Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fruit Jello Slices

My boys love jello.  There's something about food that wiggles which makes them happy.  And if you add an extra package of unflavored gelatin, the result is firm enough to cut into funny shapes.  Below are kid-friendly versions of the "jello shots" traditionally filled with vodka: non-alcoholic jello slices with fresh, pureed fruit.  You can also skip the blender and make jello straight from the mix.  This is a surprisingly easy recipe... especially for moms who are short on time and lacking in culinary talent (like me)!

1 package of 3 oz. watermelon flavored Jell-O
1 package of 3 oz. lime flavored Jell-O
1 package of 3 oz. orange flavored Jell-O
1 package of 3 oz. pineapple flavored Jell-O
1 package of 3 oz. lemon flavored Jell-O 
5 packages Knox unflavored gelatin
5 cups boiling water 
4 cups cold water
1 cup chopped strawberries
1 cup chopped canteloupe
1 small watermelon
2 large oranges
8 limes
4 lemons
1 pineapple
Black licorice chews, sliced to resemble seeds

To make watermelon slices:
1. Cut watermelon in half and hollow out the inside.
2. Puree strawberries.
3. Mix in 1/2 cup cold water and blend until liquefied.  Strain to remove seeds and fruit pulp.
4. In separate bowl, combine 1 package of watermelon flavored Jell-O powder and 1 package of unflavored gelatin into 1 cup of boiling water.  Stir well.
5. Add 1 cup strawberry juice to mixture and stir well.
6. Pour mixture into halved watermelons, and skim off any foam.
7. Refrigerate for 4-6 hours, or until firm.
8. Once gelatin is firm, cut fruit molds into slices.
9. Add sliced licorice pieces.

To make orange slices:
1. Cut oranges in half and hollow out the insides.
2. Puree canteloupe.
3. Mix in 1/2 cup cold water to puree and blend until liquefied.  Strain to remove pulp.
4. In separate bowl, combine 1 package of orange flavored Jell-O powder and 1 package of unflavored gelatin into 1 cup of boiling water.  Stir well.
5. Add 1 cup canteloupe juice to Jell-O mixture and stir well.
6. Pour mixture into halved oranges, and skim off any foam.
7. Refrigerate for 4-6 hours, or until firm.
8. Once gelatin is firm, cut fruit molds into slices.

To make lemon slices:
1. Cut lemons in half and hollow out the insides.
2. Combine 1 package of lemon flavored Jell-O powder and 1 package of unflavored gelatin into 1 cup of boiling water.  Stir well.
3. Add 1 cup of cold water and stir.
4. Pour mixture into halved lemons and refrigerate for 4-6 hours, or until firm.
5. Once gelatin is firm, cut fruit molds into slices.

To make lime slices:
1. Cut limes in half and hollow out the insides.
2. Combine 1 package of lime flavored Jell-O powder and 1 package of unflavored gelatin into 1 cup of boiling water.  Stir well.
3. Add 1 cup of cold water and stir.
4. Pour mixture into halved limes and refrigerate for 4-6 hours, or until firm.
5. Once gelatin is firm, cut fruit molds into slices.

To make pineapple slices:
1. Cut pineapple top off and hollow out the inside.
2. Cook pineapple shell in boiling water for a few minutes, and remove.  Let dry.  (The boiling process destroys the proteolytic enzymes in fresh pineapple, that otherwise break down the proteins required for gelatin to solidify.)   
3. In separate bowl, combine 1 package of pineapple flavored Jell-O powder and 1 package of unflavored gelatin into 1 cup of boiling water.  Stir well.
4. Add 1 cup cold water to Jell-O mixture and stir well.
5. Pour mixture into pineapple and refrigerate for 4-6 hours, or until firm.
7. Once gelatin is firm, cut fruit molds into slices.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When I Was Your Age...

