Heading Back to the City of Roses

Sometimes we come to a crossroad in life and even when we weigh the pros and cons, we struggle to know which way to go. We prefer to view these situations in black and white: one road leads to destruction and chaos and while the other road leads to blessings and tranquility.  We want God to give us clear signs toward “the right way” and to feel at peace with the way we choose.

So when we reached this recent fork in the road, I waited and prayed for that right way to reveal itself- to feel, with conviction, that we were choosing the “right” path.  Our lease is up in the end of May, Micah’s teaching job was not renewed for next year, and the opportunities to move back to Portland seem to keep opening up.  I knew I wasn’t convinced Colorado was going to be our home forever, but I didn’t really expect we would be considering moving back so soon.  Both choices- to stay in Denver, or move to Portland- were laden with problems and questions.

So where was the bright light pointing to the right way to go?

The truth is, Colorado has grown on me. There’s been so much healthy growth for me during the past three years in this place.  We originally came here following Micah’s calling to be a teacher, when no opportunities opened for him to pursue that dream in Portland.  He was able to teach here (though he bounced around to 4 different schools), but we also attained so much more than just a job opportunity.  We had to learn to cleave to each other like we had never had to before, which was great for our marriage, even though it was a challenge.  I was able to take a step back and gain perspective of my life away from my previous support structure and career.  I found new passions, new friends, and a new kind of beauty in our high prairie climate.  And one of the most lovely outcomes is that our family got to have an adventure- we took a leap and stepped away from everything comfortable to stretch our wings and see what God might have in store for us in a new place.  It was crazy, difficult, and a whole lot of fun. 

Yet, my heart was always turned toward the Northwest, missing the waterfalls, fresh-picked berries, and family and dear friends. Life got easier for us when my parents decided to move out to Denver as well, but job opportunities haven’t opened up for them as they had hoped. They were always looking over their shoulder, longing for their native home in Oregon.  Remembering how hard life was before they joined us, I tried to imagine living in Denver without any family around.  As much as I have learned to love our new home, I knew if my parents left, I would continue to feel a strong pull back to where our roots are.

And so, when were presented with the opportunity to move back to Oregon this summer, I stood at the crossroads, feeling very conflicted.  I considered Penny’s incredible school, my hopes for starting a non-profit, and the amazing friends we just started to grow into deeper relationships with and it seemed too soon to walk away.  And yet, my spirit was drawn by the hopes of what might be ahead for us with returning to Portland.

Our family stuck between two states: Colorado (left) and Oregon (right)

So is there a right or wrong path?  I’m starting to doubt that one choice would lead to destruction and the other to all things good.  I believe this choice is less about where we live specifically and more about choosing to be faithful to trust God.

For instance, we thought we were moving to Denver for a specific job opportunity.  But clearly, as Micah jumped around from school to school over the past few years, God’s purpose for us in Denver was less about a specific job or location- moving gave us the opportunity to draw closer to Him.  We were forced to lean on Him more, and as a result, we saw His provision in ways we may never have experienced in Portland.  And so I’ve learned God may be less concerned about the specifics and more concerned with our hearts.  In the moment, the way He’s pointing us may not be the easy way- in fact, it may seem totally counter-intuitive or down-right nutty.  But if we ignore Him, we may be missing out on an opportunity to grow in ways we never imagined.

The doors are closing for us here in Denver, and opportunities are popping up in miraculous ways in Portland. I stand at the crossroads and I’m not convinced either way is truly right or wrong. But I do feel a whisper that I am supposed to trust God and head back home for now.

This chapter in our story was a gift and we look forward to what God may have in store for us, even if the plot isn’t developing the way we had hoped it might. Even though it’s desperately difficult when God turns our plans upside down, I’m also grateful that it shows He isn’t done with us yet. Sometimes I just really wish I could flip forward a few chapters and see how things turn out- but that would make life lose it’s glorious mystery, wouldn’t it?

But What About Cake?

One of the most difficult parts of this decision was to walk away from First Step and my dream to expand my birthday parties to other shelters in the Denver area.  I was actually just on the brink of putting together an event to help recruit a team of birthday volunteers. In this way, the timing feels a bit anti-climatic and my heart is slightly breaking as I put that dream up a on a shelf for a while. But I don’t think God put me on a total detour with this calling- I clearly have a passion for this and I believe my abilities were developed here for a reason.

To talk about a few specifics, I’ve been offered a full-time position at My Father’s House, the family shelter I worked at before we moved to Denver.  I love the ministry at MFH and I’m thrilled to be able to be a part of such an amazing program again.  But working full-time is not going to allow much time for fancy cake-making (with exception of Ramona and Penny’s birthdays in July, of course).  But I know baking is my true love and I’m confident those skills are going to be used in new and unexpected ways when we move home. Only God knows how all these puzzle pieces are going to fit together, but I’m really excited to see what He has in store for me.  Again, I’m honored that He’s not done with me yet.

And so you are free to be happy for us- to be joyful we are returning home to be near our family and friends.  We are glad to be returning to a place where we can explore the trails of the Columbia Gorge with our girls, chop down our own Christmas tree, pick apples in Hood River and head to the beach once a month if we feel like it.  We are going back to a place that is welcoming us with open arms, and for that, we feel incredibly blessed.

But pray for us too, as you now know what a difficult decision this has been. Pray for provision- though I have a job, Micah is in desperate need of employment. He is hoping to find something in the education field, and with all the experience he has gained from teaching in Denver, we believe he has a better chance for a job than before we moved. Pray for this time of transition- for driving across the country with two little girls, two cats, and all our worldly possessions.  Pray for all the communities and friends we leave behind: our friends at Addulam who have become our second family, the families at First Step, and the students Micah has invested so much time and care into. And pray for my parents as they continue to look for employment and embark on their 4th move within the past 2 years (Yeesh!).

We feel so blessed to now have two places we consider home, and we leave a little piece of our hearts in the Rocky Mountains.  Thank you to all of our friends who have made our time here so incredible!

Rose City, here we come!

Also, if you need some inspiration of why you should be planning your next vacation to visit us in Oregon, check out my dear friend’s blog, twooregonians.  You can’t beat this beauty, folks.

But you can’t make me like the rain….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disney Frozen Cake: Party Day!

Cake Day 8: Sunday, April 6th

8:00am:  The day had finally arrived.  I woke up with a feeling of slight anxiety, realizing I had about a million things to accomplish before noon. However, I was also excited to finally be close to the goal- to bless a little girl who had experienced a great deal of turmoil in her short five years of life so far.

Due to confidentiality, I can’t share too many details or even include any pictures of her in this post.  But the whole reason I was going through all this effort was to show this little girl she was valued, special, and loved.  Our birthday girl was born to a teen mother and their family had been separated off and on through some difficult circumstances.  But the program at First Step was providing an opportunity for them to get back on their feet, pursue their dreams, and move toward a life of self-sufficiency. As I saw it, her birthday was really just an excuse to celebrate a new chapter of their life together.

But first, there was a cake to finish…

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Even though the pressure was on, I was in a much better mood than the previous morning.  I just had a few last touches to finish: putting the lettering on the cakeboard, finishing some trees, flowers and snowflakes, and placing the figurines in the right spots.  After a few hours (barely interrupted as the kids watched a movie in the other room), I arrived at this:

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Hee hee, even the back was cool 🙂

Time spent: 3 hours

I decided to wait until I was at the party to construct Elsa’s candy ice castle, worried the structure would come crashing down in transport.  Feeling good about the cake, I turned my attention to all the other party details.  I don’t have many pictures of this process- honestly, the last hour before a party I spin around the house like a Tasmanian devil and I’m lucky if I remember to pack my camera in the midst of everything.  But the last hour involved drawing a pin-the-nose-on-Olaf game (Penny cut out all the carrot noses for me), finishing party favors (thanks Mom!), gathering craft supplies, and making sure Penny had been fed and dressed.  Penny usually accompanies me to the parties and always insists in dressing in her fanciest dress- I’m lucky if I’m wearing makeup and clothes without buttercream smears.  We balance each other out, I suppose.

