Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Santa's Milk (Er...Eggnog) and Cookies Pie

One of my greatest joys as a parent has been seeing the world through my children's eyes - the undeniable magnetism of a train, the jaw dropping vastness of the ocean and perhaps most pertinent to this time of year, the absolute magic of Santa. This year, I find myself soaking up the far-off twinkle in Wilson's eyes at the mere mention of Santa and his reindeer and Henry's cautious, wide-eyed trek to Santa's lap, for I know Christmases like these are numbered.

Our family has been so blessed to have annual, in the flesh visits from Santa (and often Mrs. Claus) on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Every year, I eagerly anticipate the look of awe on the faces of my boys and their little friends as the front door swings wide open - amidst cookie decorating and hot chocolate sipping - and the magical sound of jingle bells and "Ho-Ho-Ho"s fill the living room. It is absolutely one of my favorite nights of the year.

There is an undeniable magic in sitting on Santa's lap and putting in your last minute gift requests, just before he has to dash off to the North Pole to begin his busiest night of the year. Yet, Santa is never rushed with our flustered little ones, barraged by a flurry of camera flashes and reminders to "smile." He has nothing but time for those who still whole-heartedly believe in his magic.
Each year, after all the requests have been made, the pictures have been taken and Santa has headed back to the North Pole, just before we head to bed, we set out the traditional milk and cookies for Santa. But this year, I thought we might mix things up a little. I mean, how many Christmas cookies can the big guy really eat? So, here is our family's take on milk and cookies, a la pie - Santa's Milk (Er...Eggnog) and Cookies Pie.

The boys and I began with a sugar cookie crust, working granulated sugar, butter and an egg yolk into a paste using the back of a fork. Once combined, my little guys took turns measuring in the flour. Finally, I emptied the bowlful of crumbly dough into the tin and let the boys go wild pressing it into the bottom and up the sides (and all over the counter). Into the oven until golden brown and ten minutes later, cookies...check. 
Then for the filling - or the "milk" portion of the pie. In keeping with the holiday spirit, I opted for a more festive, grown-up take on milk. So the boys and I whipped up our first ever batch of homemade eggnog (minus the alcohol) in preparation for our holiday custard. 
Using my hand mixer (boy is this thing useful!), we beat granulated sugar into egg yolks until dissolved. Then we whisked in whole milk and heavy whipping cream before grating in a sprinkling of fresh nutmeg.
Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, we beat egg whites and a spoonful of sugar into stiff peaks and folded them into the yolk mixture.
And lest you think I have this whole baking with little ones thing down, when I say "we," I mean me with a side of "When can I have a bite?" on repeat, little fingers drawing designs on the table in sugar and other general unsolicited "help."
Milk, er...eggnog, check.

Then, just because I feel like the whole spirit of this blog is to give my loved ones pies I have actually created with my own two hands (or our six hands, in this case), we made our own homemade vanilla pudding mix. My "helpers" and I whisked together granulated sugar, cornstarch, milk powder, salt and the seeds of one vanilla bean.
Then for the assembly. I combined the homemade eggnog, milk, scratch-made pudding mix and freshly grated nutmeg on the stovetop until thickened. Once cooled, I poured the filling into the cookie dough pie shell, topped it with some whipped cream and sprinkles (because what is a Christmas cookie without sprinkles?) and placed it in the refrigerator until the man in the red suit made his Christmas Eve rounds.
Santa is a busy man, especially on Christmas Eve, what with sleigh packing and checking his list twice. Yet, somehow, he always seems to make a little extra special time for the little ones in my life. And for that, I am especially grateful. Because all I want for Christmas is to share in the magic of Santa with my boys, once again.

"Peace on earth will come to all
if we just follow the light
so lets give thanks to the Lord above
that Santa Claus comes tonight."
- Here Comes Santa Claus

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Joy's "New Life" Nutella Pie

I was 21 and just entering my senior year of college when I met Joy. Still reeling a bit from a series of unsuccessful attempts to "find myself" (in all the wrong ways, mind you), I had come to the realization that I had nowhere to go other than to give my life over to Christ. That single, powerful decision led to a strong conviction that I also needed to change a lot about the way I was living - beginning with my actual living situation.

So, when I heard that a group of four Christian college studets had rented a townhouse and were in need of a fifth roommate, I was both eager and nervous. Change - at least for me - can be anxiety-inducing. And I was finding that taking that first step in the direction of who it was God was helping me to become was stretching me in an unfamiliar, almost uncomfortable way.

