Sunday, July 31, 2016

Buttercream Creeper Cake

My now NINE-year-old requested a Minecraft Creeper cake this year for his birthday. Since I love making these cakes for my kids, I agreed. I spent some time googling and looking on pinterest for ideas and was really surprised to only find about two Creeper cakes out there, so I was pretty much on my own after looking at how to get the initial shape (I am not into fondant for lots of reasons for these kid-cakes and that was pretty much what I saw).
So, here is what I did:
1. I made my favorite chocolate cake recipe and baked it in two 7x11 Pyrex baking dishes.
2. I turned them out to cool and then on a cutting board, sliced longitudinally about 1" off all the way down both sides of one cake to create the body - removing the rounded edges.
3. With the other cake, I created the head to be a little bit wider than the body, and square. With the rest of that cake, I made two feet, also square.
4. I placed the cakes on a foil-covered cookie sheet and then iced the entire cake with green buttercream frosting (and it was really good buttercream frosting).
5. Using green sugar-sheet, an exacto knife, and a metal ruler (I'm an architect, remember, always at home with a ruler and an exacto knife), I created a whole bunch of 1.25" squares.
If you've never used sugar sheet, it's awesome! You can cut it with an exacto knife or scissors just like paper, then you peel off the plastic backing and stick it right on the cake. It is edible (though not terribly tasty). A great way to accomplish these sorts of designs without using fondant or going nuts with detailed frosting.
6. I placed the squares throughout the body and feet in a somewhat random geometric grid pattern.
7. Using black sugar-sheet, I created three more 1.25" squares for the eyes and part of the mouth. Then I cut a fourth square, cut it in half vertically, and used it to create the sides of the mouth.
8. To clean up the edges of the cake a little bit, I piped a line of frosting around the base of the cake, and a narrower line to outline the different sections of the top of the creeper.
9. I finished it off with a happy birthday message and green candles.
This was actually a pretty easy cake to make compared to that dinosaur I made back in June. And it was a hit!

For my third son's birthday, I hear I am going to be creating a Plants vs. Zombies yard. Wish me luck! Be back in September.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Birthday Dinosaur

We celebrated my youngest's third birthday this weekend. More than anything, he wanted a blue stegosaurus cake. I enjoy a cake challenge (I really do), so I spent a good couple of weeks thinking about it and was really anxious to make it a reality.
I didn't take any photos of the process, mostly because I had food coloring and frosting all over my fingers, but I can describe the process for anyone who might want to recreate it.
Here goes...
The body:
~I started with three round 9" cakes and one 8" square.
~I cut off about 1/3 of each of two round cakes for the body, and stuck them together with a lot of frosting.
~The third round cake I cut out the tail (sort of a J shape, that I then had to tweak when I put the whole thing together).
~Out of the left-overs of that third round, I cut the head - sort of half an oval that was two cake-widths wide.
~I cut the 8" square into 4 equal pieces and then cut one leg out of each quarter.
~There were some left-over chunks, and so I used those to add shape to the head and a couple of triangles to connect the flat tail piece to the hump of the body.
~Then after I put the whole thing together, I frosted the heck out of it.

The spikes:
~I created the shape of one of the spine on a piece of paper. Then I laid it under a large piece of wax paper on the counter.
~I purchased a bag of candy melts at the craft store (in a dark blue color).
~I melted them in a pyrex bowl in the microwave and then poured the contents into a squeeze bottle.
~I traced the shape of the spines and then also filled them in with the melted candy. Moved the paper and traced over again. Repeated a bunch of times. Then I made a few smaller spines.
~I stuck two toothpicks in each of the big spines lollipop-style, so I could easily connect them to the cake later.
~I was having so much fun making stuff with the melted candy in a squeeze bottle that I made a bunch of embellishments that I wasn't sure what I was going to do with.
~After everything dried, I took a knife and trimmed all the spines so they were nice and sharp.

After I frosted the cake, I added all of the spikes and threw on some embellishments. Then, because where the cake meets the plate/cookie sheet/whatever always looks messy, I added some "grass" and "dirt" with the leftover frosting.
This might be my favorite kid-cake that I've ever made. I was really sad when we cut into it. Here is my masterpiece!

