Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sophia's Fancy Birthday Cupcakes

On Friday my friend's little girl, Sophia, celebrated her 7th birthday with a sleep-over party and invited five of her friends to join her. After a short consultation at a table in the kids' section of the library up the hill, we decided that "my client" wanted something fancy. Maybe some sprinkles, purple frosting, and some kind of jewelry on top. Our meeting ended with a smile and the promise to surprise her with a plate of fun, girlie cupcakes the next morning. And off I went in search of the perfect jewelry pieces.

Ella and I looked at Target before remembering the Claire's store at the mall. It didn't take us long to find a set of inexpensive rings and bracelets in exactly the color palate I had imagined.

Once we returned home, we whipped up a batch of chocolate cupcakes with real raspberries. My helper was on the lookout so we'd know right when they were finished baking.

Miss Ella was ready the moment the cupcakes were done.

After Ella was tucked in bed for the night, I mixed up a bowl of black raspberry frosting (check here for the recipe) and piped it on. Then I sprinkled the top and finished by placing one ring on each cake. I sent the plastic bracelets along as well as a sparkly, white candle for Sophia. Voila! Fancy little cupcakes with cute jewelry to wear through the rest of the party!

In other news: I have to let it be known that today is the last day I will be baking until October 1. (We'll be out of town the next two days.) This is going to be very hard for me, but I think I will be better with following through with it if I actually announce it to others. The reason is that I'm starting a new round of P90X (the awesome, intense fitness & nutrition program that Pete & I have been doing for 3 1/2 years.) It's just way too hard for me to bake while I'm trying to be super disciplined with my nutrition. However, I do have recipes and photos ready to post of things I've made throughout August. If you have a birthday or a baby in the month of September, I'm going to have to give you a big ol' I.O.U. and make it in October.

Do you realize how hard this is for me? I pulled out my sewing machine so I'll have another source of creativity. Perhaps I'll post pics of something sewn. For now, it just has to be the way it is. And that's that.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Visit to Grandma & Grandpa's

Remember being little and visiting your grandparents? Looking back now, with 28 years of trips to see my own grandma & grandpa, it almost seems magical. Grandma & Grandpa Johnson lived in a happy, little town at 1611 Southbrook Lane. Grandpa sat in his chair with his big, black dog on his lap. Grandma got up early to serve us warm peanut butter toast and juice in little glasses. Grandma & Grandpa Scott were on the edge of the city with a great big tree in the yard. When we went for drives in their comfy car, I could feel each patched-up crack in the road as we bump bump, bump bumped to a Twins game. The busyness of life didn't exist and thoughts of tomorrow consisted only of friends and places to play. I know I can never go back to the innocence of being little on a visit like that, but I'm not stopping myself from trying to experiencing that through the eyes of my little Ella.

Yesterday, after a long car ride (& one longer-than-hoped-for stop to clean a diaper and brand new car seat) we were happy to arrive in Wisconsin on a visit to see Grandma & Grandpa Olsen. Pete is has a few nights of call this week, so we thought we'd taken advantage of the time to get away without feeling like we'd miss seeing him during the day. Auntie Kristin arrived this morning and Ella is soaking up the attention. Today we went to the little zoo in town between lunch and naptime. Later we'll probably go for a walk around the small lake behind the house. It's relaxing to be here. Like a vacation. I don't have to think about what to get done during Ella's naps or when she goes to bed at night. I can sit, read, walk, watch TV, eat chocolate and plates of grapes and cheese. Oh, and I can sit without any regret and watch a Green Bay football game with two life-long fans. It's good to visit Grandma & Grandpa.

I can't help but imagine the kind of memories of visits to see her grandparents that Miss Ella is creating. I do know, that with a grandma who makes a tiny ice cream cone treat like this, those memories are going to be pretty sweet.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Week In Pictures

The last week seemed to go by so quickly, I didn't get to post all the little things we've been up to. With my new phone, I've been taking far more pictures than I used to, and I used to take quite a few! I do sometimes have to sacrifice the high quality of the photos taken with our regular point&click, but I'm just happy to be able to take all of them!

So here are a few photos from the last week.

Sporting her purple shoes and toting her very own purse, Ella was ready for a morning trip to the grocery store. She still loves saying hi to every single person we see while shopping.

I couldn't resist taking a picture of Ella playing in the front yard. She's just so little! Someday we'll pull this out - high school, perhaps - to show the change. (I'm in love with that tree in our front yard. It provides the perfect amount of privacy. I imagine that, someday, it will be an enormous, beautiful shade tree.)

