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Oh boy, do I have a yummy fall recipe for you.

Every year, we use the bushel or so of apples we pick on our annual apple picking trip to make and can apple sauce and apple butter. And I have a bit of a tendency to…well…hoard those jars of apple goodness. I am ever afraid that we’ll fly through our supply of apple sauce and apple butter by the end of December and have to wait until September hits once again to enjoy the fresh yumminess of a homemade jar of apple goods.

I made an interesting discovery this year. Hiding in the back of our cupboard was an extra jar of applesauce from last year and a couple of jars of our yummy apple butter. Oops. Perhaps I was a little overzealous in tucking away those jars. This year, I’m trying to strike a nice balance between canning some goodies to enjoy over the course of the year (and share with friends) and enjoying the fruits of our labor (quite literally) right now.

So far, aside from crunching on the fresh apples in snacks and lunches, we’ve had some simple but delicious baked apples and, inspired by my goal of mastering the art of packed lunches and snacks now that I have one in three-day preschool and another in kindergarten, I decided to give some handmade fruit roll-ups a try. I started with a recipe I’ve used before–my adaptation of a basic recipe for fruit “leather” (a name I just can’t bring my vegan self to adopt) that I found in The River Cottage Preserves Handbook. I added in some cinnamon and just a bit of nutmeg, which you could leave out if you’re looking for that pure apple taste, but I think the spices add a bit of the taste and fragrance of a good apple butter or mulled cider recipe. These are perfect for packed lunches and snacks or to bring along to your local fall festival.

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Apple Spice Roll-Ups

(inspired by and adapted from the fruit “leather” recipe in Pam Corbin’s The River Cottage Preserves Handbook)

Yields: about 8 roll ups

2 pounds, 4 ounces apples
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 – 1/2 cup water or apple cider
7 Tbsp agave nectar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Preheat oven to 170 degrees F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

If you have a food mill with a fine mesh screen or Squeezo style food strainer, wash apples and chop them into even 1 inch chunks without peeling or coring. If you do not, wash, peel, and core the apples before chopping them into 1 inch pieces.

Place the apples in a pan and add the lemon juice and a bit of the water or cider. Cover, bring to medium heat, and simmer until the apples are soft (about 20 minutes), adding water or apple cider as needed to prevent burning.

If you are using a food mill or Squeezo strainer, when they are soft, process the apples through the mill or strainer into a bowl. If you have peeled and cored your apples, use a food processor to puree them. Add the agave nectar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and stir well.

Pour half of the puree onto each lined cookie sheet (If you have time, you might let the mixture cool for a few minutes first. The hot puree sometimes has a tendency to warp the paper a bit when poured on at a very high temperature, which might make for some gaps in your roll ups but won’t affect the taste one bit. I didn’t bother to let it cool for too long this time and it worked just fine.) Carefully spread the puree on each sheet with the back of a spoon or a spatula until it is a thin even, layer.

Place the cookie sheets in the preheated oven and cook for eight hours. No, that is not a typo. The idea here is that you are not really cooking the puree so much as you are slowing drying it, letting the moisture evaporate so that you are left with a roll-up that holds together, but is still pliant and chewy. If your oven temp does not get down to 170 (or will go down to a lower temp), you’ll need to adjust the cooking time. I wouldn’t attempt a cooking temperature above 200 degrees F.

When the roll up is still pliant, but will pull away from the paper like a sticker without any goopy spots, take it out of the oven. It will cool quickly. Carefully peel each entire roll up sheet off of the parchment paper.

If you will be eating the roll ups bit by bit from home, you can roll each large sheet up and store it in an airtight container.

If you would like to be able to pack the roll ups individually in lunches and snacks, place each large roll up on a new sheet of wax paper that is slightly larger than the roll up. Using kitchen scissors, cut the roll up and the wax paper into strips (or score with a sharp knife then pull apart), place each fruit strip on top of each piece of wax paper, and roll the fruit strip inside the wax paper, fastening the end with a piece of tape or (for kids big and small) a fun sticker. (You can either cut the wax paper and roll up together so that they are even along the edges–a good option if the roll up is going into another container for lunch or snack–or cut a slightly larger width of wax paper and fold over the sides before rolling to allow for less drying if the roll up will be on its own.) Store the individually wrapped roll ups in an airtight container or zip top bag until packing into each lunch or snack.

