Friday, June 7, 2019

Mrs. France's "Oh My French Silk Pie!"

  My boys have had some fabulous teachers throughout their elementary school experience, but Mrs. France really takes the cake (or pie, rather)! Our family has been lucky enough to enjoy her beautifully nurturing third grade classroom twice now - once, two years ago with my oldest son, Wilson, and again, this year with my middle kiddo, Henry.

  Mrs. France does a better job than anyone I have ever seen at nurturing all of the children in her care. And between you and me, I'm sure we can all agree, that some children are just more difficult to love than others. But, Mrs. France genuinely expresses sincere love to each and every child in Room 8 - regardless of their academic performance or behavior. There is not a student in her classroom that goes home feeling unloved at the end of the school day, as evidenced by a long line of third (and fourth and fifth) graders waiting for a goodbye hug long after the last bell has rung.
  
  Mrs. France is the master at finding something special to celebrate about each child. For example, when my oldest was in third grade and was first introduced to the concept of rounding numbers, he developed a strategy that Mrs. France named Mount Wilson. To my understanding, Mount Wilson is still taught in her class - much to the delight of my firstborn.
  Mrs. France also encouraged Wilson to bring his "I have a dream" speech to life by providing an opportunity for him to present his dream for a Buddy Bench to both student council and the school principal. With her support and cheerleading, he successfully built and installed a bench to facilitate friendships among lonely students on his elementary school campus - a legacy that will continue long after he heads off to middle school next fall. 
  So, when my second kiddo, Henry, entered third grade last August, he couldn't wait to impress Mrs. France with his own set of talents. Henry is my little perfectionist and always puts extra energy into making all of his schoolwork neat and accurate. His effort did not go unnoticed by Mrs. France, who coined the term "Oh my Henry!" He is always delighted when she recognizes his effort in class or on his homework with this personalized expression.
  But, Henry is really a shining star when it comes to math. This school year, Henry flew through all of the third grade addition, subtraction, and multiplication timed tests...and even completed all of the fourth grade timed tests Mrs. France made available to him! I couldn't have been more proud when he eagerly shared the long rows of stars next to his name on the math charts in the back of the classroom.
"Dear my favorite teacher, Mrs. France,
  
  You are an awesome teacher! Ever since my brother was in your class, I couldn’t wait to have you as a teacher.

  In the first place, you make learning so much fun! I love that you do timed tests, let us read in the comfy pink chair, and teach us cursive (because most teachers don't anymore).

  Equally important, you are a very welcoming teacher. At the end of everyday, you give us a big hug and say, ”See you tomorrow” or “Have a great evening.” If one of us says that we have a stomachache or is sad and and crying, you tell us that we can sit outside, lay on our desk, or get a drink of water.

  Mostly, you’re a great teacher because you do cool things with our class. You reward us with treats, you have the best class jobs like President and Vice President, and you let us play on chrome books. If we miss a recess because our class was late, you give us a bonus recess. Plus, if it’s our birthday, you give us a bag with candy, a pencil, and a homework pass, our class sings to us, and you let us pick what timed test we want to do.

  You are truly the best teacher ever! I'm so glad that you got to be my teacher this year.

Love,
Henry"


  If there is one thing I have come to learn about Mrs. France, it is that she loves (and loves to share) a treat. Daily, she generously doles out handfuls of M&M's and Jolly Ranchers to her students as rewards for a job well done. She even provides a little bowl of chocolate goodies for her parent helpers to partake in. So for Mrs. France's pie, it seemed only natural to bake a sweet, chocolate classic - French Silk Pie. Or more specifically, Mrs. France's "Oh My French Silk Pie!"
  Seeing as how this is the very first pie Henry has ever led the charge in baking, I was eager to show him the pastry ropes. He was a natural at measuring, mixing, rolling, and crimping the ingredients for our traditional pie crust.

