Okay friends, settle in. This post is a little longer than usual.
I wasn’t planning on having a birthday party for my son until he turned about five or six years old, a time I thought he’d either care to have a party and/or would likely remember it. I changed my mind for his recent third birthday and held a terrarium workshop birthday party to celebrate and nurture one of his current interests, gardening. You see at the beginning of the summer, I planted a balcony garden. In an upcoming post I’ll write more about it, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m happy the plants are still alive (I don’t have a green thumb) and I’ve been quite pleased to see how interested my little one has become in caring for our plants.
I also planted a terrarium—a mini garden for the indoors that has also held my son’s fascination. A terrarium is very much like an aquarium, but for plants instead of fish. Planted to look like a miniature garden or forest that is enclosed in its own ecosystem, terrariums are a simple and beautiful way to introduce children to the concept of caring for the environment as well as a great tool to teach responsibility and self confidence.
Wanting to nurture my son’s current (and I hope it lasts) interest in flowers and plants, I thought an outdoor birthday party that included a terrarium activity might be fun for him and his buddies.
Terrariums can be made in just about any glass (or plastic) container. The container you use can either have a small or large opening, with or without a lid. A lid makes it more like a greenhouse—just as the Earth’s atmosphere holds in warmth, so does the enclosed glass container by allowing sunlight to enter through the glass and warm the soil, plants and air. Très cool, don’t you think? If you’d like to add a little greenery to your home or indoor space, then try getting your hands a little dirty and make an indoor terrarium! They’re quite simple to make. At the basic level, all you need is a clear and clean container, rocks, soil and plants. See the bottom of this post for more on making a terrarium. If you plan on making terrariums with kids, I’d suggest making them outside; it can get messy.
Our nature-themed party was held at a wooded park that provided a great setting for an outdoor picnic, simple scavenger hunt, mingling and terrarium making.
The little ones will soon forget their recent terrarium making experience, that’s to be expected. However, I do hope the lessons of creativity, discovery and love of nature will last a lifetime. For now, though, I’m content that my son proudly points to his terrarium and then tells us that he made it and “gives it water when its thirsty”. He sometimes adds with a smile: “And then the terrarium drinks the water and says ‘thank you’ and is soooo happy.” 🙂
This party was simple in aesthetic and had a natural, rustic, and relaxed feel. Although the party was meant for little ones, thought was given to adults as I wanted them to enjoy their time too. My hope was that each person would feel warm and welcomed and leave inspired. I thought of this party more like a summer picnic with friends, and together we’d celebrate a new year of life with cake.
Last year I made a three-tiered “cake” out of watermelon and other fruits for my son’s birthday. He loved it, but that may not have worked so well this year. After a year of attending other birthday parties, my son already had an idea of what kind of birthday cake he wanted this year—a white and brown (aka chocolate) one, he mentioned several times. Not wanting to “rain” on his birthday wish, I made a yellow cake with chocolate ganache frosting and chocolate cupcakes with an Italian meringue frosting. To his delight, I decorated both with a simple sprinkling of edible red (his favorite color) glitter.
The rest of the menu was a relatively modest affair—simple, healthy, but tasty. I planned for small finger foods that could be easily handled by little fingers and parents needing to keep a watchful eye on their kiddos. I thought about making a few other savory things, but not wanting a repeat of my Easter Brunch Fiasco , I simplified the menu and this time recruited friends to help with food preparation, set up and/or photography. Thanks Sherri, Ann, and Bianca!
Coconut Red Lentil Terrine with Cumin and Turmeric Crackers
Hummus with Whole Grain Bread
Chewy Almond Seeduction Bars
Apricot-Date Seeduction Mini Muffins
Watermelon on Popsicle Sticks
Fresh Orange Juice
Chocolate Cupcakes with Italian Meringue Frosting
Yellow Cake with Chocolate Ganache Frosting (recipe below)
Activities For Fun
Nature Scavenger Hunt
Free-Play on the Playground
Yellow Cake with Chocolate Ganache
Adapted from Miette
Makes two 6-inch cakes
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) organic, all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (7 ounces) organic, unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
10 large egg yolks from organic free range eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup organic buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Make simple syrup. In a small saucepan, combine water and sugar and bring to a simmer, while stirring. When all of the sugar has dissolved into the water, remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Butter two 6-by-3-inch cake pans. Dust with flour and tap out excess flour. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the butter and sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 10-12 minutes. Do not rush this step. The more you cream it, the lighter the texture. Add the egg yolks in three additions, beating for two minutes between each addition, and stopping the mixer to scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. Raise the mixer speed to high and beat for 30 more seconds to fully combine.
