Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas Goodies

Molly says, "Merry Christmas!"  Or, "Bah, humbug!"  It's hard to tell sometimes. . . .

I was a busy girl yesterday.  After Safety Guy's IEP meeting (which went very well), I also made two different Christmas treats:  Almond Sandies, and my Mom's brownies.  Usually I make Pecan Sandies, but I didn't have pecans, so I improvised.  And I've never found a recipe to compare to my Mom's brownies.  When the Princess asked me to teach her how to make them earlier this week it was easy to agree.  She really did most of the work for this batch of chocolate-y awesomeness, and opted for using Hershey's Special Dark chocolate chips instead of the walnuts.  The apple didn't fall far from the tree in the chocolate department, although my favorite way to have them is with extra walnuts.  Here are the recipes:

Almond Sandies

2 cups salted butter, at room temp
2/3 cup sugar
4 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. almond extract
4 cups flour
2 cups sliced almonds
4-5 tbsp. cold water

powdered sugar

Cream the butter and sugar until light.  Add the vanilla and almond extract and mix again.  Add the flour and the sliced almonds, and enough of the cold water to get the dough to stick together.  The dough should be quite firm and not sticky to the touch.  Form the dough into a ball, then cover it and refrigerate it for several hours (or overnight).  You can directly bake the dough, but the cookies will spread a little more - no big deal if you're in a hurry, they just look prettier and stay nice and round if you have the time to chill the dough.

Roll the dough into 1" balls by hand.  The cookies spread very little when baked from chilled dough, so you can get a lot onto a cookie sheet at 1 1/4"-1 1/2" apart.  Bake the cookies at 350 for 12-13 minutes (until just barely beginning to turn brown on the bottom edges).  Remove the cookies to a towel or wire rack and let them cool completely, then roll them in powdered sugar.  Store tightly covered.  (They freeze well, too.)  

If you want to make Pecan Sandies, omit the almond extract, and substitute pecans for the almonds.

Yield:  approximately 6 dozen.

Mom's Brownies

1 cup shortening
4 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate squares
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
4 tbsp. corn syrup (optional - makes the brownies a little chewier)

2 cups chopped walnuts OR 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease and flour a 9" x 14" baking pan. 

Melt the shortening and the chocolate together over very low heat in a small saucepan (do not boil!).  Stir it once the chocolate is softened a bit, to help any lumps melt completely.  Take it off the heat and set it aside to cool for 10 minutes or so.

Mix the eggs and sugar until light.  Add the vanilla and mix again.  Mix in the chocolate/shortening.  (DO NOT do this while the shortening is very hot - it will cook the eggs.  Lukewarm is okay.)  Add the flour, salt, and baking powder.  If you're using the corn syrup, add that as well.  Combine well.  Mix in any nuts or chocolate chips by hand, as the batter is quite stiff.

 Spread the brownie batter evenly in the prepared pan.  (You can toss on some sprinkles or non pareils at this point.)  Bake for 40-42 minutes.  Cool completely before cutting.

One of the most decadent desserts I've ever made was with Mom's brownies, each topped by a scoop of Ben & Jerry's White Russian ice cream and chocolate syrup.  Amazing!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pleased and Grateful

Gratuitous picture of Molly lounging on my lap.

I am very happy with how our son's IEP meeting went today.  His school psych wrote the most thorough, thoughtful evaluation of our son that I've ever seen, and his primary resource teacher did a great job with his goals and current skill levels.  Both of them zeroed in on his areas of greatest need (executive functioning skills, i.e. planning sequence, and follow-through for many tasks, and social anxiety as it relates to monitoring his own behavior, i.e. he needs continued ABA).  

I am SO glad that everyone there seems to realize that his emotional outbursts and many of his social miscues are the reaction to situations he doesn't understand or overreacts to, and that addressing only the reaction wasn't helping him.  His teachers and counselor started the ABA approach last spring, and we're finally seeing the fruits of it this fall.  He's making good progress, with more good to come.  It's not smooth sailing from here on out, but at last I think we've all got a good handle of what he REALLY needs - addressing the root issues instead of the symptoms.

