The Gleeful Gourmand: June 2015

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Beachy Birthday Party

It's been party central around here lately! First was the Champagne Brunch, which launched us right into the last week of school. Friday afternoon we had a fun end-of-the-year party for all the kids in the neighborhood by shooting them with water guns as they stepped off the bus, and then stuffing them full of pizza and watermelon.

The very next day was my twin girls' 4th birthday party. 4 years old. I so remember being in the thick of that newborn haze, wondering how I was make it through with not one, but two tiny babes. I remember trying to imagine what it was going to be like when they were 4 years old (the age my son had been rapidly approaching at the time), and not being able to pull a picture up in my mind. And now here we are, and it's hard for me to recall the days of two babies at once without looking at pictures. Mostly I just remember the feeling of being overwhelmed, putting my head down, and powering through that first year.

These 4-year-old girls are spunky, and funny, and bright, and make each day a joy. They have wildly different personalities, and it's been fascinating to see them grow up as twins, and best friends. Of course, there are days when they are more like mortal enemies than best friends, but I get the feeling that would be the case with any siblings who share a room and almost all their time together. They may get frustrated with each other, but after a few moments of separation, they're desperate to be back together.

Anyway, what to do for the big 4-year-old girls for their birthday? I had always wanted to do an outdoor party for them, and this would be the first time some of their friends were invited to come in addition to family. Thanks to Pinterest, I already had a few ideas rolling around in my brain for a fun, mostly cheap Beachy Birthday Party.

The party table with decorations from Party City and Hobby Lobby.

First, I borrowed an inflatable pool from one of our neighbors (and also party guest) that had a small slide and several sprinklers attached to it. My Mom, in a fit of summer fun, also bought us a super cool slip n' slide that was lightyears better than the plastic sheet we had purchased a couple of years ago. We put both of these on the front lawn, along with a bucket full of water balloons, and another bucket of water guns.

For the decorations, I got two large dolphin balloons with smaller balloons in different colors to grace the front steps. They're now in our foyer, eyeing us suspiciously from the bannisters ("They're watching me," Buck told me last night while we watched TV. "I just know it.").

I decked out a table with a vinyl Hawaiian print tablecloth, and a cheap burlap-type material runner to go down the middle. At Hobby Lobby I found some cute decorations that were almost all around 50% off. Two small ceramic fish, a cute pink sailboat (all of which are now doubling as decorations in the kids' bathroom), and some palm trees from Party City that were supposed to be balloon holders, but I thought made cute additions. Hawaiian-type napkins and plates from Party City also did nicely, and of course I had our Hawaiian Mix playing on the Bose System.

The Food! Since their party was in the late afternoon, but well before dinnertime, I only had a few fun snacks on hand. There were "Fish & Chips," potato chips and Goldfish mixed in a purchased sand pail with a corresponding shovel, big slices of ice-cold watermelon, and Flip Flop Cookies.

Cute Flip Flop Cookies!

These were the cutest cookies ever, and SO simple. All you do is take a package of Vienna Fingers and use decorating gel in different colors to make the "straps" of the flip flops. If I had to do it over, I would use actual icing, since the gel was a bit messy and runny. For the "sand" the flip flops were lying on, I fluffed up some light brown sugar. I also packed the brown sugar into a curved highball glass, and then turned it out, making a little sandcastle that I stuck a drink umbrella in.

Their drinks were also really fun: "Ocean Water." Comprised of nothing more than two big bottles of Sierra Mist, and half a huge bottle of Hawaiian Punch Frozen Blast (or some such dreadful blue concoction), it was a big, sugary hit with the 4-year-olds. I froze Swedish Fish in muffin tins filled with water, and they "floated" in the ocean water. I also plunked a frozen Swedish Fish in each cup, because why not?

"Ocean Water" drinks with Swedish Fish.

Cupcakes. Dear readers, get ready to gasp. The cupcakes were from a mix. A MIX. And the icing was from a can. Yes. You read that right. I botched the buttercream icing I made for them (it curdled) and had to resort to canned icing. To add injury to insult, the foodie gods must have realized what a cheat this "gourmand" was because while I was moving the cupcakes from the kitchen to the front door, half of them slid off the cupcake stand and landed unceremoniously on my carpet. Epic.

The day was brutally hot. The ice in the Ocean Water melted immediately, and all the Swedish Fish sank down to the depths of Davy Jones's Locker...otherwise known as the bottom of my drink dispenser, whereupon they began to congeal and dissolve. The water balloons broke almost as soon as the kids' hands touched them so the water balloon toss was a bust (pun intended). Thunder and dark clouds threatened, things blew away, and the girls hated their cupcakes (foodie snobs already!).

But you know what? We had a great time. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of squeals of joy, and at least one tiny tike ate her weight in Fish & Chips and watermelon. I'd say it was a success.

I even managed to get the canned icing out of my carpet.

The Birthday Girls, minutes before they chucked their cupcakes in the trash.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Champagne Brunch

Have you ever played Bunco? When we first moved into our neighborhood 10 years ago, I had never heard of the game. A group of older ladies invited me to play, and I was excited to finally meet some of our new neighbors. I'll never forget walking in the door later that night, and trying to think of what to say when my husband asked how the actual game was.

"It's fun, I guess. There's nothing to it, though. It's a nothing game. There's no strategy, no thinking. But the snacks are good, and so are the drinks."

