Friday, May 29, 2009

Baked Ziti

I was introduced to this easy recipe years ago by a friend in Tennessee who served it for a church youth devotional. A great dish for teens, baked ziti is easy to prepare and stretches to feed a crowd. It freezes well, so I usually divide the recipe to make one ziti for my family and one to save. Baked ziti is perfect for delivering to a shut-in, but it's also a great go-to for my family when I would rather craft than cook.

Baked Ziti

Cherie Dempster from Morristown, Tenn., shared this recipe with me.

16-ounce box ziti, cooked and drained
2-3 cups shredded mozzarella
2 packages sliced mozzarella
1 large jar spaghetti sauce with 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 pound ground beef browned with chopped onion
1 pound ricotta cheese
1 egg

Mix shredded mozzarella with cooked ziti and put in a lasagna pan. Mix ricotta with egg and spread over noodles. Pour sauce mixed with beef over ricotta. Place slices of mozzarella on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes.

(Note: In typing out this recipe, I realized I omitted the sliced mozzarella from the top of the ziti. The dish was still good, but I would recommend using it.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Little Ladies Day Laughs

The quaint southern town of Newnan boasts many beautifully restored historic homes like this one.

I admit that I had romanticized the idea of taking my sweet daughters, Mary Ashley and Emma, with me for my recent ladies day at the Downtown Church of Christ in Newnan, Ga. My mother-in-law planned to accompany us for the morning, and I was eager to share a day of worship with three generations of Lester girls. I looked forward to visiting the historic downtown area of Newnan, smiling as I packed pretty summer dresses, pink bows and sandals for our girls weekend.

I am still trying to figure out who slipped a stomach virus into Emma's suitcase. She got sick in the wee hours of the morning Saturday, then again just as we pulled into Newnan. Although her illness brought a little more drama to the weekend than I had anticipated, adding the girls to the weekend brought a lot of humor as well. Here are some of our lighter moments:

  • Mary Ashley noticed that some of the ladies day participants bought copies of my book. So after the ladies day she pulled one out of her little straw purse and said, "I got one of your books. I want you to sign it." I was touched that she would want one and gratefully signed her copy. A beginning reader, Mary Ashley was so proud of her book! She carried it around all afternoon, intently focused on the pages. That evening she showed me that she was already almost halfway through. "I've been reading it silently," she announced proudly. I praised her efforts, then she asked sheepishly, "Mommy, what does it mean to read silently?" I explained to her that in preschool she learned to sound out words aloud and that reading silently just means that you see the words in your head rather than saying them. "Oh!" she said. "Well, when I was reading your book, there was not a thing in my head. Not one thing!"

  • The ladies in Newnan prepared goodie bags for all the guests at the ladies day, and Mary Ashley and Emma were so excited to discover their take-home treats. "Mommy, is this a credit card?" Mary Ashley asked when she found a little calendar in her bag. A little later she entered the room, beaming with pride as she called, "Look at me, Mommy!" She was delighted to show me that her nose was running because it meant she could open her package of pocket tissues. (What a blessing to find such joy in life's little surprises!)

  • The girls eagerly sampled the lotion in their goodie bags, then offered to share it with their brothers when they got home. Ten-year-old Carson declined their offer, then looked at me quizzically. "What is lotion for, anyway?" he asked. When I told him it makes your skin soft, he balked. "Why would a boy ever want to do that?"

Despite Emma's stomach troubles, we had a lovely visit to Newnan and appreciate all the smiles that day brought us!

Photo from Flickr

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

If the Shoe Cookie Fits ...

Now that school is out, we are exchanging our ballet slippers ...

and soccer cleats ...

for a summer of flip-flops!

I loved our Nutter Butter ballet slippers so much, I thought I would try a couple more varieties.

  • For directions on making ballet slipper cookies, see this post.
  • To make soccer cleats, sprinkle mini-chocolate chips on the wax-paper covered plate before setting the dipped cookies on top. Follow the directions for making ballet slippers, then place a dab of melted chocolate (or the bottom of a Hershey's kiss) on one end of the cookie. Pipe laces and stripes on the sides to complete this athletic shoe.
  • To make flip-flops, pipe a V of icing onto bare Nutter Butters and finish them with sprinkles if desired.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

School Daze

The last few weeks have brought a flurry of activity with end-of-school parties, plays and programs. Here are a few of the highlights.

We watched Carson at play.

Carson's class performed a play about Alabama history for all the fourth-graders in Elmore County. His teachers, Stacey Williams and Gigi Hankins, won an award last year from Alabama's First Lady Patsy Riley for their production. We were so impressed with the show and very proud of Carson's performance!

We saw the writing on the wall with Christian.

Christian was proud to show us his hand print tile outside the elementary school during his end-of-year party. At the party he received recognition for All-A Honor Roll and praise from his teacher for being a great reader. We joined his class for lunch, and he took Mary Ashley through the cafeteria line. He is such a sweet brother and promises to walk her to her kindergarten class each day next year.

