Today is The Day

Today is the day to right the ship.

It's a day for Tom & Jerry on the TV, for toys being picked up and put away, for Christmas jazz to play constant. It's for doing laundry and for cleaning those sticky spots off the kitchen floor and getting out the toilet bowl scrubber and doing what must be done after a week of guests in the house.

Thanksgiving was incredible this year.

I'm not sure I've ever had my family come for this particular holiday. We had almost 20 around the table, and the whole day sparkled like a drop of dew in the sun. (Or maybe like a pat of butter melting on a homemade roll; that's probably more apropos.) We laughed and played games and ate ourselves sick. And then we ate some more. Because that's what we do.

And the cousins. My goodness. All the kids are getting old enough to play together now, and watching their relationships unfurl like a bud in the spring delighted me to no end. They kept disappearing together, to play puppies in a bedroom or to have a Nerf gun battle in the basement. I didn't grow up with cousins around, so to watch my kids form real friendships with my sister's kids is a joy new to me.

But now the party is over. The last of the house guests left this morning, and just in time, because the chaos is right up to my chin.

I am the kind of person who loves to celebrate and be with my people and stay up late talking and eat just one more piece of pie. But after a few days of that, I am also the kind of person who craves routine and quiet and the simple peace of folding clothes still warm from the dryer. I relish both flavors of life.

So today, I will turn on every light in the house, and I will go room to room, restoring order. I will vacuum up the dog hair and the stray crumbs, and I will bet money I will find something belonging to my sister's family tucked under a bed or behind a cushion. I will wash every towel I own and I will make an extra cup of coffee, and when Kieran takes a nap this afternoon, I will crawl in next to him and revel in the softness of flannel sheets and the stillness of my monkey boy. And when the kids get home from school, we will do homework in a quiet kitchen and eat leftovers for dinner and maybe snuggle around the fireplace, a necessary act when the forecast calls for the season's first dumping of snow.

Today, I will give thanks for the memories made, for the laughter still echoing off the stones and for the glory in the ordinary. I am full, in every way.

Here, Taste This : Zesty Cranberry Sauce

My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are a blur of smells and sounds. Tableware clinking. Fresh rolls baking. Turkey roasting. The sound of laughter. The crackle of a fire. But it was the sight of the jiggling, crimson cranberry sauce that trumpeted "Thanksgiving is here." It was my favorite, even as a little girl. I would patiently wait for the silver serving dish of sliced rounds to reach me, and then I would take two. Or maybe three. Cranberry sauce was only served at Thanksgiving, so I felt justified in second servings.

Now that I'm a grown-up (most of the time), I still favor the cranberry sauce above all else. It is Thanksgiving to me. And this recipe? Oh my word. Cranberry sauce perfection. The ideal blend of sweet-tart. It's easier to make this than to shlunk it out of a can. And so much better.

Zesty Cranberry Sauce

1 12 oz bag fresh cranberries (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine everything in a medium pot and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cranberries begin to pop, about 8-10 minutes. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Here, Taste This: Nannie's Pumpkin Pie

I'm channeling my inner Peach this week: "Today's the day! The sun is shining! The tank is clean!" Because Thanksgiving is FINALLY here. It's my favorite holiday, probably because it's the least tainted with consumerism. (I know Black Friday is trying to suck the heart out of it; this post says it all. But if you ignore the must-buy-more hype and fix your eyes on your blessings, the Black Friday ghoul can't have you.)

Plus, food is my love language and my main spiritual gift. Cooking a huge meal and then serving it to my favorite people? It's my sweet spot.

Last year I posted my entire Thanksgiving menu on the blog, because it's the perfect symphonic meal. Sweet, salty, tart, sweet, crunchy, creamy. I can't really alter a thing without losing something. If you're looking for the complete package, head there.

But maybe you're just looking for a little something: a killer dish to bring to the in-laws, perhaps, or a fresh take on a classic. In that case, let me highlight my two favorite recipes for you. Some might say these are sides, ancillary dishes to the main deal. But I say these are the true heart-and-soul of Thanksgiving. Without these two dishes tucked away on my table, it isn't Thanksgiving to me.

Today, Nannie's Pumpkin Pie. Tomorrow: well, you'll just have to come back, won't you?

Nannie's Pumpkin Pie

In my opinion, pumpkin pie is more necessary than turkey for a real Thanksgiving. I know some people don't like it, to which I say: What is WRONG with you freaks?