In other news, we're enjoying the holiday season, and I'm in full cookie-baking, gift-making mode.  Today's goodies are Almond Sandies and my Mom's special brownies (my favorite brownie recipe EVER).  I'll share pictures and the recipes tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

IEP and Simple Things

This is Lucy, one of our guinea pig girls.  Her eyes really are pink.  
And, she's also visually impaired, although you'd never know it to look at her 
and it's not related to her eye color.  
She loves Safety Guy, who gives the girls baby carrots every night.  
She gets up on her hind legs and gives him whisker kisses - very cute.

Tomorrow is Safety Guy's triennial reevaluation meeting for his IEP.  He's going to be participating in the meeting for the first time, since he's a freshman.  I want  him to have a say in what's decided regarding his education, and I'd like him to be able to see everyone working together for his best interests.  He still struggles in school socially, and sometimes the increased high school work load is hard for him, but he's doing his best and growing in maturity.  

When his primary resource teacher asked what I wanted out of this  meeting, I asked for more help for him in dealing with his social stress and anxiety in school.  That seems to be a root issue that leads to further verbal acting out and poor choices in what he says to others.  If we can address the anxiety and stress, he'll be less likely to take his negative emotions out on others.  He's gotten better at "owning" his actions, but I'd like to see him also have the support he needs to head off issues before they blow up on him.  I want the school to be more proactive than reactive.  We've got to get ahead of this cycle of stress and reaction, or the rest of his year will be very difficult.  Frankly, I don't think any of us want a repeat of last spring's difficulties, least of all Safety Guy.

On a happy note, a couple students invited SG to sit with them at lunch on Monday, and he enjoyed sharing pictures and videos from his iPod with them.  It's a small thing, but really, it's a big thing - casual friendship, common kindness, simple fun.  I am so happy that he had that bright spot in his day, and I hope it's the first of many more.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Baking Therapy

The Princess has had a rough week, so today I'm letting her do some solo baking.  She asked to make cinnamon rolls, so she's busy proofing the yeast and getting ready to fill the house with cinnamon-y scented goodness.  It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here, with a dusting of snow, lights on the bushes outside, the Christmas tree up and lit in the family room, and the fragrance of baking filling the air.

Safety guy is watching 'A Christmas Story' for the first time this season (he watches it several times at least each year - just now, the Bumpus's dogs stole the holiday turkey).  I may ask him to put in 'Elf' later.  My personal favorite Christmas shows are the ones I grew up watching - 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas,' and 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' - as well as the 'Muppet Christmas Carol.'  The sounds of the season, familiar as old friends.

I'm in holiday baking mode, and we have two family Christmas get-togethers to prepare for, one next weekend and one on Christmas Day.  The homemade gifts are almost done, most of my holiday shopping is done, and I'm doing a pretty good job of keeping the holiday low-key this year.  I want to enjoy time with family and friends with minimum stress over the holiday prep work.  I hope you're having a pleasant holiday in your home as well.  Enjoy what's really important:  time with the people you love.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Bourbon Pecan Cake and Christmas

It's the time of year again, to bring out the family recipes for Christmas treats.  Today I'm baking an old favorite, one that I've never found anywhere else:  Bourbon Pecan Cake.  You could call it a fruit cake, but that would be doing a total disservice to this wonderful holiday cake.  This is to fruit cake what cupcakes are to rocks - no comparison.  I shared this recipe last year, and this year I'm sharing a slightly different version of it, since I had to halve the recipe to save time and money.  Here's Bourbon Pecan Cake, Mark II:

Bourbon Pecan Cake
(original recipe from Mary Thompson; modifications by Laurel Rudd )

1 1/2 c. whole red candied cherries 
1 c. golden seedless raisins
1 1/4 c. bourbon whiskey (any smooth brand – Jim Beam is great in this)
1 c. butter, room temp. soft
1 c. white sugar
1 c. packed dark brown sugar
4 eggs, separated – yolks into a smaller bowl, whites into a mixing bowl
2 1/2 cups sifted flour (2 1/4 cups plus 1/4 cup)
2 1/2 c. pecan halves 
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground nutmeg

The night before, combine the cherries, raisins, and bourbon in a glass bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight, stirring a couple times. A couple hours before baking, set the fruit out to bring it to room temperature. Drain the fruit and reserve the bourbon-cherry liquid.  Preheat the oven to 275F.

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugars gradually, until well-blended, then add the egg yolks one at a time.