The birthday boy loved his cake!
We also had stegosaurus fruit salad. It was a fun party theme!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Big Bad Rash

My middle son came down with a strange rash in mid-January and as of a week ago, we were STILL trying to figure it out. It was the kind of thing that started out small, concentrated to one area (on his rear end, unfortunately), and then spread like crazy. It became infected, and then it just spread and spread until he covered his whole body. It was itchy and painful, and I have no idea how he handled it with as much grace as he did. We went to the doctor SEVEN times over the evolution of the rash. SEVEN. The curious thing was that as it ran its course, the most stubborn part was (so embarrassing) in the shape of a toilet seat on his backside. It just wouldn't go away and it was blisters on top of blisters.

Finally, last week, the dermatologist (by the way, did you know it's almost impossible to get a kid in to see a dermatologist???) decided we should do patch testing to see if he had any skin allergies. Over the weekend, he had to wear this series of little patches (all stuck to medical tape) on his back, then after 48 hours, we could remove them and see if he had any reactions. It turned out, he had a pretty big reaction to something called methylisothiazolinone (abbreviated MI). It is an anti-microbial chemical found in SO MANY THINGS. SO MANY THINGS. After three days, he still has a red square on his back where that patch was. (Incidentally, the doctor ruled the Q15 reaction an "irritant" and not an allergy - probably should avoid that too, and it goes by literally 12 different names in products.)
What seems to have happened is that when he got the rash, I was worried it might be contagious, so I started furiously cleaning all bathroom surfaces frequently to keep the other kids from getting it. The Clorox (well, Kirkland) wipes I was using had this allergen in them and it was actually intensifying the problem. I ended up having to replace the kid-toilet-seat-topper (the one we had was kind of a spongey material that was potentially porous -ick) with a hard-plastic one and change my cleaning routine. The rash began to retreat almost immediately. This allergy also explained why he had had such horrible rashes as a baby when we used ordinary diapers and wipes. We had to move him to very organic stuff early on in life. Only a few brands didn't irritate him. Turns out those brands didn't contain MI. Through the years we have inadvertently shielded him from MI in most things just due to thinking he had sensitive skin and the desire to use organic/natural baby skin products on all of our children - mostly to avoid phthalates, actually. And I also went through and eliminated all triclosan-containing products from our house a few years ago too (scary stuff, it's even in toothpaste).
After the test results, and confirmation of the allergy by the doctor, my research and label-reading began. I thought I would post what I learned here in case there are others out there who learn of an MI allergy. Obviously, it is probably healthiest to make as many cleaners at home from known ingredients like vinegar and peroxide, but I just don't have time for a lot of that right now - life is particularly stressful at the moment, so I needed to be able to purchase things quickly to get us by for awhile.
Here are a few quick things to start with:
1) MI is found in all sorts of soaps, detergents, and skin products mostly.
2) MI is found in a lot of "natural" products, and there isn't a certain brand that I could find that is exclusively free of them - you have to pick and choose and read a lot of labels. Honest Co., for example, is currently being sued for being less than honest about what is in some of its products. I did find, though, that a lot of their stuff is MI-free - in fact, the only dish soap I could find at Target that was MI-free (include Seventh Generation, and Method) was Honest Co.
I spent quite awhile reading labels at Target this morning in the "natural" section and most of this stuff contains MI! So sad!

3) As far as detergents go, powders tend to less-frequently contain MI than liquids.
4) "Sensitive skin" and "fragrance free" products are less likely to contain MI, but not always a guarantee.
5) Sprays tend to be MI-free while lotions tend to contain it.
6) I learned that a lot of cleaning products are very vague as to what is actually in them. They are not required to list their ingredients on labels, so a lot of them don't, or they only list "active" ingredients. Greenworks is a particularly bad offender at false-advertisement. They do list ingredients, but in vague ways that don't actually let you know what chemicals their products contain.
7) Just because it says "plant-based" doesn't mean it is totally safe. My beloved Aveda products (I am so addicted to their smell) have MI in them, I sadly discovered.
I also discovered that quite a few - perhaps MOST - Mrs. Meyers products contain MI. I was surprised and disappointed to see that.
I also spent 20 minutes at Whole Foods reading the labels of all their cleaning products and most of them contain MI, sadly. I think this one makes me the most angry. Look at the claims this container of wet wipes makes, but it still contains MI!

