Monday, March 31, 2014

The Making of a Minion

P's birthday cake was a screaming success! And seeing as it was completed with no drama this year, I have decided instead to post a how-to and share some of my divine secrets. (Also, someone asked.) 

J and I have been doing cooking lessons on Fridays, and we used last week's time to bake the cakes. He enjoyed helping with the measuring, timing the mixing, and of course licking the spatula at the end. To ensure a clean removal, I lined the bottom of the pans with waxed paper and gave the sides a quick grease with cooking spray. I used an 8 inch circle pan (purchased for the famous drum set cake) and an 8 inch square pan, and used the leftover batter for cupcakes. Once the cakes were cooled, I cut the circle one in half and gouged out two places for the eyes.

The eyes were two cupcakes, frosted and decorated with silver sprinkles around the edge. I frosted first, then placed into the head, which was a little tricky, but I was worried about getting the sprinkles all over. Two generic M&Ms were placed in the center. The square cake was used for the minion's body, and I used wafer cookies for arms and legs. He looked a little freaky, but here's the assembly pre-frosting.

 The round cake had risen a bit in the center, causing it to be uneven with the square cake. (Anyone who knows how to fix this in the future, please comment!) I used the pieces from the eye sockets to fill in the gaps and covered everything with what I like to call "miracle frosting". It is made from cool whip and kept in the freezer until a few hours before you are ready to use it. In the past I made my own with confectioner's sugar, but it always made a mess if there were any loose crumbs. The cool whip frosting just covers it all up. Amazing. And delicious too! You have to keep it in the fridge, and it does harden a bit, but that's fine by me! Here's the minion, mid-frost. I used thick black licorice for the gloves.
 Once he was frosted, I used thin black licorice for the hair, goggle straps, and smile. I wanted to do the overalls in blue fruit roll ups, but couldn't find any. Discouraged and mumbling to myself in the cereal aisle last week, I turned around and spotted a display with Rip Rolls. They are thin strips of fruit roll candy covered in sugar and taste a bit like sour patch kids. The color was perfect, but they made an enormous sticky sugary mess all over the counter. The buttons on his overalls are M&Ms and his feet are ho-hos. Which I sampled while building and was disappointed to discover that they just don't taste as good as they did when I was a kid. The "G" is done in black icing.
 Overall, I was very pleased with how the cake turned out. I decorated it on Friday night for an early party on Saturday. The only fix needed was extra frosting on the arms because the top layer of wafer cookie had separated. The boy was happy, and his friends and their parents were impressed. One dad said he thought it was professionally done. (*Blush*) And of course everyone wanted to eat the sticky "blue stuff".

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


It is that time of year. Cake time. P's birthday is next week, and he is having his friend party this weekend. We have decided on a minion cake this year; Dave the minion to be exact. For those readers who are new to my world of cake insanity, welcome. Prepare to be amazed. But please, please don't ask me if I use pinterest. Or tell me to "Just go buy a cake." Or use fondant. Because those things are ALL AGAINST THE RULES. Here's a little story to get the newbies up to date.

Once upon a time there was an ordinary mom whose son was turning two. The adorable little boy was obsessed with one red, fuzzy Sesame Street character, and his mother wanted to make him a cake in that character's likeness. The ordinary mom had a snarky older sister who said, "You? Make a cake? It can't be done!" (Cue evil cackling.) (Insert heartfelt apology to big sister - it's for dramatic effect, okay sissy?) Ordinary mom thought, "How hard can it be?" and set off to make a wonderful and amazing Elmo cake. It awed. It impressed. It gave ordinary mom a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

And started a revolution.

The next year, a team of experts  were flown in to consult on the bulldozer cake (okay, it was just my friend Amy and she drove, but she had some amazing ideas). When the boy turned four, and asked for a drum set, the seemingly insurmountable task was accomplished in record breaking temperatures with several frosting related disasters. Really, it was. Then there were two boys and twice the fun with cake planning, weeks of obsessive behavior that isolated ordinary mom from the rest of the family, and of course the warm, fuzzy accolades and "Thank you mom"s that made it all worth while. (Check the April and June sections of my blog if you wish to read the specific story of each cake.)

Each year, the ordinary mom laughs in the face of those who tell her to buy a cake or wander through the evil site where other people's ideas make one feel inferior. Then she marches to the bulk food aisle in the grocery store and lets her imagination travel to a world filled with candied confections that will become THE CAKE. Here are some of this year's chosen treats.

Stay tuned to find out the exciting conclusion!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Saying goodbye to winter?

