Sunday, April 13, 2014

Barn Yard Bash: A Farm-Themed Birthday Party for Miles


My little boy turned two yesterday. Since he looooves animals and I am way too pregnant to want to entertain 30+ people at my house, I decided to throw him a birthday party on a farm. I rented the Hart Barn at Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle, MA. Throwing a party at a state park is super affordable, plus it's nice to also be supporting local conservation efforts. We could have had a party in their pavilion or any outside areas for free, but not wanting to tempt the New England weather gods in mid-April,  I opted to rent their Hart Barn, which is used as a cross-country ski center in the winter. The total rental cost was $100 for the day, plus their usual fee of $2 per car for parking. And, really, they couldn't have been more accommodating. They even gave our group a free tour of their state-of-the-art dairy operation. All I had to do was bring food and set up some decorations and activities for the kiddos. (This all got done because of a few awesome ladies who helped me out -- thanks girls!)

If you're planning your own farm-themed birthday party, here are some food, craft, and decoration ideas (with links) for making it a real barnyard bash.

The Cake



I made a carrot cake (recipe below) in a 9x13 pan for the base, and covered it in green cream-cheese frosting (recipe here). I also made a chocolate cake (from a box -- shhh) in a pyrex bowl, which I baked for 55 minutes at 350 degrees. I arranged some toy tractors on the hill and little plastic animals around the base, and made a little garden plot with piped rows of veggies.

Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting Recipe: 


Ingredients:
2 sticks (1 lb.) of butter, room temperature
1 1/2 bars (12 oz.) of cream cheese, room temperature
~ 7 cups of powdered sugar

Directions: Beat butter until fluffy. Add cream cheese, whip until combined. With the mixer on a lower speed, slowly add powdered sugar until it's all combined, then turn the speed up for a minute or two to whip. Since I was making two colors of frosting, I divided it in two, added a few drops of green food coloring to one half and a few tablespoons of cocoa powder the the other half.

Carrot Cake Recipe:


Ingredients:
1 1/2 c. white whole wheat flour
1 c. white sugar
11/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. salt 
2/3 c. vegetable oil
3 large eggs
11/2 c. finely grated peeled carrots (thank you, food processor!)
1 c. finely chopped pecans
1 c. raisins 

Directions:
1. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and spices.

2. Add oil and eggs. Mix together at a low speed.

3. Then add carrots, raisins, and pecans. Stir until combined.

4. Spread batter evenly onto a greased and floured 9x13 pan. (It looked pretty flat to me, but it puffed up while baking.) 

5. Bake about 30 minutes, until it passes the clean toothpick test.

6. Let it cool for about ten minutes before sliding a knife around the perimeter and inverting it onto a cooling rack.
7. Frost and enjoy.

The dessert table also included Apple Crisp, Chocolate and Mint Macarons (made by a friend of mine in pastry school), and chocolate mini-donut "tractor wheels."

The Lunch and Snack Menu 


Tractor Wheels Pasta Salad
Ham and Swiss Pig Rolls (Crescent Roll Sandwiches)
Cockadoodle Chicken Salad
Barnyard Baked Beans
Augur Spiral Mac and Cheese
Veggie Chips and Dip
Assortment of fresh veggies from the garden (grocery store) of Farmer Miles (with Ranch Dip)

My grandfather got pretty into the theme.
I neglected to get a picture, but we also had a chocolate milk bar, where I set out white paper cups with cow stickers (printable at the bottom of this post), red striped straws, Hershey's chocolate syrup, and milk.

Decorations


I printed a happy birthday banner and glued the letters onto brown and tan triangles cut out of cardstock. I found the free downloadable letters at a the Shanty-2-Chic Blog



I also made this number two sign out of cardboard, wrapping paper, and mod podge. I just drew and cut out the letter, glued on the paper (wrapping it around the back), and added some of my favorite pictures of Miles from the past year. 


The goodie bags were red kraft bags with cow stickers that I made on the front. I filled them with animal crackers, chocolates wrapped in foil to look like carrots, and a packet of sunflower seeds. 

Activities



I bought some little terra cotta pots, which the kids painted during the first half of the party. Once they were dry, they each planted a pansy to take home. As you can see, we had quite a range of ages, but they all really enjoyed this little project. 




Some farm-themed coloring books also got quite a bit of use. 


The tractor piñata (available on Amazon) was cute, but nearly indestructible. After the kids took crack after crack at it (even breaking the whiffle ball bat), my husband had to smash it for them. So if you're going to buy this one, you might want to use a real baseball bat. Everyone enjoyed chasing after the seed packets and Milky Way bars (get it -- cow farm, har har) that spilled out. 

The ring toss, bocce, rubber horseshoes, and corn hole games also got lots of use. 