I'm officially old.  I know this because the other day, I had to explain to my oldest son who Michael Jordan is.  From his 8-year old mindset, Kobe Bryant and Jeremy Lin are bona fide basketball stars.  Michael Jordan, on the other hand, is the unfortunate owner of the worst team in the NBA, the Charlotte Bobcats.  That's my son's one and only reference for the man (and he only knows this because he overheard his dad mention it recently.)  He had no idea that once upon a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Michael Jordan sure could dunk.

But getting back to my original point, I started thinking about how things have changed since I was a kid growing up in the 1980s.  The very fact that I spend mental energy contemplating how different my boys' lives are compared to my childhood is a telltale sign of being old.  Because only old people utter sentences that begin with "When I was your age..."

So, lest I forget, here are 10 childhood memories that my own kids will never experience:

1. Mind-numbing boredom while traveling.  Kids today never have to endure a long flight or car ride without being entertained by at least three electronic devices. Back when I was a kid, I stared out the window and counted Volkswagen beetles.  For hours.

2. Candy cigarettes.  Before the Truth ads made kids equate smoking with a cancer patient talking through a stoma, I remember feeling rather sophisticated while pretending to inhale on a candy cigarette.  It now seems bizarre to sell kids sugar packaged like a tobacco product, but those were the '80s.  Crazy times.

3. Trapper Keepers.  When I was in elementary school, almost everyone carried one of these nifty contraptions to hold class notes, pencils, fruit scented erasers, and a Casio calculator.  All of the above have now been rendered obsolete by any and all products created by Steve Jobs.

4. Crank calling.  Okay, I was bored a lot growing up in the Midwest.  I spent the better part of third grade making crank calls with my best friend to boys in our class.  Of course, that was before everyone had caller ID, which has eliminated the anonymity required for this useless but nonetheless entertaining pastime.   

5. Life-endangering playground equipment. Remember those heavy aluminum seesaws (also called "teeter-totters") that would propel you up and up and then send you crashing down with a thud to the ground below?  Well, if you were born after 1990, you have no idea what I'm talking about because almost every seesaw in America was removed after an explosion of lawsuits in the 1980s.

6. Life-endangering car rides.  Before the mid-1980s, kids were not legally required to ride in car seats or wear seat belts.  So carpooling involved cramming as many kids into the back seat of a station wagon, all of whom were unbuckled and slid like dominoes to one side when the car turned.  Whee!!!

7. Saturday morning cartoons.  Back when there were only three channels, you couldn't wait to get up early on Saturday just to watch television.  No, seriously... it was the highlight of my weekends.

8. Living with limited options.  Remember the "Choose Your Adventure" books?  Innovative at the time, each book allowed readers to decide how the story developed. Of course, we were only given two or three alternatives, a far cry from the complexity of role-playing games today.

9. Lack of culinary sophistication.  Back when I was a kid, we had birthday parties at McDonald's and went "out" to eat at Pizza Hut on special occasions.  Now you can buy sushi at the grocery store and a decent Cobb Salad at Wendy's.
10. Unrestrained wanderlust.  After the school day, all of us "latchkey kids" rode our bikes or walked wherever we pleased without adult supervision.  We often explored the farmland that bordered my neighborhood.  Nowadays, the thought of 9-year old girls wandering into remote cornfields at dusk is plain unnerving.

Hmm... maybe I don't feel that nostalgic after all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chess Board Brownie Cake

My oldest son helped me make this chess board cake for a parent-child baking contest a few summers ago.  We won second place!  Since then, I've made different iterations of this cake every year.  Last year, I made the cake for his school chess club.  Given the number of children, I assembled the board out of alternating brownie and blondie squares.  This year, I experimented by cutting squares out of rolled fondant, laid over a thin layer of brownie cake.  The boys proposed playing a game of blitz on this board, with the victor earning the right to eat any captured chocolate piece.  I said no.

