Dec 31, 2011

Time for renewing my resolve

To borrow from Lewis Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter," the time has come.

(Do you remember the poem, recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum?  This is the one stanza that always sticks in my mind...)

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things: 
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax-- 
Of cabbages--and kings-- 
And why the sea is boiling hot-- 
And whether pigs have wings." 

Because we measure time the way we do, we are preparing to greet a new year at midnight.  And with the new year comes a fresh, new start, at least to our way of thinking.

For some reason, each year we choose this particular point in time and grant it the power to change us.   There's nothing magical about this spot on the calendar - a resolution can be made at any time, and should be made sooner than later when we see something in ourselves that could stand to be improved upon.

But most of us will resolve - either today or tomorrow - to stop some bad habits and/or develop new, better habits.
Gotta love Calvin and Hobbes...
Calvin's view of himself aside, most of us long to improve some area of our life - usually to become healthier and happier in some meaningful, tangible way. But the statistics are discouraging:  the vast majority of resolutions made each year are doomed to fail - my past resolutions are certainly part of the disappointing majority.

Even the word "resolution" has some interesting and paradoxical meanings:  on one hand, it is the quality of being resolute or firm,  on the other it is the act of dissolving or separating something into its basic parts.  At its root is the Latin word resolvere, meaning to dissolve. So which will it be:  will my resolutions remain firm and determined, or will they dissolve like salt in a glass of water? 

Last year, I had the bright and novel idea (don't snicker) of making monthly resolutions instead of annual ones.  I didn't put it into practice - the months slipped by, and my good intentions sailed on the wind just like my past annual resolutions.

Suddenly, here I am again, at the threshold of another new year, fresh and bright with all its potential and promise.

My personal commitments for 2012 are much like those of past years - they represent areas of my life where I want to grow and mature.  "They" (those wise, anonymous people) say you shouldn't make more than  one large or three small resolutions.  I say I have five fingers on one hand - surely I can remember - and work on - that many goals, so here are my 2012 resolutions:

1. Make time each day to cultivate a deeper prayer life (a new prayer journal is due)
2. Read the Bible through this year - no ifs, ands or buts.
3. Exercise at least 4 days a week and drop the last 15 pounds I want to lose.
4. Get my desk re-organized - and maintain it throughout the year.
5. Cultivate the fruit of the spirit in my life:  more love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

That last one is less concrete and measurable, but my plan is to share each month a recap of my struggles and successes in these areas here with you, and I hope you'll encourage me with your comments and input. What are you committed to changing this year?

I hope that each of us will take a few moments to ponder our progress over the past year and make a solemn promise to ourselves - even if it is basic, simple and small - to become better in some way in 2012.  Let's be resolute and committed, so we can achieve our goals, however lofty or small.  And if/when we find ourselves standing at the brink of 2013, we can look back on this year and see where we made some positive strides. 

Happy new year,
Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 30, 2011

Swinging from the chandelier

Not me, of course.  But some dangly, pretty, glass gewgaws to daintily swing and sway and cast rainbows on the walls with every twirl and move.

Yes, I'm speaking of a crystal-bedecked chandelier.

Before you yawn, I haven't mentioned the location of this new light fixture.  It's not in the usual  dining room or foyer.  It's the master bathroom.

I've been intrigued by the fantasy of a bathroom chandelier since the mid-90s when a forward-thinking friend mentioned her interior decorator suggested one for her powder room. That was almost two decades ago - she (and her decorator) were way ahead of their time.  And for those of you who are thinking that electricity and water don't mix, you're right. I already checked it out:
National Electric Code 410.4(D) Bathtub and Shower Areas. No parts of cord-connected luminaires (fixtures), hanging luminaires (fixtures), lighting track, pendants, or ceiling-suspended (paddle) fans shall be located within a zone measured 900 mm (3 ft) horizontally and 2.5 m (8 ft) vertically from the top of the bathtub rim or shower stall threshold. This zone is all encompassing and includes the zone directly over the tub or shower stall.
Fortunately, the perfect spot in our new bathroom is already wired in a spot outside said range.  I can hang it just as soon as I take down the ceiling fan that's there now.  (Which seems a tad more dangerous than a chandelier, if you ask me.  I think stories of flying fans and crashing chandeliers are mostly urban legends, concocted by ultra-cautious engineers and lawsuit-phobic lawyers. Seriously - has it ever happened to you or anyone you personally know?  Me neither.  Anyhoo.)

