My Friday Night Happy Hour: Pizza, Popcorn and a Pig Pile

Of all the routines in my life, one of the most important to me is Friday night. That is my Happy Hour, although it involves no bar.

Happy Hour for me is Movie Night: pizza, popcorn, and a pig pile of kids on the couch.

We started Movie Night a year ago. I think it all began with sheer exhaustion. Without fail, every single week I am completely wiped out by Friday night. All I want to do is just sit on the couch and zone out. I don’t want to make a fancy meal, I don’t want to have a discussion about table manners, none of it. I just want to sit and not feel obligated to do anything.

All I want is to just throw a pizza in the oven and watch a movie…

Hey, why don’t we don’t that…

So, out of that weekly exhaustion was born one of the routines that our whole family looks forward to the most: Movie Night. Turns out, at the end of a week, we ALL just want to sit and hang out and do nothing.

My four-year-old has a calendar with simple labels so he can keep track of days. School days are marked with “S” and on Fridays, I drew a little picture of our television to show Movie Night. Every time he sees that day, he cheers. Our two-year-old reacts the same way: she says “Movie night!” in the same excited and relieved way that she says “You’re home!” when someone returns.

We all need a mental break, snuggle time on the couch, and easy food. It’s the one meal a week that we don’t eat at the table. We make popcorn and pizza and head to the living room.

Three kids in a flurry of gobbling olives and making pizza creations.

Three kids in a flurry of gobbling olives and making pizza creations. (Groceries still not put away from the afternoon trip to the store.)

Pressing out the dough

Relaxing on movie night is special enough that my kids often dart upstairs to put on their “movie night pants:” soft, fuzzy pajama pants that feel so comfy after a long week. Then we turn on a movie. Sometimes, we just pick something from Netflix that is family friendly (keeps the kids entertained, but doesn’t drive Jarred and me crazy with boredom).

My favorite nights are the times when I find a classic, something we watched as kids. It’s so much fun to share E.T., The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and The Andy Griffith Show with our kids. I love watching something familiar, but seeing it with new eyes from an adult perspective while at the same time, getting the joy of watching our kids see it for the first time.

Just last week, we watched Swiss Family Robinson. Growing up, that movie was a family staple. We watched it over and over and over. We quoted lines. Seeing it again after about a 20 year gap, I see lots of flaws in the storyline. But through the eyes of my kids, I can suspend disbelief. Of course it is perfectly reasonable (and totally fabulous) for a little boy to snare a wild baby elephant and make it a tame pet in the next scene. Why couldn’t a clever family fight off a band of pirates?

Watching the opening scene at the kids' picnic table as the pizza bakes.

Watching the opening scene and munching popcorn at the kids’ table as the pizza bakes.

And best of all, my kids completely cracked up at my very favorite part. During the pirate attack, the lead pirate picks up a coconut bomb, and examining it, says something that sounds like “coconut” in another language, “Doydoynut?”. Then, dismissing it as nothing “Eh…” he tosses it behind him, where it explodes right in front of another bad guy pirate, who gets blasted back. In true Disney style, there is no blood shed, just comedy.

My seven-year-old read Swiss Family Robinson and then watched the movie last year at school, so she prepped her siblings ahead of time to watch for the “doydoynut” part. My two-year-old excitedly acted out the coconut scene and giggled. She told us that was her favorite part, which is impressive, since she hadn’t even seen the movie yet when she announced that.

So last Friday, when we got to the coconut scene, we backed up the movie three or four times to fully appreciate the “doydoynut” and laugh hysterically.

And that’s why I love movie night.

My kids sit in a big pig pile all over us on the couch. They fight over who gets Mom’s lap (a precious commodity). We hang out for two hours, and have no agenda other than just to be together. I sit and hug them and feel their cozy, warm smallness. My six-year-old who often tells me “I just can’t ever get enough of your hugs” fills up his hug bank on the couch.

Movie night...picture Mom wedged into that little open spot on the couch.

Movie night…picture Mom wedged into that little open spot on the couch.

And while we sit, the kitchen full of dishes just sits and waits, and so does the big pile of laundry upstairs.

Downstairs on the couch, I get to snuggle with my kids and teach them a few inside jokes from my childhood. So now I can say “A doydoynut? Eh…” and make them crack up, just the way I did with my siblings growing up.

