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Monday, 18 July 2016

It's All About Balance

 It’s been a long time between blogs.

 Last week marked two years since I returned to full time work.

 Which means two years of not being the main Meal Planner and Food Organizer, as well as being home A LOT less during the week. All of which logically add up to Less Time for Cooking. But then there are the other hidden issues that sneak up on you. Like being so tired on a Friday night that you don’t have the mental energy to look through a cook book and see "what takes your fancy” as something to cook, even though its kind of “your turn” to cook at weekends. Like leaning more towards recipes spruiking “quick and easy” rather than new ingredients/techniques/cuisines. Because much and all as it would be lovely to hide in the kitchen on a weekend and spend 5 hours lovingly making lasagne from scratch (fresh pasta lasagne sheets included), there is also the important task of making sure the Stay At Home parent gets a break from parenting/pet caring/housework at the weekend too.

  So my cooking exploits lately have narrowed considerably to include Muffins for the Kids school lunches and cooked Weekend breakfasts. I have thrown in a few Thanks for the (insert good deed) Cookies and a batch of soup for a sick friend but nothing anywhere near 8 hour pulled pork tacos or the like. I even tried to do a Cook Each of my Soups on a Sunday for the winter, but I think I stopped after three. Life gets in the way. 

 So what does a domestic goddess do when faced with this situation?

 One could try and Rage against the Machine and do what the “organized people” do and schedule “meal planning” sessions and “make time” for my cooking; make good on my promise of cooking all the recipes that I have stuffed in my cookbook. Try and shoehorn a (meant to be) fun and creative activity into my already busy life, which would probably squeeze out other things like Chilling Out with Husband or Playing Games with Kids. I’m not sure I’ve gained anything there…

 Or I could (more sensibly) go with the flow. Recognize that Culinary goals change; that perhaps teaching Sons 1 & 2 how to make Caramel Slice is a good use of my skills. Or getting creative with leftovers rather than starting from scratch (much less brain power required as part of the ingredients are already there). Point in case: we had left over roast pumpkin that I turned into pumpkin and haloumi burgers for dinner (and my lunch the next day), and I also used up an about-to-expire tub of sour cream by making beef stroganoff. 
So I guess I’m going through a fallow period at present – I have the recipes and the skills (and many cool ingredients), I just need the time, and brain space to get the creative juices flowing again.

 So maybe, now that the chaos of renovations at work has calmed down, I just need a good session with my recipe book; re-cook some old favorites, earmark some “quick and easy” recipe for dinner, and maybe even pick some recipes that need no excuse apart from I Want To (like my hot chocolate cookies....mmmmm)

It won't happen overnight but it will happen

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Ain't no Party like a Star Wars party (Episode II)

 So you've done a rather successful Star Wars party for your younger son. You've taken both boys to see the new Star Wars movie and they both loved it. Son 1's birthday is coming up. What theme do you think he was requesting??

 Yep, the Return of the Star Wars party. This time, for 10 year olds.

 As the kids get older, I have been aware of things that Were Cool only a year ago, suddenly become Not Cool, or "for babies, mum!!". Luckily Son 1 was at home for Son 2's party, so I could ask "what did you want at your party?" without seeming like a clueless mum. I was already ahead of the curve, as at his party last year, we switched the format to an afternoon-early evening party time, and gotten take-away pizza as the hot food meal (MUCH cooler than party pies and chicken nuggets). So that was sorted and meant less foods to organise.
 Also, amidst all the cool Christmas presents, we got a "Stormtrooper Cookie Kit" - packet mix cookie dough, white and black icing and a cookie cutter. Son 1 was very excited to be making these; I just had to get over my prejudice against Packet Mix (*sniff!* Mine made from scratch would taste Sooooo much better).