  While the crust baked, Henry melted bittersweet chocolate over a double boiler. As the melted chocolate cooled to room temperature, we creamed butter and powdered sugar using my all time favorite appliance - my pink KitchenAid stand mixer. To the filling, we added the melted chocolate, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt. 

  Then for the magic ingredient that really makes a french silk pie smooth and luxurious - eggs, fresh from the coop. We added four, whisking for a full five minutes after the addition of each egg. (As it turns out, the patience required for this task is very trying for a nine year old boy.)

  But, once we had piled high the fluffy, chocolate filling into the pie shell, it was time for Henry's favorite part - the whipped cream! He opted to give the entire pie a hefty layer of whipped cream clouds before meticulously arranging our best attempt at chocolate curls. And there you have it - Mrs. France's "Oh My French Silk Pie!"
  Third grade is such a magical year full of wonderful memory making experiences - learning cursive, stuffed animal journals, holiday celebrations, special classroom jobs, and last but not least, Pioneer Days. Although each of my sons have their own, distinctive learning styles, they have both had incredible third grade years under the guidance of Mrs. France. As we once again make our way to the fourth grade corridor next fall, we will miss the warmth and love that Room 8 holds. Although you can be sure, Henry (and I) will be waiting outside Mrs. France's classroom door for a hug right after the last bell.
"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt." - Charles M. Schulz

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Mrs. Mayforth's Banana "Cream of the Crop" Pie


  Sometimes I swear my firstborn came into the world a middle aged man. Even as a toddler, Wilson had a deep, commanding voice. So deep, in fact, that my cousin joked that he reminded him of the disclaimer voiceover at the end of prescription medication commercials. As a young elementary schooler, Wilson couldn't be bothered with sports, preferring creative art and culinary extracurriculars to the soccer and t-ball leagues of his classmates. And now, as a fifth grader reading at an eleventh grade level, he spends his afternoons devouring literary classics and planning the opening of his own fine dining restaurant, leaving little to no room for the beloved Fortnite of his peers. All this to say, Wilson has marched to the beat of his own drummer his entire life. Helping my old soul find his voice among those (often louder voices) of his peers, especially as we near the teenage years, has been my primary priority as his mother.

  So, I wasn't necessarily surprised when Wilson decided to join choir last school year. Several of his close friends (mostly girls, I'll grant you) planned to join. And frankly, I was happy he was showing interest in an activity that might provide additional social opportunities. But, as his first spring recital approached, I was absolutely taken aback when he said he planned to audition for a solo! Singing before a judge, while attempting to stand out in a field of up to thirty other hopeful students is exactly the kind of thing I would have shied away from as a child - and honestly, even still. But, Wilson practiced and practiced and earned his first solo in Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" (coincidentally, the first cassette tape I ever owned). He was so proud to sing for friends and family - second only to how proud I was of him.
  Well, he was hooked! And once a new school year began, Wilson again auditioned and received his second solo in the hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing." All the while, Will and I were beginning to acknowledge that Wilson might actually have a genuine gift when it came to singing.

  And then came the third opportunity to audition - for a solo at this year's spring recital in the opening lines of "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman. Having never heard the song (or seen the movie), I was moved almost to the point of tears as I listened to Wilson beautifully sing the heartbreaking opening,


"I am not a stranger to the dark.
Hide away, they say
'Cause we don't want your broken parts.
I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars.
Run away, they say
No one'll love you as you are."

  To say I had goosebumps would be an understatement. For my child who has at times struggled to be fully accepted as he is, the anti-bullying anthem was absolute perfection. And so, he auditioned...with me knowing full well that there was a slim chance he would be given a third solo opportunity. Surely, Mrs. Mayforth, the school's choir director, needed to spread the wealth. Yet, as I watched him read his name on the list posted in the window of the school office the following afternoon, I knew he had indeed earned it.

