Friday, 16 April 2010

The Annual Birthday Cake Fight

It's worse than the back labour was many moons ago, though not as bad as the hospital trip the following week. And every year it returns: the revenge of the cake.

I'm fighting today, again, as I do every year, with my son's birthday cake. This year it's Hogwarts castle.

Now, I could just use pre-made frosting, or use a rolled fondant recipe. But--there's always a but--I refuse to feed my kids and their friends hydrogenated fats, large amounts of corn syrup, and wish to avoid gelatin (as we are vegetarians)and raw eggs (because salmonella isn't a nice fella). I know that cakes aren't notoriously healthy things to eat, but there is junk food and then there is slow acting poison. I'd prefer to avoid the latter.

This severely limits what one can do in terms of icing.

In the past I have made a poured fondant recipe found on the Wilton site with mixed results. It has a nice finish, but does tend to run somewhat before hardening. And it uses corn syrup.
Another trick that has worked is to melt chocolate chips and add butter and milk. Unfortunately, that won't work here as I don't want it to "crack".
This year I tried the royal icing mix from the Bulk Barn. It kept running off the cake, not because it was watery (I used less water than they called for and it was very thick) but because it wouldn't set. There are no fats in it to hold its shape I guess. Seems like a familiar conclusion--I think I've done this before. Perhaps I should write it down somewhere so I remember next time!

I was hoping to use a rolled fondant, but cannot find any powdered agar for it.

I did have some success though with the cupcake icing. This uses cream cheese and butter as a base. So once all of the royal icing (expensive mix too!) flows off the cake, I will make a batch of that and start over.

The recipe is in "Super Baby Food" which is an excellent resource for all ages of people who eat (but maybe not so much infants and toddlers as it assumes breastfeeding ends a few weeks after birth).

Here it is:
3/4 package cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons softened butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups icing sugar

All you do is cream the 1st 3 together then slowly add the icing sugar. Simple, yummy, and it works like you would expect a cake icing to work (like a butter cream icing I would imagine).

Like with the paper mache, and now with the icing, I hope that through my own failures, I can help others to attain success.

More Harry Potter "Stuff"--Preview

I've been busy working on Harry Potter themed food items for a birthday party. Today I made cockroach clusters by dipping dates into chocolate--the texture is pretty authentic (spoken by someone who has never tried to bite into a cockroach!).

I also made "homemade" Bertie Botts jellybeans. I bought regular jellybeans and sorted out half of each colour. Half stayed "normal" and half I flavoured in various ways. I soaked a tissue in salmon oil and put it in a tea ball then put that in a sealed container of jellybeans in the fridge for a couple of days. Another flavour I made was lavender. For this I just crumbled dry lavender into a container of jellybeans and let them sit in a sealed container for several days. I did the same with dill, but the jellybeans didn't pick that one up as well. I also did cayenne pepper, brewer's yeast and onion/garlic (using onion and garlic powder in a sealed container, same as above). You could probably just squeeze out onion and/or garlic juice into a tissue and use the tea ball method for that, but I only have one tea ball.

There is a Bertie Botts bag template available online that I altered and used to put them in. If I do this again, I'd probably just use a small baggie and print off Bertie Botts labels for them instead.

I made acid pops by purchasing extra sour lollipops, freezing them, removing the label and dipping them into citric acid. Freezing them helps the powder stick (condensation). I then re-wrapped them in plain waxed paper.

I am also using fizz candies for fizzing whizzbies, and my own chocolate frogs as on the website already. This year I designed my own frog boxes and cards (and borrowed some ideas from online). I will share the parts I did on the website, and give links for the rest.
Lastly, I've picked up pixie stix to round out the candy. There is so much candy to choose from! I didn't make skiving snackboxes, licorice wands, lemon drops/sherbets, Droobles gum (because all the gum I found has artificial sweeteners and/or BHA or BHT, none of which I would feed even my worst enemy!), ton-tongue toffee, etc.
The whole lot will go into a plain brown paper bag with a Honeydukes log printed on it.

I also found some cool butterbeer labels to print and put those on a couple of old wine bottles. I'm experimenting with a new butterbeer recipe this time around: I've caramelized some condensed milk and will add a couple cans each of Blue Sky rootbeer and Blue Sky cherry vanilla cream soda and a 2 litre bottle of soda water.
I am hoping that by adding the soda water it will be less sickly sweet so that it will be a welcome drink rather than only a novelty. I have a couple of extra cans so I can play with the proportions a bit. I will post the final recipe on the site once I'm satisfied with it. There are other butterbeer recipes there already that we've tried in the past.