In a separate bowl, combine 1/4 cup of flour with the pecans and mix to coat. In another bowl, sift the rest of the flour (2 1/4 cups) with the baking powder, nutmeg, and salt.  (I have to be honest - I skip the sifting step and just do it all in the one big mixing bowl with the butter and sugar.  I don't notice that much of a difference between sifted/not sifted in this recipe.)

Add the flour mixture to the eggs/butter mixture; combine thoroughly. Add the reserved bourbon and the rest of the flour mixture alternately, ending with flour. Beat well after each addition.

In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the batter, gently, then stir in the floured pecans and the fruit. (You can do this in a standard large mixing bowl, just be careful when you stir to not lose any fruit and nuts over the side.)

Grease and flour 7-8 mini foil loaf pans. (If you use medium 3-4 will do, or 2-3 large pans).  Bake the mini cakes at 275F for 2 hours (2 ½ hours or so for medium, 3 hours or so for the large ones). The cakes will be golden brown when done, and a tester inserted in the middle will come out clean.

Last year's batch of mini loaves.

Turn the cakes out of the pans while still slightly warm. If you want extra punch from the bourbon flavor, wrap the cooled cakes in bourbon-soaked cheesecloth and wrap them in plastic wrap and foil (or place them in plastic bags) for strong bourbon flavor.  I usually refrigerate the cakes in plastic wrap and foil, for milder flavor.  You can also cool and store the cakes in their pans for easy gifting.  Either way, the cakes should “mellow” in the fridge for a couple weeks before being used.  They slice best when chilled.

This recipe is truly one of the “tastes of Christmas” from my childhood memories. Mom and Dad used to make a weekend afternoon project of this wonderful treat. Mom would cut brown paper and line the metal bread pans with it, greasing the pans first, lining the pans then greasing the paper again before putting the batter in, to make a very neat looking loaf when done and cooled and the paper was removed. I remember helping with the paper cutting process – and the eating, of course.  The house smelled AMAZING as it baked.   Sometimes I'd sneak a piece of it before school - amazing that no one ever noticed bourbon on my breath in class first thing in the morning!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Standing Up

I'm very proud of Safety Guy lately.  This hasn't been an easy fall for him at school, and he's had his rough moments, but I can see that he's really trying on all fronts.  He's keeping up with the work, even though it's a stretch for him (freshman year in high school is a lot different from junior high), and he got decent grades in the first quarter.  He's also trying very hard to make good choices in how he relates to his peers, with some very mature choices of his own even when it isn't easy.

Probably what I'm most impressed with recently is his self-advocacy.  That's been a long time coming - not just standing up for himself, but doing so appropriately.  We've told him in the past that it's okay to be assertive, but it's not okay to be rude and obnoxious and seek revenge, and he's really doing well with that this fall.  I know it hasn't been easy for him.  In fact, he's really feeling the stress of school and life, and he's frustrated that certain other students keep picking on him or being rude to him even when he's bent over backwards to try to get along with them.

I get it.  This "being the bigger man" is a real bear.  It's not fair, and it's not easy.  I really respect that he's working so hard to continue to make good choices for his own sake.  But, I also respect that everyone has their limits.  Last night he and I had a good conversation, and he was very articulate in describing his feelings about the social situation at school.  He's angry, and he'd like to lash out in some way to make the people hurting him back off.  He says that he feels like he's always the one who has to give in, and that the other students who need to back down don't get consequences that mean anything or stop their behavior.  I can certainly understand his frustration and anger.  I don't minimize it at all.

So, I wrote a short letter to his school psychologist and his primary resource teacher, two very good educators whom I respect.  I told them what he's been saying to me, how he's feeling and what he's thinking.  I know they'll take this seriously.  I consider what Safety Guy told me last night fair warning that he's on the edge, and needs some careful support and judicious intervention in some social situations.  The teachers need to be aware that some bullying is still going on (not as much as before, thankfully, but it's still there).  The last thing any of us want is for Safety Guy to be pushed to the point of reacting aggressively to whatever is "the last straw."  He's doing his best.  He's struggling.  He's told us, point blank, that he needs help.  If that's not self-awareness and self-advocacy, I don't know what is.  It's up to us, as the adults around him, to take him seriously and help him, or our statements of support and praise are meaningless.

I hope he has a good day today.  And tomorrow.  And every day.  And I hope his teachers will be sensitive to his need for a little extra space and grace until his struggles lessen and his stress eases off.