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The day was off to an ambitious start when I decided just after breakfast that this would be a great time to get started on making a dent in all of those apples we picked last weekend by cooking up the first batch of apple butter. Jeremy had taken Xavier to Milwaukee for a weekend-long father-son adventure and, while it is quite routine for me to have Quinn and Ada all to myself, I felt inspired that, despite the rainy forecast back here at home, we should have a little adventure of our own. So once the apples were on the stove and the little girl was down for her morning nap, Quinn and I got to work on a fall sensory bin.

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Filling the bin is half the fun, so Quinn helped dye three batches of rice yellow, orange, and red. We added popcorn kernels and then went in search of farm animals and people to play in our fall scene. We also added some almonds in their shells, acorns, some silicone cupcake holders for filling, and a couple of funnels.

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When Ada woke up, I moved the bin outside to the porch so she could play, expecting lots of scooping and dumping out. The measure proved completely unnecessary, as she was only interested in the larger bits–the almonds, mostly, which she transported back and forth and in and out of the bin like a little squirrel tucking away her winter feast here and there for safe keeping. When the rain began, we moved the bin inside and Quinn and I made acorn muffins and sang “Happy Birthday” to each lucky playmate in turn. Ada was all smiles during our singing, but quickly returned to the important work of transporting her almonds.

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After all that back and forth play (Did I mention the breaks we for took for smashing apples through the food mill, loading the slow cooker, and getting that apple butter cooking?), we needed some sustenance. And since this was an ambitious kind of day, I decided this was the perfect time to try out that black bean brownie recipe I had my eye on.

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With the sometime exception of Ada, I can’t seem to get the kids to eat beans in any shape or form (except for hummus, of course, but only because Xavier remains unconvinced–or perhaps is willing to overlook the fact–that it actually contains chickpeas). And when your vegan kids don’t eat beans, it definitely limits your repertoire, to say the least. Quinn tends to be fairly open minded about trying new things and had no reaction whatsoever when he saw those beans go into the food processor. It probably helped that we had never made brownies, so he may have figured this was your typical brownie ingredient. I wasn’t eager to set him straight. The recipe couldn’t have been easier and the brownies turned out fudgey, rich, moist, and not too sweet. (In fact, if we’re being honest, I could have used a bit more sweetener in them. These might do well with a slather of peanut or almond butter or some ice cream if you’re looking for a decadent dessert. They’re low enough on the sweet scale that I might even grab one for breakfast.) Quinn gave them two chocolately hands up.

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With the kids finally in bed and my late dinner finally served, I was able to finally can the apple butter that had been cooking up in the slow cooker all day, filling our day with cinnamon and cloves (which is really the only way to do apple butter). For such a packed day, it was also a relaxing one. We didn’t leave the house (and I didn’t leave my pajamas) and there was ample time for collecting acorns, combing through colored rice with our fingers, and licking spoons. I’ve come to this season kicking and screaming so far, but this fine fall day might be just the kick start I needed.

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We stopped at this roadside market a couple of years ago on our way home from the cabin on a whim and it has quickly become an annual tradition. This place is literally right next to the highway, but its winding looped path of pumpkins with plenty of wagons to ride in while exploring it and a big wooden train to crawl in at the center are so alluring that none of us seem to notice the cars and trucks zipping by beside us.

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So we’re kind of easing our way into The Grand Soup Experiment. After getting two toddler thumbs down on my first attempts, I decided it was time to try the best gateway drug to soup: pot pies. If the kiddos aren’t sold on the concept of a hearty liquid meal, why not hide it behind a layer of bread? Our working family recipe is a slight variation of one I found in the Winter 2003-2004 issue of Veggie Life magazine. And it follows what has become one of my top rules for preparing meals for toddlers: don’t spend any significant amount of time preparing a recipe for your kids that you don’t like yourself.

          

Here’s the recipe.