"Dear Mrs. Mayforth,


  Over the past two years, you have really helped me become more confident in myself and my voice. In the beginning of choir, I never thought I would become a good singer. Honestly, I only went to choir so I could see my friends more. But I now realize that if I could go back in time, I would go to choir to learn to improve my voice.

  You have also given me an opportunity to believe in myself with the solos you have given me. Each time I sing a solo, I think I get better than the last time and I have you to thank for that. The first time I ever got a solo, I felt that I had just become a new person. You have given me confidence in myself and now I have a whole new you-can-do-it-Wilson attitude. Because of you, I do not only have this attitude in choir, but anywhere where I think I can’t do something at first.

  This will not be the end of my singing - I promise. I will continue to sing and grow my voice as I get older. But I will never forget my first, and definitely best, choir teacher. I will be very sad to say goodbye to you. You have been an amazing choir director! This is why my mother and I have made this pie for you – Mrs. Mayforth’s Banana “Cream of the Crop” Pie. I hope you like it.

Thanks for everything,

Wilson"

  This time around, I got to play sous chef to my culinary star in the making. I supervised as Wilson made (and generously sampled the ingredients for) his Nilla wafer crust, pulsing the vanilla cookies to a crumb and adding melted butter to combine. He then pushed the crumble into and up the sides of a pie tin, using the bottom of a juice glass, and placed it in the oven to bake.

  While the crust cooled, Wilson and I began on the pastry cream filling. Wilson first measured sugar and flour and whisked fresh egg yolks straight from the coop to combine into a paste. He then heated whole milk until nearly boiling, before handing the hot liquid off to me to temper the egg mixture. Finally, Wilson returned the custard to the heat to cook until thickened, before adding vanilla extract and butter.

  Then, it was time to assemble the pie. Wilson cut and arranged banana slices in concentric circles before layering pastry cream, Nilla wafers, and the final pudding-banana-pudding sequence. The entire pie received a generous piping of homemade whipped cream rosettes, studded with a mini Nilla wafer "crimping." And there you have it - Mrs. Mayforth's Banana "Cream of the Crop" Pie.
  My husband and I have always made it a point to fill our home with music. And although neither of us are particularly gifted singers, we regularly and enthusiastically "make a joyful noise." But, Wilson's voice is something special. 

  Weekly, for the past two years, Mrs. Mayforth has poured love and acceptance into Wilson and helped him to find confidence in who he is and what he stands for - literally and figuratively, his "voice." She has provided him the priceless opportunity to sing along in life as he continues to march to his own beat.

  Teachers who take the time to go above and beyond and teach to the soul inside of each student - to show them that their voice is powerful and that they can indeed be loved exactly as they are - are a rare blessing. Mrs. Mayforth, you truly are the cream of the crop!
"I think she sounds like how banana cream pie sounds when it sings." - Heather Morris as Brittany Pierce in Glee

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Barb and Keith's Slice of Heaven Pie

  I have to admit, when I first met Keith, he didn't immediately win me over. In fact, I have a rather distinct memory of carrying my then one-year-old son, accompanied by my recently widowed mother, into our backyard to check on the guys' fence-building progress, only to hear an expletive shouted from the direction of their current project. That introduction - in combination with the fact that Keith was a recently divorced bachelor who appeared to spend, perhaps, a bit more time in the gym than I did - led me to suspect that he and I may not have had that much in common. However, I have learned over the years that my husband is typically a better judge of character than I, and I knew he recognized something special in Keith.

  Then along came Barb. Instantly, I loved Barb. She was warm and nurturing and smoothed out all of Keith's rough edges. Basically, she was a bit of everything Keith was not...and a lot of everything he needed. (Although, as in all good relationships, I'm sure the converse could be said, as well.)

  Over their years together, Keith and Barb have become good friends of ours, albeit friends that typically seem to be gifting us in one way or another. They have generously purchased a yearly Costco membership for our family, gifted us a brand new foodsaver, and aided in the completion of several home projects (whether through the lending of tools or labor). And while Will and I are not particularly good at accepting charity, we have grown to appreciate their abundant generosity as the demonstration of their gift-giving love language. 