The calendar says that today is the first day of spring, yet when I look outside it appears that the end of the world is coming instead. The sky is gloomy gray and the pretty white snow has been reduced to piles of filthy black muck. Despite the handful of 50 degree days we have enjoyed in the past week or so, the thermometer is having a hard time budging away from the freezing range.

In a word: Bluck

This winter has been downright miserable, with not one but two blizzards that kept me and the kids indoors for large chunks of time. Days spent below zero were too many to count. Snow I can handle. But wind chills that knock the air out of your lungs and freeze the snot to your scarf are definitely not for me. The hubby and I grew up in this snowy town, and we knew what we were getting into when we moved back. He loves winter. Loves the snow, loves winter sports, and is the only person I know who doesn't mind shoveling.

Even he has started to complain.

Here's the thing about growing up in a town made famous by its plow to people ratio. You have to love something about winter or you won't survive. As children, we both remember dragging our sleds to nearby hills and spending hours digging forts into the giant snowplow drifts. The elementary school across from my childhood home was famous for the massive mounds that my friends and I would ride down time and time again, smacking our bottoms on the concrete as we'd ricochet off the giant plow curves. It was awesome. Hubby had a similar experience on the court across from his house. Then at some point the town decided it was unsafe to create such massive hills and started spreading out the snow. It was a sad day. We live on a court and I could just imagine how fun it would be if the plow made a giant sledding hill right outside our front door. Thankfully we have a park not too far from the house and were able to get out there a few times this year when the wind wasn't blindingly strong.

One of the other memories I have from childhood is something that I never got to do. Skiing. Our family never went, and I can remember feeling jealous of the kids who would come into school Monday morning, proudly displaying the lift ticket clipped on their jacket, regaling the class with stories of near misses and broken bones. My husband tried to take me when we were first married, but his philosophy is much like Charles Del Mar's advice in Better Off Dead.
He took me up the ski lift. I was a nervous wreck. Fell off the lift when it got to the end. The easy hills were all closed, so he took me down a medium hill. Tried to ski backwards while I went forward. I fell several more times and ended up going down the hill on my bottom. Spent the afternoon in the lodge feeling like a giant failure. My sister-in-law finally offered to help me on the bunny hill (something we should have done FIRST) and I felt a bit more confident. Actually went skiing one more time with some friends when we lived on the west coast. But it's just not for me. And now the boys want to learn, and hubby insists that I try again. I am just too old at this point and would rather keep all my limbs in one piece. We went out to the slopes this past weekend for a final winter hurrah. I took J to a nearby sledding hill while DH took P skiing and tried to keep him on his feet. It is important to my husband that the boys have a winter sport to look forward to, and I completely understand. It is part of your identity growing up in this town, and I proudly sent him off to school on Monday with the lift ticket attached to his jacket. Hopefully he will feel a sense of confidence and belonging that I always missed. And no one will make fun of him when he falls off the ski lift and has to schooch down the hill on his bum.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Snakes, snails, and puppy dog tails

That's what little boys are made of, right? Although around my house it might be more like: Guns, rocks, and smelly socks. Or burps, farts, and styrofoam darts? My family is full of boys. I have two sons and nine nephews, and when I get together with my cousins they add six more boys to the mix. Being the people watcher that I am, I have observed some interesting "boy" behavior. (WARNING: if you are easily offended by this sort of thing, don't keep reading. I am not trying to stereotype or pigeon hole the genders. I am simply making observations based on my own experiences.)
1. Boys like to get naked. Whenever my children are running around and playing, clothing comes off. They yank off their socks in a ball, rip off their shirts and are happy to strip down to underwear (or less). This happened a few Christmas' ago when the cousins were all together. All of the boys starting chasing each other around the house and quickly became shirtless. Then we tried to take a group picture. Here are my boys. When I took the kids to visit my brother and his four boys out in California, the first thing they did when we arrived was strip naked and skinny dip in the pool. P and I have an unusually large number of conversations about when it is okay and not okay to take your clothes off. I'm not saying I wouldn't be having a similar conversation with a girl. I've seen my share of little girls who are happy to be in the buff, but at some point they hear the voice in their head (society?) telling them to put their clothes on. Do boys ever hear that? So far my sons have not.
2. Boys like guns. Try to stop them. My neighbor has four girls and one boy, and she once told me, "He's not allowed to play with guns." Moments later her son wandered over to our house, picked up the nearest stick, and walked around shooting with it. I don't understand this phenomenon. But everything in our house - fingers, blocks, chopsticks, forks, pieces of toast - has become a gun at one point or another.
3. Boys are physical. They love to wrestle with each other, beat on each other, chase each other. School is often a challenge because they are required to sit still and keep their hands to themselves. Do you know how difficult that can be for some kids (mine included)? With the disappearance of recess and increased demands in early education, elementary school has become a struggle for many boys. They need to MOVE. It's plain and simple. But I have also observed that boys can be still and focused if there is something holding their interest. For my children, they are often focused by books, Legos and battles. They can plan an elaborate battle scene for hours, setting up the blocks, positioning the characters, and planning the attack. And then they battle it out, creating complete chaos. It is crazy but appears intensely satisfying.