 In their defence, the "just add water" instructions were pretty easy to follow. It was easy to roll out and cook (though only made 10 cookies).
Birthday Boy lending a Helping Hand
 But I did run into some issues with icing them. Rather than use the "icing sugar" mix they had supplied, I used some royal icing I had left over from decorating gingerbread men at Christmas. Because that's what it had been used for, it was a bit thicker than you would usually use to ice a large area. I started with Ro's technique of outlining the cookie shape, then filling in and mixing the icing with a toothpick to get a smooth finish, but that ended up with more icing being pulled OFF the biscuits rather than on. In the end I went with the good ol' knife/spatula option. Worked a treat.

 I did use the black icing gel supplied in the box as it meant I didn't have to try and source or color black icing. *  It worked well; the nozzle was quite small so gave a lot of control. I did try and be clever and make First Order trooper helmets as well, but they didn't look as good in my opinion). The lesson? Retro always looks good.

Same design reference, all different. They're like the Seven Dwarfs of Stormtroopers

(apart from the top middle one - this was the first to be "blacked" with the icing. I think the gel has separated in transit and so was a bit runny at the start. I ended up scraping it off and trying again, which made him look like he hadn't cleaned his helmet. For Shame)

 We had chips and cheezels again, but as we had a new movie (and cool new characters), these were now Jakku Chips and BB-8 bits! (thankfully funny food labels are Still Cool).
Galaxy Bread also made an encore appearance; you're never too old for THAT apparently.

 For the cake, I felt it was time to stretch myself creatively; at least a little bit, in the confines of working and having a dinner the night before. A mini stretch maybe? 

 My girlfriend had her daughter's 4th birthday before Christmas and it was (as you would imagine for a girl that age) a Frozen theme. She had seen on Pintrest that people were using the Disney Infinity game pieces as cake decorations: not only did they look awesome but you could then play with them afterwards! We were quite happy to lend her ours (we are big Disney fans as well as Star Wars),  and it looked very effective .

Frosting + fondant + snowflake cutter + candles = awesome cake
 Which got me thinking that maybe I could use the same theory for this cake. There is a fairly important scene in "The Force Awakens" set in a snowy forest (relax - no spoilers, there are scenes from it in the trailer). So I wondered if I could make a snowy forest landscape for my Star Wars-Force Awakens figurines - chocolate frosting as the "ground", mint sticks for the bare tree trunks, and coconut or icing sugar dusted over all as the snow. Sounds good in theory (and looked good in my imagination), let's hope it translated.

 I started well., with a rectangle cake and a heap of chocolate frosting. I quickly realised after my crumb coat that I had to ignore all the Rules of Frosting; forget all the skills I had developed over several years of decorating. This was meant to be a forest, and one where a lightsaber duel had been taking place. So no smooth edges and neat sharp corners, there needed to be lots of texture and uneven ground and piles of .... foresty stuff. So it was quite fun being very haphazard in my frosting application.

 After leaving space for my figurines, I planted my mint-stick-tree-forest, complete with a few chopped off at shorter lengths, and a few fallen limbs here and there. Realising it needed a bit more texture to the terrain, I also chopped up a few pieces of chocolate to make rocks and boulders, and added any bit of cake that had fallen off to look like moss. Too much chocolate?? Never!**

 We then had a blizzard of coconut (both shredded and dessicated for a more textured effect) over everything, before placing our heroes safely in their scene.

Top View
Side View

 I must admit I was pretty happy how it turned out. Possibly because it was such a simple idea, and also because it was one that I was kind of making up as I went along. This does not always go well (there is usually lots of swearing and wishing I had drawn up a Plan), so it was nice to have an end product that vaguely resembled what I had in my mind.

 I got a big "Cool!!" from the birthday boy and lots of other compliments which is always good. In fact the only drawback was one of the kids who "I don't like coconut!". It was alwasy a risk (at least it wasn't an "I don't like chocolate!"), so he got a piece of cake with the frosting shaved off.

 So another successful Star Wars party. And as the next movie is due for release at the end of 2017, there's not harm in putting away ideas for what will be a 9th and 12th birthday party is there?!?!