Oooh!  Did I mention the price? That's truly the best part!

My inspiration for this project was this Pottery Barn chandelier.  (Sidenote: they have the coolest, most copy-able stuff.  I'm so glad we don't have a PB store in town, because that might prove too much temptation for me. As it is, I only let myself venture into their stores only for inspiration.)
As much as I drooled over this photo, I knew there was no way I was spending $300 on a light, especially a (trendy) bathroom light.  Not when there were curtains and paint and other needs and wants to fulfill as we settle into our new digs.

They call it "Bellora" which I'm pretty sure is Italian for "beautiful and expensive"

I scoured our local Craigslist regularly, hoping someone might be ready to discard their PB or PB-esque chandelier, and I could snag their cast-off for half-price or so.  Instead, I found an ad for a chandelier, at the unbelievable price of $25. And the amber glass covers perfectly match the existing vanity lights.  But it was too tall.  Back on Craigslist it goes.

However, thanks to eBay, I snagged my knockoff for $150 including shipping - back in June.  It has hung out in my closet for six months; thanks to my awesome dad and middle son playing electrician over the Christmas holiday, winter bubble baths under the soft glow of a chandelier, here I come!

Of course, now that the chandelier is hung, I'm scheming 2012 projects, starting with revving up the decorating in the bathroom. First step is painting the walls. Then I hope to install some trim around the two vanity mirrors and trick out the tub alcove with some shelving and some window treatment.  It is more than a little bland, as you can see from the picture above.  I may - or may not - get our closets re-done this year (the wire racks are functional, but they don't really inspire good organization or a desire to tackle the day when we open our closet doors each morning.)  But for today - just for today - I'm happy to look up and see this pretty new light in place.

Happy lighting,

Dec 28, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix

When our children were young, winter meant hot cocoa - and lots of it.  But small children tend to leave half the mug undrank (undrunk?)  and it pained me to waste so much.  When I considered the cost of each individual pouch of mix, I felt like I was pouring good money down the drain along with the cold, undrinkable cocoa. The bulk canisters of pre-made mix weren't any more cost-effective (on a price-per-serving basis, they were even more expensive than the pouches most of the time.)

But a friend of mine shared with me her recipe for homemade hot cocoa mix.  Score!  It's easy to mix up and very inexpensive if you have a lot of hot cocoa lovers to satisfy.   Over the years, I tweaked her recipe a little her and there, most notably adding the chocolate pudding mix.  Here's my current version, which is still subject to change - feel free to modify to suit your own preferences for taste and texture.

Nancy's Hot Cocoa Mix (with a few tweaks)

8 cups powdered milk
1/2 cup powdered chocolate drink mix (Nestle is always a favorite but any brand will work)
1 4-ounce box instant chocolate pudding (optional but recommended for thicker texture)
1/3 cup powdered non-dairy creamer (you can use cinnamon, peppermint or other flavored creamer if you prefer)
1/3 cup powdered sugar

Sift or mix together in a large bowl or canister - stir well until there are no streaks of brown or white.  (A pasta stirrer makes a good utensil to blend the dry ingredients).

Store in tightly sealed canister or other container.  Use 1/3 cup mix to 8 ounces boiling hot water.  Stir and serve with or without marshmallows (homemade mallows  make it extra yummy!) or whipped topping.  Makes approximately 30 servings.

Happy mixing!

Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 26, 2011

Me, eBay and the postal service

Buying off eBay can be fun and exciting.  And with some discipline, it can be a fairly (cough) inexpensive means of acquiring items that you want, especially those that are no longer readily available in stores.  Like my Fiesta dishes.  And my violet china.  And my Christmas village pieces.

