A Holiday Tradition

Ginger can be traced back to Europe during the 11th Century when explorers came back from the Middle East with the spice ginger. In the middle ages, medieval ladies gave gingerbread cakes to their favorite knights. Different shapes were used for different meanings. The heart was used to ward off evil. Ginger was very plentiful in Germany because it became the center for spice trade. Craft people created special baking molds of animals, fish, and bible scenes sometimes weighing over one hundred pounds. In the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I presented guests with gingerbread made to look like them.

During the nineteenth century, gingerbread was modernized. It quickly became popular, especially in Germany. The Brothers Grimm, who wrote Hansel and Gretel, the tale was about two children who walked through the dangerous forest and they came upon a house made of gingerbread, made gingerbread houses even more popular. In some villages, each family would bring a model of their home to a central location where the village was recreated in miniature. Then, on New Year’s Day, the children break the houses apart and eat them to celebrate the New Year.

Gingerbread houses became popular in America after this time. Competitions still exist across the country to see who can build the most lavish Gingerbread house.

Since 1991, the people of Bergen, Norway have built a city of gingerbread houses each year before Christmas. Named Pepperkakebyen (Norwegian for “gingerbread city”), it is claimed to be the world’s largest such city. Every child under the age of 12 is permitted to make their own house with the help of their parents.

 One of my favorite holiday activities growing up was decorating ginger bread houses. I remember doing this in school when I was younger, using milk cartons and graham crackers. Inevitably the walls of the house would fall down and/or crack but it was always fun to try to put as much candy on the house as possible. Later on, we progressed to more advanced houses that were made of actual gingerbread and were held together with royal icing that hardened, holding the walls in place. Abby and I would try to out-do each other by adding singles to the roof or brick walkways that lead up to the doors.

When I moved to New York, I was lucky enough to help my friend, Jessi Walter who had just started her kids cooking company, Taste Buds. Over the month of December, I probably helped her run about 10-12 gingerbread house parties around the city. I definitely honed my gingerbread making skills during these classes and learned many tricks of the trade (most important – assemble the houses ahead of time!)

This past weekend I was able to put that knowledge and expertise to use on Saturday when we took approximately eight Robin Hood families to one of our homeless shelters that focuses on helping families stay off the streets. After a quick intro about the facility and work that they do, the families were led on a tour that included a stop at a playground that Robin Hood built a few years back.  The final stop was in the rec. room where we lead 30 children in gingerbread making.

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It was an incredible experience for everyone involved. I am so grateful that I was able to help carry on this holiday tradition with so many deserving  children.

p.s. Don’t you love that it is snowing on the Little Things? I do!

Everything’s Coming Up Roses

Growing up in New Hampshire, everyone has a yard. And while most people fight to have the greenest grass on the block,  my father (the gardener in our family) put all of his time and attention into his flowers, rather than the lawn. I think that was a result of the fact that at our first house, we have very limited grass. Our backyard was basically a forest and our front yard was a giant hill. This hill was so steep that landscapers had turned it into large “steps” and my dad put a flower bed in each one; limiting the amount of grass to nearly none. I don’t remember a lot about our first house, but I do have a very distinct memory of “helping” my dad tend to the plants in these flower beds. My favorite plant was called a “bleeding heart.” I think even at such a young age, I could appreciate the dramatic nature of this plant. 

 

When we moved to our new house, my parents did a lot of landscaping to increase the size of our front lawn. And while is tends to look pretty good most of the time, my favorite time of the year would be when the giant bed that contains hundreds of daffodils is in full bloom. I remember spending one year planting the bulbs. I thought we were planting potatoes… boy was I surprised when hundreds of yellow and white flowers appear the next spring! I love going to my parents house during the month of April because there are always vases full of these flowers around.

At my wedding, I was lucky enough to have two very good family friends do all of the flower arranging for me. They did it all, from the center pieces to my bouquet. And the best part is, they used flowers from my dad’s garden! We had a lot of peonies, all placed into antique ball jars that had raffia tied around the tops. I loved the way they looked and only wish the flowers would have lasted forever. Unfortunately I don’t have any really good pictures of the flowers – hopefully when I get the professional photos this weekend there will be some. Until that point, here is the best I could do (these lasted until the breakfast the NEXT day!)

Last night, I hung out with my favorite entrepreneur, Jessi Walter of Taste Buds! I love hanging out with Jessi, not only because she is an awesome person, but she always has fun and interesting things for us to do. Often times, we attend cookies or baking classes, but last night was something different – it was flowers! Jessi had found a deal on living social for a flower arranging class at Celadon & Celery Events. While the class was a little shorter than I had anticipated, it was something that was fun to do.