We stopped to smell the flowers with Mary Ashley.

I snapped this photo outside Mary Ashley's preschool before her end-of-year program. I can't believe she is a preschool graduate! On her last day of school, my heart was in my throat as I held her hand walking out of the preschool for the last time.

And we cheered as Emma climbed.

This has been such a big year of development for Emma! She made her debut onstage this spring in her preschool end-of-year program, then dazzled us in her ballet recital. We celebrated her rise to stardom with a trip to the park for the end-of-year ballet party.

Carson, Christian, Mary Ashley and Emma, we are so proud of you!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Grillin' and Chillin'

For an easy holiday dessert, scoop vanilla ice cream into a waffle bowl and top with sweetened strawberries and blueberries.

Before you fire up the grill today, I invite you to watch my brother-in-law's entry in Lowe's Spring Dream Challenge. David is a Top Five Finalist in this nationwide contest, and if his video wins, he and my sister will win some great prizes for their backyard. To see his hilarious video, visit and click "Vote." Choose the category "Relaxing Outdoor Retreat" and the video "TheOldFlame14." Don't forget to vote!

Happy Memorial Day!

Friday, May 22, 2009

On My Toes

I am headed to Georgia for a ladies day tomorrow at the Downtown Church of Christ in Newnan. Please join us if you can! To close out this week, I invite you to read one of my all-time favorite posts, a poignant moment I observed at last year's ballet recital. You can find A Bouquet of Blessings here.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ballet Slipper Cookies

I needed to come up with an easy snack for our ballet class end-of-year party, and I think these pink slippers are ballerina perfect!

I am so tickled with this idea and hope my ballet slipper cookies will be appearing at ballet recitals and birthday parties all over! They are tutu cute and certain to bring a standing ovation from your favorite prima ballerinas. Please let me know if you try them!

To make these sweet ballet slipper cookies, melt a 14-ounce bag of pink Wilton Candy Melts in a double boiler according to package directions. Use tongs to dip Nutter Butters in the melted candy and place the cookies on a freezer-safe wax-paper covered plate. Use a knife or small icing spatula to smooth the melted candy as needed. Place the cookie plate in the freezer for a few minutes to harden the candy coating. Then use a paring knife to shave away any drips. Fill a decorating bag fitted with a small round tip with canned vanilla frosting, and pipe on the finishing details. Place the completed ballet slippers in the freezer to harden the icing. Yield: 12 pairs of ballet slippers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ballerina Babies

It is so sweet to see Mary Ashley's tenderness toward her younger sister. Mary Ashley has guided Emma through ballet class, showing her where to stand, helping her put on her shoes, and teaching her how to curtsy.

It warms my heart to see my girls enjoying the kind of closeness my sister and I share. Jennifer joined us for the recital, and it's a good thing I'm so proud of her. Otherwise, I might have felt some sibling rivalry.

She is a Disney princess, after all!

When the girls' ballet teacher told me that princesses would lead the girls in a parade for the show's opening number, I knew I had the perfect Belle. Mary Ashley and Emma were delighted to be escorted to their recital by a princess, and all their friends were so excited to meet Beauty. Jennifer did a great job, and Emma was so glad to have a royal hand to hold for her first appearance onstage!

I love the ballet numbers, and the girls enjoy tumbling and baton.

This year I joined Mary Ashley onstage for the mother-daughter number, "I Want to Be Like You" from The Jungle Book. I love this picture Jennifer took during our performance.

Time for a little toe tapping!

Other favorite images from the show. The costumes for this year's Disney-themed show were so pretty!

The girls received medals from their ballet teacher, Miss Gigi, and flowers from their daddy. Emma was hesitant to go onstage for the finale, but Mary Ashley helped her savor her moment in the spotlight.

By the end of the night, we were tutu tired to twirl! We all went to bed with visions of ballerinas dancing in our heads!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ballerina's Banana Pudding

As the first guest to arrive for the girls' ballet recital, my sister, Jennifer, was probably not surprised to discover that I still needed to remove my vacuum cleaner from the family room, but our dessert dishes were already wearing pink tutus!

Creamy Banana Pudding

Whether you layer this pudding in a trifle bowl or prepare individual servings, this easy dessert is worth a pirouette.

1 (14 1/2 ounce) can Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 (6-serving size) package instant vanilla flavor pudding mix
1 large container fat-free Cool Whip, thawed
1 box mini vanilla wafers
3 medium bananas, sliced and dipped in lemon juice

In a large bowl, combine sweetened condensed milk and water. Add pudding mix, and beat well. Chill for at least 5 minutes, or until pudding is set. In individual dessert dishes or a trifle bowl, layer pudding, wafers, bananas and Cool Whip. Serves 8 to 10.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Dinner at the Ballet

Over the weekend we enjoyed one of my favorite springtime events: the girls' ballet recital!