But as the saying goes, occasionally, there's a fly in the ointment.  And this past year, I had two ointment incidents - and my guess is they were equally frustrating for the sellers.  The first involved my "lucky #7 red bowl."  Well, it wasn't so lucky.  When the USPS driver handed the box to me, it rattled.  I told him it shouldn't rattle.  We opened it then and there, to find shards and chips rattling around what was left of the cracked bowl. The seller graciously and promptly refunded my money, but that meant I was - and am - still short the seventh bowl.  One of these days, another one in good quality at a good price will come up and I'll snag it, but sometimes you're ready for the hunt to be over, and I was at that point.

More recently, the UPS driver left a box at my door that also rattled ominously when I picked it up.  It was supposed to be the Granville house from "It's a Wonderful Life."  Well, apparently UPS' aim was better than George's - they not only broke out a window, but busted up the whole place. All the kings horses and men couldn't put this thing back together again.  Like the Fiesta bowl, it's disappointing for all concerned. In the big scheme of things, it's a minor tempest in a tiny little teacup, but once again, I'm left without the item that I had really hoped to have and display.

So why am I writing this?  To vent, yes. And to caution sellers of one-of-a-kind items to take extra precautions when preparing them for shipment.  An extra layer or two of bubble wrap, snugged up nice and tight, can mean the difference between a successful transaction and one that leaves everyone feeling the pain.

I'd lump in the drivers and package sorters into my little list of transgressors, but to be honest, those guys do a tremendous job, day in and day out.  I can't expect them to treat every package like they're carrying afternoon tea to the Queen.

And I guess I will make it a point from here on out to remind/plead for extra-careful packaging on any future eBay wins.  Then cross my fingers that the box doesn't make a clink when it shouldn't.

Happy (?) collecting,

Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 23, 2011

A few of my favorite Christmas things...

There are so many things to love about the holiday that is almost here, but on our way back from Key West a few days ago, I pondered what I love and cherish most about Christmas.  And today I jotted them down - here they are in no particular order:

1. Tinsel icicles.  The old-fashioned silvery strands you could carefully arrange strand by strand, or throw with liberal abandon in huge clumps.  We did both, sometimes on the same tree.  I haven't seen any for sale in a few years, though.

2. My mom's peanut brittle.  It's simply the best, hands-down.

3. Christmas cards.  Especially those with glitter or old-fashioned scenes on them.  I adore looking at each card we get and remembering the family who sent it.

4. Watching our kids open their gifts, especially when there's one that truly surprises them.

5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas - the 60s cartoon version, if you please.  It is a wonderful tale of grace and gratitude, wrapped up in jazzy images and music.

6. Christmas Eve with my husband's family.  It's gloriously noisy and chaotic with too much food, everyone talking at the same time and a frenzy of gifts being torn open by children young and old.

7. Vince Guaraldi Trio's "Charlie Brown Christmas" CD.  It's an echo from my childhood, but I think it has held up well.  And anytime you hear Linus & Lucy, you have to smile.  Don't you?

8.  A fire in the fireplace.  It can be roaring and popping with real wood, or tame flickers from gas logs - a fire simply says warmth and welcome await.

9. Christmas snow.  It happens very rarely in the South, but when it does - as it did last year - it is magical.  The world becomes quiet and calm and serene.

10.  Dusk on Christmas day.  The gifts have all been opened and admired, dinner dishes are washed and put away, and everyone is full and relaxed.  As the twilight fades, the Christmas lights glow as a reminder of the festivities we've enjoyed.

What are your favorite parts of Christmas?

Whatever they are, I hope you get to enjoy them this year.  And from our home to yours, we hope that your days ARE merry and bright, and you have yourself a merry little (or big) Christmas.

Happy holidays,

Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 21, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Homemade Marshmallows

Ever had a homemade marshmallow?


To quote Ham from The Sandlot, "You're killin' me Smalls!" (You DO remember the s'mores scene, yes?)
"Pay attention! First you take the graham.  You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then you roast the 'mallow..."
As Ham summed it up, they're kind of messy, but good.  And I would add, the only thing better than a s'more is a s'more made with homemade mallows.