"So you had a good time?" He asked.

"Yes. But, if we have to play a game to socialize, why couldn't we play Trivial Pursuit, or something like that?"

I was mystified. I love games, but this one was lost on me. Or so I thought. 10 years later, and so many rounds of Bunco I can't even count, I get it. It's a nothing game, where you don't really have to think (unless you're the one keeping score during play. Let me tell you, a couple of glasses of wine in, and keeping score gets hard). And that is precisely the point: Good friends, yummy food, great drinks, and just a chance to get together and hang out, take a break, roll the dice, and laugh. It's a nothing game and it's fun.

Plus, if you win, you get the big pot of money that everyone contributes to.

I've never won once, in 10 years. I'm not bitter or anything.

Setting the stage for a Champagne Brunch.

But I digress. For the past two years I've been a regular part of a newer Bunco group, consisting of moms and younger women from the three small neighborhoods that line up next to each other. We get together once a month to play Bunco and we always have a great time. The thing is, we have a really loud, great time. Every lady takes one month to host, and I've never been able to because our house is designed in such a way that you can hear a pin drop no matter where you are in the house. There's no playroom upstairs, and also no television upstairs either. It's been tricky for me to host when I know there would be nowhere for my husband to go, and it would certainly keep the kids awake.

But still, it was time for me to do something. Enter the Bunco Champagne Brunch. This past Sunday, with the kids whisked safely away to Church, we got our brunch on and hung out for a couple of hours, chatting, laughing, and drinking Champagne (and Prosseco). We didn't end up playing Bunco at all, and it didn't matter.

So here's the thing about Brunch. I get the feeling that people don't really throw them that much unless it's a super-special occasion, like a Baptism, or the morning after a wedding type of deal. But why? Brunch is awesome! And with the right guide, it can be really easy.

Freshly made Blueberry Scones.

Hi, I'm Jenna, and I'll be your Champagne Brunch guide today.

When you think "Champagne Brunch," do you feel overwhelmed, like it would all be too complicated? Trust me, it's not! Here's what I did to stick with a fun theme, and deliver the (baked) goods:

1) I started with drinks: I knew I wanted to have not just Champagne and/or Mimosas, but a fun twist where people could help themselves. I went with this delicious Mimosa Punch that kicks things up a notch. In our Bunco group each of us brings a bottle of wine to share with the group, and the ladies last Sunday brought, on my request, good, but inexpensive sparkling wine. No need to break the bank on this brunch, people. Cupcake makes a particularly excellent Prosseco (Italian sparkling wine. Fun fact: It cannot be called "Champagne" unless it was made from the grapes of the Champagne region in France), for just $11.

2) I dolled up my dining room table with my good tablecloth, the nice plates from Party City (sorry all you people expecting fine china. Who in the world wants to clean dishes after drinking all that Champagne?!), and fresh flowers.

3) Since only 8 of us were able to attend, I kept the menu simple. I wanted a mixture of savory, and sweet things:

Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole. I haven't found a single person yet who doesn't love this comforting dish.

Homemade Blueberry Scones, with Lemon Curd, and fresh Whipped Cream. This recipe, which you can find here was one of the best I've ever made.

Store-bought Quiches and Carmelized Onion Tarts from Trader Joes. This was a no-brainer. You've got to have a few things that can be popped into the oven to save yourself time and energy!

Fresh Berries. Because something on your table should resemble something healthy. It's only the right thing to do, especially when you finish with:

Champagne Cupcakes. Be still, my beating heart.
Champagne Cupcakes. Yes. Champagne in the cake, Champagne in the frosting with some orange zest to mimic a mimosa, and gold sprinkles to stay with the "bubbly" theme. These were absolutely delicious. This link takes you to my friend Kirsten's riff on it, and this link is the original recipe. I combined both of these takes, but omitted the filling for my own. They were Heaven on Earth, people. I can neither confirm nor deny that a single tear rolled down my cheek with the first bite.

4) To make brunch easy on myself, I did the following: At least 3 weeks out, I made a list of what I wanted to serve. 1 week out I went shopping for everything I would need so I wouldn't be rushed over the weekend. Saturday night I made most of the Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole, minus the crunchy topping, and stuck it in the fridge. I also made the Champagne Cupcakes, and set the table, buffet style. That saved me a lot of time the next morning, and I made sure I knew the temps and times of everything that had to go into the oven, and made yet another list so that everything came out right on time. Lists are life, friends.

Since I don't have a table big enough for everyone to eat at together, we simply took our plates to the sunporch where the Mimosa Punch and bottles of Champagne sat conveniently waiting for us, and pulled chairs around in a group.

5) My last tip is this: If nothing is going right the morning of, and you, by accident, oversleep your alarm, make sure that one of the things that is ready no matter what is your beverage. So even if you have to scurry around the kitchen finishing things up, your guests have a drink in their hands, and the party is started. Never, ever leave them empty-handed for any length of time.

We didn't play Bunco, but we sure had a lot of the stuff on the right, and a heck of a good time!
So listen, if you've got a weekend coming up, and you'd like to do something fun, but you're not sure what, and you want to gather some friends for a good time, but don't want to have to deal with the mobs of people edging you out for a table at your favorite restaurant, make your own Brunch. It doesn't have to break the bank, it just has to be fun. I've supplied you with the tips, you supply the friends and bubbly, and you're on your way.