  Barb and Keith are living my dream, with a beautiful second home in my favorite beachside town - Capitola, California. Will and I have visited Capitola nearly every summer since being married 13 years ago. Breathing in the salty ocean air while combing the beach for shells to the soundtrack of waves tickling the shore is literally my happy place.
  Well, as luck would have it, my birthday this year fell on Thanksgiving. And there is that little bit about it not just being any birthday, but my 40th birthday. So much for an all out celebration when there is turkey to be had and family to visit, right? Except that...well...family has been complicated this year. In vague terms, there has been some heartache in our extended family that has made the idea of sitting down all together and giving thanks complicated. To the point that I told Will all I really wanted this year was to not have to do the traditional Thanksgiving Day rigmarole. 

  Enter Keith and Barb. When Will came home from work one afternoon in early October and mentioned something along the lines of, "Keith and Barb would like to offer us their home in Capitola for your birthday," it took me all of 3.2 seconds to respond with a resounding "Yes!" After all, what is there to be more thankful for than an impromptu family vacation to your very favorite location? I was all in!

  So, after celebrating an early Thanksgiving dinner with my sister's family, complete with my very favorites - potato casserole and a family dance party - we were free to celebrate me. That is, we could begin our stay at Keith and Barb's just as soon as we vacuum sealed the leftover turkey breast we had bought at Costco (using the membership purchased for us by Barb and Keith) with the foodsaver (also gifted to us by Barb and Keith). Hang on...I'm beginning to see a pattern here...

  Barb and Keith's home away from home could not have been more welcoming. They literally had every amenity our little family of five could possibly need, down to a very thoughtful make-your-own sundae bar, with all the fixings. That first night, the kids were in heaven and went to bed snuggled in their sleeping bags, three beds in a row, with full hearts and bellies.
  Although it rained two of our three day stay, Capitola and its salty ocean air was exactly the nurturing that my soul, teetering on the cusp of a new decade, needed. And when the weather kept us tucked inside, the kiddos enjoyed Jenga, Disney Jr., and curling up with a stack of library books. 
  Thankfully, we lucked out with clear blue skies on my actual day, affording us a beautiful, almost warm Thanksgiving morning spent on a nearly empty beach. Jumping in the waves, hand in hand with my two boys (who are just on the brink of being too cool to enjoy such things with their mother) and watching my three year old daughter dig her toes into the sand to admire her footprints, was the perfect way to usher in a newer, older me. 
  After a brief drive through town to see what, if any, restaurants were open for Thanksgiving dinner, we landed at a wonderful little Thai restuarant and celebrated forty years with chicken yellow curry and prawn pad thai. It was truly perfect.
  And what would a visit to the beach be without a stop at Marianne's Ice Cream - a Santa Cruz institution since 1947? This year, I opted for Marianne's "Heaven" flavor - a vanilla ice cream with chocolate swirl, peanut butter swirl, and brownies. As I dug my spoon down into that first peanut butter ripple, I realized I was, in fact, in heaven. Celebrating life in my happy place with my favorite people, thanks to Barb and Keith sharing their little slice of heaven with us. And a pie was born - Barb and Keith's Slice of Heaven Pie.
  I began with my favorite, flakey pie crust (using a combination of butter and shortening) as a base, before filling the shell with a generous helping of fudgy, made-from-scratch brownies. Once the brownie layer had baked and cooled, I slathered the top with a gooey blanket of peanut butter ganache. Next, a layer of vanilla pudding (reminiscent of Marianne's vanilla ice cream) served as a canvas for homemade peanut butter nuggets and a slathering of chocolate ganache. Finally, a piping of peanut butter buttercream was the cherry on top (not literally...although that would be delicious)
  In my forty years on this planet, I have learned many important life lessons. First impressions are often wrong. It is always best to say thank you when given a gift (no matter how much you think you don't deserve it). And when you are lucky enough to find your own little slice of heaven, it is better shared.
"The expression 'pie in the sky' refers to a dessert so sweet, it could only be found in Heaven." — Pushing Daisies