There is some work involved - you'll need a candy thermometer (see tip below) and a heavy-duty mixer (or a REALLY strong bicep to beat these things.)  But the end result is a marshmallow that is creamier and smoother than anything Stay-Puf or Jet could dream of making.  Each year I make a batch, cut them into squares and package a few to tuck in with hot cocoa mix and a cute Christmas mug for each of my third grade Sunday School students.  Sweet dreams!

The leftover squares (and there are always a few) are coveted and fought over by middle son and swimmer girl to float in their hot chocolate while they last.  These sound complicated (most candy-making recipes do), but it's like riding a bike - it's easier than the instructions sound.

Homemade Marshmallows

3 each 1/4-ounce packages unflavored gelatin (I buy a big box of these and it lasts forever)
1 cup water, divided in half
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-2 teaspoons vanilla (see note below)
vegetable oil
powdered sugar
crushed peppermints (optional)

Place 1/2 cup water in a large mixing bowl.  Sprinkle the unflavored gelatin over the top and let sit.  Lightly oil the bottom and sides of a 9x13 pan (I prefer a metal one with straight sides, but glass pans work, too.)  Place a piece of parchment paper in the oiled pan, with at least an inch or two of overhang on the short sides.  Lightly spray or oil the parchment, then sprinkle lightly with a teaspoon or two of powdered sugar on the bottom.  (You can use foil instead of parchment, but parchment is a lot easier to lift and peel away.)  If you want to make peppermint marshmallows crush or chop peppermint candies with a rolling pin or heavy-duty food processor; set aside.

Place the other 1/2 cup of water in a heavy-bottom 1 1/2 or 2 quart saucepan. Add sugar, corn syrup and salt. Over medium-low heat, bring to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved.  Once it begins to boil, cover with a lid and allow to boil unstirred for 3 minutes.  This will allow the moisture to condense and wash off any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan.

Uncover and turn the heat up to high.  Using the candy thermometer, bring to 240 degrees - do not overcook.  Remove from heat.  Begin to beat the gelatin and water mixture at a medium speed.  Slowly pour the hot mixture into the bowl in a steady stream.  After it has all been poured in, beat on high for 8-12 minutes or until the mixture is lukewarm and looks like marshmallow fluff.  Add the vanilla (I don't add any if I'm making peppermint mallows, but you can add some or all of the 2 teaspoons if you want slightly sweeter confections.)

Working quickly, scrape mixture from bowl into prepared pan and smooth top.  It will be hideously sticky and get on everything.  Just keep going until it's done.  If you're making peppermint mallows, sprinkle the chopped peppermints on top and press gently into mixture.

Allow to cool for several hours or up to 12 hours.  Turn out on cutting board or countertop lightly dusted with powdered sugar and cut.  I use a pizza roller to cut strips lengthwise, then into squares. Mine come out to about 1 1/2 inches square.  Roll your pizza cutter and the fresh-cut edges in powdered sugar to keep things from getting too sticky.  To store, place in airtight container with a layer of waxed paper or parchment in between.  They will keep at room temperature for up to two weeks.

*A tip for better candy-making. A friend alerted me to this helpful tip and I'm very thankful - it saves a lot of aggravation and failed candy.  Cheap candy thermometers are notoriously unreliable but they are still useful kitchen tools.  Regardless of how cheap or expensive, you should calibrate yours before you plunge into candy-making.  Here's how:  fill a 2-quart pan with water and bring to a rolling boil. Once the water begins to boil, insert or clip on the thermometer and monitor it.  It may take up to ten minutes but once it tops out, you'll know how close or far off yours is from 100 C or 212 F.  (in fairness, some of the difference is barometric pressure.) Mine was 6 degrees off this year; I simply adjusted my recipes by 6 degrees so I didn't overcook the candy.

Happy mallow-making!

Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 19, 2011

Saving Christmas: Bake Someone Happy. From Scratch.

We're down to the last week - are you ready?  Christmas is almost here and I hope everyone is ready to enjoy some time with family and friends.

I finished up my Christmas baking a few weeks ago, and froze the bounty, which I'll make into plates to take to neighbors. I already sent a plate with Mr. Official to share with his coworkers last week.

But as I scoured for new Christmas recipes to try, it struck me that we really do live in a slice-and-bake era, and most of the "new" Christmas treats are cobbled together from pre-made ingredients.

