So, as of Tuesday, I’ll have a 2 year old. I’m not really sure how that happened.
I mean I kind of do. I was there after all. But still. A 2 year old. That goes to preschool. And gymnastics. And can roll her eyes.
Right now, she’s obsessed with most things Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street. Every night, she asks for “Sam” (Green Eggs and Ham) or “Cat” (The Cat in the Hat) as her bedtime story. She’s also obsessed with water towers, solo cups, and travel-sized toiletries.
We all have our things, I guess.
At least one of those things made it easy to put together her 2nd birthday party!
We went with The Cat in the Hat for the party theme and coordinating colors red and white (Cat’s hat) and aqua (Thing 1 and Thing 2’s hair…sort of). We used Inkscape (a free open-source SVG program that’s similar to Illustrator) for the paper products, with inspiration from other Dr. Seuss-inspired parties found through Pinterest.
(Because I have gotten many requests for the food and bottle labels since posting this party, a $10 donation that will in turn be donated to the local preschool’s spring and fall book drives will get you the printable files for the birthday banner, Thing 1 or 2 cupcake circles, address labels, blue & red food labels, blue & red Thank You tags, water bottle labels, and a 4-page coloring book. Email me for more information.)
We sat out a copy of Dr. Seuss’ Happy Birthday to You for party guests to sign and Cat in the Hat coloring books for the crayon-aged guests. The little ones also got their very own Cat Hat to take home after posing for some of the cutest pictures
On the food table, we had a goldfish in a teapot and a stuffed Cat in the Hat doll. A framed button monogram and birthday banner hung on the wall behind the table, which included:
I’d like to blame the Toddler for this mac & cheese post. But the truth is, I’m the mac & cheese eater of the house. I often joke that my “Emergency Kit” contains a cake mix, a box of shells & cheese, and a bag of Funyuns. If by “joke” I mean that’s exactly what’s in the back corner of the bottom shelf of my pantry. Right this second.
Stove top mac & cheese is as easy as pouring yellow powder and milk over pasta. Or squeezing yellow stuffs out of a foil packet. It’s also as easy as stirring pasta water, yogurt, and grated cheese together. Our favorite stove top macaroni & cheese recipe goes a little something like this:
We use American cheese instead of cheddar for that classic “yellow” mac & cheese. It melts like a dream, which is why it’s the secret behind velvety smooth chile con quesos. Buy it in block form or get extra thick slices from the deli to shred at home but don’t buy it pre-shredded (heavenly melting experience not guaranteed if you do). And really it’s closer to 7 ounces instead of 8 – the Toddler can spot cheese from half a mile away and usually insists on at least one quality assurance sample. If American cheese completely weirds you out (it really is cheese!), try a Cheddar-Fontina split like we use here. And here. You can usually use as much as 5-6 oz cheddar or Monterrey Jack but your sauce won’t be smooth if you go any more than that. American (white or yellow) or Fontina are really good options for the other 2-3 oz.
We make our macaroni & cheese with fat-free Greek yogurt in the cheese sauce. I like that it’s thick, creamy, and loaded with protein and not fat. It makes a super creamy cheese sauce but mostly I like the extra little sharpness it adds to the dish, something otherwise lacking in the absence of cheddar cheese.
Let’s not get crazy and call a bowl of cheese and carbs “healthy.” If I’m making mac & cheese, baked or stove top, it’s usually a one dish meal. And that’s where chicken and peas come in. Lots of peas and a cup of leftover shredded chicken if we have any from a previous night.
Stove Top Macaroni & Cheese
A quick and easy creamy mac & cheese that's made with Greek yogurt.
8 oz macaroni pasta
8 oz American cheese, grated*
1/2 cup fat-free Greek yogurt (I use 0% Fage)
1 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 cup shredded leftover chicken (optional)
*Most combinations are fine but use 2-3oz white or yellow american cheese to aid in smooth melting.
Cook macaroni pasta for 8-10 minutes in salted water, until al dente.
Reserve 1 cup pasta water before draining the pasta.
Drain the pasta and return it to the pot.
Add 1/4 cup pasta water, the yogurt, and 1/3 of the grated cheese and stir until the cheese has melted.
Stir in remaining cheese, one small handful at a time to prevent clumping.
Add additional pasta water as necessary to thin the cheese sauce.
Stir in peas and chicken, if using, and serve warm.
To reheat, microwave in 30 second intervals, stirring in between. If you think it needs it, add a tablespoon or two of skim milk or water. It's usually creamy enough after it's heated thoroughly but it's up to you.
I know, right? Pumpkin, cream cheese, and fall spices swirled into a moist, chocolatey brownie. Pumpkin cheesecake swirl. Oh, yes.