Ella & I waited in the sunshine outside the hospital to have dinner with Daddy one night this week. We love when Daddy has a few minutes to have dinner with us in the middle of a long, busy shift.

A few days ago, Ella and I went for a walk with our new friend, Katrina, along the lake all the way down to Canal Park. Ella had fun running after the seagulls and watching the other kids by the lake.

With my little girl in front of the lift bridge.

We had two lovely rainy mornings in the last week. Ella and I took full advantage of the inside playtime.

That same morning, Ella packed up her bag, slung it over her shoulder, waved goodbye and walked out of the kitchen while I was cleaning up after breakfast. Too funny.

My two little goons. I bought bike helmets for Ella & I a few days ago. I wanted Ella to get used to wearing hers without pulling it off, so I let her play in it for a little while. Of course, when I walked out of the room and came back a few minutes later, this is what I found. Pete had put on my helmet, picked up Ella's new, plastic harmonica, and was playing made-up tunes for her entertainment. This is what Daddy does on his days off.

Ella figured out how to play her silly kazoo all by herself! She was very proud. (It's the shape of a giraffe head and attaches to a body that's a plastic guitar. Who comes up with this stuff?)

Miss Ella has developed a love of sitting in her baby stroller. I'm not quite sure how to teach her that it's for her baby dolls.

Ella eating lunch at Clyde Iron restaurant on Sunday. Clyde Iron was an iron works factory in West Duluth a long time ago and was just remade into a restaurant and bakery. It's very cool.

Our friends Nic & Anna played during lunch. Ella showed off her very cute dance moves while we listened.

This is Ella's last picture in her baby car seat. She is finally big enough for a big girl seat! Pete worked on installing the new one in the Jeep while she played in this one in the grass. Goodbye, baby seat!

Hello, big girl seat! I am absolutely thrilled that she'll now be able to face forward during trips. We took her for one spin around the neighborhood last night and she seemed to be in awe at the new view. My little girl is growing up!

Ella's very first bike ride! I recently found an old Schwinn bike on Craigslist and took a friend up on an offer to borrow their Burley to see how Ella would like it. To our excitement, when we went to pick up the Burley yesterday morning, the friends GAVE it to us! Yay! Today we wanted to break it in, so Ella and I went on a little ride with Uncle Jake on the trail. She wasn't fond of the helmet but seemed to enjoy the ride anyway.

And this was the walk we took tonight. She loves pushing her stroller like she sees Mama do. We only made it from our front walk to the neighbor's front walk, but we thoroughly enjoyed it!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A New Beginning

Last night I had the true pleasure of visiting a small group for the first time since moving back to Duluth. I hadn't intended on going this long before attending, but you know how things get. Pete's full schedule mixed with Ella's early bed time didn't really allow me to freely explore the many small groups that meet in town throughout the week.

If you're not familiar with the concept of a "small group" let me paint a quick picture of it. Basically, it's a Bible study. But a small group (or some churches call them life groups) goes beyond just a weekly Bible study. A small group lives life together. In a good small group, people can be honest, transparent, weak, and vulnerable. It's a place to learn and grow and be challenged in ways that push you outside of your standard comfort zone. Pete & I were a part of a great small group a couple years ago and have longed to return to a place in our lives where we could have that experience again.

So yes, I got to go to a small group. Pete worked his tail off during the day so he could get home in time to spend the evening with Ella while I ventured out on my own. That makes it sound like it was a scary thing. It wasn't. It was Jake's small group. But don't think I was being safe by simply going to a group led by my little brother. I actually went because it was a college group. Before we moved back to Duluth, I prayed and prayed about what I should do when we got here. Yes, being a mom is a busy job, but I want to be growing in ministry and learning how to serve in new ways. God totally surprised me by leading me in the direction of women's college ministry. And, because it's just the way He works, I am now super excited about it. So that's why I went to the college group last night.

Should I be amazed at the way I felt incredibly at home in the little gazebo surrounded by college kids I didn't know? Should I be surprised at how easy it was to settle back into a place that felt so loving and safe and challenging all at the same time? I don't think so. God's kingdom and His family is incredible. I am beyond happy to be back in a place where I can experience this in a real, tangible way again.

