Tuesday, December 27

2011 Books in Review

One of my goals when I started this blog was to keep track of my progress in reading books and record my thoughts about them. I even made a tab just for books, but as you can tell it hasn't seen much use. That's okay though, because I've spent some of the time that I would have been blogging reading instead (but mostly on facebook and pinterest).

So, instead of going book-by-book, I've decided to post a reading summary from the whole year, brief reviews of my top three favorites, and set some goals for next year's reading.

2011 Books
Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
The Mysterious Incident at Styles - Agatha Christie
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Financial Peace University - Dave Ramsey
Guide to Georgia Vegetable Gardening - Walter Reeves
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime - Mark Haddon
Chosen by God - R.C. Sproul
Same Kind of Different As Me - Ron Hall, Denver Moore
Ministering Cross-Culturally - Sherwood G. Lingenfelter
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
The Tears of the Giraffe - Alexander McCall Smith
A Praying Life - Paul Miller
Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches - Russell Moore
Hudson Taylor - J. Hudson Taylor
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
Persuasion - Jane Austen

Some of these books I loved and others I didn't, but here are my thoughts on the top three books of 2011.

1. Chosen By God - R.C. Sproul
Written 25 years ago, this treatise on the doctrine of predestination has become a contemporary classic. I would highly recommend this book, not just to those who consider themselves Calvinists or reformed, but especially to those (like me, before I read this book) who have always thought of predestination as murky theological waters. It's not a big book, but it's dense, and it took me a few attempts to finish. This book, in combination with sermons from our church and others I've listened to online, has given me a much better understanding of the mysterious balance between the sovereign authority of God and his boundless grace.

2. The Help - Kathryn Stockett
I was one of the millions of people this year who read and loved this book. Set in Jackson, Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, this inspirational story examines the lives of black maids and the women they work for. This book was unexpectedly funny, lighthearted, and powerful. The characters were absolutely delightful and the Southern idioms were perfectly authentic. It's been a long time since I've allowed myself to become so consumed by a story, and like all wonderful books I was sad to put it down. If you've only watched the movie, which was wonderful, but lacked the richness of the book, do yourself a favor and read The Help.

3. Adopted for Life - Russell Moore
Michael got a free download of the audio version of this book from www.ChristianAudio.com (check out their 50% off sale on audio Bibles here) and once we started it I wanted to keep driving until we'd heard it all. I plan on purchasing a hard copy and going back to it over and over again. This book serves to remind the church that the gospel of Jesus is really about adoption: becoming the sons and daughters of God. Inasmuch as God has loved us and given us the rights of children without any prior claim to these blessings, so we as the church are to love orphans. Much like the relationship of Jesus and the church is mirrored in marriage, so the sovereign grace of God to sinners is mirrored in the relationship of adoption. Moore, who has adopted two children from Russia, addresses both the "why" and "how" of adoption without getting mired in details that don't apply to those of us who aren't parents in the process of adoption. This book confirmed our desire to adopt at least one child in the future, made us really excited about being parents someday, and moved us to marvel at the riches of God's grace in adopting us as his wayward children.

My Plan for 2012
One thing I found helpful this year was to keep a note on my phone with a list of books I'd read and ones that I wanted to read. Any time I got bogged down in one book I encouraged myself to press on so that I'd be able to move another title from the "To Read" list to the "Already Read List." So, here are some books leftover from my phone list from 2011.
2012 Reading List
Money, Possessions, and Eternity - Randy Alcorn
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
2020 Vision - Bill and Amy Stearns
The Girl w the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
Knowing God - J.I. Packer 
In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje
The Master Plan of Evangelism - Robert E. Coleman
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Sacred Marriage - Gary Thomas
Sookie Stackhouse series - Charlaine Harris
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter - Jennifer Reese
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera
I've had a recent exciting development when it comes to reading. In addition to the iBooks app that allows me to read classic public domain novels for free, my new Audiobooks app (the $1.99 version, not the free one) lets me listen to the same books on my phone. Of course, listening to these books makes a long drive fly by and helps me plow through books I might otherwise not finish. But my new favorite thing to do is to turn on an audiobook while I'm doing housework. It's always a struggle for me to put away laundry (clean or dirty) in the bedroom and to iron my clothes for work. But fortunately these tasks are quiet enough that I can focus on the book while I'm cleaning and the work is over in just a few chapters. So here's a list of public domain books I'm hoping to read and/or listen to over the next year.
Public Domain
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
Secret Adversary - Agatha Christie
Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

