December 21, 2010

Christmas Countdown 2010 - #6

On this first day of winter, the anticipation of Christmas is high! I can hear the wind kicking up and we have snow in the forecast. As much as we love a white Christmas, we're praying that harsh weather won't spoil our plans in the coming days, as it has been doing all over the world according to the morning news. Hope they all get home for Christmas!

Cookie baking is done and this may well be a new favorite this year - cranberry orange shortbread. Here's the link to the recipe. One caveat for this link - when I tried to change the quantity for these to make a half recipe, only the first few ingredients were halved by the adjustment tool. The flour, and ingredients listed after flour, were still displayed in the original amounts. Luckily it was very obvious that the dough was way too dry and I found the error when I looked at the adjusted recipe more closely. I just added more butter, etc. and the dough was rescued. These are so tasty that it's not too much of a burden to have ended up with a whole recipe instead of half! The slice and bake feature is great since you can make the dough when you have all the ingredients out for other cookies, then pop them in the fridge until you're ready for them.

Another new cookie this year are these peppermint snowballs. These were NOT easy to make, but I have to admit after grumbling during the process, that they might be worth the trouble! I did make one change, which was using peppermint extract in place of the vanilla extract. The bottom picture shows them mid-process, when the cream cheese/powdered sugar/crushed candy cane filling has been plopped into them. The next step involves covering the filling with another little piece of dough, then rolling them in more powdered sugar and crushed candy - tedious...but these are so tender and buttery and minty, ahhh.

Two tips for cookie making that will make a big difference - use quality ingredients, including butter when it calls for butter, and don't over-bake them! Be brave and take them out just before you think they're done. They will continue setting up after they come out of the oven and you will have moist, tender cookies!

And while we're talking about food, here is what we got in the mail this week - this cute little Santa gift box, filled with my mother's peanut brittle! She said she wasn't going to send any since we had the treat of my uncle's peanut brittle, but in the end she couldn't resist sending some to us since I think my husband may be the most adamant fan of her brittle that has ever lived!! Many times she has sent him his own private stash for his birthday too!

Another gift that went under our tree this week is this wonderful book! Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa, by Susan Cornelison. I saw this at my aunt's house and immediately badgered her to tell me where I could get one, to which she replied that she had purchased all of them that the store had, and one of them was intended as our Christmas present - ha! I may have spoiled her plan to wrap it and present it, but is was a great surprise nevertheless and she obviously knows she made a good choice in gifts! Thank you so much! In case you don't live in Iowa, here's a link for more of these Twelve Days of Christmas state books.

This will end my Christmas countdown posts as we are headed into some wonderful days together, and laptops need to be stashed for a while! We will enjoy a Mannheim Steamroller concert tonight, Christmas Eve lunch with my grandmother, an evening Lessons and Carols service with our church family (followed by a cookie feast!), time spent at home cooking Duck a l'Orange and opening gifts, and joyfully praising God for the greatest gift of all! Merry Christmas!
"O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light."
Hopkins, 1857

December 17, 2010

Christmas Countdown 2010 - #5

Christmas brings out the creative side in many people. I always wonder why I didn't start making things sooner, since I never fail to have more ideas than time in the end. I think I'll start using my Outlook calendar to tweak my crafty bones around September or so. That's not too over the top is it?!
This gift was put together for the inevitable office gift exchange in my DH's department. We came up with a homemade loaf of bread, wrapped in a vintage kitchen towel, and a jar of cherry preserves from Trader Joe's. The saying goes that you should give something you'd like to receive, so hopefully the "giftee" likes what we do!

A much more skilled crafter than I made this ornament and gave it to us at our recent "Dinner for 10" gathering. This is the art of Scherenschnitte, a German paper cutting craft. Our friend made one for each family and this one was chosen for us because of our gardening habit! You can see the tulip and bird features - very thoughtful and beautifully done. Thank you again!

Here's a box full of bookmarks that I made for the residents at my Grandmother's nursing home. I recycled Christmas cards from years past to make these. Simply cut them down to size and back them with card stock if the paper is too flimsy. Then punch a hole, tie the ribbon at the top, and glue on a sequin for a little holiday bling. It was a lot of fun to make these and I had 35 of them done in about three hours.

