Birthdays Rain or Shine

Remember back when I said that the beautiful weather we were having was bound to be temporary? Well it was true. The weather around Seattle has pretty much reverted back to fall weather, except that it’s daytime for about twice as long. I’ve been keeping myself busy though–mostly going to birthday parties.

About this time 2 years ago, I was spending a bit of time with tiny babies. We had several friends who all had babies within about 2 weeks of each other, and it was very exciting because we had just announced that we ourselves were going to be having a baby in October (Lilli’s originally expected birth-month).

And at this same time just last year, I was preparing to launch this baby–the blog you are reading now. (Big plans for that birthday–not all of them cake related!)

And the list goes on with a whole bunch of other May birthdays in our family: the births of both my mom (57 yrs ago) and my dad (56 years ago), Joe’s mom (60 years ago), the twins’ mom (32 years ago) and also the twins themselves (9 years ago).

With so many birthdays this month, we have been busy indeed. Busy making cards and birthday treats. Busy picking out the perfect children’s books as gifts for our youngest friends, busy painting wrapping paper especially for them. There has been brunch parties and dinner parties, kid parties and grown up parties. Who doesn’t love a month full of parties?

Of all the treats I made this month, probably my favorite was a set of cookies for one of those young friends. It was a glorious sunny day when we were planning to spend the afternoon celebrating the birth of Niko, and I wanted to make a special treat for him. I had some gingerbread cookie dough saved in the freezer from when Lilli was on an “I’m the gingerbread man” kick the week before, so I took out the last of it and cut out one cookie for each of the letters in his name. I baked them just right, and then I let them cool.

I frosted them with a thick, lemony, and not too sweet icing and dipped each one in a rainbow of sprinkles. The sprinkles are the key. Bright and cheerful and fun, they make just about any birthday treat that much better.

The best part about these cookies is you don’t even really need a recipe. Just use any dough that would be rolled out and cut, and decorate with a thick frosting that dries hard–I used about 1 cup of powdered sugar turned into a thick paste with the juice of about 1 lemon. Dip the cookie frosting side down into a dish full of whatever sort of sprinkle you want and let it harden before you pack them up.

It’s easy enough that you can do it even if you have 100 birthday parties to go to all at once and they made exactly the statement that I wanted them to make: that I took my time and made something special just for the birthday boy.

The Party

This is Lilli.

She is my little lady. She’s quite a character already at just a year. Walking, babbling all the time, playing the silliest games she can make up, and forever curious and loving. 

 Last year on this day we were celebrating with champagne and trying to get some sleep between visitors. Last year on this day we were cooing over a 6#4oz baby with blue gray eyes and a lot of dark brown hair. Last year we didn’t know what to expect of the year ahead of us, except that it would be busy and chaotic and probably sleepless.

All of those things came true, and so much more. She brought peace to her brothers, who now have a built in friend besides each other. She brought more mirth into our home, our garden and even our trips to the store. 

As Joe said when I asked him what else she brought to us this year, “She taught us the meaning of cute.” That does not even begin to describe her. She’s strong, willful, independent and a total cuddle monster at the same time. She’s a papa’s girl but she loves her mama to pieces too. She loves to play with her brothers. She shares cheese with the cat, and is always glad to see an airplane or a garbage truck. She’s a water baby and she never wants to wear socks. There is so much to this little package, I could gush forever. But who wants to read a blog post just about how awesome someone else’s baby is? Well, I can think of a few people, but really, this post is about the party.

I wanted to throw a party that would be fun and would be us. I love to entertain, and I get a lot of joy when I am able to treat the people I love to pleasant surprises. I tried to give myself permission to buy pre-made snacks, but the closest I got was using store bought puff pastry for cheese twists. I tried to make it be just our family and closest friends, but Lilli has made so many friends this year!

Lilli surprised me by being the life of the party, but not in the usual 1st birthday way of having a meltdown or being clingy. She was a 100% charming hostess, and she even shared all her new toys.  She also didn’t make too much of a mess with the cake, I’m guessing because even at such a young age, she knows not to waste a good thing…

I did keep it as simple as I could. Some spiced nuts, a few types of crackers, a couple of dips and fresh veggies. A fruit salad. Some dolled up tomatoes from the garden. Pretty simple fare. 

And only 2 (ok technically 3) desserts! I did a few craft projects to doll up the house, which I cleaned in a general sense but prompted my mom to say “I’ve never seen it so clean!” (Not true.)

But what it really boils down to in a good party is that every one who attends leaves feeling like they did the best thing they could do that afternoon. That it was worth is to go and see the friends they saw, eat the treats they ate, and celebrate whatever it is they celebrated. I know that Lilli’s party was all of those things and I could not ask for more. We celebrated a year on this Earth made better by Lilli’s presence. 