2012 Scripture Reading
In addition to these books, I'm excited to have a plan for scripture reading this year. Michael recently found this post from Tim Challies about a 10-Chapter-Per-Day reading plan. This sounded like insanity to me, since I haven't been consistent in scripture reading since we got married. But after thinking about it, I think it's going to work well. The idea is to read a large quantity of the Bible quickly rather than steeping slowly in a short passage. Instead of reading 10 consecutive chapters (which inevitably means getting bogged down), you read a chapter from each daily: the gospels, the Pentateuch, the New Testament letters (two daily), the Old Testament wisdom literature, the Psalms, the Proverbs, Acts, and the Old Testament History and Prophetic books. The quick pace of this plan means that by the end of the year I will have read through each of these sections multiple times. It also means that if I get behind I still will have covered enough ground to maintain my progress. Check out this link to download the reading plan and handy bookmarks to keep you in the right places.

So, what do you think? Are there any books you would add to my list?

Tuesday, December 13

Wedding Cake Challenge: The Second Time's the Charm

You may remember from this post that earlier this year I was learning to make a cake for my brother's wedding in Brazil. I read articles, perused books, watched video tutorials, and practiced, practiced, practiced. I packed 30 pounds of fondant in my suitcase. I was all ready, and yet when it was time to bring everything together it was a lot harder than I expected. The ingredients were slightly different than their American counterparts, the equipment and workspace were unfamiliar, and the humidity was off the charts.

I wish that I could say that despite these obstacles all my preparations enabled me to still craft the cake into the masterpiece I was hoping for. In reality, the cake was crooked and bumpy and sticky - not quite what I had planned. But like a Food Network challenge, the most important accomplishment is moving the cake and displaying it in one piece. And I was proud to do that with a ton of help from my family and Beta's!

My sweet husband and Aunt Beth helped me from start to finish!

The finished product. The florist was nice enough to
cover up the slanted side for me!

Don't be disappointed folks - the cake saga doesn't end there. Since only a small part of our family could make it down to Brazil, Steven and Beta had a second celebration when she finally made it to the US in October. This gave me a chance to make another cake in my own home, using my own ingredients. I wanted it to be different than the first one, so I chose a square buttercream cake with light, refreshing flavors. I looked at elaborate designs, but ultimately chose a simple one that I knew would turn out just right. 

I got my original inspiration from this Epicurious tutorial for a lemon raspberry wedding cake. I love the sweet and simple design she uses, but it wasn't what I was going for with this cake, so I just used it for the recipes and assembly instructions. It's always hard for me to estimate how much cake, frosting, and filling I will need, so even though the proportions are a little different for a 12", 8", and 4" square cake, the recipe served as a good guideline.

Since a few of the reviews for the white cake recipe said it was a little dry I made this White Almond Sour Cream Cake using a doctored cake mix instead. It's very similar to the chocolate cake I used for Erin's jungle shower cake and Teresa's sunflower ganache cake. This was, in my totally biased opinion, much more moist and delicious than your average wedding cake.

For the buttercream frosting (arguably the most important part), I used the Meringue Buttercream listed in the tutorial. It's slightly sweeter and fluffier than the recipe I usually use, but it still sets up perfectly in the fridge.

I wasn't so confident about the lemon curd recipe in the tutorial since it mentioned straining it for egg solids. I've had the unpleasant experience of straining lemon-flavored scrambled eggs out of one batch of lemon curd before and didn't want to do that for 12 cups worth. So, I found this recipe from Alton Brown that uses egg yolks only. This meant that the leftover yolks from making frosting went to good use, and straining wouldn't be necessary since the white is what turns into those annoying chewy bits.

With my recipes ready, it was time to get cooking. Unfortunately, since Michael was out of town and I was trying to work quickly, I only took two pictures of this process! I made the frosting and lemon curd about a week before the wedding since it keeps well in the refrigerator. Then I baked the cake layers on Monday before the wedding. Similar to my other cakes, I baked two cake layers in each size. Then, I leveled off the top of each layer and split them into two. So altogether I had four layers of cake in each size.

On Tuesday I filled the layers. First, I spread lemon curd onto a layer using the suggested amount as a guideline (keeping in mind that my cakes were slightly different sizes). Then, I arranged raspberries on top of the lemon curd so that every piece would have at least one. When that was done, I topped it with another layer and repeated until all four were filled and stacked. Then I did the same thing for the other two tiers.