I cannot wait to see what God has waiting for us - and for me individually - in the months ahead.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Is there anything better than a baby's laughter in the morning?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

14th Annual Johnson Pig Roast

Every August for the last 14 years my aunt & uncle have hosted a pig roast for all their family and friends. We always eat tons of good, Minnesota summer food, swim in the pool, and catch up with people we haven't seen since the year before. The highlight of each get-together is when the karaoke machine is set up and my uncle belts out "Born to Be Wild" to kick off hours of crazy, mostly-out-of-tune classics. This year Pete was working so Ella and I made the journey down for the event. We had a great time, as we always do.

chatting in the pool with Grandma Scott

sitting with Grandpa Scott

mama attempting a solo tune

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Song by Uncle Jake

I caught this a couple weeks ago when my brother played open mic on a Friday night at the church. I always love catching his shows. I'm still trying to get him to record the song he wrote and played for us at our wedding. If I do get it from him, I'll post it. It was beau.ti.ful. Truly.

In the meantime, here's a snippet of a song he recently wrote. Sorry, I don't know the name of it.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Backyardigans

A year and a half ago, while working at a public high school, I shared my office with three young dads. Everyday we'd all eat lunch together with a few other teachers. Anyway, one day the guys started singing a very random song. One started, then the other two joined in. I had no idea where the song came from until the end of it when they all laughed and mentioned how much their girls loved The Backyardigans. "The Backyardigans?" I asked. They reassured me that I would be familiar with it soon since Ella was on the way.

Ladies & Gentlemen, I am proud to say that I am now quite familiar with the Nick Jr television show featuring five little animated creatures who travel to make-believe worlds in their backyards through the simple tool of their imaginations. It's adorable! Each 20-minute episode is filled with silly songs, catchy tunes, and adventure. The friends consist of Pablo the penguin, Tyrone the moose, Tasha the hippopotamus, Austin the kangaroo and Uniqua - who's truly unique. I'm not an advocate for little kids watching TV, but there are times when it is incredibly helpful to have something like this to keep Ella busy for a short period of time. As soon as she hears the theme music, she starts kicking her legs, "singing" and dancing. It's adorable.

Imagination. Silly songs. Catchy tunes. Colorful characters. I'm a fan.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Uncle Jake's Birthday

Jake is one of my very favorite people. He's seriously the best little brother a girl could have. I've loved watching him grow up and figure out where he's headed through the past few years. I was way happy when he decided to do his undergrad at UMD since I was still there when he started. He studied like crazy all while working a ton as the on-air evening personality on a pretty wide-ranging radio station based here in town. Jake graduated in May of 2009 with a double major in English and communications and, believe me, he's one smart cookie. His writing is insightful and creative and always makes me want to study whatever he has written about just so I can have a somewhat intelligent conversation about the topic. He's a poet and songwriter, musician and leader. He's one of those guys that creates a following without meaning to. And the coolest thing about him is that he is a pure, honest, sensitive soul chasing after Jesus.

Uncle Jake is currently in the middle of an internship at the Vineyard Church in town (the same one I worked at and did my 2-year Bible & leadership program). He started last September as a worship intern and is extending it through the coming year. It's way fun to walk into church on Sunday morning and see him leading on stage. Who knows what he'll be playing at any given time. Guitar, mandolin, harmonica, banjo, piano. Seriously, the list just goes on from there. (We're all quite sure that his musical talents were passed down the line from Grandpa J, from whom Jake also inherited a number of instruments including a pretty sweet accordion last winter.) Ella gets excited when she hears Jake up front and loves to dance while he's playing.

Yesterday was Jake's 24th birthday, so Becky & Malena and Ella & I went down to the lake to celebrate with him. The girls have gotten pretty good at the birthday cake thing and were happy to help with Jake's.

I was amazed to find a Cherry Chip cake mix at the grocery store a few weeks ago. Cherry Chip was what Jake used to request every single year in high school but they stopped making it for a good while and we couldn't find it anywhere. I bought a couple boxes, just in case we can't find it again.

Ella wanted to help with presents. She's pretty good at that.

Malena was in on the action, too.

I am so glad that Ella gets to grow up with such a cool uncle and role model. We love you, Uncle Jake. Happy birthday.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Recipe: Birthday Cupcakes

Last Sunday was Malena's first birthday party. Little Miss Malena was born just five weeks after Ella. What fun to have a cousin so close in age! The party was held at a park and the weather decided to cooperate quite nicely. All the kids played in the grass, ate lots of cake, and helped Malena open her mountain of gifts.

After singing Happy Birthday, Malena dug into her very own little cake!

Ella enjoyed a mini cupcake. She's a huge fan of frosting. (Remember this?)

A few weeks before the party, I offered to make cupcakes for the event. I haven't had much experience with cupcakes, so I thought it would be a great time to experiment. Pete was gone for a few days last week, so I took full advantage of the kitchen space and started baking. I pulled a couple ideas off websites, but they all turned out to be pretty cheesy. I wanted something good. I finally combined a few different ideas and came up with the final product - vanilla and chocolate raspberry cupcakes with raspberry frosting. Pink, pink, pink!

