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Lauren’s birthday is four days before Christmas, which makes for some interesting challenges around the holidays. Just when I’ve gotten through November which includes Sam’s birthday and Thanksgiving, we’re bearing down on the end of December, full-throttle.

I’ve never been one to throw big birthday parties for my kids. We usually go the homemade birthday cake + celebrate at home route. Lauren especially loves to spend the day with me in the kitchen making a big layer cake and planning her birthday dinner courses.

This year her selections are 1) chicken tostadas with guacamole (as Emma likes to say, “mock ‘n molé” and I will die a silent death when she stops referring to it as such), 2) beef and bean nachos, and 3) a candy cane birthday cake.

With 3 boxes of unwrapped Christmas gifts stashed in my room yesterday and my parents’ imminent arrival from Toronto, I felt like my head was spinning when we arrived at the lake for our 2-week stay. Holidays are challenging. The world’s tiniest violin is playing softly in the background, I know, I know. To be burdened with too many birthday dinners to cook and gifts to wrap. But the holidays always take me off guard. I know that they’ll be busy, but I never anticipate the kind of frenzy that sweeps through my home and keeps me on my feet for days on end.

Luckily the holidays come with a few perks. Yes, I’m the chief giver in the house, orchestrating a mass distribution of gifts that are seamlessly ordered through Amazon and then painstakingly unboxed, categorized, wrapped and given on Christmas morning. But I also receive a few gifts that put a smile on my face.

One of those gifts this year was a box from Quarterly. Quarterly sends a box of hand-picked items every three months (hence the name) from one of its well-known curators including Food 52, Chef Ludo of Top Chef fame, Grace Bonney, the talent behind the popular blog Design Sponge. If you’re still looking for unique holiday gifts, check them out at Quarterly.co.

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(included in box: Ana striped tapers, Rifle floral composition notebook, Cotton + Flax coasters, A Heirloom cutting board, Kusmi tea, Furbish studio matches)

I received Grace’s Design Sponge box, which came just in time for Lauren’s birthday marathon, which aside from cooking more Mexican food than I have in the past year, included her Christmas-inspired candy cane birthday cake. I had reservations about the cake idea (vanilla peppermint buttercream anyone?), but it was her creation and it was surprisingly good. Sam had three slices, after claiming post-Mexican feast that he was too full for dessert. Perhaps Lauren should help me write recipes more often.

Fueled with tea, our day looked a little something like this…

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I found these Abate Fetel Pears at Whole Foods and wanted to give them a try. The name alone makes it sample-worthy, but it has the most beautiful green and blush pink color. I usually like to buy locally-grown produce, and these ones are from imported from Italy, but I had a feeling that the kids would love this week’s investigation. And in the process, I’ve found my new favorite pear. If you can find this variety, make sure to give it a try – it’s juicy and really flavorful. 

ME: OK, do you know what the mystery food is?

LAUREN: I want to see it! [gasp] Oh yeah! I really wanted to try that one.

ME: Look how pretty it is.

LAUREN: It’s so pretty. Can I hold it?

ME: Yeah. It’s kind of like pink on one side…

LAUREN: Yeah! It feels weird too.

ME: Yeah, it feels a little gritty doesn’t it?

ME: Well, that’s why we touch things and explore things, right?

LAUREN: It feels like it’s been rolled in dirt.

ME: [laughing] Rolled in dirt – that’s a funny one.

EMMA: Ooo…

ME:  Can I have it, Emma?

LAUREN: Can I feel it again? It feels kind of cool.

ME: Yeah, you can feel it one more time.

SAM: UGH.  Yuck.
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I got an email a few years ago from a friend who lives in Philly. She’d bought group tickets to see the Rockettes in New York City in December and one of the families had to pull out due to illness. She had a few extra tickets, would I care to join?

At that point, the only kid in the house was Lauren, age 1 year 11 months. It was a questionable move to bring a young toddler to a full-length performance, but I thought that she might be able to hack it. This, after all, was the child who could stare at a feather for 10 minutes straight, no doubt investigating its detailed ridges, contours and variegated colors.

We accepted the offer, and off we went, Lauren dressed in her best outfit – a mini dress and corresponding pair of faux Ugg boots. There might have been a hair flower (aka a barette) to finish the outfit; branding that way used to be the only way to a hair clip into that strawberry blonde fluff.

Hard to believe that we’ve been to the show for 6 years running. It’s become our annual tradition, which we celebrate in honor of Lauren’s birthday in December. For the first 4 years it was just the two of us. Last year we invited Sam, who’d just turned 4. Sam was devastated that we wouldn’t buy the $20 light-up whirling dervish sold in the lobby and could barely concentrate on the show without streaming tears of frustration. That was his last invitation. He was subsequently disinvited from watching Annie on Broadway, replaced by his 2-year-old sister, who was more than happy to swap in. Maybe he’ll get another Rockettes invite down the road, but first I need to get over the trauma, and I haven’t quite healed.