Maybe it's because you don't have my Nannie's recipe for pumpkin pie, which has the perfect blend of sugar and spice. According to family lore, Nannie got the recipe off a Kroger's can of pumpkin in the 1940s, when food was being rationed for the war. It has simple ingredients and it's easy to make and it's practically fool-proof.

15 oz canned pumpkin
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1-1/2 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon dark molasses
1-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix all ingredients well. Bake in an unbaked pie crust at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, and then 350 degrees until set, about another 45 min.

Here, Taste This : Maple-Glazed Butternut Squash with Clementines and Pancetta

I don't know about you, but I often clip recipes or Pin them and then chicken out on the follow-through. As in, I like to think about them and look at the pretty pictures and imagine how wonderful that dish might taste. And then I don't cook it. Because what if it's a horrible flop? What if I waste food? It's easier to stick with the tried-and-true.

Pinterest: Where Inspiration Goes to Die.

But this past week, I was solo parenting, and the kids and I were going to have leftovers, again, and something rose up in my soul and said: I want to make something NEW and GOOD and HEALTHY. And I just happened to have a recipe on my counter I had cut out of Better Homes & Garden last weekend. And I just happened to have all the ingredients already, which an even bigger miracle. So I decided to do hard things and try something new and I got out my butternut squash and went to work. And lo, when I took that first bite, the heavens parted and the angels sang and OH MY WORD it was the best thing I'd eaten in months. I raved and wept and pleaded with my kids to "try this, you have to try it, it's amazing," but they scorned my offering. So I ate half the pan for dinner - that's one pound of butternut squash, for the record - and I groaned with joy the rest of the night.

If that isn't an endorsement, I don't know what is.

Maple-Glazed Butternut Squash with Clementines and Pancetta
Loosely adapted from Better Homes & Garden, November 2013

3 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 tbsp butter
2 pounds butternut squash, cubed into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup water
3 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup unpeeled, seeded clementines, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1/2 cup orange juice

1. In a high-sided skillet, cook pancetta over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove pancetta to a paper towel to drain.
2. To drippings still in pan, add butter. Once melted, add squash. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until squash just starts to soften, around 2-3 minutes.
3. Add water, maple syrup, and salt to pan. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes, stirring as needed. Add clementines and juice and cook, uncovered, for 4-5 minutes more, until liquid has reduced slightly and both the squash and the orange slices are tender.
4. Transfer to a serving dish or plate up and top with pancetta and cracked black pepper.

1. This recipe marks my first time ever cooking with pancetta. I just happened to have some in my fridge from a gift basket Corey received. And it was amazing. But I imagine you could get the same salty, crunchy flavor kick by using bacon. For the record: 3 ounces of pancetta equaled 3 slices of my package. It was about 1/3 cup of pancetta bits, once cooked.
2. Costco sells peeled, seeded and cubed butternut squash. I love buying it ready to go (and frankly, if I had to peel, seed and chop a squash for this recipe, I probably wouldn't have tried it on a night I was solo parenting). If you can get the squash ready to go like that, I highly recommend it. It's the difference between declaring this recipe easy versus labor intensive.
3. I was skeptical that I didn't need to peel the clementines, but the original recipe promised the thin skins would soften during cooking and become edible. And wouldn't you know, they were right. The skins even added a slight tang of extra orange to the dish.
4. Do I even need to say that you must use real maple syrup for this recipe, and not some maple-flavored corn syrup? No? Good.
5. The smaller your squash, the faster this dish will cook. Mine was slightly too soft. It didn't hurt the flavor at all, but if you're a texture person, you will want to watch that closely.

What I Learned Doing 31 Days

I have to say: I enjoyed not blogging the last few days. Writing 31 Days of Birthdays was both enjoyable and backbreaking. I'm happy I did it; I've wanted to share my birthday party stories for years. And if I'm honest, I'm proud I did it. I told some friends last week it felt like finishing a 5K (or what I imagine it would feel like to finish a 5K): it took discipline, sweat and hard work, and I'm slightly in awe that I made it across the finish line in one piece. It's thrilling just to end upright.

But I will also say: It was tiring. And narrowing. I learned a lot. A few notables for people who might consider joining in The Nester's 31 Days series next time:

1. Pick a topic that excites you.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, I thought about blogging 31 Days of Birthdays for two years before I officially jumped in. Part of that is due to my ENFP I-hate-to-make-decisions, let's-consider-yet-another-option personality. But it's also because I've learned it's wise for me to think deeply before I commit to something so consuming. In my 20s, I had a tendency to commit to everything and finish very little. (Hashtag ENFP.) I don't do that as much now, because I hate-despise-shudder when I can't follow-through. So taking two years to really mull over 31 Days of Birthdays - do I have 31 days of material? do I really want to write about one topic for an entire month? how would I blog daily even while solo parenting four kids? - helped me mentally prepare for the task ahead. That prep time was invaluable to me. It built a foundation of confidence and determination that I needed to persevere.

