My sister-in-law’s birthday is at the end of October, which means our birthday dinner usually offers some sort of sign of Halloween or fall. This year, I made her a cake in the shape of a pumpkin. I thought it was going to be a fail, and I would not be able to share it with you, dear reader. My back-up plan was $15 to go buy a cake at the supermarket. Instead, however, I was pleasantly surprised at the ease of making this cake, not to mention how pretty the finished product looked. So, here’s how you can make one of your own in time for your Halloween celebration:
2 Boxed cake mixes in your favorite flavor (or your favorite from-scratch birthday cake recipe doubled)
Eggs, oil, and water (in the amount indicated on the box) or whatever you need for the from-scratch recipe
Icing (2 of packaged the packaged kind or from scratch if you prefer)
Red and yellow food coloring
Flat-top ice cream cones
Green icing writing pen
Oven-safe bowl for baking
You can consult Betty Crocker for its instructions, which I used as a guide. I chose boxed carrot cake mixes because that’s a favorite of the birthday girl. Then, I picked up two packages of cream cheese icing. I made the two cake batters and baked each one in my Pyrex bowl, which I had buttered and floured beforehand. After 20 minutes of cooling, I gently pulled each one out of the bowl using a spatula. Then, I let them cool overnight.
The next morning, I cut the top off each cake (just a little bit of it) to make a flat surface. Some people put the cakes in the fridge or freezer at this point to keep the crumbs in place when icing the cake. I didn’t bother. I put all the icing in a bowl and started adding red and yellow food coloring until I reached a desirable shade of orange.
Then, I put two pieces of wax paper that just barely touched each other on top of one of my cake pedestals. I placed the bottom cake on it flat side up.
I first put some of the icing on top of the flat surface of the bottom cake. I then placed the other cake flat-side down on the icing and made sure the two cakes aligned properly. I also put wooden skewers through the cake and cut them flush with the cake’s surface just to keep everything in place.
Then, I iced the cake. It was messy at first. Once the cake was pretty well covered with the peachy icing, I used a cake spatula and swiped in an upward motion to make it look more pumpkin like. As you can see, it was hardly perfect. But I liked the natural look of it (or at least that’s what I told myself).
Now, it was time for the details. I put the ice cream cone on top in the center and somewhat askew. Then, I added swirls of green with the icing pen I bought at the supermarket to make it look like vines.
Finally, I used a large, flat spatula to carefully lift the whole cake from the wax paper covered pedestal to the cardboard tray for bakers that I had picked up at Michael’s. I could have simply pulled the two pieces of wax paper out from the under the cake. But I like to torture myself. Seriously, I wanted to have room for the spider web with my sister-in-law’s name on it. (I made that with a foam spider web I had from a previous Halloween and Cricut-cut letters on orange glitter card stock.) The last step was adhering the spider web using two little dabs of green icing to the back and adding more vines to the bottom of the tray.
The fireplace mantel can’t be naked for any holiday, including Halloween. That’s why I was so attracted to some of the felt garlands I’ve seen in catalogs, such as Sur La Table. Just like with the skeleton photo prop, I did not want to spend upward of $35 for something I could make myself for less money. And I could customize it. I actually made the garland in the photos above with my son, niece, and nephew in mind. Each ghost and skull represents one of them. The girls (skull with the bow and ghost with heart eyes are my niece) and the more masculine ghosts and skulls represent the boys. Don’t worry if you aren’t a great sewer, you can still pull this off. (I’m pretty terrible, but it hasn’t been stopping me lately, and I think it still looks nice.)
Here’s how to make the felt Halloween ghost and skull garland:
Gather your materials.
Felt (I used black and white blocks of felt I had leftover from a previous project)
Accessories (I used remnants of the black glitter iron-on sans sticky backing for the ghost’s eyes, a piece of stiff felt for the bow, and an adhesive gem to spruce up the garland)
One long ribbon (I chose black to keep in the Halloween spirit)
Make a pattern.