But, when I met the girls - Laura, JR, Erin and Joy - I instantly knew that God had put me in the right place. Not only did He have a plan for me, but He had hand selected a group of Godly women to accompany me on the journey.
All of my new roommates were warm and welcoming, and over the course of the school year, I learned so much of what the Christian life looked like from watching them. They patiently led and gently held me accountable. Not once did I ever feel judged by what I saw as my blinding newness to everything - Bible studies, prayer, devotionals, retreats...heck, even the lingo was new.

Although I formed significant friendships with each of the girls, Joy's warmth and gentle, nurturing way immediately drew me in. I found myself looking to her as a tangible version of who I could become in Christ - my spiritual mentor, if you will. I was struck by her genuine heart for God and her authentic desire to fulfill His plan for her life.
Soon after college graduation, I made the move back to Sacramento to begin my "adult" life of work and such. Contact with my former roommates dwindled as life became increasingly busy. But intermittently, throughout the years, I would think back to that time of spiritual newness fondly and wonder what became of the girls that helped shape my faith and identity in Christ.

After years of resistance (did I really need long-lost acquaintances to know what I ate for lunch?), I surrendered and joined Facebook. Almost immediately, I reconnected with Joy, who had recently moved back to Davis with her college-boyfriend-turned-husband, Matt, and two young children, Hannah and Peter. The friendship that has ensued in the months since has made me sorry I ever doubted social media.

When Joy and I met up for our first play date several weeks later, it was as if the eleven years that had passed since college (how am I possibly that old?) were just a blink of an eye. Unbeknownst to us, our lives had been moving on parallel paths - being a full-time wife and mommy to two little ones so close in age - separated only by thirty miles of freeway.

Wilson, despite his typical shy, silent treatment for the first half hour or so, eventually took to Joy's oldest, Hannah - in a big way! On the drive home, Wilson talked incessantly about Hannah - how pretty her hair was and what a nice friend she was. This continued for several days until Wilson called us in one evening after being tucked into bed and announced that he knew who he wanted to marry - Hannah. 
It has been such a pleasure to get to know Joy as a mom - motherhood suits her well. So when I learned that she was expecting a third little bundle of joy (pun intended), I could not have been more excited for her. And living in such close proximity to Joy's doctor served as the perfect excuse for frequent lunch play dates. 
Just last week, baby Abigail made her entrance into the world. And in my opinion, nothing deserves a pie more than the celebration of a new life. So, I set aside the more traditional baby gifts of onesies and booties in favor of a little Joy's "New Life" Nutella Pie.

Joy is the person I have to thank for introducing me to Nutella in the first place. I remember doubting the fancy new spread occupying shelf space in our college pantry. But I soon regretted my snap judgement against the more sophisticated, cultured cousin of peanut butter. It was love at first bite.

For days, I vacillated between the seemingly endless and tempting crust possibilities - oatmeal, hazelnut, sugar cookie, and on and on. Eventually, however, I opted to stick with my tried and true butter and shortening recipe, largely because Joy had recently requested a "crust workshop" and I figured a little preview was in order.
While the crust chilled, I prepared the filling, combining granulated sugar, light brown sugar and salt in a large bowl.
Into the sugar, I added heavy whipping cream, a bit of vanilla extract and a heaping cupful of the star of the show - Nutella. (I may or may not have also helped myself to a spoonful of the chocolately, nutty spread - all in the name of research and development, of course.)
Finally, I incorporated the egg yolks and blended the mixture until smooth, using my brand-spanking-new hand mixer! I had a hunch I might have one (or two) coming my way this gift-giving season and I am pleased as punch to give my poor arm a rest.
And the very best part of my new mixer? Definitely licking the beaters.
Once combined, I poured the thick, rich custard into the chilled pie shell and placed it in the oven to bake until loosely set. Then into the refrigerator to continue to firm up overnight.

Just to gild the lily, I whipped up a little whipped cream and piped small starbursts onto the pie in a circular fashion. (Plus, a little whipped cream is always a good distraction when you are trying to disguise cracks resulting from a not-so-graceful attempt to remove a hot pie from the oven). 
There is a certain comfort in the bond you have with someone with whom you have shared a home. They know you intimately - the good and the bad, the messy and the compulsive. With roommates, it is nearly impossible to hide the parts of yourself that you keep from the rest of the world, and because of that, they tend to know a more authentic version of you. 