Each cake tier sat on a piece of cardboard cut to size.

That night I applied my crumbcoat of buttercream to each tier. First, I refrigerated the tiers to firm up the lemon curd a bit. Then I scraped off any extra lemon curd that had dripped down the side (it's pretty thin compared to frosting). When the tiers were cold and clean I spread frosting on the tops and sides and scraped off any excess, leaving a thin, smooth coat. I refrigerated all three of the crumbcoated tiers overnight.

On Wednesday, I applied the outer layer of frosting. With the cake still cold, I spread on more frosting than I typically would. Then, I used this super-handy decorating comb to make a scalloped pattern in the frosting. It was even easier than I was expecting. All I did was drag one side of the comb through the frosting, looking down from the top to be sure I was getting a straight line. I figured that once I made the design I wouldn't be able to touch it up without ruining it. But it was actually really easy to fix any mistakes by swiping them again with the comb.

On Thursday I left the cake in the fridge and packed for the wedding. : ) But on Friday, I drove the two-and-a-half hours to my parents' house with the cake. I traveled with the tiers unstacked and set on sticky shelf liner to keep them from sliding. When I reached my destination two of my tiers had melted a little bit and one was bumped on one side. The great thing about buttercream cakes is that you can keep applying the frosting over and over until you're happy with it. So I refrigerated the tiers until they were cold again and then applied more frosting and smoothed it back into shape. As you can tell from this picture of the cake being served, I kept applying frosting until it was perfect, and that meant I used way too much!

Four layers of lemony goodness. Yum!

On the day of the wedding I took the cake to the church and stacked it there. My friend Katie who you met here helped me stack the cake and seal the tiers. Then, we (mostly she because I was a little frantic with the responsibilities of the day) clipped bunches of green hydrangeas and perched them on the corners of the cake.

Perfect. I love hydrangeas!

With Katie the chef. Soon to be Katie the mom!
And as usual, I look like a giant next to her!

I was so pleased with how it turned out! It looked just right with the decorations and I thought it was absolutely delicious! Here are more pictures of that beautiful day.

My brother's second wedding cake.

The bride and groom cutting the cake.

I think they liked it!

My family with the happy couple. So glad Beta's here!

Tuesday, October 4

I Can See Clearly Now: My LASIK Experience

Almost five months ago I did something I never thought I would do: I paid someone to peel back a flap of my cornea and burn off part of my eye with a laser. Some people dream of getting LASIK, but for me it was a scary, but reasonable, solution to a problem.

I started wearing glasses when I was five years old. They were Pepto-Bismol pink with pictures of Minnie Mouse on the earpieces. In other words, they were awesome!

Love the frames, the bangs, and the toothy grin!

Growing up, I never had negative feelings toward my glasses. I actually called them my best accessory. As I got older and more of my friends started wearing contacts I still didn't think I needed them - until the junior prom. Since that day in 11th grade, I've always felt that dressing up involves ditching my glasses. In fact, I wore contacts almost every day, special or not, of my college career.

Around the time that I finished college (three-and-a-half years ago!) I started having intermittent problems with irritation when I wore my contacts. I began to wear them only for special occasions. Eventually it got to the point that within a few hours of putting them in, my eyes would turn bright pink, tears would start streaming down my face, and I could barely keep my eyes open. Not fun.

In glasses for graduation. It was also the day after we got engaged.

While I know many people who have worn glasses every day of their adult lives (including both of my parents), I just wasn't okay with hiding behind frames for every special occasion. At a visit to the ophthalmologist's office I learned that my options were 1. just wear glasses, 2. try hard contacts (a $200 experiment that probably wouldn't work), or 3. get LASIK.

Michael got LASIK as a college graduation gift and has had great results, so we knew what to expect. And the cost at Eye Care One, $3,000 for both eyes, was significantly lower than his cost. While that's a hefty price tag that wasn't covered by insurance, if I can go 10-15 years without glasses, contacts, and expensive fittings I will easily recoup my investment. Also, I won't need to pay for vision insurance or regular check-ups. I will likely need to get reading glasses when I develop age-related far-sightedness, but, I should never need bifocals, and I probably won't need glasses for most activities.

On the day of the surgery I was accompanied by Michael and both of my parents. It did feel a little silly to have my own cheering section for a procedure that took about fifteen minutes. But was I glad they were there? Definitely. The doctor talked us through the procedure, gave me my valium, and left us to nibble on cookies until I was a little mellowed out. I don't know if the valium calmed me down, but it certainly made me sleepy, which helped me focus on finishing things up and going back to bed!

