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Archive for July, 2009

6/14/09 Sunday:

We boarded the 9:30am Chicago bounded Amtrak from Emeryville Station. Everyone was excited about the train trip! The trip to Chicago takes 52 hours so we get a family sleeping room, which is the biggest sleeping room running the width of the car, and located at the end of the lower sleeping car. My first impression of family sleeping room is that it’s a good size for five of us but things (carpet, seats, closet, speaker etc.) need to be keep up to date and clean.

In our sleeping room

In our sleeping room

As soon as the train departed from Emeryville, we went to dining car to have breakfast (meals are included for sleeping room passengers). I never boarded an Amtrak before and based on what I visited in Railroad Museum in Sacramento, I expected beautiful chinaware set sitting on the table. So when I saw the cheap plastic plates and cups I was disappointed… come to think of it plastic probably makes more sense in real life 🙂 Since Audrey was up early so I had to put her to nap right after breakfast while Richard took Alexander and Ethan to explore other train cars.

Alexander and mama in the dining car

Alexander and mama in the dining car

Lunch was served on first come first serve basis after lunch announcement. When all seats were taken then the wait staff would put your name on wait list and called you when seats were available. There were 4-5 choices from lunch menu, including the daily special which was chicken stew with mushroom over rice pilaf. The hot sandwich of the day was pastrami. I ordered cheeseburger on the safe side while Richard had pastrami sandwich. They are both not too bad. Desserts are either cheesecake, peanut butter squares or ice cream. We all had ice cream. The kids loved it!

Relaxing in our room after lunch

Relaxing in our room after lunch

We spent the afternoon relaxing in our room. I took some pictures from our bedroom window. I believed we passed by Reno/Lake Tahoe today but not so sure. This is one of Amtrak’s sightseeing route but I think they could do better job on the attraction guide brochure. A lot of times we passed the sightseeing points before we knew it.The captain did sometimes announce about some scenery attractions but the speaker in our room was old and not working properly.

More and more trees while approaching Nevada

More and more trees while approaching Nevada

Snow on the top of mountain

Snow on the top of mountain

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

Dinner is available through reservation. Richard ordered steak; I ordered the daily special pork tenderloin, Alexander had salmon and we ordered roasted chicken for Ethan. Well, it turned out that Richard’s steak looked and tasted more like a pot roast (at least the meat is tender), my pork tenderloin was dry and not so special, Alexander’s salmon is fishy. Ethan’s roasted chicken turned out to be the best of all. Desserts are cheesecake, peanut butter squares or ice cream.

After dinner Richard and I worked out a system of bathing the kids: since I had to wash Audrey and get wet I suggested that I showered the boys too. When the boys are done they can walk across the hall way to our room where Richard was waiting to dry them and get them dressed, then Richard would come to the shower room and get Audrey while I dry and get dressed inside the shower room. Amtrak only provided soap bars and towels and wash clothes (I wish they are more specific about these amenities on their website)– I know I know it’s not a hotel or at home… There’s no trash bin inside the shower room, so whenever people finished taking their shower they ended up leaving soap bar at different corners of the shower area. The one thing that frustrated me the most is the faucet. According to the instruction you have to push on the faucet for 30 seconds for the water to stay on. I kept pushing it but the water kept turning off as soon as my hand was off the faucet. Arrgh…The faucet was hard to push and my hands started hurting. On top of that not to mention the water temperature was off sometimes, so the boys yelling ” Ouch! Hot!“. Showering Audrey is more challenging as I had to hold her in one hand and the other hand trying to push the faucet to keep water running…

Hall way view from our room: roomettes are on both sides closer to us. Pass the roomettes on the left is a stair access to top sleeping car and other train cars. Furtherdown are restrooms and a shower room (shared by sleeping car passengers) on the right. The room at the other end of the hall is a handicapped sleeping room, with private toilet and shower inside the room.

