Monday, July 7, 2014

Lillian's Rainbow Three-For-All: A Third Birthday

Last week, my sweet Lillian turned 3. She'll be the first to tell you that she is officially a "Big Girl." And she'd be right. In the last few months we've seen such a surge in her development...she's (finally, hooray!!!) potty trained, her imagination has exploded, her vocabulary continues to floor me, and she's developed a wonderful (sometimes infuriating) independent streak.

We wanted to embrace and celebrate her Big Girl opinions as much as we could with her birthday this year. So, in keeping with the pun-y birthday theme tradition we've stumbled into (One-derlandTurning TuTu), this year was a Three-For-All. And was it ever.

We let her choose everything for the party. I'm normally a totally type-A control freak about party themes so I was surprised just how much fun we both had when I let her loose in the party department at Target. She got to pick it all -- the decorations (mismatched plates and napkins), her outfit (complete with homemade crown, lots of jewelry and completely random shoes), the favors ("we MUST have party kazoos!"), the menu (hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and watermelon) and especially the cake. For months, she's been telling me she wanted a rainbow cake. I wasn't quite sure what that meant exactly, but she was pretty happy with the results.

While I'm normally one for from-scratch everything, I'm still pretty short on free time while Max is still such a little squirt. So to create the cake, I followed a tutorial I found here to the letter. Right down to the boxed cake mix and frosting.

This definitely wasn't the most Pinterest-worthy party, but Lillian loved it. In fact, she loved the whole day. And we love her. Happy three little lady. I can't wait to see what this year brings.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Maxwell

We had a baby. Almost two months ago. His name is Max and he's just about the sweetest guy ever. 

It's pretty sad that it's taken me two months to make the official announcement here. So here goes:

Maxwell Michael Andexler was born on April 8 at 1:30 pm weighing 7 lbs and 20.5 inches. 

At first I was too exhausted recovering from preeclampsia and overwhelmed with figuring out how to juggle two children to bother with anything else and then as time passed it started to feel like there was just too much to say. 

Like how he was born with a knot in his umbilical cord, which was kinda freaky but apparently means good luck?

Like how his big sister absolutely adores him and calls him the special nickname she gave him months before he arrived (Toots McGoots) and fawns over him and squeezes him ("gentle Lilly!!") and whispers in his ear that he's her best friend. 
Like how enormous his feet are and how skinny his legs are and how ear-piercingly loud his cries are when he's really mad but how sweet it is when he's laying peaceful and heavy in your arms (which is often since he had yet to meet a swing, bouncer, car seat or any other baby holder that he will tolerate). 

There's so much already. So many things about this child and this newly expanded family to love and to challenge us every day. Perhaps there won't ever be the perfect time or the right words to encompass it all. 

So here he is. Meet my Max. 





Friday, March 7, 2014

35 Weeks


It occurred to me the other day that the blog has been celebrating Christmas since...well...Christmas. So, I thought I should do something about that. Sadly for you, this is about the best I could come up with. Things have been so, so, SO busy and crazy and...I'm TIRED these days. Being 35 weeks pregnant will do that do you I guess. 

Thought I'd share a few pictures to sum things up:

First we've got the long-overdue belly shot. Realized this is only the SECOND belly pic I've taken this pregnancy. So...ta da.

Then, the first of pics row shows the almost/getting there/nowwejustneedcleanclothesandtinydiapers kids room. We're hoping that they'll eventually share the room once the little guy is out of the bassinet. I have high hopes, obviously. Getting the room done was seriously stressing me out so I'm pretty relieved that this is somewhat ready for the little guy, who will be showing up in less than a month. WHUT. 

The second row shows my daughter NOT napping, which is exactly whats been going on at naptime for approximately a month (which is approximately forever in exhausted pregnant lady time). Finally this week we've had a few decent naps in a row again, so hopefully this was just some sort of weird phase designed to make me crazy. It may have worked. 