I think that’s important. Sometime, I’m going to be a very old lady in the nursing home making a joke about a “doydoynut” and cracking myself up. And that’s when I’ll need my kids to step in and tell the nurses that I’m not crazy. Or maybe they’ll say that I’ve always been that crazy. That would be fine, too.

Movie Night Pizza Crust
On movie nights we started out just throwing frozen pizza in the oven, but one night I decided to make pizza from scratch.

We discovered, like many things, homemade tastes better. I don’t know if I’m clever for making my own pizzas or an idiot for turning the one brain-dead cooking night into a cooking event, but we now make our own pizza. I mix up dough in the Kitchenaid mixer, and then each kid gets a dough ball and creates their own personal pizza while I make the big pizza.

Sometimes, you need a big brother to help flatten out your dough.

Sometimes, you need a big brother to help flatten out your dough.

It turns the table into a pizza topping mess and health code inspectors would arrest me for how often the spoon gets licked and then returned to the sauce bowl, but it’s really fun. It makes more work for me, but I love that my two-year-old can make her own pizza. I also noticed that when they make their own pizzas, they almost always clean their plates when eating.

The pizza crust is a make and bake recipe…no rising involved (no planning ahead needed). Once you’ve had a little practice, you can start completely from scratch and have a hot, baked pizza in about 35 minutes, which is not all that much longer than it takes to cook a frozen pizza. If you have lots of little helpers adding their own unique flair to the cooking process, it will take slightly longer.

This recipe makes enough dough for one thick-crust recipe, or one thin crust recipe plus four mini pizzas.

No-Rise Pizza Crust

1 cup hot water
1 pkg. yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons oil
corn meal

1. Add yeast and sugar to hot water, stir, and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, mix flour and salt. Add in the yeast mixture, which should be bubbly. Add oil. Mix well.

3. Mix with dough hook attachment on mixer or knead by hand for 5 minutes until dough is soft and pliable. (You can skip this part, but your crust won’t be as tender.  Five minutes of kneading is the secret to making dough that’s so soft and nice that you just want to roll in it.  We discovered this by accident when I left the mixer on and walked away, and it made the best crust ever.)

4. Sprinkle pizza pan lightly with corn meal to prevent sticking. (Do not skip that, you’ll regret it.) Roll out dough and add desired pizza toppings.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Makes one pizza.

I like to use 1 cup of whole wheat flour with 2 cups all-purpose flour to give the dough a little more heft. I also often make Cheese-Stuffed Crust: Roll out the dough a good inch past the edge of the pan, sprinkle mozzarella around the perimeter, fold over the dough and seal it in. It makes a cheesy bread stick at the end of your piece of pizza…mmm…

Now, go forth and make pizza! Have a movie night!

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Pie and Two-Year-Olds: Yes, You Can

Today, I made pie with my two-year-old. Martha Stewart would probably not approve of the non-exact nature of our baking. We stopped mixing crust because my daughter needed to set a cricket trap by the refrigerator.

Smiling at her very first little pie.  Seconds later she poked her finger in the big pie and stacked her little pie on top like a pyramid.

Smiling at her very first little pie. Seconds later she poked her finger in the big pie and stacked her little pie on top like a pyramid.

I have a love/hate relationship with Martha Stewart. My new favorite guilty pleasure is watching Martha Stewart Bakes on PBS in the evening after the kids are in bed and the dishes are (usually) done. I watch with a little bit of reverence and a little bit of disgust.

The woman truly is undeniably talented, and undeniably pretentious. For me, one of the highlights of watching the show is listening for new pretentious names she uses for common objects and ingredients.

Just last night, she used her “pastry cutter” to cut some dough into a circle. Now, I don’t think Martha would appreciate this, but her so-called pastry cutter looks exactly like what average people refer to as a pizza cutter.

I understand that “pizza cutter” conjures up images of some guy with a beer belly throwing a frozen pizza in the oven and watching a little football. And of course, that association is unacceptable when one is doing serious baking. Wanting to be like Martha, the next time I need to cut up a pizza, I’m going to call out from the kitchen in very crisply pronounced words, “Has anyone seen my pastry cutter?”

When I receive confused looks, I will count that as a success. One step closer to Martha.