I used my Cricut machine to cut out the felt. I scanned the Cricut system for graphics that I liked. I knew I wanted a ghost and possibly a skeleton. The girl and boy skull caught my eye, and I liked the shape of the ghost. I had the machine cut out those graphics (3 of each, again to make sure there was one of each for my niece, nephew, and son). You can just print out the shapes you want, pin them to the felt, and cut accordingly with a scissor.
Sew the pieces together.
The first step I took was to sew the accessories (eyes and mouths) on the ghosts. Then, I sewed the front of the ghost to the back of it on three sides. I stuffed the ghost before sewing the final side closed. I then sewed the individual skulls before sewing each piece of the garland to the long ribbon. If you don’t have a sewing machine, you could sew the pieces together by hand or try using fabric glue.
That’s all it took. I intended to stuff the skulls and make them puffy like the ghosts. But I was having trouble with my sewing machine. The thread in the bobbin kept getting knotted and stuck and it would slow down the whole project. So, I decided it would be just as nice like this. But you might want to make all the elements stuffed like the one from the catalog. Of course, you could opt for jack-o-lanterns, witch’s hats, black cats, ghouls, goblins, or monsters.
Photo props give parties that little extra spark. They make the event festive and enhance the theme. Most of all, they give people an excuse to round up folks and take pictures to document the occasion, which is nice for hosts and guests alike. That’s why I’m drawn to all things photo prop. While I didn’t have the usual blow out Halloween party this year, I did want to make the house look festive for the kids. So, I started looking for a new photo prop, a different one than we’ve had all the other years.
Most of the time I invested a few dollars into a plastic poster board with holes in it for people’s heads. Don’t get me wrong. They’ve been cute and have served their purpose quite nicely. I have reused them for years in a row, and I even gave my Italian relatives one to keep. But I wanted something extra special this year, precisely because we weren’t doing our traditional gathering and so the photos look distinct.
Then, I saw it, a vision of Halloween with the perfect balance of spooky and sassy. In the Home Decorators catalog, I found a cloth photo prop. It was basically a white sheet with two black skeletons holding hands and two holes where the heads should be. It was simple in its color scheme and unadorned background. I loved it, but there was no way I was paying $40 for it. I immediately realized I could make my own for much cheaper, and so I did. Here’s how:
Cheap, white fabric – I found this remnant on a clearance rack at JoAnn Fabric and Craft Store. You could also use an old white or pale colored sheet. Fraying and holes just boost the spook factor, so don’t sweat them.
Iron-on paper in black glitter (you could also use plain black or another color, especially if you are using a different color background)
Pencil or chalk
Card stock in orange glitter
Iron and a hard surface (such as an ironing board)
The width of the remnant was perfect for my Halloween project, but I had to trim the bottom, so people wouldn’t be tripping on it and it would hang properly from the doorway. You might need to do more or less trimming than I did; it all depends on the original size of your fabric. Check where you plan to hang it and measure and cut accordingly.
Cut out the hole for the head.
I opted to make one skeleton as opposed to two because my remnant was narrow and it would be significantly cheaper. I would have had to buy a bigger piece of fabric and two sheets of iron-on transfer paper. This project was so the kids could have a little fun, not so I could break the bank. To cut out the hole for the head, I hung the trimmed fabric from the very place I intended to put it. A few pieces of packing tape did the job, by the way. Next, I stood in front of the fabric with my nose touching it. I took the pencil and I traced around my head. Then, I took scissors and cut the circle where I had traced my head. I was careful to cut just around the outer edge of the circle, so my trace marks would be cut out.
Make the skeleton and crown.
With the Cricut. This is simple enough. You can find a skeleton image in Design Space, the Cricut software, have the machine do the cutting, and follow the directions for ironing it on. The same is true for the crown. This is, indeed, how I did it. But you could also do this without a cutting machine. Using a razor blade and scissors, you can cut out the image yourself on iron on paper or even fabric (if you’re willing to sew). I would aim to use a larger-boned skeleton template if that’s the route you’re going because those intricate cuts can be a pain when you’re doing them by hand.
Adhere the skeleton and crown to the fabric.
