Feb 28, 2014

Finding Nemo Smash Cake + Sugar Cookies

2013 was a special year in our family. Not only did we get to celebrate my husband's 30th birthday and my son's first birthday, my only nephew also turned 1! We live a few states away from each other so it was a huge treat to be able to attend his party. The party theme was Finding Nemo, which turned out just as adorable as it sounds. And not only did I get to go to the party, my sister-in-law let me make my nephew's birthday smash cake! We also made a TON of sugar cookies, but let's start with the cake...

I'd had a bit more practice since my son's hungry caterpillar cake so I got a little more elaborate with this smash cake. To make the 'smashing' easier, the main body of the cake was not covered in fondant and instead iced in a simple white buttercream. The rest of the decorations were made with brightly colored fondant.

For Seaweed: Cut strips of green fondant, taper them on top, and bend and twist them in various ways then lay them out to dry for a few days to harden.

For Coral: The coral pieces were also made a few days in advance using various sized rectangles and then a small circle fondant cutter (or cookie cutter) to create the holes. To get the 3D look, put pencils underneath the fondant while drying.

For Starfish: Cut a pink starfish using a cookie cutter and then 'dimple' the surface using the blunt end of a paintbrush.

Cake Topper: Start by free-handing a giant white fondant '1'. Then add curvy stripes of orange fondant on top and trim to match the edges of the '1'. Then pipe a black buttercream icing along the edges of the orange to mimic a clown fish. In hindsight I would have used a thicker icing tip to get a cleaner black line.

The finishing touches were a few blue candy dots for bubbles along the side, crunched up graham crackers for 'sand' along the bottom, and a  Finding Nemo Figurine. (I knew there was no way I could create a decent Nemo fish out of fondant.)

Obviously, my nephew was a huge fan of the cake. This 'after' picture was taken only partway into his cake eating. We basically had to pull him away as he was shoveling fistfuls into his mouth as fast as he could go :). I don't blame him. Mexican chocolate cake is my favorite too.

And now for the cookies! As I mentioned in this post, my sister-in-law and I had just 'apprenticed' a sugar cookie genius, so obviously we had to put our new skills to the test. The result was a ridiculous amount of fish sugar cookies. I think they turned out pretty great for our first glaze decorating attempt!

We had Nemo, Dory, starfish, angelfish, seahorses, and whales. It turns out you can even make a Dory and a Nemo fish from the same standard fish cookie cutter.

If you have ever decorating with a glaze icing, you know it often has to be completed in steps when multiple colors are used. With the help of my fellow engineer sis-in-law, we set up a little assembly line that allowed the individual colors to set before switching.  

For Nemo: Start with the orange stripes leaving a hole for the eye and the mouth. Make sure the edges of your stripes are a bit wavy and not too straight. Once the orange is partially set, add the white details (stripes, mouth, and eye). Once the white is set, use a black buttercream to detail the black outlines for the stripes, mouth, eye, and fins. 

For Dory: Start with the blue body leaving a hole for the eye, mouth, and fins. Follow up with the black mid-section and fin stripe and white eye and mouth. Fill in the tail and remaining fin tip with yellow glaze. The black buttercream icing again outlines the fin and dots the eye. 

The whale and the starfish were the simplest.
Starfish: Flood the starfish with pink glaze.  Place pink candy dots on the 'arms' and use the buttercream for a smiley face.

Whale: Glaze the blue of the whale first. Add the white belly second, and the black eye and smiley face again with the black buttercream.

The seahorses had no consistent pattern and we really just experimented here.

I went back and forth on which design was my favorite. First it was Nemo, then Dory, but I have decided that the angelfish is actually my favorite.
Angelfish: Start with white and glaze the face, one body stripe, and a stripe on the tail. Add the black, leaving just enough room for yellow detailing on the side fin, top, bottom, and the tail. Finally, add the eye and smile with the black buttercream.

And at this point, I was exhausted and it was midnight. Sugar can only keep you up for so long:).  

Feb 22, 2014

Tips for Bringing a New Mom (or Anyone) Meals + Recipes + Free Printable!

