Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Celebratory Baking!

I have previously posted some of my creative cake baking exploits - all executed for the sake of the entertainment of my children - but not all that beautiful at the end of the day. (See here and here).

Thanks to my mom, we have much more impressive results to show for our last round of cake baking!

Tater receive the Puzzle Cakes set of funky-shaped silicone cupcake cups for Christmas from Nana. This afternoon we followed the directions (mostly) and we were able to create this FABULOUS fish cake and super FUN bug. The bug was improvised since we had leftover batter, but he turned out cute!

Basically you just arrange the little cups according to the diagram in the box. Fill them up with cake batter (whatever kind you like - ours was Betty Crocker vanilla). Then bake as usual and then ice them when they cool. Very fun and very easy.

We colored vanilla frosting to do the fish - first we put yellow coloring into the frosting tub and did the fins and tail. Then we added a few drops of red coloring to make it all orange and did his middle. The eye is white spray frosting (left over from the gingerbread house project) as is the white on the "bubbles". The black is gel frosting in a little tube. And we had a thing of "ocean" sprinkles so the "bubbles" have little dolphins on them and the fish is sprinkled with little sea turtles.

The bug was just frosted with straight-up vanilla frosting and then sprinkled with red sugar. His details are drawn on with the black gel icing. I think he might have been better with colored frosting...but he's still cute!

We are going to eat these as part of our New Year's Celebration.

First the grown-ups are going out to dinner while the kids go play at My Gym (yay My Gym!) After dinner we will come home and have fizzy drinks in fancy glasses (the kids usually have Sprite while the adults go for a little champagne) and a treat (the cakes).

Then we will have a noise parade around the house. Pots and pans, pot lids and wooden spoons. I didn't get any silly hats this year - but I am sure we will come up with something!

Then the kids go to bed and the grown-ups stay up to see Dick Clark usher in the New Year.

It's not the most glamorous plan - but it works for us. And I am totally anxious to try the cakes!

Happy 2009 to all of you! Let's hope it brings health, happiness and prosperity to all of us. As I remind the kids frequently - you don't have to have money to be rich! (Although a little cash never hurts!)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Monkeying Around

Hope everyone had an awesome holiday and has recovered (at least partially) from the madness of it all. We are decidedly in the post-celebration phase of winter vacation and looking for fun!

I have completely not been following my own advice this week and we have been completely winging it. After approximately 47,000 hours of MarioCart on the new Wii, we (I) decided it was time to get out of the house.

The need to get out, combined with Tater jumping around the house like a lunatic, led me to believe that a place with moonbounce-type entertainment would be the way to go.

After considering several local alternatives, we chose Monkey Joe's in Pottstown. Strangely, their website is - although they are seriously REALLY far from Philly.

Located in the "Suburbia Shopping Center" on Route 100, essentially an oasis of commercialism in the middle of nowhere, Monkey Joe's, unlike many similar establishments, is brightly lit, with huge windows in the "parent lounge" area (with massage chairs and free WIFI!!) The facility is relatively new - they have probably been there about a year - so everything is nice and clean and new.

There are referees who monitor the kids (although I still can't quite allow myself to plop in front of the big screen TV (!) and watch Judge Joe while the kids are playing). Everyone seemed to be playing nicely with no major catastrophes looming on the horizon.

I really liked that they had a wristband system where kids and parents are tagged upon entry with matching numbers and no one can leave with a kid unless the numbers match. I am frantic that way :) Something about Chuck E. Cheese makes me think child predators are lurking in every corner, this felt very safe to me.

The kids bounced and slid for 2 hours, only taking a break to recharge with some scary Spongebob popsicles. Ahhh...the joys of artificial color and flavor molded into the shape of a cartoon character!

There was a moment when Mr. Monkey Joe himself (creepy - see picture above) made an appearance and I thought Tater might lose it. But he held himself together surprisingly well and even waved from afar. I think we have turned a corner in the realm of dressed-up things. Not quite Disney ready, but possibly less likely to run screaming from Chik-Fil-A if the cow makes an appearance. Good stuff!

Monkey Joe's is offering 1/2 price admission on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day - and they have lots of special things going on during the week - magic shows, story times, etc. I would highly recommend checking out Monkey Joe's if the kids need to get out and let off some steam while it is cold outside!

A great place to get your bounce on!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Easy Holiday Hat

I guess "holiday" would be pushing it, since I think reindeer are really only relevant to Christmas. But I think any kids would like this purely for amusement value.

Insanely easy.

Fold a piece of brown construction paper in half. Trace a child's hand (or your own, if you'd like) onto it. Make the "wrists" a little long so that you have something to tape onto the headband. Cut the hand out. You should have 2 hand cut-outs (because of the folding). You can cut them individually if that seems more fun to you.

