Friday, December 31, 2010

The 2010 Gingerbread Competition

Last year my family decided to start an annual Christmas themed decorating competition.  See my cleverly worded blog post entitled, Competition, to view the magnificent Rice Krispies Treats Christmas houses we decorated last year.

This year's challenge was to see who could come up with the most creative Gingerbread boy and girl.

We had a huge assortment of candy to work with; colored Twizzlers, sprinkles, raisins, marshmallows and M&M's to name a few.

After two hours and 15 minutes of decorating.  I kid you not.  Here are our creations:


My brother, Uncle Johnny's


Instead of staying up North for the Holidays, my Gingerbread couple decided to get away from it all and headed down to Miami.  Unfortunately, my Gingerbread-boy was mistakenly identified by some as Baby New Year.  
Perhaps I should have honed my bathing suit making skills before deciding on my theme.


My Sister, Aunt Joannie's

Joanne decided to make her Gingerbread people in the likeness of our mom and dad.  There they both are in their glasses, mom in her housecoat, and dad, "the shop-a-holic", with trusty Macy's bag in hand!  

Joanne once again, was the clear-cut winner.  Well, aside from Ava that is ;)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

This Christmas

My uncle's memorial service was yesterday.  He's gone and everything has changed.  It's hard to accept so I keep focused on other things.  The Holidays and other personal events have kept my mind occupied.  When all is quiet though the sadness creeps it's way back in.  My throat is sore from the lump in it. 

My Grandmother, whose name was Filomena, and Grandfather or Pop Pop, named Joseph, had two children.  My mom and my Uncle Francis.  My uncle couldn't say Antoinette growing up so he just called her Sister.  It stuck and now my aunt and all four cousins call her sister too.  Luke calls Ava sister.  I like that.

My mom and Uncle Fran grew up in New York City until the ages of nine and six when my Pop Pop moved the family to Long Island. Their entire family lived in New York City, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and I learned yesterday that the fact that my Grandfather moved my Grandma and the kids all the way to Plainview, really pissed my Grandma's mother off. 

My Pop Pop was a kind-hearted gentleman and he made sure that he picked my Grandma's mother up every Friday night and returned her back home to the city every Sunday so she could come out to Long Island each weekend to spend time with her daughter and grandchildren.  My great-grandma refused to talk to him during those long car rides.  Not a word in either direction.  I learned that this went on for a long, long time but it never stopped my Grandfather from picking her up.  That was just the kind of guy he was.

My uncle was not the kind of guy who would stand for that but his heart was big all the same.  He'd do anything for his family and his friends. He was loved.  He was very successful and highly respected within his industry and many of his colleagues spoke at his service yesterday.   My uncle was a real jokester so it was really fun to hear about his escapades.  I remember one Christmas when I was a little girl, Uncle Fran picked out an archery set for my cousin Francis and then hand-painted a t-shirt with a bulls eye on it for my cousin Sal.  His friends shared many similar stories yesterday, and I enjoyed hearing them all.

I had never been to a memorial service before.  Been to plenty of wakes and funerals but never seen it done this way before and it was a true celebration of him and his life.  He was loved very much by so many and it was nice to hear the stories his friends and my cousins and his grandchildren shared about him.

Christmas is in a couple days and my aunt and cousins and their families will all be at my parents house to celebrate and it's all because of him.  Christmas is a big deal in our family and being Italian, Christmas Eve is just huge.  We go all out with all of the pasta and the fish sauces.  It's so much fun.  I love our traditions.  It was very important to him that the family be together at Christmas time and right before he even found out he was sick, he bought plane tickets for my cousins and their families to fly to the East coast so we could all be together at my parents house this year.  I'm grateful to him to be able to spend this Christmas with my aunt and my cousins and their families because I love them all so much.   The greatest gift we'll get this year are the memories we'll make as a family, all because of him.  Thank you Uncle Francis. Nothing will ever be the same without him though and the thought of never seeing him again, makes me incredibly sad.