The bottom row is all about indoor activities! Because...wow. Winter. And I'm a winter lover. But ugh. We've been to the movies, we've been to every indoor playground I can find, we've been to the conservatories. We've been in our basement/obstacle course. We've signed up for swim class. We are out of ideas. Today it was 45 so we sat on the back porch and sunned ourselves. Please come soon spring. Please. 

As far as the rest of our lives go, things have been a little bit nuts. In addition to the baby prep and the napless toddler and the cabin fever, JiT is in the midst of a job transition. Ultimately we know its going to be a very positive thing for him career-wise and I've loved having him around at home for the time being -- he's been a tremendous help. But with the new baby on the way and all the unknowns and "what-ifs" and transitions with insurance and what-not, I've been more stressed about it that I'd care to admit. Meanwhile, I've been doing an absolute ton of freelance work, which is well-timed and amazingly rewarding but also presents a whole other pile of logistics and little details and...well my brain just feels like its in a million places at once all the time. 

So, this is starting to sound really whiny and complainy which is not my intention. Things are good and I feel very blessed to have some much going on in our lives right now. I just wish I had more time to appreciate it all. And with that, I better get back to it. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sponsored Post: Cranberry Caramel Apple Pull-Apart Bread with PAM Baking

I totally feel like we’re in holiday overdrive around here. That’s not a complaint exactly…everything that we’re doing has been super fun but, man, am I tired. Plus I feel like the more I get done, the longer my holiday to-do list seems to get and the tired-er? I am.

In the last week we’ve:
  • Hosted a holiday potluck dinner for some of the families from JiT’s office
  • Took Lilly to Macy’s Santaland to meet Santa. She was SO excited, right up until it was time to sit on his lap. Cue the freak out.

  • Developed, baked, refined and photographed (and ate and ate and ate) four batches of this incredible, ridiculously amazing pull-apart bread for PAM


  • Started and finished all of our holiday shopping. Its done. Its mostly here. It still needs to be wrapped.
  • Organized and lead the craft for Lillian’s playschool holiday party (super easy cottonball snowflakes, if you’re looking for a fun toddler activity, btw)
  • Shot photographs, ordered, received and mailed our holiday cards. OMG Hallelujiah! (this is not the final card that’s in the mail since I didn’t want to spoil it for those who get our snail mail, but it’s a close approximation)

Jeez, I’m tired just reading through that list, though I’m sure everyone else has one that looks similar or longer. What is it about this time of year that makes us all need to just do EVERYTHING? All of it! Now!

The good news is, enormous mountain of unwrapped gifts aside, I can almost see the light at the end of the proverbial holiday fun tunnel. We’re celebrating with my family this year and its going to be intentionally low-key, so once the weekend hits I think we’ll be able to relax a little and just focus on being together, celebrating the season and eating too much.

Speaking of eating, lets talk pull-apart bread. This is the recipe I’ve been working on for PAM Baking Spray. When they approached me about creating an easy-to-make holiday baking recipe this was the very first thing that popped into my mind.

Pull-apart bread (also known as “monkey bread” or “sticky bread”) is actually a long-standing tradition in my family. When I was a child my mom always, always ordered these amazing caramel pecan rolls from a local bakery as part of our traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Then one year she completely forgot to place the order until it was too late. So to make up for the mistake, she tried her hand at making monkey bread using cans of refrigerated biscuit dough as a base. The results were so incredibly delicious that we never ordered the bakery rolls again.

For my family, it’s not Christmas without pull-apart bread. If you’ve never had it, its basically pieces of biscuit dough that have been rolled in cinnamon sugar, then smothered in a buttery caramel sauce and baked in a fluted (bundt) pan. The result is gooey, sticky, decadent, cinnamon-caramel goodness.

It also seemed like the absolute perfect recipe for using PAM Baking Spray. The caramel is so sticky-gooey and it’s baked in a fluted pan that you need to flip onto a plate for presentation (no pressure there, PAM peeps). So you really, really want it to come out clean. And it did! Each batch I prepared came out perfectly with very little caramel residue left behind in the pan for cleanup.