Make a band of construction paper (mine is poster board, but you are more likely to have paper, I am guessing) that fits around the child's (or your) head. Tape it together.

Tape the hands onto either side of the headband.

Voila - Reindeer antlers.

I think it would be fun to cut a circle of red out and hang it down from the front (with string?) to make a Rudolf version...or you could decorate the band with stickers or glitter or something. But the straight-up version is really cute. Tater was wearing it yesterday and loved it.

We are making these at Sprout's school holiday party this afternoon. I think it will be amusing to see all of the kids wearing them. It's 4th Grade - so some kids might think they are too cool for them. But I am going to wear mine!

This could be a Christmas Eve activity during a family gathering...something for the kids to do while the parents are visiting...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Teacher Gift

When I wrote a few weeks ago about making the wreath out of paper hand cutouts, I suggested that I might try to make a felt version for Sprout's teacher as a gift from her class. So, voila - there it is!

The teacher had each child trace a hand and sent the tracings home to me. Hopefully she doesn't know why...

I cut the hands out of green felt and wrote the kids' names on the middle fingers (no, not as a gesture to the teacher - because they tended to the be the biggest fingers to write on) in fabric paint (gold glitter - sparkly!)

Once all the names were dry, I arranged them in two layers - big hands on the outside, smaller ones on the inside and stuck them together with Tacky Glue (I am out of hot glue - and I always hurt myself with it anyway!) I filled in under where the bow was going to go with "fake" hands so no one's name is covered.

To reinforce the whole thing I cut a ring out of a soda box (classy, right?) and glued it onto the back. Then trimmed all the places where "Pepsi" was showing between the fingers.

Then...(this is turning into a saga...sorry) the fingers on the top were flopping down, so I sprayed the back of them with fabric stiffener (yes, there is such a super starch). And then attached a very glittery bow. I used the glitter paint to write 2008 on the bow.

I think it turned out super cute (if slightly more involved than I thought it might be) and I hope the teacher likes it!

If I did it again I would try to find a way for the kids to help (oops). I was being insanely control-freakish about the whole thing since I didn't know what I was doing. Not proud of that part...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Holiday Issue of Barrel of Chipmunks Newsletter

Esther and I just finished up the first issue of the Barrel of Chipmunks Newsletter.

Download your FREE copy here. We hope that you can use these ideas to entertain your little Chipmunks during the long long (long) winter break.

Let us know what you there too much? Not enough? Too hard? Too easy? We'd love to know what you think. Comment here or send me an e-mail. Any feedback would be MUCH appreciated!

All the best!

Friday, December 12, 2008

It Takes a Village

Koziar's Christmas Village in Bernville, PA to be more specific. I found this place by Googling "Christmas Festival" and my zip code. So if you aren't anywhere near The Middle of Nowhere, PA - you can try that technique to find something good wherever you are.

Apparently other people around here already knew about the Christmas Village, my neighbors were going tonight with a church group and my friend in Pottsville had been there before, but I was in the dark - which isn't all that surprising.

Bernville is outside of Reading, near the airport. It took about an hour to get there from our place. I had been told that it is quite a dramatic sight to come over a hill and see the lights. So, of course, for about 5 miles, we proceeded over every hill with bated breath. And then, there it was...and quite dramatic indeed.

Of course, I had forgotten to explicitly check the hours of operation for Fridays (we had originally planned to go Wednesday, but were rained out). So we were there about 15 minutes before they opened at 6 (M-F 6-9 and S-S 5-9:30). Oops.

Luckily this gave us extra time to go back to the car for the hats and gloves that everyone thought they didn't need, but really did. The line moved quickly once the gates were opened and admission was pretty reasonable - $7 for adults and $5 for kids under 12.

The vast majority of the displays are outdoors, so tonight, when the temps were around freezing, it was pretty nippy out there. Luckily there are a few places to duck into, get some hot chocolate or hot apple cider, and warm up before you go back for more.

It is difficult to fully convey what there is to see. Lots and lots of lights. Lots and lots of characters - from the Peanuts, to the Flintstones, to Sesame Street - the whole gang is there on what look to be hand-painted displays. There is a path to follow that meanders through all of the displays. Music is playing.

There are little tableaus (I think that is the appropriate word) of toy shops and candy shops and other Christmas Scenes. Some were mildly disturbing, but most were cute. There is a dancing thing that sort of made my skin crawl and Sprout proclaimed a number of things - especially those with moving dolls - to be "creeeeepy".

Rudolf and Frosty were hanging around for pictures, resulting in a historic moment when my little Tater decided it would be OK to have his picture taken with BOTH Frosty and Rudolf (this is the boy who has been terrified of dressed-up things for his entire life).