Iron the fabric on the highest possible setting. Shut off the steam setting on the iron when you are ready to iron on the skeleton. Careful how you place the various pieces. Be sure to follow the instructions for properly ironing on the material. Put the iron directly on the iron-on for 30 sections. Then, use a piece of transfer paper or a white linen cloth over the iron on and slowly smooth the iron over the patch until it seems to be adhering to the fabric. Wait for it to cool down before you start pulling away the sticky paper. If you do it too soon, you can rip pieces of the iron-on off before they have stuck onto the fabric. I didn’t have another sheet of iron on paper in a different color, but I wanted a crown because I thought it would be cute. Using the Cricut again, I cut the crown out of orange glitter card stock and just sewed it to the fabric (with a sewing machine). Fabric glue probably would have worked too.
Voila’ you’re ready to put the photo prop on display and start taking those spooky pictures. What do you think? Share it on Pinterest, Facebook, or Twitter if you think this is a cool idea.
That first crisp fall day brings with it hope. There’s something about breaking through the heat and the jewel-toned rainbow of leaves freeing themselves from the prison of branches. It’s a new school year with its fresh faces eager to learn. It’s the empty cornucopia, little by little, getting filled with bounty. It’s shorter days and cozy nights. And October is fall’s sweet spot, a time when it’s still possible to reinvent yourself and spend an entire day outdoors without either melting or freezing. That is the precise moment when the farms beckon you. For us that means heading to Alstede Farms in Chester, N.J.
New Jersey, the Garden State, is the perfect place to be at this most wonderful time of year. (You can learn more about different Jersey farms in my book, Fun with the Kids New Jersey). Visitors and natives alike have a plethora of places to go to take in the wonders of Mother Nature. While we have enjoyed a number of New Jersey farms over the years, we keep going back to Alstede because there is so much to do that every visit seems like the first one.
Here, kids can get up close and personal with farm animals. My son had a full-fledged conversation with a turkey, and peeked at a hen either laying on eggs or simply digging a hole for her weary body to find rest on our most recent visit. We saw kissing donkeys, playful goats, and working horses. My son and his cousins went on pony rides and seemed to float in air in the bounce house. They got giddy and waved at Nonna from the mini hay ride for the little ones.
Of course, the whole family hopped in the back hay-ridden bed of the big boy tractor pull, which offered the chance to glimpse at geese frolicking in a fountain and rows and rows of corn stalks. You can see tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and weepy sunflowers, all of which you can pick and bring home. (You pay by the weight of your haul.) In the fall, you’ll also see sleeping peach trees and whatever is left of the raspberries. It wouldn’t be a fall fest without music, photo props all over the grounds, and the ability for every kid to pick his own pumpkin to bring home. It’s the great pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
For my son, the pumpkin is like the Christmas tree. He oohs and aahs every time the Jack-o-Lantern lights up in the dark of night. While he has ignited his devotion to the season and his love of milkshakes and apple cider doughnuts at the Alstede Farms store, I don’t see that as the magical part of our annual visits. What is most remarkable about our trips to the farms is his discovery of nature and devotion to life. This exchange tipped me off.
Me: “What was your favorite part of today?”
Baby Boy: “Seeing the pumpkin beans [he means seeds], and the caterpillar.”
All that fun stuff and this was his response? What? Then, I thought about it. Amid the pumpkins, including that broken one revealing its seeds, we found a caterpillar covered in dust and camouflaging with the ground. As it burrowed into the ground, my nephew was about to step on it. My son cried real tears and furiously yelled at his cousin. Luckily, my niece had stepped in and kept her brother from killing the caterpillar. My son said, “Don’t kill him, don’t kill him. He lives here.” I keep telling him not to kill insects outside because we need them and the outdoors is their home. This was a small victory for mom, but a victory nonetheless.
A few days earlier, his class went on a field trip to Green Meadows Farm in Hazlet, N.J. There, his teachers tell me he was unafraid to pet chickens and try his hand at milking a cow. Certainly, the farms alone are not responsible for his reverence for animals and nature. My sister, the zookeeper, had something to do with it. His nonno, the landscaper, had something to do with it. His zio, the professional foodie, had something to do with it. All the Italians in our family, who cook from scratch and maintain their perfect little gardens, had something to do with it. We, his mom and papa, who have made preserving his life and helping him understand the responsibility of his place in the world, have something to do with it.