Saturday, August 11, 2018

June's "It Looks Just Like a Birthday Pie"

I have always dreamt of having a daughter. A couple, in fact. The baby dolls, the tea parties, the ballet - it all just seemed so magical. But, after welcoming two amazing boys into our family early in our marriage, life as a boymom was totally my comfort zone.

So, nearly six years into the boymom gig, when the ultrasound technician informed us our third child would be a girl, I admit, I began to freak out just a bit. All of the girly things I thought I was ill-prepared for came rushing in, demanding my immediate attention. After all, I hadn't the slightest idea how to do girl hair. I mean, I could barely braid, much less French braid. I hadn't watched a Disney princess movie since my teenage years. And our house, up until that very moment, contained not a drop of pink. Could I really learn everything all those other girlmom's already knew in time for her arrival?

But, the instant I saw my sweet little June, none of that mattered. Her chubby cheeks and tiny, curled fists stole my heart. At that moment, my life was full. I had my baby girl.
As it turns out, life with a daughter has not been all that different than life with sons. Sure, it's way more fun (and also, more expensive) to dress her up. But so much of life with June is just because of who she is at her core. June is patient. She is nurturing - with her babies and with her real life family members. She is joyful - constantly singing and dancing. She is giving. Yet, she is also independent and is not easily swayed. God made her uniquely June.
My relationship with my own mother is complicated, as I'm sure many mother-daughter relationships are. And honestly, having a daughter gave me pause because I know firsthand just how difficult that relationship can be. But I'm choosing to view life with my sweet Junie as an opportunity to mend some of those hurts and mother her (as I attempt to do with all of my children) with a specific appreciation for the unique personality God has blessed her with.
Dear June,

Between you and me, I had always envisioned myself with a daughter. Since long before I met your Daddy, I dreamed of all things pink. But, after nearly six years raising your older brothers, I began to feel it just wasn't in the cards. Many times in my first five years as a Mommy, I remember feeling that living with three boys, while absolutely wonderful, could also be a bit isolating. So many times I prayed for you - or, rather, the possibility of you. And then God gave me a vision - a real life vision of a sweet little girl playing on the floor in her pink bedroom with long blond pigtails. And I dared to believe that you might be out there waiting for me, too.

You came into this world assertive and on your own terms - five days overdue and then in a sudden and intense rush to meet us 20 minutes after arriving at the hospital. Your welcome to the world was dramatic and scary and painful (and - my apologies - with a bit more yelling than my previous births). But the moment your Daddy text me the first picture of your sweet little face from down the hall where you were being poked and prodded and tended to, it was pure, unconditional love. The moment I set eyes on you, I knew you were exactly who our family needed.
One on one time is not usually something afforded third children. But, those two weeks spent together in the hospital when you were so very sick cemented a bond between the two of us. As we spent every waking (and sleeping) minute together, I grew to know you much quicker than I did your brothers. In many ways, there is a part of me that is grateful for that October. Our souls know each other so much more intimately because of it.

You have taught me immeasurably more than I would have thought any three year old could. You encourage me to literally stop and smell the flowers on every walk. You have convinced me that three (or four, or five) kisses before bed are certainly better than one. I love your "whobody's"- as in "Whobody wants to play with me?", the way you say wooden for other ("Where is my wooden shoe?"), and your constant use of the phrase "no matter." I love that you have your Papa's dimple, even though you never met him this side of Heaven. I love our slow mornings together spent playing tea party and sleepover and play doh. I love the way you fit just so in my lap while we snuggle together to read a huge stack of picture books or watch Daniel Tiger curled up on my bed. I love the gentle way you care for your babies, grinning as I watch you wear them in your doll carrier, just I as carried you for the first couple years of your life.
I look back on all the years we assumed our family of four was complete, never imagining how incomplete we really were. You bring grace, caring, and calm into our boisterous little family. And while you will most likely be my final baby, for the first time ever that feels ok. Because you complete us, Junebug.
I look forward to watching you grow into a "big girl" this next year, but I also dream of our future together as mother and daughter. Of teaching you to bake, helping you get ready for your first school dance, going wedding dress shopping, and someday watching you raise a daughter of your own. I am so proud of you and am immeasurably blessed to be your Mommy.