2. Plan ahead.
I know not everyone is a planner, but I really think this is makes the difference between a good 31 Day series and a great one. Don't pick a topic and then wing it. Don't hope inspiration will strike you afresh every day. Don't just plan a few posts and then assume the rest will come. If you've truly picked a topic you're passionate about, you should be able to sketch out 31 post ideas before October even begins. I like visuals, so I drew up a schedule on a calendar page, so I could better organize and see at a glance what was coming up.

3. Start strong and schedule wisely.
Because I had a topic that excited me and because I planned ahead, I was able to prioritize my favorite posts. I wanted several of them to come that very first week, when the 31 Days link-ups over Nester's place were most active. Good first impression and all that. I also made sure my best posts didn't fall on the weekends, when we all tend to walk away from the computer. If I had a birthday party I really wanted to share, I scheduled it for a time when I know most of us are available and reading.

4. Solicit guest posts to fill in when you know your own calendar will be full.
When I made my 31 Days schedule, I immediately noticed the third week of October was going to be crazy for me. Not only did Connor's birthday come in the middle of the week, but the kids had fall break immediately afterwards and I had already committed to conferences, a field trip and various church activities. So my first task, after writing my introductory post, was to ask several blogging friends if they wanted to write a guest offering. When they graciously agreed, I scheduled them for the week when I knew I'd be most distracted. It was a huge blessing (overused word, but it's the best one in this case) to have those guests posts waiting in the wings when my life was swirling and my mental capacities were taxed.

And then there were the introspective lessons:

5. Defined topics are easier to write about than nebulous ones.
Writing about a defined, concrete topic like birthday parties was incredibly fun for me. A revelation. And easy, oy. So much easier than writing about feelings and thoughts and opinions. Writing 31 Days, I remembered why I enjoyed writing news for a living: facts, facts and more facts with a literary twist. Deadlines are hard and fast. Write, edit, then move on. No time to fuss. No pensive naval-gazing. Just the basic information. And gosh, that style of writing is my sweet spot.

Does it mean I should do more of that, if I primarily blog for fun? Probably. Does it mean I should avoid writing that causes me to struggle and strain and get frustrated because I can't seem to make the words do what I want them to do? Probably not. I think we need both styles of writing in this world: informational and inspirational. My favorite writers do both, in varying degrees. The thing I need to discover is where I fit in that spectrum. (See: the writer's holy grail, aka finding one's voice.)

5. Writing daily for my own blog eats up all my free time.
This might have been the most surprising thing I learned during my 31 Day series. I'm at a stage of life where free time is a precious commodity. I have four kids, I solo parent a lot. The only me time I get is after all my kids are tucked into bed and asleep, which is well after 10:00 most nights. I might then secret away for an hour and read blogs or watch Netflix or listen to a podcast while I fold laundry. But all that becomes luxury if I've committed to write a blog post every day, because that precious hour of free time is eaten up with writing. I was OK with it in October, because I was committed to 31 Days as a discipline. I wanted the focus, I accepted the limitations.

But I missed my other interests, especially reading and commenting on other blogs. I was depressed to have to spend all my time producing content and none consuming it. I missed that I no longer had the space to read what my friends were writing, to hear what they were learning and thinking. I was disheartened that I didn't have the time to reciprocate attention to bloggers who faithfully cheered me along the way. This community, this camaraderie, it's one of my favorite aspects of blogging. I can't enjoy the blogging life and produce content every day, at least not right now, at this stage of life. Which is why I will now return to my normal schedule of posting 2-3 times a week.

You're welcome. And thank you. Truly. Thank you.

Princess Birthday Party

At the very beginning of this series, I said I don't do over-the-top birthday parties. And normally, I don't. I prioritize accessible over ostentatious, easy over extravagant, because I don't think kids need a crazy shindig to feel celebrated and loved. (See: the past 30 days of posts.)


Every once in a while, I splurge. It's not the norm, it's not competitive. It's about that child, that year.

Which brings us, friends, to the last birthday party of 31 Days of Birthdays.