I am torn. While it is clear to me that each gender shares unique characteristics, do I believe that society should label things as "boy" or "girl" appropriate? Should there be separate toy aisles? Should certain books be design to appeal to a specific gender? When Lego first came out with their Friends line, where you can build little houses in pink and purple, I was appalled. As a little girl I played with Legos. Blue and red ones. I built whatever I wanted. But a friend of mine with two girls pointed out that Legos are geared toward boys, with sets like Ninjago and Super heroes. It was nice to have sets her children wanted to build. What about books? My youngest likes books about trucks, but he also likes books about princesses. Do I tell him no, that's a girl's book? No way. When P was in first grade, his teacher placed the highest leveled books in pink and purple baskets. Was that to suggest that only girls could read them? He certainly thought so, and after pressure from home to choose more challenging books he was forced to quickly squash the inevitable teasing when his friends saw him picking from the pink basket.

Children are all different, and while they may possess certain characteristics based on their number of X chromosomes, they should be allowed to surround themselves in whatever makes them happy. One of P's best friends is a girl, and she loves to come over and dig in the dirt with my boys. And that's okay. She may be composed of "Sugar and spice, and everything nice" but that doesn't mean she can't search for snails.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Winning isn't everything. Is it?

I have a confession to make: I like winning. A lot. And in the early parts of my life, winning came very easy to me. Contests, athletic events, even boys. If I set my sight on something (or someone) and focused all of my energy on achieving it, it almost always happened. My father says it is because I am lucky. My sister says it is because I am ultra-competitive. Me, well, I think it is because I just don't like to lose. It hurts to not get what you want, and if it is something you have been pushing and pushing for, the hurt is even more intense. Trust me. I have become very familiar with the feeling over the past few years as my career path took a careening drive off the side of a cliff. Then foolishly landed me in an industry ripe with rejection. One of my goals this year is to submit a piece of writing at least once each month, hoping in part that something will be published, but mostly so that I can start getting used to certain words and phrases. NO. Unfortunately. Sorry. It wasn't right for us. YOU LOSE. No matter how the rejection is sugar coated, that is what I hear in my head every time: YOU  LOSE. And it hurts. (See above.) My husband has said comforting things like, "You just need to stand up one time more than you get knocked down." Our pastor suggested wallpapering my den with rejection letters. I recently read that Steven King hung his on a nail until the weight became too much and he had to switch to a spike. It is part of the industry. Everyone knows that. But how do we toughen ourselves up for it? And how do we teach that skill to our children?

Things come easy to my oldest son. He is smart, cute and full of charisma. And thankfully, he has a very thick skin. Two years ago he entered a contest to win lunch with a visiting author. The students got raffle tickets for reading a certain number of minutes. Every ticket P earned went into the lunch with the author basket. Every day he came home telling me how excited he was to meet the author and ask him questions. Then he lost the raffle. Sadly, I was more devastated about it than he was. It was one of those moments when I am thankful he does not share any of my DNA. I would have moped for days, but P, he just shrugged it off and went on to tell me about the other fun activities they did during the author's visit. This past year he entered the cub scout's annual pinewood derby with a firm intent on winning first place in design (he already won fastest car in the 2013 race). His car was designed to look like a hammerhead shark, and sadly it was destroyed on the first run due to a weak spot near the wheels. In my husband's defense, he had tried to warn P about the possibility of instant destruction, but our son insisted it would be fine. There were no trophies this year. Last place for speed, and 4th place for design. P was disappointed, but again, not crushed. Just more determined to win next year.