I'm sorry if I'm bursting anyone's bubble, but I don't think Christmas cookies include your run-of-the-mill chocolate chip, M&M or peanut butter cookies or Rice Krispie treats.  (Although if you usually resort to pre-made or easy-bake cookies, maybe from-scratch versions of these cookie jar staples ARE your idea of a special "Christmas cookie.")

And in the interest of full disclosure, I admit I have my share of what I call "cheater" treats - coated pretzels, Rolo "turtles," and Oreo truffles.  These are treats with 2 or 3 ingredients that go together fast, are fun to make and tasty, and we use them to fill out the cookie plates as well as munch on ourselves.

But when it comes to cookies and Christmas, it's time to put the brakes on and get our bake on.

Let's slow things down a bit and dig out some of those old recipes.  If you don't have copies of them, think back to what you remember from your childhood, or ask parents, aunts and uncles or grandparents about the special baked treats they remember most from their own "wonder years."   Then look through cookbooks or online for recipes that will bake someone a happy memory or two. 

Yes, it's extra work.  Yes, we'll have read and follow archaic directions and actually measure out ingredients.  We may have to measure out some time - something that is in short supply these days.  And we may wind up with a big mess in our kitchen.

You can't cook or bake?  Really?  The generation that can figure out how to text and tweet has no excuse:  we can read and follow directions, which is all cooking and baking really is.

No time to do a full-blown cookie bake-a-thon?  No problem. Pick one recipe - just one. Carve out time and make a batch this week. Put on some Christmas music - (the Charlie Brown Christmas track is one of my all-time favorites), and before you know it, you'll be washing up the baking sheets and nibbling on your results as they cool.

I promise, it will be worth it.  Be it ever so humble, those old-fashioned Christmas cookie recipes from a by-gone era are a bridge between our past and our future.  Deciphering decades-old recipes scribbled on yellowed scraps  of paper, searching out those ingredients we aren't familiar with, and even enduring the occasional failed effort.  Those form traditions that give us and our children a rich layer of Christmas memories.  And those memories will carry into their adult years and can be passed along to their children.

It is a sure bet that a child (even if it's only your inner child) will remember a December evening or weekend morning  making cookies.  No matter how messy or disastrous, it will stick with you long after you have forgotten the must-have toy of the year. Don't settle for slice-and-bake.  Bake some memories, and make them special.

Happy baking,
Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 16, 2011

My Christmas Open House, Virtually Speaking

Thanks for all the encouraging comments from family and friends as I plowed through the holiday decorating and baking. Several of you have asked for pics of all my Christmas projects I've been gushing about, so I thought I'd share them today, even though when this post goes live, I'll be somewhere in Atlanta's airport changing planes.  (I'll think of all of you as we soak up some Florida sun (we hope we get sunshine, anyway!)

First stop is the front entry - I keep it pretty simple, but I have always loved seeing nutcrackers nestled on stairs in other people's homes, so I was happy to be able to try it out in my own home this year:

Next up is the dining room.  I was so excited, I posted pictures of it earlier, but here's how it looked for the dinner party we held a few nights ago:

And here's my putz-y village scene:

Through the doorway is the kitchen, where my Fiesta Christmas tree takes center stage:

And here's the table as it looked last Saturday night:

On the counter is the towering stack of Christmas tins filled with sweet treats.  As much as I love these tins, I am thinking that I may need to switch to rectangular-shaped modular plastic bins to maximize the freezer space.  Or make fewer treats.  What?  No way!  We'll just need to clear out two shelves in the freezer next year.
When I snapped these pictures, I was also in the middle of filling Christmas boxes for Mr. Official's staff and my third grade Sunday Schoolers bags (they get their own Christmas mug, hot cocoa, homemade marshmallows, and some treats.) There's never a dull (or totally clean and organized) moment around here this time of year.

In the den is the "big" tree (see the wrapped packages?  Yay me!)  