We took the bookmarks down to the nursing home when we attended the residents' Christmas party, and we had a really delightful afternoon. The entertainment was a group of women and men from the area who sang with gusto and were thoroughly charming! The little lady standing in front of the choir is a poet, who's had seven poetry books published. They incorporated one of her Christmas poems into the program and after she recited each stanza, they sang a song linked to it - very clever touch! The staff graciously served homemade cookies, candy, and punch, and a jolly Santa made the rounds. Best of all, we had a great visit with a very special aunt and uncle and of course a very special visit with Grandma, who was smiling more than usual!

"Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ..."
Isaac Watts

December 13, 2010

Christmas Countdown 2010 - #4

Before our weekend blizzard was totally over the top, my aunt and I went on the annual Holiday Homes Tour in our town. I should say that once more she treated me to the tour - thank you again! We managed to visit 5 of the 7 stops before my DH called and politely asked me to get my tookus home as the storm was really ramping up!!! We saw everything from new homes, to several Victorian homes... this refurbished historical newspaper building, that has now become an art studio and home to some industrious folks.

The homeowners go all out to decorate for the tour, and this little vignette at the top of a stairway is one example of the way they pull out all the stops for this fundraiser. Nice job!

The storm was also a good reason to keep going on the cookie baking. I've been baking cookies for about 40 years now - and yes, I did start when I was a kid! It's one of my favorite Christmas activities. So far I've accomplished chocolate-butterscotch peanut clusters, lemon sugar cookies, and strawberry thumbprints. A few more to go.

I've been collecting tins for a number of years and some are used each Christmas for storing and freezing Christmas cookies. You can see the one from 1996, which is a testament to how well these things hold up! When I was still living at home, I would super-wrap each tin of cookies to make sure no one got into them before Christmas Eve - such a cookie dictator!

Other people are making holiday treats around us too. Our local cupcake shop made this peppermint cupcake and my DH felt compelled to bring it home - yum!

And last but not least - where did all the new holiday beers come from? There's either a recent explosion of interest or I've been in the dark for a while, which is entirely possible. The increase in microbreweries could be an explanation as well. Whatever the reason, we're on board! The one on the left is my favorite so far and is one of several raspberry beers we found for sale.

There is no good segue from holiday beers to the fact that this is the third week in Advent - at least none that comes to mind at 9:00 at night!! But in fact, we are preparing our hearts as well as our home and larder.
"People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest is on the way."
Farjeon 1928

December 11, 2010

Christmas Countdown 2010 - #3

More Christmas tasks were accomplished this week.
The cards are mailed. It seems like an archaic practice, but there is still something nice about receiving hand written notes, and even Christmas letters and pictures from people we don't see often. Each year when I go through my list and address book, I'm amazed at how much people's lives change in a year.

Our post office is full of beautiful vintage mail boxes. Look on E-bay if you want to know how collectible these are - good grief it's amazing what people purchase!

Packages are mailed too. Some years it seems like the right thing to do to order everything online and have it mailed, but for some reason this year it felt better to pick things out and mail them off. I have great childhood memories of receiving packages from our relatives with mystery gifts inside. Those boxes held everything from hand-crocheted Christmas wreaths to Batman horns for bikes!

In a couple of those boxes that we mailed were some cookies called Ginger Thins.
This is what the dough block looks like before it goes into the freezer for a little while. After freezing it gets cut into very thin slices, sprinkled with sugar, and baked.

There are certain people in our family who are slightly addicted to these, and you know who you are. You'll have to let us know if they arrived in nice little stacks or stacks of crumbs!

Something that WE received in the mail was an early Christmas present from my mom. New pans! Look at these lovelies.
They are hard anodized pans, which have enough weight to keep the food from scorching and the non-stick is excellent. I know we could have waited to open the pans, but then we'd have missed out on the enjoyment of using them for all the holiday meals - that's my justification!