We're also having Firewhiskey (gingerbeer "spiked" with a couple of dashes of hot sauce). I was inspired by the butterbeer labels so I made my own firewhiskey label. Unfortunately, I used an image found on the web of uncertain authorship for the purpose, so, not knowing what the copyright deal is, I will not be able to share this on my website later on (unless I find a way to ask for and receive permission to use it). It's a very cool image of a fire-breathing dragon on which I superimposed "Brutus Belcher's World Famous Firewhiskey" and below the image: "90 PROOF Brimstone Aged Since 1768". Since I'd run out of wine bottles, I put it on a 2-litre plastic bottle. If anyone calls me on it, my answer is that wizards have been using plastic since they discovered a fire-breathing dragon on the far side of a tar pond. Lame, I know, but if they're really into the spirit of the thing, maybe they'll just moan and move on.

Last weekend I saw there were white pumpkins at the market. Strange time of year for them, but if they still have some this weekend, we will serve our pumpkin juice in one of those. Again, I'm trying a new recipe. This time I'm mixing canned pumpkin with apple juice and possibly orange juice. Again, any favourable results will be shared on the wizard pages.

I can't find our battery-operated Christmas candles, but if I do, they will be hung with fishing line from the ceiling above the dining room table. I did find soundtracks to play throughout, and Moaning Myrtle will be haunting the party (walkie-talkies hidden in the heating vent).

The cake this year will be a Hogwarts castle cake and I will be taking photos. It will not be nearly as fancy as some on the web, but hopefully it will catch the spirit of the theme, and also be simple enough for most Muggles to conjure up. I'm excited about a stained glass window idea I have: spread marshmallow fluff on the window area, then stick cut-up gummie/jujube shapes on it for the coloured panes. outline it in black shoestring licorice. We'll see if the reality works as well as the theory does in my head!

Here's the cake (take 2--the dog attacked the 1st one). The marshmallow fluff was a bad choice as it ran--better off just using white frosting instead. Seems to me I've reached this conclusion before!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Calming the Storm

Toddlerhood can be a time of great joy and discovery, but it can also be a time of great frustration for both the toddler and the parents. Even the most mild-mannered child is likely to have a tantrum (or a dozen) during these years. There are ways you can help channel that frustrated energy into something more manageable for all.

Working with playdough or clay can help. Hitting and pounding the dough or clay is acceptable in ways that hitting siblings or pets simply is not. The muscular work of kneading the dough or clay triggers the brain to release healing endorphins. As the frustrations are taken out on the dough or clay, the child can begin to relax and either forget the situation that caused the strong feelings, or calmly work through it. And sometimes (though not always), they may end up with a work of art in the end.

BTW, this also works well for adults!

Also, there may be times when the child simply throws the clay or dough. If you have a "thrower", try having some soft balls (or rolled-up socks, etc.) around and provide a place where the child can fling away. Comment of the force of their throws in a positive way--"Wow, did you see how far that one went?!"

A few more tips:
- respect the child's feelings; do not become condescending or make fun of them in any way, and keep others from doing so as well; this just leads them further into anger, frustration and feelings of powerlessness
- comment on how strong their feelings seem to you "You seem very angry/frustrated/scared etc. to me" "Wow, you are very angry!" etc. Labeling and acknowledging the emotions can help the child understand them better and learn to cope better with them
- keep everyone safe, including the child who is experiencing the strong emotions
- once the child has calmed down, take the time to talk through what happened with them and help them come up with solutions that can help them in similar situations in the future
- try and keep your cool, and maintain your sense of humour (but never at the expense of the child's feelings)
- remember that this is a temporary stage in every child's development and will soon pass

Homemade playdough recipe here

Wild About Harry

Despite some logic flaws, some "forced" plot devices, and all of the hype, I will happily admit to being a long-time fan of Harry Potter.

I love the richness of the wizarding culture, the depth of the characters, especially the minor ones, and above all the detail. I LOVE detail! And the Potterverse provides plenty.