The recipe my mom always makes is a simple caramel pecan version, but I wanted to make mine really special and different for the holidays. So instead of nuts, I studded my bread with festive-looking dried cranberries and pieces of apple. The apple pieces meld with the caramel sauce during baking to give every bite a really distinctive caramel apple flavor. Its SO good!

Keeping with my Mom’s tradition (and my vow to go easy on myself a bit this holiday season), I stuck with the store-bought biscuit dough, but if you really feel like going the extra mile, you could swap in homemade cinnamon roll dough. For me though, the beauty of this recipe is in its crowd-pleasing simplicity during a season that’s already jam-packed and overcomplicated.

As I said, my family expects pull-apart bread on Christmas Eve, but if you’re hosting overnight guests this is an absolutely perfect addition to a breakfast or brunch table (not to mention a dessert buffet).

No matter what you do to celebrate, I wish you a very Merry Christmas (and other holidays too!) from The Andexlers!


Cranberry Caramel Apple Pull-Apart Bread
Servings:12 servings

INGREDIENTS:
PAM® Baking Spray
1 cup granny smith apples (about 1 medium), peeled, cored and finely diced
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cans (16.3 oz each) refrigerated buttermilk biscuit dough
1/2 cup (1 stick) margarine or butter
1 cup light brown sugar
3 Tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Directions:
1.  Preheat oven to 350° F. Spray a 9.5 inch fluted pan with baking spray. Set aside.
2.  Combine granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon in a large (1-gallon), zip- top plastic food storage bag. Shake bag to mix and set aside.
3.  Separate biscuit dough into pieces and cut each biscuit into quarters. Working in batches, drop biscuit dough pieces into plastic bag, seal top and shake to evenly coat dough in the cinnamon/sugar mixture.
4.  Sprinkle a thin layer of dried cranberries and apples in the bottom of baking pan. Arrange a layer of biscuit dough pieces over top and continue adding apple, cranberries and biscuit pieces until none remain. Sprinkle any remaining cinnamon sugar mixture from the plastic bag over top of the dough. Set pan aside.
5.  Place margarine or butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium heat. Add brown sugar and stir with a whisk until sugar dissolves. Continue stirring mixture over medium heat until mixture begins to bubble and thicken, about 5 minutes.
6.  Remove brown sugar mixture from heat and immediately add heavy cream and ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon. Stir until caramel is smooth.
7.  Pour caramel evenly over the top of the biscuit pieces.
8.  Place prepared pan on a rimmed cookie sheet or pizza pan then bake in the center of oven for 40 minutes or until golden brown and no longer doughy in the center.
9.  Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Turn upside down onto serving platter. Serve warm.

Note: PAM Baking is a freelance client. I receive compensation from them as a consultant but all of the thoughts and opinions included in this post are my own. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sponsored Post: Melted Snowman Cookies and Holiday Baking Tips with PAM Baking


Up until this past weekend, I was not feeling the Christmas spirit. At. All. Even after we got our tree on Saturday and got all the decorations up, I was still feeling sort of "meh," and a little bit overwhelmed by my long, long holiday-related to-do list. But then on Sunday we got a whole bunch of snow and suddenly... "Its the most wonderful time of the year!!!"

Maybe we’re in the minority but our family loves snow, especially in December, and this year it really did the trick to get me in the mood. 

I'm still feeling a little bit overwhelmed by my to-do list. We've got all the decorating done but that’s about it.  I don't have a single gift and have absolutely no clue what we're going to do for Christmas cards. Our elf rarely moves to a new shelf (or any other creative location).

Even so, I'm trying to give myself a break this year. After all I am pregnant (and still in need of an occasional nap), Lillian is at an age when almost everything is new and wonderful without me having to orchestrate much (snowflakes! holiday music! STRANDS OF LIGHTS!!!), so if ever there was a year to cut myself some slack and enjoy the season, this is it. 

Instead of freaking out about my to-do list, Lilly and I having been playing in the snow, sipping cocoa and mulled cider and whipping up a big batch of sugar cookie dough to make these fun melted snowman cookies (we really like snow).

