Monday, November 2, 2015

Celebrate Sixty

So as previously mentioned in my last post, I threw mom a party for her 60th birthday.
It was small, but it was mighty! haha In my opinion, small parties are better than large ones because you can really get into the details and pull together a lot of things that aren't manageable with a large gathering.

I found a gorgeous tablescape photo utilizing eucalyptus as the table runner and I fell in love with it. I wanted to re-create it for this party, but with a few additional enhancements. Considering it's October, eucalyptus was a good choice because it is in season and really, does not depend on the freshness of any full blossoms.

Place setting with napkin, menu, and place card.
I had originally planned to have some ruscus with fresh white flower blossoms cascading off the top of the cake, but the flowers I got from the florist were very disappointing. It's SO hard to get those gorgeous ranunculus/peony/garden rose/ etc type flowers for a fall event. I ended up just lining the base with eucalyptus leaves since I needed to cover up the ugly cake round anyway.

Now I tend to go overboard with these type things and this party was no exception. Even though it was a luncheon, I wanted to create a full fall menu, really capitalizing on all the scrumptious fall flavors. By far the most challenging aspect of this was timing. Timing grocery shopping so the items I needed fresh remained that way, timing what dishes to make ahead of time, timing my oven space, all so everything was hot and ready promptly at 12:15.

In case you wanna pull off something similar and feel ill-equipped, here are my most useful OCD tips. Warning: If you are not organized and hate operating in a scheduled manner, avoid taking on this task and cater your event. :)

1. The grocery shopping. I made a spreadsheet outlining each dish, listing all the ingredients needed for each one. I then color-coded it based on items I already had, items I could buy in advance, and items I needed to buy fresh the day before. (I told you this was OCD, so you were warned.) Doing the bulk of it ahead of time relieves a lot of stress when you are trying to find various specialty items such as sparkling apple cider and pomegranate arils. Since I was working late Friday and we were going out to dinner for mom's actual birthday night, I did not have time to mess around hunting for ingredients. Also, at the bottom of each recipe I listed out the oven temp and cook time so I could create my baking plan of attack. This was super critical in pulling everything off in the time frame I needed to. I literally listed out the time in 15 min increments and wrote exactly what I needed to be doing, what needed to be in the oven, and the expected time it would be done.

2. The menu. I did two appetizers, four dishes for the main lunch, one bread, and three desserts. I made everything except for two of the desserts - the cowboy bark (mom's favorite from Trader Joe's) and the official birthday cake. I really debated making the cake myself, but I am SO glad I had Highland Bakery do it instead because it was one less thing I had to worry about the night before.

The menu turned out quite lovely, so if you are interested in making any of the dishes, here's where you can find the recipes.

Smoked Gouda Pumpkin Dip 
(This item I made the night before and refrigerated. Just dress with the cheese, pepper, and bacon right before serving.)

Spiced Pear and Pomegranate Crostinis
These are SO good and a lovely fall/holiday twist on bruschetta.

Spinach Salad 
(I just threw in some dried fruit, apple chips, feta cheese, and candied walnuts. Making candied walnuts is very easy and all you need is sugar and butter. Dressings were a light champagne and a raspberry walnut.)

Pecan-crusted Chicken
This Emerill recipe has been a family favorite for years. I use tenders instead of a whole chicken and they turn out perfect.

Butternut Cheese Pie 
One of my favs! I originally found this recipe in a Cooking Light magazine and it has been with me ever since! Don't be scared by working with phyllo dough, it's actually really easy. Also, I do not include the bulgur and it's still delish.

Sweet Potato Stacks 
These serve up great, but it is easy to burn the bottom trying to get the stack crispy. Use parchment paper on the cookie sheet or in addition to paper muffin cups.

Cheesy Garlic Bread 
Turned out really good, but in the future I MIGHT skip the dijon.