Hall way view from our room: roomettes are on both sides closer to us. Pass the roomettes on the left is a stair access to top sleeping car and other train cars. Further down are restrooms and a shower room (shared by sleeping car passengers) on the right. The room at the other end of the hall is a handicapped sleeping room, with private toilet and shower inside the room.

Just as we all settled to sleep (Richard and Alexander slept on the top beds while Ethan, Audrey and me slept on lower bed), I confirmed that smell I had been smelling on and off all day– whoever stayed in the room before us threw up on the carpet by the trash bin, which is right next to me when I laid down to sleep. Great!… I couldn’t change position because I had to bodyguard Audrey from falling down the bed. Sigh…! Oh well, I turned to face the other side and closed my eyes. It’s been a long day…

6/15/09 Monday:

Breakfast started at 6:30 am but we decided to sleep in and barely made it to breakfast cut-off time. After breakfast we decided to play some board games in the sightseeing/lounging car.

In the lounging car

In the lounging car

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Semi desert and canyon scenery

The train passed Nevada when we were sleeping last night, and today we were  in Utah. The scenery had changed from greenery trees to semi deserts and canyons…very beautiful indeed.

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Another canyon view. Sorry for the window reflection!

As you can see from the pictures, the train track and highway were built along this river– I believe it’s upper Colorado River but not sure. The track is on one side of the river and highway is on the other side. Notice the bottom path next to the river– it’s a cycling path/trail. I didn’t know it’s accessible until I saw some people cycling on the path. Who would cycle there in middle of nowhere?… and did I mention it’s a VERY long trail?

As soon as the lunch announcement was made, we went to the dining car quickly to get a seat. The waitress said daily lunch special was chicken stew with mushroom… again. Hmmm, I think it probably was a leftover special from yesterday, and learned from yesterday dining experience that daily specials were not good, I opted for hot pastrami sandwich so did Richard. The boys had hot dogs and chips from kid’s menu. Desserts are same old ice cream, cheesecake and peanut butter squares.

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Audrey checking on lunch menu

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Ethan's way of eating dessert: dipping potato chips into chocolate ice cream.

The scenery along the way was very beautiful and changing slowly. We got to took quite a lot of photos while we were eating, in the lounging car and also from our sleeping room window. At first there were semi deserts, then came lots of canyons. Some canyons had interesting formation. As the train moved, those canyons were slowly replaced by rocky mountains and green trees. One thing that didn’t change in the scenery is the river– We had been following this (Colorado River I believe) river for hours.

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This is a refreshing scene after seeing all the canyons!

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I like the contrast of red and green on the mountain

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People river rafting

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More greenery scenes

Audrey didn’t nap for long in the dining car. So I decided to take her back to our room to let her sleep some more while Richard and the boys stayed in lounging car until Audrey fell asleep then headed back to the room. Since the sleeping room was still new to Audrey, she just wouldn’t settle and sleep on her own– which means I had to swing her to sleep. With the train moving left and right constantly and Audrey being heavy and fussy in my arms, swinging her was not easy. I bumped to the closet a couple of times. She was crying for a good 15 minutes or so before finally closing her eyes. I sometimes felt sorry for other passengers staying near our room because the “walls” are very thin and you can hear the kids half way through the train car. Richard and the boys decided to come back. We had a quiet and relaxing time in our room, enjoying some more views while little Audrey was sleeping. The yucky smell was still there. We poured some baby powder to cover the smell but it only worked for a few minutes. Richard and I thought about changing room, but we overheard that all sleeping rooms were booked, so we tried to ignore it through the rest of the trip.

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All tucked in among the mountains: The top and middle roads are highways. The bottom path is a accessible trail. Train tracks run along the right side of the river.

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Canyon scenes are slowly replaced by these rocky mountains and highland trees.

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I see many different faces on the top of the rock. What do you see?

