Wednesday, September 10, 2014

a good day

These are the good days, friends. The days when your preschooler, who has gone from sweet and submissive to disrespectful and sneering, runs over to give you a hug and an out-of-the-blue "I love you."

We were long overdue for one of the good days. Every night recently, I've fallen into bed, exhausted, wondering why every moment with him seems like a fight. (I know the answer, of course: my 3-year-old is me.) Wondering what I'm doing wrong, why he insists on doing wrong, what happened to that lovely and loving little boy I raised...

We spent an exciting and full weekend away at the lake house, where Big E was spoiled baking cookies with Grandma and taking boat rides with Grandpa and playing to his heart's content. The next two mornings, we jumped right back into preschool and early mornings and structure and letting him have no real control over his own life. Today, I guarded carefully. We ran two quick errands totaling about an hour outside the house. Inside, I neglected most chores in lieu of a long, leisurely breakfast and playing catch and building Lego towers and corralling a crawler who is moving much too quickly.

Life -- and my preschooler -- has been so sweet today. I hugged him tightly before putting him down to nap, thanked him for using his nice words and being sweet to his baby brother. On a day like today, I don't even care that he isn't actually sleeping. He's singing softly, "Jesus loves the little children....."

There's no magic formula, I know, but the difference of this good day was unhurried quality time with mommy. It's so easy to get caught up in playdates and field trips and grocery shopping that I sometimes forget that my littles just need to BE. To show me who they are. To watch me delight in them.

Tomorrow may be hard, or the next day, or the next week, but today, I can savor the sweet moments and cling tight to the little things that make this a good day.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

a preschooler's first purchase

A couple of months ago, we started Financial Peace Junior with Big E.  He does chores (yes, at 3 years old!) and gets paid “commissions” for them.  Every Saturday, we sit down with his jar of money and help him allocate funds: Give, Save, Spend.  It’s taken some time to get into the habit of having him do his chores, so it was a few weeks before he collected enough in his Spend envelope to really buy anything.

Coincidentally, that occurred right around school supply time, and I wanted to pick up whatever supplies we could at Dollar Tree.  On our way, I explained that he could afford to buy ONE thing, and he could choose whatever he wanted.

Getting out of the car, Big E clutched that envelope in his hand: $1.85 in dimes and nickels, but right then, it was his whole world.

We had no sooner entered the store than Big E darted over to a display of solar lamps right up front, picked one up, and announced, “I want to buy THIS with my money!”  I knew I was in trouble.

“E,” I said, “what is that?”

“…what is it?”

And so went our shopping trip.  Up and down the aisles, as I selected glue sticks and ribbon and pencils for the preschool, Big E’s attention was caught by the most mundane of items.  Forget the coloring books, I want to buy a loofah!  I never told him he couldn’t buy something, but I gently informed him, many times, of the definitely-not-toddler-friendly purpose of each object.

Finally, the school supply shopping almost complete, I said, “E, I have to get one more thing.  It’s all the way in the back of the store, so let’s go, and you can choose which thing you saw that want to buy.”  We made our way toward the disinfectant wipes, and there, hanging on a shelf, he saw it: “THIS!  This is what I want to buy with my money!!”

His eyes were sparkling; he’d really found a winner this time.  And again, I asked, “E, what is that?”  He pointed to it excitedly and said, “It’s a necklace!”

And that is how I ended up explaining to my 3-year-old that wearing a steel wool scrubber around one’s neck would end up being pretty painful.

I had pretty much given up, thinking that he would have to shop at another store when he had a bit more money.  We headed back toward the front via the closest aisle, and there, on the bottom shelf, he saw a few lonely pieces of plastic fruit.  “THIS!!!  I will buy this pear!!!!!!”

There was really no valid argument this time.  Grandma had gotten him a little shopping cart with some play food for his birthday, and he quite enjoys his play kitchen.  Who cared that this particular plastic pear was intended for some sort of home d├ęcor?  Big E proudly carried it to checkout, cutting in front of two other customers in his excitement (don’t worry, we talked about that, too), and I helped him count out the coins from his envelope.  He did drop some on the floor in his excitement—more life lessons!—and I’m pretty sure the cashier looked at him like he was nuts.  In light of what other preschoolers might choose to purchase, she probably wasn’t out of line.

But Big E played with that pear non-stop for days, took it everywhere, told everyone he met about it.  He still cherishes it.  There is no doubt in my mind that he would not feel so strongly about a plastic piece of fruit had he not worked for it himself.

He does chores more willingly, too, when reminded that his work comes with benefits.  And who knows?  Maybe one day he will work hard enough to buy a set of solar lamps for his playground.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What's New?