Then we jumped in the car, with just a quick stop at the store for punch and to fill up our 4-foot Olaf balloon with helium (my one Amazon-bought splurge).  Penny was delighted with Olaf and talked to him like he was her new best friend.  However, we had a little scare when a gust of wind ripped Olaf’s string from the base of the balloon and he nearly flew away in the parking lot. Luckily, a scrubby tree caught him and we were able to recover him from his escape attempt.  Crisis averted.

On our 30 minute drive to First Step, it began to rain heavily.  This may seem odd, but I’ve NEVER had to deliver a cake when it was raining.  We get 300+ days of sunshine in Denver and it hadn’t occurred to me that rain could be an issue.  Just a few raindrops could dissolve my pretty cake into a smeary mess and I didn’t have an umbrella in the car or any other way to protect the cake while moving it into the house. I began to daydream about my rainy hometown of Portland and what a problem cake delivery would be if I ever moved back.  Thankfully, the rain dissipated and the sun came out (as usual).  Another crisis averted.

Once all the supplies and cake were safely unloaded, I started decorating the dining room with my mostly homemade decorations. I was joined by my wonderful volunteers, Laura and Sarah a few minutes later and they jumped in to cover the room with streamers and sparkly snowflakes.

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I also took a moment to finish the crowning touch of the cake: the ice castle:

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I loved the way it turned out, and I could barely believe I had actually pulled the whole thing off- finally!

Happy Olaf

Princess Anna

Unfortunately, I had stepped out of the room at the moment when our birthday girl came in and saw everything set up.  My volunteers told me I had missed a precious moment as she literally tiptoed up to her cake, eyes big as saucers, and squealed in delight over all the details.  I felt content though, as she continued to run over to her cake all throughout the party- I knew she loved it and that was enough for me.

She also loved her Olaf balloon as much as Penny did.  Penny had never met any of the kids before, but it took about 5 minutes for them to become fast friends:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was really thankful I had brought Penny because as it was, many of the other families were absent and having an extra little girl really made it feel more like a party. I set up the Frozen soundtrack on a laptop and commenced to our party activities.  First, the girls sang along to “Let It Go” as they covered foam crowns with sticker gems I had found on clearance at a craft store.  Next, I mixed equal parts of epson salt with hot water so they could create “ice paintings.” As they dried, the salt crystallized, giving it an icy effect:

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Our birthday girl LOVES painting and crafts and we nearly had to tear her away from this activity after 30 minutes to get on with the rest of the party.  However, while they were distracted with their icy paintings, I took her mom down to our birthday closet to pick out a few toys.  Many of our families can’t afford birthday gifts for their children, so we keep a small supply in the basement (mostly leftovers from our Christmas toy drive). It’s very important that the parent can present these gifts as if they had purchased them- we never tell the child they are from First Step.  Often the parents feel a huge burden of guilt for not being able to provide for their kids and this pain is especially acute around birthdays.  The small act of giving their a child a gift can really help ease this pain.  I was glad to see the smiles from her mom as she chose a dress up set and a doll for her daughter.

Then we did some good ol’ fashioned pin-the-tail type game with Olaf.  I almost always do this type of game at my parties- there is a reason it is a birthday party standard.  Kids LOVE this game, it’s simple, and it’s easy to incorporate into a theme. I’ve done pin-the-propeller-on-the-airplane, pin-the-bow-on-Minnie-Mouse, etc.  The kids couldn’t get enough of pinning the nose on Olaf.

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The rest of the party unfolded as most birthdays do: presents, cake, and children running around like crazy from a wild sugar rush.  I can’t include the pictures of our birthday girl as she blew out her candles, but let me assure you, her smile would have blown you away.  As we sliced up my masterpiece (always bittersweet!) and she devoured her first bite of chocolate, buttercream, and blackberry jam, she was bouncing in her seat with happiness.  She said, “This cake is sooo good.  Wait, no this cake is AWESOME!”

And that made every bit of stress and craziness from the past 8 days totally worth it.

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The party was winding down so we said farewell to my stellar volunteers (thanks again Laura and Sarah!) and the birthday girl whizzed around the house handing out my party favors- little bags of Hershey’s hugs.  I love puns.

After everything was cleaned up, I began to search for my misplaced daughter whom I found hiding with her new best friends in a homemade blanket fort.  She had behaved very nicely at the party, but barely held back tears as we headed to the car, whimpering pathetically, “I love it here and I want to live here forever.”  Penny is constantly seeking better living situations than living at home with us.

As I drove away, I was struck with how fast a 2-hour party can fly by. Considering I had just put 27 hours into making a cake, along with all the shopping and planning for the rest of the party, some people may think I am nuts.  The cake will be eaten, the toys will be eventually discarded, and life will go on as usual.  But hopefully, what won’t be forgotten is the feeling of worth and value our birthday girl felt on her 5th birthday.  And though the party is obviously for the child, often the act of throwing a party blesses the parent even more- if our birthday girl forgets this party, it’s likely her mother won’t.

When I think about making children feel special on their birthdays, I am drawn to a favorite picture book, On the Night You Were Born, by Nancy Tillman.  I think it would be great to start reading this book at the parties to really help the child feel valued and important.  Here’s an excerpt:

On the night you were born,

the moon smiled with such wonder

that the stars peeked in to see you 

and the night wind whispered,

“Life will never be the same.”

Because there had never been anyone like you…

ever in the world…

Heaven blew every trumpet 

and played every horn 

on the wonderful, marvelous

night you were born.

Living in poverty can make families feel as if life has discarded them and wrecks their self-esteem.  They lose sight (or never realize) that they are a valuable creation- a child of God and cherished and loved unconditionally.  It’s my hope and prayer that both mother and child will know they are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” no matter what life has told them otherwise.  What better way to communicate this than celebrate the day they were born?

It was a good week…and a great party.

Have you ever had a birthday experience when you truly felt loved and cherished?  

P.S. I can’t take complete credit for all the fun party games and activities. If you are planning your own Frozen party anytime soon, you can find all the tutorials here.

Disney Frozen Cake: Part IV

Cake Day 7: Saturday, April 5th

8:00am: It’s all been good fun up to this point.  Yes, working on the cake has consumed the majority of my free time, but by breaking the project into smaller, manageable steps I have still been able to take care of my family and juggle other commitments.  Through the process I have stayed in a pretty positive mood, and even experienced moments of creative satisfaction, warm fuzzies, and whimsy. But on Cake Day #7, those positive feelings were starting to wane.

I woke up in a foul mood.  I wasn’t just a little grumpy- I was waiting-in-line-at-the-DMV-while-doing-my-taxes grumpy.  Perhaps I hadn’t gotten enough sleep after pulling a late night while making Elsa.  Maybe it was the pressure of knowing how much work I had to do in the next 24 hours to complete the cake and be ready for the party.  Whatever the reason, no amount of pancakes, tea, or playful teasing from Micah could snap me out of it.  So it was in this lovely state of mind that I began the final (and biggest, most time consuming, and high pressure) part of creating the Frozen cake.

At least the first step was yummy: leveling the chocolate cakes (which I had stored tightly wrapped in the freezer), filling the layers with seedless blackberry preserves, and crumb coating them with vanilla buttercream.

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While I worked on this part, I think my sour mood must have rubbed off on the girls.  They usually get along pretty well, but for some reason their morning play was filled with constant bickering, crying, and stomping off to their rooms.  The drama reached a crescendo when Ramona said to Penny, “You’re a mean girl,” (a big sentence for our late-talker) which sent Penny into tearful hysterics.  When my patience is that thin, my best response is to yell loudly, “If this doesn’t stop, I am going to lose my mind!”  Not very helpful, I know, but it helps remind my family that my fragile mental health is at stake.  And it makes me feel better. So there.

Luckily, I knew the madness wouldn’t last much longer as it was time for Penny’s ballet lesson. As Micah ushered her to the car (screaming the whole way), I took a deep breath and looked forward to a little peace from sibling rivalry for at least an hour.  I set Ramona up with her beloved playdough and started covering my cakes with fondant.