The brownie base is actually my new favorite brownie recipe. It’s a little less fudge-like than I’d normally go for but it’s still on the dense-and-fudgey end of the spectrum. It gets its deep, chocolatey flavors from both chocolate and cocoa powder – use dutch-process or a natural-dutch blend (like Special Dark) if you can find it.
They’re pretty indulgent so I tried to lighten it up just a tad by reducing the sugar, using reduced-fat cream cheese, and the Smart Balance “buttery sticks,” which are a butter-spread hybrid. I actually use those a lot for baking and I think they work great.
That brownie, by the way, was from batch #3. It took three tries – that’s 48 brownies! – to get it just right. The right amount of pumpkin for the cheesecake mixture. The right swirling technique. The right amount of pumpkin pie spices. I’m not whining, I’ve had far less delicious failures for sure. And most of the “just okay” brownies from the other two batches are individually wrapped in the freezer. They’ll do just fine when an emergency chocolate craving hits
Pumpkin Cheesecake Brownies
Moist, rich brownies swirled with a pumpkin spiced cheesecake.
8 Tbsp butter
8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup + 2 Tbsp sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup + 2 Tbsp flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder (Special Dark and dutch-process make a darker brownie but unsweetened/natural works fine)
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 oz reduced-fat cream cheese, at room temp
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp ground all spice
1/4 tsp ground ginger
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-inch pan with baking spray.
In a large microwave safe bowl, melt butter and chocolate together, stirring between 30-second cooking intervals. Whisk until completely smooth.
Whisk in 1 cup sugar and then add 3 of the eggs, one at a time, whisking between each addition.
Whisk in the dry ingredients: 1 cup flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.
Transfer batter to the greased pan and spread the batter evenly.
In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese and 2 Tbsp sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Add the canned pumpkin and beat until thoroughly combined. Beat in the egg and vanilla.
Add the 2 Tbsp flour and ground spices (alternately, you can use 1 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice in place of the 5 ground spices).
Using a spoon or rubber spatula, create wells in the top of the brownie batter. Spoon the pumpkin cheesecake mixture into the wells. Use the tip of a knife to swirl the chocolate and pumpkin together. (The two batters have different consistency so use a swirl-and-fold motion to bring the chocolate swirl to the top.)
Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 40-50 minutes. Cool in pan for 30 minutes before cutting into 16 squares and serving.
Leftovers will keep in a covered cake plate for 3-4 days. They can also be wrapped and frozen.
Yields: 16 servings
Adapted from Everyday Food's Cream Cheese Brownies
I frequently get requests for toddler- and kid-friendly food ideas and I struggle with how to respond. I know how other family and friends have struggled with picky eaters and I don’t want to meet that frustration with a smug, “my kid eats everything,” response. But the truth is, we lucked out.
Our toddler eats just about everything that we do. Her dinner plate is mostly just a smaller version of ours. I’ll remove her portion before adding spicy ingredients, or cook her burger and salmon a little longer, but she mostly eats like an 18-year old. Her 18-month old side is still partial to “fun foods” – things like cherry and grape tomatoes, blackberries and blueberries, smaller pasta shapes that she can wrangle with a fork by herself, and pinto beans.
She has a couple of quirks. She’ll lick the J off a PB&J and pull the turkey and cheese out of her sandwich and leave the bread behind. She similarly guts quesadillas, leaving a near perfect tortilla on the table. She wants her apple whole, peeled, and on the core. She likes to eat half her yogurt and use the other half as finger paint. And heaven help you if you ever find yourself between her and a stick of string cheese. Or as it’s known around here, “Theezth.”
This dish contains all of her favorite things – and ours! Wonderfully fresh, summery tomatoes, pasta, and mozzarella theezth. It takes a little longer than a standard pasta recipe but roasting the tomatoes to concentrate the flavors is so worth it. We make it meatless (it’s one of the very few meatless meals I get to serve) but it’s a perfect candidate to throw in diced or leftover chicken.
Penne with Roasted Tomatoes and Mozzarella
A light, fresh pasta dish with fresh mozzarella and flavorful roasted cherry tomatoes.
1 1/2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 13.25 oz box of penne
6 oz fresh mozzarella, cut into small cubes (or a container of mozzarella pearls, drained)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Preheat oven to 400.
Toss tomatoes and garlic with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Place in an oven safe pan and bake for ~45 minutes, until the skins have wrinkled and the tomatoes have burst.
Cook pasta in salted water, according to package instructions.
Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water before draining the pasta.
Return pasta to the pot and add a few splashes of pasta water.
Add the mozzarella cubes and using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes and garlic to the pasta.
Lightly toss, top with chopped fresh basil, and serve.