It seems like it was just yesterday that Emma insisted on wearing a tutu to Mary Ashley's ballet class, watching in awe as her big sister swayed and twirled to the music. After class Mary Ashley gave her a private lesson, and Emma's dream of becoming a ballerina was born. After the Christmas recital, she leaped at the opportunity to take the stage for pictures with Mary Ashley. Little did I realize, Emma wanted her own turn to dance! So Emma joined Mary Ashley's class this spring, and we have been anticipating this year's spring recital.

(Thanks, Katy, for editing the above picture of the girls!)

We celebrated the recital with dinner at our house before the show.

A billowy white tablecloth set the stage for dinner at the ballet, and my spring centerpiece took the starring role featuring a bouquet of hydrangeas. A menu of mostly make-ahead dishes like poppy seed chicken and pineapple au gratin allowed us to squeeze in a relaxing sit-down dinner on a very busy day. Serving dinner buffet style and placing desserts on the table before the meal allowed me to leave the table as needed to make final preparations for the recital without stalling dinner for everyone else.

A roll of tulle added frothy touches of pink to the tablescape. Even our footed dessert dishes were on their toes for the evening, with little pink tutus! I tied a tulle bow to each dessert dish, then used the remaining tulle to make a garland to drape around the table. With the last little bit of tulle on the roll, I made a final bow and tucked it into the hydrangeas.

Stuffed with white tulle and tied with ribbon, Emma's new ballet shoes added the final touch of sweetness to the table.

I will be on my toes all week, sharing ideas, photos and highlights from the recital!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Take Me Out to the Ballgame ...

For a baseball-themed birthday party!

My friend Julie hit a home run with 5-year-old son Austin's recent birthday party. The children loved playing outside at "Knapp Stadium," while the adults watched all the action from the stands. Guests munched on game-day favorites like hot dogs, popcorn, peanuts and nachos. A baseball diamond cake and baseball cupcakes rounded out the menu, and Julie sent us all home with a box of Cracker Jacks. Penned to the tune of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," a poem printed on baseball-glove paper explained that special party favors will be sent through the mail. (Julie took pictures of each child at the party, and plans to send a pack of baseball cards to each guest -- complete with pink bubblegum!)

Mary Ashley and I loved attending Austin's grand-slam party. I think you can tell from all the happy faces in the photos above that Julie hit this one out of the park!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Peonies for Your Thoughts

I couldn't resist buying a bouquet of peonies for Christian's kindergarten teacher last year. Arranged in a pretty covered casserole dish she could keep, the huge pink blooms made a lovely end-of-year gift.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Frilly Floral Cupcakes

Wouldn't you love to pause during your busy day for a cup of tea and one of these frothy pink cupcakes?

I hope that when our elementary school teachers stepped into the teachers lounge yesterday, these lemon cupcakes with ribbons of buttercream icing transported them far from their bustling classrooms to the quiet serenity of a favorite tea room.

Whether prepared for Teacher Appreciation Week or afternoon tea, a frilly floral cupcake is sure to please.

One recipe of buttercream icing yields enough icing for two dozen cupcakes. To create a variegated color effect in the flowers, use a hand mixer to distribute pink icing paste through the icing, stopping before the color is completely mixed in. To make ruffled cupcakes, use an angled decorating tip 108 or 125. Hold the icing bag in one hand and the cupcake in the other. With the point of the decorating tip angled toward the cupcake, apply even pressure to cover the cupcake in a ribbon of icing, rotating the cupcake as you go. You can wind the ruffles from the outside in or from the inside out. If needed for definition, pipe a little rosebud in the center of the cupcake.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Garden-Inspired Teacher Gift

"One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child." -- Carl Jung

I love honoring our teachers with a gift of flowers at the end of the school year, presented in a container they can reuse throughout the summer. This year's trip to Jasmine Hill Gardens inspired this gift for the women who have so faithfully planted seeds of knowledge this year and helped my children bloom.

To make an arrangement like the one above, cut floral foam to fit a garden pail (ours came from Hobby Lobby). Soak the foam according to package directions, then wedge the foam into the pail. Cut fresh flower stems at an angle, and insert them into the wet foam. Tuck moss around the stems to camouflage the foam, and tie a card expressing thanks to the pail to complete the gift.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother's Day Memories

I hope you had a wonderful Mother's Day weekend! The children and I spent Mother's Day with my mother, grandmother and sister-in-law. It was so special to have four generations together to celebrate the blessing of family. My post "Little Moments with Mother," which appeared in Ideals Magazine several years ago, shares some of my special memories of growing up. You can read that post here.

Tomorrow I'll share this year's teacher gift!

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Secret Is Out ...

We know who won the pillowcase dress giveaway!

Reading your comments has been so much fun, and I have really enjoyed getting to know so many of you. I hope you know how much I enjoy hearing from you! I am pleased to announce our winner ...

Mackenzie, daughter of Dawn O!

When Mackenzie gets out of school this year, I hope she and her mom will share a garden tea party together. Congratulations, Dawn, and I will look forward to hearing from you!

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