Having peace restored, I turned on some soothing music and started to get into a bit of a groove.  I even decided to slip Ramona a little taste of frosting because she was being so sweet:

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 But the peace only lasted for a few minutes before chaos began to rein again. First of all, in an attempt to make more space in the fridge for the cake, I took out the meat drawer and set it on the stove while I juggled condiments and milk jugs.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten that the stove top was still hot (we have a flat ceramic stovetop) and I managed to do this to the unsuspecting drawer:

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If you can’t tell from the picture, I melted a huge hole in the bottom of the drawer.  Surprisingly, I stayed pretty calm and actually started laughing (well, maybe a little maniacally).  Who needed that drawer anyway…right?  The poor cheese and deli meats no longer had a home, but it really wasn’t the end of the world.

Deep breath…

I believe at this point I had covered a few of my cakes with white fondant- (the sequence of events really have become a blur to me), but suddenly Ramona’s happy mood began to deteriorate for no apparent reason.  I should submit this photo to reasonsmysoniscrying.com (a hilarious blog, you should check it out).  Here is what my caption would be:

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“I squeezed her playdough frosting the wrong way.”

I am still not really sure what set her off, but it did have something to do with the way I was touching her playdough.  Whatever the reason, she was totally throwing a fit and I was done listening to screaming.  The moment had arrived for a good ol’ fashioned time out, so the playdough was whisked away and she was sent to her room.  Unfortunately, time out apparently had collided with potty time as well.  After her customary 2-minutes of screaming, I was greeted by a red-faced toddler standing in a puddle of pee.

It was now after 12:00pm and I was really starting to fear my threats of losing my mind were going to become a reality.  That’s why when Micah walked back in the door I greeted him wild-eyed, gripped him by his shoulders and said through gritted teeth: “You. Must. Make. The. Children. Go. Away.” I think I must have looked a little bit frightening, so he assured me he could take the kids on an outing for the afternoon as soon as they had eaten lunch.  Good man.

Before we ate lunch I wanted to get to a good stopping point however, so I finished putting in supports and stacked my newly-covered cakes:

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Placing wooden dowel supports in the bottom cake

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Staking a dowel through the whole cake so it will be stable for transporting to the party

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The cakes nicely stacked and the dowel hole covered with a small piece of fondant

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA nice clean canvas ready to go!

Time Spent: 5 hours (off and on due to the chaos of the morning)

1:00pm:  Thankfully, after a bite to eat, everyone’s mood was greatly improved and Micah left with the girls for a nice long walk to the grocery store. Having the house finally to myself, I could almost physically feel my blood pressure recede to somewhat normal levels again and I whipped together the last recipe I would need in order to start decorating: royal icing.

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Nice stiff peaks- perfect for a sugary glue

There.  Now every single part of the cake was FINALLY ready to go.  It’s usually at this point in the cake creating process that I have two conflicting feelings.  Once I have my cakes stacked and ready to decorate, I am thrilled because now the really fun part is about to begin- it’s when I get to see the creation I have been planning, sketching, and dreaming about come to life.

But at the same time, I’m usually extremely exhausted and burned out too.

If you’ve followed any of the previous posts, you can appreciate how much work and time I have put into prepping all the different elements of the cake (about 19 hours at this point).  I begin to daydream of such things as store-bought fondant (just for a moment though because it is gross), industrial-sized kitchens, and possibilities of what I might create if I hadn’t had to make everything myself from scratch.  I queue up Cake Boss on Netfilx as my background noise where I continue to fantasize about working in a bakery where I have baked cakes, loads of pre-colored fondant, and sculptors to make my cake ideas come to life.

But back to reality.  I try to just be happy that I’ve made it to the decorating point with no major disasters and delve into “my cake zone.”  This is when all other necessities of life come to a screeching halt- dishes pile up in the sink, children parent themselves, and eating and drinking become non-essential.  Hours mean nothing as they slip by in a blink while I attempt to manipulate sugar into something it never knew it could be.  Honestly, “the zone” is a little weird and I’m sure it drives my family nuts because I viciously ignore them.  But otherwise, this sucker will NEVER get done.

And so the decorating begins…

This is a picture of my attempt in making a rock mountain peak to go on the top tier of the cake.  I carved a shape out of rice krispie treats and marbled some grey fondant for a rock-type affect.  Initially, it seemed like a good plan.

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However, after playing around for a while, I realized the mountain peak idea was going to be trickier than it seemed in concept.  First of all, the cereal treats were not very sturdy and the weight of the fondant caused it droop forward.  I also couldn’t figure out a good way to connect the mountain to the cake without it falling off in transport.  Eventually, I scrapped the mountain peak, fearing it would end in udder disaster.

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I moved on to making the rock face on the side of the tiered cake:

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Then I started creating a snow drift sweeping down the side of the mountain:

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More snow drifts and tufts of grass appear:

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Now the cake is starting to come to life and I am thrilled to get to put on shards of my blue ice candy as a border. A forest also starts to emerge on the other side of the cake:

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By this time, Micah and the kids had returned and Penny was just dying to help out.  She has become fairly skilled at rolling out fondant so I gave her a little project: cutting out snowflakes with my new cutters.  She did a great job and I even used a handful of her snowflakes on the cake (sometimes her creations get subtly swapped out…shhhh.)

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Suddenly, I realized that the entire afternoon was gone and we were pressing into the evening.  After almost 5 hours straight of staring at the cake, I knew I was reaching my limits and was going to need a break.  The idea of making dinner seemed about as appealing to me as someone sticking anchovies in my ears, but thankfully my dad had volunteered to make his special ramen soup (he adds lots of veggies, shrimp, chicken, and chili sauce, yum!). Co-living is the best.

Time Spent: 5 hours

In the meantime, I had been texting with my friend Molly and found out it was her boyfriend, Kevin’s birthday.  I could have known that information sooner since she had sent me a message at 8:00am…but I was a wee bit distracted, wasn’t I?  Molly and Kevin are regulars on our pub trivia team and they wanted to celebrate Kevin’s birthday with us at the Royal Hilltop Tavern.  Micah was dying for some of my attention and I needed a break- so onward to pub trivia!

But it was Kevin’s birthday…and even 30-somethings need birthday love…so why not make him a cake?

Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have said yes to making a cake with such short notice, but I had room temperature buttercream, a chocolate cake in my freezer, and all my cake tools handy.  I knew I could whip up a simple cake in about 30 minutes.  Here’s what I came up with:

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The best part of my day was seeing the happy look on Kevin’s face while he thoroughly enjoyed his huge slice of chocolate cake.  In fact, the whole trivia team loved it, but I slipped my piece to the waitress because I just couldn’t bear to have another gram of sugar enter my body.  Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing…especially if you are eating it all day long.  I left the pub a few minutes early with the great ambition of decorating a little more before bed, but once I saw the cake again, I knew I still needed a break.  Instead, I made a Frozen birthday banner (really just updating a fairy banner I had already) and cut out some templates for some birthday crowns.  Then I crawled into bed and slept as if I were dead.

Total time spent so far: Approx. 24 hours

Next post: Cake completion and party day! At last!

Side note: Thank you so much to Charissa Burns of Teal Owl Designs for my cute new logo!  You’re the best!

Disney Frozen Cake: Part III

Cake Day 5: Thursday, April 3rd

7:00am: One thing I really love about Denver are the freak days of snow.  They come in fast, dump a beautiful layer of white fluffiness, and melt off in a day or so.  This is what I woke up to this morning:

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Nothing in the world will put me in the mood to bake like a snowy day.  So I took this sight as a good omen for a cozy day of cake baking.  I know, you all just want to come over to my house now, drink hot cocoa, and bake delicious desserts with me.  Who wouldn’t want to spend a day like that?

