Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Handmade Gifts From The Kitchen!

Versatility in life while cooking and in the kitchen is essential. The ability to swap ingredients or alter recipes, especially for the kosher cook (or anyone with dietary guidelines to follow, be it for allergies, intolerance etc) comes hand in hand with prepping meals! When that versatility expands to cookbooks, you know this Itsy Bitsy Balebusta is thrilled!

I rarely accept an invite to a meal without offering to contribute (unless Y is having a particularly fun – read 'challenging' – week, oh teething!). Also, living on a budget, we usually opt to bring a baked good, plated and wrapped, as a hostess gift, when we make it out. Special occasions from Chanukah to birthdays also always include a little baked treat from our kitchen! I love the personal touch it adds to a gift, and I always make an effort to include favorite flavors, themes and recipes! Who doesn't love a fresh homemade dessert?

Given all of this, I was thrilled to receive this stunning cookbook. Alison Walker’sHandmade Gifts From The Kitchen, is a beautiful, instructive, creative collection of recipes, ideas and tips. Not only is this book filled to the brim with fantastic recipes, notes on packaging, presentation and assembly, it inspires and encourages you to get into your kitchen!

While handmade gifts are a treasure all year round, what better time to refer to such a wonderful collection, than with Purim around the corner? All it takes is a quick glance through these gorgeous pages to have enough ideas to spark a multitude of themes and additions to your Mishloach Manos! (On Purim, we gift food and treats to our friends, in the spirit of love, friendship and brotherhood, and to ensure that everyone has ample food for the Purim seudah or feast, that is held later in the day! These Mishloach Manos, can be theme-oriented, sweet or savory, and must be ready to eat items.)

One of my personal favorite recipes, is simple and classic, and sure to become a go-to. The Poppy & Sesame Seed Crackers, are super easy to make and with a bit of parchment paper and a lovely gift box, you have a great gift ready to go! Add a few packets of tea, maybe some fruit or a Lemon Syrup Loaf Cake, also in the cookbook, and a wonderful Mishaloch Manos for a teacher, neighbor or friend and relative is set! This would also make for a great end-of-year gift for teachers, with a special personal touch!

The creativity continues with Chocolate Button Shortbread Cookies. These would be a fantastic addition to a teddy bear themed Mishaloch Manos, or alternatively as a treat for a new Mom, with a little "Cute As A Button" gift tag attached!

That’s the wonderful feature about this cookbook. You aren't just flipping through pages, finding ideas for dinner or dessert! Each page brings you inspiration for gifts and treats to share with your family and friends, beyond your dining table! And with some of the later recipes, that require time to sit after they're made, Alison is helping you to stock your pantry for, as she put it in her introduction, those moments when you need an impromptu gift. How many times are you running out the door to an event that was supposed to be in the calendar but somehow got mixed up and have to plan extra time to stop and pick up a little hostess gift? With these incredible recipes, you'll have an arsenal of gifts ready at a moments notice (or as a special treat for yourself too, on those especially long days!).

The recipes are not only sweet based. There are plenty of simple, savory options as well! These range from marinated olives to BBQ sauce, pumpkin relish, and a variety of chutney and mustard! There is even a From the Garden section as well as the Raise a Glass chapter, which includes recipes for liquors and vodka. Yes. This book literally has everything! An exceptional lineup of gifts you can make from your kitchen is tucked between these pages! And not only are the treats gorgeous in their own right, they're also versatile and can be used as decor! The Stollen Wreath for instance, doubles as a fantastic centerpiece! By the last page, you're so inspired that you see multiple uses for common gifts and have plenty of your own packaging & gifting ideas as well!

There are recipes that are simple enough to include the whole family, and what better way to get everyone involved in Purim preparation, and help kids add their own personal touch, than in the kitchen! Sure, there will be some mess, and it may take a bit longer, but the memories and pride of presenting their friends and family with something they've made is totally worth it! As Alison shares in her introduction, and I agree, "true pleasure comes from sharing food!"