1 box brownie mix
2 eggs
1/2 cup oil
1/4 cup water
1 14-oz. package white candy melts (or white chocolate chips)
1 14-oz. package black or dark brown candy melts (or dark chocolate chips)
1 24-oz. box of Wilton's white fondant
1 24-oz. box of Wilton's chocolate fondant
Cream cheese frosting
Chess candy mold

To make the chess board:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 
2. Coat a 12" x 12" baking pan in butter or margarine.
3. Combine eggs, water, oil and brownie mix in a mixing bowl and stir well.
4. Spread mixture into buttered pan.   
4. Bake for 20 minutes.
5. When cooled, turn the entire cake upside down into a square serving platter.
6. Roll white and chocolate fondant, using a baker's rolling pin. 
7. Cut flat fondant into 1 1/2" x 1 1/2" squares.

To make the chess pieces:
1. Melt candy melts in a medium saucepan over low heat, or in microwave on 50% power for 90 seconds, stirring frequently.
2. Spoon melted candy melts into mold cavities.  Gently tap the mold on a hard surface, to level out chocolate and remove air bubbles.
3. Place filled mold onto a flat surface in the freezer.
4. When solid, gently remove pieces by turning the mold upside down and carefully tapping it. 
5. "Glue" the halves of each chess piece together using leftover melted candy melts.

To assemble the board:
1. Spread a thin base layer of frosting over the entire brownie cake.
2. Lay alternating white and chocolate fondant squares in an 8 x 8 square board. 
3. "Glue" the chess pieces onto the board using leftover melted candy melts or frosting. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How To Conquer Boredom: From A to Z

My oldest son likes to make lists.  When I'm cleaning up, I often find crumpled pieces of paper containing numbered items on subjects like "Steps to Take When My Brother Fights Me" and "Stuff to Do When I'm Bored."  Most of his lists are about how to deal with boredom.  Apparently, the child is bored a lot.

Last night, I found a rather elaborate list when tidying up his room.  He had come up with 26 things to do this summer, one idea for every letter of the alphabet.  He labeled it "The If You're Bored Book." Here is the list, straight from the pen of an 8-year old boy (with a few minor edits for grammar and spelling):

1. Attack your brothers with lightsabers and start a duel.
2. Build a barricade.
3. Create a battle scene.
4. Dash over to the fish tank and watch the fish.
5. Eat a snack.
6. Fight invisible stormtroopers.
7. Get your brothers and make something up.
8. Help with housework.  Hide and seek. 
9. I don't know one for the letter I.
10. Jump off the couch.
11. Kites.
12. Let your brothers chase you.
13. Make obstacles for your brothers.
14. Need more time to think.
15. Open the windows and talk to your next door neighbor.
16. Paint.
17. Quiet reading.
18. Race around the house.
19. Slide down the stair railing.
20. Teleport to Disney World.  (Pretend.)
21. Use Legos to build weapons.
22. Very fast running.
23. Wash yourself.
24. X-ray the fish.
25. Yo-yo.
26. Zoo.

Yeah, I guess that sounds about right.  I think we're in for a long summer.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Twenty Years of Field Observations

My husband and I have been together for over twenty years. After two decades, you would expect we finish each other's sentences and communicate using only a combination of telepathy and Morse code. The truth is, after more than half of my lifetime together, I can honestly say that sometimes I still don't understand the male mind. Perhaps that is why God gave me four boys. I can finally observe male behavior close up in their natural habitat, from birth through adulthood, much like a biologist studies the ways of chimpanzees. From the little knowledge I've gained from twenty years in the field, I offer ten observations about men: 

1. Men answer only the questions you ask out loud (not the ones in your head that you secretly hope they'll figure out on their own). So if you're afraid your husband has noticed you've gained weight, don't ask him if you look fat in your jeans.

2. Men never make romantic speeches like they do in the movies. For example, my husband has never once rattled off a list of things he loves about me like Harry tells Sally:
"I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle in your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend a day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night."
This is what a speech from an actual man sounds like:
"Why are you wearing a sweater when it's 71 degrees outside? Just run around with the kids in the yard, and you'll warm up. I'm starving, can you order already? Stop looking at me like I'm nuts, I know what I'm doing. I love that after I spend a day with you, I can unwind in front of the television. And I love that you are the last person the kids want to talk to before they go to sleep at night. So you're okay if I don't help with their bedtime routine tonight, right? The second half just started."
3. Men buy stuff they don't need just because it's the latest technology. (Women, on the other hand, buy stuff they don't need just because it's on sale.) 