I suspect I’m not the only stay-at-home mom who freezes up when asked by a friend who’s still out there in the corporate world, “What’s new with you?”  When I’m with my mama friends, the answers flow freely:
  • Big E’s reading readiness has shocked and surprised his preschool teachers!
  • Little G is obsessed with measuring cups, Big E, and forward movement!
  • I finally found time to paint my nails last week!
Those little life details sound strange to me when talking to friends who are getting promoted, stressing about quarterly deadlines, or changing careers.  It often seems that there’s nothing “new” about my job and my life.

But there is. There’s always something new. Every day is unpredictable, uncharted territory, new.

In fact, there was a new baby just over nine months ago.

Hmmm.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been on a blogging hiatus.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

tears and snuggles

I had a fight with my 2-year-old tonight.  I know it's silly to argue with a toddler, but it was late and I was desperate to get him to eat so we could get to bed.  So we quibbled over vegetables and noodles and how many bites and..... I won.  I always win; I don't change my mind once I've set a rule.  But it ended in "eat or go to bed?" and when he chose bed, I don't think he realized it meant NOW.  Serious sadness and real tears ensued all the way upstairs, and by the time I was about to change his diaper, he was crying hard enough that he threw up all those precious vitamins and nutrients I'd just worked so hard to get into him.

Thankful that my husband's fever and aches had subsided enough for him to take over while I went to our room and hit things and cried for a minute, I looked into my heart and hated what this had come to.  It was late.  Baby has been fighting a cold.  I'm recovering from surgery and am still not feeling like myself.  The day has been far from ideal.  So why did I push a new dish?  Why couldn't I have given him other (also healthy but more favored) things instead?  Why did I have to set such an immovable rule on this day, at this time of night?

I returned to baby's room to help clean things up and then scooped my little one up and rocked him, and we both slowly stopped crying.

I asked if he wanted "5 more minutes to play" (his traditional post-dinner request), and of course the answer was yes.  But he didn't really play.  He got down and brought me his teddy bear, his Stitch doll, his pillow, and his foam toy.  And he snuggled against the pillow in my lap, smiling and giggling.

And that is forgiveness.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

soda & syrup

Last month, I was lucky enough to come into possession of two kind of amazing products: a SodaStream machine and Torani syrups.  The SodaStream was the result of a House Party that I got to host, and it's a pretty cool invention.  We're kind of still getting the hang of how much carbonation to add, but I'm impressed on the whole.

The Torani syrups arrived in the mail courtesy of the SheSpeaks blogger program. I had requested a sugar-free sampling, so the two syrups that I received were sweetened with Splenda.  I have to admit... I was not crazy about the flavors: Hazelnut and Pumpkin Pie.  I added the Hazelnut to my Saturday morning coffee, and it tasted almost alcoholic.  Too strong without much actual hazelnut flavor.  The Pumpkin Pie flavor -- well, I'm just discovering that I'm not a huge fan of Pumpkin Pie/Pumpkin Pie Spice flavoring.  Or maybe even pumpkin pie itself... I don't know.  I feel like that might be a pretty big character flaw if that's the case.

But I digress.

Having been a pretty big fan of Torani syrups in the past, I was pretty disappointed in these two new flavors.  I sent the Pumpkin Pie to work with husband and tucked the Hazelnut away -- I'm planning to use it in the event that I get around to making Brown Eyed Baker's Nutella-Hazelnut Cookies.  Or maybe I'll try it in hot cocoa or even in a "Hazelnut Melt" -- a recipe I found here when searching for information on Italian sodas one day.

Included in my package from SheSpeaks were five $1 coupons for Torani syrups, which I set aside and hoped I got around to using in all the holiday madness.  And the next day... World Market sent me a fantastic email: 3-hour flash sale on all Torani syrups!  I called the store (like I do) to ask if they take manufacturer coupons (yes) and if they can be combined with such a sale (yes).  That night, I walked out of World Market carrying six bottles of Torani syrups for $20.  Win!  I was determined to like Torani again.

Over the next two weeks, experiments ensued.  Remembering the amazing white chocolate raspberry mochas I used to get (courtesy of the monthly company-provided coffee bar), I brewed a fairly strong cup of non-flavored coffee and added a bit of milk, a drizzle of chocolate syrup, and Torani White Chocolate and Raspberry syrups (both sugar-free).  It wasn't quite as good as when I used to have a barista-frothed foamy mocha, but it was pretty comforting for a make-it-yourself coffee.

Red Velvet syrup went into hot cocoa, Peppermint with French vanilla creamer gave coffee a wonderfully smooth brightness, and caramel was drizzled into a cup of Chocolate Caramel Brownie coffee, along with a shot of chocolate syrup.

