Pretend Birthday Cake – and Frosting

I don’t seem to post much about food lately. That doesn’t mean I’m not trying new recipes — of course I am, and some, such as the Oven Roasted Broccoli, are even very good, eaten up by my family with far more interest than broccoli usually is in this house. The Cheese Stuffed Breadsticks were also surprisingly good for not too much work, although they needed a brushing of salty garlic butter in the middle, I thought. But usually, even if I like the recipe, I just add a link to my sidebar and move on with my life.

But today was different. Today I had a frosting revelation.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward cake. And over the years I’ve gradually begun to define more specifically my issues with it, helped largely by the fact that my brother makes truly awesome cakes. I think the trouble was that I’d eaten too many store-bought cakes in my life, and come to the conclusion that those somehow defined cake. Point number one: cakes should be moist, fluffy things (we’re talking about standard cakes here, not flourless ones, which I consider an entirely separate category) with good enough flavor that they’re worth eating without frosting. Pete makes those; and now, occasionally, I have made them too. I made one just today from a recipe online that I thought was actually quite worthwhile, considering that it wasn’t chocolate, although next time I might add some orange zest.

But point number two has been the sticky one: frosting. There is simply, in my clearly not humble opinion, not much one can do with buttercream. It is what it is, and what it is to me (I’m sure there are those who disagree, and I forgive you) is greasy in the mouth and almost always too sweet. Other frostings have done better for me, but they usually aren’t quite what I’m looking for — since we can’t use cream, whipped cream versions are out, as is cream cheese, and the various cooked icings I’ve tried are ok but not stunning. The closest thing I’ve found to true frosting love has been some kind of ganache (made with coconut milk), and they’re usually not sweet enough for the kids and a bit heavy to boot.

So today, when Ryan asked for a cake for a pretend birthday party, and specified that he wanted a “normal” cake (the last chocolate one I made was not very sweet and I think he remembers), I knew I needed something different. Not knowing where to start, I just googled “not buttercream frosting.” And this is what I got.

It’s good. Yes, there’s butter and sugar, but there’s also a roux made from flour and milk. Does it sound dubious? It did to me too, but I took a chance and am oh so glad. Tonight, by only making a third of the cake recipe and a quarter of the frosting, I came up with a dessert that our family and two neighbor kids could finish in a night, and I actually really enjoyed my piece. (I would have enjoyed it even more had I not allowed all four kids to decorate the cake first with sprinkles. What, did I think they would gently shake them on? Why shake when you can pour?)

I think I am slowly, very slowly, being converted to liking cake.

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New Things – Piano


I’ve had two offers of pianos from family members, but turned them both down, largely due to space constraints. It isn’t that I haven’t wanted a piano in the house; given a dedicated music room, I’d be happy to throw in a marimba, too. It’s just that it seemed like such a big piece of furniture, and our living room is largely taken up by the rope swing.

But with Nathan trying out a piano lesson, it seemed like we’d have to bite the bullet and get something. I was picturing a keyboard — not too big, maybe with a folding stand so it could be put away. Even more importantly, it would a headphone jack and a volume control. My violin and I (Ryan lasted a month on the violin and then decided it wasn’t for him) have been banished to the sewing room by the entire family.

Nathan’s teacher, however, was dubious. Keyboards didn’t have the same feel as pianos; they didn’t even always have the same number of keys. Dave started to look into the matter. In the midst of researching it, he discovered that a friend of his had a digital piano he wanted to get rid of: full-size, good quality, with weighted keys and a built-in metronome and pedals and that all-important volume control. And it was right here in town to boot. We couldn’t pass it up.

It’s smaller than a real piano, but not by much. It isn’t quite what I was picturing, but we squeezed it in and have been having fun playing with it.

Chicks Dig Scars

These days feel like spring, and the kids are taking advantage of them with lots of outside play. Recently the boys, after a long day of playing at our house, went with the neighbor kids down to the nearby apartment complex to continue things there.

Not ten minutes later one of the other mothers called me. “Nathan fell and hit his head!” she told me, clearly upset. “He cut his eye! I’m walking him home now!”

Needless to say, I went out to meet them. At least he was walking, right? But I could understand her urgency; when I met him I discovered he’d split his eyebrow open (not his eye, thank goodness), and both hands and one side of his face were covered in blood. It’s never a great thing when your child comes home looking like an extra in an action movie.