I tucked the rest of my nutcracker collection in the bookshelves:

If the mantel looks a lot like last year's, well, it should. I spent three days trying to perfect that mantel in 2010, so I used most of the same pieces and had this year's mantel up in about 20 minutes.  Next year I may be back to the drawing board for something different.  I did use an idea I found on Pinterest for the stockings - a curtain rod is suspended by three stocking holders.  The true test will come Christmas Eve when we'll see if it holds up when the stockings are full.

Here's the view from above.  The time I saved on the mantel was spent getting this simple decoration in place.  Pre-lit garland is much easier, but I wanted to use what I already had:  nice thick garlands and lots of strings of white lights.  Five strings later, I finally had two that would stay lit when they hooked together and wrapped around the garland. Gah.
The sunroom got wreathed, which was a nice way to use some plain wreaths I already had from years past.

And finally, the bonus room has the UT tree. Which Mr. Official says we should cover with a black shroud this year, to mourn that horrific football season we endured.  I say buck up and carry on.  There's always next year, boys.

So there you have it - a quick virtual tour of our house as it looks for the season.  Friends nearby have a standing invite to pop in for a real tour.  Wherever you are, I hope your days are merry and bright, too!

Happy Christmas decorating,

Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 14, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Peppernuts

I love the holidays, don't you?  I love the flavors of the holidays.  And the songs.  And the lights.  And the jingling of sleigh bells. And...the cookies.

Last year, I shared several of my favorite cookie and candy recipes on the Wednesdays leading up to Christmas. This year I started December off with cinnamon-scented "gingerbread" dough for ornaments.  Smells yummy, but it's probably not too tasty.  This week, I'll share a lesser-known, but very edible sweet holiday treat recipe: peppernuts or pfefferneuse.  I always associated these with my German ancestry, but from the looks of things, they have blonde roots - Scandinavian to be precise.

Regardless, peppernuts are a traditional holiday favorite with some of my family members, although they are a rarity in the south.  They are a small, hard cookie (think tiny biscotti) that pack a punch of flavor in the form of spices, including white pepper.  They need to be made a few weeks in advance so they will "cure" and the flavors can mellow.  A few of these little nuggets are delicious with a cup of fresh dark coffee.
Pfefferneuse (Peppernuts)

1/2 cup shortening
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup molasses
3 drops anise oil
1 tablespoon hot water
3 1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper

Directions: Mix together shortening, brown sugar, egg, molasses, anise oil and hot water. Add the remaining ingredients in the order given.  Knead until dough is of molding consistency. Shape into small (1/2-inch) ball and place on ungreased cookie sheet (parchment paper is helpful).  Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes or until brown on bottom.  Place in a tin and store for ten days to two weeks to cure before serving.  You can place a slice of apple in the container (it's best to put it in a cup or other open container) for softer cookies.  They may be rolled in powdered sugar before serving.  Makes about 8 dozen cookies. 

I didn't have any ground cloves when I made mine this year, so I substituted cardamom, which is sometimes called for in other peppernut recipes.   You will also find recipes that use mace, ground or finely diced candied ginger, and some that introduce finely chopped nuts or dried fruit.  Some will leave out the pepper, or use black pepper instead.  Others will claim there shouldn't be any butter or shortening in the recipe; others will have both.  As is the case with most traditional foods, there is no "one" way to make these treats, although hethose whose grandmothers made them will defend their recipe as the sentimental favorite in their family.

The modern practice of baking Christmas cookies has its roots in Germany, most notably when inexpensive metal cookie cutters in holiday shapes were exported from Germany in the early 20th century and American cooks latched onto the idea of baking holiday treats, and Christmas cookie recipes began to appear in cookbooks.  To celebrate this aspect of my heritage, I'm planning to start testing some recipes for German cookies, such as Butter Cookies (Butterplatzchen) and Lebkuchen (a gingerbread-type cookie) in the coming months, and possibly introduce one or both on my Christmas goodie plates for next year.

Happy Christmas,

Dec 12, 2011

Saving Christmas: Now what?

The last two weeks have been just a little hectic.  My daily to-do's frequently got jumbled and spilled over to the next day.  Even though I'm a pretty active person, the relentless pace of those days pushed me beyond my comfort zone.

Saturday's shindig was small and intimate, but a lot of fun:  we seated nine for a festive sit-down dinner of prime rib, potatoes au gratin, cherry tomato crisp, green bean bundles, topped off by cheesecake.

