Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Camp Cool

I'm a "Girl Mom."
When Carly was born, I must admit, a secret sigh of relief washed over my bedraggled body. "Princesses, pink, ruffles, tutus...yes," I thought, "I can do this."
And I did.

Then came Will. 8lbs, 6 ounces of Power-Ranger-loving, butt-scratching, alphabet-belching boy...what was I going to do with this little creature?
Ballet, baking, craft time, curlers...I had all of that down with my eyes closed. "Guess it's time to embrace my inner Jedi Knight," I thought,  "and to let The Force be with me."
And I did.

Before I knew it, I realized that I was, in fact, a "Boy Mom" after all. The cowboy-themed nursery came easy. So did the choo-choo birthday cake and the black velvet Christmas knickers...a temporary partial setback. From there, my surrender to the dark side became inevitable as the will of my "Will" proved stronger than forces of pink and pixie dust.

Giant plastic dinosaurs roamed our terrain and the gentle tunes of Disney Princess ballads wafting from the playroom gave way to Japanese-tinged thugs and ughs of alien Nylock or giant Decepticon blaring from the TV.
So much too for actually trying to work on the computer or do a load of laundry while Junior quietly amused himself with educational toys. Before long, the confines of his hand-me-down pink and purple Graco "pop-up" playpen proved inadequate as our Little Houdini discovered how to stack his stuffed animals in such a manner as to provide the ultimate launching pad up, over, and onto, head first, the hardwood floor.
"Okay, little man. I see the dance we're doing here," I said to him as we waited in the doctor's office for the surgical glue to set on his bulbous little forehead, "game on."

Between nanny's, neighbors, preschool and the 6 foot high locks we installed on the inside of the doors, we learned to stay busy and intact, filling our days with play dates, baking soda volcanoes, backyard archaeological digs and Hot Wheel demolition derbies.

But, just when we'd get into the flow of a new school year or nanny share, our well-intentioned plans would get rocked as we'd slip into the dog days of summer.

Sure, there were plenty of pricey camps available, but at $70 bucks a day, I quickly fell off my parenting high horse and found myself surrendering as he'd hook himself up to a virtual endless IV drip of Wii and Nickelodeon...a most intoxicating, accessible and addictive elixir.

I had to do something...fast.

Enter Camp Cool.

I'd been toying with the idea of a co-op camp for a few years but never seemed to pick up the phone or send out an email to make it happen. This summer was different. Will would start Kindergarten that fall and, at five, had made a handful of real buddies whose Moms I could possible rally. This might just work.

Between a couple of neighbors, and a friend of a friend or two, we committed our five guinea piglets, all set to enter the same class in the fall, to a week Camp Cool....perfect!

We enlisted the help of Carly and her best friend Siena who were just entering 7th grade at the time...prime babysitting age. Each day would be hosted by one of the moms, moving from house to house as the week progressed.

Carly and Siena thought of themes and activities for each day and the host mom had only to provide lunch, supervision and nerves of steel for one of the five days that week...a small price to pay for five days of serious entertainment and buddy bonding.

The inaugural year of Camp Cool proved to be a monumental success. Tie-dye, paper boat races, twister, refrigerator box fort building...come on...what's not to love.

Over the last few years, we have added and subtracted a camper or two depending on vacation schedules and alas, Carly and her friend are no longer 7th graders and are therefore no longer hip to spending one of their precious weeks of summer vacation with a group of boys...that is, a group of 9-year-old boys.

But us Moms have done a pretty good job of figuring it out ourselves, I must say.

Shark tooth necklaces and sunshine...

Wet and wild water play...

Custom "Camp Cool T's...


Fine art...

 Edible art (those are giant self-portrait cookies)...
Snacks, snacks and more snacks...

Scooters and kites...

Poker 101...

And, my favorite, "Young Enterprisers Day."

From marketing...

...to manufacturing...

...to sales and distribution...

...our little campers went home that day with an incredible sense of accomplishment and $8 bucks each rattling around in their gritty little pockets!

I'd like to think that perhaps some of the venture's success was due in part to the allure of the delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies that the boys so skillfully made and marketed. In reality, it probably had more to do with that pink furry hat, the "Yummy Yummy" sandwich board and an irresistible impish grin.

Regardless, here is my recipe for what I think are the most delicious chocolate chip cookies around. Finely ground oats, lots of vanilla, tons of chocolate chips and, yes, a combination of butter and shortening set these crisp yet soft delicacies apart from the standard Toll house variety.

Here's how it goes...

Blend oats until quite powdery and fine...set aside.

Cream together butter, shortening and sugars.

Mix in eggs and vanilla.

Mix together dry ingredients then add to wet.

I like to use a mix of bittersweet and semi-sweet chips (it's also what I had on hand). Mixing in milk chocolate chips is great too for a milder "bite."