Before we knew it, it was dinner time already… it felt like we just had our lunch though! I can tell you that although the scenery are very beautiful, but there’s nothing else to do in the train other than sit, eat and sleep– and this started to make Richard and me physically not feeling good. It seemed like the food from previous meal had not been digested yet and the next meal time was up. Since the food were included in the price so we thought it would be wasting money not to eat– so Richard and I both ordered roasted chicken (based on yesterday’s testimony) and the boys ordered hot dogs again from kid’s menu (I don’t like that they ate way too many hot dogs but since we are on vacation and on a train, I let it go…). I just ate the chicken and skipped the rest, including same old desserts.

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Interesting canyon/rock formation... notice the big hole on the top.

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More mountains and trees!

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This is our train!... still following the river.

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We crossed lots of tunnels on this day. This was one of them.

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Another beautiful scene from the high up.

Towards the late afternoon/early evening it had been raining on and off. Oh, we also passed through LOTS of tunnels today, especially towards the late afternoon/early evening when it rained on and off. I couldn’t remember but believed we crossed more than 20 tunnels. The longest tunnel took us about 10 minutes to go through. We found out an interesting info from one waitress: the crew had to burn off any toxic gas inside the tunnel before the train entered, for the health safety of passengers on board.

Just as we came out of a tunnel, a vast green plains was in our eyes… and a rainbow too! (actually there was a second rainbow but very vague). At that time we knew that we had crossed the rocky mountains. Richard was telling that the scenery from then on went downhill, just like the train.

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This was the view when we came out of a tunnel: great plains and a rainbow welcoming us!

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Looking back at the rocky mountains while the train descending to the plains.

Indeed, as we were moving into the plains we saw more and more civilization, and of course the views were less and less beautiful. Looking back at the mountains and the last tunnel, I waved bye-bye in my heart…

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We came out there before entering the great plains. I think it was the last tunnel of the trip.

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View of Denver Station from platform

We stopped at Denver Station around 6pm for about 1 hour– the longest train stop of the trip. With 3 kids we didn’t border to explore around the Denver station. I just stepped out to the platform for a couple of minutes and then came back to the train.

Shower time for the kids was challenging like yesterday, but we managed to get it done. Audrey was quite cranky and tired and yet not sleeping until a good amount of swing time (at least the boys were quiet). Richard offered to take over Audrey so I could take a break. I went to lounging car for 30 minutes before heading back to sleep. I missed the fresh air, and I missed sleeping on a regular bed in a much bigger room…

6/16/09 Tuesday:

Today we woke up even later than yesterday. When the dining car staff announced breakfast would be closing in 10 minutes, we quickly dressed the kids and rushed to the dining car. I hadn’t even washed up yet! After breakfast we spent some time in the lounging car. There were no mountains anymore in the scenery, just green fields with cows and corns. When Audrey’s nap time was up we all headed back to our room. Again, before we knew it lunch time was announced. Since Audrey just fell asleep plus we had a late breakfast, we decided to volunteer to be on wait list.

Cows in the field

Cows in the field

Missouri River

Missouri River

Corn field

Corn field

When we finally seated down to have our lunch, we were told several food items on the menu were out. At this point Richard and I were sick of the food on the train and didn’t care much, so we just had the burger patty and skipped the rest. Desserts were all out too.

Today was the last day of the train trip. The train was scheduled to arrive at Chicago Union Station at 3:50pm today. So after the late lunch we went back to our room to pack up our stuff. I then did some reading while Richard and the kids watched Star Wars on his laptop. Audrey refused to sleep the whole time.

Watching Star Wars on daddy's laptop

Watching Star Wars on daddy's laptop

Audrey chose to eat her toes instead of napping.

Audrey chose to eat her toes instead of napping.

When the train finally pulled into Chicago Union Station, it was already 6pm. It was raining in Chicago but we were very excited as we had never been to Chicago (except Richard– long long time ago…). Yes! Finally I could breathe…

To read about our times in Chicago, check out 2009 Summer Vacation part II: Chicago.