I got the idea for these from an article in Parents magazine and they were so much fun to make (and super easy too!) They suggested using store-bought dough but we made our own and I used my favorite icing recipe. From there it was just a matter of assembling using marshmallows, fruit leather and chocolate chips. I didn’t even pipe the icing. Just dabbed it on using a spatula and toothpicks. Even so, I think they’re super cute and a little bit different from your average Christmas cookie.

Playing around with sugar cookies, while fun, was actually part of a new freelance project I've been working on (pregnant lady dream job, I know). A few weeks ago, a friend of mine reached out to see if I'd be interested in developing some simple tips for smoother holiday baking and create an easy-to-make holiday recipe using PAM Baking Spray. Since I'm all about making things easier this year, it seemed like a perfect fit. 

Although I'm familiar with regular PAM, this was the first time I've really worked with PAM Baking (which blends non-stick and flour in one spray). I've been experimenting with it for a week or so now and pretty impressed with the results so far. When using cooking sprays in the past, I'd been turned off by the sticky residue they left on my cookware. PAM has three products that leave up to 99% less residue (Original, Butter and Baking). I've not experienced any residue on my pans at all since using it.

Beyond spraying my bakeware, I’ve been playing around with a few other novel uses for PAM too. These snowman cookies call for slice-and-bake so I sprayed my knife with PAM before slicing the cookies and the knife didn’t get nearly as sticky and gummy with cookie dough as it normally does. Although I don't usually post without a recipe, there are so many great little tips that can really make baking easier and during the holidays every second counts, so hopefully one of these will help you too: 

  • Clever Cookies: For me, nothing is more annoying than getting my cookie dough perfectly rolled out, pressing a cookie cutter into it, then pulling it back up and having half the dough tear off with the cutter. Its not so much a problem with simple shapes but cookie cutters that have intricate designs and stamped-on details can be a real problem. I found that if I lightly spray my cookie cutters with PAM Baking before pressing them into my cookie dough, the cookies come out cleaner and the cutters themselves don't end up covered in sticky dough. 
  • Pie with an Edge: I've always found traditional fluted pie crusts to be a bit if a pain to create. I don't like when my fingernails dig into the pastry dough and I can never get the flutes to be a uniform size. I've found its far easier (and much more unique) to give my single-crust pies a tabbed edge. Use kitchen scissors to snip 1/2 inch slits along the pastry edge at 1/2 inch intervals all around the crust. 
  • Quicker Cleanup: According to a survey the PAM folks sent me, people spend an average of 45+ minutes washing dishes during/after holiday meals. I have the dishpan hands to prove it. To reduce cleanup time after baking they suggest spraying pie plates, muffin tins, bundt pans and cookies sheets with PAM Baking before. The combination of flour and PAM's reformulated non-stick spray is designed to reach every nook and cranny of bakeware to prevent sticking for faster cleanup. As I said before, I was skeptical about this going in, but tonight I made the stickiest recipe I could think of in a fluted baking pan. I sprayed it with PAM beforehand and the bread literally slid right out and the pan washed up in less than a minute. So, I think I'm sold on this one. 
  • Savvy Storage: This is a good tip to keep in mind if you'll be traveling this holiday season and volunteered to bring a dessert. Its actually a conundrum I run into every Thanksgiving when we visit my in-laws in Ohio. I'm always in charge of pies but because we drive out on Wednesday, I have to make my pies the day before. So, for the record: baked, whole fruit pies (such as apple) can be stored at room temperature for up to 48 hours. Sliced pies should be covered loosely with foil or plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator. If you need a longer shelf-life, most baked holiday cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to two weeks. 
  • A Sprinkle of Cheer: Whether you're kid's school requires that all snacks and treats be store-bought or you just don't have the time to make a homemade pie this week, you can still add a festive, homemade look. All you need is some confectioner's sugar or unsweetened cocoa. Trace holiday cookie cutters onto pieces of paper, cut out the shapes and arrange on top of baked goods. Next, scoop confectioners sugar or cocoa into a fine mesh sieve and gently dust over the top. Remove paper to reveal festive shapes. 
What are your favorite tips for getting through the holidays without losing your mind? I'm all ears (especially if you have some ideas for our Christmas cards...ugh)!