Mini Caramel Apple Trifles

These were awesome! I bought small, 4 oz jars to serve up these little sweet treats. I was surprised how easy it was to make the whipped topping which tasted sooooo much better than buying gross artificial topping. However, if you are going to buy pre-made caramel, I highly suggest using a piping bag to avoid big, ugly clumps of caramel on your granola. Piping the whipped topping also helps create a more finished dish.

Cowboy bark and cake were bought.

Sometimes creating a really diverse menu is uber challenging to me, but this one turned out great and I was really happy with everything.


1. The mocktail.
Even though mom does not drink alcohol, I wanted to have a special beverage to toast her big day. This "autumn chiller" was a great fall cocktail, accented with fresh cranberries. To make, simply mix 1 part orange juice, 2 parts ginger beer, and 3 parts sparkling apple cider.

2. Flower crown.
You're never too old for a flower crown! Flower crowns are really popular right now and given the leafy tablescape I wanted mom to have somethin' special as the bday girl. My MIL was my lifesaver (yet again) and crafted her crown with fresh eucalyptus and hydrangea. It turned out great!
3. Sparklers
Nothing says "it's party time" quite like sparklers. This was the first time I had used them on a cake and they were so cute! If you decide to go this route in the future, my suggestion would be to have two lighters lighting both numbers simultaneously so they burn at the same time.

All in all, a great time was had by all and mom felt truly celebrated. The best part for me was coming downstairs after a hot bath and finding my house completely clean and back to pre-party status! Thanks mom, Al, and Cindy for serving me in this way so I could re-coop after my hostessing duties. I really appreciated it cause it's way more fun to make the mess than it is to clean it up! haha

Sunday, November 1, 2015

It's October Baby

October started off with rain. Lots and lots of rain for many days. Because of the massive storm system moving through the south and the subsequent flash flood/mudslide warnings in western NC, we decided to cancel our fall trip to Lake J. I was super bummed about this, but we would rather be safe than sorry so we didn't go. Instead, we stayed home and had a rather lazy weekend recuperating from the past few weeks. It was actually a great time of rest, but we did squeeze in some fun stuff too.

Previously, I had envisioned having a wonderful locally grown, farm-to-table dinner with my family, cozied up around a candlelit table at Frog's Leap Public House in Waynesville, NC. Instead, our staycation "special" family dinner turned into a trip to the local hibachi restaurant. Ha! We had not been to one of these in ages and it solidly met our expectations, flaming onion volcano and all. :)
Since Zach was not scheduled to lead worship, we stayed home Sunday and did online church, listening to our friend Gentry give an amazing message on how God is rebuilding their lives after he and his wife tragically lost both their children in a car accident. I urge you to watch it and be encouraged by the love and grace that radiates from our friends who are faithfully honoring God's plan for their life even amidst unthinkable pain and suffering.
For the past few weeks, cooking meals had really lost it's luster for me. Dinner preparation had become just a stressful item on my to-do list whereas in the past, I really have enjoyed it and found cooking therapeutic. On Sunday I decided to go all out - with no agenda or deadline or expectation, and cook simply for the enjoyment of it. I made breakfast for the family (which I never do!) that included a gluten-free, dairy-free healthy breakfast casserole, hash browns, and I even went wild and bought Udi's gluten/dairy/soy/nut free cinnamon rolls for the occasion. :)
For lunch I made chicken chili, gluten free cornbread, and one of Zach's favorite appetizers - dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto!

I also tried a new paleo dessert recipe: apple crisp. The topping is made with almond flour, honey/maple syrup, and coconut oil. Apples and natural apple sauce make up the filling.
Also, fall would not be fall without apple cider! I love apple cider, much more than the ever popular pumpkin spice coffee drinks, and look forward to savoring it during this season. (Ps. If I had all the time and money in the world, I would spend my days making food and doing food photography. I love it!)
The second week of October was Homecoming Week at Allie's school and we were happy to see her anxious to participate. She is loving getting to have these traditional high school experiences! Like many schools, the week leading up to the Homecoming game is Spirit Week and each day has a different theme- things like dress like a nerd, tacky tourist, etc. Unfortunately I did not get a pic of her everyday, but here she is before school on "Country or Country Club" day. :) She even used dark makeup to make her face look dirty. haha
Allie also experienced her first high school football game. At first she was reluctant to go, but we knew she would love it and sure enough, we all had a fun time cheering on the Wildcats in the Homecoming game! 

