It’s late on a Sunday night. We just got home after a day spent driving up to Sonoma County to watch our eldest play a hockey game. We drove to Santa Rosa where I had visions of a scorched-earth landscape after last Fall’s devastating fires. But there was no apocalyptic scenery, just bucolic rolling hills with homes tucked into their sides and grazing cattle dotting the landscape. I guess we didn’t drive far enough into the countryside. We did, however, see plenty of signs in storefronts thanking First Responders for their help.
We made a day of it, packing a lunch and spending the afternoon at the Charles M Schulz Museum. We read all about how Charlie Brown and Snoopy came to be. We found out what “Sparky” (Schulz’s nickname) would eat every morning, what his office looked like and even how prominent hockey figured in his life. Snoopy’s Home Ice is right beside the museum, so we didn’t have very far to travel to the hockey game!
On the drive up, I saw signs for many of the dairy and produce companies whose products I see in the supermarkets here. I must say, it’s nice to know your milk, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables come from nearby. I guess that’s the advantage of living in a climate where you can produce food all year round. The biggest worry right now is the lack of rain. California has always struggled with water shortages and droughts. But as far as I can tell, the farmers still manage to get fruit and vegetables to market. It remains to be seen if the dry spell we’ve been having will result in a crisis.
My latest crisis of conscience is about where we decided to live–this is the first time I have moved in nearly 17 years. In the last week I have vacillated about where we have chosen to live–in the suburbs. Did we pick the right neighbourhood? Is it too far from amenities? Is it too quiet? Is it too great a commute for my husband? Should we have stuck with the big city instead of the suburbs? Will our kids fit in at the schools? The good news is we are renting, which means if we feel this isn’t the right fit for us, there is nothing preventing us from relocating again. The bad news is if it doesn’t work out, it means uprooting the kids yet again and having to resettle ourselves yet again. I am not much for a nomadic life. I like my creature comforts, I like to decorate and garden and make my home cozy and inviting. That’s hard to do when you feel like you are a visitor staying in someone else’s home. But this line of thinking is all a bit premature; after all we have only been here for 54 days. But who’s counting?
If anyone reading this has been on the Bar or Bat Mitzvah circuit in Toronto, you can probably tell someone who doesn’t know any better what to expect at a typical evening reception for a 13-year-old kid:
Gender stereotypical themes like Tiffany boxes and fashion labels for the girls, pro sports teams and rock n’ roll for the boys
Obnoxiously loud pop music, flashing lights and a couple of sweaty dancers charged with enticing reluctant self-conscious pre-teens on to the dance floor by baiting them with made-in-China giveaways
Barely teenaged girls in barely there dresses, high heels and Kardashian-style smokey eye make up
A sit down dinner for the adults who attempt to exchange pleasantries but can’t hear each other over the thumping bass music
A buffet of fast food favourites for the scores of kids that generally include burgers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs and french fries
A photo booth with tacky feather boas, sparkling cardboard top hats and wacky glass frames for accessories that dole out pictures not meant for any photo album
A kids’ candy buffet overflowing with gummies, gum balls, sour keys and every other sugar-laden treat imaginable the adults secretly covet
We decided to forego the serial (and predictable) evening reception for something a little different. I call it a 13-year-old boy’s birthday bash extraordinaire.
Mere hours after the brunch reception that followed the Bar Mitzvah service, we changed out of our fancy duds for jeans and cozy sweaters and headed down to the William P Wilder Arena at Upper Canada College.
We rented one of the ice rinks for an hour and a half for the kids (and any adults who wanted to) to skate and play some shinny. We hired a former hockey trainer of the boys’ to do some fun games and activities on the ice–we did have giveaways for the kids, but they didn’t know it. We slipped the trainer some gift cards to give to kids who participated in the activities.
We also rented out the lounge that overlooks the ice rink–this is where non-skaters and the few adults invited could hang out and watch the skating.
My son likes music but isn’t into dance parties, so he made a playlist on Spotify to play over the sound system inside the rink. I had my playlist going over the speakers in the lounge.
I hired Jacqui, who owns TWSS Balloons, to do a big balloon display over the entrance to the lounge as well as a couple of balloon bouquets inside the room–nothing crazy, but definitely festive.
I also brought some board games from home for those who didn’t want to skate and were looking for something to do. I was glad I brought them because it kept some of the younger kids entertained while the adults could enjoy a drink and conversation.