With all of this said, it's important to note that our spirit of giving reaches beyond the "toys" purchased for one another at Christmas time. This season heightens our awareness of the need all around us, and that's a good effect. Whether you choose local ministries, our brave soldiers and their families, or a world-wide project, I pray that your heart will be blessed and the Lord will be glorified by your gifts!

"Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born."
John W. Work 1865

December 9, 2010

Christmas Countdown 2010 - #2

Of course holiday food has been happening around here. We've had a couple of gatherings that called for festive eats and a few more to come. There are some favorite things that I can only make when we're going to a large gathering and cheesecake is one of those things - baking a cheesecake for two is a little much! This cheesecake started with gingerbread flavored grahams (hope you have them in your store since they are yummy!) and some fresh cranberries.

What is it about that graham cracker crust pressed into a pan that is so comforting?! I bought a really nice set of nesting, spring form pans from WalMart. Wilton makes them and it's an 8, 9, and 10 inch set. Nice and sturdy too.

This is a Cranberry Swirl Cheesecake and you make a fresh cranberry jelly to be swirled into the cheese mixture. The recipe is from the Joy of Baking site and the only ingredient change I made was using the gingerbread flavored grahams.

I also cooked it a little longer than the recipe suggested, but then again it could have been because a certain hungry husband was opening and closing the oven to cook sweet potato fries - ha! This is a softer set cheesecake so it was a little tricky to tell when to take it out, but it worked out just fine. I totally blew taking a final product picture, and it was wiped out at the luncheon, so no chance to photograph leftovers either! That's a good thing though, and now that I know I have a cheesecake audience, I think I'll make a habit of baking these desserts!

On to more decadence - the infamous ham ball! This recipe came from Taste of Home, and these went to the luncheon as well.
If you're not from Iowa, you may not have the courage to look at this recipe. If you're from pork country and ever had the privilege of sitting down to these at Grandma's table, then go for it and count it as a once-in-a-while treat! By the way, I made half of this recipe and got 35 ham balls - whew, that's a lot of porky goodness!

Sometimes it's good to keep it simple too. We had my dear aunt and uncle over for soup last Sunday evening, on the spur of the moment.
For dessert, I served peppermint Oreos, ice cream, and homemade chocolate sauce. The recipe is from Real Simple Magazine - 2/09. It absolutely could not be easier, but what a nice treat to serve!
1/4 C sugar
3 Tbs. cocoa powder
1/4 C water
Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, simmer and stir until slightly thickened (2-3 min.).
Let cool slightly before serving.

I miss my far-away family today. I wish I was cooking for all of you too! You're all in our prayers and I thank God for you every day.

"Now to the Lord sing praises, All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace..."

December 7, 2010

Christmas Countdown 2010 - #1

It's already the second week in Advent and just a little snow has been flying around our frozen pond. Last year I did a countdown in December, blogging about what I was doing for Christmas preparation each week, and it kept me motivated to get tasks accomplished and excited about all the aspects I love about the season. So once goes!

As you can read from the sign above, we visited a nearby tree farm. We kind of alternate between a live tree and a fake one. Today I heard some new trivia about the ritual of cutting down a tree for Christmas. Cutting it down and then raising it back up is symbolic of the resurrection?? Anyone else ever heard that?

Above the rack of saws, they had a nice sign to help you identify the different kinds of trees.

With the rather dull saw and a tree cart, we set out in the wind and cold, and I mean wind chill of 18 kind of cold. Never fails for us when we go tree hunting! We trekked out down the hill, up a ridge, back down, back up the other side and of course, the one we finally decided on was about 25 feet from the car!
Here's the part of the tree harvesting experience that involves the man getting to lay down on the frozen ground and crawl under the tree in order to wrench his back while hacking through the trunk - fun stuff! This is a Concolor fir, with slightly blue tinge to the needles, and it smells like pine and an orange grove combined. Just lovely!

We hauled it back to the barn where it went through the netting machine, kind of a violent process!

Then it goes on the measuring block - this one 61/2 feet tall.

Then onto the car and home, blanket flapping all the way and cars in rush hour behind us with little patience for those people driving too slowly - Ho, Ho, Ho!

Here it is inside, decorating in progress. It is truly one of our favorite trees in many years.