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This is part II of our 2009 summer vacation. To find out our train trip vacation check out 2009 Summer Vacation part I: Train Trip.

6/16/09 Tuesday:

We took Amtrak from Emeryville to Chicago (to read about our train trip story, see 2009 Summer Vacation part I: Train Trip). The train was running 2 hours behind schedule. By the time we arrived at Chicago it already passed 6pm. It was raining. On the way to Embassy Suites we got to take a quick first look of the city. There were lots of high rise like San Francisco, lots of African Americans, lots of tunnels and bridges.

Thanks to my Hilton Honor points accumulated over the years, we got 2 free nights stay at Embassy Suites. After spending the last 2-3 days on the train and be dull, we couldn’t wait to get to stretch out in our hotel room, and the boys couldn’t wait to go splashing in the hotel’s indoor swimming pool. Because of the train, we missed the daily evening reception– which was alright because we brought our snacks too, plus it was getting late especially for little Audrey who didn’t nap in afternoon. Instead of dragging everyone to head out for dinner in a rainy day, we decided to order to-go from the restaurant on site and ate it in our room. The food was expensive and not that good but we didn’t care– the boys couldn’t wait to get into the pool, and I couldn’t wait to take a nice shower and relax on the big bed!

We were lucky to get a room with city view.  I tried to take some snapshots of the night views but none of them turned out any good. Later when Richard took the boys to the pool and Audrey was sleeping, I finally took a nice long shower. It felt so good and refreshing! One funny thing: Having been on the train for so long and got used to the train motion, I felt things moving while I was in the shower– and for a moment I thought was it earthquake??… lol.

The boys didn’t go for long. When they were washed up it was bed time. I looked at Audrey soundly asleep in the crib, hoping she would sleep throughout the night (being that age she was probably not feeling secure with another new environment).  I then took a deep breath and a big stretch… Lights off!

6/17/09 Wednesday:

View of the city from our hotel room.

View of the city from our hotel room.

Good morning my little sweetie!

Good morning my little sweetie!

Good morning Chicago!

Last night’s sleep was the best in last few days. Audrey woke up crying early morning but after we put her to sleep with us on our bed she slept some and so did we. Overall everyone had a good night of rest. We washed up and went downstairs to have breakfast– this is another reason we like staying at Embassy Suites because hot, cook-to-order breakfast is included. After we were fueled up we were ready to exploring the city. We planned to visit Museum Campus today, which is an area by the lakefront that house Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History and Adler Planetarium. With 3 young children I knew we wouldn’ t be able to visit all three places but I was hoping to go to 2 places. First place to see was Shedd Aquarium. The line was VERY long because the admission was free during this week. We waited in the line for over an hour. Luckily there was a 3 tier lawn next to the line for Alexander and Ethan to run around. Since the aquarium was by the lake, we could see the Chicago city and lakefront view while waiting in the line.

Alexander and Ethan playing on the lawn while we were in line for the tickets.

Alexander and Ethan playing on the lawn while we were in line for the tickets.

View of Chicago from Shedd Aquarium

View of Chicago from Shedd Aquarium

It was very crowded inside the aquarium. We checked out different areas of the aquarium, ate lunch and watched a dolphin/beluga whale show. In my opinion the show was too short and not much about it– because the show took place inside the building against sunlight, the lighting was very bad. We couldn’t see much of the animals’ performance… really disappointed!

Alexander had his face painted at Shedd Aquarium.

Alexander had his face painted at Shedd Aquarium.

This beluga whale was waving at us! (sorry the picture is not clear...)

This beluga whale was waving at us! (sorry the picture is not clear...)