The Theme:
The Princess Party

Like many preschool girls, Teyla was enamored by all things princess by the time her fourth birthday rolled around. I figured I'd do some sort of a pink-filled party for her. But then Corey and I went to our school's annual auction, and up for bid was a party package for eight from Minneapolis-based Princess Party Pals. The chance to have a real live Disney Princess of our choice come to our house and throw a party for our daughter? We jumped. Yes, the price point was higher than usual for a birthday party us, but consider what a party package like this entails.

Cinderella came to our front door on a cold January morning and greeted our birthday girl like it was the most natural thing in the world.

(The look on Teyla's face? Priceless. That right there was worth the price of the party.)

She proceeded to set up a face painting station in our kitchen, and cheerfully helped Teyla and each arriving guest choose a design which she expertly painted on.

She gathered the girls around and read them her story. (You've never seen girls so transfixed by the story of Cinderella as when they are getting told the story by the princess herself.)

She opened up her trunk full of princess clothes and helped the girls choose skirts, tiaras, boas, wands and accessories so they, too, could be true princesses.

She taught the princesses-in-training to curtsey, to bow, to twirl and to dance.

She sent each girl down a red carpet and introduced them as princesses of the court.

She then sat down and had cupcakes with Teyla and the girls, never breaking character once. When the girls left, she handed out gift bags she designed and filled…

...collected her goods, cleaned up as best she could and left in her car (the pumpkin carriage was in the shop, she was terribly embarrassed).

Teyla floated for days. And Corey and I were impressed beyond words. Nicole, the woman behind the dress, is a professional actress, and it shows. Thanks to the magic of amazing costumes and make-up, she can appear at a party as almost any of the Disney Princesses (or Dora or a rock star, should your child choose). She was an utter delight throughout the party, gently guiding Teyla and her guests through a morning of activities, and always ALWAYS in character. Teyla was so in awe that Cinderella was in her house that it took most of the party for her to let her guard down. (I mean, that would be unnerving, right?) But by the end of the party, she was in heaven, asking Cinderella if she would sit next to her during the birthday song, serving her a cupcake, chatting her up as if they were old friends.

Teyla still asks when Cinderella is coming over again. I'm telling you, I can't really put a price tag on this party. If you live in the Twin Cities area and you want to indulge a little girl who loves princesses, I highly recommend Princess Party Pals. This is a splurge worth every penny.

The Cake:
The only thing I did for this party was make cupcakes - and that was my choice, because I'm a baking goober.

I made the best chocolate cake ever and used foil cupcake liners to add a touch of sparkle. I piped pink buttercream (of course) on top and sprinkled pink sanding sugar and pearl candy on top of that. They were simple, beautiful and yummy. Princess approved.

Birthdays in Large Families: Lots o' Kids, Lots o' Fun

I love today's post, because it answers one of those questions we all have but we aren't usually brave enough to ask: how do families with lots of kids manage to celebrate all those birthdays without losing their ever lovin' minds? To answer that question, I recruited my friend Lora Lynn from Vitafamiliae, because not only is she one of my favorite people, but she is a birthday Ph.D. She and her husband Andrew have seven kids. That's a lot of birthday cake y'all. Without further ado, I turn this blog over to the expert. 

We celebrate nine, count them, NINE birthdays a year in this family. That’s a HEAP of celebrating. My husband and I are always evaluating and evolving in our Birthday Philosophy. And, oh yes, we do indeed have a Birthday Philosophy.

Because our family is so large, our policy is this: Other holidays? We celebrate as a family. And we’re usually pretty low-key about them. But Birthdays? Are all about the individual. So we blow it out big.

It’s easy for kids to feel lost in the shuffle when they’re part of a pack, so this is our way of guaranteeing them one day to revel in the spotlight. We think it’s important that our children have a day where the attention is theirs, the focus is on them, and the excitement and celebration is aimed in their direction.

It’s nice to feel like a rock star, right?

To that end, we make sure our kids begin their big day with some fun. Over the last few years, we’ve found various ways to fill their rooms with balloons or surprise them with streamers when they wake up. (We’re running out of pins on Pinterest for this. If you’ve got ideas for balloons in bedrooms, I’m all ears.)

The family crowds into their room to sing “Happy Birthday” while we’re all still in our jammies. (This harkens back to my memories of my own mother, who was notorious for marching around the backyard in her pajamas waving sparklers on her own birthday. My people, they like to celebrate.)

The child of the day gets to pick all the meals (lots of sugar guaranteed.) We pull out photo albums and reminisce and there’s always some sort of elaborate cake involved. I let them pick anything they want and I make it out of cake. Sometimes I get a little carried away.

