Friday, December 29, 2017

Colorado Christmas, part Eve

Christmas in Colorado! We went, we returned, we put away all the Christmas decorations yesterday and now it's hard to believe any of it happened at all. Though Cora swanning out of her room in her new Ariel dress while Landon builds a K'nex roller coaster and Claire longs for a class to teach school brings it back.

Full Clan on Keystone Mountain

Our drive to the mountains was smooth and uneventful for the first 12 or so hours. The kids were perfect, the roads were pretty empty, and we flew along the highway, loaded down to the gills with ski clothes, Christmas gifts, hidden Santa presents, Christmas food, regular clothes, and all the stuff you need for a family of five to relocate for several days. I was very proud we fit it all in the car, even if I swear it rode a little lower to the ground.

My mom called midway through our journey to let us know the highway leading to Dillon from Denver was a mess due to a snow storm (and the pass ended up being closed down later). We rerouted, avoiding Denver and coming up to Dillon from the south. We continued cruising, making fantastic time, until 30 miles out when traffic just stopped. Snow was dumping from the sky, the wind was kicking it up to white-out the windshield, the road was invisible, and cars everywhere were going off the road. We have 4WD, so we were gripping the road just fine, but oh my gosh, it was a MESS. Our last 30 miles took more than THREE HOURS. We would be stopped for 10-15 minutes, then crawl forward a few yards, stop for 10-15 minutes, crawl forward a few yards; there were times we weren't sure we'd ever be allowed to move again. The hairpin turns between Alma and Breckenridge were insane- cars sliding out all over the place. There's nowhere to stop or pullover on that road, so you're just stuck on your path, at the mercy of the cars in front of and behind you. And so we pressed on.

our view for 3 hours

On the upside, we had never been more prepared to sleep in our car- full tank of gas, tons of food, all the kids happened to be getting new blankets from us for Christmas, but man, it was a stressful and long end to an already long drive. And the kids are so good- no complaints, just a quiet, resigned waiting. James is so calm and was equally resigned. I was the only one whining, but I tried to do it through family text messages rather than letting my kids know complaining was a valid option. We got to our friend's house in Dillon around 10 p.m. (original ETA 7:05 p.m.) to my very relieved family, dinner prepared by my sister, and a very large glass of wine for me.

The morning dawned snow-covered and gorgeous. Our drive was over and now we were here for a magical white Christmas.

The kids were very excited to see their cousin Sky and my sister had ornaments for them to put together. They always love a craft project!

I luxuriated in wearing all the fleece while looking at snow from the cozy inside, while the kids got dressed to go out and explore the snow we'd brought with us on the car ride the night before. Given Cora's feelings about snow, I was heartened to see her venture forth with her siblings, then chagrined when she immediately fell face first into a snow drift.

I assumed it was over, but her brother came to her rescue and they ended up exploring the backyard as well, staying out far longer than Claire.

Do you wanna build a snowman?

After lunch in the house we headed out to Keystone to go tubing at Adventure Point on top of the mountain. We were optimistic that Cora would participate this year- she was a year older, she'd proven to be quite hardy and brave at Disney World, my whole family was there to tube with her- so we paid for her tubing ticket instead of just getting a free under-5 gondola pass. Spoiler alert: this was a wasted $34.

She was cheerful on the gondola ride, smiling with her sibs instead of scowling like she did in January.

We got a great family picture on top of the mountain thanks to a guy taking just long enough to put his gloves on that I had time to accost him with my request. I love it.

We walked over to the snow fort (my new Sorel snow boots were AMAZING and I love them more than I've ever loved a pair of shoes) and... she remembered that she hates snow.

We all love it,

but she haaaates it. It saps her soul and kills her joy. It is the worst.

The rest of my family met us on the top of the mountain to head to the tubing hill. Cora, after some screaming after she fell on a slide in the snow fort and the snow touched her, refused to tube, to even TOUCH a tube, to consider lowering herself to finding fun in a snow covered hill, so she sat at the top and pouted and/or cried next to her equally unimpressed baby cousin while we took turns flying down a hill.

I got to sled with many combinations of people, from my husband and daughter, to siblings, to my parents. Cora judged us all.