By the time we came out of the aquarium, it was already 5pm. For sure we didn’t have time to visit Field Museum across the street. We decided to visit Navy Pier instead and then walk back to the hotel. We took water taxi from the aquarium to Navy Pier. It was an experience and the boys liked it. Navy Pier is another tourist attraction in Chicago. We walked around trying to find some thing to eat and finally settled on expensive fish and chips and beef brisket. Right by the entrance of Navy Pier there was Chicago Children Museum. I read about it online and thought the boys might enjoy it. The museum was already closed so we decided to go there tomorrow morning before leaving the city.

Lakefront view from Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Chicago lakefront view from Shedd Aquarium.

Entrance of Navy Pier.

Entrance of Navy Pier.

On the way back to the hotel, we saw many high rise condominiums/apartments in downtown. I thought we are suffering economy downturn nationwide but these new looking condos made me think Chicago was exempted. Hmm… I wondered how much it costs to live out here?…

After we came back to the hotel, Richard took the boys to the pool again while I bathed Audrey and got her ready to sleep. I went for a short swim when the boys were back. Overall we had a long fun day today.

6/18/09 Thursday:

We had a tight schedule this morning because we were going to leave Chicago this afternoon but we still wanted to visit Chicago Children Museum in the morning. So after breakfast we walked to the museum, which is 3-4 blocks away from Embassy Suites.

At Chicago children Museum: Ethan trying to build a house.

At Chicago Children Museum: Ethan trying to build a house.

Alexander crossing the indoor suspension bridge.

Alexander crossing the indoor suspension bridge.

The Chicago Children Museum is a 3-story building with lots of hands-on interactive learning fun. It is divided into different areas– home safety, musical talent show, cooking, indoor climbing ropes and suspension bridge, dinosaur discovery, water splashing zone, weather learning, construction building etc… It was a really nice place; Alexander and Ethan were having so much fun playing in the museum. I wished we could stay longer but we had to head back to the hotel around noon to get ready to check out at 1 pm.

The boys in the splashing zone.

The boys in the splashing zone.

We were taking Amtrak to Kansas City, Missouri this afternoon at 3:30pm at Chicago Union Station. Since we wouldn’t be arriving Kansas City until 10pm, we thought it was best to bath the kids first in the hotel. As soon as we returned to our room, Richard and I worked quickly bathing the kids, dressed them and finished up packing.

When we arrived at Union Station we had some time to eat lunch. Since Richard and I still didn’t have the chance to try the famous Chicago Style hot dogs, we decided to order Chicago dogs in the food court inside the train station. I am not a big hot dog fan so it tasted alright to me.

Overall it was fun. Our stay in Chicago definitely is too short. There are still lots of places to explore… it’s okay, this way we have excused to come back to the wind city. See you later Chicago…!

Our vacation is not over yet (not quite…). To continue please read 2009 Summer Vacation part III: Missouri.

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This is the last part of our 2009 summer vacation. To find out more about our vacation, please read 2009 Summer Vacation part I: Train Trip and 2009 Summer Vacation part II: Chicago.

We left Chicago on 6/18/09 at 3:30pm to catch Amtrak to Kansas City. Since the train trip only lasted 7  hours so we didn’t get a sleeping room. The seats in the coach car have lots of leg room and are comfortable enough for the trip. I sat with Audrey while Richard and the boys sat behind me, watching movie from Richard’s laptop. There was no beautiful scenery during the trip so I didn’ t border to take any pictures. At times Audrey was very fuzzy and tired. To avoid disturbing other passengers, I had take her to lower car where the luggage area and by restroom area, and swing her until she fell asleep. It was a good 15-30 minutes… my arm got so sore!

Dinner was on the train but we had to pay this time, and the menu was very familiar to the ones we had few days ago on different train. I had roasted chicken again. The train was running behind schedule so we didn’t get to Kansas City till 10:40pm. Even though it was late but it was still warm and humid in Kansas City. Richard’s sister Rachel picked us up at the station, and Richard’s brother Billy showed up too to surprise us! We were spending a night at Rachel’s house before going to our final destination– Joplin, Missouri. It had been a long time since I last saw Rachel… was glad to see  her again.