A few tips that I walked away from the class with:

1. Clean your vase really well before you put your flowers in it. One of the main reasons that flowers can die so quickly is because bacteria can get into your water. Washing your vase with cleaner or bleach will help prevent this.

2. Change the water in the vase every day – add a little plant food each time

3. To keep hydrangea  from wilting, dunk the flower heads in cold water for 5 minutes before you put them in the vase. You also want to remove nearly all of the leaves. If you don’t, the leaves will soak up all of the water before it reaches the flowers

4. Cut your stems at an angle and then cut up the stem twice so that it splits into 4 different pieces all attached to the bottom of the stem (see picture here: http://www.israelflorist.com/store/images/site/7.jpg)

5. Try to keep your arrangement no more than 3 times the width of the vase and 2 times the height.

In the end, I walked away with a beautiful arrangement of flowers! Hopefully I can apply these skills without the instruction of the teacher. And one day, maybe I will be doing the flowers for a friend’s wedding!

Cookie Swap

Tonight, Matt and I are going to the annual Taste Bud’s holiday party. I missed this glorious event last year and got to hear all about it from all my other “Taste Budders.” Right then, I knew this was not an event I wanted to miss again. So when I got my paperless post invite, I reserved the date on my calendar and started to get excited.

The party is a cookie swap, where everyone makes their favorite holiday treat and brings enough to distribute to the group. So you come to the party with a tray of your favorite cookies and leave with a tray containing an assortment of Taste Bud’s finest! With Taste Buds being a company that runs cooking classes and parties for kids, I knew the stakes were going to be high. I had to come up with a delicious, yet festive, cookie.

I decided to go with Gingerbread Snowflakes. These have been my “go to” cookie for the past 2 years. They are beautiful, as well as delicious, something of a rarity in holiday cookies. So after baking the cookies Tuesday night, I spent last night piping royal icing onto dozens of Gingerbread snowflakes. It was a lot of work, but my sous-chef did a great job helping out!

I will certainly capture the moments of the Taste Bud’s celebration. It is sure to be a great evening filled with some of my favorite people and delicious food!

For the  Gingerbread Snowflake recipe, please click here.

A Gift for Your Budding Chefs

Taste Buds (formerly known as Cupcake Kids) has just launched their first cooking product. If you have a small child (or even someone who is child at heart) this is a great holiday present.

The kit contains Taste Bud’s favorite cookie recipe and is easy to personalize by adding “cookie bling” (i.e. chocolate chips, sprinkles, marshmallows or more). They are easy to make and will definitely create fun memories in the kitchen, not to mention tasty treats!

While you are on the website, check out their winter class list. The gingerbread classes are a favorite among budding chefs and teachers.

The Lottery

When I was younger, I never really thought about where I was going to enroll in school. In the earlier years, I went to the nursery school that Abby had attended in our neighborhood. It was run out of someone’s basement, which seems a little weird, but we didn’t think anything of it at the time. Kindergarten at that point in time wasn’t something that our public school system offered so I attended a program (that I later taught at) that was run out of an old barn that had been converted into a small 4 room school. From 1st grade to 12th grade, I attended our local public schools. My education was something that I took for granted.

While it was certainly something that was important to my parents and eventually to me, it wasn’t something that we worried about. I knew that I was going to get a solid education at school, have amazing teachers and extremely supportive parents. To be frank, going to college was always in the cards for me. That was how I was brought up and what I wanted in life.

When I got home from work today, I watched the movie, The Lottery. I had heard about this movie a while ago, and even received the DVD at a charity event I attended last Spring, but I am embarrassed to say that I never got around to watching it. The movie follows four families from Harlem as they go through the lottery process to get their children into one of the Success Academy Charter Schools.

I first learned about these schools when I moved to New York. I didn’t have a job, so my friend graciously hired me to help teach some of her cooking classes for her newly formed company, Cupcake Kids (now named Taste Buds). She had organized 10-15 field trips for the Kindergarten classes from the Success Academy schools. Every morning for a couple of weeks, we would teach 25-27 5 and 6-year-olds, all dressed in navy and orange uniforms, how to make pizza. We talked about the different ingredients, explained how yeast gives off gases (like a bump) that expands the dough, sang a song about making pizza and eventually ate delicious and healthy food that we made together.

During the time that I spent with these kids, I learned that their grade was not referred to as Kindergarten; they were called the class of 2025; the year that they would graduate from college. Their individual classes weren’t named after their rooms or their teachers’ last names; they were named after the colleges that their teachers attended. So every day, in would walk the classes of Brown, University of Virginia and Princeton. These kids know, like I did, that they are going to graduate from college.