Happy third birthday, June.

Love, Mommy

Since her birth, I have sung the same lullaby to Junie every night before bed - "Moon, Moon, Moon" by Laurie Berkner. The chorus goes


"Look up, it's the moon
Look up, it's the moon
Look up, it's the moon up in the sky
It's big and round and I have found
That it looks just like a pizza pie"

Just to keep things fresh and exciting, every evening as we wind down and snuggle up together in her yellow chair, I change up the flavor of pie in the song. Sometimes it's a lemon pie...during the holidays, it's a pumpkin pie...often it's a Junie pie. And for June's third birthday, it's none other than a birthday pie.

For our sweetie pie's third birthday party, we chose to celebrate at June's Pie Shoppe and Bakery. Her four very best toddler friends and close family crafted and baked, ate far too many sweets, and celebrated with everything pie. But the star of the show was the confetti birthday pie, festively adorned in sprinkles - June's "It Looks Just Like a Birthday Pie."

June's pie began using my traditional crust recipe with a very special birthday twist. In a large bowl, I combined flour, salt, shortening, butter and ice cold water by hand before mixing in a heavy handful of celebratory rainbow sprinkles. The dough looked so lovely when rolled that I'm tempted to say sprinkles just may make it into my crust recipe from now on. 
I then transferred the dough to a pie tin to blind bake and cool while I prepared the birthday custard filling.

For the pudding filling, I combined sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan and gradually stirred in whole milk, until the mixture was thick and bubbling. Next, I carefully added in the egg yolks, whisking until the pot returned to a boil.

Or rather, that is what I intended to do. But it seems that the pressure of baking a birthday pie combined with all of the mental distractions of my life at the present time got the best of me. Four scorched pudding batches and half a dozen raw eggs spilled onto the floor later, I threw in the proverbial kitchen towel and reached for the good old Jell-O vanilla pudding mix. And do you know what? The world did not end. No one died. And all in all, the pie was rather yummy. Now, I know I'm typically a proponent of homemade rather than store-bought, but if homemade results in tears and fits and feelings of baking inadequacy, isn't it ultimately best to keep your sanity and just use the shortcut? 

Once cooled, I added more sprinkles (because when it comes to three year old birthdays, can one ever really have too many sprinkles?) and poured the beautifully set pudding (finally) into the pie crust.

I topped the entire pie with a cloud of homemade whipped cream, mixing heavy cream and powdered sugar in my festive new pink stand mixer until stiff peaks formed. The entire pie then received another generous helping of rainbow sprinkles and a truly magical topping - birthday cake crumble. (This recipe is borrowed from Momofuku Milk Bar's Christina Tosi and it is every bit as good as it sounds. Trust me...go make some...now. You and your inner three year old will be very happy.)
Three years later, June's hair is often natural and wavy and kind of a mess, much to her liking. We still haven't seen any of the Disney princess movies, although she has picked up Cinderella, Belle, and Elsa all on her own, thanks to Disney marketing. We have adjusted to lots and lots of pink - but I'm still holding off on the glitter. And all of those other girly things I was so worried I might not be ready for? Well, we're learning them together.
"Look up, it's the moon
Look up, it's the moon
Look up, it's the moon up in the sky
It's big and round and I have found
That it looks just like a pizza pie"
-Laurie Berkner