When you are sleep deprived, trying to nurse a baby, and can't think straight enough to remember to brush your teeth, the idea of preparing a healthy balanced meal for your family can tip you over the edge. God bless him, my husband would have been up for preparing meals, but I would have gotten a little tired of baked spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and grilled meat (the three meals he can make). And let's be honest - he was almost as sleep deprived as I was.

This was when I had a realization - bringing someone a meal was not just a 'nice thing to do' - it could really be a huge blessing. I think we ate on other people's food for at least two months after we had our son. Two months!

So this post is dedicated to those amazing friends, family, and even strangers from church who overwhelmed us with their generosity and thoughtfulness. I have had opportunity to return the favor for several of them recently, which got me to thinking about the little (and big) things that made the whole process easier on everyone.

{This post is written specifically for bringing meals to new parents, but the ideas apply to anyone in need of a little extra help.}

For Meal Coordinators
First, a few notes on logistics. Coordinating meals for someone over the course of a few weeks can seem like a difficult task. With a few helpful (free) tools, it has become surprisingly easy.

If there will be multiple people bringing food over the course of a few weeks, I would use a tracking system to coordinate. I have used lotsahelpinghands.com frequently. This website allows you to create a private community calendar with a list of emails. Individuals included in the calendar list can see the available dates and sign up accordingly. The automatic reminders in the system are also very helpful. Don't forget to include the new parents in the email list so they can view the calendar and know what to expect. Mealbaby.com is another alternative. Similarly, a google document or calendar would work.

In general, I have found a schedule of providing meals every other week day (MWF, for example) works very well. Most people bring enough food for more than one day so leftovers generally cover the non-scheduled days. The start and duration of the calendar differs for every couple. Some people want meals right away while other may not want the meals until after visiting family members leave. Whatever the schedule, I would provide a spot for the volunteers to include what food they are bringing. This helps prevent back to back lasagnas.

Who do you add to the list? Start by asking the new parents (prior to baby being born) of a list of emails of anyone who has offered to them to provide meals. Another great place to get volunteers is to have a sign up list at the baby shower. I usually include emails of people in the same 'groups' or 'clubs' as the new parents. For example, ladies from a mom's group or Bible study. Try to keep the scope to something that the family is comfortable with. If they are worried about imposing on anyone, just remind them that most people love a chance to bring new parents a meal and sneak a peak at the tiny baby. In the end, be sensitive to their level of comfort and stay within that.

Don't forget to include a summary of the important information for food preparers. Include the address, appropriate drop-off times, the number of people eating, a contact number for the family, and any eating preferences/allergies/restrictions. The primary meal coordinator should collect this information (again prior to baby being born) and include it in the coordination calendar. Providing this up front will prevent the new parents from being bombarded with the same questions.

With the right setup, the calendar should pretty much take care of itself from this point. You might want to check in on the schedule every now and then to see if there are any holes.

For Meal Provider
When planning the meal, don't forget to carefully read any details regarding food allergies and restrictions. Other than that, feel free to get creative. To keep this activity fun and not burdensome, think of ways to make it easier on yourself as well. I am in the process of compiling a 'go to' list of dinners for just an occasion (see below). My criteria for this list is as follows: a meal that is easily doubled (one for my family and one to deliver), provides enough food to feed the family for two days, is balanced including vegetables and/or fruit, and leftovers can be frozen. The recipe gets extra bonus points if it is a crockpot recipe. I also pay particular attention to providing variety from the other planned meals that week (if that information is available).

I am an avid baker, so my meals aren't complete without a dessert of some sort. And if I am really on a roll, I will include a breakfast treat such as blueberry muffins, granola, or scones. But that is purely bonus and rarely happens.

As the goal is to remove meal related work for the family, give a thought to meal clean up and dishes. To minimize any dish washing, bring food in disposable containers that do not need to be returned (like foil baking tins or plastic Ziplock containers). Any non-disposable containers should be dishwasher safe.