When it was time for the surgery I walked into a dim room and laid on what looked like a reclined dentist's chair. The doctor chatted with me while he taped my eyelashes down, gave me numbing drops, and got everything settled. Then the room went dark, he pried my eyes open with a speculum, and fixed what felt like a vice on one of my eyes. This was the worst part because of the pressure he had to apply. It made me very uncomfortable, but was necessary to keep my eye open and still. During the procedure he talked with me to tell me what he was doing. Although, looking back, he never said anything like, "Now I'm going to cut into your eyeball with a tiny cheese slicer," but that's what it looks like he did on the video! : )

Warning: DO NOT watch this video if you're squeamish! Or if you're thinking about getting LASIK and seeing something a little scary will change your mind. Seriously.

While he was working, my job was to focus on a series of flashing lights above me. I was worried that I would look away and cause a disaster, but since the lights were all I could see and I couldn't shut my eyes that wasn't a problem. It was really odd to have my eyes open that long, but the doctor wet them at a few points in the surgery, which helped.

He finished one side quickly and moved on to the other, which took more time. The vice had more pressure on this side, and I did groan a little bit despite my promise to myself that I wouldn't be a weanie. Although it was uncomfortable, when I was all done I could read a clock on the other side of the room! I was a little nervous because my vision was very hazy, but immediately better than it had been without glasses.

Check out my sweet goggles!

My family drove me home in goggles, which I continued to wear for the next 24 hours. The doctor instructed me to sleep all day, which I was super excited about for the first four-or-so hours. After that, I needed medication to help me sleep, but also spent some time chatting with my eyes closed. The next day, it was a little uncomfortable to focus on words to gauge my reading, but my distance vision was great. I was more tired than usual for a few days, probably from the swelling in my eyes, but by the third post-op day I was back to normal. My surgery was on a Thursday, I went on a family trip Friday through Sunday, and on Monday I was back at work with no problems.

A little swollen right after surgery, but feeling good!

Two days post-op: in the mountains with family.

At this point I've made it through the 3-month post-op evaluation process and I'm doing great. I do have to use eyedrops every morning when I wake up and as-needed due to dryness. This is apparently a problem I had before that was just exacerbated by the surgery. At my last appointment my vision had regressed very slightly (still better than 20/20) from my previous check, so we're checking it again in a few months to be sure things stabilize. At worst, this could mean that I'll need a revision of the surgery. Michael had to do this and, while unpleasant, he hasn't had a single problem since.

So, would I get LASIK again? Absolutely! The funny thing about it is that I rarely think about it since my vision is about the same as it was with correction. But when I'm swimming, or running, or on an international flight, or dressing up for a special occasion I remember that all of these things were more complicated before LASIK, and I'm very pleased with my investment.

I hope this post answered some of your questions about the surgery. Let me know if there's anything else you'd like to know!

Wednesday, September 21

Five Ways to Eat Your Veggies (And Love It!)

Don't tell anyone, but lately I've been in a vegetable rut. In fact, if I didn't have the letters "RD" after my name I might just live off of cereal, ice cream, and Nutella. But I don't. You may have noticed that the recipes I feature in the "What's Cooking" box usually don't include a ton of veggies and you might be thinking that we should have scurvy. But never fear, we're not deficient yet.

During our first year of marriage, I cooked two or three elaborate meals each week. They usually included a green and yellow vegetable and meant that I a) didn't spend enough time with my husband and b) had lots of leftover produce rotting in my fridge. Eventually I realized that cooking random veggie side dishes was a big drain on our time and budget, so since then most of our veggies have been the frozen steam-in-bag variety, salad, or extras incorporated into our main dish. These options are so easy that we have no excuse to fall short of our quota and they seriously reduce waste. But they can also get tiresome.

Lately I've missed being excited about vegetables instead of just scarfing them down between bites of meat or pasta, so I decided to experiment with some fresh and flavorful recipes that feature fantastic produce. Here are a few ways that we've been eating our veggies lately:

Cheesy Zucchini and Red Onion Flatbread

This is delicious. The recipe calls for canned pizza dough, but I thought fresh dough from the Publix bakery would be better. I'm sure this is way better, but it doesn't really work right with the technique described in the recipe. I will definitely make this again, but next time I'll keep the dough flat instead of folding it in half. I also might try reduced-fat veggie cream cheese in place of the Alouette.