Reconnecting with Joy has been one of my most personally fulfilling adult relationships. I always leave our time together feeling refreshed and blessed by her visit

Joy has always been good at seeing the potential in people - whether they be a college student just taking their first step in faith, a kindergartener embarking on their education or a new little one of her own to nurture and love. She is just the kind of person you want by your side at the beginning of any new journey, birth or rebirth - and as I have come to find out, the perfect companion for a little further on down the road, as well.

"You can't buy happiness but you can buy Nutella and that's kind of the same thing." - Unknown

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Why I Am Thankful for Pie

This time of year - overflowing with birthdays, holidays and visits from loved ones far away - I find myself reflecting a bit more than usual on the abundant blessings in my life. And this year, with my own birthday falling on Thanksgiving Day and another year full of things to be grateful for behind me, this seems to be doubly so.

Among other things, I am thankful for pie. Not just the actual dessert itself, mind you, but what pie has brought into my life over this past year. Pie has taught me that I can do things I never thought possible. Pie has solidified, improved and restored relationships in my life. And p
ie has been the perfect vehicle to show love to those around me.

I am thankful for my many pastry muses: Miss Megan, my Mom, Tom and Adrienne, Briana and Daniel, my husband Will, Brad, Kaci, Kathy, Anita, Miss Jamie, Kristin, Victoria, Timmy Dad, Joanna, Angela, Don, Wilson and all of the friends and family who are still patiently awaiting their pies. (I foresee a lot of baking in my future.)

So, this year as our little family of four sits down to a maybe slightly less traditional Thanksgiving dessert of buttermilk pie, my wish
 is that you, too, are celebrating with the ones you are most thankful for. And if you happen to spend a bit of your holiday sharing a piece of pie, all the sweeter.

"… truth be told, turkey is an obstacle on the road leading to pie." - The Philadelphia Inquirer

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wilson's "Apple of My Eye" Apple Pie

The day I met Wilson was simultaneously the most magical and most terrifying day I have ever experienced. I will never forget my first glimpse of his beautiful grey, limp body held up for me to see as the hospital room around me turned to chaos. Doctors and nurses rushed in and barked orders at each other and I clung desperately to every second - waiting to hear that glorious first cry that indicates new life. I waited for someone - anyone - to tell me he was going to be okay. But all I got was "We are doing everything we can." In that incredible moment, everything changed. I became a Mommy and, in doing so, understood what it meant to have "your heart walking around outside your body."
Wilson's entrance into this world was dramatic and, as is probably fitting, his first five years here have followed suit. In his brief little life, Wilson has taught me so much - patience, gentleness, humility, commitment and unconditional love to name just a few. I thank God every day for entrusting me with his little soul and I feel so honored to be his Mommy.
Wilson is my biggest cheerleader. One of my greatest recent joys has been overhearing him tell friends his Mommy is a "pie baker." He is always eager to know who the next pie is going home with, pushing his kitchen chair over to the counter to watch me prepare the dough and repeatedly offering to be my taste tester. He politely "oohs" and "aahs" enthusiastically over each finished product, reassuring me that "this one" is the most beautiful pie yet.

For a couple of months now, Wilson has held firm that he does not want a cake for his birthday this year, but rather a pie. More specifically, an apple pie. Well, how could I possibly turn down an opportunity like that? Seeing as how we will have a traditional birthday cake at his party the following weekend, it seemed only fitting that our family share a homemade apple pie to celebrate the day of his actual birth - an apple pie for the apple of my eye.

And when Wilson asked if there might also be a "story on the computer" about him and his pie, my heart melted. So here goes, little man - this one is just for you.

Dear Wilson, 

The day you were born was the luckiest day of my life. Not only did I become a mommy (which is something I had prayed for for a long time), but I became Mommy to the sweetest little boy I could ever hope to meet - you! I remember stroking your toes and watching your little chest rise and fall with each new breath, thinking that you and I were on the start of a beautiful adventure together.

