Friday, December 13, 2019

Aunt Sierra’s “We Wish We Had S’more of You” S’mores Pie

  My sister-in-law, better known in our family as Aunt Sierra, is the single most thoughtful, big-hearted person I know. She gifts lavishly and best expresses love through a carefully honed art of giving. 

  My family and I have been the lucky recipients of many of Aunt Sierra's generous gifts throughout the years. From Sierra, I have received some of the most beautiful keepsakes, including a necklace with three delicate hearts - each representing one of my children, a personalized Christmas ornament with all five of our names - gifted after the birth of our daughter, and a custom painting of our first home that hangs proudly in the entry of our new place. These gifts have become part of the fabric of our family and are treasured as such. However, the best holiday surprise was, undoubtedly, the year Sierra had matching Bake Somebody Happy t-shirts made for every member of the extended family to wear on Christmas morning!

  Sierra plans up to a year ahead in her gift giving, mindfully selecting the perfect present for each and every person on her list. Because she only ventures into our neck of the woods a couple of times a year, Sierra prepares birthday gifts for her nieces and nephews months in advance. (This is particularly exciting when you are a young one with a birthday in the somewhat distant future.) But, one of my very favorite memories of Sierra was the year she sneakily brought all the makings for jewelry crafting so that my boys could make their own Christmas treasures to put under the tree for me! Indeed, her love of gifting had even extended to helping others find the perfect gift. 

  Sierra is others focused in so many aspects of her life - as a mother, wife, and, perhaps most notably, in her job as a 911 dispatcher. I don't know about you, but I find that I struggle to remain calm even during the many minor "emergencies" that arise in a home filled with active, little people - papercuts, bloody noses, and the like. But, Sierra diligently works nights, answering calls from people in their very worst moments, and somehow manages to bring order and compassion in the midst of their trauma.

  So, how exactly does one attempt to out-gift the very best of the gift givers? The only way I know how - with pie, of course! Here's to topping her gift list this year with Aunt Sierra's "We Wish We Had S'more of You" S'mores Pie. Because, speaking for my family, I know one thing for sure - we all wish we had some more Aunt Sierra in our lives. 

  I began Sierra's pie with the foundation of any good s'mores - the graham cracker base. However, this was not my traditional graham cracker crust. This time around, I combined butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, baking powder, salt, flour, and graham cracker crumbs in my stand mixer to create an almost cookie dough-like consistency. I then pressed half of the sticky dough up the sides of the pie tin, making sure to reserve plenty for the crumbly graham garnish, and baked the crust until golden.

  Then for the rich, fudgey filling. I brought even more butter and sugar, milk chocolate chips, cocoa powder, and evaporated milk to a gentle boil before removing the pot from the heat to add in vanilla extract. Once combined and cooled, I poured the thick, chocolatey filling into the graham pie shell and placed it into the refrigerator to set.

  Finally, for the star of the show - the marshmallow topping! After all, nothing says s'mores better than sticky, perfectly charred marshmallows. I arranged the top of the pie in a mosaic of mini marshmallows, the remaining bits of graham cracker crumble, and bite-sized sections of Hershey's bar. And then for the really fun (and a little bit scary) part - taking a blow torch to all of those marshmallows!

  When I married Will nearly fifteen years ago, I knew Sierra to be a caring sister, wife, and mother. I could not have known at that time the attentive aunt and sister-in-law she would become. I have truly enjoyed being part of Sierra's family and sharing memories ranging from Black Friday shopping to standing proudly by her side as a bridesmaid. When it comes down to it, just having Aunt Sierra in our lives really is the best gift of all.

"Watch the sunrise at least once a year, put a lot of marshmallows in your hot chocolate, lie on your back and look at the stars, never buy a coffee table you can't put your feet on, never pass up a chance to jump on a trampoline, don't overlook life's small joys while searching for the big ones." 
- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

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.


  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,


  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