, with c-sections, it helped tremendously post baby, because without your stomach muscles, you've got to rely a lot on arms and back.  I did prenatal yoga three times per week, it was so relaxing and it did help strengthen my muscles.  You have to be strong, especially if you have other kids to take care of.
5) "I haven't exercised in so long, I don't think I can do it."  For each of my pregnancies, I took 12 weeks off running and lifting.  For the last four pregnancies, I stopped running for the entire time, so that's almost a year of no running and half a year of no lifting.  Each time, it took me a couple months to get back to the shape I was in, but I did it.  I am actually running faster now than I was before I had kids.  I am smarter about it, more efficient (due to less time), and more appreciative (I have the ability and I need to use it while I can).  I'm more determined too- I'm 36, and I've maintained similar race times and gotten higher weights up now than when I was 19- I pride in the fact that I can do that, and I drive myself hard to maintain the standards I've set for myself. I quit gymnastics when I was 4 or 5 because my teacher was mean- I've always wanted to do it... I'm doing it now.
6) "I'm not motivated."  Find someone or something to motivate yourself.  Do you want to fit back into a pair of jeans, do you want to do something you never thought possible?  Find someone to hold you accountable to help motivate you.  I joined a running group in NC when I lived there.  My friends were constantly pushing me to run faster and I was motivated to run because I didn't want to let them down.  In Japan, I was motivated because there was a rumor that all the men lost weight while living there and the wives gained because they had nothing better to do than go out to lunch all the time.  I was motivated to not fall into that trap, to be who I always was and I did.  Now, I joined the Y when I moved, and the bootcamp instructors, one in particular, were phenomenal at pushing me to my limits.  I wanted to go back everyday because I wanted to do better the next time.  I joined crossfit and I thought I was a good athlete, but there were so many things that I was not good at, and I am getting better everyday.  I am motivated to go back to try new challenges and to see how accomplished I have become.  I am motivated by my kids who see me accomplish things and now they want to do it too.  I am proud that my kids asked me to buy them jump ropes and that my son was sad he had to miss crossfit because he wanted to use the rower.  Whatever it takes, find something to motivate yourself.
7) "I'm scared I'll be the worst or slowest one."  We have all started out somewhere and all had to walk through that door for the first time.  Find a place that makes you feel welcome when you walk in.  You will know by the smiling face that greets you that you've found the right place.  You will start to make friends, and they will help hold you accountable.  Some days at crossfit, I finish in the middle, somedays I beat certain people, and somedays they beat me- but what I know is, I'm using proper form, I'm giving it my all, and I'm getting stronger everyday.

8) "I'm injured, so I can't workout."  Modifications baby!  The worst thing you can do is nothing.  If your arm hurts, use your legs and vice versa.

I know I've forgotten some, so if you have an excuse and you need a reason, let me know, I'll come up with something.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Limiting my kids' Video Game Time

Something that I have struggled with a lot over the past three years is how to control the amount of time my kids get to play video games.  It all started with a Wii, then we got Nintendo DS' for travelling back and forth internationally (must have), then a Playstation so dad could have his favorite Katamari game, Santa brought an XBox 360 last year, hoping the Kinect would help the kids move around and burn energy on the days when it was too cold to play outside, and finally through a bet from dad and a birthday gift, two Kindle fires emerged.  We are chock full of video games (oh, and I forgot the iphone and iPads too).  While they can be great and beneficial for learning purposes and keeping kids tech saavy, they are also a deterant and a large problem.

Video games have caused fights, yelling, tantrums, and just general frustration in our house.  The games that are co-op, where you can have more than one person playing simultaneously can be a mother's worst nightmare, if the kids don't like losing or don't understand that they are playing with each other.  These games have emanated the biggest problems in my house and I have had to forbid my kids from playing them when friends are over and sometimes with each other.  Any peace and quiet I might gain from a little game time for them is so not worth the screaming and fighting that more often than not results.

The worst part about the video games is getting kids to turn them off.  The first rule I ever set and learned very quickly was always have a time limit and SET A TIMER.  If they do not turn it off by the time the timer finishes dinging, they don't play the next day.

I feel like video games are fun and enjoyable, but so are board games and outdoor physical games- do all of your kids know how to play "mother may I" and "red rover"?   The next rule I set for video games was a total time limit per day for any screen time (including TV).  During the school week, time was limited to 1 hour and the weekend 1 1/2 hours.  With five kids, it was hard for me to keep track of and follow through with the time limit.  The biggest thing was they all wanted to play different games.  So, when one was playing, the others were watching and their screen time was effectively tripling.  It was so much work to keep them from watching each other that I knew this system couldn't last.  The other thing that was frustrating was their assumption that they were allowed that time no matter what and that they deserved it.  Sometimes, at 9PM, an argument would break out between one of the kids and I because they didn't get to play "their time".  I was so sick of hearing about "their time", something had to change.