Chewy, cheesy, and delicious!

Rolling the fresh dough didn't work, so I stretched it instead.

The recipe calls for an extra layer of cheese and herbs in the crust.

I wanted to use all my zucchini, so I crammed it on!
The fresh dough puffed in the oven - no folding next time!

Peach Salsa

I grew up in a family of salsa purists, but ever since we tried Newman's Own Peach Salsa, Michael and I both prefer our salsa with a sweet kick. This recipe has a similar tangy, sweet flavor that I just can't get enough of. Although, next time I'll use about half the pickling spice because it was a little strong. Also, I nixed the pears since I had plenty of peaches and I think it's probably best without them.

Warning: this took a long time to make thanks to all the peeling and chopping. Do yourself a favor and check out this quick tutorial on  blanching and peeling tomatoes and peaches before you start. Oh, and by the way, this recipe makes a gallon! I cut it in half and we will still never finish it, so choose your yield wisely.

Check out that pretty produce!
Sorry about the grainy phone pic!

Eggplant Parmesan

 I hated eggplant as a child and I still don't really like it, but when I wound up with free seeds I decided I had to grow some. I was expecting tons of eggplant to experiment with and adjust my taste buds, but after waiting all season for two tiny fruits I decided to play it safe with this fried and cheese-covered favorite. It doesn't disappoint.

My two little eggplants all sliced up.

Breaded, fried and ready to swim in sauce.

Yum, yum, yum!

Olive Garden Salad

This is the perfect way to revive your salad habit. Go crazy and throw in some croutons and olives and toss with this tangy dressing. It's not just like the restaurant dressing as it claims - I added some extra corn syrup and garlic salt to balance the flavor, but it seriously hit the spot. Serve it with soup and breadsticks for a satisfying restaurant-style meal.

Doesn't look that appealing by itself, but it's tasty.

Sometimes a few croutons go a long way in making me excited about salad!

Crockpot "Baked" Sweet Potatoes

I LOVE sweet potatoes, but I hate to wait for them to cook. I also don't like heating up the oven to cook them. So even though I could eat these super-nutritious sweeeties every day (I just about did for my first two years of college), we hardly ever eat them at home. Until now! This is so easy you can't even call it cooking, and I think it tastes better than oven-baking. The recipe calls for five sweet potatoes, but I nestle two snuggly in my little two-quart slow cooker and they're perfect - it just depends on how many will fit. And if one sticks out, just cut the tip off and cram it in - it'll be just fine. I don't pay attention to the time - just cook them on low all day long. These are great by themselves or used in recipes like casseroles, soups, and this yummy-looking gnocchi I plan to make soon.

I don't have any pictures of these, but they're gooey and browned just like they would get in the oven. We just might eat a ton of them before fall is over!

I hope I've inspired you to show your veggies a little more love. You won't regret it! Can you think of any other tasty favorites I left out?

Wednesday, September 7

Host Your Best Shower Ever! Part Three: Gifts

Now that we've discussed the games and food, let's get down to the main business of showers: the gifts. When it comes to gift-giving, registeries are life-savers for the giver and receiver. But sometimes I choose to give off-registry because I want to give something special, I'm trying to save money, and/or the person receiving the gift didn't register (especially in the case of moms with previous kids). I love to be creative with gifts, but what's most important to me is to give things that will be appreciated and useful. Here's a list of my favorite creative shower gifts:

For Baby Showers
Last year I was invited to showers for 14 babies. True story. I love each of those babies, but if I had bought my typical $30-35 gift for each of them, that would have totaled almost $500!!! So I learned to make cute gifts that any mom would be able to use - burp cloths. These are especially great because even if the mom has 10 other kids, they can always use more! I can also make them more substantial gifts for close friends or family by putting them in a container (small hamper, tub, etc.) from their registry or making a gift basket with bath essentials, feeding items, socks, or onesies.

A pretty bow makes a great finish!

fabric + prefold diaper + quilt binding = burp cloth

The deluxe package

Before you think I'm a master seamstress, let's get one thing straight: this is the only thing I know how to sew. But I've made a ton of them. They only involve sewing straight lines, so if you can manage to thread the machine (which works by "magic" as my much more experienced mother told me), you can make these. Just be sure to wash and dry them before you gift them so you can fix anything that might unravel with washing - this has helped me refine my technique.