 Gotta show some cheerleader love!
 The joy of concessions.

Also this month, Allie's english class has been working on debates. Allie's team was arguing the affirmative side of "Do violent video games contribute to youth violence?". It's actually an interesting topic and we enjoyed getting to dialog with her about it and help her prepare for the presentation.  Zach was asked to go be on the panel of judges so he got to see all the teams present their case. I am so glad he was available to do this and be engaged at her school. And if that weren't enough, he solidified his super-daddy status by surprising her with Chick-fil-a chicken biscuits (her fav) after class. :)

Thanks to a gift card burning a hole in our pocket, Zach and I enjoyed a lovely date night at one of our favorite fine dining restaurants, 4th & Swift. I seriously love sitting across the table from this guy day after day. It never gets old.
A few of our delectable dishes: savory brussel sprout appetizer, my duck entree, and desserts - sticky toffee pudding and a blondie with blueberry ice cream.
Before our date I was finally able to go explore Ponce City Market. Ponce City Market is the hottest redevelopment/historic renovation project in the city right now and needless to say, I immediately fell in love.
The place has such an amazing history. It's been a destination for over 100 years and it's now becoming an absolute gem! In the 1800s, this location was home to Ponce de Leon Springs. People would come here by horse and buggy to enjoy the natural refreshment of the springs. At the turn of the century, it became Ponce de Leon Amusement Park with a handful of charming rides. In the 20s, the lake was filled in and the property sold to Sears, Roebuck, & Co. Sears built the 2 million sq ft building and in 1926, it opened as the Southeast Regional Headquarters. For over 50 years it served as a storefront, warehouse, and regional offices for this catalog-based retailer. In the 80s, Sears finally closed it's doors and the building was sold to the city of Atlanta. For two decades this was the site of City Hall East, housing numerous municipal services. Over the years it fell into somewhat disrepair, but in 2010 Jamestown bought the property with hopes of making it the 4th nationally recognized Food Hall/Market in the country alongside Pikes Place in Seattle, the Ferry Building in San Fransisco, and Chelsea Market in NYC (which was also developed by Jamestown).
Ponce City Market is unlike any place in Atlanta and it is so inspiring to me. I love the story and all the vendors, retailers, and restauranteurs dedicated to making this place magical. 
Another amazing attribute of this location is that PCM sits at the center of 4 in-town neighborhoods and abuts the Beltline- the old railway line circling the city that has been revitalized into green space/a network of trails connecting the city. You can't get more pedestrian friendly than this folks!
I had a chance to come back her later in the month during my regional team meeting and we ate at Bellina. It is such a charming Italian restaurant. So much attention to detail in everything from the space to the food to all the imported goods in their Italian market.
 We were the first guests to eat in that little jewel box of a private dining room at the back of the bar.
 With windows into the kitchen space,this casual, cozy nook really acts like a chef's table.
The whole experience was incredibly lovely and even though they had only been open 10 days, the staff did a phenomenal job serving us and delivering some incredible dishes.
In other news, Allie and I also drove up to NC one Saturday to meet some Charlotte friends at our favorite apple orchard - Sky Top Orchard outside Hendersonville, NC. The weather was.... not the greatest, but that did not stop us from driving 2.5 hrs one way to see our friends, pick apples, and enjoy hot apple cider donuts!

After lunch in Flat Rock, we ventured out into the foggy orchard.

Reunited, and it feels oh so good!

 Allie and Emma, heading out...
 It's rainy and soggy, but we're having fun!