* although I did realise afterwards that I had black chocolate melts in my cupboard that would have work well. Next time....

** here was another place where the black choc melts would have looked great - different colored rocks and boulders!!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ain’t no party like a Star Wars party (Episode I)

(Wow – it HAS been a long time between blogs – apologies. Full time work (plus a study course for a few months) AND an awesome hubby who cooks most of my meals, doesn’t leave much time to blog and space for inspiration! But stay tuned, ".....there is another")

 I’m always a fan of a themed party; whether its Yule (see here and here), Christmas, or age appropriate birthday themes. Thus, I always have sleepless nights get excited when I have a kids birthday party coming up. Son 2’s birthday was in October, so I started dropping hints early September about what type of theme he would like (It's always a delicate dance between what HE wants and what I think I can work with). His first suggestion was Jurassic World, which had me envisioning lots of fossil and dinosaur related treats (which I had seen around the Interweb). Not a bad start, BUT with the new Star Wars movie (Episode VII:The Force Awakens) coming out a few months later (and us being a house of huge Star Wars fans), I easily steered him in that direction.
 We have always been fans of Star Wars. Husband and I have had several occasions where we watched the original trilogy back to back (one time with special blue colored milk). We went and saw all of the remastered movies when they came out, as well as all of the prequels on opening night. We have shelves of books, boxes of toys, cups and plates,  and even had a large film poster dominating our lounge room for many years. With the newer cartoons of the last few years, I had done a previous Star Wars:The Clone Wars party for Son 1.  We had that party in a park, which did impact on my creativity as I had to be able to transport everything there and back. I was able to have a few Star Wars touches (like lightsaber breadsticks, and we made Stormtrooper masks), but not the whole shebang like I would have with a party at home.

 Now was my chance.

 As with most themed parties I throw, it becomes more about what I DON'T end up making than what I do. With Pintrest and many many Star Wars fans on the internet, there are A LOT of party ideas around! After my Minecraft party (....which I didn't actually blog about), Son 2 liked the idea of cool food labels, so it was also what I could get a good pun name for. 
I did see some great labels online, but some of them made NO sense....

 Han Burgers?? **
 No – much more sensible to do Han SOLO! And his friend, Luke Sky-Water!

Printed labels to the rescue

 (In their defense, Americans don’t have Solo as a drink. Hooray for us)

 I did my breadstick lightsabers again - small pieces of aluminium foil wrapped around grissini-style breadsticks. (I even still had the on-off switch colored stickers I had used from Son 1’s party; I kept them “just in case”. Because that's what I do).

   We also had A.T-C.H.I.P.S and Death Star Bites – not very pun-worthy but it was then best I could come up with for potato chips and cheezels (two party staples)!

 Another party staple is fairy bread, which has made it into several parties by way of cookie cutters to cut the bread. Luckily for me, my brother (who lives in Canada) had sent me some Star Wars sandwich cutters (as well as some pancake moulds – if only I could have incorporated them!).
 So that made it easy to have Galaxy bread (as in “… a galaxy far, far away).

TIE fighters on the left, Millennium Falcons on the right 

 For hot food, we had mini Hutt Dogs (straight from Pintrest) and X-wing bites. 

 The X-Wing bites came from trying to think of something to do with chicken nuggets (One of Son 2's favorite foods)! I ended up using chicken fingers (rather than nuggets), and joining them in an X-shape with toothpicks: very low tech but very well received.

 I also made a batch of Wookie cookies (thanks to Ro for the idea). I used a slightly different recipe (its quite tricky to find "tofffee bits"); the Neiman-Marcus oatmeal cookie recipe (I didn't blend the oats to give them more of a textured look). I also attempted to make elongated cookies (more Chewbacca-esque shape) than Ro's round ones; but as you can see, they did that anyway as I didn't space them our enough on the tray (seriously, I was not going to dirty another tray for ONE cookie!). The most misshapen ones were the "quality control" cookies.