Before I could start whipping up my cake batter, Ramona’s speech therapist, Anne, was due to come over for her weekly appointment.  Ramona was barely talking at her second birthday (she hardly said “Mama”), and though I wasn’t super concerned about it, the services are free and they come to my house, so why not give her a little advantage?  Anne loves Cake Boss and she actually bought a birthday cake from me for her daughter (Check out my Strawberry Shortcake Cake).  Half the time I’m up to my elbows in buttercream when she comes over, but today, I decided to stay out of the kitchen.  I couldn’t resist starting a party-related project though, so while Ramona played speech games, I started making a 3D snowflake for a party decoration.

It turned out like this:

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This was my second attempt because I made the first one out of copy paper and it didn’t have enough structure so I tried it again with cardstock.  It looks complicated but it’s actually simple to make, though I ended up spending most of my morning messing around with paper, scissors, and hot glue instead of cake batter. You can find great instructions here.

1:30pm:  Sometimes I absolutely cannot believe how fast Penny’s school day flies by, but by the time I finished the snowflakes, worked out, and ate lunch, my cozy snowy day was literally melting away.  Luckily Ramona’s naptime arrived and I was finally able to roll up my sleeves and get down to the real task at hand:

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Greasing, flouring, and lining my pans with parchment paper

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Sifting my dry ingredients

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Mixing the wet stuff

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And mixing the two friends together into sweet happiness

My chocolate cake recipe is really very simple, but was not found without a LOT of failures.  I think I must have tried out at least 10 chocolate cake recipes before I found “The One.”  Most of my troubles were with cakes falling because of the high elevation factor or being too dry.  But after months of frustration, I was surprised that instead of coming from a fancy cake book or food blog, my dream chocolate cake recipe comes straight from the Hershey’s website.  It has a deep, true, chocolate flavor, is incredibly moist and is nearly as simple as making a cake from a box.  You can find the recipe here, but I’ve posted my recipe with high elevation adjustments at the bottom of this post.  There, my secret is out (Why do I feel like I just told you I cheated on a test…?).

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Chocolate tower, yay!

Time Spent: 1.5 hours (including baking time)

While the cakes were cooling, I heard a little rap at the door and my heart skipped a beat because I knew my Amazon package had arrived with these little sweeties:

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Cake gadgets!  Arriving at my doorstep!  How could this day possibly get any better?

Well, cupcakes couldn’t hurt…

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Ok, wait, before you think I am insane for whipping up cupcakes on a whim, this picture should really be called: “Heather cleaning out her freezer.”  As usual, I had a freezer stuffed full of leftover baked goods and frosting, leaving very little room for my newly baked cakes.  And I had new fondant toys, so the conclusion was really very logical…for me at least (but I know some of you still think I’m weird).

The fam was very happy to have a tasty dessert after dinner, which was much appreciated since the whole house smelled so chocolatey, it was almost cruel to not have something sweet to offer them (imagine all the sad puppy dog eyes as they look and smell the cake they are not allowed to touch).  I packed up the rest to share with my girlfriends at my Bible study that night.  So though you may think I’m cake obsessed (oh wait, I am…), I was able to make room in my freezer, I got to play with my new fondant cutters, and everyone got a treat. Win-win-win!

9:00pm: After sharing the cupcakes, tea, and some much needed encouragement with my friends, I ran to the store on my way home to grab the last of my party supplies (cups, plates, streamers, etc.).  Cake Day #5, done.

 

Cake Day 6: Friday, April 4th

7:00am:  When your child enters Kindergarten, there are all sorts of rites of passage as a parent that you naturally step into, such as “Surviving the emotional rollercoaster of the first day of your baby growing up for real,” or “Helping your child deal with name calling,” or my personal favorite, “Rushing to school because your child has thrown up all over themselves in class.”  These are the moments that make you feel like you are entering a new phase of parenting, as having a child in school forces you to pull out all sorts of wisdom, patience, and, faking-like-you-know-how-to-handle-these-situations.

This morning, I was about to step into another grade-school-parent rite of passage: chaperoning a school field trip.

I was actually super excited to be a part of Penny’s field trip- I love having time to get to know her classmates and teachers better.  Penny goes to a wonderful school and I’ve really enjoyed all the staff and she’s had a good experience so far.  So I was pretty happy to have the opportunity to help out during their field trip to see the play, “Lyle the Crocodile” at the Arvada Center.

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Penny and her friend, Alexis on the bus

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The kids warming up their faces during their theater workshop

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Penny as “The Singing Bush” during her class impromptu performance of Hansel and Gretel

After a great theater workshop and lunch, I had the pleasure of sitting by Penny while she watched her very first play.  I was a happy mama.

Other than a kid throwing up on the bus during our ride home, it was a great day.  I know how that parent felt when they got the call….

Now, onto the cake!

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What you see above are the ingredients for my vanilla buttercream frosting.  So simple, yet again.  And yes, that is, ahem…2 1/2lbs of butter (10 sticks).  Hence, this picture explains why I must work out every day in order to be able to shop at a regular clothing store.

Just to be fair, this is a double batch of frosting, my cake is going to be huge, and I am bound to have leftovers.  But why should I justify?  We are talking about cake here, people, not bunny food!

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And no, you can’t gain weight just by looking at this picture

Time Spent: 15 minutes

9:00pm:  After making a cup of tea, I knew it was time to get down to business and make my last figurine: Elsa, the ice queen.  I used the same chibi-type tutorial as I did with Anna, making sure they were going to be about the same size.

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Elsa’s dress/torso

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 Forming Elsa’s hair (most time consuming part- they kind of look like little bananas, right?)

Micah jumped in at this point and helped by making rice krispie treats that I was going to carve into a mountain side on the top of the cake.  Of course, he’ll always help as long as he gets to eat half the pan.

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After two and half episodes of Friday Night Lights, Elsa was looking pretty good:

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 Hair is tricky, so I if I tried this figurine again, I might make some changes, but overall I was pretty happy.  Also, there was no way I was going to have time for a second attempt.  Blurry eyed, I stumbled off to bed, knowing the real challenge was coming the next morning as I was going to be putting everything together.  But sweet dreams for now…

Time Spent: 2 1/2 hours

Total time spent so far: 14.25 hours (not including time I have spent on other non-cake related party prep)

To be continued…

Hershey’s Deep Dark Chocolate Cake (with high elevation adjustments)

Just a funny note here: when I went to bake the cake on Thursday, I couldn’t find my paper copy of this recipe and so I went online to find the original.  Apparently Hershey has removed the high elevation adjustments from it’s website so I was totally freaking out.  Luckily I found my paper copy and so I am posting this for my fellow struggling high elevation baking friends and also for myself, just in case there is a fire 😉

Ingredients:

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 3/4 cups flour + 2TB

3/4 cup cocoa powder (I do use Hershey’s- not dutch processed)

1 1/4 tsp baking powder

1 1/4 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk +2TB

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2tsp vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water

Directions:

1.) Heat oven to 350F (Hershey’s recommends increasing the temp to 375F for high elevation, but I don’t find it necessary).  Grease, flour and line two 9-inch round pans or one 13x9x2 inch baking pan with parchment paper.  *I find this is a very large recipe and I often split it up into three 9 or 8 inch pans so I can have more layers for yummy fillings.

2.) Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla; beat on medium speed of electric mixer for 2 minutes.  Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin).  Pour batter into prepared pans.  *I usually use my stand mixer, but my picture shows me using a hand mixer because I doubled the recipe and it won’t fit in the bowl. Either will work just fine.

3.) Bake 30-35 minutes for round pans, 35-40 minutes for rectangle pan or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks.

DEVOUR!  Or, you know, frost it all pretty or something.

Disney Frozen Cake: Part II

Cake Day 3: Tuesday, April 1st

No early start on cake projects this morning- with Micah home from work this week, I do have to make sure to pay attention to him once in a while. I don’t want my cake obsession to result in spousal neglect.  So we spent the morning running errands together and playing tennis (he won, but just barely!).  The errands were cake related, however as we ran over to the Dollar Store for foamboard (for cake boards), Michael’s (for ribbon, food coloring, and luster dust), and Party City (for birthday party decorations).  I left Party City disgusted because every single Frozen party item was sold out, right down to the last balloon.  A quick search on Amazon for Frozen merchandise ($10.50 for 7 PAPER plates!!!) led me to decide homemade party decorations are going to be my only option if I want to stick with the theme.  I actually prefer homemade stuff, but we’ll see how much I can get done with the epic cake deadline also looming ominously closer.