And yes, anyone who's made a hostess gift or Mishloach Manos can tell you, that while prepping all of these items is time consuming, it's also oftentimes less expensive than purchasing gifts. Add the bonus of the joy of sharing something made with a personal touch and love and what could be more special? This cookbook also goes above and beyond to help make the whole process as easy as possible, with resource guides to where to buy packaging and materials, as well as ideas for how to plate and present the items! There's info on when to bake before gifting, how long in advance items need to be prepared, or how long they should marinate/ sit before being given and so much more.

Overall, this is a gorgeous book, brimming with inspiration and absolutely stunning images, any of which I'd love to have framed in our kitchen! It's versatile, both inherently with the multitude of recipes and ideas included, and in the sense that you'll be pulling it off of your shelf every Purim to add that special, unqiue treat to your Mishloach Manos, as well as for any Shabbos you find yourself going out, any time you're a guest or any time the opportunity to brighten someone's day with a little baked treat presents itself! And the great thing about this book is that you'll find yourself looking to do so more often, just to flip through the beautiful pages and experience the joy of sharing Handmade Gifts From The Kitchen!

Disclaimer: This cookbook was provided to me by Appetite by Random House. All opinions contained within my review are solely mine. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How to Plan A Stress Free Party Part 2: Setting Up & Layout!

This series will provide a comprehensive look at our son’s first birthday party, and serve as a guide filled tips we learned along the way. It's our hope that it'll help make your little one’s special day as minimally stressful as possible! After all, the less time you spend preparing and setting up, the more time you'll have to celebrate and focus on the day! When I searched for tips for Y’s birthday, I couldn't really find anything comprehensive (and especially when it came to boys birthdays!) so although these posts may be a bit lengthy, I hope they give you some ideas and help you with your celebration!

Let’s get started!

After months of going back and forth on a theme, we finally decided to go for a more generic theme rather than characters, and all the ideas we had previously floated around. As much as our son absolutely loves Rio, we kinda figured this would be the only year where he wouldn't straight-up give us a theme, and where we could really, really focus on him and the awesome little boy that he is (rather than on his favorite movie and so on). Gd-willing, there will be plenty of birthdays ahead full of that! It also opened the door for us to create a lot of our own decorations, invitations and so on, without spending money on the party items we had passed in various stores, while attempting to stick to a budget!

And so we decided on Mr. 1-derful!

After the theme was set, we decided to go with blue and green for the color scheme, since it was easy to work with, and plenty of boy birthday ideas I had seen, complemented it well. I also threw in some yellow since it seems to be Y’s favorite color! We purchased plastic tablecloths from the dollar store, together with simple green and blue paper plates. We doubled-up on the quantity needed, in case guests wanted a separate plate for sweets and veggies. At the end of the party, we wrapped up the mess into the tablecloths and disposed of them! Super easy cleanup and nothing to worry about if there were spills or other incidents!

We set the party from 1-3, just long enough to be a drop-in where everyone could enjoy sweets and refreshments but not so long that Y would get fussy or bored. Also, we purposely scheduled it for after his nap time so that he could be well rested! It happened to be Superbowl Sunday, and we wanted it early enough in the day that it wouldn't interfere if our guests had plans. Lastly, we definitely know how valuable Sundays are in general, being one of the only days in the week where we’re really able to get out and take care of errands etc, so we didn't want to impose on anyone’s day off either. The length of time and the timing itself ended up being great, and we were really happy with it. We booked the room from 12-4 to allow an hour for setup and an hour to clean up. In the end, we only needed about 20 minutes to set up – I came prepped with a map of the layout, what would go on each table and had separated items into corresponding large reusable bags for each table, to make setup as smooth as possible. We also had a friend of our's and my family arrive a little early and their help was invaluable! My Mom got some bonus time with Y, while my sister and Dad helped move and set the tables. Cleanup extended a little past our 4 pm deadline, since guests left a little later than 3. All points to consider when booking your space, if you’re having a party outside of home!

The room we rented was a simple party room in a condo building, through an incredible friend of our’s. It was large enough to hold all of our guests comfortably and provided tables and chairs. Living in a small apartment, we didn't want everyone to feel crammed and for kids to have no where to really go. This option offered us the space we needed, as well as the bonus of keeping all of the mess and traffic outside of our home, at a minimal cost. We wanted to have an intimate yet open setting, and other rental options such as indoor play places and larger party rooms compromised that. This option was the clear winner!