For the crust:

1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cold vegan butter (we use Earth Balance)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
6 tablespoons soy milk

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter until it is in pea-sized pieces. Stir in the thyme and soy milk. Use the back of a spoon to knead the dough until it forms a ball. Pull off a piece of dough (about 1/3 of the ball) and place it on a sheet of plastic wrap. Place another sheet of wrap on top of the dough and use a rolling pin to flatten the dough to about 1/2 to 1/4 inch thick. With the top sheet still in place, place the bowl you are using for the pot pie upside down on top of the dough and press down (turning back and forth a bit) to cut out a circle the exact size of the opening in your bowl. Remove the top sheet of plastic wrap, poke the circle a few times with a fork to make tiny holes, peel off the circle, and place it on a new sheet of plastic wrap. Repeat, reusing the extra dough as you go and layering the crusts between sheets of plastic wrap, until you’ve cut enough tops for all of your bowls. I make smaller tops for the ramekins I use for the kids and larger tops for the grown-up pies. If you have a bit of extra dough, roll it out and cut out shapes with cookie cutters for some extra “crackers” for the kids. These are handy for when the pot pies are still cooling but the kiddos’ bellies are rumbling. Put the crusts and crackers in the refrigerator (sandwiched between layers of plastic wrap, including one on top) until you are ready to cook them.

For the filling:

3 cups vegetable stock
1 cup textured vegetable protein (TVP)
1 bag (4 cups) frozen mixed veggies (your favorite mix)
1 1/2 cups soy milk
8 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Stir in the TVP and the veggies. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Give the mixture another stir to combine the ingredients, cover, remove from heat, and let stand for 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, stir together the soy milk, cornstarch, and garlic powder. Stir this mixture into the veggie mixture and bring it to a boil, continually stirring until the mixture thickens up. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Divide the stew between the pot pie bowls. Top each pie with the pre-cut crusts. Note that the crusts will sit just inside the edges of the bowls and not lay over the sides. This is the technique that I’ve found works best after getting frustrated with the sinking middles and overly crispy edges that inevitably result from draping the crusts over the tops of the pies. Place the pies on a cookie sheet (or two) and place the “crackers” directly on the (nonstick) sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave the pies in for 5 more minutes. (The crackers can come out when you turn off the oven.) The filling will bubble up around the edges of the pies. Remove the pies from the oven and let them cool for 5 minutes before enjoying them, a bit longer for the kids (that filling gets hot!).

The above recipes yielded three medium sized pies for the grown ups, and two ramekin sized pies and three “crackers” for the kids, with a bit of filling to spare, but it really all depends on the size of your bowls (both depth and diameter), so it might take a bit of trial and error.

Everyone in our family seems to have his or her own technique for digging in. Yours truly delights in methodically working my way across the pie, scooping up a little bit of crust to eat with each bite. My other half destroys the whole thing and then relishes in scarfing it all down in big scoops. Xavier enjoyed digging for “buried treasure” underneath the crust (joyfully announcing his finds) and Quinn made a big hole in the middle and worked his way out.


The final verdict? Xavier loved the acorn shaped crackers, but despite the fact that he was “finding” many of his favorite vegetables under that mysterious crust, he hoped we wouldn’t notice that he wasn’t actually eating any of them. We did. After some initial befuddlement over exactly what this was, once Quinn realized it involved eating bread and creamy veggies with a spoon, he was all over it. In fact, he quickly scarfed it down, declared “All done!” and then brought the ramekin up to for a closer look just to be sure. So it was a total score with the little guy and a total failure with the big one. Hey, these days 50/50 ain’t bad.

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In some ways, when we moved into our new house, the question of how to decorate Xavier’s room had a simple answer. It had to include his favorite color: orange. But when it comes to decorating with bright, juicy orange, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. I settled on painting the bottom half of the main wall orange (Benjamin Moore’s Fruit Punch, to be exact) and the rest of the walls and ceiling a nice off white (BM’s Vanilla Milkshake) to balance the look. Indeed, a little orange goes a long way. But the wall opposite this accent wall still looked pretty, well, empty.  It needed something big, bold, and colorful to complement the orange and brighten up that big white wall.

There was just one minor snag. Two, really. First, big art is expensive. Second, the space in question was above Xavier’s bed. I wasn’t about to hang something dangerously heavy in this prime bed jumping real estate. And god forbid it fall on him while he was sleeping… So what to do? I decided early on that what I needed was art on a big canvas–lightweight with no glass. But everything I was finding in the stores was either too cutesy or just too…bleh.