Finally, about a month ago, I discovered I could use this desire of my kids to play video games to my advantage.  Not only would I give them a time limit for playing, but they would have to earn it each and every day!  I haven't had time to make a chart, but I give them lists of chores to do around the house and each chore ranges from 5-10 minutes of playing time, depending on the difficulty of the chore.  They are only allowed to earn up to the maximum and I have the right to say that there is only time for 30 minutes of play, so you can only earn 30 minutes.  Let's just say I haven't had to take out the recycling, bring down the laundry, or vacuum much lately.  I'm kind of liking this now.
There is still a rule that if you are watching someone play, it counts towards your time, and you have to finish at the timer or you lose the next day.  I actually overheard my oldest say to my second son that he couldn't watch him play or it would count against him, so he left the room to read a book.   I know this isn't an end all be all solution and there will be days when I let them play longer (special occasions).  I thought I'd share this because I often hear other parents asking how to limit video game/screen time.  It's funny how when we first got the devices, we thought we were the coolest parents and what a great gift we were giving our kids and now we ask ourselves "what were we thinking".

I don't want to rely on the video games to relieve me from having to play with them, to replace human contact, to take away learning patience- what kid has to sit still quietly in a waiting room without a device in their hands now a days (or adult for that matter), to stop physical play, or to build a barrier in my relationship with my kids because I am the one having to take them away.  I hope that my reward system teaches them the value of doing hard work and how to handle time management.

How do you handle video game time?

Friday, January 4, 2013

My 2013 Resolutions

This blog means a lot to me.  It makes me feel a part of something and makes me feel special on the days when I do nothing but break up fights and clean up mess after mess.  I've neglected it a lot last year (but I do have a great excuse, 5 kids and I homeschool one of them).  There were so many things I did/made last year that I wanted to share but never found the time to take good photos, or I got the photos and I never made the time to sit and write the post.  This blog blossomed me into who I am today, it sparked my love of photography, which this year, I started my own photography business:  Liz Carlson Photography.  It pushed me to try new things with my cooking and explore new blogs and cookbooks.  I have done amazing crafts with my kids that I never even would of thought to look for.  So, I am sorry I have neglected this blog because it has helped make me who I am today.  That being said, my number one resolution this year is to get 12 posts a month on this blog, that is 3 posts per week and I know I'm capable of it.  Expect to see lots of new and exciting things.

In the kitchen:
Try one new cookie recipe per month
Try one new dinner recipe per week
Make macaroons
Make the pasta sauce I never made last year

Get level 1 certified to coach crossfit
Do all the named crossfit workouts
Run a 5K in 19:30 or faster
Perfect my pull ups
Be able to do a free standing hand stand
Help my friend qualify for the Boston Marathon
Do all my crossfit workouts with the prescribed weight
Do all the named crossfit workouts
Help make people feel awesome about themselves

Stop buying clothes for myself and my kids (this is something that has been on my mind for a while now.  Last year, I started saving my receipts each month, then totalling up in categories what I was spending my money on.  It is shocking to see how much many you end up spending on little things, it just starts adding up!  I have so many clothes and so do my kids, so I figured it's an easy thing to start with.  I got rid of sooo much stuff last year, and we have so much more, it's ridiculous.  I can sew and I have a lot of fabric, so I can make stuff if they need it.  The only things I will allow myself to buy if the need arises are socks, underwear, coats, and shoes- and athletic shorts for my oldest. I was inspired to start tracking my spending when I saw a girl on the Nate Berkus show who paid off 26,000 in debt in one year by cutting all unnecessary spending, her blog is And Then We Saved.  Then I was even more inspired by a girl at my crossfit gym who just completed her one year of not buying clothes for herself.  Wish me luck!)

Go out with my kids to play everyday!
Teach my kids how to play all the outdoor games I used to play all the time
Play board games with my kids 3 times a week or more
Take my kids to a museum or fun new place once a month
Do a one on one time with each kid once a month
Go out with my husband once a month, no kids
Give the kids experiences and fun outings for their birthdays instead of toys (besides Christmas, I am buying no toys this year- if my kids get toys it will be from a friend or family member)

Catch up on my 52 week challenge
Take a photo of my kids every week
Do more food photography
Take another online editing course
Teach someone else how to use their digital camera

Finish all the projects I started last year
Repurpose the bag of old clothes into useable clothes for the girls
Make the girls quilts (finally!)

Finish the six books I started last year!
WRite more handwritten letters to friends and family
Learn to say no
Send birthday cards to everyone!
Make people feel special
Do random acts of kindness more often

Last year was the first time I had ever written and also publicly expressed my resolutions.  I accomplished about 85% of them because I felt somewhat accountable.  That is why I am doing it again.  I never want to say I'm bored or be worried that I have nothing to do.  I want to live my life to the fullest.  I hope you are inspired to write down some goals and start living your life more fully!