We got home to dinner, my turkey chili I'd made the weekend before, a sharp turn in our usual Christmas Eve fancy dinner tradition. We went to a local church that had a charming service and then back to the house for pj's and presents and Raffi's Christmas Album on the little bluetooth speaker I'd brought from home.

reading before church

Our tradition is to open all non-Santa presents on Christmas Eve.

I love it because it spreads out the gifts and makes the night so very magical as a kid (and still now as an adult). Staying up late, eating snacks, listening to music, taking turns opening and exclaiming over gifts while the lights twinkle and everything is cozy.

It's my favorite few hours of the whole Christmas season.

Everyone got something they'd really wanted. Claire got a giant Pua and her "furreal kitty" that eats and poops and while it sounds terrible to me, you gotta love the face of a kid who just opened something they wanted SO MUCH for SO LONG.

Cora got an Ariel dress she was delighted by and wore while opening everything else, including her "so beautiful" holiday Barbie from my sister.

By far my favorite moment was when she opened and immediately donned her new Jasmine dress. She was flabberghasted by the two-piece situation. "This is my Jasmine dress??" she asked, shocked. "She doesn't wear ANYTHING on her tummy?!" Gesturing wildly toward her middle, "There is NOTHING here in the middle?!!"

Later, she showed me the picture of Jasmine in her Disney photo book I'd made her to prove that the costume was all wrong. Get it together Disney Store, Cora's got her eye on you.

Landon got a hand-controlled drone he'd wanted for MONTHS and was also on-hand to help explain anyone else's gift to them. Landon loves a gift. It does not need to be his.

I got a beautiful jewelry set from James and I got him a artist rendering of the US with all the national parks noted so we can check off our trips. I can't wait to get it foam-mounted and framed. Our next national road trip kicks off next March to Hot Springs, Mammoth Cave, Great Smokey Mountains, and Congaree! Speaking of camping, we got my niece a Little People camper (my sister and brother-in-law have a camper and go on big camping adventures of their own) and my kids loved it as much as she did.

We finished around 10 p.m. or so, just in time for Santa to come after the kids were tucked in bed. I think we had dreams of staying up and playing games, but the adults were all in bed pretty quickly once Santa and his elves were done setting things up for the morning. It was a long and wonderful day, in the usual action-packed Rice-family style, with snow and baby cousins to make it even more fun.

And then it got even better on Christmas Day! More to come.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Holiday Happenings

We have a lot of ground to cover. I had to work today, I got approximately 90 minutes of sleep last night, I have to pack our family of five for a trip to Colorado that includes 26 combined hours of driving, a day of skiing, a day of sledding, family portraits, and the entirety of Christmas. Our Suburban has never failed us, but I honestly don't know how it's all going to fit. For the first time this holiday season, I look at our laundry and clothes and gifts and voluminous ski clothes and holiday foods (also voluminous) and feel a bit overwhelmed. So rather than tackle that mountain, I'm writing this post instead. The last few days have been busy, happy (mostly), and full of happenings.

[Update: It's now 10:30 p.m. and the car is packed. I only cried once, midway through, and I didn't yell at anyone. We didn't need a roof rack or a trailer. Until we get to Colorado and discover something important is missing, I'm going to say we (I) nailed it, and sip this glass of wine while I type this update of important things before they're lost to future mountain holiday dispatches.]

Happening 1
: Cora gets her first haircut.

Yes! That's right! At 49 months of age, Cora has fulfilled the final milestone in her baby book.

Baby's First Haircut.

She was delighted by the process, though she was disappointed to find that there would be no manicure of faux braids installed. Having the Disney boutique be her first salon experience set the bar pretty high. Cool Cuts 4 Kids (which was actually the first time we've ever gone to a kids-only hair place, her pool big siblings just had to make do with Great Clips), with its lack of Fairy Godmothers and glitter nail polish was a bit of a comedown. She did bring her own princess dress, just to class it up a bit.

Her big siblings got their hairs cut too in solidarity. And need. Mostly need. It's unfair to everyone that Landon's hair grows the fastest of the three.