But we’ve made a lot of hilarious cake-related memories in the process.

It’s not just parental attention they receive. The siblings lavish attention, as well. They do the honored child’s chores for them and give them first pick of everything all day long. It fosters relationships and gives them a chance to practice serving one another.

And, up until now, we’ve thrown the kids parties, very family-centric. We’ve never really invited just kids, we tend to invite entire families. We always say that we’re keeping it small by only inviting one or two families plus our immediate family but in our world - that adds up to 40 people.

This plan seems to work for our kids. They don’t have big expectations of us on other holidays, but they know for that one magical day each year, they’re guaranteed the lion’s share of our attention. In a family like ours, that’s quite possibly the best gift they’ll ever get.

And, if all our birthdays were properly spaced throughout the year, this would work beautifully.

Sadly, we didn’t come up with our Birthday Philosophy until after I’d given birth to the majority of these people. Poor planning on our part, clearly.

By the grace of God’s sense of humor, we have six birthdays in a four week time frame. By the time we’ve celebrated that sixth birthday, we are D.O.N.E. with birthdays. We never want to see cake again. I threaten to pop any balloon that dares to get in my line of sight. And we are seriously Unenthused about anyone else’s birthday for the rest of the year. The Birthday Month, as we call it, is killing our party mojo.

So this coming year, with our kids’ full support, we’re trying an experiment. The actual day of a child’s birthday? Is still all about them. We’ll muster up the balloons (please, people. I NEED new ideas), the meals of choice, the portion of the day where I don a kerchief and sing “Sunrise, Sunset,” the gifts, and the general lavishing of honor. But we won’t do the party.

Instead, because we do so love to throw a good party, the year of 2014 will be the year of One Single Biggest, Baddest Blow-out Ever.

We’ve decided as an incentive for all of us putting off our birthday parties, we’ll purchase a big family gift to ourselves. We’re thinking a movie projector. Then we’ll invite lots of people over for movies on the lawn, various types of popcorn, and one big bash to celebrate… well, Us. We’ll make it a Pinterest swoon-worthy party and the food will be out of this world. I’ll do some crazy cake (because I can’t help myself) and we’ll wear ourselves out with one gigantic effort rather than several small efforts.

Our party style may evolve and change over time, but our general philosophy on birthdays in our family hasn’t changed. We revel in the chance to celebrate the individuals that make us a whole. We would be utterly Not Us without the unique qualities of each character in our crowd. And each year we get to spend together? That’s worth some hoopla...

And we’ve got THAT in spades!

Rainbow Birthday Party

The summer before Connor turned four, I innocently asked him what kind of party he wanted that year. I was thinking a truck theme or firefighters. Or maybe pirates. Lots of potential there.

Connor answered right away. "I know what I want, mommy. A rainbow party."

Excuse me? It was so out-of-character for him, I didn't think I heard right. A rainbow party, son? Really?

He insisted it was.

I shrugged my shoulders and asked again in a few weeks.

His immediate answer again: rainbow.

So rainbow it was. We didn't have much of a party that year, because we had just moved to Minneapolis a few weeks before his birthday. We had family and friends over for make-your-own pizzas, and we traveled back to the town we had just left to have a party at the park with a few friends.

So that year, his cake was the heart and soul, the embodiment, the very marrow of the theme. (Read: Other than a rainbow of balloons and brightly colored plates and napkins, the cake was it.)

For his friends party at the park, I made rainbow cupcakes. This is when making your own colored sugar really comes in handy. I whipped up small containers of all the colors I wanted, and sprinkled them in an arc across blue-tinted buttercream. Clumps of small marshmallows stood in for clouds.

I made a larger version of the same cake for his family party. He was THRILLED, even though I didn't have an assortment of games or entertainment. He got his rainbow party, and he was content.

Rock Star Birthday Party

Turns out, your blog becomes a party when you write 31 Days of Birthdays. The guest of honor today is my dear friend Megan, the charming writer behind the blog Fried Okra. She's sharing about a rock star birthday party she threw for her daughter, and it's, like, totally awesome.

Around the time my daughter Bean turned six, she was smack dab in the middle of a full-on fascination with all things pop music and fashion and dance. Not unlike pretty much every 6 year old girl, ever. So to incorporate all her budding big-girl passions into her birthday party, we went with a Rock Star theme.

The Theme:
Rock Stars!