But the real magic happened when I discovered (the aforementioned) Italian sodas.  I've had them a few times over the years, but I'd never considered making them myself.  I made a nice dinner for husband one night, and drinks to accompany: ice in a glass, two ounces of Torani syrup, and sparkling water (thank you, SodaStream!) to fill the glass.  In one glass, I used two ounces of sugar-free Raspberry, and in the other one ounce each of Cherry and Vanilla.  Fantastic!!!  I loved the lightness of the flavor and the special feel that the drinks lent to our dinner.

Since then, I've made Italian sodas several times.  I'm enjoying experimenting with the flavors (Red Velvet Cake was not the best -- that's going to be much better in cocoa!).  My favorite was probably the Cherry Vanilla.

And today, I took the marriage of these two products to a new level at my son's second birthday party.  We had an indoor picnic theme, and I coupled the SodaStream's Country Time lemonade with Torani's Raspberry syrup.  Loved it!!  That pitcher certainly disappeared faster than the pitcher of plain lemonade.

I certainly wish the Torani syrups came in smaller bottles: it's my experience that they last FOREVER, and I'd rather have a large variety than have a lot of just a few flavors.  I especially want to try flavors like Toasted Marshmallow, Salted Caramel, Cookie Dough, and Blackberry.  (I do not particularly want to try Bacon, Chicken 'N Waffles, or Creme de Banana.)

All told, I'm glad I didn't give up after the two flavors that bummed me out.  I once again love Torani!  It's great stuff to have around.  My coffee is never boring, and Italian sodas are just a few moments away.  One of these days, I'm going to try cooking some down to make flavored pancake/waffle syrups.  Chocolate chip pancakes with white chocolate red velvet syrup, anyone?

Try Torani syrups for less!  There's a $1 off coupon for my readers here.

Disclosure: As part of the Torani Holiday Cheers program, I received two 750ml bottles of Torani syrups and five $1 off coupons from Torani/SheSpeaks.  As always, all opinions shared on this blog are my own.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

(mostly) slow cooker (greek) yogurt

Last week, I made the Best Yogurt Ever.  I can say so with certainty because of this note, left on my shopping list by my sweet husband after he had tasted it:

I'm guessing the note was so vehement because of several ... well, not failed attempts exactly, but certainly ones that could have gone better.  I'll spare you the details for now and get straight to the details of this amazing batch.

Here are the basics; I outline how it went for me below.
  1. The first time you make yogurt, fill the crock of your slow cooker with milk so you know how much to use for future batches.  Then pour that into a large pot (and wash the crock -- you don't want any traces of the unheated milk remaining in your crock).  It so happens that my crock and my smaller pot hold about the same amount of milk, so I don't ever measure now.
  2. Place the pot on the stove on medium heat.  Turn down after about 10 minutes to avoid scalding the milk on the bottom.  Heat to 180F.  Check often, and do not forget about your stovetop project!!  It would be sad to waste all that milk.  Stir occasionally for even heat distribution.  Note: you can use your slow cooker to heat your milk to 180F... but that takes a LONG time.
  3. After milk reaches 180F, remove from stove and transfer to crock of slow cooker.  Let cool to 105F-115F.  Transfer to crock of slow cooker.
  4. When cooled, remove about 1 cup of milk and stir in 2-3 T. of plain yogurt with live, active cultures -- the more the better!!
  5. Add the yogurt mixture to the crock of milk.  Allow to sit for 6-8 hours, keeping temperature between 105F and 115F.  Do not overheat.  Higher temperatures will kill your yogurt cultures and result in ... well, warm milk.  You can try cooling it down and adding more plain yogurt, but you'll end up with a grainy, super-tangy end product.  Ask me how I know.
It sounds so easy!!!  But the truth is, it's a pretty long, semi-involved process.  I don't make yogurt on days when I know I'll be very distracted or have to be away all day.  Eventually, I'm sure I'll be confident enough that I won't feel the need to keep one eye on it all the time.  But here's how the day went with my Best Yogurt Ever:

12:00 noon
Begin!  I filled my pot with milk and put it on the stove on medium heat.  After maybe 10 minutes, I turned the stove down to medium-low.

12:20 p.m.
Milk at 110F.  I know this because I use a candy thermometer.  Yes, you need a candy thermometer.  You can't make yogurt by feel.

12:30 p.m.
Milk at 130F.  Remembered I am super-smart and covered the pot so the milk would heat more quickly.

12:40 p.m.
Milk at 160F.

