Former Cookie contributing editor, she’s just come out with a must-have dessert book, Sweet Home: Over 100 Heritage Desserts and Ideas for Preserving Family Recipes, which is so approachable, warm and honest, and filled with dessert recipes that you’ll put into rotation immediately. You can also find her on her Sweet Home blog.
Give us a little background on yourself/what you do/how you came to it. How much did becoming a parent shape what your business is?
Of Midwestern roots, I’ve been living in NY for almost 20 years. I consider myself primarily a writer and stylist. I’ve wanted to write since I could form a sentence. I started out as an editorial assistant, worked in both books and magazine on both the editorial and publishing sides. After my first daughter was born, I moved into a job share. When my second daughter was born, I went on bed rest. It was because of that scare I went freelance, mostly writing and editing. While I miss the camaraderie and creativity of working in an office, the past eight years have been precious with my children. Working from home has allowed me to be with them at times I may not otherwise have been. It has also given me the chance to expand my skills, from prop styling to teaching because opportunities are more varied.
Have you been into baking since you were a girl?
Yes, yes! I always wanted an Easy Bake oven but never got one. My mom encouraged me to use the real stove. My best friend Sandy Sweazy and I made homemade doughnuts when we were in fifth grade—alone. Can you imagine? Frying in oil with no parent present. Things were different then, huh?
Where did you grow up?
Mostly in the Midwest, Illinois and Wisconsin, which is where my extended family still lives (I did move three times in high school though—from IL to MD to WI to NY, which was rough (my father was transferred with the same company, then took a new job my senior year). While I had no consistent curriculum, there were many other things to be learned from that many moves.
From your book it seems like your family was very close-knit, and I’m wondering if you live near each other now. If not, do you travel to visit alot, skype, etc…?
Although we speak by phone weekly if not daily, I unfortunately do not see my family as much as I would like. My husband’s family lives in PA though, so we spend lots of time with them. Because extended family is not a part of our daily lives, I’ve noticed how much the girls treasure time with their cousins. They certainly don’t take it for granted, and really hold those times dear. It’s very sweet to witness…their eyes even light up when they talk about “the relatives.”
How old are your girls?
Anna, 13; Camilla, 10
Did they love having you work on this book? (Recipe testing?!) What are their favorite recipes from the book? Is there any dessert that didn’t make it in because it was too simple but it’s a staple in your dessert rotation?!
Yes, the girls were amazing assistants. I think they enjoyed being a part of the process. We shot the book in our house, and for two weeks the dining room became a photo studio, the living the prop room, and the kitchen was filled with lots of yummy sweets. The crew was so generous with the girls. The girls did test recipes for me. I’d send them in the kitchen and see if they could make the dessert. If they could do it, I figured anyone should be able to (I did have a group of 40 testers nationwide though too!). Camilla loves the hot fudge pudding cake and strawberry rhubarb pie. Anna loves most anything sweet, especially banana cake, cardamom cake, and dulce de leche ice cream. Watermelon is one of our favorite summer desserts—and ice cream with hot fudge year round.
Since we worked with you primarily as our birthday editor at Cookie, we see you as the birthday guru. Where did that come from? Was your family super into them…or was it the perfect combo of craft meets dessert?
I remember my mother and sister putting together a festive birthday party every year. They would let me choose a theme and they would run with it. I guess that inspired me. I remember throwing my first party in fifth grade, a surprise baby shower for our teacher. I was so proud of that shindig. I still remember the invite to this day. Parties are an opportunity to be creative, be with friends, eat, drink, and celebrate. It doesn’t get much better than that.
What’s the favorite birthday party you’ve ever thrown, or been to? (kid or adult?!)
That’s like asking who my favorite child is…not sure I can answer that, Anna’s dog party, Camilla’s bug party. My husband threw me a surprise party that was incredible, I felt super loved. I was recently at a party for a friend and the invite asked guests to bring a joke or a roast in lieu of gifts. The party was in an amazing locale, food was divine, but really, it was the laughter and cheer in the room from the toasts that had me in tears. In the end, it’s really people who make parties. Always invite people for the right reasons—those with whom you want to be.
And what’s the easiest/biggest bang for your buck party you recommend to a mom who is on a budget, both money and time?
A carnival theme party in the backyard or local park. Parks are great because kids can always retreat to the playground. Try to recruit a few older cousins or neighborhood kids to run games such as Drop the Clothespin in the Jar, Can Toss, Water Balloon Toss, Whipped Cream-pie Eating Contest—all put together from inexpensive items or those gathered at home. Face painting and a big pan of bubble solution with lots of bubble wands are also highly entertaining. Give out tickets to the kids, and let them use to “buy” food too: popcorn, fruit juice snow cones, and chicken corn dogs.