Here are a bunch of products I either purchased today, or had hanging around our house that do NOT contain MI. Note that I am not suggesting that all of these are pure and natural (though a lot are), just that these do not contain this one allergen that bothers my son and many other people out there. This is a pretty broad range of products that are not too expensive and get most of the job of cleaning self and house done.
 L to R: Aveeno Baby Lotion (unscented), BabyGanics unscented bubble bath, Trader Joe's handsoap, Honest Co. dishsoap, Seventh Generation disinfecting wipes, Neutrogena Naturals face soaps, Method glass cleaner (in a refreshing mint scent), Method surface cleaner (but note that other Method products like hand soap and dish soap do contain MI), Aquaphor, Trader Joe's plant-based laundry detergent (only has three ingredients!), Dr. Baronne's Castille soap (the lavender stuff smells amazing - I am totally into lavender in the shower right now), Everyone Soap for Every Kid (LOVE the wonderful orangey smell of this stuff), Curel unscented lotion (note that only unscented doesn't contain MI).
L to R: Coppertone Pure & Simple sunscreen, Aveeno face sunscreen (though I don't like this stuff because of some other chemicals it contains), Target's Up & Up baby wash, Babies R Us vapor bath (great stuff for head colds), Johnson's baby shampoo, Kandoo sensitive skin flushable wipes (only the unscented kind), Biokleen bac-out carpet cleaner (Folex and Resolve do not list ingredients), Fizzy Tub color tabs (hey, what can I say, we went through a phase where that was the only way one of my kids would set foot in a tub without a tantrum), Cetaphil cleanser (awesome stuff anyway, even better that it has no MI).
And here's to many years ahead of obsessive label-reading!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Bring on the Cookies 2015 Edition

This year's Christmas cookies! I was able to use my gingerbread skyline to decorate the plate, which I thought turned out really cool! I will have to remember that for future years.
This year I didn't spend a ton of time making Christmas cookies, although I gave more away than I ever had before, which was fun. I made (going L to R starting at the top):
1. Chocolate Crinkles - it just isn't Christmas without these
2. Homemade Marshmallows (if you've never made homemade marshmallows, do it NOW - coolest science experiment out there, and tasty too)
3. Gingerbread Cookies (this recipe makes A TON - as in 3 gingerbread houses, a gingerbread skyline and about 3 dozen cookies - so unless you want to make this many cookies, half it for sure)

4. Orange/Cranberry macaroons - use this basic recipe and add zest of one orange, and dried cranberries to taste (about half a cup is fine)
5. Spritz
6. Mini Chocolate Chip macaroons (they taste like Mounds bars) - same basic recipe as above. Substitute almond flavoring for vanilla, and stir in about 1/2 cup of mini chocolate chips
7. Fudge (I tried a new recipe. It was super-goopy. I don't recommend it. I'm not linking it.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Buildings of Gingerbread

This year's gingerbread creation - The Emerald City! Why do one house when you could do a whole city?
I still need to figure out royal icing, because this stuff was way too stiff to get very artistic with. Still, though, I think it turned out pretty fun. It is 4 layers of flat gingerbread stacked against each other and turned upright. Decent depth. I am going to have to try this again next year with some more thought and better icing.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Building with Paper Mache

I feel like this blog has become pretty much about holidays, but I don't seem to be all that crafty lately except when I have to be.
This year, my boys decided they wanted a Plants vs. Zombies theme for Halloween. The older two wanted to be plants, and the youngest ended up as the de facto zombie (he likes zombies, it worked well). These are not the sort of costumes one finds at the store...
After much thought on how to build the plant heads (the majority of the costume), I settled on paper mache. I first tried crepe paper, thinking its weight and little bit of stretch would lend itself well to the round shape. I was wrong. It pretty much disintegrated. I moved on to small pieces of construction paper in the desired color. For the paper mache, I mixed about 3 parts glue, 1 part water, and painted both sides of the paper with it as I wrapped it around the balloon. Each head is made of a double layer of paper mache, followed by a round of modge podge to make it shiny and seal it.  I used a regular balloon for the pea shooter, and then created the snout using cardboard with paper mache over it. For the chomper, I used a punch-balloon, since it has a slightly more round shape. The chomper teeth are made from craft foam, and the horns are a triple layer of foam core that is attached with tacky glue. The leaves at the backs of the heads are made with felt.
I cut the neck holes a little snug, then reinforced them with the thicker (3/16") craft foam in a ring around the inside of the collar, and then wrapped them with felt that was glued and modge-podged in place. I figured this would make them sturdy enough to take on and off more than once, and also comfortable enough that they wouldn't bother sensitive necks.
I took some pictures along the journey, in case anyone wants to attempt to recreate these. They were pretty fun, and the kids loved them. They found themselves repeatedly photographed while out trick-or-treating.
The Pea Shooter:

 The Chomper:
 It was really hard to keep the chomper mouth from collapsing. The interior of this one is all sorts of purple duct tape and foam core, cardboard, basically whatever I found hanging around that I could use to support it.

 In the end, these turned out to be remarkably sturdy. They survived repeat use by a 6 and 8 year old. The chomper even survived a fellow kindergartener who decided to beat up on it (punching it several times) while it was on my son's head. These also survived a rain storm while trick-or-treating. So I have serious respect for paper mache and modge podge.
For the rest of the costumes, I painted a stem and leaves on black shirts, and had them wear black pants. Very easy.
As for the zombie, his costume was acquired at thrift stores and a couple pieces I had to purchase new (the tie and blazer). The cone I found at a party supply store. I drilled small holes in it and attached thin elastic.
And here is the finished product:

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Brothers Share 100 Square Feet

Once again, we did another reorganization to accommodate some sort of new sleeping arrangement.  For a good year now, I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to fit all three kids into one room - a room that is just under 100 square feet (about 9'x11').  For a long time, I just sort of threw up my hands, called it impossible, and declared that we must move by the time the toddler turned two.  Well, moving isn't an option at the moment thanks to many things out of my control, so I was forced to put my spatial-reasoning hat on (one that fits me really well actually, thanks to freakish innate ability and an architecture degree), and figure this out.  The toddler was getting lonely in his closet, and we were a little tired of sharing a room with him.  Last weekend, for the first time, he tried to insist on sleeping in one of his big brothers' beds, and so we knew that the time for transition was upon us. 
For awhile, I thought we'd have to do some major rearranging, including moving the bookcase into the hallway, installing a floating shelf up by the top bunk, buying an extra tall-skinny dresser, etc.  After much consideration, and many other ideas, I realized that all I had to do was move the boys' dressers about 5" and then a toddler bed would fit in the corner under the windows.  That was it.  I was able to clear out the top dresser drawer in each boy's dresser to accommodate toddler clothing, so no new dresser was needed, and the bookshelf didn't need to move, because the bed didn't need to be oriented that direction.  Seriously, I was a Tetris-master as a teenager, and it still serves me well.
The best part about this was that, like the closet-nursery, it cost us very little money.  In order to make some room, I had to sell our play kitchen, and I got rid of our pack-and-play, because that era of our lives is over.  Between the two of these things, the proceeds pretty much covered the cost of the toddler bed (by KidKraft, on Amazon, very easily assembled, and sturdy).  I asked around and found a spare crib mattress in good condition that someone wanted to get rid of (so we can keep the crib assembled for a quiet nap-space).  I cleaned out both the closet and the space under the bunkbed and did a bunch of reorganization/decluttering so that I could clear off the dresser for the changing area.  I love how clean it all looks, and I feel like this is a functional solution that will get us through another year in our small space.  It actually makes me feel like it really isn't necessary to have tons of space - organization, and living simply are way more important.  When we eventually move, regardless of how many bedrooms we have, we will probably keep all three together until the older ones don't like the arrangement.  Right now, none of them can imagine the idea of not sharing a room.  They love the company, we love having our bedroom to ourselves again.  It feels like such a luxury to be able to turn on lights and talk to each other when we are getting ready for bed.  It's amazing, actually. 

We moved him in a few days ago, on just the mattress, before the toddler bed arrived.  He is doing flawlessly.  He very obediently stays in his bed and goes to sleep, and he wakes up aright around 7, and has two brothers to chat with before he comes and finds us.  He had a little bit of a hard time staying on his mattress, so I tucked a pool noodle under the sheet and that helped a lot.

Now that he is in a bed, I pulled out the amazing quilt my mom made for him.  I love it so much - a quilt with buildings on it!  The little taxi she added, matches the edge-fabric.  If we had more wall space, I would hang it up, because I think it's pretty much a work of art.