It is with that spirit that we will continue to head to farms and gardens and pick vegetables that we bring home and cook with our own two hand. We will always love animals and appreciate what they deliver – milk, food, love, and the life cycle. And we will try to do our part to save this planet that gives us so much. We shall try, at least, to reap what we sow.
My mother has gotten my son addicted to cookies. Two kinds outrank all others for the both of them – chocolate chip and these babies, Italian rainbow cookies (a.k.a. tri-color cookies). Made with almond and lots of love, these cookies intimidate home chefs. They seem overly complicated and until my son’s fifth birthday (with its robot theme, so you now understand the one photo above), I never had the guts to try and make them. But he loves them, and I wanted a showstopper. Immediately, I thought I could figure out how to do it and make that the head of his robot cake. Since then, I’ve made the cookie cake three times. It tasted better each time.
I don’t have an original recipe for this. I used the Food Network recipe for the regular old cookies. There are many, many recipes for both the Italian rainbow cookies and rainbow cookie cakes. The cakes seem to be done slightly differently. But I stuck with the cookies because that’s what my mom and son like. Still, I did things a little differently than the Food Network suggests and learned a few lessons, especially the first time around. Use that recipe as a base if you’d like it to look like my cake and then do the following:
Use three round pans. The recipe suggests using three jelly roll pans. But I wanted a round head for the robot. I also think the small, round pans create a shape that is easier to work with for novice cake makers like me. That’s why I made it this way the two times when I wasn’t making a robot, too.
Sift the flour. The first time around I did NOT sift the flour and it was my downfall. The cookie came out fine, but it was too heavy. Sifting made a huge difference.
Use measuring cups to evenly divide the batter. Obviously, you want each layer of the cookie to be about the same size. So, I would put exactly a 1/2 cup of batter into each of the three bowls until there was none left. Then, I followed the directions for dying two of the batters.
Use a large spatula to move the layers. You don’t want layers to break or come apart, so carefully move them according to the directions. I found a large, wide spatula worked best.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave. I melted the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl 30 seconds at a time on high. I didn’t bother with the water in a pan with a heat-proof bowl over it. I also did NOT use semi-sweet chocolate chips. I used milk chocolate. I made them the first time with semi-sweets, and the whole family found it too bitter. This is completely subjective, and you should do whatever you prefer.
Decorate, decorate, decorate. I used the fork to make the waves you see above (as suggested in the recipe). But I have seen so many gorgeous ways to decorate this cake on Pinterest. Some people used white icing to pipe on snowflakes. I think a spider web would be super cool for Halloween. Sky’s the limit here.
Cut it like cookies. Of course, you can cut the cake in triangles as usual. But I had to feed a crowd and this is a rich cake. I couldn’t eat a whole piece of cake, but I could eat the cookie. So, I cut horizontally and vertically to create little squares. Don’t worry, your guests will come back for seconds, and they’ll feel less guilty about it because of the smaller sizes.
A family vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. is a dream for many people. That’s why parents spend much time and money on the trip. Magic ain’t cheap, people. But there are some add-ons that many get suckered into buying. It’s enough to bring on your worst case of buyer’s remorse, especially if you’re trying to stick to a travel budget. Since I’ve been to the “World” countless times and have some expertise in this area, here are the 7 tourist traps you should avoid like Mickey near a mouse trap:
This one parents should see coming from miles and miles away. Disney is an empire, and they lead the world in marketing. They know that if your kid sees his favorite characters and toys at every turn (and when you get off any ride), he’s going to beg you for something. You’re on vacation, and you don’t want to experience one of those fall-down tantrums. So, you are going to say, “Yes,” at least some of the time. Cha-ching. Of course, similar toys are half the price outside Disney.