Hope your home is looking merry and bright! "Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free..." Wesley 1745

December 1, 2010

Maine Time

It's already Dec. 2nd and time to turn on the Christmas! I need to change the look of the blog for the season, but not until I post the pics from our Thanksgiving trip to Maine. It was wonderful in every way - well the TSA experience for my husband was a little too friendly, but other than that, all was very good!

Here's what we did...
Thanksgiving Day we started with brunch, and these kids thought it was high time to get started!

Then at mid-afternoon, we had just a little more food to sustain us.

Mmmm...this was Brie baked with almonds and cranberries - just so we wouldn't fade away before the main meal.

In between feeds, some of the little and big boys played a game of Koob. It's described on the link as a traditional Viking game. It involves throwing batons in order to try and knock over your opponents koobs, and then knock over the king piece in the middle. It reminded me a little of chess. My DH plans to make our own set as it was really enjoyable.

Now, back to the eating.

The turkey came from Trader Joe's, pre-brined and delicious. I still like putting sage under the skin and more went inside, along with apple and onion. So tasty!

This guy carved, as usual. He borrowed an apron from our friends' youngest son, and it's embellished with a declaration that this is a "MANLY MAN'S" apron - ha!

And then there was the rest of the food, just your everyday fare like sour cream mashed potatoes, orange-zested green beans, stuffing with apples and sausage, and an amazingly innovative cranberry sauce made with raspberry beer - OH so good! I forgot to photograph the pies, which is a shame since my friend J is a wonderful pie baker. Two of the pies were made from pumpkins they grew, and another was an Iowa favorite of her husband, which was a sour cream raisin pie with meringue topping - don't judge yet, just try it sometime, because it was awesome!

We spent time with old friends and made new friends. The littlest beautiful blond in this photo is a new friend, and she thoroughly charmed us! At one point I gave her my camera and she went to town. Not bad for a toddler!


You can tell that this little one's picture-taking escapades delighted everyone! We had another photographer take pictures of our DD while in Maine. She's Bonnie Harrison, and looking through her photos on her website is a treat. She's an amazing professional photographer, with a very humble spirit, and she's a friend who has taken photos for us before, and was kind enough to fit us in while we were visiting. More on this later!

We were so blessed by wonderful music and singing that day as well! Our friend J is a concert violist and I had been longing to hear her play again. These two ladies were fantastic!

The day came to a close with a flurry of men in the kitchen, cleaning up the aftermath - a beautiful thing..

and final conversations and good-byes. A day for gratitude in every sense.

And now, how do you think we started the next day???
Eating of course! Thanksgiving leftovers qualify as proper breakfast when you put them on a cranberry bagel - right?!

This picture reminds me of a certain style of joke - How many men does it take to figure out how to use a milk frother?!!!

Later in the day we made this clam chowder pizza, which you can see being made in this Hulu video of a "Chef's Kitchen" episode, that just happened to be one of the episodes that highlighted the amazing oil paintings of our friend Jonathan Eiten!

We ended our time with these dear people at a restaurant of course! Here, their oldest son is power-eating his waffles, but he was eating those only to balance out his bacon consumption - oink, oink!
We had a last chance to cuddle and play games.

And capture one last photo of this dear couple and their goofy, wonderful boys! You can see the three of us looking at them in the reflection in the window. This came just before the tearful goodbye - they filled up our hearts and made us glad!

Before our plane departed for home, we had the chance to visit the Old Port in downtown Portland. It's gotten even more charming since we left and the shopping is just as nice as the scenery!
The stores held some delightful things like these "stained glass" earrings.

And yes, we did eat more! Lobster was an essential and my DH thought he'd better play it safe and get two!

Our DD had a good visit with one of her best friends. The lighthouse in these shots is unofficially known as "Plug Light" because of it's resemblance to a spark plug. It's actually Spring Point Ledge Light Station and the "windows" in this wall nearby the light are part of the structure of Fort Prebble.

Goodbye until next time Maine. We thank you Lord for all the ways you changed and blessed our family while living there, and again with our Thanksgiving visit.
"I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness." John 12:46