Sunday was supposed to be a catch-up day, but it turned into a catch-up-on-sleep day and I took a much-needed nap.

So what remains to be done during the twelve days before Christmas?  This week's list is blissfully light - the reward for cramming in so much during the last two weeks. 

Monday - mail the Christmas cards.  They're going out about 10 days later than I had hoped, but that's the way the Christmas cookie crumbles sometimes.

Tuesday - put the finishing touches on gift baskets for Mr. Official's staff and wrap our own gifts (despite my good intentions, gift wrapping took a backseat to the other to-do's.)

Wednesday - make up gift bags for my third grade Bible class students:  Christmas mugs filled with packets of hot cocoa mix and bags of homemade marshmallows.  It's also my last day to finish up some last-minute baking (one red velvet roulade coming up!)

Thursday - finish packing for a weekend getaway and set my alarm for a really early wake-up.

Friday - our plane departs extremely early and will take us as far south as you can get without a passport.  We are reasonably confident the kids and pets and house will be fine while we're gone.

Once we get back, we'll be counting down the hours to Christmas Eve and the big day itself.  There will undoubtedly be a few last minute trips to town for this'n that, but all in all, it's beginning to look a LOT like Christmas here.  I hope it is for you, too!

Happy holidays!

Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 9, 2011

Putzing around

Several holidays ago, a miniature Christmas greenhouse caught my gardener's eye.  It was under $10 so I bought it.  Next year, I found another one, so I did the same thing.  And again, a year later.  Then I realized I couldn't buy a miniature greenhouse every year for the rest of my life, so I stopped.  But I did buy a few extra pieces: a gazebo, an outhouse (I do have a particular fondness for them),  and some snow shovels.

For a few years, I displayed them every holiday in our dining room.

Then one year, I forgot to get them out.  (Actually I stowed them in the bottom of my Edwardian china hutch - a decorating travesty - where they stayed for a few years, and then last year I finally packed them away in their boxes when I revamped the hutch. )

New house, new resolve to get cracking on my Christmas decorating made me think of those greenhouses, and I made a mental note to get them out and display them.

Over Thanksgiving, I got a wild hair to see if there were any new (or newer) greenhouses or something else outdoorsy - like a miniature Christmas tree lot or frozen pond.  So I went on eBay to find out.  The next thing I knew I had fallen down a virtual rabbit hole and was ogling and coveting entire miniature villages.

What the what???

I am SO not a miniature village person.  I have friends who do this, and I love admiring their intricate setups, but it is so. not. me.  Or so I thought, before I learned these two interesting tidbits:

Tidbit #1.  Miniature Christmas villages started out made of paper, originating in Germany, then later imported from Japan; they were called "putz" back in their heyday (mainly between the two world wars), and they were all the rage.  Now those dimestore novelties are extremely rare and expensive.  (And nowadays, the word "putz" doesn't mean what it used to mean, so be careful if you try it out in a crowd - you may get some odd looks.)

Tidbit #2. In the last decade, there were entire Christmas villages created around two of my all-time favorite holiday movies, "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Christmas Story." Everything from Higbee's department store in Cleveland to Gower's Drugstore in Bedford Falls, replete with figures of George and Mary Bailey and their friends and family, and of course Ralphie and his brother Randy and the infamous leg lamp.  Most of those pieces are readily available on eBay. For collector's prices, of course.

I am going to be picky.  I am not going to be a putz. Or a putz collector/hoarder.

The only pieces I really, REALLY want are Ralphie's house and school (Grover Cleveland Elementary) and the frozen flagpole from "The Christmas Story;" and the Granville house (remember the scene when Mary winds up in the hydrangea bush?) from "It's a Wonderful Life."  And maybe a country house with a porch like ours.  And that's it, I promise.  Not even another greenhouse, because I know my limitations.

Okay, maybe a mailbox or a birdhouse or a frozen pond, too. 

And I'm even willing to bide my time until I get what I want at the price I am willing to pay. Even if it means not having it all in place for a few more Christmases.