But the best part was a little hike up to the farm and a tour of the dairy barn. 

Glad I could keep everyone entertained.

Inside the milking barn: they had a robot milker that scanned each cow's ear tag and milked each cow twice a day. The cows went over on their own when they were ready. 


Everyone loved petting the baby calves. They ranged from two days old to five months old.



 And here are some printables you can use if you're having your own farm party:

I printed this on sticker paper, and stuck them on the favor bags and on white cups at the chocolate milk bar.
Download here.

I printed these as 4x6 photos, cut out, and glued onto little tin buckets for utensils.
Download here.

Download here. 

Also 4x6. I used red text, printed on photo paper, and backed with red construction paper.
Download here.






Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Recipe: Maple Syrup Crème Brûlée


Everyone in our house has had quite the case of sweet tooth lately, and this delicious recipe for Maple Syrup Crème Brûlée most definitely satisfied all of our cravings...at least for one evening.

Here's how to do it.

Ingredients: 

2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla paste
1 large egg
3 large egg yolks
7 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons each of sugar in the raw and white sugar, for topping
6 (4-ounce) ramekins

Directions: 

Part 1: The Custard

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

In a saucepan, heat cream and vanilla paste over medium heat until it scalds slightly (you'll see bubbles around the edge of the pan). Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

While the cream is cooling, whisk eggs and syrup together in a mixer or bowl. With the beater on low, slooooowly add the slightly-cooled cream to the eggs, and blend evenly.

Place ramekins in a baking dish (a Pyrex Casserole works well) and add hot water to reach halfway up the ramekins. Fill with custard.

Bake for about 40 minutes, until you see a little jiggle (but nothing liquidy) when you tap the side of the pan.

Remove the ramekins from the water bath and place on a cooling rack for half an hour. Then refrigerate for at least a couple of hours, until they finish setting.

Part 2: The Brûlée

Place the ramekins of chilled custards on a baking dish, and sprinkle a coating of sugar evenly on top. (We used a combination of white sugar and sugar in the raw for a deeper flavor. You can use whatever you have in your cupboard.) Use a culinary torch to caramelize the sugar until it bubbles and hardens.


Keep going...



(If you don't have a torch, you can also do this final step under the broiler. Just make sure you're watching carefully.)

Sometimes you just can't wait, and it's okay to eat them right away. If you're more patient, you might pop them back in the fridge for a couple of minutes to chill.

I can never say no to a dob of whipped cream and a few strawberries to top it all off.

Bon appétit!



Click here for more maple syrup techniques and recipes.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Making Maple Syrup, Plus Some Tasty and Sweet Recipes




We (Chris) boiled down about half of our maple sap this weekend. This was our second year making syrup, and we've made a few improvements. Last year, we did most of the evaporating over our open fire pit in the backyard. Our syrup was good, but a little smoky tasting. This year, we went with big flat-bottom pans and Chris built some cinder block walls and a chimney around our fire pit to keep the smoke away.

When most of the water was gone, we brought what was left inside, turned the vent hood on high, and finished it on the stovetop. For this batch, we used the temperature method (boiling at 219 degrees Fahrenheit) to assess when we had reached the right consistency. In the next few days, we'll have a hydrometer coming in the mail, so we'll try that method for our next batch and compare.

Now, making syrup is fun and all, but the part I really care about is eating it. All this week, I'll be posting different recipes that include maple, including sugar maple coffee, maple crème brûlée, easy maple butter, maple-mustard chicken, maple candy, and maybe even a few more. (Did that sound like a deleted scene from Forrest Gump?) I'll start you off with this morning's breakfast: Oat Nut Maple-Peach French Toast.



Ingredients:

2 peaches
A few berries
2T butter
6 Slices of Oat Nut Bread
3 Eggs
1/2 c. milk
1 tsp. cinnamon
~2T Maple butter

Start off by making a batch of Easy Maple Butter. (I had this whipping in the background while I was making everything else.)


Next, slice the peaches and sear them in 1 tablespoon of butter. These will brown up in about 2-3 minutes per side on medium-high. (The caramelizing sugar in the peaches makes this a little sticky...be prepared to use some elbow grease when cleaning your pan.)


Heat a skillet with 1/3 of your remaining butter (you'll use the rest to re-grease the pan in between toast batches.) Beat together the eggs, milk, and cinnamon. Dunk toast, getting both sides saturated, and fry until golden on each side.

Top your French Toast with the seared peaches, a little pat of maple butter, a drizzle of syrup, and whatever else makes you happy (whipped cream? frozen yogurt?)

Now go eat it while it's hot!


Easy Maple Butter





I've made honey butter before, but since we have such an abundance of maple syrup right now, I thought I'd give maple butter a shot. Here's how to do it.