There are so many thoughts swirling in my head.  So much I wanted to write.  We just went to this yearly celebration at Ava's school called Kuumba Day. Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah), is the 6th principle of Kwanzaa; Creativity, To do as much as we can to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it. A couple of the Kindergarten moms are very talented musicians and they came up with the idea of adding a drum circle to the festivities.  My friend was excited to find out how well their concept for the drum circle was received and to learn the school was going to incorporate it on a yearly basis.  I thought in that moment how very cool it was that my friends idea, therefore a part of them, would remain a part of the school forever. Children attending the school, far beyond their children's years in the school, will be positively impacted and inspired by something they created.  The children will not know who was responsible for creating the drum circle, but the positive effects and the joy their creation brings, will be felt all the same.

My Uncle lives on in the recipes and techniques which inspired an industry.  He lives on in the thoughts of all of all who loved him, he lives on in our hearts. He lives on in the stories and the memories we all will share and pass on from generation to generation.

We live on in our communities. Everyone might not know our names, and we may not be easily identified in our contributions, but the fact remains that we live on in all that we touch.  In all that we share. In all that we do.  It is in the seemingly small that the greatest contributions and impacts are made. It's in the sharing of our ideas and in the support we give our community members that make a difference. It's in all that we've done to lend a helping hand, to positively impact others that make us special. 

Everyday we have the potential to touch and enhance lives we may not even be aware we are impacting.  Let's use our powers for good.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sesame Cookies

Luke and I actually made these Sesame cookies together while Ava was in school one day.  I let him blend the ingredients and then he helped to roll the cookies out and dip them in the milk and sesame seeds.  It's always fun to bake with my little man.


¼ lb butter, softened
½ Cup sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ¼ cups flour
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
Additional milk
1 cup sesame seeds

Here’s What You Do

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

In an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar - about 3 minutes. This is a really important step. You should always, always, always cream butter for 3 minutes.  Add the egg, milk and vanilla.  Mix until well blended.  On low speed, add the flour and baking powder. Turn out dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until blended.  This will be a soft dough.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls.  I use an ice cream scoop.  Dip balls in a bowl of about a 1/2 cup of milk, then in a bowl filled with sesame seeds.  This will help the seeds adhere.  Place the cookies on parchment-lined cookie sheets, spacing them 2 inches apart.  Gently press the tops of the cookies to flatten.

Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes, or until lightly browned.  I bake mine for 12 minutes.  Again, it depends upon your oven. Remove cookie sheets from oven. Use a metal spatula to transfer cookies from the cookie sheet onto a wire cooling rack.  Cool.  Store in an airtight container.


These cookies are delicious and were a perfect addition to my Christmas cookie trays.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pignoli Cookies

My family loves Pignoli cookies.  What's not to love, right? I've made 4 batches already this season.  Some for us, but most have been meant for the cookie platters I've been making for family and friends.  They're always a huge hit so I always include them on my cookie trays.   


1 1/2 lbs Almond Paste
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup Confectioners' sugar
4 egg whites
1 Cup pine nuts

Here's What You Do

Preheat oven to 350 Degrees

In an electric mixer, combine the almond paste, sugar, confectioners' sugar and egg whites on low speed until blended.  Then mix for 2 minutes on medium speed which will make the dough sticky.

Roll the dough into one inch balls.  I use an ice cream scooper and it works great!  Place the cookies on parchment lined cookie sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart.  Using your fingers, slightly flatten the tops of the cookies and then sprinkle them with pine nuts. 

Bake for 15-20 minutes.  I bake mine for 15 minutes, it really depends on your oven.  

Remove from oven and let the cookies cool on parchment for easiest removal.  This is a really important step.  I forgot all about it when making my first batch this season and the cookies were really hard to remove from the silicon baking pan I used without parchment.  

When the cookies are completely cool, use a spatula to loosen them from the parchment.  

Store in an airtight container.


If you plan on making a lot of Pignoli Cookies and perhaps have a family member or friend you can split a large quantity with, I have a huge money saving tip for you... sells nuts in bulk and therefore at a very deep discount.   My mom and I shared a 7 lb can of Almond Paste this season for Thirty Seven dollars.  This is a huge savings because in the past I've paid Ten Dollars a Pound for the Almond paste in my local supermarket.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

City Life - Apartment Facelift

I've spent most of this morning visiting the Raymour and Flanigan website trying to decide on new furniture for the apartment.  We just gave Luke's room a little face lift in the form of new awesome toy storage and now we're focusing on buying new furniture for the kitchen and living room.  We're getting rid of our big wall unit so we can move in a chaise lounge to go along with our couch.  It's really going to look great.  I'm also trying to figure out what colors I want to paint the walls which is a huge task in itself.  I can't believe how many shades of each color there are to choose from.  Decisions, decisions.  One thing for sure is that we're hiring someone to paint this time.  Neither of us have the time or patience and I know full well that not doing it ourselves is going to result in a much quicker, smoother and therefore happier apartment transformation.   It's exciting.