There are also two impressive train set-ups, one outdoors and one indoors. The indoor one was huge and, you know, indoors - which was a plus at the point where I could no longer feel my toes.

Named one of the top ten attractions in PA as well as the Best Outdoor Christmas Display in the World (!), the kids proclaimed it to be "Awesome" - even Sprout, who I was told might be too old to appreciate the kitchy nature of the whole scene.

Tater said we should go back next year and the next year and the next year. So that is pretty much the best endorsement you are going to get.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gift Ideas

Like many people, we are trying to control our spending on Christmas gifts. Of course, we still want the people we are gifting to know that we love and care about them. So here are a few ideas that we came up with for this year.

I have written before about how much I love the "Feel Your Boobies" campaign for early detection of breast cancer through self-examination. They offer some of their products in bulk - which is a great way to spread the message, show your friends you care, benefit a great cause AND save some cash.

I also love the charitable aspect of TOMs Shoes. For every item purchased from TOMs, they give a pair of shoes to a child who would otherwise not have any. There is a gift certificate option, some very cute t-shirts and things, and of course, the shoes themselves. I personally ordered the Navy keeping with the "one for them, one for me" philosophy I used to be able to follow back in the days before kids and mortgages. Is that wrong?

For the kids, we have decided to provide some delayed gratification...or long-term gratification, depending on how you look at it. They will get a somewhat edited pile of presents, and then coupons that can be traded in each month for a $25 gift card for a new toy (or some other item of their choice). This gives us the chance to spread the spending out over the year, and also the chance to say "Yes" to toys and things all through the year instead of buying a big heap of stuff now that they don't really want. I ordered gift certificates on VistaPrint to wrap up - but if I had been smarter, I would have just made them on the computer. Lesson learned for next year!

If you have any great ideas for gifts, feel free to comment and share!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Utimate Party?

The lovely ladies at Mom Central hooked me up with the ingredients to make Ultimate Party Meatballs. I don't know about you, but "Ultimate Party" and "Meatballs" haven't really occurred to me within one thought before. At this point in my life, the Ultimate Party is one that ends early, but hey, one with meatballs sounds interesting.

The recipe itself is super easy. Mix 1 Bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce with 1 can of Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce (and you thought it was just for Thanksgiving!). Heat on the stove, making sure to squish any jelly bits so that they aren't floating around in there. Add in a pound of pre-made appetizer sized meatballs and heat through. Serve (I would think fancy toothpicks would add to the "Ultimate Party" atmosphere).

I made these one night to try them and I have to say the sauce was very yummy. I am not much of a sweet-and-sour meatball person (I prefer mine with spaghetti...or in a sandwich) but if you were, this would be really awesome, and insanely easy.

I might use the sauce as a dipping sauce for chicken fingers, or some other appetizer-ish thing.

The folks at Ocean Spray and Heinz are even offering a sweepstakes on their website with a grand prize of $3000 in gift cards.

That would be the Ultimate Party!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Light it Up

No, that's not my house. But if my kids had a vote, ours would look very much like that.

I just came across a picture from our first Christmas in this house. There are about 3 tastefully arranged strings of white lights. That's it.

Four years later - we have multi-colored lights on a tree, multi-colored lights going up the pillars in the entry, the hook from our windchimes is wrapped with red and white lights to look like a big candy cane, there are some additional white lights in between, and then there is the new (somewhat dangerous) lighted reindeer.

Most years - putting the lights up has been a one-hour ordeal. I use the little 3M sticky hooks and my fingers go numb trying to peel the itty bitty papers off of them (impossible to do with gloves). But that is about as much trauma as there has been.

This time it has taken me a full week to get them all up and functioning.

The first round of lights on the tree and the bushes went reasonably OK. Then I got the candy cane lights all wrapped up and plugged them in to find that none of the reds were lighting.

So back to the store for more reds. Unwrap, rewrap.

Back to the store for the lights for the pillars (the old (white) ones half-died). Got them all hooked up and turned on. Then about an hour later - half of the lights outside were out. One of the strings of lights from the new set had died.

Back to the store - new set. Take down, put up, plug in. Pretty.

Then an hour later - half the lights outside were out. The replacement string had died.

I finally put it all together and figured out that I had too many things all plugged in to one extension cord. Oops.

That whole thing about only plug 4 strings together...they meant that?

Rejig the cords...replace the blown string... Whew. And everything stayed lit. Score!

Then I saw the deer at the store. A cheap-ish deer allowing me to satisfy the pleas from the kids for some novelty item without a) breaking the bank and b) ending up with an enormous inflatable thing in my yard.

Brought the deer home...set him up...nearly killed myself while attempting to stake him into the ground (forgot about the sharp sharp antlers). And then only half of him lit up.

At this point two things kept running through my mind - the line in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" where he says "There's a light on this tree that won't light on one side." and the version of the 12 Days of Christmas where the guy keeps whining about putting up the !@#$%^&* Lights.