I'm going to post the links I used to figure these out, but promise you won't start making them for any of my friends! I've already bought enough diapers and fabric to make these for every baby gift for the rest of my life! I'm serious!!

Ruffles and paisley - perfectly girly!

The safari animal print is my all-time fave!

Color-block with denim: a gender-neutral option. (But I love pink and blue!)

My burp cloths are a hybrid between these two:

For Bridal Showers
At my friend Teresa's shower last weekend (read about it here and here) I gave her a copy of my favorite cookbook complete with my comments, suggestions, and substitutions, plus a cookbook stand and some cutting boards from her registry. It gave me motivation to cook a bunch of recipes I'd been meaning to try for a while, and I think it hit the balance between a heart-felt gift and giving her things she really needs. This idea can be easily customized. If there's something you're good at making and you think the bride would enjoy it (or if you see she's registered for a related item), give a gift along with your suggestions for using it. For example, if you're an ice cream fanatic, give an ice cream maker or bowls with spoons along with your favorite Rocky Road recipe. If you're into grilling, wrap up some utensils with a batch of homemade spice rub or sauce. The possibilities are endless.

Oh, how I love Ina and her beautiful, tasty food!

Another great gift is a recipe binder full of your family's favorite recipes. My friend Amanda gave me one as a wedding gift and everything I've made from it has been great! I love gifts like this because the food we eat with our families is sacred to us and sharing it makes us closer.

For Lingerie Showers
For something unique and unexpected, give Custom Rhinestone Panties from Custom Glam Girl! My friend Haley (you met her in the previous posts) gave me a pair of these at my lingerie shower and they were one of my very favorite wedding gifts. They're hot pink, say "Mrs. Vaughan" across the back, and may be the first thing I owned with my married name on it! They make me smile every time I see them. And yes, I did just describe my underwear on the world wide web... Buy these the next time you need a lingerie gift!

Any fellow creative gifters out there? Tell us about your favorites!

Friday, September 2

Host Your Best Shower Ever! Part Two: Food

Let's be honest: aside from seeing old friends, the best part of a shower is the food! (That and basking in the glow of soon-to-be motherhood or marital bliss I guess?) There are tons of great finger food recipes out there, but many times the most popular items are slightly unexpected versions of classic offerings. The spread Haley, Laura, and I put together for Teresa's shower this weekend was probably my favorite yet, so I thought I'd share the menu, then give you a few tips for choosing the best bites for your next shindig.

I will be making these cute fruit cones for every event till I die!
Haley sets a pretty table!

Teresa's Bridal Shower Menu
Houston's Spinach Artichoke Dip and Chips
Caprese Skewers
Sausage Cheese Balls
Fresh Fruit in Waffle Cones
Cream Puffs
Chocolate Sour Cream Cake with Raspberry Filling and Semisweet Ganache

We halved mozzarella balls and tomatoes, then folded over basil leaves.

Ganache cake with gum paste decorations. I had great helpers!

My biggest challenge? Keeping it simple!

Haley's artichoke dip was absolutely divine! But it took a lot of time. So did cutting up all the fruit and veggies for the waffle cones and caprese skewers. I tend to be an overly ambitious cook, which results in delays, a frazzled hostess, and lots of dirty dishes. So I was glad we were including other items that required very little preparation. My favorite celebrity chef, Ina Garten, recommends to always entertain with a few special dishes and a few that are ready-made or only need to be assembled. In our case, the cream puffs, cake, and lemonade were waiting for us in the fridge and the sausage balls only needed to be warmed.

Haley making fantastic spinach dip!

Laura working on the caprese skewers

Here are some more go-to items for entertaining:
Ready-made items
Frozen (thawed) cream puffs or eclairs
Store-bought cheese straws
Crackers with cheese spread such as Alouette
Hummus and pita triangles
Pre-cut veggies or fruit and dip
Candy in the color scheme
Make-ahead or heat-only items
Sausage cheese balls
Cold dips and spreads
Toasted spiced nuts
Deviled eggs
Meatballs (slow cooker)
Shrimp cocktail
Finger sandwiches (make the day-of)
Warmed frozen rolls with honey-baked ham and mustard
Frozen seasoned chicken wings or drumettes
Most desserts
Most drinks

Enough recipes to last you several showers

Because not everything can be that simple (or maybe it could and I just over-complicate things!) here are a few of my favorite tried-and-true recipes for showers and parties.
BLT Dip - Mound the dip in the center of a large plate, top with tomatoes, arrange lettuce in a ring around the dip, and slices of french bread around the lettuce.
Sweet Pepper and Gorgonzola Bruschetta - make the topping and toast the bread in advance, then warm together just before serving
Veggie Squares
Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits- cut smaller than called for
Brie and Cherry Pastry Cups
Southern Living Cream Cheese Pound Cake - the best you'll ever eat!
Chess Squares
Marbled Chocolate Treats
Cosmo Slush - can be made without the alcohol

I hope these recipes and tips come in handy the next time you're entertaining! Anybody have some great shower recipes that I left out?