My goal? To recreate the excitement of the last few breathless moments backstage before a rock concert, and then let the girls storm the stage to sing, dance and entertain their fans in their very own basement arena. On the invitation (which was shaped like a guitar and matched the plates you'll see below), we asked all of our party-goers to dress in rock-star attire so they'd be ready to wow the audience with their own spins on celebrity fashion. This? Was a spectacle to behold, my friends. A TRUE AND DELIGHTFUL SPECTACLE.

The Decor:

To capture that ultra-hip rock star vibe for the party, I ordered a bunch of fun, glittery, girly and music-themed stuff from Oriental Trading Company - rock star posters, inflatable "air" guitars in a variety of colors, rock star bracelets and ID tag necklaces. I also created a few fun signs and posters and a Set List (the party agenda) on my own. The stage (in the basement) featured an Oriental Trading Co. plastic backdrop featuring gigantic speakers and a throng of squealing fans, plus I encrusted the ceiling overhead with pink and purple balloons and streamers. Dad rigged up our Christmas spotlights to shine on an old disco ball I'd hung on the exposed rafters to create enough sparkles to delight even the most jaded crowd of 6 - 9 year old girls. Which is to say, a really, really lot of sparkles. I may or may not still be seeing spots, blink-blink.

The Cake:

Do not adjust your screen, these are the actual colors of the frosting I made to decorate simple vanilla cupcakes. We topped each cuppycake with a rock star ID tag necklace to give 'em some extra pizzaz. Friends, you have not witnessed true joy until you've beheld the face of a 6-year-old starlet as she licks neon pink frosting off her brand new flashy leopard-print blingity-bling-bling.

The Entertainment:
Back stage, we made beaded rock star bracelets with kits from Oriental Trading Co. They were adorable and a huge hit, with little musical notes and guitars and tiny disco ball beads. Little girl heaven!

As the rock stars finished up their bracelets, Dad headed down to the arena to fire up the pre-selected playlist of popular but kid-friendly songs (including a certain age-old but perfectly appropriate Cyndi Lauper anthem from my own girl-hood) we'd created on his iPod and set the disco ball spinning, so that as our rock stars roared down the steps one by one (we announced their names as they descended), they'd shoot out onto a stage filled with music and lights. Totally exhilarating. Like, TOTALLY.

The lead rock star takes the stage with her "air guitar."

uh-ONE, uh-TWO, uh-ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR...

Only boy in the joint. Tough job, but somebody had to dance with all those chicks, right? Also please note, he brought a stroller to a rock concert. I guess he was hoping to bring home a babe.

The girls sang and danced free-stye to a song or two,then we played freeze-dance and musical chairs. Dad even shared a few of his best moves with the rock stars in a fun dance-off. I think that turned out to be the best part of the whole party... I mean, who doesn't catch a major case of giggles over a Dad shakin' his groove thing?

I loved this party theme because it created mega-excitement and gave us a loose framework to let our party-goers do all the things they love doing anyway. The girls all went home happy, with bracelets and necklaces and an air guitar each, and three years later, Mama still enjoys the disco ball hanging from the rafters in the basement gym and has no plans to take it down anytime soon.

After all, girls just wanna have fun.

Lego Birthday Party

Like most boys of a certain age, my 10-year-old, Connor, is obsessed with Legos. Exhibit A: his bedroom at this very moment.

We do not walk into his room at night without turning on the lights. Because we all know the true definition of feet, right? "A device used for finding Legos in the dark."

Connor's Lego crush began young, when he was only four. So for his fifth birthday, we threw him a Lego Birthday Party.

The Theme:
Lego Birthday Party

The Invitations:
Making a Lego invitation is easy if you have a personal paper trimmer and a circle cutter. (And yes, admitting you have those means you out yourself as a former scrapbooker. But having the supplies for this invitation lessens the social sting, yes?) Each invitation requires a 5x7 rectangle and 6 1-inch circles. I used tiny squares of double-side foam tape to attach each circle to the front of the invitation to make my 3D Lego brick. On the back, I glued a printout of the party details.

Bonus points: I found a free Lego font online to spice it up, because I might have a tiny font addiction. If you'd like to get spicy too, Google "free Lego fonts." There are a bunch of them out there.

The Decor:
Back in the olden days of 2008, it was hard to find Lego party supplies, which astounded me. (It's much easier to find these days.) I searched forever, and all I could find was really basic Lego napkins and some fairly lame Lego placemats. I supplemented with square, primary colored plates and my real dishes (gasp) and you know what? It was fine!

Proving, once again, that half the stuff that drives me bonkers doesn't even matter in the end.

The Entertainment:
We played with Legos. I mean, duh.