Left to right: Rachel, Richard, Billy and Bobby

Left to right: Rachel, Richard, Billy and Bobby

Dave and Rachel with the kids (Audrey, Alexander and Ethan).

Dave and Rachel with the kids (Audrey, Alexander and Ethan).

The next morning Rachel’s husband Dave cooked us breakfast. Bobby (Richard’s younger brother) and Billy showed up to join us. Everyone had a good time getting together. Alexander and Ethan had fun too playing with their golden retriever in the big backyard. Mom (my MIL) joined us for lunch and stayed until late afternoon before we left with mom and Billy to head back to Joplin, which is about 2 hours away. By the time we arrived at mom’s house it was close to bed time for the kids. We quickly settled them and rested. Somehow the hot and humid weather was making me tired easily…

The next day (Saturday) was a big day– it was the annual Father’s Day gathering for all the relatives. This year’s gathering took place at aunt Katie’s house. Richard has many cousins and I could barely remember all of them last time I saw them, so imagine this time with even more new faces (spouses and children)… Alexander and Ethan were having fun splashing water with their cousins. But for me it was boring, not much of real “gathering chit chat” going other than people watching…zzzzz… I missed California!

Alexander and Ethan playing in front of grandma's house

Alexander and Ethan playing in front of grandma's house

Audrey didn't like the cold water so she just sat under the shade, watching her brothers playing in the pool.

Audrey didn't like the cold water so she just sat under the shade, watching her brothers playing in the pool.

We stayed in Joplin for 5 days and during these days the weather had been incredibly hot, with temperature close or over 100°F. The humidity made it worse. The kids got tanned very quickly. We pretty much just stayed local. It was way too hot, and there weren’t many attractions for the family (except for Silver Dollar City Theme Park).

At Silver Dollar City: Ethan was soaked!

At Silver Dollar City: Ethan was soaked!

Silver Dollar City is a western cow-boy style theme park. It took us about  2 to 2 1/2 hours to get there. There were lots of water activities and of course it was packed with people. I mostly just strolled Audrey around with mom while Richard and the boys were having fun. I did decide to play in the water shooting area later and got wet– I mean soaking wet. Richard and the boys were very wet too. The weather was so hot that by the time we were about to leave our clothes was just about to dry. Overall it was a fun full day. At the end of the day, Alexander and Ethan were so exhausted that they fell asleep just as we got out of the parking lot.

At Silver Dollar City: mom and I were taking picture of each other.

At Silver Dollar City: mom and I were taking picture of each other.

One thing that happened at the park was that my camera suddenly stopped working. The next day Richard even had a little problem importing pictures from the memory card to the computer. Luckily we managed to save the pictures, otherwise I would be very pissed!

Grandma cut Alexander's hair while he read a book

Grandma cut Alexander's hair while he read a book.

Ethan got a haircut by grandma too!

Ethan got a haircut by grandma too!

The following days we didn’t do much other than visiting aunt Katie’s house for the boys to play in the pool with Katie’s grand kids. Oh, on the night before we left for home, we played some fireworks in front of mom’s house. Since we could not play fireworks in San Leandro, we took the chance and bought some nice fireworks in Joplin. The fireworks were beautiful, just like professional ones except smaller scale. Too bad my camera was broken… sigh! Audrey didn’t like the loud noise of fireworks so she stayed inside most of the time. Oh, Audrey made her very first crawl in mom’s house 🙂 We were excited because we had been waiting for this moment for a long time…

We flew home on Thursday 6/25/2009. We chose an early flight so that when we got home there was still plenty of time to rest. The flight arrived at SFO and we took BART to San Leandro– another train ride experience for Alexander and Ethan, and they love it as always!