4. Men apparently believe that shouting at the television when their team screws up will somehow make the players improve their game.

5. Men don't think twice before pouring Gatorade into a 2-year old's sippy cup. They figure that because it's a sports drink enriched with vitamins, it must mean it's healthy.

6. Even grown men secretly wish they were superheroes.

7. A man enjoys quoting from his favorite movies with his male buddies, and he doesn't think he sounds like a dork when he chants, "Stay on target, stay on target..." He doesn't think it's funny, however, when you try to join in by calling him a "stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder."

8. Men can't seem to keep track of birthdays, anniversaries and social engagements, but they know exactly when, where and who their favorite team is playing next.

9. A man genuinely means it when he says he's thinking about nothing. (On the contrary, when a man asks a woman if something is on her mind and she answers "nothing," it usually means the man is in trouble.)

10. Men assume the most literal, basic meaning that can be attributed to any communication. For example, when I asked what he'd learned from spending twenty years with a member of the female sex, my husband thought for a moment and replied: "I guess I've learned some new vocabulary words." Not quite the grand and romantic epiphany I was hoping for, but he makes a point.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Fine Line Between Running and Speed-Walking

This week, my family is taking a road trip across the country. Yesterday we spent the day in the National Museum of the Air Force. As I walked through the museum doors, it occurred to me that because I have only boys, my vacations are now spent visiting tourist attractions that appeal to the testosterone-pumped half of the population: military fortresses, aircraft carriers, warships, battlefields, and sports arenas. I must admit I don't quite share the same enthusiasm for these sites as the rest of my family, but I do my best to keep up.

The boys were bubbling with excitement as they walked into the first hangar filled with military planes from WWII. The greeter collecting admission tickets took one look at our family and froze. An expression of panic crossed her face as she counted the number of boys ready to burst ahead into the museum. 

"Please make sure your children do not run, climb on the displays, or touch the aircraft," she scolded us preemptively. She reminded me of a strict librarian, except that this was not a sanctuary for quiet readers but an airplane hangar displaying bombers and fighter jets. I wasn't sure why such severity was necessary, but I nodded politely and tightened my grip on my 3-year old, who was already trying desperately to wriggle free and dash toward a Warhawk.  

"Did you hear that?" I gathered my boys, warning them sternly. "I trust you not to cross the ropes and climb on the planes. So we have one rule today: no running in the museum, okay?" 

Well, you can guess how difficult it was for the boys not to run in an enormous hangar filled with all manner of military aircraft. Every few minutes, I had to remind the boys to slow down.  

"I'm not running," my 3-year old informed me, rather proud of himself. "I'm speed-walking." He headed toward an attack helicopter, shuffling his feet as fast as he could while keeping his arms straight and pinned to his hips. 

"You said no running," my oldest son added, following his brother's brisk pace, "which means we can trot. And jog. And skip." 

"Skipping is for girls," my 6-year old interjected. 

"You know what I meant by no running," I replied. Sometimes I can't help but feel proud of the boys when they make semantic distinctions on their own. The lawyer in me thinks they are already practicing the basics of statutory interpretation. The parent in me, however, knows I have to do the grownup thing and enforce the rule.

Just as I was about to launch into a lecture about keeping the letter of the law versus obeying the spirit of the law, I spotted my husband. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him sprinting toward a stealth bomber in the next hangar. 

"You've got to see this one!" he exclaimed. "Come on, boys!" 

And with that, the chain of command changed and the boys took off, running at full speed toward their dad. 

I was left standing, holding the baby in my arms.  Not yet a year old, my youngest was content to stay behind with me for now.  I looked into his gentle eyes and smiled.  I know it's only a matter of time before he takes his first steps, and then he too will run, or maybe speed-walk, ahead to wherever his boyish interests lead him.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Confession #6: You Mean "911" Isn't a Helpline for New Parents?