Thursday, September 1

Host Your Best Shower Ever! Part One: Games

This weekend was a whirlwind of flowers, ribbon, finger food, and fun conversation! I had the honor of helping host a bridal shower and a baby shower over two days in two cities for four honorees! It was a great chance to try some new entertaining ideas and remember some of my old favorites, so I'll be sharing the best ones over the next few days.

Shower Games: The Trickiest Part

While most of us are really there for the food, games are often the make-or-break point of a shower. I've been to several showers that were saved by a good game that got everyone talking. And all of us have experienced shower games that had everyone inching toward the door. Here's a list of some of my favorite, no-fail shower games and how to pull them off:

1. Candy Memory Game
The Gist: This is the matching/memory game that we all played as young children, but with phrases associated with weddings or babies. Works for any group, big or small (more than 5 people).

How to Play: Each player takes turns calling out two numbers and the moderator reveals the phrases behind each number. When the a player calls out a matching pair, he/she receives a candy associated with the phrase. When a match is made, the moderator removes the number or flap to narrow down the choices.

Isn't Haley's house adorable?!

Me with the beautiful bride! Roomies for three years!

Here's a list of candies to get you started. Some I found online and some I made up on my own. Be creative!

Wedding Phrases and Candies
Bride and Groom - Kisses
Bridesmaids - Lifesavers
Groomsmen - Goobers
Vows - Dove Promises
Engagement Ring - Ring Pop
Law School Romance - Nerds (specific, but could work for other things)
Reception - 100 Grand
Music - Symphony
Guests - Good and Plenty
Bouquet Toss - Butterfinger
Wedding Toast - Snickers
Gifts - Mounds
Wedding Night - Skor
Baby Phrases and Candies
Contractions - Whoppers
Hospital Bed -100 Grand
Epidural - Lifesavers
Breastfeeding - Milky Way
Laundry - Mounds
Conception - Skor
Dirty Diapers - Good and Plenty
Daddy - Big Hunk or Pop Rocks
Restful Nights - Zero
Umbilical Cord - Twizzlers
Preemie - Runts
Ob-Gyn - Butterfinger
Preparations: This game takes some work, but it's worth it since it will take up some time (at least 15 minutes), provide your guests with fun prizes, and be reused for future showers.

First, I went to the store and bought one of each candy I could find. Be sure to do this before making your board in case you can't find some.

Then, I gathered up a foam board, some wrapping paper (to protect the board for future use), origami paper (perfect size and no cutting required, but use what you have), small post-its (optional), and a glue stick.

Be sure to use a large, bold font to avoid squinting.

I printed two of each phrase and glued them to folded pieces of origami paper. Then I shuffled them and glued them to the covered foam board in roughly even rows and columns.

I slid a ruler between rows for no-fuss measuring.

Lastly, I wrote numbers on small post-it squares and attached to each flap. Here's what it looked like:

If you have one, use an easel to play.
If you have a cat, good luck keeping your board safe!

Have fun!

2. Purse Scavenger Hunt
The Gist: Dig through your purse with a partner and tally up points for miscellaneous items. You'll be surprised to hear the crazy things people carry around with them every day. This is a great ice-breaker for groups that don't know each other well. Works for big and small groups, bridal and baby showers.
How to Play: Find partners, pass out checklists, and start rummaging. At the end of the hunt, vote on the most unique item. Give a prize to that individual and to the pair with the highest point tally.
Preparations: Print checklist. Buy three small prizes.

I can't find a link to the checklist we used this weekend, but here are a few others to choose from:

3. Mad Lib Wedding Vows or Birth Stories
The Gist: Have guests fill in the blanks of a story for a lot of laughs and a fun keepsake. Works especially well with large groups and co-ed showers. Doesn't work with shy people.
How to Play: The moderator explains that the guests get to write the vows/birth story for the honoree and asks them for parts of speech to fill the mad lib. The sillier, the better. Don't read the full sentences until the whole mad lib is complete. Then, ask the honoree to come forward and provide a dramatic reading of the full story, pausing for laughter as necessary.