Before we knew it, the time had come to pick up Penny from school and I hadn’t done a single thing on the cake.

“You may delay, but time will not.” -Benjamin Franklin

3:00pm: I knew I had exactly one hour to squeeze in a quick cake step before I had to leave for a volunteer banquet at work.  It was cake board action time:

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First, I marked my dimensions with a yard stick and cut out two pieces of foam board with an exacto knife.  I need a big board for this cake, so I made it rectangular.  Then I hot glued the two pieces together and glued a sparkling silver ribbon around the edge.

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Next, I colored about 2lbs of fondant sky blue, stopping before the color was entirely incorporated to give it a marbled, icy look.  I rolled out the fondant to about 1/4″ thick.

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To make the fondant stick, I spread a thin layer of uncolored piping gel with an offset spatula onto the prepared foamboard.

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Finally, I carefully laid the fondant on the foam board and cut away the access fondant with a small knife.  This board has a few bubbles in it, but I think they will be entirely covered by cake anyway, so I’m ok with it not being perfect.

Time Spent: 1 hour

Feeling good about having finished one small project, I changed out of my powder-sugar dusted yoga pants and slipped into a cute purple cocktail dress.  Then off we sped to the SIE Film Center for the volunteer reception for Warren Village.

This is kinda embarrassing, but I was honored as the volunteer of the year for First Step, even though I am technically an employee.  I do all the birthday parties completely separate from my paid position though, so I’m actually a volunteer too. I didn’t really want any recognition, but the gesture was sweet. I’m so blessed to be in a season of life where I have time to volunteer where my passions are and to work with such incredible people.  Here I am with my awesome co-workers, Amy and Angie:

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 Love you, ladies!

Afterwards, Micah and I grabbed a leisurely dinner at The Three Lions, a British soccer pub a few blocks away from the film center.  To my delight, I commenced to beating him at our favorite board game, Ascension, for the first time ever.   It made up a little bit for losing at tennis earlier in the day.

10:00pm:  I was sleepy, battling heartburn, and really ready to head to my cozy bed, but I also wasn’t satisfied with having only completed one cake step.  Feeling a little more confident in candy-making, I decided I had just enough energy to make another batch of blue ice candy before I went to bed.

Watching a candy thermometer rise is very much like watching a kettle of water boil. It seems to take forever, especially when you are sleepy and feeling a tad impatient.  I got a little bored waiting so I started looking at Pinterest for free Frozen decor printouts, and suddenly my thermometer was reading over 300F, and I was totally freaking out.  I threw in the flavoring and color and quickly poured the sugar/corn syrup/water mixture onto my greased pan, crossing my fingers that I hadn’t just wasted precious sleep time to experience another candy making failure.

Luckily, no harm, no foul.  Turns out the recipe is pretty forgiving, and I got the same happy, blue ice-like results as my last attempt.  Also, I tried manipulating the sugar while it was still pliable and came up with some cones, spirals, and towers which should work great for Elsa’s ice castle:

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Then off to bed, glad to have accomplished one more small step towards Frozen cake awesomeness.

Time Spent: 45 minutes

Cake Day 4: April 2nd, 2014

Kid free day!  We have the incredible blessing of having live-in childcare help from their loving and wonderful Grandma Kiki and Grandbear (thanks Mom and Dad!).  I know, I’m completely spoiled- when we first moved to Denver, Micah and I went months at a time without getting a break from the kids together.  But now we are in a co-living situation with my parents and it surprisingly works beautifully for everyone.  We mutually help each other out in lots of different ways and the kids get to spend lots of time with their grandparents.  And the best bonus for us…free, more-than-willing childcare whenever my parents are available.  Truly, it’s a charmed life.

Anyway, Micah and I spent our date day at Matthews/Winters Park, which borders Red Rocks. We take the kids on lots of short hikes, but we used our child-free advantage to climb something with a little more elevation gain.  It was a bit cold and overcast (we have snow coming in tonight- normal for April in Colorado), but the weather held out for us and we still got a nice view:

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 That’s Red Rocks amphitheater in the background. I swear, one of these days I’m just going to suck up the high ticket cost and go to a concert there.  It’s supposed to be one of the best concert venues in the country.  Someday…

But back to cake….

Time: 8:30pm

I had a goal to finish another figurine tonight, so I decided to work on Olaf, the adorable snowman from the movie.  I was excited to try a tutorial I found on Pinterest where Olaf looks like he is standing on one leg.  I usually stick to figurines who are stumpy or are sitting on their bottoms, but I thought I would challenge myself this time.

Here’s the happy snowman:

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“Hi everyone! I’m Olaf and I like warm hugs!”

I was so excited and pleased when he came out so well, that I thought I would show Micah the song Olaf sings about summer to celebrate (he hasn’t seen the movie yet).  I just ended up really, really annoying Micah…which was pretty humorous for me.  What’s not to love about Olaf?!

Guess I’ll have to wait for the girls to wake up in the morning to get someone to sing along with me to Olaf’s summer song.

Time Spent: 1 hour and 15 minutes (wow, way quicker than Anna!)

Total time spent so far: 10 hours

Tomorrow, let us commence the actual baking of the cake…

 

 

Disney Frozen Cake: A Photo Journal, Part I

Making a cake takes a lot of time, and I’ve got a whopper coming up this weekend.  It’s a chocolate cake with blackberry filling for a 5-year-old little girl at Warren Village who is crazy about the movie Frozen.  It’s going to be multi-tiered, includes several detailed figurines, and I’ll even be making an attempt at some homemade candy elements.  So basically, it’s going to be my life for the next few days.

I thought it might be fun to document each step of the cake making process and the craziness, frustration, and joy it brings to my life.  Though I will throw in some baking and decorating tips and recipes, the main point is for you all to get a little peak into my life and how I barely manage to juggle pulling one of these big cake projects off.  I also thought I would keep track of the actual time I spent on this project which is bound to be enlightening/embarrassing. At the end, I’ll be able to share a post about the birthday party too.  I absolutely can’t wait- this little girl didn’t get a birthday party last year and I want to make this party extra special for her!

Cake Day 1: Saturday, March 29th

8:30pm:  Girls were asleep and Micah dropped off to bed early, so I rolled up my sleeves to attempt my hand at making some hard candy to use for Elsa’s ice castle.  I thought I would attempt Sprinklebakes lovely looking icicle candy, even though the idea of candy making at high-altitudes has nearly given me nightmares in the past.  It was supposed to look like this:

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Apparently, the nightmares were well deserved because this is what mine looked like:

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Kinda reminds me of Venom from Spiderman, and it tastes just about as good as an alien symbiote might as well.  Does Pinterestfail, come to mind, anyone? Actually, I did find this on Pinterest so I should probably submit it as an entry- I can’t help busting up laughing when I look at these two pictures next to each other.

This recipe was made in the microwave, which I had reservations about anyway.  Microwaves vary quite a bit and with the high elevation factor, I had no way to adjust for our lower boiling temperature.  If you didn’t know, water actually boils at around 200F in Denver, whereas it boils at around 212F at sea level.  This makes candy-making a bit more challenging, but if I can use a candy thermometer, it’s fairly easy to make the necessary adjustments.

So, needless to say, this batch slid into the trash and I retreated to bed to read Game of Thrones.

Time spent: 1 hour

 

Cake Day 2: Monday, March 31st

9:00am:  Micah is on spring break this week, but Penny is back to school.  Because he is an awesome husband, he took Penny to school in the morning and went grocery shopping with Ramona so I could get a good start on the cake.  After a quick run (gotta do something to keep the weight off- I can’t resist licking the spoon…) a shower, and a cup of tea, I decided to give my ice candy another try.  This time I decided to try Sugarhero’s recipe for Blue Crystal Meth Rock Candy.  Weird name, I know- I guess it has something to do with the show Breaking Bad, which I have never seen.  But I’ve enjoyed her posts in the past and her pics looked like something that could work perfectly for an ice castle.