With Christmas coming and my electronic shopping cart rapidly filling with more stuff to fill our city space, I realized that it was high time to start make changing around our space - before I came back from my parents house in the burbs with all of our Christmas packages because for the past few years I've suffered from post-holiday blues derived from returning to our 3-bedroom city apartment with loads and loads of crap after a week long stay at my parents spacious home in the burbs.  I vowed not to do it to myself again this year.  It's high time that we work on making this space an awesome one so Stephen and I decided to start with Luke's room which houses the kids toys and chose two matching wooden toy storage units along with  really cute fabric drawers in various colors and designs to fill the cubbie holes.  We tossed out the big old cumbersome toy bin that the kids couldn't find their toys in to play with anyway and what a difference it has made.  The new units are adorable and I cannot believe how much space we picked up because of them.  Now every Barbie, toy truck and train has their own little home.  Completely organized!  It doesn't feel like the same space.

After we're done with the living room and kitchen and I finally buy my new Kitchen Aid, which I will finally have the counter space for, I am not going to want to ever leave this apartment.... Well, not for a while anyhow.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thanksgiving Trees

Before I start posting more recipes, I wanted to share a project I did with Ava's Kindergarten class.  In addition to baking and cooking with the kids on a weekly basis, Ava's teacher has invited parents to come into the classroom to share their talents.  One of the moms is a very talented designer and she came in and worked on a project with the kids combining artwork and a story created by them, another mom came in to teach yoga.

Thanksgiving was approaching and I remembered a project that the students did in the preschool Ava attended.  With the help of their teachers, the kids made "Thanksgiving Trees."  The tree was a Birch Branch on which paper leaves and little tags hung.  "I am thankful for...." was written on one side of the tag and the child's response on the other.  I started around town in hopes of finding supplies for 16 trees, enough for each student in Ava's class.  I started combing the park for good branches but had little success.  The "trees" I found were just plain old sticks.  On one of our walks home from school one day, I noticed a beautiful Birch with perfect branches.  That wasn't going to work out though, as I knew I was going to have a tough time explaining to my neighbor exactly what the heck I was doing up on a ladder with my trusty sheers, cutting down the branches from his tree.  I decided to try our local florists.  The first florist would happily sell me 16 twigs for twenty bucks.  Yeah thanks, but no thanks. The second, said they couldn't get me the branches at all.  I started to wonder if I this art project was really going to happen when I decided to try a third place.                                                    
The third time was a charm and a very awesome, non-greedy and helpful florist named Frank told me not only could he get me the branches, but that he would give them to me for free!  Isn't that great?  Thanks to Frank, I am delighted to share with you the pictures of the Thanksgiving Trees created by Ava's Kindergarten class. 

The kids really enjoyed working on this project.  They happily decorated their branches with multicolored leaves and excitedly told me all that they were thankful for.  Responses ranged from their moms and dads to hot chocolate!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Pretzels

 We've been baking up a storm over here!  I have lots of great recipes to share with you but for now here are some pictures of our Christmas pretzels.  They came out great! We're planning on giving them out in decorative jars and tins and have also been using them to help decorate our cookie trays.

For instructions on how to make them, just click  here on my blog post entitled Chocolate covered M&M pretzels.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'Tis the Season

The Christmas season is upon us and the kids and I have been having a lot of fun preparing for the Holidays.  As you know, we enjoy baking for our family and friends and we are off to a great start.  Our pretzels, Chocolates, Chocolate truffles, Italian Wedding and Chocolate Chip Cookies are done.  Next up on our list are the Rugelach,  Pinoli Cookies, Sesame Cookies and Coconut Macaroons. Yum! I've never made Rugelach before but I have my mom's recipe, which is delicious, so I can't wait to try them later on today. 