And in some ways, Martha has even outdone herself. In years past on her cooking shows, I recall her referring to “confectioners’ sugar.” That name, apparently, has become far too commonplace. I notice that she now uses a product called “10X sugar.” Oh, Martha. We all know it’s just plain old powdered sugar.

I just keep waiting for her to find a new name for eggs.

On the positive side, watching Martha does inspire me to bake. My approach, though, is often decidedly un-Martha Stewart, because I welcome kids, and by extension, chaos into the mix.

With fall in the air, I felt the need to bust out the pumpkin pie again. This is a recipe that’s simple enough that you can employ a two-year-old to do much of the work. In fact, I do.

There are few things more satisfying to a child or a parent than letting someone little take part in a real job. When you eat a pie, and the tiniest person at the table says, “I made it,” there really is no greater pride than that.

For pumpkin pie filling, I use my mom’s time-honored recipe. It’s actually quite famous. You will find my mom’s recipe printed on the back of every single can of pumpkin, so I won’t reprint it here.

The recipe I want to share is for pie crust. Crust is the hard part of pies. It’s the part that usually makes people nervous enough to head to the freezer section and buy something in a box that comes from a little dough boy in a baker’s hat.

Homemade crust, though, tastes so much better. This crust is easy. No rolling pin required.

I originally found this recipe on the internet. When 178 people give this recipe give this a recipe a very good rating, I count it as a pretty safe bet.

No Roll Pie Crust

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup ice water
1/2 cup oil

Directions: Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Place dough in the pie pan, and press it out evenly with your fingers. Fill with favorite pie filling and bake. Makes one pie crust.

Here’s a measurement of the easiness: About two years ago, when my oldest child was five and the youngest was a baby less than a year old, I made this with my kids AND two of my sister-in-law’s children, ages four and two. That’s right, six kids ages five and under helped make a pie for a bedtime snack. Granted, it was a little chaotic, but it was doable. They all helped pat the crust in place.

Six kids ages five and under helped me bake a pie for a bedtime snack.

Six kids ages five and under helped me bake a pie for a bedtime snack.

Today, I made pie with my two-year-old. Martha Stewart would probably not approve of the non-exact nature of our baking.

We stopped mixing crust because my daughter needed to set a cricket trap by the refrigerator, “I need to catch him. I’ll be very nice to him, Mom.”

She also tested the texture of the crust by wrapping some on her arm. I have not yet seen that technique on cooking shows, but I’m not Martha, so I may be mistaken.

Concentrating on mixing up the pie crust.

Concentrating on mixing up the pie crust.

I let my daughter shape her own pie in a tiny toy pie pan. She added crumbled popcorn and sugar powder from a pixie stick to the crust. I also noticed she added almonds and cashews to the pumpkin filling while I wasn’t looking. I’ve got a real innovator, one with pumpkin pie filling all over her mouth.

We didn’t bother with trying to emulate Martha’s perfectly fluted crust edges. Neat and orderly also went aside with a flour explosion on the table and little fingers dipped in pie filling.

In the end, imperfect crust still tastes good. Germs will bake away at 350 degrees, and happiness and accomplishment from making a pie is long lasting. That’s why I do my baking with a two-year-old.

Preventing Mutiny with Playdough

Written March 19, 2012.

My little Montana natives are getting restless. They tell me repeatedly they want to go home. “Home” as in our new house in Minnesota that they only saw for a few hours total, six months ago.

It was a full month ago now that their dad hauled most of our stuff to that house. At the time, when we loaded up two full trailers, we thought another two weeks here in Montana would wrap up all of his work projects here. And now, a month later, it looks like we are still two more weeks out from that elusive moving date. If you listen closely on a calm day, you might be able to hear our collective sigh from 1,000 miles away.

Understandably, my kids are getting tired of it all. We’ve all been living out of duffel bags for a month. When I set aside their clothes to keep here, I grabbed only long-sleeved shirts since it was the middle of February at the time. Now, with this stretch of crazily warm weather here in MT (and even hotter in MN, I hear), I’ve been accusingly asked more than once why I didn’t pack them some t-shirts.

And of course, when St. Patrick’s Day rolled around, they wondered why one month ago I didn’t think ahead to make sure that they each had something green to put on for that day. Silly me.