My son’s favourite colour is red, so I purposely decorated the tables with inexpensive red table cloths with a small stack of hockey pucks and a votive candle for a centrepiece. This was a kids’ party after all, so any effort on decor was for my benefit–not the kids’.
I got lots of praise for the dinner menu, but credit really goes to my son, who asked for his favourites; burger sliders, chicken wings, caesar salad and penne in a pomodoro sauce. The food was catered by my neighbourhood friend, Suresh, who owns Avondale Foodworks. He’s catered for us before and he consistently produces delicious and flavourful meals that are always crowd pleasers.
Before dessert was served, the kids all gathered at one end of the lounge and were treated to a show by Magic Dan. He was great with the kids, held their attention, encouraged lots of participation and kept everyone, young and old, entertained. My youngest was particularly freaked out when Magic Dan made him float in the air!
Dessert was probably the most fun. I asked Suresh to order donuts and chocolate milk from Tim Hortons because what kid doesn’t like donuts and chocolate milk? And yes, there was another cake! I actually wanted to order a cake from a bakery because I really didn’t think I’d have the time or the energy to do another cake, but I made a deal with my husband that if I baked the cake (and prepared the icing), he would decorate it. So I baked four marble cakes, recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart. Then I left it to my husband to ice it. You can see the results below–a cake that looks like a giant hockey rink.
I did end up doing a candy table for the kids, but I had my rules: no bowls of open candy that grubby, germy paws could dig their hands into. I ordered retro candy and gum from a wholesaler and set it all up in galvanized metal trays and buckets. Kids would take a loot bag and fill it with their candy loot.
At the end of the candy table, kids picked up their parting gift: a red and white trucker-style baseball cap with a custom design embroidered on the front.
All in all, it was a great party with lots of variety for the kids and the adults. The vibe was just right. There were still plenty of details to remember and lots of elements that maybe others would have happily left to a party planner, but I really enjoyed researching all the options and coming up with a party concept that I knew would be emblematic of my son.
This post has been a long time coming…13 years to be exact! Although I didn’t know it thirteen years ago.
My oldest had his Bar Mitzvah just over a month ago and I feel like I’ve just recovered from the big event.
He did an amazing job reading from the Torah, giving his speech to our guests, and maintaining his confidence and composure the entire day. He really shone like a star that day and was deserving of all the accolades and attention.
My job was to set the scene for our guests after the pomp and circumstance and for that I spent many months planning, plotting, “pinning” and preparing. There were so many details and so many checklists, but here, I will give you a brief glimpse into the celebration that followed the ceremony.
Our brunch began by welcoming our guests to “the cottage.”
I hired a graphic designer, gave her the guest list in a spread sheet with the table assignments along with some suggested fonts and icons and the dimensions for the foam core board. She was amazing to work with and had the poster delivered right to my front door. We simply mounted the board on an easel right inside the entrance to the reception room.
As people wandered in and found their tables, there was a slide show playing to music projected on to a drop cloth that I had hung on the wall, with patio lights framing it. Â The “screen” was flanked by red plastic Muskoka chairs that were draped with wool camp blankets and throw pillows with wildlife imagery such as owls, deer and moose.
All the photos in the slide show were of the family at various family cottages in both summer and winter. Putting together that slide show was a labour of love. I also printed all the photos on to 4″ x 4″ paper, which were used as part of the centrepieces.
My mother, my husband and I did an assembly line, punching holes into each photo and tying jute twine through the holes. These photos were then hung on the young birch branches in the centrepieces.
Speaking of the centrepieces–these were probably the cheapest DIY centrepieces ever and yet the most personal. I got little red socker plant pots at Ikea–there was a lot of red in the decor because that is my son’s favourite colour–filled them with pea gravel and off cuts of birch branches from my girlfriend’s cottage in North Bay, and the young birch branches were from my mom’s cottage on Georgian Bay.
We stood the pots on round wood “coins” that my husband cut with his chainsaw from fallen trees in the ravine in our neighbourhood. I just had to schlep them all to the car!
And the final touch were the rocks around the bottom of the pot, which were collected by me and my son from the harbour near my mom’s cottage.
So I think all told, we spent about $5 on each centrepiece and the biggest expense was the printing of the photographs.