That was on Sunday morning. That afternoon she told us she wanted to "take her haircut off" because "it is boy hair." We assured her she had beautiful Cora hair and her curls were there and she sighed and lamented, "I just want big hair like mommy's." Poor girl. She actually does have my hair. I had my first haircut at 3 and my hair never grew past my shoulders until law school. It's why I can't cut it now. Sorry kid, but in 18 years you might turn out pleased.

Happening 2: Claire performs in the Talent Show!

Claire, proving daily she is very little like me despite her coloring, asked to be in the talent show again this year. We missed the info leading up to try-outs because of Disney so she showed up last minute to the last day of try-outs with a song she'd picked out the night before. She is so much braver than me. The show itself was only 2 1/2 weeks after her try-out and we were so busy we did not play her song nearly enough for her to practice, but she persevered, reading her lyrics over and over until she memorized them, and learning the timing of the karaoke version the few times we remembered to play it between swimming and dinner or bed. I was so nervous. SO NERVOUS. And she did SO GREAT.

Seriously so proud her.

She looked so little on that stage, but she loves to sing and she has a great memory (often to our detriment) and you would not know we only played her song for her like 10 times (it's been a really busy 2 weeks!). Cora was delighted with her big sister's performance ("That's CWAIRE!" she yelled when the curtain opened for Claire's act) and I was beaming. Love that girl.

Happening 3: History Fair Project, Part Claire

Due first thing the next morning was Claire's history fair project! She picked Sally Ride and worked very diligently all weekend on her project board.

It was 100% her work and I did my very best to not ask any questions that might be perceived as critical, no matter how helpful. I did finally break down at one point when I saw her portrait of Dr. Ride. It was a perfectly round face with two perfectly round eyes and a mouth. It was an emoji. On dark blue paper. Of Sally Ride. I asked, like I was just curious, if she thought she should add any other identifying feautures. "Ohhhhhh, her hair!" exclaimed Claire. "Great! And what about a nose?", I replied carefully mildly. "Noses are hard mom.", she replied, surprised that wasn't obvious. And so poor Sally has no nose.

Claire got to present her project at a real live history fair with the rest of her second grade brethren this past Wednesday night. All the kids sat by their boards and answered questions on their subjects. It was adorable and Claire was most pleased to share a joke she stole from a Talent Show act the week before.

How do you put an astronaut baby to sleep?

You rock it.

If you pressed hard enough she would also tell you a fact about Sally Ride.

Not to be outdone, Cora expressed an urgent need to work on HER project all weekend. We never saw it, but there was much intense scribbling and writing and supervised use of glitter pens. I have no idea what happened to those papers, but as soon as a meal was over or when we walked in the door from an errand, Cora would cry out, "Oh my project! I need to WORK on it!" and hunker down.

(Landon is participating in the official history fair and his project is due in late January. So far we've had an exhilarating and emotional discussion about why you can't copy a source word for word even if you put it on your bibliography. I am pro-education, I am just more "pro" it when it's all done at school.)

Happening 4: SEC Holiday Party

On Tuesday night, we had my work party! It was at work, which made it easy, and kids were invited, so I had Tara just bring the kids up after school. Claire insisted on going home first so she could change into proper holiday party attire, and Cora made a very careful outfit selection before school and then asked me to bring her "party bow" to wear after.

School is too serious for a party bow.

Quick stop in the office. Powerhouse legal team.

A coworker and his wife dress up as Santa and Mrs. Clause. After her great success with cowboy Santa at the Stockyards I expected Cora to be all over this new Santa, but she dismissed him as an imposter immediately and refused to converse. "I already SAW Santa. He knows I want two PRINCESS DRESSES." and then she turned away and went back to her cupcake. My coworker told me later his wife wants to adopt her.

I enjoyed an excuse to pretend like my holiday plaid yoga leggings are work appropriate (so festive!) and always love seeing the kids an hour earlier than usual.

At one point Landon looked up from his carefully selected plate of cocktail shrimp, pepperonis, tamales, and chocolate covered pretzels to say, "this is a really great party Mom." Can't do much better than that.