I loved holding you as a baby and smelling your sweet newborn smell as you slept in my arms (instead of the crib where Daddy said I should put you for naps). I loved watching you grow and learn to roll over, sit up, crawl and then walk. I loved your sweet little voice and how beautiful it sounded when you first learned to call me "Mama." Our days spent at home together have been the most precious of my life. And though I sometimes miss those early quiet days of ours, I am so excited to see what five-year old-Wilson has in store for us. 
Even though I am your Mommy and I am supposed to teach you, you have taught me so much. You have taught me that it is more important to really enjoy the moment than it is to hurry through something just to get it done. You have taught me patience and gentleness and sweetness. You have taught me that there is always time for the really good things in life: snuggling, eating and spending time together. And you have taught me that nothing is better than a train ride with you by my side. 
I am so proud of the big boy you are becoming. You have learned to do so much as a four-year-old: go to preschool, write your name, cut with scissors, dress yourself, drink from an open cup, buckle your own carseat and so much more. I love watching your focus as you create masterpieces with paper and markers. I love seeing the excitement in your eyes at the mere mention of a train. I love seeing the awe on your face as you look out at the ocean. I love the adorable moves you bust out during our family dance parties and I love hearing you sing yourself to sleep every night over your monitor. I love when you reach for my hand when we are walking together. And I feel so blessed every time you come home with a flower you have picked just for me.
I am so excited to see what wonderful things five-year-old Wilson will learn to do. I know kindergarten will hold so much more for you next year - friendships and experiences that you will remember always.

You are the most wonderful big brother Henry could ever ask for and the most perfect firstborn son Daddy and I could ever have dreamed of. I am so lucky to have you as my son. In all the homes in all the world, there is no little boy better for our family. God chose you for us and I would choose you one hundred times over. I would do every moment of you all over again. I am blessed to be your Mommy.

Happy fifth birthday, Wilson!
I love you so much, 
Seeing as how the seasons had changed and Apple Hill was ripening in all of it's apple glory just up the freeway, we loaded up the kiddos and drove to pick ourselves some apples. Armed with a couple of apple reacher-grabber thingies (I think that is the technical term), we headed out to the Granny Smith orchard to fill up a pair of the sweetest little apple picking bags.
Wilson was a natural, instructing us to pick only the best, biggest apples for his pie. He took quickly to grasping the stems of the apples higher up in the trees and pulling them down with the claw. Suffice it to say, he was pretty proud of himself.
Once our bags were filled with the fixings for a pie (and a couple of extra apples for some hungry tummies), we headed home.
Then for the exciting part - deciding on exactly what kind of apple pie to make. My head was swimming with visions of cheddar crusts, honey apple pies, maple custard apple pies...maybe even a chocolate apple pie. But, as I described the seemingly endless possibilities to Wilson, he turned to me and said, "I don't want a fancy pie, Mommy. I just want an apple pie like you made for Miss Megan." And with that single statement, the decision was made - Wilson's "Apple of My Eye" Apple Pie it was.

We aproned up and set to work squeezing the chilled butter and shortening into the salted flour. As I gradually trickled in the ice water to bring the mixture together, it became increasingly clear that getting your hands into a bowlful of pie dough can be just as therapeutic for a four-year-old (excuse me, five-year-old) as it is for us adults. I foresee this pie partnership of ours becoming a more regular occurrence in our house.
Then it was time to prepare the apples. So I rummaged around in the back of our cabinet and dug out the peeler/corer. The boys find this piece of equipment highly entertaining, and with a little supervision, are able to be fairly independent.
Plus, there is always the added bonus of "apple spaghetti" from the leftover peel.
After putting my little helper to bed for the night, I returned to the kitchen, rolled out the dough and began assembling the pie that I have made so many times (see here, here and here) and yet continues to get the best of me. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to master, but I was determined to conquer apple pie - if not for me, for Wilson.
I combined granulated sugar, flour, salt and cinnamon in a small bowl, generously dusting layers of apples before dolloping the whole thing with pads of butter.
Finally, I gently rested the second blanket of dough atop the mound of apples, carefully tucking the edges under and pinching the seams together to seal in the juices. From the scraps of dough littering my cuttingboard, I cut out a small heart to adorn the top of the pie.
I brushed the pie with a beaten egg for a glossy sheen, using a little extra to "glue" the heart to the top, and cut a few slits in the dough to let the steam escape.
Just over an hour later - with fingers crossed and my breath held - I opened the oven door to find a perfectly golden brown bubbling apple pie. Success!
I can hardly believe it has been five years since I first met my little guy and became a Mommy. These past five years together have been the best of my life. It has been such a gift to navigate the world with Wilson by my side. He truly is the apple of my eye.

"Baby don't cry, gonna make a pie, gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle.
Baby don't be blue, gonna make for you, gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle.

Gonna make a pie from heaven above, gonna be filled with strawberry love.

Baby don't you cry, gonna make a pie, and hold you forever in the middle of my heart." -Keri Russell in "Waitress"