A trip to Sky Top would not be complete without a walk through the bamboo forest. These girls have loved coming to this magical place the past few years.
 Our bounty.
 Donut maker.

 Sooooo good.
This is our 4th year coming to Sky Top and our 3rd with the McDermott family. Look how these girls have grown over the last 3 years!
Allie and I drove back home just in time to change and head into Atlanta for a singer songwriter night at our friend Rich's house. Zach was one of three artists that played, the other two being Tiffany Thompson and our dear friend Juliet Korver. It was a really fun night to see Zach out of his typical, worship world element and playing some of his original tunes (some of which are songs we wrote together). I know I know, surprising right? But when we have the time, we can create some pretty good songs together.
At this gathering we were also introduced to Kicheko Goods, a socially conscious brand that designs unique jewelry supporting education in Congo. They have recently been picked up as a partner of Tom's Shoes and are just doing great things. You can check out their accessories here.

On October 12th, I took Allie for a girls night out. She has been working SO HARD at school and I knew we just needed some fun time together. The evening started with dinner at the lovely Cafe Intermezzo, a Venetian cafe in Midtown.

Since Cafe Intermezzo is known for their dessert and coffee, we kept things light for dinner. Allie had a breakfast panini and I had the lox flatbread. 
 Big moment: choosing her dessert.
The dessert counter at this place seriously makes you salivate from the second you walk in, and this is just HALF of it! Cakes, pies, tarts, and other sweet treats line every shelf from end to end.
Allie naturally chose the richest, chocolatey-est dessert she could find - devil's food cheesecake. 
 Can your love language be chocolate because if so... hahaha
 I had the chocolate pecan pie and it was oh so decadent too.
Afterwards we headed to Buckhead to attend the monthly women's night at Passion City Church called The Grove. 

 We were warned that it is SLAMMED so we got there 1.5 hours early. I was stunned to find long lines already at the door! We waited about 45 minutes outside before they opened the doors so we had to keep ourselves amused by what else? Taking photos. :)
 PCC always does such a great job with hospitality and making events truly special.
 We rushed into the sanctuary and Allie begged to sit on the fur rugs and floor cushions in the center of the room. How could I say no?! :)

 Counting down until the start of the program. 20 minutes to go!
Worship was led by Melodie Malone and Kristian Stanfill. The music was beautiful and featured a violinist and upright base. 
 The host of this event is Shelley Giglio, who's husband Louie is a well known pastor, teacher, and author. Together these two humbly lead Passion Conferences, Passion City Church, and SixStep Records. The guest speaker was Bible teacher and author Jennie Allen, who I had never heard of before, but felt so encouraged by her story and steadfast faith.
So much so, that I immediately ordered her latest book (Restless) and began reading it- on the most perfect fall day I might add, when the sky was the iciest blue and crunchy leaves were falling all around me. #swoon
Our night out was great and Allie had such a wonderful time. I am looking forward to bringing her back here in November to celebrate her 15th birthday! I've got a few little surprises up my sleeve to make it extra special. :)

In mid-October, Allie had her first local visit with her mom. While they were off camping, Zach and I celebrated our friends Tina and Zane and their baby boy Cash, due early December. I put together another one of my baby shower baskets, but this time with gifts for not just momma, but dad and baby too.
Two of my favorite items were the gifts for Tina - milestone photo cards and the "Letters to my Baby" book.
The milestone cards are a set of 24 cards- all with different milestones, beautifully designed and ready to photograph with your baby when they accomplish them, like so:
The Letters to my Baby book is a series of letter prompts for you to write to your baby, fold, seal, and date for when they should open it. It's a heartfelt, compact treasure and very well done.
Both these items are available from multiple retailers, but I purchased mine off Amazon in case there is a new mom in your life you wanna get them for!