Happening 5: Secret Candy Grams

No pictures, but it makes me giggle. Our 5th grade classes are raising money to go on their 5th grade tip (a newly instituted tradition PTA helped start last year), so they are selling candy canes for $1 this last week before Christmas. You fill out a little form with your name and where you want your grams to go. Landon filled in his posse right away and Claire did hers. I went to get out the cash needed only to come back in the room to see two more names added. A boy, one of Landon's friends for Claire (basically every reason I always wanted an older brother), and a girl in his grade (one from this conversation) for Landon. I smiled, and went to find two more dollars.

Happening 6: PJ Reading Day

Yesterday was the big kids' last day at school until January 9th (SO much Camp Daddy happening after we get back because I don't have any vacation hours left; lucky James is far better suited to that than I am) and all the kids get to wear PJ's to school and parents sign up to come read a book to the classes. I came and read to Landon and Claire's and it was so cute.

I love that Landon was still excited to see me walk in.

I love that Claire somehow smuggled a giant unicorn stuffed animal out of our house without me noticing that morning.

Happening 7: Cookie Party!

Also yesterday, we had our friend's cookie decorating party. The party Landon had to miss last year because he had Mycoplasma and was sick forever and missed everything fun. This year he got to run around with his friends (because he is cured! Mostly! As long as he doesn't bang his knee again like he did earlier this week while playing tag when he wasn't supposed to, but like a phoenix, he keeps rising again, doing his exercises and taking his antibiotic. He gets to ski and we're all very happy about that.), while I occasionally yelled out, "BE CAREFUL!" and then decorate cookies. I love that all three of my kids set up shop right next to each other. Our little pack.

My pack.

Mulled wine and spiked cider and potluck appetizers for all. It was a super fun night.

Cora and Snow, Round 2

Not so much an event in the last week because seriously, we've had enough of those, but since we're heading north into the snowy mountains tomorrow, I have to leave you with this conversation we had with Cora at dinner two weeks ago. You may remember that she was not exactly a fan of the snow on our last ski trip in January.

Me: “Can you believe we’ll be driving to Colorado in just over two weeks?!”

Big kids, generally, “Yay! Skiing! Snow! Christmas!”

Cora, caught up in the excitement: “We are going to Disenney World AGAIN?!”

Me: “Um, no, to Colorado!”

Cora, suspiciously: “...with the snow?”

Me: “Yes but it’ll be so pretty and fun to play in!”

Cora, relieved, “because it will be warm this time.”

Cora, Family Ski Trip Jan. 2017

I'm trying to prepare her, but she seems to think we'll be going on an airplane tomorrow to warm snow instead of driving for 13 hours to something frozen. Wish us luck (I feel like somewhere around Amarillo reality is going to hit and she'll realize we are not on a plane to Disney World) and Happy Holidays to you all!!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Santa, Horses, and Christmas Cooking

We spent the weekend recovering from the week with lots of togetherness, Christmas traditions old (seeing Santa) and new (Cora not crying when seeing Santa), Christmas movies (The Santa Clause, Home Alone 1, AND Home Alone 2, because sometimes the best family time is when you're all looking in the same direction and no one is talking), and baking and cooking ALL of the Christmas things.

Our Christmas food traditions have expanded over the years, so I thought I'd jot them down now, with recipes at the bottom, to preserve them in 2017 form. I don't think I can handle adding many more, but they're all so delicious I don't begrudge a one. (I also played Christmas music every minute a Christmas movie wasn't actively playing on the new living room TV. James hates Christmas music, he hates it, but he loves me, so he endures. This was his face at dinner Sunday night when I realized the music was off because it had reached the end of my 127 song playlist and I jumped up to restart it, and then captured this shot as I sat back down... He looks like he's trapped in a nightmare. He loves me so much.)

So the food traditions all started with the sugar cookies. They're amazing, they're my great-grandmother's recipe, and they are a sacred holiday task.

I remember decorating them every Christmas of my childhood (and young adulthood... my mom would wait to bake them until I came home from UT just so I could partake) and as soon as Landon was old enough to hold a plastic icing knife, I started making them for him (2009, apparently; I was pregnant with Claire!). They're a pain in the ass and they're DELICIOUS and totally worth it. Two bags full are already in the freezer to travel to Colorado this year.