The set up was very simple. A large rectangular table with a blue tablecloth against one wall, with a smaller square table attached to it. This was our main table. It hosted the trays of baked goods, our fruit and veggie trays, the cakes (yes cakes, more on that later in the series, when we talk all about the food!), and napkins, plates etc. The small adjoining table held the coffee urn and drinks, together with cups, spoons and so on. It was against a wall on the far side of the room, the first thing you saw when you walked in, but out of the way enough to leave plenty of area to walk around and socialize, or take something from the table without feeling crowded. I didn't want to position it in the middle of the room, (although that layout is great if you have the space, since it allows everyone to walk around and effortlessly take from all angles) since it minimized the amount of space and would be a huge obstacle for all the kiddies moving around! Depending on your guests and the layout of your room a different option may be more suitable, but against a wall on the far side of the room, was the best option for us!

The second table was directly across the room from the main one. It was covered in a yellow table cloth, and was a place to keep all of the gifts, our family and friends so kindly and generously brought for Y. It also held one of my favorite details of his party – a, My First Birthday bib, where all of our guests were welcome to sign their names, as a sort of guest book and memento of Y’s first birthday party! It was a hit and is a cute way for us to be able to look back and remember who was a part of Y’s special day. Full details in our next post!

Next up, and possibly the best idea of the three tables, was the coloring table! I searched Pinterest and found a variety of coloring sheets and printed out approximately 2-3 copies per child, of each one (just in case someone made a “mistake” or really liked a particular one, there would be enough to go around). The specific sheets we used can be found here and here. I also created our own coloring sheet, using a simple word document. I used the same fonts M used to create the motif for the invitation, and simply applied a word art filter to make them just an outline. It created a unique coloring page, that included the theme perfectly and easily! I loved this aspect of the party, because it gave the children something to do while their parents got to socialize, it was age-appropriate and everyone from the two-year-old to the eight-year-old were super excited to color! At the end we were given a whole bunch of beautifully colored-in sheets with notes to Y, which I hope to compile into a little book for him! It was a cute way for the kids to keep busy and contribute to the party and it helped to avoid any running around or boredom! Definitely a hit! Again, all it required was a plastic tablecloth, 2-3 of each coloring page per child and 2 boxes of crayons from our local dollar store (since it’s inevitable that more than one child will want the same color at the same time!). 

We brought along Y’s travel high chair that buckles onto a regular seat, so that he would have a secure and steady place to enjoy his cake or take a rest. It also doubled as a great area where guests took turns taking photos with him! After all of the adorable high chair decorations I had seen online, we actually opted to purchase a highchair decorating kit, since it came with the banner for the tray as well as a mat for underneath the high chair, to catch any excess cake or treats. We found one with animals and a “Fun To Be 1” message! It was part of a larger set of decorations, but we felt it was generic enough that it could blend in seamlessly with the rest of our d├ęcor! It was an excellent and easy touch to dress up his special seat and the mat helped with clean up at the end (especially since it was a rented room and wiping blue icing off of the floor after a party wasn't something I was interested in doing!). 

I hope this has given you some ideas to help make the setup and layout for your little one’s party less stressful and more attainable! Join us for our next post where we fill you in on the decorations and how we opted for quick and easy homemade pieces that added a personal touch to the room and celebrated our little boy’s milestones over his first year!

*All brands and links found throughout the post, are not associated with Itsy Bitsy Balebusta and are not sponsored in any way! They're simply the items we found and included in our celebration, and I've linked further information regarding them solely for your convenience!*

Monday, February 09, 2015

How to Plan a Stress Free Birthday Party!

While I could sit here and tell you all about Y’s first birthday party for the next oh, year or so, I thought I’d approach all of the celebrations from a slightly different angle! It’s absolutely surreal that a year has already gone by since this little boy made his grand entrance into our lives, and we are so incredibly grateful for all of the milestones and moments that have been cause for celebration from the very first day. This first year as parents has been quite the roller coaster ride. From weight issues, to colic all the way to smiles, first words and so much love, this little guy has pushed us to grow in so many ways over the past year! How do you fit all of this into one day of celebration?! Well, we opted for 2!