Parents and Disney forums often suggest purchasing Disney character toys and souvenirs at the local dollar store or Walmart ahead of your trip. Some of the moms offer up a little surprise each morning of the vacation. They might even wrap them and include notes from Tinker Bell. Much like Santa, they tell kids that if they behave they’ll get something from Tink, who will sneak in and leave it for them while they sleep. Then, they bring the trinket from Tink to the parks and meals and whip it out whenever the temptation for another souvenir pops up. (I can tell you from firsthand experience that this worked well with toddler and pre-K kids.) Another option is to pick up souvenirs at an off-site Disney Store, outlet or discount shop, or mall in the Orlando area. Look for coupons if you go that route.
Back in the day, my parents would take us to Disney and we’d stay off property. We would have a rental car, and we almost always left the parks at meal times. It was cheaper and back then whatever we would get outside of the parks was usually better food. Times have changed. Now, there are many more resorts, and Disney makes it worth your time to stay “on property.” In addition, the food has gotten exponentially better. In fact, my husband and I often plan our travels there around our dining reservations.
Still, the food on property is expensive. They have you in jail, essentially, and they know that you’re not going to want to waste time (and miss out on rides and events, which cost a lot of money, too) by leaving the park. The good news is that there are some really delicious, vacation-worthy options. First step is to educate yourself on what’s worth the money. Disney’s Websites feature lengthy menus, and unaffiliated blogs, such as Disney Food Blog, can provide you with unbiased reviews. More importantly, you should set priorities about where you’d like to put your money, and decide exactly how much you’d like to spend. If you don’t want to go off property to eat, then you should consider staying at a Disney resort and buying into Disney dining, which allows you to pay ahead of time for your meals and snacks. Sometimes, there are even free dining deals, but Disney experts suggest those offers might have come to an end. It will come in handy when your kid sees and smells that Disney popcorn and starts begging.
5. Paying Full Price for the Resorts
Disney resorts are beautifully themed and come at different price points. There are value, moderate, and deluxe resorts. Parents, who want to give their kids the full flavor of the Disney magic, prefer staying on property. As mentioned, there are some perks, such as the ability to participate in the Disney dining plan and extra magic hours at the parks. You have no reason to pay full price for the hotels. At many times during the year, you can find discounts on the resorts. Going in the low season, if you’re willing, is a particularly effective way to stay in budget even if there is no discount. The thing is that there usually are discounts. What most people don’t realize is that even if you booked before the discount was available, if you call Disney reservations when the offer goes public, it will retroactively add the discount. You will get the money back if you had paid already. I’ve done it, and it’s seamless. Another option is to rent DVC points, which I’ve also done. This allows you to stay on property by renting points from a Disney Vacation Club member. The resorts in question are deluxe, and you can often get the price down to value or moderate prices. But you must be smart about it because there are some DVC renting scams out there. You can learn more about renting DVC points (and scoop on the DVC rentals at Polynesian Village Resort and Animal Kingdom Lodge) right on this site.
4. Unnecessarily Buying Park Hopper Tickets
I used to fall for this trick every time. I thought I had to buy park hopper tickets and jump from one park to another in a single day to have fun. The idea is to pack in as much as you can all trip long. Wrong! Parents, especially those with younger children, are usually better off buying a park ticket package that has them traveling to one park per day. For starters, this helps you better plan because you’re forced into one zone of Disney World each day, which can help you decide on fast passes and dining reservations ahead of time. Also, it prevents you from running around, which can make for overtired, cranky children and adults. It’s better for sneaking a nap into your day, too. Of course, the single park tickets are cheaper than park hoppers.
3. Stylists for Your Kids
All over Disney you will see little girls dressed as princesses and, to a lesser extent, little boys dressed as pirates. They will look like those kids whose moms force them into pageant life, replete with make-up and perfectly coiffed hair with a shiny tiara on top. Nine times out of 10 they have been to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Cinderella’s Castle. The swashbuckling pirates, replete with painted on beard and sword, have been to the Pirates League, also at Magic Kingdom. Professionals dress them up and make them all fancy at a price. The princess packages start at $60, and the pirates start at $40. No one I know has ever done this, but they have always brought their kids dressed to impress. You can purchase affordable costumes on Amazon, Target or Walmart, or in the Disney Store (when there’s a sale). Then, you can do hair and make-up. I dressed my son as a pirate for a princess breakfast when he was a year old, and we got beautiful pictures that I still cherish. My niece always wears her princess dresses to the parks, and she’s never done the boutique. A little glitter for the eyes is way cheaper than one of those packages. It also takes less time away from the rides and dining reservations.