New parents tend to be pretty uptight about their first baby.  When you bring that first child home from the hospital, it suddenly hits you that you're completely in charge of a miniature human being.  It's pretty daunting.  You don't want to screw up.  So you read a lot of parenting books in the hopes that you'll do everything correctly.  And you try to avoid every scenario that may present even the most hypothetical, remote danger to the baby.

By your third or fourth child, you lighten up.  You accept the fact that you can't protect your child from every possible harm known to mankind.  There will always be playground bullies, flu outbreaks, and bike accidents that even the most careful parent can't prevent.

I was no exception to the borderline paranoid tendencies that I now refer to as "first-time parent syndrome."  I think I could qualify as a textbook case.  No, I think I could write the textbook.

For example, I've seen enough cuts, scrapes and bruises by now such that I simply hand over a band-aid without batting an eye.  As long as there are no broken bones, we're good.  But the first time I saw blood, I panicked. 

I had been a working mom through most of my first son's infancy.  After the standard maternity leave, I was back at the law firm while my husband worked from home and took care of the baby during the day.  About a year into this arrangement, he was called away on a business trip to the West Coast.  So I took a week of vacation and brought my case files home.  This was the first time I had sole responsibility of my firstborn for more than a few hours. 

Toward the end of this week, I was finally beginning to feel confident in my mothering skills.  By Friday morning, I had figured out how to review depositions and entertain a 10-month old at the same time.  Close to noon, the telephone rang.  I hurried out of the bedroom to answer it, intending to return immediately with the phone in hand.  However, the baby started in my direction, anxious to follow me.  In his eagerness, he stumbled over a wooden alphabet block and fell, facedown, on top of it. 

Mind you, he was not yet walking, so the distance a crawling baby has to hit the ground is only a few inches.  Nevertheless, he somehow managed to cut the inside of his lip, right near the gum line. 

Before I knew it, his mouth filled with blood.  I tried to apply pressure, but I couldn't see the cut, and I panicked.  The following questions crossed my mind: Is it possible for a baby to choke on his own blood?  Is there some kind of oral analgesic or first aid I'm supposed to use to treat a cut inside a baby's mouth?  Was this scenario covered in one of the baby books, and if so, how could I have missed it?   

I thought about calling the pediatrician's office for advice, but knew it would take several minutes before any nurse would return the call.  So I did the only thing I could think of at that moment... I dialed 911.

In my defense, I had never called 911 before, and I figured someone would just talk me through how to treat the cut on the phone.  However, five minutes later, three stocky paramedics showed up in an ambulance at my front door.  They rushed in, carrying a defibrillator and various other bulky life saving equipment.

"Where's the baby?" one of them asked, rapidly scanning my house.   

The little guy was sitting in a corner.  His face was smeared with dried blood.  But by now, the bleeding had already stopped on its own.  I picked him up, and he giggled.

"Where did you say he fell?" another inquired, examining the patient.

"He didn't exactly fall," I replied sheepishly. 

"Did he roll down the stairs?"

"No, that wasn't what happened either." The paramedic looked perplexed.

"Well," I continued, "he was crawling on the floor, and I suppose he must have slipped on a toy." The three paramedics exchanged glances at each other.

"Was he unconscious for any period of time?"

"No."  The baby giggled again.

"So let me get this straight," the head paramedic concluded, "the baby didn't fall down a flight of stairs, he never lost consciousness, and the bleeding stopped right after you called 911."

I nodded, wondering if there was some law that allows emergency response teams to sue people for wasting their time.  He just chuckled.

"I'm guessing this is your first child." There are few times in my life when I've felt more ridiculous.

The entire visit probably lasted five minutes.  The head paramedic awkwardly asked me to sign a waiver to refuse emergency transport to the hospital, apologizing that it was standard procedure.  I could tell they would all have a good laugh at my expense once they were back in the privacy of the ambulance. 
My only excuse for all of this crazy behavior?  A bad case of first-time parent syndrome.  Until you've been afflicted, don't judge too harshly.  And the cure?  That's easy... just have another child.