About 7 years ago I started making homemade cinnamon rolls. It started as a whim, I think on New Year's Day, and has now turned in to a pre-Christmas requirement so we can eat them on Christmas Day with our brunch. Another pain in the ass, but oh so delicious. I usually make several trays and freeze them. Last year we had the last day with our Easter brunch and it was perfection. The kids now view them as a mandatory part of Christmas morning and two trays are coming with us to Colorado along with the cookies.

I still haven't found my perfect recipe yet, but it's because I like all the ones I date and can't decide on the one I should marry.

A few years ago I added the Santa Hat Chex Party Mix. A bigger pain in the ass than the cinnamon rolls (but probably less than the cookies), but also so delicious. This year I cheated and just made the chex mix and nobody yelled at me, so unless I have a bunch of extra free time or feel a need to punish myself, I'll probably stick with the simple pretzels + chex + m&m's + almond bark mix because it's super easy and quick (less than 10 minutes) and the Santa Hats are SO much work and I don't actually like eating them. James loves dark chocolate, so I often melt some and drizzle it over the finished product. So good, and pairs well with red wine and opening your presents late at night on Christmas Eve.

Cheater version

Then this year I made a new seasoned savory Chex Mix over thanksgiving. This quickly became my new obsession. I've fiddled with the recipe and now have my perfect ratio of spices and components of the mix (my recipe below). I've made at least 8 roasting pans full since the end of November and it's only mid-December. Be warned, while your first bite may not blow your mind, you will slowly but surely become addicted and reopen the gallon bag you keep the mix in every time you walk into the kitchen, no matter what time of day, until the bag is gone and you stare in shock and genuine horror. I can't explain it. You just keep eating it. (And yes, two gallon ziplocs-full are taking the trek up the mountains with us on Saturday, along with their sweeter cousins from above; if you're going to stay up late opening presents, you need to be properly fueled with sweet and salty snacks.)

Photographed with a giant pot of turkey chili that will also journey to Colorado.

In between all the baking, we headed to the historic Fort Worth Stockyards to see Cowboy Santa. Last year, Cora was SO excited to go and then filled with reluctance and dread upon the actual face-to-face event. Luckily there was a pony ride that blew her mind and made her spirits bright once again. (Re-posting the pony picture below because it's one of my best ever; it's peak-Cora-before-Disney levels of excitement.)

But this year, THIS year, she was ready. She is WAY into Santa and Christmas and her "Christmas house" and I was pretty sure our looks of betrayal were over. And so they were. She told Santa ALL about Disney World, her princesses, her desire for a new Jasmine dress and Tiana shows and an Ariel doll... they were besties right away.

The kids got stuffed horses as a parting gift- I guess Santa is sponsored by Wells Fargo? We absolutely did not need three new stuffed animals in our life, but they LOVE them SO MUCH and will love them FOREVER AND EVER. I guarantee you not one of them has any idea where their beloved horse is sleeping this very second. I can see one under the living room couch from here.

But yes, magical and special. I did enjoy the accidental jewel tone coordination of their outfits. You should know Landon is only in this long-sleeved shirt because all of his short sleeve ones were dirty. It was 45 degrees out and very windy. He told me the sleeves "felt weird" and he "didn't need them" about 75 times.

It really was a fun afternoon. We ate BBQ in the Stockyards, something we last did a year ago, in the same place for the same reason (neither of us like BBQ enough given where we live, but every now and then I remember that it can be delicious). There was a balloon animal guy floating around the restaurant and, because we were feeling the magical specialness of the outing, we got each kid an unnecessary balloon object to go with the horses they didn't need.

The balloons did not last the car ride home, but they brought much joy in their 45 minutes of life.

$3/kid well spent I suppose.

There are little mechanical rides everywhere. Neither James nor I had change or any interest in acquiring any, but that did not stop the kids from "riding" every single one.

(This horse is not moving. Cora loves it anyway)

It was a fun afternoon. We got home and I made more chex mix with the fireplace roaring and Home Alone playing on the TV. I love all of these things.