For several weeks they’ve been troopers about living in a mostly empty house, devoid of their usual assortment of toys and their own comfy beds and blankets. But a few nights ago, when the end of the day weariness kicks in and emotions heighten, my 6-year-old came to me with tears rolling down her cheeks, telling me that this house here “doesn’t feel like home anymore. Now it just feels like an ‘icky’ old house.” Then she asked if we could just move to Minnesota in the morning. I told her I wished we could.

It’s certainly not for a lack of effort that we are still here in Montana. My husband, Jarred, has been logging long hours for weeks. Every morning he leaves after breakfast and doesn’t get home until supper has been cold for a long time.

Three nights in a row, he didn’t get home until after the kids were already in bed. The older kids understand that he is working hard to finish his scale projects so we can move, but at the same time, they really just want their dad around to play with them. With their favorite live-action super hero gone installing scales until bedtime, hanging out in this empty house feels all the more, well, empty.

One morning this week when our almost one-year-old sweet baby spied Dad after not seeing him since breakfast the day before, she giggled and leaned toward him so he would hold her. Then she laid her head on his shoulder, grabbed onto his shirt with one hand, and patted his back with the other. That’s the sweet side of it all.

On the not-so-sweet side is the bickering and arguing of kids who are getting tired of the empty surroundings and miss being in a house that feels homey. My two oldest kids are just fifteen months apart, and being that close in age, they know each other all too well.

They sit next to each other at meals, and lately, they bicker and push each other’s buttons like a grumpy old married couple. “It’s not actually peanut butter and jelly. It’s really jam.” “Well, I say jelly.” “Well, that’s wrong. It’s jam.” “But I call it PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY!!!!” Follow this actual exchange with an angry growl and one squeezing the other’s arm, and you’ve got an accurate picture of family meals these days.

After several of these days this week, I knew we needed a little something different in our lives. So, I dug in our kitchen cupboards and I made a toy that cost next to nothing and can happily engage them for an hour at a time. Playdough.

Growing up, I thought homemade playdough was a sad, sad excuse for the “real” stuff that came from the store. My childhood recollection of homemade playdough was a stiff, salty, grainy mass that dried out too quickly, was too hard to shape, and not pliable enough to roll. It was useless (and tasted terrible, I might add). We added water to it trying to fix it, and it became a thick spackle that probably wound up in the garbage.

Apparently, we didn’t have the right recipe, because now I absolutely love homemade playdough. The recipe I use makes a wonderfully soft, smooth, easily pliable dough that is a tactile dream. And the beauty of it is that it’s a two-for-one: a science experiment/cooking project in the kitchen, and a fun toy when the project is complete.

On the day we whipped up a batch of fun, my three oldest kids eagerly gathered around to stir together the dry ingredients in the saucepan before I cooked the batch on the stove. In bickering mode, they argued over who got to dump in what and how the mix should be stirred, but we forged ahead because I knew eventually they would be too engrossed in activity to argue.

The big kids stir together dry ingredients and argue a bit while Kathy held the baby and kept her out of the flour mess.

Once I cooked the dough, we divided it into baseball-size clumps. Then each clump got a few child-selected drops of food coloring, and they eagerly kneaded it until the ball became a satisfyingly bright color. My kids are into rainbows, so they decided we needed all the colors, including indigo and violet. I mixed and tweaked food coloring drops, and they smushed and squeezed away, until we had seven bright balls of playdough.

A complete rainbow of playdough colors, including indigo and violet. Thank you, Cat in the Hat, for teaching my kids the Rainbow Song. I sing it in my sleep.

Best of all, once we finished making the playdough, I turned them loose. Snakes, circles, birthday cakes, pizzas, and animals took shape and then got smashed into oblivion. Sure, our baby was fed a few pieces of playdough “food” by a kind two-year-old brother. But when the ingredients came straight out of the kitchen, the kid squabbling was gone, and quiet, industrious play reigned supreme, I called the playdough project a great success.

Contentedly slicing playdough cookies before rolling them into snakes.w

It cleans up nicely, too. And I mean it. I would not make a playdough that would smear in the carpet and hold up this eagerly anticipated moving process…

Kathy’s Peace-Making Playdough

2 c. flour

1 c. salt

2 tbsp. cream of tartar

2 c. water

2 tbsp. oil

food coloring

Mix dry ingredients together in a saucepan. Add water and oil. Stir until smooth. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens and sticks to spoon. Cool. Add food coloring as desired, mixing by hand. Play until you feel happy. Store in an airtight container.

© 2012