The additional expense came with the guest keepsakes that I put on each table. These were maple syrup candles in tins. They certainly didn’t come cheap, but I thought it was important to give guests a small memento from the day as a thank you from us.
The brunch was delicious, catered by L-Eat. Niki and Tony did a fabulous job and the presentation of the food was simple and elegant. We made sure everything that was served were things we would typically eat for brunch: french toast with maple syrup, quiche, bagels with all the fixings, yogurt with granola and berries, and as a special treat we arranged to have smoked trout from Kolapore Springs trout farm up near my parents’ cottage.
But the best part of brunch was the dessert table! This is where I truly got to showcase my baking skills, with the help of my mom, sister and mother-in-law. First, I decorated the table with objects that represented my son and the cottage–Scrabble pieces that said “Help Yourself”, antlers, a red model sports car, an old cribbage board, a vintage waterski, red oil lanterns, and a photo of my husband holding our son as a newborn.
All the baked good were displayed on red tin trays, big glass cookie jars with red lids, even the waterski was used to display the homemade butter tarts.
There were homemade salted chocolate chunk cookies, s’mores bites, butter tarts, honey cake, shortbreads, poppy seed cookies, ginger cookies and also chelsea buns from the Thornbury bakery (the only thing I didn’t bake!).
It wouldn’t be a celebration without a cake, right? Of course I baked a cake! It’s the giant, incredibly chocolatey cake recipe from Deb Perlman’s Smitten Kitchen. It’s the same cake I baked for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, except this time I made marshmallows, charred them and put them on the cake. I also made banana chocolate chip cake “logs” and I made flames from melted red and orange lollipops. A candy maker I am not!
I can’t say the cake turned out as nicely as I would have liked from a visual perspective, but it tasted damn good.
Credit for all the photos goes to Julius Ding of Julius and James Photography. This was their FIRST Bar Mitzvah photo shoot, and they really did capture the essence of the celebration, rather than the staged photos of the family and Bar Mitzvah boy that we all too often see. This was a celebration in real life and I’m so glad Julius was there to capture the moment.
There is so much more to tell you about the day because it didn’t end with the brunch! But I think I’ll save those details for another post. I’m starting to get tired just thinking about it again. Phew!
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or want to learn more about what I did and how I did or where I got my ideas from.
I wish I had more energy to put into this post but the truth is I’m pooped. So I’m going to keep it short and sweet.
I made yet another birthday party for my middle child–having all three kids with birthdays in the first quarter of the year is both a blessing and a curse. By the time this birthday rolls around every year I always say to myself and whoever will listen, “this is the time I do one of these.” Bu then of course next year arrives and I start planning out the cake, the decorations, the loot bags, the entertainment, the meal….
This year I combined the family and friends parties to kill two birds with one stone however this makes for a rather large and unwieldy party. We had a company that brings exotic animals to the house to teach the kids about the animals; where they are from, what they eat, etc. This kept the kids occupied for one hour. That only left one more hour of the party to surviveÂ feed the kids, do the birthday cake and usher them out the door.
My middle guy wanted a Smartie number cake just like his big brother so I baked a few vanilla cakes, got out the big serrated knife and got to carving. Then I slathered on some yummy creamy cheese icing and embarked on the painstakingly long task of doing a chevron patterned decoration on the cake with Smarties (or chocolate gems as they are referred to at the bulk food store).
Picking up on the Smarties I decided to go with a polka dot theme for the table settings found at none other than Dollarama.
And this was all completed by polka dot and chevron printed loot bags that I scored at Creative Bag (that place is dangerous–I could spend a lot of money there). I kept it simple for the loot: Kinder Eggs bought in large quantity from Costco and a $5 gift card to Indigo. I figured this was both easy and pleasing loot for both parent and child.
You know me: I’m an easy target when it comes to finding an excuse to bake for an occasion and what better occasion than Valentine’s Day? So I got out the trusty ol’ sugar cookie recipe care of Martha Stewart and dug out my heart shaped cookie cutter and got to work.
I whipped up some royal icing, also care of Martha Stewart,Â tinted it with a dash of pink gel to get a nice baby pink and got to work icing them.
I sampled a cookie–which I don’t normally do because I want to make sure there are enough for the kids to give out to all their classmates, but we had plenty. I was pleasantly surprised…it had a nice crispy outside and soft and moist inside. And the icing was sweet but it didn’t overwhelm the cookie. Now I remember why this is always my go to cookie recipe.