The Cake:
OK people. Let's talk Lego cake, shall we? In theory, making a birthday cake that looks like a Lego brick should be easy. I mean, it's a rectangle with circles. It's hard to get more basic. And yes, a rectangular cube is fairly simple to make by baking your favorite cake batter in a loaf pan (or mini-loaf pan, if you want to make individual-sized brick cakes.) But it's those circles. Oy. The circles.

After much Googling, I decided to use large marshmallows, cut in half, as my circle base. I would just coat each half-marshmallow with the same frosting as used on the cake and stick it on with a toothpick. Right? Right. Problem was, frosting doesn't stick well to marshmallows. And trying to ice those suckers while balancing them on a toothpick is akin to juggling while driving a unicycle. As a result, Connor's first cake looked like this.

It vaguely resembles a Lego brick, but also vaguely resembles blue mushrooms sprouting from the top of a blue box.

(Minifig man says: Don't even think about dissing the cake.)

For his family party, I got smarter and decided to dip the marshmallow halves in melted chocolate instead of trying to smear frosting on them. That was way easier. And tastier, if I do say so myself.

Connor clearly agreed.

The Gifts:
If you haven't figured this out already, you should know that people tend to buy gifts based on the theme of the birthday party. And that is how Connor got his first big kid set of Legos (recommended age 7-14): Indiana Jones and the Lost Tomb. He put it together in an afternoon.

And it's been true love, ever since.

Tween Birthday Idea: Day of Surprises

Natalie's 12th birthday this past summer had the potential to be rather miserable. Not only were most of her friends busy on her birthday (the curse of July birthdays), which forced us to reschdule her sleepover party, but the day itself was rainy and unseasonably cold. Forget swimming and grilling. With steady showers and a high of 55 degrees, the day felt better suited for hibernation than celebration.

Thankfully, Corey and I saw the trainwreck coming a few days beforehand and instituted "Operation: Birthday of Many Surprises." We started brainstorming: What small things could we do for Natalie on her birthday to ensure she felt loved and not forgotten? Hencewith, on the day of her birthday, we:

1. Surprised her with breakfast out at her favorite breakfast place, The Good Earth. Bonus points: It just happened to be the perfect morning for a steaming mug of Good Earth tea.

2. Surprised her by taking her to the mall immediately afterwards and letting her get her ears pierced. She'd been asking to do this for several months; her dad wasn't sure the time was right. So for him to relent on her 12th birthday and help her pick out her studs was huge.

3. Surprised her by arranging her one friend who wasn't busy that day to come over and play for a few hours.

4. Surprised her with dinner at her favorite teppanyaki restaurant.

5. Surprised her by taking the whole family to a late-night showing of Monsters U after dinner, complete with popcorn, soda and candy.

Taken individually, none of those things is a Big Freakin' Deal (except for the late-night movie; we've never done that before). But having them all happen on her birthday transformed a dreary day into a delight.

And once again, we were reminded it's not about the amount of money you spend or the largeness of an event: birthdays are best when they communicate the message, "You are special! We love you! Let's celebrate you!" I have to think a day of surprises would be a huge gift to any tween.

Here, Taste This : Silver White Cake with White Mountain Frosting

Remember when I said I could have this chocolate cake every birthday for the rest of my life and be happy, nay ecstatic?

I lied.

It happens if one is too busy slobbering over pictures of chocolate sour cream icing to remember that one traditionally makes this cake every year for one's birthday.

That, my friends, is Betty Crocker's Silver White Cake with White Mountain Frosting, and it is a dream. It is the yang to chocolate cake's yin, the light to the dark, the angel to the devil. And maybe because my birthday is in January, when I'm sick to death of rich Christmas treats and the snow is piled up outside my window in thick drifts, this cake is my true birthday love.

As the name implies, the cake itself is pure white (shortening instead of butter and no egg yolks in the batter; that's the secret). The lemon curd filling adds the perfect tangy flavor boost, and the marshmallow-like frosting is the literal icing on the cake. I add sweetened, shredded coconut to the top (and sprinkles, as I deem necessary) because that makes me extra happy.