When I saw large canvases on sale at the craft store, inspiration struck. Why not let Xavier (my art-loving child) create his own art? I picked up a canvas on sale for just over $20, a few larger bottles of paint to supplement our current collection, and some new paint brushes, and we were ready to go.

Xavier finished his masterpiece during Quinn’s afternoon nap. After putting our paint clothes on and setting out the canvas on a large drop cloth on the screened porch, we got out our paint and brushes. We started by covering the canvas in a bright blue color since I knew a white background would just blend into the white wall. After that, I tried to intervene as little as possible and let Xavier do the rest. Art is all about the process for him these days, and much less about the finished product. The name he chose for the work reflects this mindset: “Painting Colors.” He enjoyed making circles and lines, flinging paint on the canvas, mixing colors together, putting the paint on in thin layers so you can see the paint underneath, putting it on thickly so that it created big blobs on the canvas, and painting from different angles. Towards the end of Quinn’s two hour nap (yes, the boy painted for two hours and could have kept going for much longer), I gently nudged him towards wrapping it up. He could let it dry and add more later or finish now, I told him. He opted for the latter. He just had two more color combos he wanted to try, he told me. The work was finished when he was done, not when the painting reached any particular stage. He loves it and couldn’t wait to show it to Daddy. I think it’s perfect, and so perfectly him right now.

Most importantly, he is inspired to make more art. “Maybe I can make one for Quinn’s room? And one for Mommy and Daddy’s room?” Bring it on, I say. Bring it on.

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As toddlers go, my children are pretty good eaters. They love broccoli and carrots. They gobble up hummus by the spoonful. They have recently become (oddly) obsessed with granola. So I don’t have too much reason to complain despite the fact that these days Quinn prefers everything to be prepared in a way that can be eaten with a bowl (“bow”) and spoon (“poon”) and Xavier insists that all of the “strings” be removed from his bananas and ears of corn before he will touch them and that his pasta sauce not have any tomatoes in it (he’s referring, of course, to the visible chunks that are signs to the rest of the world that the sauce is decent and not the cheapo canned stuff).

But a few lightly traveled food frontiers remain, among them leafy greens. I would love to meet someone whose toddlers regularly dig in to crunchy salads filled with kale, spinach, and arugula. Mine are not among them. Our most recent solution? Hiding spinach in shakes. I heard and read about this a while ago in multiple sources, but hadn’t tried it before. A couple of weeks ago, I tried out this recipe (there are tons of them on the web) and the kids (and their parents) enjoyed their chocolate shakes without noticing the handful of spinach pureed into them.  This I will definitely try again.

We’ve been sampling a lot of other recipes both old and new these days. After ODing on Your Vegan Mom’s cashew crock cheese spread this summer, we’ve turned to more cold weather recipes like her baked ziti. We’ve also put the fresh figs that have been showing up in the stores this season to use in her pizza recipe (which, by the way, features a great pesto sauce containing more spinach the kiddos won’t notice they are eating). For Xavier’s back-to-school night, I made chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies using the recipes from The Joy of Vegan Baking by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (the resource, as far as I am concerned, for vegan cookies). They were entirely gobbled up by the end of the night (much to my family’s chagrin).

Our next culinary frontier? Soup. At the first sign of cooler weather, Jeremy and I begin to salivate over our mental lists of all of the wonderful soups we’ll sample before the warmer weather returns. Our children do not share our glee. Xavier marvels at the process of cooking down onions, garlic, and all kinds of vegetables and greens and turning them into a liquid meal. He takes much less pleasure in eating said meal. And despite Quinn’s aforementioned preference for meals involving bowls and spoons, after oh-so-hesitantly touching a spoonful of soup to his lips, he contorts his face into scowls that 17 month olds should not be capable of. This fall I have resolved to expose my children to enough different kinds of soup enough times that by the winter they will each be able to finish at least one bowl of at least one kind of soup. This can’t be too lofty a goal, can it?