So the deer goes back in the box. And a new one comes home. And he is set up and staked in and lit up. And I am officially done.

I know - I am tired just writing it and I am sure you are all "Enough already!" reading it!

One of my favorite Christmas season pastimes is driving around on the way home at the end of the day and taking detours to see all of the Christmas lights. There is a shopping area/park with a ton of white twinkle-light covered trees and the kids beg to go past the "Sparkly Trees". There is a neighborhood next to ours with enormous mansions with very pretty Christmas displays.

But a couple of years ago, we happened to turn down this out of the way road. And the houses are neat little duplex-types. And we come around the corner and see - WOW - the house in the picture up above there. My camera-phone picture doesn't begin to capture the amount of STUFF these people have in their yard. It is utterly AMAZING.

And today when we drove by, both kids said - "We should do our house like THAT!"

I don't think we should. I am not strong enough for that...I think we have maxed out my capacity to rig up outdoor Christmas lights (although I have barely started on the back!)

But I am so glad someone out there does!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Glittery, Flaky Fun

My photography doesn't do this one credit. These are actually really pretty and sparkly. If you did a bunch, they would look great on the windows next to the front door (what are those called?)

The kids loved this project. To start, you draw a pattern on a piece of white paper. Simple lines are easiest to trace, but the kids can draw whatever they want. Something snowflaky.

Then put a clear plastic sheet (like a transparency film - we used a plastic notebook divider) over the white paper. Use "puffy" fabric paint to trace over the lines on the pattern. We used a silver glitter paint and a "crystal" glitter paint. Kids might need a little help getting the lines consistently thick. I just traced back over the thin spots after they were done.

The paint really needs to sit overnight to be fully dry. Don't let anybody touch it before it is dry (note the large fingerprint right in the middle of our flake...) In the morning, carefully peel the snowflake off of the plastic and stick it to the window.

I got this idea from Family Fun Magazine (highly recommend many of their projects). Their version said to use waxed paper instead of the plastic sheet. We tried that on our first batch, but there was a residue of wax stuck to the back of the flake. So about 10 minutes after we put up our first snowflakes, they fell off of the window and the dog immediately ate them. We think he is part piranha.

So - don't use waxed paper. Or, put them somewhere far away from your piranha dog.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dream House

As in, "keep dreaming, because you don't get to eat that."

Poor poor children. Forced to play with candy and cookies and frosting...only to be told that the resulting creations are off limits.

In keeping with our family Black Friday tradition, we stayed far away from the retail mania and started to construct theoretically edible Christmas cheer.

We did both the house and the tree from $9.99 kits from Michael's. Everything included - appropriately shaped cookies, candy and frosting mix.

After an unfortunate frosting bag incident during the creation of the tree (apparently I didn't thin it out enough and it came bursting out the side of the, yuck), we resorted to "spray can" frosting. I must admit that, although it is mighty entertaining to spray frosting out of a can, the frosting itself is not completely appropriate for gingerbread-based construction. Too fluffy.

This resulted in some unfortunate slippage of the roof of the house (if you look closely there is a huge dent in the middle - somewhat covered with gumdrops).

The spray frosting also sort of broke the budget at $4.50 a can (and we used 2).

But overall, I think the result is quite spectacular. And those happy kids are surely worth a few overpriced cans of off-limits frosting.

Of course, the kids were careful to ration their decorations such that there is a generously heaping pile of candies left over.

Smart kids :)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Weirdest Kid Ever

Tater's new favorite snack is edamame. You probably are thinking "Eda-who?" Seriously!

Soybeans. Shelled soybeans. Straight-up green. Protein-packed. Isoflavone rich. And, when sprinked with a little kosher salt, downright tasty.

Weirdest. Kid. Ever.

I wouldn't have thought they'd be good. But I have seen them suggested as a yummy snack in numerous magazines and books and thought, why not? I figured maybe I could suffer through a few. And wouldn't it be amusing to try to get the kids to eat them?

They were super-easy to prepare. Take frozen bag of shelled edamame, and dump it into a microwave-safe bowl. Put on the lid. Microwave for 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Done.

First taste...hmmm....salty (from, you know, the salt...)...not too beany...sort of indescribable...maybe a little nutty? Um...yum?

Tater came creeping over - "What is that?"
Me: "Edamame"
T: "Who's Mommy?"
Me: "Soybeans...Taste one...they are salty."
T: "Mmmm...I like these beans!"

Sprout was too terrified by the greenness to even give them a shot. But I am not all that surprised by that. Tater, however, ate handfuls of them yesterday and then jumped at the chance to have some for his after-school snack today.

And I am having trouble keeping my hands out of them. How totally weird is that??