I have dreams of a palatial mudroom where I can consolidate the dog shower, laundry room, coat closet, boot and shoe racks, washer and dryer, drying rack….you get the point. I am fortunate that I already have many of these things in my lovely home, but a girl likes to dream. And the fact that I dream about storage space isn’t really that uncommon.I knew that I needed to come up with a small space solution for my kids’ coats, boots and bags when they began to drop these things the minute they walked in the front door and it felt as though I had to climb cialis through a tangled mess to get to the kitchen. It also didn’t look very neat and tidy, which are my middle names.
So once again I enlisted my handy and good looking husband’s help to transform an unused corner of the landing between the main floor and the basement into a mini mudroom for the kids’ jackets, backpacks, boots and other miscellaneous items that needed a home.
In terms of the aesthetic I wanted to achieve a modern rustic look that was simple, durable and overall functional. I gave my husband creative licence after we settled on the general idea. I really didn’t have the mental capacity to figure it all out–I just wanted to clutter to be organized. I got to pick the paint colour and Dave picked the lumber and the hardware.
I picked a durable high-gloss greenish-blue from Martha Stewart at Home Depot. I think it was called “Blue Fern.”
Dave got 2 x 6 lumber and made me a sawtooth bench along with a board covered in cast iron hooks for backpacks and he made a shelf with really cool antique-looking brackets and Â curled hooks for hats and coats. He found the hardware at The Door Store in the design district. It’s such a fun store I’m glad I didn’t go otherwise he never would have got me out of the store.
I also needed a boot tray and I wasn’t about to buy an ugly plastic one (heaven forbid!) and I became fixated on this very stylish metal boot tray from Crate and Barrel. The only problem was they were online only and cost about as much to ship to Canada as the boot tray itself. So I had it shipped to my in-laws on one of their southern vacations. It was a bit of circus (and a costly one at that) getting it back here but there it sits perfectly under the bench holding boots and shoes.
This project really did end up being the perfect marriage of function and form. I love the way my paint job came out and the scale of the pieces doesn’t overwhelm the space and make it difficult to move from the main floor to the basement and vice versa.Â
And of course it hides the every day stuff from the main entrance of the house. Now I’ve just got to get my kids to remember to hang everything up there instead of dropping it at the front door!Â
Inspired by my friend Alex over at NorthStory, I decided this year was the year for DIY valentines. Sure, I could have gone over to Dollarama and found some super hero themed package of valentines for a buck that came from some factory way over there but I decided NOT to choose the path of least resistance. This year, Valentine’s Day was going to be personal. So I rummaged through my craft cabinet and there among all the forgotten crafts purchased years ago when I was an eager and enthusiastic first time mom I found a bag full of foamies brimming with hearts in a rainbow of colours and sizes.
With the little spare time that I have (read: none) I decided to make my kids’ valentines for school and daycare. I know, I know, I know: THEY should make them. Not me. And they did help me–for about a nanosecond. So I enlisted my oh-so-willing husband to help cut the card stock (who are we kidding? I gave him my best puppy dog eyes and begged) and got creative with some glitter glue and colour play.
I draw the line at filling in the cards for the kids but it’s fun to *be* a kid again making the cards. Maybe I’m being too sentimental or ideal but I really believe teachers, parents and kids not only appreciate the homemade valentines but they remember them and the people who made them.
It’s rather ironic that tonight of all nights I choose to sit down and write a post about my son’s birthday cake, since I am forbidden from eating such things at the moment. Forbidden might be a strong word to use given that my ban from indulging in such sweet pastries is self imposed. I am on a Spring cleanse. That means many delectables are off limits for a week and a half. And so I must satisfy my cravings through the only means I know how: eye candy. Literally.