Ava and I went to see the New York City Ballet perform the Nutcracker last weekend in Lincoln Center.  We went to Bar Boulud beforehand for brunch, one of Daniel Boulud's restaurants that I've been dying to try, and  had an amazing time together.  We've decided to make this a yearly tradition and I'm already looking forward to next year.  She's a really funny kid and decided that it would be fun to play a combination of Top Chef, as she was really excited to find out that the chef is a guest judge on that program from time to time, and Chopped.  I enjoyed listening to her critique the food.  It was funny to hear my five year old describe her potatoes prepared by a top chef in NYC as being "overdone".

Right now, I'm sitting in the living room all alone in the quiet with nothing lighting the room other than the white lights on our Christmas tree.  The room looks beautiful.  A ceramic Santa and Mrs. Claus sits on our mantle. My Grandmother, my mom's mom, made them both.  She and my Grandfather ran a ceramics studio in their basement in Long Island.  Their garage housed two kiln and my Grandfather was in charge of pouring the molds.  I used to love painting ceramics alongside my Grandma and her friends when I was a little girl.  My Grandma made the Santa and Mrs. Claus many years ago for my Aunt Maryann, my dad's brothers wife and also my Godmother.  She was very special to me and we were very close.  Last Christmas she sent the ceramics home with my parents for me.  She wanted me to have them because they were made by my Grandma.  She knew how much I loved her and thought it was important that I have them.  Aunt Maryann passed away this past August.  All of the Holidays on my dad's side were hosted at her and my Uncle Andy's house.  Some of my fondest memories growing up were Christmas's a their home with tons of family around as well as our annual girls versus guys game of Trivial Pursuit.

My cousins asked me to do a reading at her funeral and I was honored to do so.  I remember going to her home afterwards and soaking everything in.   Waves of sadness overcame me, thinking about how much things were going to change now.  It was hard to be in her home without her there.

Another great loss this year was the recent death of my uncle. My mom's brother.  He passed away unexpectedly less than two weeks ago.  I still can't believe it. I loved him very much.  He was one of the funniest guys you'd ever meet.  Very witty and always making fun of everyone in his path.  It was all in good fun though.  Everyone enjoyed being around him.  We've spent Thanksgiving and Easter with them for many years and his absence, along with the fact that my aunt will be moving across the country as a result, has left me very sad.  Things have changed tremendously on both sides of our family this year with the loss of two very special people close to my heart.  Close to all of our hearts.

Stephen and I planned to go to the hospital to say goodbye to my uncle the day he died but we were too late.  He called me at 4:15 to say that he was leaving work and we'd go to the hospital as soon as he got home.  My sister called two minutes later to say that it was too late. On our walk back from Tae Kwon Do that afternoon, I turned to Ava and told her that I had something very important to talk to her about.  She's spent a lot of time with my aunt and uncle and adores them both.  She put her hand up and said, "Don't tell me."  She knew that something was going on and that I had been worried about him.  I pressed on and told her that it was very important that I explain something to her.  She said, "Don't tell me, I already know."

That night at dinner talk turned to how her week was at school.  Two of the class hamsters had escaped from their cages.  We knew that the baby hamster was found alive and well, but weren't sure what ever became of the older one known as Jack "Hammy" Hamster, so Stephen asked, "So Ava, what ever happened to Jack "Hammy" Hamster?"  To which she replied... "You know, the same thing that happened to Uncle Fran".

Uncle Fran's Memorial Service is next week, just a few days before Christmas.  Back in August, my uncle bought airline tickets for my cousins, their four kids, to fly to the East coast Christmas week so we could all be together at my parents house on Christmas day. It's been many years since we've all been together.  In fact, we haven't all been together for Christmas since my Grandparents were alive. I'm very grateful that we will all be together this year.  Naturally though, it will be a difficult year.  I'm going to miss him very much.  We're all going to miss him very much.

I know that as time goes on, we will all begin to heal.  Nothing is more great or merciful than the gift of time.

One last thing that I'd like to share with you is that Ava's amazing teacher lent us a book to read together in light of all that's been going on entitled, "Houdini was..."  It was written by a group of 2nd graders in honor of their class pet who died, who also happened to be a hamster.  She warned me that the last page was going to make me cry so I may want to read it alone first.

It read...

As a wise person once said..."Don't cry that it's happy that it happened."

Thank you Aunt Maryann and Uncle Francis for all of the love you've given and all of the memories you've helped our families create.  You will be missed.