"Vows" from our couples shower hosted by friends Laura and Jason.

Preparations: Print out a copy of the mad lib and have a pen handy. Be sure to give the finished mad lib to the honoree before the end of the shower.

Wedding Vow Mad Lib:
Birth Story Mad Lib:

4. The Price Is Right
The Gist: Have guests and/or the honoree(s) guess each digit in the prices of common baby or kitchen items, with help from the "audience." Contestants who guess correctly win the item. Works well for big groups, great for showers with multiple honorees. The rowdier your group, the better.

How to Play: You can simply show everyone the items and have them write down their price guesses, but in my opinion, it's much more fun to play this up Bob Barker style! It takes some explaining, but it's simple to play.

Select two contestants in addition to the honoree or use all the honorees if there are multiple (choose people with babies if the items are baby-related). Starting with one contestant, have her guess the price of an item digit-by-digit, with 7 "strikes" available. For example, if her first guess was 6 and the answer was 9, she would have 4 strikes left to guess the rest of the digits. Reveal the digits one at a time starting in the dollar place and working towards this cents until the contestant runs out of strikes or finishes. All of my items were 3 digits. If a contestant runs out of strikes, have the next contestant pick up where she left off. The contestant who finishes an item wins it. Cycle through the contestants until all the items have been won. Throughout the game, encourage the audience to yell and hold up fingers like the audience on "The Price is Right" to help out the contestants.

Buy about five inexpensive and common kitchen or baby items and keep the receipt. I bought shampoo, a jar of baby food, feeding spoons, and a few other things under $5.

Gather foam board, stick-on letters, wrapping paper (optional), post-it notes, and a marker. Cover board with wrapping paper if desired (I used the same board for the memory game) and use stick-on letters to spell out "The Price is Right!." Make a list for yourself of the items and their prices. Draw the digits of the last item on individual post-its - write big to fill up the post-its. Place on the board in order, with a post-it dollar sign and decimal in their rightful places. Then cover the digits (not the dollar sign or decimal) with blank post-its. It may take a double layer of post-its to fully cover the digits below. Continue with the prices for the rest of the items in backwards order, ending with a layer of blank post-its.

I wish I had pictures of this, but it's really a simple set-up. As you play, simply peel off the blank post-its to reveal the price digits underneath.

5. Question/Answer Chubby Bunny
The Gist: This silly game isn't just for middle schoolers anymore! We played this at my lingerie shower and no one had more fun than me! This won't work for every shower - be sure your bride has a sense of humor and that the group is fun and laidback. This game is a little too undignified to play with your grandmother's friends. Would be great for a couples shower with both the bride and groom playing.

How to Play: The bride answers questions previously answered by her fiance. For every wrong answer, she has to put a marshmallow in her mouth (no choking allowed!). Be as strict or lenient with judging the answers as necessary to ensure the bride has an unwieldy mouthful of marshmallows before the end of the game. A notepad is recommended for unintelligible answers. : )

Trying to avoid laughing to hold in the marshmallows!

Preparations: Contact the groom with a list of questions and record his answers. This is probably easiest via email. Buy a bag of marshmallows. Have a pen and notepad handy. 

Other Fun Activities
These aren't games, but provide something for your guests to do and a keepsake for your honoree.

Wedding Wishes or Wishes for Baby - Guests write out their wishes for the baby or couple on pretty paper. These are collected and given to the honoree.
Check out this super cute printable!

Thumbprint Tree - Print or draw a tree trunk on canvas or pretty paper. Have each guest stamp his or her thumbprint in coordinating ink or paint on the tree trunk and sign his/her name. My brother and his wife used this as the guestbook for their wedding! For showers you may need to add filler thumbprints in addition to the signed ones.

"Leave your mark here," in Portuguese.

What a fun idea! But be sure to have wipes handy!

Recipe Book - Send each guest a recipe card with her invitation. Ask her to write out one of her favorite recipes on the card and attach it to her gift. As the bride opens presents, she reads out the name of the recipes and the cards are gathered into a recipe binder or box. Great for a kitchen-themed shower!

Teresa reading her friends' favorite recipes

Anybody have more great shower games to share? You can look forward to more shower tips on food and gifts coming soon.