You'll need one stick of butter, 1/8 of a cup of maple syrup, and a candy thermometer.

Heat the maple syrup to soft ball stage (234 degrees Fahrenheit).



Add the butter and whisk until it's melted.



Transfer to a mixer, turn on medium-high, and let it do its thing for about 15 minutes.



This will store for quite a while, but I don't think we'll have to worry about keeping it past the next week or so in our house.


For more on making and cooking with maple syrup, click here



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Mama-Tested Guide to Maternity Clothing

There comes a point in every pregnancy when your old clothes, including your fat pants, just don't fit anymore, even when you loop a rubber band through the buttonhole and around the button and wear a long shirt to cover up the open zipper.

What's a girl to do? Maternity clothes can be so expensive, and it hardly seems worth it for such a short amount of time (unless you are planning on having lots of babies, which I am not.) If your partner is on the lanky side, like my husband, borrowing his clothes may just look really awkward. I decided that I needed to figure out how to repurpose some of my current wardrobe and give myself more options with versatile pieces without breaking the bank. 







Here are my tried-and-true favorites: 

1. Good-Looking and Versatile Pants.
Jessica Simpson Secret Fit Belly 5-Pocket Skinny Leg Jeans: I got two pairs of these (purple and burgundy) in a buy-one-get-one-free sale at Motherhood Maternity. I have tried on many pairs of maternity pants, and these are by far the most comfortable and stylish. They stay up all day, stretch in every direction, and the waist band provides just the right amount of support and doesn't sag or slip. Ever. They look great tucked into boots during the fall and winter and paired with sandals, flats, or low heels when the weather is warmer. The colors make them a little dressier than regular blue jeans, so I regularly wear them to work. Really, I can't say enough about these.

Make sure you have a comfortable pair of jeans and a go-to pair of black pants. If you want them to last through your pregnancy, I'd suggest over-belly. Low-rise pants work for a while, but get uncomfortable and tight in the third trimester. I did like having a couple of demi-waist pairs in the beginning of my pregnancy and postpartum, while I was still getting back into shape.

2. Tunics and Dresses
Almost any empire-waist dress you have in your closet will make a great maternity tunic that can be worn over a pair of leggings. (I like using flowy pieces with prints or textures to disguise the bellybutton pop.) Pair with an open cardigan in colder weather for a put-together look. Wrap dresses will accommodate a growing bump pretty well too, for a while, at least.

I didn't have too many long-sleeved dresses or tunics, so I bought a few maternity options as well. I've gotten many compliments on Jessica Simpson's Convertible Sleeve Pleated Maternity Tunic, also from Motherhood. I like the silky texture, over-the-butt length, and pleating detail over the bellybutton.

Japanese Weekend is a bit of a splurge, but they sometimes have pretty good sales. I have two of their cotton double neck dresses, which are worth it to me because they work for both maternity and nursing. I got mine on sale for $20-$30. 

3. Tank Tops
Why do most of the maternity versions of tank tops seem to be twice as expensive? I have not been able to figure this out, but they are a pretty vital wardrobe component. Get these at Old Navy -- their regular tank tops in tall sizes (one size up) worked for me well into the third trimester. They also have at least some maternity tanks and tamis in the $5 - $10 range. Colors and patterns are great, but make sure you have black, white, gray, and beige for layering. If you do decide to spend more on tank tops, buy some with nursing straps -- if you're planning on breastfeeding, you'll be so happy to have them once the baby arrives. 

4. Open Cardis
I can't think of a single good reason to spend money on a maternity cardigan. I much prefer throwing a long, flowy regular cardigan over a maternity tank top and calling it a day. I like cocoon-style with dresses.  I found some of these in my closet and also got a few from Charlotte Russe that work perfectly over a tank top and can remain part of my regular wardrobe afterward too.

5. Ruched, Form-Fitting, or Belted Maternity Tops
Get a few in short and long sleeves. Old Navy and Target usually seem to have a pretty good selection. Target prices and options are better online than in my local store. Make sure they are looooong enough, since you really don't want the bottom of your belly peeking out at inopportune times. Patternspolka dots, dark colors, and horizontal or diagonal stripes are the cutest. Avoid sheer and white.

6. Leggings
I prefer the under-belly leggings from Old Navy. I wish they came in more colors, but the black and gray ones are comfortable, have the right amount of stretch, and go with just about anything. Some days you just need stretchy pants, and it's a bonus when you can throw a pair under a non-maternity dress that has become too short to wear as anything but a tunic.

My Favorite Maternity Shops (for looking or buying):
Old Navy
$-$$ Target
$$ Motherhood Maternity
$$ Pink Blush
$$ ASOS
$$$ Japanese Weekend
$$$ LOFT Maternity
$$-$$$ Seraphine Maternity

From Bad to Worse: Beware
 

Every mama's body is different. You may absolutely love something that I couldn't stand. With that said, here are my maternity wardrobe no-nos.