“Bacon” and Sharp Cheddar Party Snacks
makes about 30

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, I used Trader Joe’s
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
bacon salt

Take the puff pastry out of the freezer about 1/2 hour before you are ready to roll out the snacks. 

When the dough is pliable but not sticky soft, preheat the oven to 350ºF. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough until it is a rectangle that’s as close to 15″ as you can get it, and just wider than when it started. Distribute the cheese evenly over half, and fold the naked half over. Roll again just to seal it all up and press the cheese into the dough. Using a chef’s knife or a pizza cutter, cut strips about 1/2″ wide. They don’t have to be perfect. Take each stip and place on a parchment paper lined sheet pan, twisting a couple of times and sort of pressing the ends down as you place it on the pan. After you have all of the pieces on done, sprinkle liberally with bacon salt. I used peppered flavor. It won’t look like much is sticking, but that is OK. Once the salt heats up it kind of melts into the spreading dough.

After about 20 minutes in the oven, turn over each piece individually, kind of rubbing it in the salt that is on the pan. They should be starting to look brown and the cheese will be getting melty. Let them bake about another 10 minutes or so, until they look nice and brown all over.

You might want to use both sheets of dough that are in the package for this, because it will probably be hard to wait for the party to start before eating them. Fair warning.

Doing the Can-Can

August is my birthday month. For the past six or seven years, I have celebrated my birthday month by spending most of it canning. This year, thankfully, August has been pretty warm, and it’s been even warmer in our kitchen since I’ve been canning or baking almost every day. Between the 50# of apricots, the figs, the crab apples, the birthdays (not just mine), the weddings, and I can’t even remember what else, it’s been a busy month.

It might seem like a lot of work to spend all that time canning, especially when it’s your birthday. But really, it’s the best birthday gift I could ever give myself. Aside from letting this awesome cutie “help” out in the kitchen of course (she loves the jar lifter tool!).

It’s the satisfaction of knowing that sometime, in the dead of winter, I can pull out a jar of something and savor a little bit of sunshine. It’s also satisfying thinking about putting a smile on people’s faces when I bring them a little jar of said sunshine as a treat, maybe just when they are getting sick of potatoes and squash.

My favorite part of canning is the snap of a jar sealing. It signifies all of that satisfaction like nothing else in the world.

Some of the things I’ve been canning are recipes easily found, and some are recipes I’ve altered. I have to say that of the ones I’ve done so far this season, the one I am most excited about is probably the fennel bulb with orange. It’s only a refrigerator pickle, so there wasn’t any processing necessary. That’s why it’s the perfect recipe to share with people who might be afraid to pickle…

But you know, you really shouldn’t be. It’s very simple once you get the basics of canning and pickling down. You have to have sterile jars and vinegar with 5% acidity. You want unblemished produce and hot brine. Those things are all pretty easy to come by, and so are easy recipes. This is one of them, and you won’t be disappointed. It doesn’t produce the satisfying snap of a jar sealing, but if you’ve been thinking about trying out pickling and looking for a good place to start (and love fennel as much as I do) then this might just be the gateway pickle you’ve been looking for.

Hang on a second.

Sorry, I just had to go eat some straight from the jar and do a little happy pickle dance.

Fennel Pickled with Orange
adapted from The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich (thanks Rose!)

makes 2 pints

1 1/2 lb fennel bulbs, sliced in chunks about 1/4″ thick
2 tsp pickling salt
zest of one orange
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
Juice of the orange, plus water to make 3/4 cup
2 Tbsp sugar
8 whole peppercorns, cracked with a knifeblade

Slice up your fennel. This is part of where I altered the original recipe, which called for slicing them very thin. I thought it would be nice to have a chunkier piece, but you could do it either way really. Next, toss the fennel with the salt in a large, nonreactive bowl and leave to sit at room temp for 1 hour.

While the fennel is sitting, sterilize 2 clean pint jars in a 250ºF oven for 20 minutes, or you can do this in a boiling water bath. The jars don’t need to stay warm once they are sterile, but do leave them undisturbed while they are waiting to be packed. Even though this pickle won’t be getting processed (essentially pasteurized) you don’t want anything gross in there so that they can keep for longer in the fridge. (Theoretically–they probably won’t stick around that long anyway.)

Drain the fennel, discarding the brine. Do not rinse. Toss with the orange zest and pack it all into the jars, adding four crushed peppercorns to each jar.  

Heat the liquids, along with the sugar, in a small pan to boiling, making sure that all the sugar has dissolved. Using a funnel, pour the liquid over the fennel. Put the clean cap on the jar (doesn’t need to be two piece or even an unused lid, since you’re not processing.) Cool to room temp before refrigerating. Let it sit for at least 48 hours before eating. 

If you can stand it.