The good news is that he didn’t have any signs of concussion. The other good news is that he didn’t even need stitches; thanks to advances in medical technology, the doctor just glued his wound closed. And the last good news is that (we assured him) chicks dig scars. It must be true; my brother Bob told me so many times.


Nathan is a bit uncertain about that last piece of good news.

Will Smile For Chocolate

Mica’s “Stranger-Danger” phase is worse than either of the boys’ were. She doesn’t mind everyone, but certain people — always women, for some reason — simply set her off. Our neighbor, who is the sweetest woman imaginable and has been wonderful to the boys, cannot get within three feet of Mica without her screaming, even while I’m holding her. These aren’t just quiet cries, either, but sustained, imminent-mortal-peril screams that can take an eardrum out. At three to four feet away she’ll settle down a bit, but she still makes little anxious baby sounds as long as our neighbor is in the room.

When we arrived in Seattle last weekend and I pulled Mica out of the car, one of the first things she saw was her Aunt Amy. And she screamed. Granted she was grumpy from the long car ride, but I could see the writing on the wall: Amy was not part of the in-crowd, thank you very much. My heart sank, partly because it seemed cruel to bring a baby into Amy’s house who couldn’t stand her (Amy loves babies), but also partly because I foresaw a long weekend of trying to keep Mica from noticing her aunt.

Dave was less worried. He asked if Amy had any chocolate chips. He’d noticed two things: first, that Mica tended to look long and hard at someone after they gave her food, as though memorizing that good things came from this person. He’d been using this to his own advantage for some time — after all, it can be hard for the father to compete with the mother when it comes to baby affections, given that the mother is the Source Of All Food for those first months. And second, that Mica loves chocolate. Apparently there have been several father-daughter bonding sessions involving chocolate.

I’d like to report that Mica is a baby of conviction, not to be swayed by petty bribes, or at least not by small ones. But in fact it took all of three chocolate chips to win her over, and though she required some coaxing to take the first one, that didn’t last. By the end of the trip Mica would crawl around fearlessly close to her aunt, and give her big, beaming baby smiles.

I have been seriously considering a custom onesie with the words “WILL SMILE FOR CHOCOLATE.” Now to see if this will work for our neighbor…

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New Things – Seattle

In casting about for local, not-too-expensive adventures this year, it dawned on me that my children knew essentially nothing of Seattle. When I was little I visited regularly, and while I can’t say I took the city into my soul, it was enough a part of my life that I wanted my kids to know it too. Also we have lots of family and friends in Seattle. It seemed perfect for a weekend trip.


I planned for this trip by reading lots of advice online of the best things to do with young kids, and hoping it wouldn’t be too cold and wet. In the end most of my reading and planning was discarded, because it turns out that the best way to visit Seattle is to stay with your brother, who has an amazing play room filled with toys, pets, and — most importantly — a boat.




We also happened to hit a May-like weekend of sunshine, the kind that makes one wonder why anyone would ever live anywhere else. The downside of this is that Pike Place (which is where we went from the boat) was absolutely packed. I am never thrilled about navigating heavy crowds, and with small, restless children (or worse, hungry ones) it drops even lower on my list of Fun Things To Do. So we skipped most of the market’s attractions, even the tossed fish, and settled for getting some lunch.


The upside was that we had amazing boat rides and a fantastic view from the Seattle Great Wheel. Mica loved the view as well; she spent most of the ride bumping her head against the glass doors, trying to get a little farther out so she could look straight down.


It was a fantastic trip. Ryan was very sad when we left, and asked me the next day how many days it would be before we went back to Seattle.

Travel Pillows

After a long, hard day of playing, both my boys are capable of falling asleep in the car on the way home. But it’s Ryan who has the sleeping gene in spades — that boy can fall asleep anywhere. He’s developed significant skill at sleeping in an upright position. I picked them up from the Village Free School once after they’d been to a play, and one of the staff members told me that Ryan had fallen asleep on the streetcar coming back, tilting toward the aisle periodically but righting himself just prior to toppling over.

When I saw this pattern for cute little travel neck pillows, they seemed ideal.


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We got through two children without any appreciable supply of bibs. The trick was the stash of flatfolds that we stocked, which could be used for any clean-up purpose under the sun and were also large enough to be tied around a child’s neck.

Time moves on, however, and for semi-random reasons we no longer have a supply of flatfolds — we’ve moved on to other towels, better suited to older children. Only when Mica started eating food did I remember the utility of those flatfolds as bibs, and I suppose I could have simply bought some more. Or, of course, I could have the pleasure of sewing a few actual bibs.



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