* I actually don't mind how Target's Liz Lange maternity work pants look, but my problem is that they don't sew the elastic into their low-rise pants (so it twists all around) and all of their styles seem to be made for extraordinarily tall women. If you are willing to get out your sewing machine and make a few adjustments, these might be for you, but I wish they offered some length options and put more thought into finishing.

* H and M maternity items look great on their website, but for me, they just didn't work out in person. I ordered a whole bunch of things from there. All three of the pants I ordered were ridiculously tight with awkward waistbands and no give. They were seriously the most uncomfortable things I (tried to) put on. Their basic tees were too short to work for the whole nine months, and their blouses hung awkwardly, making me look way bigger than I actually was. The worst part is that you can't return or exchange online items in a store, and the location near me did not have much or a maternity selection at all. You also can't return items that are missing a tag, and you only have thirty days to mail everything back. Hmmph.

* I hate bellabands. At the point in pregnancy when you need them, they either fall down at the top or ride up at the bottom. Ugh.

* Maternity underwear. Just don't. If your skivvies get too tight, just buy regular low-cut underwear in a size up. I'll spare you the specifics, but take my word for it.

***

I hope this guide is helpful to you. What are your go-to maternity pieces, and where are your favorite places to shop for them?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Huge Giveaway From Fawn Over Baby

Happy Monday!

Today I'm sharing an exciting giveaway from Fawn Over Baby. The first prize includes, among other things, one of my Flying Attitude Alphabet Prints. Details on the (many) prizes and how to enter are below. If you don't win and would like a copy of the print, you can, as always, purchase one in the Unexpected Knock Shop. Good luck!

Courtesy Of The Following Shops:
Winner 1 will receive:
Winner 2 will receive:

Prize #3$50 Paypal Cash
Courtesy of the following Blogs:

Prize 4: A Bella Lulu Ink Blogger Template
Courtesy of Bella Lulu Ink (Fawn Over Baby's Official Blog Designer)

Giveaway Entry Form
Now that we've seen all the wonderful prizes, here is your chance to win them!! Please Follow Entry Instructions Below:
  1. You must first leave a comment letting us know which prize you have your eye on! (First Entry..Done!)
  2. For Extra Entries, you may fill out the lovely rafflecopter form below.
  3. Giveaway will end Thursday, March 20th - 12PM EST. 
  4. Winners will be chosen randomly and announced, Friday, March 21st!
  5. All Winners' Entries Will Be Verified (If Entry Action is not complete - prize will go to next randomly chosen contestant)
  6. Feel Free To Share With Family and Friends!
  7. Have Fun and Good Luck!

A Rafflecopter Giveaway

Friday, March 14, 2014

30-Minute Healthy Chicken and Vegetable Alfredo over Spinach Noodles



Not everything I whip up in the kitchen turns out like my mango fail. Last night, I made this Healthy Chicken and Vegetable Alfredo over Spinach Noodles, which was quick, easy, and a big crowd pleaser. While I have nothing against traditional Alfredo sauce (heavy cream, butter, cheese), I used this better-for-you version I found on Food Network, and it was really delicious.

Here's the recipe:

1 lb. boneless chicken breast, cut into 1" cubes
1 c. kalamata olives, sliced
1 small yellow squash
1 c. cherry tomatoes, sliced
2 T fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic salt
1 T butter
9 oz. Spinach noodle nests
Alfredo Sauce



The first thing I did was cut up my chicken and vegetables. Having all the prep work done in advance makes cooking so much less stressful.


Next, I made the Alfredo sauce. It took about six minutes.



I put a pot of salted water on to boil, and at the same time I melted a tablespoon of butter in a skillet.

I seasoned my chicken with garlic salt, pepper, and 1 T of the parsley, and cooked it on medium-hot for about seven minutes while the water was heating up. At the end, I turned the burner up for the last minute to get that pretty (and tasty) browning.



By the time the chicken was done cooking, the water was boiling, so I dropped my noodles in and set the timer.




I set the chicken aside and used the same pan (no washing!) to cook my vegetables (I added S & P, plus the remainder of the parsley). The vegetables released a bit of liquid while they were cooking, which deglazed the pan, and they soaked up that nice browned flavor from the chicken.



The veggies and pasta finished up at about the same time, so I strained the pasta, poured the sauce overtop, and added my chicken and veggies. Easy, healthy, and delicious!




Variations: I've made similar dishes with different vegetable combinations. Try adding mushrooms, red bell peppers, zucchini, roasted corn, peas, or onions to the mix. You could also add or substitute spicy Italian sausages, diced prosciutto, or chorizo for the chicken.