Mix them in by hand or on slow speed.

My favorite size scoops is about the size of a golf ball and I always bake on a Silpat non-stick silicone baking sheet.

Hate to admit it, but I picked up this little trick from Martha. Blob your extra dough onto a parchment sheet like this...

...and shape into a log using your hands pressing with the parchment to avoid a sticky mess.

Tie the ends with kitchen twine...

...label and freeze for later use or to give as a unique hostess or housewarming gift. Keep them in a secret place in the freezer or they'll never make it into the oven.

Enjoy warm with icy cold leche.

Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies

Cream together:
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening (yes, Crisco!)
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups white sugar
Mix in one at a time:
  • 3 eggs
  • 5 tsp vanilla 
Sift together and gradually blend in:
  • 3 cups of oats, blended fine
  • 4 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
Mix in in gently:
  • 24 ounces semi or bittersweet chocolate chips

Bake for 9-11 minutes at 375°

Note: this is a double recipe...perfect for freezing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fifty Sense...

Over the next few years, most of my pals will be celebrating the golden anniversary of their birth. OK, OK...were all turning 50.

In fact, it seems that every few weeks another one of us teeters off the precipice of our 40’s and slides down into the wacky rabbit hole that is our 50’s and beyond.

Some friends make the quiet leap in pensive denial while others literally climb a mountain and shout from the top for everyone to hear, “I made it!”

Some scrape together their miles, jet off to London, eat fancy chocolate and shop at Hermes, while, God love ‘em, there are a handful who would love nothing more than to celebrate lakeside with a long nap in the tent followed by squishing their unmanicured toes into the cool mud, sharing a bottle of bubbly with the girls at sunset.

Most often though, as part of this rite of passage into our second half, we seem to make our way to a watering hole of a different kind

In tribal ritual, we prepare for celebration by painting our faces with collagen enriched products and adorning our bodies with the latest statement pieces from Stella and Dot. We pour ourselves into a triple layer of spanks, shimmy into our “skinny” stretch jeans, hoist our hooters into steel girded support systems we still call bras and gather at a local establishment as if driven by primal instinct.

We proceed to drink twelve dollar Margaritas, shovel down chips and smoky salsa then share over-priced entrees while lovingly telling each other lies like, “That guy was “totally checking you out!” or “50 really is the new 30!”
We sit with our legs crossed because we laugh so hard that we have to.  We wipe mascara from under each others’ eyes, exchange silly greeting cards with saggy boobed old ladies on them and celebrate, with confidence and humor, this new chapter of our lives that we are so very, very grateful to share.

I don’t know about you, but one of the most surprising joys I have found in this whole aging thing has been recognizing the fact that without these years, we would have no history…no triumphs to regale, no war stories to lament and most importantly no arsenal of friends and family to share it all with.
The other day…I was reminded of just this.
I grew up on a street filled with kids…a suburban haven of five houses encircling a pebbly asphalt cul-de-sac. We spent our summers playing kickball until dark, jumping up and down in the pool until our feet bled and roller skating behind bikes with sissy bars.

We built forts in the yard, slid down the grassy hill on cardboard, made mudpies that we would sell to our parents for a tidy sum then promptly spend the profits on Slurpees and nickel candy at the 7-11 down the street.
We shared a fence with a family of five kids…all girls…and for this girl who has no sisters, it was heaven-on-earth. Between my collection and theirs, plus a cool stash we picked up at the neighbor’s garage sale, we could build a Barbie complex that would span two rooms.
The two oldest girls in the family were high schoolers, offering me titillating insight into the world of female teenage life. The middle girl, Robin, was “the helper”: a little too old to engage in our elementary high jinx but young enough to still be interested in passing out the cupcakes at my birthday party or keeping an eye on the baby while Mom doled out the tacos. Julie was a year older than me (still is!) and Elena was the tag-a-long little sister whom we'd let play with us but also served as an attentive companion for my baby brother Michael.
Elena, in the blue baby doll dress, Julie, behind her with the big grin and Robin, in the snappy sleeveless shift behind her.

Julie and I were thick as thieves. We earned our Girl Scout badges together, cheated our younger siblings at board games, swapped secrets and sleepovers and spent hours on covert projects like making mock “wine” out of Pyracantha berries and hiding the jug in the park...that is until Julie’s Mom found out and made us dump it for fear that the “hippies” would find it, drink it and die.

Fast forward 40 years.
The other day I got a call from Elena.

“Julie’s 50th is in two days and I want to surprise her. I’m calling Peggy and Gabi (two of her other best childhood friends) and the plan is to show up on her doorstep after work tomorrow night. I’ll bring a lasagna, you bring the cake…she’s going to freak!”
Oh, I’ll bring the cake alright…
I had to do it…Julie must have her first Barbie cake. Mom made one for me almost every year for my birthday and Julie was there at every party to watch me make the first cut.