I started with my trusty candy thermometer and let the sugar, water, and corn syrup do it’s thing:

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After waiting patiently while enjoying another cup of tea, I ended up with this lovely, vanilla flavored concoction:

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 I broke it into pointy shards and I’m going to place them in a pattern on the top of the cake and hopefully it will look artsy, ice-like, and recognizable as a castle. We shall see…I also thought I might crush some of it and put it as a border around the bottom of the cake. I’ll probably need to make another batch in order to have enough for my purposes.  Success!

Time spent: 1 hour

10:45am: Micah returned from the grocery store with a very moody 2-year-old.  Honestly, Ramona seemed to miss Penny after having her around for a whole week, as her main complaint was that the cat wouldn’t play puppets with her.  After wiping some tears, I jumped into my next goal of the day: to make a gumpaste figurine of the character, Anna, from Frozen.

Though I do like to sculpt, human figurines are very intimidating and challenging.  Faces are very difficult to get right, especially when they are a specific character, not to mention realistic hands and accurate proportions.  So though I would love to be able to make something like this someday,

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time, skill level, and fear have made me trend toward the easy way out: chibi-style.  If you aren’t familiar with this term, check out my Star Wars cake or my Spock cake.  The figurines I made on those cakes were modeled after some Japanese toys I found online. They are very cartoon-looking, with large heads and little bodies.  They are pretty adorable, and though they may not look realistic, people still recognize the characters.  And I love how they don’t have necks, noses, or other details that often come out weird if you aren’t a crazy sculpture genius.

So began my Anna chibi attempt.  First, (which always turns out to be WAY more time consuming than I think it will be), I had to color the gumpaste. Anna has tons of details so I needed 7 different colors before I could even start constructing her.

Here’s the process for “flesh” colored:

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A little pink…

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And a little orange…

 By then, Ramona had gained her composure and decided she wanted to do what Mommy was doing.  So I set her up next to me with her favorite activity: making “cakes” with playdough.

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Here’s her finished figurine (that’s a wooden cupcake topper).  She was very proud 🙂

Finally, about an hour after I started, I ended up with my lovely little balls of color:

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To make Anna, I found a nice youtube tutorial for making a chibi with polymer clay, which translates pretty well to gumpaste/fondant.  I got through making her head and part of her hair and then had to take a long break in order to run some errands and pick up Penny from school.

After we got back, Micah decided to take a nap which left me with kid duty.  Honestly though, I intentionally ignore my children when I’m sculpting- I will not wipe their noses, help them find things, or mediate arguing.  Since I probably help them more than I should when I’m not busy, it’s really good practice for them to have problem solve.  If they can’t reach something, they have to get the stool. If they are hungry, they have to open the package themselves, etc.  Today they both decided to join me at the table and continue making playdough creations while we sang to the Frozen soundtrack on youtube.  Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

A few hours later, I ended up with this:

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I needed to add her head covering because fondant doesn’t smooth out like clay does once there is a seam in it- the top of her head looked messy so I came up with the hood as a solution. Luckily Anna wears a hood sometimes in the movie!

Time Spent (including coloring of gumpaste): 4 hours

8:00pm:  After cleaning up my enormous mess left in the wake of Anna’s creation, a dinner of BLTs (with Micah’s home-cured and smoked bacon…nom, nom, nom), and storytime, I used my last little bit of motivation to bang out a few batches of fondant.

Melting marshmallows:

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Mixing the powdered sugar with the marshmallows:

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And kneeding the fondant to make it happy and smooth:

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And the result was two lovely balls of marshmallow goodness, ready and waiting to become the smooth snow-like covering for Elsa’s mountain:

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Notice the glass of wine?  Yes, I think that was well deserved at this point.  You can find my recipe for homemade marshmallow fondant here.

Time Spent: 1 hour

Total time spent so far:  7 hours (wow…and so far to go still. This is why I couldn’t do these kind of cakes if I had a real job).

Let’s see if I can be nearly as productive in the coming days!

P.S.  Just because this song has been stuck in my head for 3 days, you should get it stuck in your head too: Let It Go  It would make me feel better.

The Birthday That Wrecked Me

As I’ve been recounting my story and how I got into this cake/birthday craziness, I keep getting drawn back to one of the very first birthday parties I ever threw at My Father’s House.  This was WAY before I really saw myself as cake decorator or would even call myself a baker.  Ten years ago, I was clueless about cake design and I had no idea what fondant was.  But I’ve always loved and valued birthdays and I wanted to stop the small tragedies of missed birthdays to stop for good at MFH.

Case in point…this cutie:

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Nick* was an almost 5-year-old boy who had moved into our family homeless shelter after being recently reunited with his single father.  Their story was so heartbreaking, I didn’t want to believe it was true, but here’s the gist: Nick had been in full custody of his mother since birth but his mom had succumbed to a dangerous life of drug addiction. The state had become involved and pulled Nick from the meth house where he had been seriously neglected and abuse.  After being removed from his mother’s custody, Nick’s father suddenly became his full-time guardian after years of having very little contact with his son.  Needing a stable place to start their new life together as a family, they were accepted to the program at MFH with open arms.

It was cute and awkward to see Nick with his dad; a tatoo-covered but soft spoken twenty-something who was still in shock of getting his son back after nearly 5 years of absence.  They were really just getting to know each other for the first time and there were rocky moments, especially considering the trauma Nick had just experienced.  But Nick’s dad was desperately trying make up for some of the years they had lost by being the best dad he could be.

As Nick’s birthday approached, I started asking Nick what presents he would like or if he had a theme that he would like for his party.  I was sadly shocked when we started to discover Nick had no memory of ever having a birthday party in his life.  In fact, he didn’t even seem to know much about birthdays in general, as he would give you a blank stare or confused look whenever the subject came up.  Before he had come to MFH, there hadn’t been many people in his life who had taken the time to care for his basic needs, let alone notice when his birthday came and went.

I can’t even describe the injustice I felt when I heard about Nick’s missed birthdays. Of course, Nick’s experiences of abuse and neglect, family instability, and poverty were more serious issues than some forgotten birthdays.  The lost birthdays were just a symptom of much bigger root issues of a dysfunctional family life. But still, my heart ached because I felt a birthday should be when life is celebrated and cherished.  I wondered, if no one valued Nick on the day they were supposed to, did he ever feel truly loved? I hated that I had to ask the question.

I knew Nick’s party would need to be special to make up for so many years of failed birthdays.  And the first thing that comes to mind when I think “special birthday” is there absolutely must be a homemade cake.  Not that a store-bought cake is the worst birthday sin- there have definitely been many parties I’ve thrown that simply would not have had a dessert without a little help from the neighborhood grocery store.  But I just know when I was little, I absolutely loved when my mom made my birthday cake.  There is something so personal and sweet when someone takes the time create a baked good in your honor.  So I set out to make one of my first homemade birthday cakes, in the hopes this simple act could communicate Nick was valued and cared for as he started a new chapter of his life.

During this time of my life, I was having a ball playing house as a newlywed and I was breaking in my brand new bakeware and kitchen gadgets at lightening speed.  I would bring culinary goodies home from my part-time job at Whole Foods, tie on a stylish apron, crank up my Amelie soundtrack and whip up whatever my heart fancied.  I would call it the beginning of my culinary awakening, as I fell in love with the art of creating delicious food. However, my cooking and baking was not without trial and error- I had many cakes half-stuck in pans, curdled custards, and frisbee-hard pie crusts.  But it was all fun, and I remember being thrilled to have a new food challenge as I started planning Nick’s cake.

One trip to the local cake decorating shop for silver luster powder and two boxes of cake mix later, and I had my first birthday masterpiece:

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Cute, right? 

