Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Window (Dear Amanda Lily)

This post is for Amanda Lily. My hope is that one day she will look back on it, and remember the excitement of this time of year. She will have her memories, because she has lived it. But, just in case she ever wonders about my thoughts and feelings, they will be here for her in black and white.

I admire you. You are dedicated to dance in a way beyond your years. I watch as you work at your art, and push yourself to be better. Other ballet parents often ask me why I stay at the ballet school, and watch through the observation window, instead of just dropping you off. The first few years, it was because you were young, and I was afraid you might need me. Now, it is because you amaze me. I find so much joy in watching you dance. Those two hours a week are a blessing to my heart. No matter what craziness is going on in my life.

It all started when you were three years old. Your very first ballet class.....I watched there in the window. You made me laugh, and I could never understand the patience Mrs O had with you and the other tiny dancers. At your first recital, with hundreds of people watching, you did every move to perfection, but you wouldn't look out at the crowd. You turned your entire head away, refusing to even acknowledge the audience was even there. You made me so proud.

Over the next three years, I stood at the window. It didn't take long for me to realize the window was one of my favorite places on earth to be. I watched as you grew physically, and learned the value of hard work, manners, humbleness, and grace. At your next recital, you were a different girl. You had a small part with your ballet friend, Sophia, where the two of you had to walk to the very front of the stage and do turns. As I watched you rehearse from my spot at the window, I wondered if you even realized that you would need to do that part in front of the same audience you refused to acknowledge the year before. When the time came, I knew my heart would beat right out of my chest. You did your part to perfection, and you looked at the crowd the entire time. You had grown. You made me so proud.

Your six year old ballet year was with Mrs Watson. I wasn't sure how you would respond to having a new dance teacher, but through the window, I saw you blossom. Now you were learning  pre classical ballet steps, basic classical ballet poses, and finally working on the ballet barre. Many of the girls whom you had been dancing with for the past three years, were showing signs of boredom. They moved on to other things like cheer, jazz, or softball. I asked you several times if you would like to try something new. You always replied "no", you wouldn't even entertain the idea. The cheerleader in me cried, but that was my thing, ballet was all yours. I recall one day watching from the window, and seeing your face light up with excitement. Mrs Watson was having a conversation with you. I couldn't tell what she was saying. What could it be? As you came out of class with your ballet friends, you had the biggest smile on your face, and you came straight to me. You did not run. You walked with grace, and conducted yourself with grace. You gave me a hug and told me in my ear that you were the lead in the recital. You were six years old, and conducted yourself better than most adults. You made me so proud. In the car on the way home, we screamed with delight. We had a conversation about hard work paying off, and what it means to be dedicated. A few months later, after much practice your class performed "Mary had a little lamb." You were Mary. You danced the part like you owned the stage. You made me so proud.

This past year brought a new world. You moved to the upper classical ballet division, and a new Big window. A new instructor, who has been a principal ballet dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, and a scholarship student at the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School, Mrs Wheeler. She walks (floats) by, and I stand up straight. She is an amazing instructor. She brought many new challenges for you, and you always took her instruction to heart, and worked diligently at her corrections. She has high expectations, while being very nurturing at the same time. I was very nervous watching you from a different window. This was the BIG window where the BIG dancers danced. And, the loud classical music came blaring from this window each week. This was the BIG window that you and I stopped at several times over the past few years, to watch those big dancers after you got out of your dance class. You would watch them doing pirouettes and your eyes would grow big. I would tell you that if you kept up your hard work, you would one day be dancing behind that window. And now you are. This window still attracts little girls leaving the smaller studio. I loved the looks on their faces when they asked me which "big girl" is my daughter. I pointed you out and they looked at you like you were a prima donna. They watched as you would pirouette and spot across the room with ease. You had no idea they were watching you as an inspiration. You made me so proud.

The BIG window and I had a bit of a falling out this year. It was about the "testing" It pained me to watch as Mrs Wheeler asked you and your friends to individually dance as she observed to see if you were each able to advance to the next level of dance next year. She took notes. I wondered if you girls even knew what was going on. She had taught you all the correct placement of your bodies, heads, even your finger tips. She told a few of us Mothers that she was looking for "technique and strength." I couldn't even stand to watch from my perch at the window. So, I walked away from the window for the two weeks of testing....I sat in my car and played fruit ninja, or talked my nervousness away to my friend Heather, who reassured me that all would be fine. She was right. Mrs Wheeler called me to ask if I would be ok with her skipping you past the next level of ballet. In her opinion, you were ready, but she wanted to be sure I would be ok with the time commitment. There was a catch though. I couldn't share the good news with you, because she would be sending out formal letters to all of the girls in two weeks. She didn't want any talk of who was placed where until she was prepared.....in two weeks. So, I found myself watching you through the window,as you were sweating and working your butt off. I wished so much that I could tell you the secret. When I did tell you, two weeks later, you laughed with excitement. Then you covered your mouth and cried. You told me that you didn't understand why you were crying. I explained to you that sometimes we cry out of happiness. Your reaction made me cry too. You understood the value of your dedication. You made me so proud.