In a small bowl, stir together the vanilla and buttermilk. With the mixer on low-speed, alternate adding the flour mixture and buttermilk in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Between additions, only beat until combined before adding the next addition of either flour or buttermilk. Remove the bowl from the mixer, scrape down the sides and fold the batter a few times with a spatula.
Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and level the tops. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cakes are light brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 15-20 minutes. Carefully run an offset spatula around the edges of pan to loosen cake from pan. Invert the cakes onto racks, removing them from pan and allow to cool another 15-20 minutes. The inside of the cake should be completely cooled before decorating.
When the cake is completely cool and slightly chilled (if you store it in the refrigerator while prepping other ingredients (simple syrup or ganache), use a serrated knife to level the cake by removing the dome from the top of the cake.
Once the cake has been leveled, divide the cake horizontally into two, equal layers. This will yield four layers total. You could use three or four layers. My cake photographed above has four layers. Use your hands and/or a pastry brush to brush away any excess crumbs.
Using a pastry brush, brush the top of each cake layer with a conservative amount of simple syrup. Spread ganache (recipe below) in between layers and over top and sides of cake.
10 ounces 60-62% cacao chocolate, chopped
2/3 cup (2 1/2 ounces) powdered sugar, sifted
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 large egg yolks from organic free-range eggs
3 tablespoons organic unsalted butter, at room temperature
Combine chocolate and powdered sugar in a medium, heatproof bowl.
In a small saucepan over medium, bring cream to a gentle simmer. Pour the hot cream over chocolate and sugar mixture and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Nestle the bowl over a medium saucepan of simmer water to make a double boiler — be sure that the water in the saucepan doesn’t touch the bottom of your heatproof bowl. Gently cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the heat.
In a separate, small heatproof bowl, whisk egg yolks. Pour about 1/2 cup of the melted chocolate mixture into the yolks while whisking, to temper them. Pour the tempered mixture back into the larger, heatproof bowl containing the chocolate and whisk to combine. Add the butter and stir until smooth.
Allow the ganache to cool to desired consistency. If you will not be using it right away, you can transfer to an airtight container and chill in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. However, please note that when ganache is chilled it hardens quickly to a solid. To reheat for pouring or spreading, simply scoop it into a heatproof bowl and microwave for 15-30 seconds at a time until you reached your desired consistency.
Making a Terrarium
To get started you will need to find an appropriate container. Almost any glass jar will make a nice terrarium. Fish bowls/tanks, food containers (like mason jars) and/or clear plastic bottles will work. You can buy really nice containers at any price point. I went to thrift stores in search of inexpensive containers with wide openings that would accommodate little hands that I knew would enjoy filling with sand, rocks and dirt. Containers with small or narrow openings work fine too, but note that those with wide openings are easier to reach your hand in for planting and maintenance.
Cover the bottom of your container with a little horticultural charcoal (not the type used for barbecuing). The charcoal is optional, but it helps filter the water, prevent growth of fungi and absorb unwanted odors. Next, add small rocks or pea gravel for drainage. If you’d like, you could then add sand for added drainage. Since this was a workshop for three-year-olds (and their parents), I thought making brightly colored terrariums might be fun. My son’s favorite colors are red, blue and purple, in that order. I chose rocks and sand in those colors as well as in neutral tones, for balance.
After your level of drainage is complete, add potting soil and miniature plants of different colors, shapes, and/or textures. However, keep plant varieties similar. For example, don’t mix ferns with succulents as they require differing levels of moisture. Some optional “fun” things we added were moss in a variety of colors and tiny plastic ladybugs and animals.
For maintenance, keep your terrarium away from direct sunlight as strong light can cause the water to evaporate too quickly and scorch the plants. Water your plants, but not too much. You’ll know that the terrarium contains the right amount of water if the sides and top are a little misty with water droplets. If there is no moisture along the sides, then use a spray bottle/mister to add some more water. If the sides are always very wet, then you likely have too much water. Closed lid terrariums need less frequent watering as the moisture will not evaporate as quickly. The perfect balance of water is when there’s some, not too much, moisture that is visible on the glass.
Check on your terrarium periodically, about once a week, but it also depends on what plants you choose. Succulents, for example, require less water. Besides checking moisture levels, prune or remove plants with excessive growth. Finally, try to avoid plant leaves touching the sides of the container as much as possible to prevent constant water sitting on the leaves.
Have you already planted a terrarium?