Holiday Baking (despite the craziness)

This weekend, my weekend with the kids and a holiday weekend, we’ve done yard work, had a family outing to an old school arcade, colored Easter eggs, baked (Well, I  baked, the kids not so much.), did the Easter basket tradition, and are about to attend Mass and head to a big family dinner. Yet it somehow feels like I haven’t accomplished enough. Final exams loom, I’m about to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry…but I’ve got one more lab write up, a homework assignment, and a final to get through first. That’s the cloud that hangs low and heavy over this weekend. (And my fairly legitimate excuse for the terribly infrequent postings around here.)

Balancing working enough to support my household of six, meeting ALL the needs, and giving time and attention to my classwork is a massive challenge, one that requires constant focus and re-calibration. Somehow I’ve gotten this far and done decently well at it. Most the time. Sometimes it makes me a less than enthusiastic parent. I’m not fostering the pre-holiday excitement or planning fancy coordinated outfits for my five  (not so) small ones like I once was. But there is one holiday tradition I’ve managed to maintain, one of my favorites, the holiday baking.

I know it seems like baking holiday treats is something I do for others…It’s not. Don’t be fooled. It’s a totally selfish thing I do. I bake what like for holidays and don’t do other things so I can get the baking I want to do done. Baking has always been a comfort thing for me. It’s a soothing ritual when I’m stressed or upset and a productive distraction when I’m bored or anxious. I think this (past) weekend I was all of the above. So I baked.

This year the emergent theme of my holiday baking was fruits and vegetables. Don’t worry though, it wasn’t healthy. I made pineapple upside down cake, carrot cake, and that blueberry cheesecake from last Easter.

Pineapple upside down cake is one of my mom’s classics. She makes it in a cast iron pan with this amazing gooey brown sugar goodness crystallized on top just under a layer of juicy baked pineapple rings. My mom usually makes this at Easter but decided we probably had enough desserts without it this year. I noticed fresh pineapples on sale on one of my many weekly grocery store runs and had seen a bundt cake pan version of the old cast iron classic that I wanted to try. And thus pineapple upside down cake was added to my baking list.  Like I said, this is selfish baking here!

Having never made my mom’s version of the cake I’m not sure how close this one was but I used a recipe found online. The melted butter and brown sugar went into the bundt pan first and then pineapple slices and cherries (which my mom never used). The cake batter gets poured over that, it’s all baked, and then flipped out. Easy peasy!

No really, this was quite easy to make. I’d recommend it. The only changes I made to the recipe were using fresh pineapple which I mashed up real good and, because I was concerned about the moisture level of the batter, an added splash of rum. I only had coconut oil on hand so rum seemed like a good balancing liquid. One of my sisters commented that the cake had a vague pina colada taste….maybe next year I’ll be sharing my magical upside down pina colada cake recipe with you all. We’ll see. šŸ˜‰

Unlike pineapple upside down cake, carrot cake is one of my favorite desserts to make (and to eat too). I started making it back in my early twenties when I was married. And, actually, carrot cake is responsible for my cheesecake baking obsession too.

My ex-husband’s birthday is in December. The first year we were married I wanted to do something fun and special for his birthday. I got tickets to a Piston’s game and planned to make his favorite dessert…but I didn’t know what that was so in the weeks leading up to his birthday I asked what kind of cake was his favorite. I swear he said cheesecake. Swear it! I had never made one before but had seen my mom make a classic New York cheesecake every year at Christmas for as long as I could remember. It never looked that hard. So I pulled out a cookbook, scanned the recipe, bought ingredients, and started a cheesecake a half hour or so before we had to leave for the game. I thought I could just whip it up and bake it real quick before we left so it would be cooled and ready to eat when we got home. It was going to be great and he was going to love it!

Except it takes way longer than half an hour to bake a cheesecake. Apparently my reading ahead and planning skills were even worse when I was 20 than they are now.

The result was a soupy mess of a cheesecake AND then, come to find out, my then new husband didn’t even like cheesecake very mush. He says he told me carrot cake was his favorite. There is no way he said carrot cake. Maybe he meant carrot cake but he said cheesecake. After that fiasco I decided I was going to master the art of cheesecakes. I’ve made many successful cheesecakes over the past sixteen years. I think I’ve succeeded. At some point after that I got a great carrot cake recipe from a co-worker and got pretty good at that too.

 

I consider it a win-win…at least as far as desserts are concerned.

 

As for the aforementioned blueberry cheesecake, I used the same recipe as last year because, despite my poor judgement on ingredient substitution, it really was a good recipe. This time I still didn’t find friache but I did use a better quality substitute: plain Fage Greek yogurt. It’s rich and creamy with a slightly sour taste and none of that cheap vanilla Greek yogurt overpowering after taste. It was super yum!

 

Oh, and I did get all my kids to dress up even if they weren’t in coordinated outfits. With a group of mostly teenagers that’s as good as it gets.

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Annual Christmas Craziness

Like every year (especially since going back to school), the few weeks before Christmas in mid December were Kuh-razy with a capital K. Finals/end of term projects for me and pre-holiday demands and events for the kids have me running around nonstop like the proverbial headless chicken. Because this is an annual thing I’m mostly prepared for it, as much as one can prepare for an already intense life to kick into hyper-speed.

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At one point (Tuesday), less than half an hour before the class period it was due, I was finishing a hefty presentation …from home…forty minutes from campus. All I could think was “How the Eff did this happen?”

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At another point, a day or so after the presentation procrastination, I was hustling my cranky kids out of the car to (quickly!) pick out a Christmas tree so we could get to the sledding hill across town where their aunt who was visiting from out of town was waiting for us with some cousins. It was cold, windy and already dark but gosh darn it we were going to get some sledding in. And we did. Just a bit before it was time for me to make dinner for 11 people. Directly following that I squeezed in an hour and half nap and headed to work for the night. Over the next couple of days I got six hours sleep. Total. In a span of 48 hours. I made it to my last test (it could hardly be called a final), attended my little guy’s school holiday concert, got the tree up and decorated before the kids left for the week, finished a paper, and worked another shift before finally crashing for 11 hours straight (and subsequently being an hour late for work Friday night).

But then my semester was officially over and a very strange thing happened… Ā end-of-finals-week-meme

I hadĀ free time. Well, relatively free time.

So I did what any sane person would do and began making some Christmas presents. There was just under a full week and making a list of things I wanted to make was as far as I had gotten.

First there was the Slytherin robe one of my sisters asked if I could make…

I used soap and drew the “pattern” out on the fabric. Other than the sleeves being a bit long (for growing room of course), it turned out perfectly and I expect I’ll see my nephew wearing this for a few years.

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And then there was a random hat made with chunky yarn for my mom, a scarf/cowl thing for my brother’s girlfriend, a “fallen leaves” baggy hat (for the same brother’s girlfriend), and a “Little Sister” hat for my God-daughter. (The other God-daughter got some My Little Ponies but she’s getting an Anna cape for her birthday in January.)

Sadly, I only got pictures of the Little Sister hat. It’s a bit big but should be perfect this spring or fall.

After that it was the holiday.

(Okay, that’s actually the before-Christmas craziness there.)

And that, dear readers, sums up this year’s round of pre-Christmas/finals week craziness.