Looking more like Adipose from Doctor Who rather than a warrior from Kashyyyk. But still yum.

I also did a a variation on the s’mores that I had been making.
 I had seen a few variations on TIE fighter snacks on Pintrest – usually with cheese biscuits and a piece of cheese in between

Thankyou random Star Wars fan

But by this stage of planning I needed a few more sweet things, so decided to make my own s’mores TIE cookies!   A batch of chocolate cookies cut in a hexagon (very hard to find a hexagonal cookie cutter!), with a marshmallow in-between, held in place by melted chocolate. Yum!

Again with the too-closely spaced cookies! You'd think I'd have learnt....

TIE assembly line: cookies, chocolate, marshmallow, chocolate, cookie

 If I was making them again, I would make the biscuits a bit smaller, like this...
Thankyou other random Star Wars Fan
 (wait, is that peanut butter they've used to stick them together?? Yum!!!)
 I was trying to do them to scale (yes, I did get out a TIE fighter toy and measure it. Beacause that's what I do), but they ended up being about 7cm long which made them quite ungainly to stick together and store. Delicious, just awkward, and the cookie-to-marhsmallow ratio was all wrong.)

  And to offset all that sugar, I also made FruiTIE fighters as well – (smaller) hexagons of melon with a grape or strawberry in between.

 AND in the just-because-its-cool category, I had marshmallow Storm trooper helmets. This one mainly came about because I had been suckered into buying a bag of Jumbo marshmallows from Costco. Which look great, but are quite difficult to toast over a fire, so I still had ¾ of a bag-full! This was fun as I could use the helmet design for the newest trooper from “The Force Awakens” as well as Clone Troopers. The trick with this was tracking down a black food pen, as well as drawing precisely on a spongy surface!

Not terribly drawn, just not super well drawn.
In easy Grab-and-Eat appropriately themed cups.

 And you can’t just eat at a party, you need activities (especially with boys!!). Husband has amassed quite a collection of Star Wars figures over the years, so they got pulled out. And being 7 year old boys, I knew that if I could incorporate shooting things, it would be a bigger hit. So I set up a Star Wars shooting gallery – Nerf guns aimed at different size figurines. We found that Jabba the Hutt was quite difficult to knock over due to his wide base. As was the super sized Qui Gon Jinn.

 Sticking with the idea of Use What You Have , I also organized Trooper Bowling (another Pintrest idea) – I printed out a few Stormtrooper masks and stuck them to the pins on our bowling set. The we could roll our “Death Star” bowling ball to it and see how many troopers got knocked over (and for the Fans out there – yes, I know the Stormtroopers were on the same side as the Death Star, but it worked better that way!).

Definitely too short to be Stormtroopers

 And finally some combat practice. A popular Star Wars party idea was to make your own lightsabers; some parties even made this as an activity. I knew from previous years that the kids didn’t want to MAKE things so much as PLAY with them, so I pre-made these. Super complicated: Step one – purchase pool noodle from shop (in appropriate colours – I had blue and green as I didn’t want any red Dark Side sabers). Step 2 – cut pool noodle in half to make a suitable blade for 7-year-olds. Step 3 – sticky tape “Lightsaber hilts” (printed out from the internet) around the base and voila!
Looks effective, super easy. My favorite
 But make sure to set some rules before you unleash them on each other, or it would be chaos (ours were No Hitting on the Head and only Two people fighting each other at a time).

Working up an appetite AND burning off sugar
 Last but not least, we had the cake. If I had the time I would have made something awesome like this  or even this!!! (I would have loved making the X-wing and TIE Fighters. The oodles and oodles of Death Star building bits not so much). But as I had the kids party as well as a family party in three days I decided to be sensible and go the cake topper route.
Family Party cake

Kids party Cake. Two toppers = better value postage


 The kids had a ball, the food was a hit and all went home happy.

 The Force was indeed with us.

** I did eventually get this - it was a pun worthy twist on HAMburgers.....