On the day of Nick’s party, I remember being SO excited to see the look on Nick’s face when he saw all the decorations and the cake.  We had gathered some gifts from the shelter’s shed where we kept the extra presents left over from Christmas. What a unique experience to be able to see a 5-year-old child have their first birthday party- I couldn’t hardly wait for him to walk in the door.  And so we waited for him to come home with his dad to unveil all the surprises we had planned.  And waited….and waited….

We had planned the party for 5pm and at about 5:45pm I was beginning to think I was going to be another witness to a failed birthday attempt for Nick.  They finally arrived about an hour late, and although I was getting a bit peeved, I knew I needed to extend grace to Nick’s dad.  After all, he was brand new to being a parent.

Anyway, once we saw the ecstatic smile on Nick’s face all was forgiven and we were swept up into his contagious joy as he opened his small pile of presents.  When it came time for the cake, Nick initially bounced up and down with excitement, but as we started singing he began to squirm and cover his face.  We gently explained that he was supposed to blow out his candles and make a wish, but he just violently shook his head and continued to bury his face in his hands. After several moments of unproductive coaxing, his dad eventually blew out the candles for him.  It was normal behavior for maybe a toddler, but all the 5-year-olds I know are usually thrilled with this simple ritual and Nick was not typically a shy or scared kid. Who knows what was going on in his little head.  Maybe he was overwhelmed by all the attention or confused at what he was supposed to do. Even though we weren’t able to understand exactly why he reacted this way, his behavior definitely confirmed the whole birthday experience was new for Nick.

After the candles were blown out, he was all smiles again and dove into his cake with the wild abandon that only little kids usually display around sugar-  I remember he licked all the frosting off his cake first.  Then he zoomed outside with his dad to try out his new remote control car, laughing and shrieking in delight.  Nick’s first birthday party had been a success.

When I think of moments that “wreck” us, I’m thinking of when we witness an injustice that tears at our hearts and leaves us unable to move forward in life without taking action.  For some it could be visiting a different country and witnessing extreme poverty; for others it could be as simple as watching a powerful film or reading a book which changes their perspective on an issue they didn’t fully understand.  These experiences mess us up in a good way- they not only cause us to bring positive change in this world, but they ultimately bring us closer to the heartbeat of God.

Nick’s birthday was one of those wrecking moments for me.  At the time, I felt I didn’t have many skills or professional experience to address the root causes of homeless with the families at the shelter.  I wasn’t a social worker or a therapist- but I could throw a party for a kid who needed a little extra love.  I knew simple acts of kindness sometimes can have the most affect on a person’s life and organizing a birthday party created normalcy for families amidst an otherwise traumatic time in their lives.  And that’s why I’ve kept on throwing parties at homeless shelters- because it’s a concrete thing that I can do (small as it is), to further the kingdom of God.

So go on out there and get wrecked. I promise you won’t regret it.

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On another note, if you want to have a good laugh, go ahead and get cake-wrecked on my favorite cake-related blog: Cake Wrecks  Hi-lar-i-ous.

Side note: I have permission to use some photos, but I am going to change the names in my posts to protect past residents’ privacy.

Falling for Fondant

I love my children, I truly do.  My girls are sweet, affectionate, well-behaved (most of the time) and so hilarious.  But I will admit, between our wild transplant to Denver, our questionable living situation, and Ramona’s inability to sleep for more than three hour stretches, there were times when I felt a wee bit crazy as a stay-at-home mom.

Any person who stays at home with their kids full time (if they are honest) knows the job isn’t always snuggles and Pinterest-inspired craft projects.  For as many great moments of laughter and joy I had, there were also many times where returning to work with grownups sounded pretty appealing.  Like when Ramona went through a phase when she screamed anytime I wasn’t holding her…or when Penny decided to flush a whole roll of toilet paper down the toilet…or when I had just been thrown up on…again.

It’s true, at times, the luxury of staying home full-time did not always feel like a gift.

I had been used to being extremely busy before we had moved. In Portland I had worked part-time, had been an almost full-time student, and co-managed a transitional housing program.  We had been active in our church, had a full social calendar, and made time to hang out with our parents and other family members on a regular basis.

When we moved to Denver, all that was gone. Life came to a screeching halt and suddenly it was just me and the kids in a basement, trying to get into the swing of a much slower pace of life.

With all my previous responsibilities, relationships, and job titles gone, I was forced to rediscover who I truly was.  I had been used to forming my identity through my job and perhaps even my crazy level of activity.  Busyness can make us feel very important, even if we often complain about the stress.  If I wasn’t busy, was my life meaningful?  Did I have a purpose without a “real” job?  I felt as if someone had stripped me down to my bare bones and forced me to stare in a mirror.  At first, I could barely recognize my own reflection, but gradually God began to reveal who I was apart from my previous career and responsibilities.

I began to realize I had a tremendous opportunity to rediscover how to live with purpose without any expectations from anyone but myself.  I started to do homeschool with Penny, I volunteered at a home for kids with cancer, and I even got a little part-time job at a women’s shelter.  But even with all my new activities , I still felt myself tipping toward depression.

And then there was Micah’s birthday.

He was turning 30.  Needing some fun in our lives, Penny and I agreed Daddy would like a Spiderman party because he is a huge Marvel geek.  I thought making a cake would be a good distraction for me so I delved into google images, flicker and Pinterest to find a good model.  But cakes like this scared me:

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I felt like frosting-piped images had too much opportunity for failure- one slip of the wrist and Spiderman could look like his head was exploding or he was melting in hot lava.   I began to realize all my favorite cakes were made with fondant.  But fondant was so intimidating.  How was it made? Wasn’t it expensive? Didn’t fondant kind of taste weird? Didn’t you need a pastry degree and/or magical powers to make a cake look that seamless?

Then I stumbled upon this blog: Amanda’s Cookin’.  She was a novice baker with no experience with fondant, yet she made her own fondant out of marshmallows and described her trials and eventual success in making this cake:

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I was inspired and so began my fondant adventure. I watched countless youtube tutorials, made sketches of my cake design and I carefully set out to buy all my ingredients for my little experiment.  I was so excited about making the cake, I would actually toss and turn at night thinking about how I was going to accomplish it.  I thought I would try going to a local cake decorating shop so I could grab a couple of supplies and perhaps some advice.  I was so excited to visit the cake shop: I thought, these are my people- cake people.  Surely they will be helpful and excited to assist me in my project!

So off the girls and I set to Littleton to visit my cake Mecca. After grabbing a fondant smoother, gumpaste and a piping bag, I mentioned to the saleslady that I was going to be attempting to make my own fondant.  She frowned and said, in no uncertain terms, it was impossible to make fondant at home.  I felt myself go clammy- what about all the tutorials I had watched?  But she continued to insist that I would surely break my stand mixer and wouldn’t I rather buy this box of $26 fondant instead….

I guess everyone needs to make a buck, but the experience left me jaded against the snobby cake shop and scared witless to attempt making fondant at home.

However, I was determined and I didn’t have $26 to spend on fancy boxed fondant.  Homemade fondant just has four ingredients: marshmallows, water, vanilla, and powdered sugar.  After the girls went to bed, I stood in my kitchen with great trepidation with these four little ingredients, just certain I was about to embark on a crazy disaster.  I must have beat the fondant in my mixer for over an hour, adding a tiny bit of powdered sugar at a time, waiting to see if my Kitchenaid was going to explode or burn out.  I laugh now, because you really can whip up a batch of fondant in about 15 minutes, but that cake lady had really shaken my confidence.

Luckily, the results were magical. The fondant was like edible playdough- smooth and versatile and it tasted like melted marshmallows. So there, snobby cake lady- yes I could make fondant at home! After letting it set overnight, I started to play around and made my first little edible creations:

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My Neighbor Totoro Cupcakes: My first fondant creation

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Mario cupcakes soon followed

And then came the main event: covering the cake with fondant.  First I stacked and filled my cake layers:

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Then I did a crumb-coat of frosting on the outside of the layers:

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And finally, I covered the cake in fondant. I think I had to try this twice to do it without tearing, but fondant is very forgiving and it wasn’t even as difficult as I thought it might be:

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Now the hard part was done and I could start playing around.  I ended up with this as my finished cake:

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I was so proud of my project and the whole process had given me a huge creative release.  I felt I had found a hobby that could be cathartic for me.  Decorating cakes was so different than parenting or working- it became way I could truly be creative and have an activity that was just for me.  I began to plot my next cake creations, so thrilled with my new hobby that I continued to lose sleep from time to time as I anticipated my next cake project.  This really became the turning point in my transplant to Denver and the darkness that had settled over me since our move started to lift as I threw myself into my new expression of creativity.