I also took the opportunity to try using fondant for the first time. I found a small package of ready-to-use white fondant at Michael's along with a few small flower and leaf fondant cutters (just like cookie cutters), and a small jars of pink icing color, much more potent than regular food coloring. I added the tiniest dab to the white fondant, kneaded it, and ended up with some very pink flowers.

I put a few of the bigger flowers in these little bowls and a few others in an egg carton to give them some shape while drying.

Then came the cupcakes. I used simple vanilla and chocolate cake recipes and mixed in about a cup of chocolate chips (only to the chocolate batter) and another cup of cut raspberries. By carefully folding in the raspberries after the cake batter is ready, the raspberries won't get too smooshed. That's especially important when mixing them into a light-colored batter like vanilla. I didn't want to end up with pink cupcakes. I wanted that for the frosting!

Finding the right frosting recipe was the hardest part of making these cupcakes. Each tasted too sugary or too buttery. I tried four different recipes before finding the perfect one.

Remember, I didn't have any previous experience with cupcakes, so I had no idea how I was going to get the right look with the frosting on top of the little cupcakes. I did some searching online and found a great tutorial on the Wilton website for getting a perfect swirl. You can check it out yourself here. All you'll need is a 1M decorating tip and disposable decorating bags. Both are available for only a few dollars at Michael's. (Simply drop the tip inside the decorating bag, trim about 1/2" to 3/4" off the bottom corner of the bag with a scissors, and adjust the tip so it is snug inside the bag. That way frosting won't ooze out while you're piping it.)

Here's what I ended up with. I did the same to the white cupcakes, but instead of using black raspberry jelly, I used red raspberry jelly. It gave them a slightly different color.

I was worried that the frosting might melt or settle while driving them to the party, but even after sitting in the sun at a construction stop for five minutes (yes, I timed it) the frosting kept it's shape.

After frosting them, I decorated each with the little fondant flowers I had made a few days before.

Display Note: An important trick in getting homemade baked treats to look more professional is to plan out how they will be displayed. I used foil cupcake papers, which cost only slightly more than regular papers. Then I used this plate stand from Target that was a gift from Becky at my wedding shower and carefully arranged the different types of cakes on each level. Around the bottom of the stand, I displayed mini versions of the same cupcakes. They were a perfect size for the wee ones at the party. See? Much better than leaving them in a cake pan or on a cookie sheet!

Of course, Malena had to have her very own cake on her first birthday. I used the same chocolate and vanilla batter from the cupcakes and made a two-layer cake using a couple of very little cake pans. Then I covered the entire thing in lots of red raspberry frosting and arranged the fondant flowers and leaves around the top, keeping in mind that I wanted one little candle in the center. Finally, I used a fine violet cake glitter (also available at Michael's) for the center of each flower. Malena had a lot to dig into with so much frosting on her cake!

I had a ton of fun making these cupcakes, and now I feel like I know what I'm doing! It won't take long at all to make these again in the future.

Let me know if you have any questions about the cakes or frosting and feel free to try them on your own!


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Morning Conversation

I caught this conversation this morning between Ella and her friend, Bella. Ella & I made the drive down to Minneapolis yesterday to spend some time with Bella & Shauna and another very good friend, Jen. I was giddy the whole 2 1/2 hours in the car just thinking about hanging out with my girls. We had a delicious meal prepared by Shauna (Super healthy & tasty at the same time? That's talent.) Right after dinner, Shauna & I threw on our "we actually get to go out without the wee ones" dresses while Jen spent the evening with the girls. (A HUGE thank you for that, Jen!!) And off we went to The Guthrie!

I had not yet been to the new Guthrie location, so it was quite a treat. As soon as I walked in to the immense space of the theatre my heart began to pound. I miss theatre more than I even realized. Big theatre. Huge, elaborate sets with expensive, perfect costumes. Lights and movement and emotion. My heart beats faster just thinking about it. We had the good fortune of seeing the classic Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. I've seen it on stage before, but can you really compare other productions to anything at The Guthrie? It is, without question, in a league of its own. I absolutely loved Stanley & Blanche & Stella in all their Southern...well, I wouldn't say charm. Everything about the show was incredible. What a way to spend a hot summer evening.

This morning Ella & I are going to do a little second-hand shopping (so good in Minneapolis) before meeting Shauna for coffee at our "regular" coffee shop near the University. It's so good to be in Minneapolis again. But just for the day.


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