For now, I’m keeping the show sacred for those who will appreciate it. This year, it was Lauren’s best friend from school. Their personalities are aligned all the way down to their matching dimples.

Lauren was so excited for the show that she picked out her outfit the night before, and spent the morning decorating the apartment…

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The kids made Lauren cards….

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And we finished decorating our mini tree. With two weeks of active tree time before we head to the lake, it wasn’t worth it to haul in a beast.

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(hi!)

We headed up to the show, our first stop Rock Center to see the world famous tree…

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Let it be known that by reading this blog, you may encounter recipes that I do not (clarify, DO NOT) want you to make. There was the incident of the rocky mountain oysters….and speaking of oysters, I brought you that broiled oyster thingamajig, which was less meal porn, more statement about eating oysters in months that end in letters other than “R”. Stay away from them. If you’re at a wedding in June, slowly back away from the tiered seafood platter. Ignore the bride as she gushes that the oysters are all local and hand-harvested! And you’re in Long Island. This would be a different story if you’re at a wedding in PEI or the Arctic Circle. Then, by all means, go ahead.

Maybe I should stay away from oysters period. They don’t do anything to further the content of this space. And neither, really, does caramel.

Like the baked oysters post, I’m going to show you a few images of some salty sweet caramels. Unlike the baked oysters post, these images are appetizing. These caramels are darn right cute. They’re perfect on their own, but then throw in some earnest parchment paper and twine ties, and they could be straight out of an artisanal Brooklyn food festival.

You can eat them yourself, or you can do what I did, which is bundle them into some cellophane packaging (more cute points) and gift them! Save them for the people who will really appreciate them. Your friends on Instagram who message you with sweet notes like “MUST HAVE THESE!” with emojis of hearts, daggers and the rest of the dangerous weapons.

Because these caramels, for lack of a better phrase, are a bit*% to make. I make it a case not to swear in my posts, but in order to authentically translate the full caramel-making experience, it was necessary.

It all started innocently enough. I’d been buying goat caramels at Forager’s Market every time I picked up my morning coffee. My jacket pockets feel empty without a few balled-up wrappers wedged into the corners that collect the stray pennies.

Channeling my inner Emeril, I thought “SELF! These have to be pretty easy to make at home…” And so began my search for the perfect goat caramel recipe.

Not that I had many to choose from. Every time I searched “goat milk caramels” and other iterations of the phrase, only one recipe floated to the top of the page.

It was a sign.

I emailed Vermont Creamery to find out whether they carry goat milk. They responded that all of their goat milk is used to make cheese. It’s very good cheese though, Vermont Creamery I salute you for your decision. But it was back to the drawing board on my goat caramel mission. 

My search for goat milk continued, and there – right when I wasn’t looking ­­– a liter of it appeared. At Whole Foods no less, right next to my intended sour cream purchase. I quickly gathered the other necessary supplies – fresh creamery butter, corn syrup, and white & brown sugars.

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Back at home, I dug out my candy thermometer. The one with the notches lined up like minuscule drug dealers along the temperature gauge. Soft crack! Hard crack!

If you want to surprise your family, just tell them that you were drinking beer and making crack in your kitchen all afternoon.

I set up my candy-making station at the stove and got to work. Making caramel isn’t too challenging. There’s a lot of bubbling and spitting (the caramel, hopefully not you), which isn’t the worst sound if you’re prepared for it. You have to keep an eye on the caramel to make sure that it doesn’t bubble over your pot and destroy your stove; and be sure to give it the occasional stir…but as long as you’re in the kitchen paying a modest amount of attention, it’s simple business.

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Pour it into a prepared glass dish, and let it cool slightly, then sprinkle with Maldon salt. Again, child’s play.

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rutabaga_FeedMeDearlyI don’t buy rutabaga often…wait, let me flip through my mental files….I don’t think I’ve ever bought it. Doesn’t the name imply the over-boiled vegetables that your Scottish grandmother might have forced you to eat as a child? The funny thing that we discovered about rutabaga is that it does in fact smell (and taste) a little like broccoli. And as I’ve found out over the last few days, it makes for the best mashers (add a little brown butter)…which leads to the best Shepherd’s pie. Which, if you ignore the vast amounts of butter and cream required to get you to the finish line, feels a little healthier than your standard white spuds. So for what it’s worth, I recommend giving rutabaga a try. If only to brag to your friends that your kids were eating it the night before.

ME: OK, hold on. Wait. This is the mystery food! What is this called?

LAUREN: Squash?

EMMA: CHEESE!

ME: It looks like cheese, doesn’t it?

LAUREN: Yellow squash?  

ME: Yeah, it looks exactly like yellow squash, but it’snot.

LAUREN: Yellow melon?!

ME: Nope. What do you think it is, Sam?

SAM: Nothing.

ME: It’s not nothing. Do you want to smell it first? Who wants to smell it?

LAUREN: Smells like broccoli.
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