The first recipe we’ve tried this season is a super easy pumpkin soup I adapted from Quick & Easy Vegan Comfort Food. (Ready for the recipe? Mix and heat up one can of pumpkin, one can of coconut milk, and one cup of vegetable stock. Add 3 tablespoons of agave nectar to sweeten it a bit, a couple dashes of red pepper flakes for some spice, and a bit of salt to taste and continue to heat for a few minutes. Serve.) Jeremy and I gobbled it up. The kids tried and rejected it. Last night we tried Your Vegan Mom’s tomato soup (which her toddler son loved). The kids tried and rejected it. Next up is the “Bestest Soup Evah” from Beans and Greens, a perfect way to turn carnival squash into a soup as delicious as they are beautiful. I have no high hopes that my children will gobble it up as hungrily as their parents will, but I’m in it for the long haul. The season is young, after all, and I have oh so many recipes to try.

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A couple of years ago a friend sent me a link to SouleMama’s post on the Winter Solstice pajamas she makes for her family every year. It was an eye-opening moment, this discovery of both the blog and the tradition. It was a revelation to find another family making an effort to celebrate the seasons. It’s important to me that my children have a sense of the cycle of the year, of how the world changes around them as the year passes by, and to have traditions through which they can take notice of these changes. At that moment, I vowed to put this tradition into practice for my own family. But why stop at the solstice? I decided that if making Winter Solstice pajamas for the kids each year was a good idea, making pajamas for the dawn of each season was an even better one.

Of course I did.

I have since made one matching pair of seasonal pajama pants for the kids. Last fall. I had found a lovely nighttime owl print while on vacation in Maine at the end of the summer and I couldn’t let the fall begin without making them into a couple of cute pairs of pajama pants for my boys. And here we are at the start of fall again and again I have vowed to give the tradition another try. Yes, the leaves are turning and falling from the trees, the weather is growing colder, and in so many ways this seems to be a season of death, of the fading life of summer. But the crisp air, the moist, cedar smells of the outdoors, the aroma of warm soup on the stove, and those beautiful colors, not the candy colors of summer, but the browns, deep reds, oranges, and yellows that suggest a kind of seasonal maturity and trigger in me an urge to slow down and reflect all make this season a perfect time to resolve to start again, to make a new beginning. Perhaps it’s a holdover from my grade school days, but I always find myself making resolutions in the fall. And giving the seasonal pajama tradition another go is among them this year.

  

For this season’s pants, I chose a cute retro mushroom pattern I’d been eying for months and finally had an excuse to buy. I re-sized a simple mushroom coloring page and used it as a template for a basic design to iron and sew onto two plain t-shirts in coordinating fabrics. Yes, I stayed up way too late to get them done by the equinox, and yes, there are a few little imperfections that only I will notice, but all in all I’m quite happy with the results and the kids love them, which is to say that Quinn did not immediately try to take them off and Xavier accepted them with a gushing display of so many things he’s heard and observed grown ups say and do:

Xavier: Oh, Mommy, I love it!
Me: Do you know what that is, honey?
Xavier: No.
Me: They’re pajamas. Mommy made them for you and Quinn to celebrate the beginning of fall.
Xavier: I love them! I love mushrooms. Did you know that I love mushrooms, Mommy?
Me: No, honey, I didn’t know that.
Xavier: Yeah. I love them. I saw a mushroom one time. Did you know that, Mommy?
Me: Yes, we’ve seen mushrooms together.
Xavier: Yeah. And Quinn’s look just like mine! Can I put them on right now, Mommy?
Me: Of course.

I have just a couple of tips if you’d like to do something like this. First, it might be worth it to purchase a basic pattern. This is the second time I’ve used the method of using pants that fit the boys now to make a pattern for new pants and, like last time, I struggled over it longer than I’d like. Also, it’s worth it to make the pants a bit long and use wide hems (mine are two inches wide). That way, you can fold them up to start if need be and unfold them when the kiddos get bigger. Xavier is still wearing last fall’s pants because I used exactly that technique. Kids tend to grow up more than they grow out at this age, so the fit in the waist seems to work for a good while. This year the length of Xavier’s pants turned out to be just right and Quinn’s are turned up for now (which generally looks better than it does in the photo above, I promise, but the boys were rather…er…restless during their photo shoot).

Despite the ants in their pants (their dad had just arrived home and they were eager to start movie night), the boys did oblige me by sitting still for a couple of photos before descending into chaos breaking in their new pajamas.


A happy (and reflective) fall season to all of you!

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