2. Extra Events (after Park Hours)
Disney has done all it can to monetize its offerings. Why not? There’s certainly demand. Loyal readers of the unaffiliated Disney dining blogs know that in recent years there have been a number of ticketed dessert events and parties. Often, guests end up paying more than $50 per person for these events, on top of their park admission. Again, this is a budget issue. You should decide where you want to put your vacation money. But I would suggest, based on what I’ve seen of these events, that they are not necessary. Avoiding them is a good way to save a buck.
The two exceptions are Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (which actually costs between $72 and $105 per person) and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (which costs between $86 and $100 per person). Both are super expensive, and I’ve never invested in them. But some experts say these are worth it if you can afford them. Additional entertainment and treats create value. Kids really get to feel some of that Disney magic. The costumed characters at the Halloween party and fake falling snow at the Christmas party are among the examples. The smaller, lesser known events, however, are probably less valuable and not worth your time or money.
1. Specially Themed Rooms
Oh, this one in particular gets my goat. A few years back, Disney began theming rooms at the moderate resorts. Mind you, all the Disney resorts are already themed. But there was additional in-room theming designed to lure parents, who want to wow their kids. At Disney’s Port Orleans – Riverside resort, you can opt for a Royal Guest Room with gilded furniture, elaborate headboards, and bedazzled princess images. A late March package for these rooms with a standard view for a 7-day stay cost $326 more than the standard room with a standard view at the same resort. The pirate rooms package with a standard view for the same period at the Caribbean Beach Resort cost $404 more than the standard rooms, and they are located at the most remote part of the resort. They used to be cheaper rooms, according to the Disney Tourist Blog, until Disney added pirate ship beds and related decor.
Now, the Disney Tourist Blog recommends the Royal Guest rooms at Port Orleans over the pirate ones at Caribbean Beach Resort because many of those were cheaper rooms further away from the hotel’s lobby that are now at higher price point. The reason this is the top of the list is that people spend little time in the rooms at Disney World as it is. These were a little trick to charge people more for staying at a moderate resort. I prefer treats and no tricks when vacation planning at the happiest place on Earth.
Young children are big fans of the Nickelodeon show Paw Patrol, which is why so many of them want this theme for birthday parties. My nephew is among the followers. For his 4th birthday, I created some decorations and the cake in the photo above. The cake cost me less than $10 to make, and it was a lovely addition to the dessert table.
For starters, you need to gather the following items:
M&Ms or candies that resemble pebbles or rocks
A Paw Patrol figure, such as the one of Rubble in the photo above (My nephew already had this toy, but I’ve seen smaller ones at the local Dollar Tree)
Kit Kats or Lady Fingers to serve as the “fence” around the “construction site” (I had Kit Kats leftover from Halloween, so I didn’t even have to buy them)
Chocolate icing or melted chocolate (to use as “glue” for the fence)
Boxed chocolate cake mix (and the items needed to make the cake)
Instant chocolate pudding (and the milk needed to make the pudding)
Once you have all this, you should make the cake according to the directions on the box.
Evenly divide the batter in two small cake pans or put it all in one deeper round pan to get the height necessary for building the fence.
Let the cake cool completely. Put the cake atop the dish you’d like to use. I covered a plastic dish from the dollar store with aluminum foil. Then, use the handle of a wooden spoon to make holes in the cake that are about half an inch apart.
Follow the instructions to make the instant chocolate pudding. After whisking vigorously for about two minutes begin to pour the pudding on top of the cake so that it is completely covered and the pudding begins to fall into those holes.
Refrigerate the cake for at least 2 hours.
Take the cake out of the fridge and decorate it. I melted chocolate chips and put a little on the back of each Kit Kat, which stood up against the cake’s walls to form the “fence.” I left the front center side of the cake free of Kit Kats to leave room for the M&Ms. I put the Rubble figure on top and added those signs. Finally, I placed the M&Ms on top and on the bottom to look like Rubble was actually hard at work with his truck.