12:50 p.m.
Milk at 185F.  Heating took close to 1 hour.  Removed pot from burner and started to wait......... I usually transfer the milk to the slow cooker at this point.  The crock has no retained heat, and its oval shape allows for quicker cooling.  Today, my mind was apparently elsewhere, so the cooling process took a bit longer.

1:05 p.m.
Milk at 160F.

1:30 p.m.
Milk at 135F. 

1:45 p.m.
Milk at 125F.

1:55 p.m.
Milk at 120F.

2:15 p.m.
Milk at 110F.  Finally!!  Cooling took close to 1.5 hours.

(Sometimes there's a skin on top of the cooled milk.  I skim that off before adding the yogurt.)

Visible skin on top -- you don't want that in your final product!

Don't skim too much -- this is all I got, maybe a few tablespoons

I stirred about a cup of the heated milk into 2-3 T. of yogurt.

Spoonful of yogurt in slightly-cooled milk

Let all those live active cultures get nice and cozy...

I started off with Greek yogurt just for fun... husband pointed out that the brand I bought (Aldi off-brand, for the record!) boasted more live active cultures than the Belfonte we'd bought previously.  That may have contributed to the enormous success; I don't know.  Anyway, then I stirred the yogurt/milk into the pot and poured the whole thing into the slow cooker.

And for the rest of the day, I just kept one eye on the developing yogurt!  The temperature did vary between 105F and 115F, which was fine.  It happens slowly enough that there's plenty of time to make adjustments.  I find that I can leave the slow cooker off for a couple of hours before I start getting antsy about the temp.  So then I'll just turn it on "warm" until it creeps back up... and then I can turn it off again.  If making yogurt overnight, I put the lid on and then wrap the whole thing in a couple of bath towels for insulation and turn it OFF.

Yogurt overnight!

10:30 p.m.
Done!  It definitely looks like yogurt... but it's warm, which is gross.  I put the entire crock, covered, into the fridge overnight.

8:30 a.m., next day
Good morning!  It's time to Greek this yogurt.  (Yep... that's turned into a verb in my house.)  I do always chill the yogurt before Greeking it.  It's far easier and yields much better results when cold.  Of course, if you like thinner yogurt, then please, by all means, eat it now.  It's yogurt!!

Oh, but first, skim off the top.  Even if it doesn't look like there's a skin, there usually is.  Just to be safe, I skim off a bit all the way around.  Then I'm not getting gross little grainy bits in my velvety smooth bowl of delicious.

I have two strainers of decent size, so I lined each of them with a paper towel and set them over large bowls.  Then I spooned yogurt into each strainer.  I filled the strainers pretty full; the yogurt is set enough that you can kind of pile it onto itself and push the boundaries of the strainer a bit.  Then I transferred the strainers to the fridge and (again) waited.

I don't know what time it was "done," but I let my yogurt strain for several hours.  I like it pretty thick -- and, because there's too much yogurt to Greek all of it at once in my meager strainers, I can mix in the thinner stuff if I've over-strained.  However, I usually end up straining most or all of it... so I'm straining in two batches.  Another process that takes a good part of the day.

WHAT IS ALL THIS WATERY STUFF COMING OUT OF MY YOGURT???!  Oh, that's whey!  As in, what Little Miss Muffet was eating.  (Really, Miss Muffet?  Did they not have chocolate ice cream in your day?  Or at least string cheese?  Because this is pretty gross.)

But don't throw it out.  Oh my goodness, do NOT throw out your whey.  It's like getting free product with purchase of yogurt!!!  Use it in any recipe that calls for buttermilk.  I've made the most fantastic biscuits and pancakes and a cake subbing whey for buttermilk... and it's free.  Apparently you can use it in bread in place of the water for your recipe, although I've not been able to try that yet.  Whey lasts a couple weeks in the fridge.  Be sure to date it, and smell it now so you'll recognize when it's gone bad.  It smells a bit off from the beginning, so it's important to know what fresh whey vs. fermented whey smells like.

If you want to, you can whip your yogurt with an electric mixer.  I've done it and not done it... and I think it's a bit of a time waster.  It doesn't get all mousse-y like those awesome Yoplait things; it just maybe makes it a bit smoother.  Not noticeably, though.  So after I'm strained my yogurt, I just transfer it to Mason jars.  I've found I like it best with a handful of granola mixed in.  Or drizzled with honey, oh my.  A little taste of heaven, right there.........

Final product! Usually about 1.5 quarts, plus a quart or more of whey.

I just got a new slow cooker yesterday, YAY!!!!!!!!  And this one has a probe feature that will measure the internal temperature.  I'll update you when I know how it works!