Silver White Cake
2 cups flour
1-1/2 cups sugar
3-1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
4 egg whites
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup milk

1. Preheat oven to 350 degress. Grease, flour and put wax or parchment paper cutouts in 2 9-inch round cake pans.
2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, shortening, vanilla and 1/2 of the milk (1/2 cup) into a large mixer bowl. Blend about 30 seconds on low speed; scape bowl. Beat 2 more minutes on medium to high speed until well combined. Add the remaining milk (the other 1/2 cup) and the egg whites. Beat 2 more minutes on medium to high, scraping bowl as needed.
3. Pour into the prepared bans; bake 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cakes cool for 10 minutes before turning out of pans, and then cool completely on wire racks.
4. When ready to assemble cakes, spread a layer of lemon curd on the bottom cake before topping with the second round. Don't extend beyond the edges,

1. If you don't know how to separate eggs, now is the time! It's not nearly as intimidating as it sounds; here's a great video that walks you through the steps. I mix the leftover yolks into a batch of scrambled eggs the next day.
2. If you need a refresher on preparing cake pans so your cake doesn't stick, I recommend this video.
3. I use Trader Joe's lemon curd, because it is amazing. But you could use whatever brand your grocery store carries; check the top or bottom shelves near the jelly. You can also make your own, but this cake is already high maintenance. Store-bought lemon cured is a worthy time saver.

White Mountain Frosting
2 egg whites, from large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla

1. In medium bowl, beat egg whites with electric mixer on high speed just until stiff peaks form.
2. In a 1-quart saucepan, whisk together sugar, corn syrup and water until well combined. Cover and heat to rolling boil over medium heat. Uncover and boil 4 to 8 minutes, without stirring, until a candy thermometer inserted into the mixture reaches 242°F.
3. Pour the hot sugar mixture very slowly in a thin stream into the egg whites, beating constantly on medium speed.
4. Once the sugar is all in, add vanilla. Beat on high speed about 10 minutes or until stiff peaks form.
5. Frost cake and top with sweetened, shredded coconut.

1. Do not fear! Yes, this recipe is slightly more complicated than chocolate sour cream frosting. But it is worth your time. The key here is a candy thermometer. Insert it into the bubbling mixture when you uncover the pan and then - this is important - DO NOT LEAVE ITS SIDE. The temp accelerates so unevenly, and you need to remove that pot off the heat and start adding it to the egg whites the second it hits 242.
2. A stand mixer is almost a necessity for this recipe, because pouring the hot syrup into the egg whites WHILE BEATING THE EGG WHITES is almost physically impossible for one person. If you have a stand mixer, you just turn your mixer (whisk attachment) on low or medium low while you add the sugar syrup and then turn that puppy up to high and let it go. If you don't have a stand mixer, now is the time to find a good friend to come and help you out. I've done it by myself without a stand mixer, many times, so I'm not saying you can't try. I'm just saying it's a black belt move and molten sugar burns something fierce.
3. Put the pan you used to melt your sugar under HOT running water, and it will clean right up.

Art Birthday Party

Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grown up.
- Pablo Picasso

Ever since she was old enough to hold a crayon, Natalie has created. She scattered her art joyously, indiscriminately. My fridge was a gallery, the edge of my computer screen held drawings on sticky notes, her paintings hung on my office wall. It wasn't unusual for me to wake up and find a tiny sketch next to my alarm clock, or for Corey to find one in his travel bag.

So when Natalie turned 8, we threw an art party, to celebrate one of the great loves of our oldest child.

The Theme:
Art Birthday Party

The Entertainment:
The fun centered around crafts and art, naturally. Best of all: the guests took every home everything they created. (Easiest goody bag ever for the win!) Projects included customizable drinking mugs (remember those?) and sun catchers, which I finished in the oven while they were eating cake.

Speaking of cake: Here's a two-fer. The most popular craft was a cupcake decorating station. The girls each got 5 cupcakes to decorate as they wished. They ate one at the party and took the rest home in a cupcake box.

And that is how I got Natalie and her guests to do my work for me.

The Cake:
But you know I couldn't leave it that way for her family party, right? I love to bake, and coming up with an easy design to fit the theme of my kids' birthdays is half the fun for me.

Per usual, I began with the best chocolate cake ever, Natalie's favorite. Because this was an art party, I piped a paint palette on the top using white frosting and filled in my outline. Then - the best part - Natalie and I portioned out the rest of the white frosting into small bowls and tinted each bowl a different color. Those were my paint globs on top of the palette, resulting in easily one of the cutest cakes I ever made.

The Decor:
We used a rainbow of colors for decor, as fitting an artist. Finger foods were set out in bright take-out boxes.

The buffet for her family party was decked out in bright dots and balloons. And because we wanted even the family party to center around art, we set out large sheets of craft paper before dinner and encouraged everyone to create a banner for Natalie's birthday.

(You can see a portion of it here.)

We kept it hanging on the wall for weeks because art with a great memory attached to it is the best art of all.