My younger son turned three last week and I got it into my head several weeks back that I had to make him a spectacular cake. Put my new found cake decorating skills to work and turn out something fabulous. Being the over ambitious person that I am and with only borrowed time to do it, I thought I was picking a rather easy design in the form of a Lego cake. Lego has become a favourite past time for my boys so I thought it fitting to make a cake in the shape of bricks. The bonus came in the form of a Lego man cake mold from a neighbour. So I started by baking Ina Garten’s flag cake as well as her chocolate butter cream cake. I baked slab cakes AND mini cupcakes. Once baked, cooled and refrigerated, I sliced the slab cakes in thirds and constructed two rectangular cakes, four layers high alternating the flag cake with the chocolate cake. I topped them off with the mini cupcakes, all with a mocha butter cream that I kind of made up a recipe for. Once crumb coated and cooled, I applied home-made marshmallow fondant. I know, I know, I’m crazy. I just could have bought the fondant from the store, but no, I had to make this damn cake FROM SCRATCH! I didn’t love the way the fondant turned out but it was definitely more malleable than the store-bought kind. To make myself super crazy I decided the two bricks needed to sit atop one slab cake, which I covered in green fondant (that one was store-bought). And with a star tip I decorated the Lego man in coloured vanilla butter cream. I think I must have made enough cake to feed a small army. While there were plenty of leftovers there was no man left in sight. He was devoured by the kids and the adults had to satisfy their sweet tooths with the giant bricks of cake (too bad!).
I think it was well worth the effort, and while I’m nowhere near as talented as some of the crazy cake decorators who do this for a living, I did give myself a pat on the back for my attempt. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge. Unfortunately I can’t give you a taste, but I can leave you with the recipe for the mocha butter cream.
MOCHA BUTTER CREAM RECIPE
1 cup unsalted butter (room temperature)
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
4 cups of icing sugar (sifted)
1/4 cocoa powder (sifted)
2 Tbsp. (give or take) strong brewed coffee
Cream the butter and shortening together
Add the icing sugar and cocoa powder and whip until fluffy, adding the coffee to thin consistency of icing as necessary.
Well our weekend in the Muskokas was cut short. We bailed after less than 24 hours at the cabin. Upon arrival we were literally swarmed by mosquitoes and black flies. The minute we opened the car doors, the bugs began to pour in. Without bug repellant (it was on the other side of the lake in the cabin), I looked like a crazed woman swatting at the air at imaginary demons. My husband doesn’t seem to react to bug bites. I, on the other hand, swell up like a balloon at the tiniest little nibble and then proceed to complain about the constant itchiness.Â While my husband unloaded the half ton of food and multiple bags from the car, I did manage to get the kids across the lake in our dandy new pedal boat, which is not nearly as efficient a mode of transportation as a canoe. Once across, we reached the safety of the cabin. The next couple hours were spent cleaning up (including theÂ discovery an old mouse carcass), putting the food in the battery-powered fridge, which was getting its “juice” from the solar panel, and setting up the beds for the kids. We barbequed that night and had a lovely meal of burgers, corn on the cob and raw veggies & dip. While all of this was going on the kids played out in the forest seemingly unphased by the biting bugs, although they’ve got the welts to prove it. When nightfall came, things changed. The kids eventually fell asleep, but when it was my turn I couldn’t. Somehow the mosquitoes had infiltrated the cabin and spent the entire evening accosting me. I tried hiding out under the bed sheets but began to suffocate. And it didn’t stop the blood suckers from making that awful whiny droning sound in my ear. Then the kids woke up around 3 complaining about the bugs so we moved to a different room WITH both kids in the bed and hoped that a closed door would keep the pesky pests out. By the time morning came, my hands were sore from being bitten and I was exhausted from little to no sleep. And it was raining. And cold. I felt like Susanna Moodie in Roughing It In the Bush; A civilized woman in an inhospitable land suffering from cabin fever.The kids woke up early as usual. My husband built a fire in the stove to heat up the place while I made breakfast (bacon and eggs–as a kid the breakfastÂ I always smelled at the neighbour’s cottage and wished I could have, but never did). My husband apologized and suggested we leave, given the bugs and the weather. I didn’t say no. The kids amused themselves while we tidied up. They even got to go out on the pedal boat with my husband while I cleaned up. So after lunch, in the misty rain, we paddled back across the lake, loaded up the car and the kids, but notÂ before my youngest fell into the lake fully clothed. So my vision of a romantic holiday weekend with the family was not to be fulfilled. Rather than head back to the city, we cut across cottage country to my in-law’s “country condo” where I managed to get a good night’s sleep. In the end it wasn’t a completely wasted trip. I did clean up the makeshift kitchen, which you can see in the pictures. No matter what space you give me, I try my best to make it as homey as possible.