(My other love: this view of my living room just before midnight Sunday night as I was walking to bed. All the other lights off, the tree and mantle the last to go... it just makes me feel so warm and cozy inside, seeing the twinkling lights and knowing the kids are all cozy in their beds... Cora has dubbed our house "my Christmas house" since I put up the decorations and that's exactly how I think of it now... My Christmas house. It makes my heart happy- the fireplace, the lights, the coziness, the excessive movie watching, and the chex mix. It's our Christmas.)

And now the recipes. And a few pics of the aftermath of my kitchen on Sunday when I did the cinnamon rolls, savory chex, and turkey chili all at once. It was a mess. The Christmas music got me through it and it is now all back to normal. But I didn't want you to have any unrealistic expectations of what these recipes will do to your kitchens.

They're worth it though.

Sugar Cookies

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup butter (you can do all butter, but half and half is the original)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, well-beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp lemon extract
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

(I usually triple the above and that yields about 8-9 dozen good sized cut-out cookies, and also nearly breaks my KitchenAid)

1. Cream shortening, butter.
2. Add sugar, eggs, extracts.
3. Add dry ingredients.
4. Chill dough (at least 6 hours or overnight).
5. Roll out dough (with lots of extra flour for the board and the rolling pin) and cut out shapes.
6. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes until set, but not brown.

Sweet & Salty Chex Mix

~ 10 cups total of Rice chex, Corn chex, Pretzels (also nuts if you're a nut person; I am not)
Almond bark or white candy melts
Dark chocolate m&m's (or regular m&m's if you like that sort of thing)

Pour all the cereal and pretzels into a really big bowl
Follow the directions to melt the almond bark, stirring frequently until it is smooth and very liquid
Pour the almond bark over the cereal and gently toss to coat with a spatula (not a spoon; pieces get stuck inside the curve and nothing tosses)
When coated, pour out onto wax paper and spread with spatula so everything is in a thin layer
Sprinkle generously with m&m's
Let cool (or put in fridge; it sets better)
Break into pieces.
Eat so much so fast you won't believe how much is gone when you come up for air.

Rebecca's Savory Chex Mix

2-3 cups each rice chex, corn chex, wheat chex
2 cups bugles
2 cups cheez-it’s
2 cups pretzels
1-2 cups mixed nuts (or not; I prefer not and just go with a heavy 2 cups of everything else)

1-1.5 sticks butter (do 1.5, you will not regret it)
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce (or less; we just like it)
1 tsp seasoned salt (more if using unsalted butter)
1 Tbl onion powder
1 Tbl garlic powder

1. Set oven to 250 degrees. Melt butter in roasting pan in oven.
2. Once melted, add seasonings to butter and stir.
3. Add cereals and snacks to pan, toss to coat EVERYTHING.
4. Bake one hour at 250, stirring to re-coat every 15 minutes.
5. Devour. Feel ashamed. Do it again.

Cinnamon Rolls
I still don't have a favorite "go to" recipe and I need one. So far I've tried the following:

Epicurious: Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Glaze (traditional; 2 rises; delicious)

Sally's Baking Addiction: Easy Cinnamon Rolls (fluffy; small batch; 1 rise)

Pioneer Woman: Cinnamon Rolls. (Never fails; detailed directions; makes a million) (My notes: I don't melt the butter for the filling and do a different glaze.)

Ambitious Kitchen: Best Cinnamon Rolls

Storebought Faves
Because we don't have to make everything from scratch

- Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe Joe's. There is nothing better.
- Trader Joe's Mix popcorn. Chicagoans know that caramel popcorn goes PERFECTLY with cheddar popcorn, but I never found an acceptable (not equal, but acceptable) substitute for Garret's until TJ's started making this mix. It's amazing. Trust this.
- Other popcorn. Any popcorn. We eat it while we open presents on Christmas Eve. It's a sacred Swedish tradition. (It is not, but it IS better than Lutefisk)
- Tamales, to go with Christmas morning brunch. Homemade from a local Mexican restaurant are best; store bought from Central Market, HEB, Trader Joe's, or somewhere I haven't tried is acceptable. Steam them and serve with whatever else you're having for breakfast. They're delish.

Let me know your favorite Christmas foods (homemade or not!) in the comments. As I'm learning, there's always room for more. Maybe just not on the counter all at once...