Note: PAM Baking is a freelance client. I receive compensation from them as a consultant but all of the thoughts and opinions included in this post are my own. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Apple Tart with Saltine Cracker Crust

So, I'm pretty sure that I'm suffering from PIG. If you're not familiar with this particular acronym (likely because I just made it up), it stands for "Pregnancy Induced Baking," and I have it. Bad. In the past week I've made: pumpkin walnut muffins, pumpkin cornbread, chocolate pumpkin bread pudding, sweet potato pancakes, chicken pot pies (savory baking!) and this apple tart.

You can actually hear me gaining weight through the computer, can't you? No amount of kale chips and quinoa power breakfast can balance this out. Oh well. I suppose its better than the chocolate malt and Shake Shack cravings I had while pregnant with Lillian. In Miami Beach. The bikini capital of Florida.

The truth is, now that my energy is returning, my nesting instincts are kicking in hard core. I've been cleaning things more than usual. Organizing forgotten shelves. Browsing the endless barrage of Land of Nod catalogs in our mailbox. But mostly baking. Because, lets be realistic. Cleaning and organizing doesn't last long with Princess Super Lighting Bolt Lillian, Queen of Chaos reigning around.
(Gratuitous kid photo)
At least with baking I get to enjoy the results for a few minutes. And boy was this tart fun to enjoy. Ain't she purty?

Tarts are such pretty things, aren't they? Honestly, I don't know why I don't make them more often except that if I'm going to bother making pastry dough I'm going pie. Double crust. Lattice top. Pie. All. The. Way. But there's the beauty of this tart in particular. I made the crust using saltine crackers....at first because we were out of graham crackers but then as I was putting it together I realized how buttery and flaky it was going to be. Its like pastry crust without all the work. When it bakes, it comes out more crumbly in texture...similar to the graham cracker crust on a cheesecake...but boy is it good warm, with the yummy apples and a dollop of vanilla ice cream (or a dollop of freshly whipped cream). Next time, I'm thinking I might make a half batch of cheesecake filling to spread on the bottom of the crust before adding the apples, just for extra richness. But really, with a touch of ice cream or whipping cream, its not necessary. And what a lovely result. This would be a fun (and relatively simple) addition to a Thanksgiving dessert table, simply because its a bit different and unexpected. Perhaps I'll make another one next week. Right after I bake a batch of oatmeal cookies, and a pie, or some cheesecake bars, or maybe some lava cakes.....










Apple Tart with Saltine Cracker Crust
Makes 1 9-inch tart

Crust:
2 cups saltine cracker crumbs (about 1.5 sleeves of whole crackers)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/8 cup tap water

Filling:
2 pounds of apples (about 5 medium), cored, peeled and thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons butter, melted

Glaze:
1 1/2 cups apple cider (or apple juice)
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Place saltines in the bowl of a food processor and process until evenly crushed and smooth. Add sugar and pulse to combine evenly. Pour melted butter and water (one tablespoon at a time) down the funnel with the food processor turned on, just until the mixture comes together into a dough. Turn off processor, scrape down sides and combine evenly using a spatula.

Pour crust mixture into a tart pan and press evenly into the pan and up the sides using fingers. Once the crust is evenly pressed into place, prick the crust all over with a fork to create holes. Place crust in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare filling.

Combine peeled, sliced apples, sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl. Use a wooden spoon or your hands to evenly mix the sugar and cinnamon with the apples. Remove crust from refrigerator.

Begin arranging apples in overlapping layers, starting at the outside edge and working inward. Once apples are evenly arranged, brush the tops with melted butter.

Place tart in the preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes, until crust is golden and apples are slightly bubbly at the bottom and golden on top. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze.

To make glaze, combine apple cider and lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer until mixture is thick and reduced to about a 1/3 cup. Keep warm over very low heat until tart comes out of the oven.

Brush glaze over top of the tart as soon as it comes out of the oven. Cool completely.

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