I also love the messages that flow throughout: you have choices and they are more important than other people's expectations, the true value of a person has little to do with their ancestry or finances, doing what is right isn't always easy, people aren't "good" and bad" but there are many shades of grey, love is the strongest of all magic, tolerance and acceptance of those who are different than you is important if not vital.

We had the pleasure on Friday of attending the opening day of the Harry Potter exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre. While I found the admission price a bit hefty, I have to say I was truly impressed. The presentation was nicely done, truly bringing the wizarding world to life. The detail was phenomenal. We spent about two hours in the exhibit in all. I especially enjoyed the books, magazines and newspapers, as well as the candy presentations. Hagrid's hut was also spectacular. My sons enjoyed the dark magic and quidditch sections. The portraits, some moving, were also lots of fun, and the costumes were incredible, esp. the dress robes and the Bloody Baron's costume.

We have had lots of fun with Harry Potter. I read the entire series aloud to the family, and a couple of books I re-read aloud. We have held two HP themed birthday parties. We even made the trek to "New Hogsmeade" (New Hamburg, transformed) for the release of book 7. We stayed at a campground on that trip, just like in the quidditch tournament in book 4.

We are planning a 3rd HP themed birthday party soon. This one will be a sleepover with less "pretendy stuff" but lots of themed candy and drinks. I have enough unique ideas for several parties still! From firewhisky (gingerbeer spiked with hot pepper sauce), to homemade Bertie Botts jellybeans (dill, salmon, lavender, onion, cayenne pepper, clove, brewer's yeast and basil flavours), there should be some interesting conversations happening. I also designed a chocolate frog box loosely based on the ones used in the movie, and adapted a wizard card idea from another I found on the web, changing them from rectangular to pentagonal, editing the information to make it fit better on the cards, and adding several new wizards to the mix. Since I did use someone else's work for that part, I will not be sharing those on my site, but I will try and share the ones I did myself. Here is a link to the original:

One other set of cards I found are here:

Other things I found already done were the butterbeer labels:
and Bertie Botts jellybean bag template (a bit of a colour ink pig!):

I am also planning to add many new ideas to my wizarding page, and divide it into party ideas and educational ideas. I will add links to knitting patterns, candy templates (like the ones above), and all of the party ideas we have tried thus far (refrigerator box maze, growing jellybeans, talking sorting hat, making your own "Moaning Myrtle", and much, much more! Since I have been searching the net, and creating my own materials, activities and resources for several years, this may become one of the larger sources of Harry Potter related "stuff to do" found on the net.

Currently, the wizarding page has experiments, ideas for further research, games for older kid/teens too), a novel study and some recipes and wizard-theming ideas.
You can see my current wizarding page here.
don't forget to check back in May!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Zen and the Art of Paper Mache

I love paper mache--the warm goey paste, the satisfying tear of newspaper and the calming, repetitive action of placing strips to create new from old.
My youngest son has just recently joined me as I yet again add a paper mache component to the birthday party decor. He now appreciates the quiet I think, which is a first for this otherwise very "actionful" guy. I just enjoy his company doing something we can share together.

I didn't always feel so kindly about paper mache. I had a long-term occasional teaching position for a grade 5 class once. I was their 5th teacher that year, and I will not elaborate much more on that other than to say that doing uncooked flour and water paper mache with them during near the end of the year did not work out well! Most of them went mouldy over the weekend. After that, I swore off of paper mache until my own kids were young.

I priced out train pinatas for my son's 3rd birthday party and decided we'd try it out again. This time I tried using a cooked cornstarch paste. I just used the gluey paste my grandmother and I used to make for crafts, but added less cornstarch and more water. I cut out a frame for it from cardboard boxes (cut out most of the panels leaving only the edges and corners behind) and covered the whole thing. It worked out wonderfully well, but I did learn that 4 layers of paper mache creates a strong material reminiscent of the likes of kevlar (you know, the stuff they use for bullet-proof vests and lightweight canoes!). Next time round we made two layers, then cut a couple of round holes in it and just did a single layer over the holes. This worked better, although it was still quite challenging!

Since then we have made a few batches of dragon's eggs, a dragon, a troll mask, some paper mache jar vases, paper mache pumpkins and several other things I'm sure I'm forgetting!

This year it's another batch of dragon's eggs. Bring on the cornstarch!

For the basic paste, see here (below the recipe are instructions for dragon's eggs, and making creatures too)
For paper mache jar vases, see here