In other news, Allie had her first school chorus concert on Oct 22!
Obligatory post-concert pics, with dad...
 With my MIL...
With my mom...
 The three musketeers!
It was awesome to see her choir perform as well as the other 4 upperclassman choirs. They did a great job and we can't wait for the next one in December!

We also celebrated my mom's 60th birthday this month. She came on a solo visit since my dad had to work back home. For her actual birthday she enjoyed a birthday brunch with Z, time hanging out with my MIL, and a family dinner at Cheesecake Factory.
 Diving into her birthday dessert after the traditional Cheesecake Factory waiter serenade.
When we got home, she got a real serenade from Zach and Allie as they rehearsed for their gig Saturday night at the Promise 686 Benefit Concert.
To mom's utter surprise, I hosted a family birthday party for her on Saturday afternoon (ladies only). I will post separately about all the details and how I managed to pull this off, but I am so grateful my aunt and cousin-in-law could join us for the luncheon!
I cooked, and I cooked, and I cooked until I could cook no more!

After the party, we re-purposed all the eucalyptus table decor into a garland for my mantle. I love it! I just wish it would stay fresh longer!

That same night, Zach was the featured artist at the Promise 686 Benefit Concert. Promise 686 is a Christian organization providing support to families looking to foster or adopt.

 Zach took Allie along and she joined him on stage to cover Ben Rector's Sailboat song.
One of the guest speakers was Rachel Hendrix who is the leading lady in the movie October Baby (which Allie has loved for years). Needless to say, getting to do an event with Rachel and sing with "the Daddy" in front of a few hundred people was doubly awesome for her. I really wish I could have been there, but I am so glad Allie is getting to have experiences like this.

After church the following Sunday, my MIL had us over for lunch before mom's flight home. A few family pics before heading to the airport!

Al with two of her grandmothers,
 Al and the weekend guest of honor!
 Selfie Sunday with mom.
And this past Friday, after a loooong, busy week at work, I came home and discovered this:
NO BEARD. Say whaa??!! Christmas came early! haha Zach has had facial hair for at least 2 years. At first, I HATED the beard, but over the YEARS, I have come to accept it. However, that did not stop me from taking a million photos of him clean shaven to document this monumental occasion.
Fingers crossed it lasts more than a week!
As for Halloween, it was very low key this year. We ate breakfast for dinner, distributed candy to a grand total of TWO trick-or-treaters, and watched a mini marathon of our new favorite tv show, Fixer Upper. That's what I call winning. Ha!

And today, Allie sang "Good, Good, Father" with Zach during Sunday services. This was her first time singing at Perimeter and leading a few thousand people in worship. I would be absolutely terrified to do this, but this 14 yr old girl has so much composure and confidence and well, the best Dad ever by her side so I guess that helps! We are so happy she is using her gifts to glorify God. What more can a parent ask for?
I honestly can't believe we have done SO MUCH this month, but I am so glad. It's been busy and stressful at times, but I am so grateful my family is healthy and capable of having these experiences and making these memories. It is truly a gift and I never want to take our ability to hop in the car, sing a song, or enjoy every bite of a delicious meal for granted. Although physical blessings abound, lately I have found myself really appreciating the deeper blessings, the spiritual blessings in life; blessings in the heart and mind that only come from the grace of Jesus.
For the past few weeks, every night before Allie's bedtime, our family has been reading a passage from the Jesus Storybook Bible and Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing. I know what you might be thinking..."That Bible is for babies! Or at most, little kids.." but it really is for EVERYONE. If you are unfamiliar with the Bible - no matter your age, I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and read it. It gives a simple explanation of the Bible and is very easy to understand the purpose of the stories that fill its pages. All three of us have loved doing this and just, consistently reminding ourselves of the love of our Heavenly Father and all he has done for us. If you are in a season that feels consumed with discouragement, hopelessness, anxiety, or fear, I encourage you to pick up these books and fill your heart with the love, hope, and peace God intends for you to have! It is a treasure far beyond any person, place, or thing and BONUS, it's free!