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Alexander: First baby tooth fell out last Friday. Tooth Fairy gave him $10 (gee… a RICH Tooth Fairy!). He gave the money to mama and daddy to save it for his college fund. Since he got the Star Wars Leapster cartridge he’s been more and more crazy about Star Wars…  asking Richard all kinds of questions related to the movies.

Alexander's baby tooth fell out. The new one was already out.

Alexander's baby tooth fell out. The new one was already out.

Ethan: We (it’s more mama than daddy) finally decided to potty train Ethan during night time sleeping. To avoid washing bed sheets and blankets everyday like we did with Alexander, we had him put on underpants with a pull-ups to catch the leak. The first night, we took him to bathroom late night but he still got his underpants wet the next morning. But starting the 2nd night, he went to bathroom by himself and the underpants was pretty much dry throughout the night! It’s been like this for 1 week now so cross our fingers… Night potty training with Alexander was extremely painful, so this is a big relief for Richard and myself.

When there’s good thing, there’s the bad: Ethan has been extremely bad behaving lately, refuse to listen and/or very slow getting things done… when will  this bad stage be over?… sigh!

Ethan trying to pout and laugh at the same time.

Ethan trying to pout and laugh at the same time.

Audrey: Audrey was slow at crawling… didn’t start until 10 1/2 months old. But after she knew how to crawl, she picked up fast and now she’s crawling everywhere fast! She can now crawl up the stairs and pull herself standing up unassisted. Audrey can also cruise a little bit (1-2 steps) and wants to walk! The little sister wants to be with her brothers very much, but the boys always move her somewhere else or close the door on her (as Audrey always messes up their toys)… poor little Audrey doesn’t like it at all and here comes the tears…

Audrey stands up by the bath tub.

Audrey stands up by the bath tub.

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Just want to share with you my smiley face cookies– I had the idea of making it for a while but just didn’t get the chance to find a recipe for the cookie dough base. Finally saw a checkerboard cookie recipe from The Best of Martha Stewart Living: Dessert and decided to test out my idea.

Smiley Face (Ice Box) Cookies

Smiley Face (Ice Box) Cookies

I had fun making the smiley faces. The dough was like play dough but a bit drier. In order to make smiley face, I had to patch pieces of dough together. At one point I was a little worry because I had heard of too much handling of cookie dough can produce dense cookies. Luckily the cookies came out yummy, tasted just like shortbread cookies, flaky and buttery. These little guys are so cute. It’s also fun when slicing the cookie dough as the faces change from one another. I baked my cookies a little longer so the bottom was brown when the top was still white– giving my kids choices of white face or brown face 🙂 I am glad to say that my trial was successful, and I will definitely make it again with a much better looking smiley.

Smiley Face (Ice Box) Cookies-- some stands up and some lay down... all happy!

Smiley Face (Ice Box) Cookies-- some stands up and some lay down... all happy!

Smiley Face (Ice Box) Cookies Recipe

Ingredients:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter– softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
2 3/4 cups flour– sifted
2 1/2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

Method:

  1. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until well blended and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and salt. With mixer on low speed, gradually add the flour, scraping down sides of bowl. The dough will be loose and crumbly.
  2. Turn dough out onto a work surface. Knead dough by pushing small amounts away from you with the heel of your hand for 1-2 minutes. Divide dough into 1/3 and 2/3 portion.
  3. To make chocolate dough: sprinkle cocoa powder over the 1/3 portion. Knead until cocoa has been fully incorporated. This is the dough to make hair, eyes and lip. Keep the remaining 2/3 portion back in the mixing bowl. This is the dough for the face.
  4. To make eyes: take some chocolate dough, using your hands moving back and forth, gently roll the dough into 2 thin strips, set aside. To Make lip: take some chocolate dough and roll it out flat between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Remove plastic wrap and trim to 1 inch wide. Save the remaining chocolate dough for the hair. It’s okay if the eye strips and the lip falling apart, just patch up when you assemble the face later.
  5. To assemble the face: Take some plain dough and roll it out. Put 2 chocolate strips on the dough, then cover the strips with some more plain dough. Add the flat chocolate dough on the top for the lip, be sure to create a curve or you’ll have a straight face instead.  Cover up the lip with the rest of plain dough.  At last, turn the log upside down and add the remaining chocolate dough (this will be the hair). Feel free to play with it to create different hair look.  Finally, shape the dough into long log. Important notes: 1) wash hands before handling plain dough to ensure none of chocolate dough crumbs fall onto the plain dough, or you’ll have “dirty faces”, 2) when making the face, be sure there is no gap between the doughs, or you’ll have holes on the face.
  6. Wrap the dough tightly and chill in the fridge at least 1 hour before baking (cookie dough can be stored in  the fridge for a few days, or in the freezer for months). Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice cookies into 1/4 inch thickness, lay on a cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes or until the edges are slightly brown. Cool cookies on the rack then store in air tight container. For the cookies that are not ready to bake, continue to chill in the fridge. Leaving sliced cookies dough in room temperature too long will melt the butter, thus creating cookies that are more spread out/flatter and lose their shape after baking.

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French Apple Tart

French Apple Tart

French Apple Tart: recipe by Barefoot Contessa

I was watching Barefoot Contessa on Foodnetwork and Alexander suddenly grabbed a pencil and piece of paper and started writing down the recipe as we watched along (with many pauses of course). He said he was writing down the recipe so I could make it:). I originally wasn’t into it , but for the hard work that Alexander put in to write the ingredients and steps of making it, I decided to give it a try.

Some recipes calls for round tart with apple slices fanned out and formed a flower at the center. But this version of Ina Garten is a rectangular tart with apple slices fanned out diagnoc pattern. I made some changes to the tart pastry by adding some ground almond, and I just rolled it out to be roughly rectangular without any trimming. Apple slices certainly made beautiful presentation. However, I think the oven temperature stated in the recipe is too high. My tart pastry was pretty much burnt except for a few spots:( The apples didn’t taste as good as they look, kind of plain in my opinion… I still prefer apples in Tart Tatin. Sorry Ina, but hey at least I tried…

I suddenly got an idea: There are some yellow peaches on the trees in the backyard, maybe I’ll make a peach with almond cream tart, using similar design…

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Aromatic Prawns with Pork Floss

Aromatic Prawns with Pork Floss

Pork floss is a kind of pork product although it doesn’t look like meat at all. I think that (but not sure) pork floss is made of marinated pork slowly dry roasted until the meat is breaking apart and eventually become very very fine, just like the very fine fiber that makes up your carpet. Pork floss is a very common side dish to accompany plain porridge; it is also used as topping and/or  filling in breads and buns, or sandwiched with some butter. Here I’m using it in cooking.

The aroma, however, doesn’t come from pork floss but rather from curry leaves, garlic and Thai hot peppers. I love the fragrant smell of curry leaves. It brings out the soul of this dish. While the boys and Richard are going for the prawns, I am usually after the pork floss and aromatic crumbs– they are the best!

Aromatic Prawns with Pork Floss

Aromatic Prawns with Pork Floss. The very fine golden 'hair' is pork floss.

Ingredients:
1.5 lbs tiger prawns
3-4 cloves garlic
2 stalks curry leaves
10-15 hot Thai peppers
3-4 tbsp pork floss
salt and sugar to taste

Method:

  1. Remove prawn shells (keep the tail) and deveined. Season prawns with some salt and rinse off quickly. Pat dry.
  2. Finely chopped garlic, curry leaves and peppers.
  3. Heat up pan with some oil and saute prawns until just cooked. Dish out.
  4. Saute garlic, curry leaves and peppers until aroma comes out. Return the prawns to the pan and toss to combine. Add salt and sugar to taste. Dish out to a big bowl. Toss in pork floss then transfer to a plate. Serve hot immediately.

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