Who would have thought a little sugar and marshmallows could have such a positive effect on my life?  And then I started thinking about how my little cake decorating hobby might be able to have an impact on my community around me. But that’s another story….

For now, I will leave you with my recipe for fondant. I’ve made this countless times and it’s been great for all my cake projects.  It tastes so much better than boxed fondant and is WAY cheaper.  And no, it will NOT break your stand mixer- it’s no harder on a mixer than making bread dough. However, you really do need a Kitchenaid or similar stand mixer in order to make it.

Homemade Marshmallow Fondant*

16oz mini marshmallows (I always use Kraft)

2lbs powdered sugar, sifted (Kroger brand works fine or C&H)

3TB water

1 TB pure vanilla extract

Vegetable shortening for greasing

  1. Use the shortening to grease a large microwavable bowl for the marshmallows, the mixer bowl, your dough hook, and a sturdy spatula.
  2. Sift the powdered sugar.  Reserve one cup to the side.
  3. Put the marshmallows into the microwaveable bowl and add the water and vanilla.  Microwave in 30 second intervals until milted, stirring with rubber spatula in between intervals.  Pour the melted marshmallows into the greased mixer bowl.
  4. Add the powdered sugar to the melted marshmallows.  Lock the mixer and cover the opening with plastic wrap to keep the powdered sugar from coming out.  Turn mixer on low and mix for several minutes until the sugar seems to have incorporated for the most part.  If still sticky, begin adding reserved powdered sugar.  (I almost always use all of the powdered sugar and it’s very dry here in Denver).  Should feel like clay or playdough and shouldn’t stick to your fingers if they are just slightly greasy.
  5. Scrape fondant onto a greased counter top and knead a few times by hand with slightly greased hands. Wrap in plastic wrap and allow to rest for a minimum of 4 hours, overnight is best.
  6. To add coloring, do not use liquid food coloring. Use paste or gel colorings to a handful of fondant, then mix that piece into a larger batch.  You can also color the fondant by adding the color to the melted marshmallows before adding the powdered sugar.
  7.   Cover work surface with cornstarch/powdered sugar blend. Roll out fondant to ¼” thickness.

Yields 3lbs of fondant- enough to cover a 9 inch cake with extra left over.

Notes: If the fondant is very firm, you can warm it up slightly in the microwave before rolling it out to make it more pliable.

If you buy the marshmallows in a 1lb package and the powdered sugar in 2 lb package, you can whip this up quickly because you don’t even have to measure hardly any of our ingredients.  Besides, I have found using the freshest marshmallows yields the best results. If you use 1/2 a package of dried out marshmallows, it becomes a guessing game of how much powdered sugar you will need to get the right consistency.

*Adapted from Amanda’s Cookin‘ fondant recipe

Have fun, and don’t let the snobby cake ladies in life crush your dreams!

Potatoes in the Landfill

The first time I walked into my new home in Denver, I burst into tears.  Mind you, it was late at night and I had just traveled on a plane with a newborn, a three-year-old and a cat.  I was exhausted, all of my belongings were piled in chaos, and postpartum hormones were still wreaking havoc on my emotional stability.  All that aside, as I descended down the dark staircase into our basement apartment, I had a sinking feeling my standard of living was about to have an adjustment.

Here’s where we moved:

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 We lived in the basement of this duplex for the first year and a half of our new life in Denver

We knew we had moved to one of the worst areas of the city.  Micah had to start his new job as a math teacher just two weeks after our daughter, Ramona, was born and I had sent him ahead to find us a place to live while I recovered.  Time was tight, as was our budget.  Our previous home had been at a transitional housing program as the managers- we were used to poor areas and people who were rough around the edges.

But now we were alone in a strange city, far away from all the people we loved and the community we were accustomed to.  At times, our living situation was just plain scary.  I would sit late at night as our neighbors screamed at each other with my hand on my phone, not sure if I should risk a confrontation or just talk to them when they were sober (which was rare).

In addition to our sketchy housing situation, there was an overwhelming darkness and oppression in our neighborhood and I felt powerless to change it. Our basement apartment was literally dark as well- though the Colorado sun was shining, our tiny windows didn’t offer much daylight.  With it’s low cement walls, I often felt like I lived in a bomb shelter.

I found the darkness didn’t contain itself to my surroundings- it began to settle on my mind and heart as well.  The first few months, I battled through feelings of isolation, loss of direction, and plain good ol’ homesickness. More than a few moments I wondered if we had made the right decision to leave Portland.

I don’t want to paint the picture too grim- there were many incredible blessings that carried me through those first rough months in Denver.  Here’s a few:

Cultivating a new community of friends:

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Making our first “orphans” Thanksgiving dinner with the Starrs, our dear friends who transplanted to Denver just a few months prior to us and who became our Colorado family

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Penny making new friends

Exploring our beautiful new landscape:

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Coyote Song Trail at South Valley Park

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Rocky Mountain National Park

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Ice formation in Georgetown, CO

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Beautiful Golden, CO

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Dayhike at Lair O’ the Bear

Visits from family and friends:

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 My kindred spirit, Bethany visited for a birthday surprise

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Penny with her Papa

And moments like these:

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In those first months of transition, I did my best to count my blessings and trust God had opened up this opportunity to our family for a reason.

But adjusting wasn’t easy.  Yet no one had ever promised it would be.

Unearthing Buried Treasure

One really cool aspect of our house was we had an enormous backyard.  Mind you, it wasn’t fenced and had been basically used as a dump for the neighborhood as long as any of our neighbors could remember, but there was a hidden charm to that 1/3 of an acre.  In return for a spaghetti lunch, my friend Mark helped carry out mounds and mounds of trash, old furniture, and even a dead dog (yes, truly).  We weed whacked, cut back the poor overgrown trees, and turned it into an almost-suitable place for children to play again.

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 We had the only backyard on our entire block- the other properties were low-income apartment buildings

 After extracting the trash and dead animals, you could imagine my delight when I discovered the evidence of three very old raised gardening beds.  Penny and I headed out during a warm spring day to see if we could maybe turn the old beds into a “bit o’ earth” where we could grow flowers or veggies.

We found some worms:

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Gave the earth a drink:

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And to our delight and surprise, after carefully picking out dozens of junk food wrappers and countless shards of broken glass, we discovered these little gems:

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Some time ago, someone had planted little red potatoes in that mess of a backyard.  The discovery was so unexpected, we felt like we had found buried treasure in a pile of rubble. As I fried them up for dinner that night, I felt a kind of nervous excitement and I knew God was at work.  It may sound silly, but it was as if those potatoes were a little sign of hope for me- that amidst the darkness and the struggle, God was going to do a new work in me that was going to be life-changing and surprising. Deliciously surprising as it turned out, because my life-change was going to come in the form of a cake.

So that’s what I’m writing this blog for- to dig down in the dirt and share the surprises in life; the hope amongst the despair.  I’ve found a hidden talent and passion in cake I’m trying to figure out how to use it to help the broken people in my community.  The first step is to invite you all into my story and ask for your prayers and support as I embark into this sticky adventure.  I’d love if you would check out my other pages, subscribe to my posts, and give me feedback.  I’m hoping to share stories about my cake-making escapades, birthdays at homeless shelters, and maybe a recipe or too in the mix.

Just be prepared: it might be a messy ride.

On the way, I’m holding onto this C.S. Lewis quote: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

Have you ever transplanted to a new city and made new discoveries about yourself in the process?  How have hardships in your life molded you into the person you are today?