When packing up the meal, write out any baking, reheating, or plating instructions clearly on a sheet of paper. This way they won't have to remember everything you say when you drop off the meal. Also include whether or not the meal can be frozen. This note is a great place to also clarify whether or not you need the provided dishes back and if they are dishwasher safe. Here is a cute free printable I created to include with my meals. It looks like this...

The morning of my scheduled day, I find it helpful to text the parents a confirmation of the time I will be dropping off the meal. This gives them your phone number to contact if anything comes up and let's them know exactly when to expect you.

And finally, when dropping off the meal, don't expect to sit and have a long chat. Remember, you are bringing them a meal for a reason - they have a lot on their plate. I always try to err on the side of too short a visit. If they invite you to stay longer, obviously no need to run off, but still keep it fairly short. Most new parents (especially early on) don't have the energy for entertaining guests for any stretch of time. You may have to get back to my family for dinner, but you always have the option of scheduling a coffee date to catch up should they need some support or a listening ear.

And if you live too far away to help out with a meal, why not send them a gift card to a restaurant that does take out?

As I mentioned, I've been mentally cataloguing recipes that work well for gifting a meal. Here are a few of my current favorites if you are looking for something new to try:

Main course
1. Citrus chicken pasta salad
2. Sour Cream Noodle Bake
2. Crockpot beef carnitas* tacos, corn tortillas, cheese, sour cream, avocado
3. Crockpot chicken tortilla soup*, tortilla chips, sour cream, avocado, cheese
4. Turkey meatballs with cranberry-mustard dipping sauce
5. Lasagna* or any baked pasta dish, really
6. Mexican rice casserole* (substituting salsa verde)
7. BBQ Pulled pork*
8. Crockpot Chicken Gyros

*can be frozen

{Note: Some of these recipes have some kick to them - make sure the mom is ok with that or leave out the cayenne/pepper/spicy ingredients :). You don't want to upset baby's tummy!}

1. Fruit salad. This is a good one.
2. Green salad with apple, feta, almond, and raspberry vinaigrette (or Trader Joe's Cranberry, Gorgonzola, Walnut dressing)
3. Sautéed green beans
4. Green salad with carrot, avocado, corn, pine nuts, mozzarella and ranch dressing

1. Best cookies ever
2. Sopapilla cheesecake
3. Cinnamon rolls
4. Ghiradelli brownies

Bonus Breakfast
1. Blueberry Muffins
2. Blueberry Scones

I'll likely update this list periodically, or you can check out my 'Recipes I Tried and Love' board on Pinterest.

Feb 21, 2014

A DIY Airplane Birthday Party Invitation

'AIRPLANE!! AIRPLANE!! AIRPLANE!!' [points to sky and does a little happy dance]. Oh the simple joys of an almost 2 year old. This kid gets more excited for airplanes than he does for cookies. (Though to be fair, he has been on an airplane many more times than he has had a cookie.) And that is how we arrived at an airplane themed second birthday party. I'm looking forward to having a theme I know he'll enjoy:). I've only done the invitations so far, but I'm having fun and it gave me an excuse to try something I've always wanted to do...sew paper!

These invites were surprisingly simple to put together. Again, I put my Silhouette Cameo to good use cutting the clouds and the airplanes. The designs used were '9 clouds' and 'wwii airplane'. 

After cutting the clouds and airplanes, I stitched a blue airplane 'trail' along the top of the cloud, backstitching one stitch at each end. Snip the ends of the thread close to the invitation and add a dab of glue on the back to stabilize the thread if desired.

Next, I added the text. And can I just say, for a lady who has horrible handwriting I think it actually turned out ok! I used some whimsical lettering that would be a bit forgiving with mistakes. And I highly recommend the Sharpie Pen. The finishing touch was adhering the green airplanes with craft glue.

For matching envelopes, I hand drew another airplane trail and used the same lettering for the names. In hindsight I think using blue and green ink would have been even more adorable.

Hopefully the rest of the decorations turn out just as cute. Guess I better get started!

Want to see the full airplane party that matched these invitations? Go here.