A couple of weekends ago was your end of the season recital. Your class danced as flowers. You were as poised as could be, and danced beautifully. Your part consisted of coming out from under the huge hoop dress of a man who was on stilts. The rather large flower that was in your hair got caught on the hoop as you came out. My heart skipped a beat. Would you let it rattle you? You kept going, dancing with grace as if it never even happened. I doubt anyone even noticed beside us, because you never missed a beat. You made me so proud.

Who knows what next year may bring for me and the window. You will be dancing three nights a week, two hours each night. It seems like a lot of time to stand there. Maybe I will just stay half of the time, and get my "fix." You know, Dad has no problem being on the football field practicing with Steven and his team for hours a week, so why wouldn't I stay at my window? It's my way of supporting you. And it works for us. You are such a fiercely independent child, never really wanting or needing any one's help, including mine. I think that trait serves you well in ballet. So, I'll stand in my window in silent support of my girl, as you make me so proud.

I'm sure one day in the far away future, you will be reading this post. I wonder if you will have followed your childhood dream of becoming a professional dancer with a ballet company that travels the world? Or, maybe you will own your own dance studio, and share your passion with others. Or, maybe you will have abandoned dance all together. Where ever life takes you, I'm sure if you look around, there will be many more "windows." And I'll be standing in them thinking...you make me so proud.

                                                                                 Love you always, Mom

                             This years recital season in pictures.

Getting ready for a long fun weekend.

Backstage during rehearsals.


Your beautiful dance class.

Behind the curtain just after dress rehearsal.

Mrs Wheeler and you in dressing room.

Performance Leap!

All smiles during performance.

Family pictures after final performance. Uncle Pete, Aunt Heather, Ms. Heather, and Mia were all there to support you this year as well. They were all camera shy.

Papa Bear

Papou' Steven and Sophie

Uncle Larry

You and me.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sophie turns 4

My sweet little niece is now 4 years old! It's unbelievable to me that she is now the same age that Amanda Lily was when she was born. Time is just flying by.
Pete and I have this standing play date that we have tried to keep. Every Friday, he brings Sophie over to my house to play with Amanda Lily, and we have "girl time". While, he and Steven either go golfing, to the movies, or over to Sports Authority for "boy time". I have really enjoyed these times. The girls always have so much fun with either a tea party, playing barbies, playing outside in the play house, or swimming in the pool. I love it that they have this special time to bond. (I also really love that Pete and Steven have a special bond all their own.)

Sophie has blossomed into her personality a lot over this past year, and having her over on Fridays has been such a joy. She is a sweet, fun loving, and FUNNY little person. In fact, her sharp wit has kept me in stitches more than once. She and Amanda Lily bounce off of one another like Pete and George did in the old days, and I just laugh along with them.

Her birthday party was tons of fun. Heather did a beautiful job on the decorations and cupcakes. Her theme was Strawberry Shortcake, and it was at our local bounce house. Cronia Pola Sophie...we love you!!!

Greek Custard/Galatoboureko

George's Name Day was April 24th. We celebrated by me making his all time favorite Greek custard pie. Every time we have go to Greece, he asks his Aunt Eleni to make this. I got the base of this recipe from a Greek cookbook, but I added and tweaked A LOT. Like most of the Greek recipes, everything here is from scratch, and it requires a bit of time in the kitchen. This got rave reviews from my in laws, and brother in law Pete, too. Most importantly, George loved it. :)

8 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cup semolina (publix has it)
1/2 stick butter, room temp
10 eggs, beaten
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp orange extract
1 box phillo dough pastry
1 stick melted butter

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp orange extract

In a large saucepan, heat the milk and sugar. When warm, add semolina slowly, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until it thickens and is smooth. Approximately 10 mins. Be sure to stir constantly or the semolina will form lumps.

Blend 1/2 stick butter into mixture with spoon. Remove from heat once butter had incorporated, and blend in vanilla and orange extracts.

When the mixture has cooled, blend in eggs. Be sure mixture is cooled or the eggs will cook. Do not rush this step.

Butter a 13x9 baking pan. Place half (about 10 sheets) of phillo pastry in pan, one at a time, making sure to brush each layer of sheets with melted butter. Also, be sure and cover even the sides of the pan with pastry.

Pour in custard mixture. Top with the remaining phillo sheets, again brushing each with butter.

Bake at 350* for 1 hour and 15 mins, or until golden brown.

While pastry is baking, prepare Spice Syrup. Bring water to a boil, add sugar and cinnamon stick. Allow to simmer for 5 mins. Remove from heat and add extracts. Allow to cool.

Remove from oven, and immediately cut into squares, and pour cooled spice syrup over the pastry. The syrup will saturate the phillo and custard.

Allow to cool a bit, then enjoy warm. This is also delicious the next morning after being refrigerated over night. George loves to eat it cold.

Here is what the semolina looks like.

Cooked semolina, cooling spice syrup, and  melted butter.

Phillo layers

Custard in and final layers of phillo brushed with butter.

Hot out of the oven with spice syrup poured over.