Harlem Success Academy 3rd graders took their first standardized state test in 2009. The results are staggering:

  • 100% of Harlem Success 3rd graders passed the math exam, with 71% achieving the top score of “4,” ranking the school #1 out of all public charters in the state.
  • 95% of Harlem Success 3rd graders passed the English Language Arts exam, with nearly a quarter achieving the top score of “4,” ranking the school #2 out of all public charters in the state. Harlem Success Academy ranks #32 out of 3500 public schools in New York.
  • No public school in the state scored higher than Harlem Success on the math exam. Harlem Success outperformed its school district by nearly 25 percentage points in English Language Arts.
  • The percentage of students “advanced proficient” in math surpasses even the affluent Upper East Side of Manhattan by nearly 35%.

In short, this school’s approach is working. While charter schools do raise a lot of concerns, often over teacher unions and conflicts with failing public schools, it is hard to overlook their achievements. I would strongly encourage people to watch this movie. While Waiting for Superman is receiving a lot of support and media attention, this movie delivers a message that is just as strong. We need to rethink our educational systems; we can not accept failure because we are afraid to change.

 

Halloween Weekend

Below is a photo montage to the weekend that was Halloween.

Funny how last year I was a flapper and the other people I were with (Matt, Kinsella and Nator) were top gun. The this year, I was with 3 flappers, 4 Star Trek characters and 1 Pauly D…. Not sure how Quinn from Glee fits into that mix (or Pauly D for that matter) but I am ok with it.

Let’s be serious, Quinnifer Bray would never go for a Trekkie.

Unfortunately this picture does not do Nick (Pauly D from Jersery Shore) justice. Let’s just say, we heard a lot of “Cabs are here!”

and “It’s t-shirt time!”

 

On Sunday I had the pleasure of working a Taste Buds event. It was a Halloween party for the Bowery Babes (a sort of sorority group for NYC mothers… I know, enough said) where I lead cookie decorating. It goes without saying that my cookies were far superior to any that these 2 and 3-year-old kids made.

Between working on Friday, the Halloween party on Sunday and Trick-or-Treating last night, I saw a lot of super cute costumes. But the winning award goes to my favorite niece puppy who dressed up as a little Chiquita banana! Honestly, how cute is Sunny?

Lazy Weekend

Growing up in a cable free household, I cherished Saturday morning cartoons more than most children. Sunday through Friday, my tv was limited to Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Square One and 3,2,1 Contact! While my peers were watching Rainbow Bright, Jem and Inspector Gadget, I was desperately messing with the rabbit-ear antenna to bring into focus Tiny Toon Adventures and Ducktails. After 5 minutes, I often gave up entirely.

But on Saturday mornings, it was a different story. The channels that normally only contained soap operas, Jeopardy and the news showed hours and hours of child-friendly cartoons. So after Saturday morning swim practice and quick stop at Dunkin Donuts, I would return home and drag my comforter from my bed downstairs and plop myself in front of the tv for hours. I would start off with Garfield and Friends, then Muppet Babies, and Carebears.

 As I grew older, the line up changed to Doug, Pepper Ann, and Recess.

 

I would become so absorbed in these shows, that I wouldn’t even realize that I had spent hours in front of the tv. I would come out of my cartoon coma as soon as coverage of various bowling tournaments started. Sadly, my day was 1/2 over and my brain was fried. I have said it before, but this is what happens when you don’t have cable and have to make up for lost time.

This weekend, I didn’t spend hours in front of the tv watching cartoons, but I did have a very lazy weekend. After 3 weekends in a row of weddings (all requiring travel) I figured I deserved it.

I started my weekend off by taking a 1.5 hour long nap on Friday afternoon. I should preface this by saying that I was pretty sick with a cold and certainly could use the extra sleep. Matt and I then went to see Social Network that evening. It was surprisingly good and I think they depicted two ends of the social scene at Harvard pretty well (a little exaggerated, but not much…)

Saturday morning I worked at the newly named TasteBuds (formerly Cupcake Kids) where I helped teach a Birthday party that had 45 two and three-year olds. Needless to say, even though I had slept for nearly 11 hours the night before, I needed a mid-day nap to recover. Saturday night, we went out for dinner with some friends and I went home early, getting another 10 hours of sleep that night.

Sunday was the pinnacle of laziness. Although I did leave my apartment for a low-key workout, I didn’t leave the apartment building (or go outside) all day. I spend the day relaxing, cleaning and watching a movie (Remember Me). While I don’t think I could do this EVERY weekend, I also don’t feel too ashamed of the quality pj time that I had this weekend.