There is a bit of controversy in the parenting world today about nurturing a child's self-esteem by giving everyone a "trophy of participation". I don't agree with that philosophy because in life no one is going to give you a reward for just showing up. You have to be the best, or at least better than other people trying to accomplish the same goal. Therefore, we celebrate winning at our house. Winning feels good, and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that rush of adreniline you get when the thing you hoped for finally comes true. But we also try to work on losing gracefully. Whether it is a contest, a friendly game of Skip-Bo, or a life altering moment. That is what I work on daily. Losing gracefully, and not moping about or drowning in self-pity after each and every letter that starts with, "Unfortunately". For whatever reason, winning was not meant to be at that moment. And hopefully (says the trying-to-be-more-of-an-optimist), a better opportunity is waiting around the corner.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gold Stars

Maybe it's the teacher in me. The endless hours of college classes, new teacher trainings, and inservices. The parenting books and magazines I've devoured over the past eight years. Perhaps it is rooted in my own desire to figure out how to change myself and be a better person. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. I am obsessed with motivation. What motivates my students to learn something new? What motivates my children to behave? What motivates my husband to help with housework? What motivates me to stop procrastinating and get things done?
I've always been fascinated by internal motivation (I want to do this because there is a desire within me) versus external motivation (I want to do this because there is a shiny thing waiting for me) and the role they play in our journey to becoming happy and productive members of society. Many of my students would scoff at a challenge, asking, "What will you give me?" or "Will we be graded on this?" and I worry that the same thing may happen to my boys. It seems like every little action is rewarded these days, and I want them to learn that sometimes you do something simply because it makes you feel good. Click. Internal motivation.
But that doesn't always work. The truth is, we are way more motivated by external forces, especially when it comes to doing things that we don't like, or pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. Things that make us happy, that make us feel good, we do them. No problem. I love to read. Put a book in my hands and I will retreat to my favorite chair and read it. No rewards necessary. But take a student or child who hates books (gasp) or has difficulty reading, and external motivation may be required. At my son's school a local amusement park is offering a free ticket for any student who reads seven hours in two weeks. That's 30 minutes a day. For my child, who reads in the car, the bathroom, his bedroom, at breakfast (you get the idea) that is no problem. We log the minutes and collect the ticket. Easy peasy. But I can imagine in other households, where daily reading is a challenge, the dangling reward may be a strong external motivator. Is it wrong to use these types of motivators?
While reading is not a challenge in our family, there are definitely areas where my boys need an extra push. They are often described by their teachers as having "high-energy" which is the polite way to say they never. Stop. Moving. Or talking. Fine by me, really. My education background gave me a bag full of tricks to pull from when trying to reign in my rowdy children. P responded really well to time-outs as a toddler and learned quickly that no means no and Mommy really means it when she threatens to take something away if you don't pick it up. When he entered school, the negative consequences for poor choices started to pile up and he spent more and more time in punishment (especially in first grade). Then I started thinking about my many inservices and how positive reinforcement is really the only way to change behavior. Enter external motivation. This year P has the opportunity to earn weekday video game privileges (we have a no screen policy Monday-Thursday) for staying on task and getting a positive report at school, and I recently started up a similar program for our youngest. It isn't a perfect system. Slip ups happen. But overall things are getting better.
That brings me to adult motivation. How many of us set resolutions at the beginning of the year, or at some point when we feel like we JUST HAVE TO CHANGE? Change is hard. Yesterday I stumbled upon a home repair to-do list from our previous house stuffed into an old notebook. On the back was a chart of household chores, how often they needed to be done and who would do them. "How many times have we tried that?" I asked my husband. He laughed. "They never work," he said. He's right, they don't. I had to chuckle, pointing at yet another chart I recently made for myself and hung on our cluttered fridge. In my Christmas letter I emphatically promised to follow through with my resolutions and goals for the year. And so far, (pats self on back) I am doing well. My writing goals are straight forward and achievable. In both January and February I met my goals and promptly gave myself a gold star. Seeing the stickers and the little checked boxes makes me feel good. It seems to me that no matter how old we are, it feels good to be rewarded for something you've accomplished. My husband is right, there is no perfect chore chart. But the house looks better than it has and we haven't fought about who cleans what. He lives by the philosophy: if it annoys me, I'll clean it (his words) and I am just trying to make sure the house isn't swallowed up by cat hair, the bathrooms don't smell like pee and everyone has clean underwear.
At the end of the day, we will ultimately be accountable to ourselves. Are my boys behaving well in school simply because they like playing video games during the week, while some other kids are only reading because they want to ride the roller coasters for free this summer? Maybe. Am I only writing this blog entry to earn my gold star at the end of the month? Maybe. But if what you need is that little external push to get the wheels moving, does it really matter?