Have some?

Spring Garden 2012

This years garden is a bit different. Instead of planting our usual spring vegetables, we decided to plant trees. I also bought a bag of flower seeds and just sprinkled them all around the garden. I'm not sure if that was a great choice though because now I have no idea if the sprouts coming up are weeds or flowers! I'll have my mom decipher the difference for me when she's over.

We planted a pear and peach tree. Both of them are hybrids for a Florida climate, so hopefully with a little TLC we will have some fruit in a year or two. We planted them next to our lemon tree.

Also, this is the first year our fig tree is producing fruit....and LOTS of it. Steven is super excited about that because he loves figs. We have a fig tree at our family home in Greece that he enjoys plucking the fruit off and eating. A few summers ago after returning home, he missed the figs, so we planted a tree. The figs haven't matured yet, but they are there, and we are doing our best to protect them from bugs and pests who want them for a snack. I'll come back with a report of how they taste in a few weeks.

Steven has always been a big help in the spring garden, but this year, he was especially helpful. He helped me pull all the weeds from the overgrown space, then dug both holes for the fruit trees. He and George planted the trees, and built wells to water them in.

Hopefully in a few years, we can come back and see these pictures and note how much these trees have grown.

Roxy was interested in what Steven was doing.

This is "Mr. Fig"

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Playing catch up

May is always the busiest month of the year for our family. School is wrapping up, both children's birthdays, and end of the year recitals. It's been crazy, and we aren't even done yet! I've been avoiding my blog because I haven't had time, and the amount of memories I want to post just seems daunting.

I'll start with Steven taking up diving. He is such a "chip" off his Dad. They are so much alike that they but heads often, but then they turn around and are laughing with each other. The two of them are both pretty high strung too, so diving is the perfect hobby for them. Just imagine how "Zen" it must be for them to be under the water with nothing to think of but the beautiful ocean life. There must be something magical to the whole weightless feeling too.....just floating along.

I knew when George decided to become a certified diver that it wouldn't be long until Steven set in to dive too. He is starting small by just learning and getting comfortable with using dive equipment in the pool. I'm sure it won't be long and he'll be out diving wrecks with his Dad and Uncle Dan. Steven is a nature lover who is fortunate to have men in his life who help him along, and encourage him to be adventurous.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Teacher Appreciation Week

This week is Teacher Appreciation week. I'm sure you know an extraordinary teacher, so thank them. My kids have both been blessed by already having so many wonderful teachers in their Elementary school years. In my opinion, teaching is one of the most under appreciated (and under paid) of professions. For the good ones, I've found a common thread......it's a calling. They do it because they love the children. I know I don't have it in me to do the job, and I admire those who do. Many of my friends are teachers, so if you are reading this post, I think you are F-A-B!!

At our school, we do a little something special each day for our teachers this week. Day 1 is bringing in a homemade card. Here are the Kountanis kids creations:

Steven, who is not generally very creative, really surprised me. He put a lot of time and effort into his card for Mrs Roberts.

Amanda Lily was true to form, and had this card mostly complete by the time I came back to check on her. The "you make me grow" was her idea. I thought that was sweet.


Thank a teacher today!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Greek Wedding and Cookies/Kourambiedes


Amanda Lily had the great honor of being a flower girl in her Greek God parents wedding last weekend. The wedding was a beautiful blend of Greek American traditions. We had a wonderful time, and wish the bride and groom many years of love and happiness.

Steven and the groom Demo just before the ceremony. 

The flower girls

Doing their jobs

Stefena or Crowns Ceremony

At the reception


Amanda Lily's all time favorite cookie is a Greek Kourambiede. It's a cookie that's been generously dusted with powdered sugar. Here is our family's recipe. There shouldn't be too many versions of this recipe out there, as it is a traditional cookie that has been served in Greece at weddings and christenings for many generations. 

1 lb. unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 oz brandy
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
3 3/4 cups flour, sifted
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup ground almonds
1 box of powdered sugar for coating

Heat oven to 350. Soften butter to room temperature. Beat butter in blender until fluffy. continue beating and add sugar, egg yolk, orange juice, brandy, and extracts. Next beat in flour and cornstarch until soft dough forms. Remove dough from bowl and form a ball. Blend in almonds.

Shape dough into crescent shapes or walnut sized balls. Do Not press down or flatten.

Place on ungreased cookie sheet, approx 1/2 inch apart. Bake at 350 for 18 minutes or until golden brown.

While cookies are baking, sift some of the box of powdered sugar onto a cutting board or flat surface. Remove cookies from oven. Using a spatula immediately transfer hot cookies to sugared surface. Do not crowd cookies or place them on top of each other. Coat with sugar. Cool for several hours before serving. Place in individual cup cake liners to serve as petit fours. Sprinkle with one final dusting of confectioners sugar.

Below is a photo of the Kourambiedes I made a couple of years ago for my niece Sophie's Christening. It is a Greek tradition to have these sweets in your home when your family is celebrating a wedding or christening. These two batches are the ones I packaged up for my sister in law and mother in law to have in their homes.