This year…it was her turn and I had one day to slip it in under the wire before the odometer clicked over to 50.
Here is the birthday card I made for her from one of my old photos. That's Julie in the stripes, waiting for me to blow out the candles on my cake...that year it was chocolate.

Here's that bundt cake beauty a little closer up.

Well, I am happy to report that Barbie cake technology has improved since the 70's and I am now the proud owner of an official doll cake mold...no more upside down bowls and retro-fitted bundt pans for me.  If you're ready to go "all-in," here's a link to one of the many places you can order the kit. 


Otherwise, go ahead and fiddle with stainless steel bowls until you get the size and shape you desire.

I've even figured out how to add an 8" round to the base to make Barbie a bit more statuesque (you'll probably need to use at least two boxes of cake mix). Here are Julie's cakes just into the oven...the clock is ticking.

After they cooked and cooled, I stacked them up on a cardboard round, sandwiched the layers with a big blob of frosting and carved the edges to fit just right. And, yes, your eyes do not deceive. That's Funfetti boxed cake mix...gotta draw the line somewhere. Let's face it, taste is not a priority here. You''ll find my recipe this month on the back of that box!

After a dainty slather of good ol' Betty Crocker canned frosting as a crumb coat and a quick chill in the fridge, this princess was ready to get dressed for the ball.

Shall we go blonde or brunette?

The little lady on the left is the doll that came with my cake mold. She is all torso with a plastic pick at the waste instead of legs. If you have the time to  plan ahead, I recommend finding one of these (available at cake supply and craft stores).

If you can't get your hands on one, I suggest dismembering an old Barbie by ripping off the old girl's legs (that's what I did to blondie on the right).

Most Barbie's are too tall and will stick up high out of the cake unless you do. Here's a cutie my neighbor and I threw together in an hour on a whim for her niece's birthday. Auntie really wanted to let her keep the doll afterwards so she couldn't bare to rip off the legs! The trade off resulted in a a more "shapely" figure camouflaged with loads and loads of filler frosting slathered on a still warm cake! Even with its lumps and bulges, this blonde beauty could not have been a bigger hit and will no doubt be remembered by that six-year-old sweetie forever!

I decided to go brunette for Julie.

When you make yours, don't forget to give her (the doll that is, not the birthday girl) a Saran Wrap turban to keep her flowing locks out of the frosting. Shove her into the top of the cake, smear those ta-tas with frosting...

...then have at it: ruffles, sparkles, bows, pearls...whatever floats your boat.

This princess ended up in hot pink (I went a little heavy with the red food coloring) with a touch of just about everything including some rapid-fire lavendar rosettes and a last minute free-form candy pearl splatter. Throw in a lace doily...and she was good to go.

Despite her less-than-well-planned design and execution, once again, Barbie did not disappoint. Come on...is this worth it, or is this worth it?

But the birthday girl was the most delighted of all! At 49 years, 364 days, my friend got that Barbie cake of her very own...and even better, she got to share it with her little princess as well!

Looking back, I must admit that the tradition actually never really died in my household. I remember making one for my friend Linda's Sweet 16 in high school...

...and, after a bit of a break, I resurrected the lost art when Carly came along. Here's the one Mom and I made for her 5th birthday tea party.

One year, we even added mini-doll cakes to our repotoire and let the kids have at it themselves...one for each!

Carly even made a mini one for my last birthday...

And here's the one my neice Lili (age 3) made for herself that same night. She was so anxious to eat it, Barbie never made it into her dress!

She had so much fun with it, that when Lili turned 4, Mom and I decided to give it our all. Lili placed an order for Ariel (of Little Mermaid fame)...very specifically represented in human form (thank goodness...we weren't quite sure how to get Barbie to sprout fins).

As opposed to my quickie creation for Julie, this little princess was a bit more of an investment in time and resources. With a gold-encrusted pastry platform, pounds of hand-sculpted fondant, and a complex structural engineering plan designed to keep "her highness" from imploding, Ariel stood proud...and so did we.

To see the birth of Ariel, start to finish...click on this link:

But I think the thing that makes me the most proud of all is the fact that Carly, on her own accord, elected to make this special cake for her friend Amy when she turned 16 (and transport it to the beach, no less)!

It seems you never really know how much your efforts are appreciated until you see them payed forward to someone else. Mom crafted these treasured memories for me, I made them for Carly and now she is doing the same. Maybe someday she'll let me help make one for her little princess.

I guess this has become part of that personal history I was talking about...those silly little experiences that, all of a sudden, pile up and, like a jigsaw puzzle, make sense when you stand back and look at them all put together.

I'm glad that at my ripe old age of not-quite-50, I have this history to share with you. Here's to the next chapters...and that we all live happily-ever-after!