How do you feel about goody bags? Any advice on how to do an easy/impressive one?!
While I myself always love sending guests away with loot, I do find many see them as obligatory and just thoughtlessly throw some junk in a bag. I always try to give something that’s functional or edible so it doesn’t become another landfill item. Be thoughtful and choose an item with purpose and package it creatively, if even a few pencils wrapped in parchment and twine. Just remember: presentation, presentation, presentation!
Do you entertain a lot? If so, what’s a typical situation…what are you making, and are you decorating /doing some extra special set-up for it?
My husband and I have always loved to entertain, as did both our parents…when I first met my husband, before we formally dated, my roommate and I were hosting a Superbowl party and Jim asked if there was anything he could bring. I told him bread. He showed up with two huge, overflowing shopping bags of every roll, loaf and baguette E.A.T. carried. I’ve always loved this about my husband. He goes all out and doesn’t skimp—although that was a bit over the top ; )—that’s how he and I like to entertain—no holds barred. Dinner parties are our favorite…with kids too. We set up an extra table next to our dining table and have as many as 16 or 20 to a sit-down meal. We change up our menus a lot. We’re getting much more streamlined as we get older. I remember trying to serve five-course dinners from our tiny Manhattan kitchen and being super stressed. Now we aim to have everything done ahead of time. We do really just enjoy being in the kitchen cooking with friends—intimate and cozy.
For the holidays, do you have any rituals we should copy (?!) or any fail-proof recipes or strategies you want to share?
Every year we go on a tree-cutting excursion and it marks the start of our holiday season. We go out to a farm and hike around looking for a beauty to bring home.
We also like to make gifts: roll beeswax candles, soaps, and baked goods. We bake A LOT! My favorite no-fail sugar cookie recipe was given to me by a friend who teaches cooking in our local elementary school. If first-graders can make them successfully, we all can.
Sweet Home’s Super-Easy Sugar Cookies
Forty 3-inch cookies
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1. Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium for 2 minutes. Add the sugar and beat on medium another 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
2. Add the egg and the vanilla extract to the bowl and continue to beat on medium for another 30 seconds. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt to the bowl and beat on low to medium for 11/2 to 2 minutes or until the dough comes together to form a ball. Dough may be used immediately.
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 large egg whites (or the prepared powdered egg white equivalent, meaning mixed with water)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Food coloring (optional)
1. Sift the confectioners’ sugar into the bowl.
2. Add the egg whites and beat on low until combined. Add the vanilla extract and lemon juice.
3. Then turn the mixer to high and beat for another few minutes until peaks form. The icing should be somewhat stiff (spreadable but not so thin it will run off the edges of the cookie).
4. If desired, divide the icing among several bowls and color as desired using food coloring. Cover the top of the icing with a damp paper towel to prevent it from drying out until using.
5. Decorate the cooled cookies with the royal icing, colored sugars, sprinkles, and/or dragees
Do you use the same ornaments every year, or do you do some new theme each time?
I’ve always wanted to do a theme tree but know I would get way too controlling wanting it to be perfect so I’ve never gone that route. I remember one year my mother had all quilted ornaments and a calico chain. I came home from school and it was decorated. Although it was beautiful, I remember being so disappointed. I want tree-trimming to be fun for the kids so we always go for an eclectic mix, choosing out of our box of many ornaments. We have lots of Scandinavian wood and straw ones though so that may be my subconscious theme! I also like hanging gingerbread cookies on the tree.
Do your girls believe in Santa? If they do, how do you deal with the wrapping of the presents from you vs. Santa?
This past summer my youngest finally asked us about the tooth fairy, and we told her. She then quickly said, “I don’t even want to know about Santa.” I guess this will be the first year I don’t have to worry about the wrapping paper. I used to wrap all their presents in paper so different than that I would buy…more commercial and cartoony. I would then hide the “Santa Only” roll in the basement for use the following year. I wonder if the kids would really have made the connection if the presents were all wrapped the same?
What do you do about stockings?
Practical stuff but more special: a fun toothbrush, socks, books.
What’s your weeknight family dinner routine? Any fast/healthy breakfast or lunch strategies?