On the day of his birthday, we decided to celebrate together, as our little family of three. We took Y to a play place where we were amazed and really had the opportunity to realize how much he has grown, and how independent and adventurous he  has become! He spent the afternoon crawling and cruising everywhere and exploring everything! We even got a glimpse into the next stage of parenting when he started to whine when M picked him up, to leave! Once home, all whining was forgotten, when the celebrations continued with his first taste of cake! A few days later, we had a larger celebration with family and friends! The party was absolutely beautiful and it was so wonderful being able to see people who provided so much support and love over Y's first year! We couldn't have hoped for a greater way to honor our little boy's special day, than with all the love, laughter and smiles that filled the room!

I want to take this opportunity to share with you a few tips and tricks I picked up, to help plan and pull off a stress free birthday party!

I’ll be the first to admit, that I can be over-ambitious at times and that more often than not, stress bubbles to the surface and my elaborate plans and to-do lists begin to go askew. Considering I started pinning ideas for Y’s birthday a long time ago, the running game plan resembled more of a wedding than a birthday party. That’s the wonderful and awful thing about Pinterest. I had pinned 3-tier cakes alongside “simple and easy decorations”. It was a huge mishmash of stuff and I was overwhelmed before I even really figured out a theme – which I changed at least 4 times!

And with that here's my first tip, for successfully planning a stress free birthday party!

It wasn't until I came across a post on my Instagram feed in early December, that everything suddenly came into focus. The wonderful Emily Ley shared photos of her son’s birthday party. As incredible as the party looked, it was actually her caption that caught my attention. I can honestly say it’s one of the main reasons why Y’s party went as smoothly as it did. I’m paraphrasing here, but Emily made mention of how the party was for her son, how it wasn't about her hostess or DIY skills. She sourced where she found the items for the party and how she pulled it off. And then the line that really grabbed my attention...

“The good stuff really does happen when you let go.”

I literally want to frame that quote in every room of our home so that I can see it all the time.

I realized, that in my pinning and planning fury I had neglected remembering two very important points.

1. This day is about Y. Not about how many crafts I can make off of Pinterest. Not about how many desserts I can squeeze onto a table. Not about how many videos I can watch to learn how to pipe a cake or cupcakes or anything like that. This day is not about Mommy or a show and tell of all the things I can do. This day is about Y!

2. I need to learn to let go. Accept that things are going to veer off course and that at the end of the day if our little boy is smiling then the party was a success no matter what.

I didn't realize how strongly her words had affected me, until approximately 48 hours before the party, when we got word that there was an issue with the party room we had booked. Y'know, the place where all of our guests had received invitations and directions to. The place we found and booked a month and a half in advance. Yeah, we were getting word about an hour before Shabbos that we may not have access to the room. Luckily for us, one of our closets friend’s sorted it out and everything was back on track!

Also, the menu. Oh the menu. You should have seen my rough drafts of ideas! First I wanted to do a buffet style of all of Y’s favorite foods, but in more grownup versions (I doubt anyone would be heading for seconds of sweet potato puree or baby cereal!). I was thinking sweet potato fries in mini take out containers for instance! Then I saw a pin of scoops of ice cream in mason jars, with little bowls of toppings laid out on the table and an ice cream/frozen yogurt party was the new theme! Then we jumped to Toy Story, Rio and a bunch of other themes that he seemed to show interest in throughout his first year! Each one included endless decorated desserts, that even though I knew I was totally incapable of creating, or were way out of our budget, envisioned on the table anyway!

When I took the time to stop and realize how what I was really doing was using this party as an outlet to decorate a table and make food and socialize after a year of being home with a baby and basically having only my husband and mom to communicate with on a daily basis, I scrapped everything. This day is supposed to be solely about Y! I will admit that making the baked goods and his cake was important to me though. I wanted his first taste of sweets to be from his Mommy’s kitchen, and after a year of only eating homemade and healthy food, throwing him into a party of sugar and icing and store bought goodies worried me. So I came up with a plan! And with that plan came a theme that was all about Y.

Our little Mr. 1-derful!

I hope you’ll come back this week and follow along our posts, for more tips on decorating and baking in preparation for a stress free birthday party, for your special little one!