20 December 2010

Smile like you mean it.

My mom's birthday is on Christmas day. Because she's the mom, she's gotten the birthday shaft for most of my life (and probably hers, too). Having to get up early, fuss over kids, make big dinners, have guests over... As an adult, my goal each year is to try to make my mom's birthday a little more special. I can't always take over on Christmas day for her, but I do try to giver her at least a little reprieve and get her to relax and enjoy some holiday and birthday cheer -- especially this year, when she turns the big six oh.

Heidi helped me hang balloons.

It's hard to "host" a party at someone else's house, so luckily I was able to convince my mom (and Larry and Jordan) to come here for (early) Christmas this year. It was also the first time they've all seen the house, so I was extra excited for their visit. They arrived early Saturday afternoon, leaving me all day Friday to prepare. I hit the kitchen with Julia Child.

First up, Julia's reine de saba for my mom's birthday cake.

Sarah E. made this for Frenchie supper club so I knew it would be delicious, but I didn't know if I'd pull it off as well as she did! I decided I better just follow instructions, too, so everything was very butterlicious. I also took the rum option, in both the cake and the frosting. I was super nervous following these instructions, but at least with the cake, everything was pretty straightforward. I love watching the magic happen, so I was excited to watch the egg whites slowly beat into soft peaks. Unfortunately, soft peaks is as far as I could get them, even when I gave in and pulled out the hand mixer (me have little muscles!). I don't know if/how this affected the cake, but I just couldn't get the whites to harden.

Note the adorable cake stand. Thanks, Lisa S.!

Next up was Julia's apple custard tart, with homemade dough. Frustration set in with this recipe, as I could not for the life of me figure out the proportions for the recommended dough (why not just do the math for me, Julia?!). I finally gave up and just made Martha Stewart's dough, discovering for the first time how easy dough is with a food processor. Woo!

Georgie wants to help roll out the dough.

I also just accepted that I don't like how Julia's recipes are laid out. I love to read them... her style is so captivating. But in terms of working through them, they are awfully convoluted, with lots of "turn to page X for instruction," which drove me crazy. That being said, this recipe, other than the dough, whipped up pretty quickly and without any drama.

I had a whole ball of dough left over, so I decided to make some mini men. I sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon, baked them for 10 or 15 minutes, then sprinkled them with some more cinnamon and lots of powdered sugar.

I also decided to make breakfast muffins (for Sunday morning), as I could not resist the recipe for cranberry eggnog muffins in the new Food Network Magazine. Luckily, I had rum leftover from cake making, as the recipe calls for boozy cranberries. I figured I'd lighten the recipe up a bit, too, since I knew we'd all have a sugar hangover after all the Julia desserts -- I split the butter up, using half butter and half applesauce, and I baked them sans crumble topping (plus, by this point, I was POOPED and couldn't mix up a single other thing). Easy recipe, although I was a little paranoid that I was going to burn the house down cooking booze on the stove top.

These smelled so good while baking... Very holiday-ey! All in all, I think I turned out quite the spread.

Everyone finally arrived on Saturday.

Eagerly awaiting in their holiday best...

After some antiquing (me and mom) and Lowes-ing (the boys), it was time to make dinner. I'd decided on spinach and three cheese cannelloni, baked in a bechamel sauce and topped with a little tomato basil sauce. I found this recipe in the Ann Arbor-based Mainstreet Ventures cookbook Brad got me for my birthday, and I believe this particular recipe is from Palio. Unfortunately, I can't get fresh noodles here (and I don't have a pasta maker), so I had to make do with dried manicotti noodles. I also had jar tomato basil sauce on hand and already open in the fridge, so I didn't make that from scratch. But I followed the stuffing recipe exactly (minus garlic) and the bechamel recipe, which, again, was so exciting -- it took forever (my bad, heat was too low), but watching that sauce thicken gives me the giggles (Brad, too, as he'd helped in the early whisking stages). I put together a nice fresh salad and cooked a loaf of good old Cole brand garlic bread (always a big hit), and it was time to start the birthday/Xmas festivities.

I don't like to toot my own horn (toot toot!), but this was.... amazing. :D It was even a big hit with the "where's the meat?" contingent. I wasn't sure about the sauce... there was no cheese mixed in, just PILES of butter and milk... But it was to die for. And the stuffing was so good and cheesy. It all combined to make one hell of a holiday dinner. I was super bummed we ate it all -- no leftovers! (Birgit will be interested to know it was paired perfectly with a bottle of Round Barn dry red.) I need to make this again asap. And you definitely should, too.

After dinner it was time for presents, before poor Jordan had a little heart attack.

Brad and I got some fuzzy hats!

And then.. finally... DESSERT!

Everything was a big hit, which makes me so darn happy. The cake is so rich and chocolately (in a good way, not a "ugh! This is too rich to eat" way), and you can actually really taste that sneaky rum. I think it was a little overcooked, so it wasn't at all doughy like the recipe describes, but it was absolutely delicious and the perfect birthday cake. The apple tart was super tasty, too, but less impressive (to me at least) as it tasted almost exactly like the apple cheesecake I made for Thanksgiving. My mom did compliment me on my flaky dough, though, so that made me smile. I consider this party an enormous success. Oh, and while the little dough men were long gone by Saturday evening, my mom and Larry liked them a lot, even though I found them way not sugary enough. It was a good use for the leftover dough, but I wouldn't set out to make them again. I'll call this one at 2.5 for 3!

Sunday morning it was time for coffee and muffins, but first, a little balloon animal fun.

Rub rub rub.
Heidi was less amused by her static than we were.

As for those muffins... They tasted as good as they smelled (mom and Larry even had two). Even without the extra sugar crumble topping. I figure the true test is Brad, who doesn't even like eggnog. Guess what? He liked them, too. Sweet, tart, with a hint of holiday. I think I should make these again for actual Christmas morning.

Overall, a grand success, I do believe. I think we celebrated my mom in style, and smiles were definitely aplenty. And, before he got bored of me, Jordan gave me world's best hugs. Definitely a (early) Christmas to remember.

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