I’ll be honest, my kids are completely spoiled when it comes to lunch and breakfast. They travel so far to school (almost 90 minutes each way) that I indulge them with good, homemade things they ask for: paninis, soups, pasta in Thermos containers. Smoothies are a good breakfast meal…pre-cut fruit for use during the week. I also like to make regular oatmeal with dried fruits and nuts the night before, then just reheat it—it’s so much better than instant. We sit down to dinner every night. Even if it’s takeout, we set the table and put it on plates. Even if we’re in a rush and it’s fifteen minutes, that’s precious time that’s cherished.
What’s your mom uniform?
J Brand jeans, a kaftan-like top and flats. In the winter it’s cashmere turtlenecks (an indulgence) and boots. (I also just discovered American Eagle jeggings at a quarter the cost of J Brand, love them!)
How do you celebrate your kids’ birthdays?
We always start the day off with a celebratory breakfast. We break out our box of decorations and adorn the table and chandelier with tissue-paper flowers, streamers, banners and more. We also always make a special dinner, chosen by the birthday person (this isn’t just for the kids’ bdays though, they do it for us too!).
Do you have a fail-safe beauty product or routine?
Keep it simple. I love glycolic acid face wash. I used to get it from my dermatologist, but a neighbor who’s studying cosmetology recently gave me a bottle from Lovely Skin, and it’s great.
When did you move upstate with your family–how old were your girls? Was that transition hard? Do you have a more manageable pace of life?
We moved upstate full time 2004 (we’ve had the house since 1999) when my oldest daughter, Anna, was starting kindergarten. My husband works in the city during the week so the separation was hard. He’s just as present, if not more so, than a father who’s home…he does homework with the girls by phone, emails them often (can’t get him into Skype yet—he really would be happy living in the 18th century!). We never imagined we’d still be here 8 years later. The country has been a great place to raise kids…lots of fresh air, strong community. While you would think the country pace would be more manageable (our town has a population of 309), we now spend a lot of time in the car—everything is about 30 minutes away, including dance class. (The girls are now dancing 4 days a week.) But that said, within that 30-minute distance we have a ski mountain, rivers for tubing, mountains for hiking and lakes for swimming.
Best family trip?
Hmmm, we love traveling so every trip is fun. We recently went to Jamaica and explored some areas where my husband’s father grew up. The kids were really interested in learning about family history. Visiting friends in Norway is always incredible…we’ve been many times. Camilla went for the first time when she just a month old.
Best kid purchase/bang for your buck?
A wheeled giraffe that we bought at a tag sale for $3. I think my daughter spent over four years of her life wheeling around on that thing.
What websites inspire you and for which parts of your life?
Wow, could never name them all. You should see my bookmark list. Someone just commented on how impressive it is. So…Momfilter, of course. I feel like I’m reading an email from a friend. Weelicious because I love Catherine McCord, Sweet Paul and Creature Comforts for my design/crafty side, Canvas and Greenhouse Design Studio for shopping. Sunday Suppers because it’s beautiful, and What Katie Ate for food inspiration.
What’s the thing that always stays on your to-do list and never gets crossed off and nags at you? (photo albums? Organizing your kids art projects? Planning a family trip?)
Where do I begin? I had to laugh because I needed something from a friend’s basement and she didn’t want me to go down there. She said, “I’ve seen too many Martha Stewart spreads…I have no cedar-lined closets.” Meanwhile, she had many organized, labeled plastic tubs. Nothing to be ashamed of. I think that’s why I haven’t gotten to my wedding album. I want(ed) a hand-bound book with personalized cover that would take lots of research and dollars. The thought is overwhelming so I just keep putting it off. Meanwhile, it may turn into a 50th wedding anniversary album if I don’t get on it. My husband and I have now been married for fifteen years.
Any personal/parenting “a-ha” tips?
Don’t take your kids’ bad moods personally.
You feel your best when?
I’m hanging out with my husband and girls, laughing and joking.
Proudest moment in parenting?
When my daughter was recently being taunted by two girls in our backseat (I was silently driving in the front) about a third girl they all knew. Mean girl stuff saying, “Oh so-and-so isn’t really your friend Anna, is she?” And Anna just said, “Yes, she is my friend and you should really give her a chance.”
Getting my eyebrows waxed by Gina at Saks.
Best parenting advice you ever got?
My daughter was two and literally flailing while I was trying to put my daughter in her car seat. It was the second or third time that day she had acted out. I didn’t have much reaction and just buckled her in. My best friend, witness to the episodes, pulled me aside and said that under no circumstance could I let my daughter get away with that behavior, that it would only snowball. It was that wake-up call that made me realize discipline is imperative. It’s so much easier to let kids get away with things, but then that’s how little monsters are created, no?
Any plans for a next book?!
Yes, I’m working on a proposal…details to come in the new year!