I think so, anyway.  I'm not a putz and I'm not going to putz around with Christmas putz too much. After all, there are cards to mail, cookies to bake, lights to untangle, carols to sing....

Happy collecting,

Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 7, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Quick and Easy Jambalaya

This is the month of glad tidings, great joy and sugar plum dreams.  It's also an incredibly busy month, when dinnertime is frequently tested by extra-curricular activities.  Jambalaya is colorful, flavorful and highly adaptable to our hectic schedules.  Here's my rendition (because everybody has their own idea of what jambalaya should taste like.)

You can have it on the table in under 30 minutes from start to finish, or place it on the back burner and let it simmer for an hour or two.  Need more flexibility?  Double the recipe to feed a crowd, and feel free to scale back the shrimp (or substitute cooked shredded chicken for some or all) if your family isn't big on skrimps.

Quick and Easy Jambalaya

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 pound Polish sausage (I use turkey sausage and it's awesome), sliced into 1/4-inch slices
1-2 pounds frozen raw shrimp, peeled and deveined(can substitute cooked chicken for all or part)
1/2 onion, diced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 red or green pepper, diced into small chunks
1 can (16 ounces) diced tomatoes (I used Italian style with basil and garlic), undrained
2 teaspoons Creole seasoning, or to taste
chicken broth*
1 cup uncooked rice*

In a large heavy pan or 5-6 quart Dutch oven, heat oil and saute sausage just until it starts to brown a little.  Add onion and celery; cook for a few minutes until onion begins to soften. Add diced pepper, shrimp/chicken, tomatoes and seasoning.

Option 1 (Creole style):  Add one cup chicken broth; bring to a boil and add 1 cup rice.  Cover and simmer 15-20 minutes or until rice is tender. Add a little more broth if it seems gummy; serve.

Option 2 ("White Jambalaya"):  Add 1/2 cup chicken broth; allow to simmer for 20 minutes, or as long as two hours; add broth if it gets too thick. (You could also transfer the sauteed sausage, onions and celery to a slow cooker, then combine all other ingredients as above and cook for 3-4 hours on low.) Before serving, cook rice separately according to package directions and add to the jambalaya, stirring to incorporate.

Makes 4-5 generous main dish bowls, or 6-8 servings as a side dish or first course.  Serve with hot sauce for those who want to crank up the heat, and a basket of warm and crispy French bread for sopping up the juice.

Happy cooking!

Print Friendly and PDF

Dec 5, 2011

Saving Christmas: Baking and merry-making

 I hope everyone is enjoying the holidays as much as we are!  Our house is decorated inside and out.  I was too busy decorating to snap many pics, but here's the dining room:

With the decorating done, this week I can turn my attention to baking and candy-making, and the days are shaping up like this: 

Monday: It's the cookie brigade. This year's lineup was carefully culled through and chosen for tradition, flavor variety and visual appeal.  Here's what made the cut: date pinwheels, almond crescents, and peppernuts and apricot jewels (old family favorites, but new for me to make), and new contenders, peanut butter "buttons" with licorice laces, or peanut butter reindeer with M&M eyes and pretzel antlers; and finally pecan cheese straws, which aren't sweet, but are otherwise just like making shortbread cookies.  Since I'm doing it all in one night, I can assembly-line everything from mixing to baking and have just one pile of dirty bowls and pans to deal with when I'm done.
Tuesday: Swim meet night, so no big plans for the evening.  Hopefully I can get a little gift wrapping done before I head to the pool deck
Wednesday: Toffee, fudge and peppermint patties and pralines from scratch, along with "filler" candies like coated pretzels or pretzel/rolo turtles, which I can cajole middle son and swimmer girl into making. And maybe another batch of apple cider caramels, because they are pretty delicious.
Thursday: Finishing up the gift wrapping. Confession:  gift wrapping this early is new for us this year - many times we are frantically wrapping gifts a day or two before Christmas. Not this year, not if I can help it.  Then a quick once-over on the house is in order, because company's coming!  Mr. Official's crew is invited over for an end-of-season holiday gathering on Saturday night.
Friday:  This year's lineup includes miniature loaves of quick breads: strawberry-nut and chocolate chip sour cream, plus a pumpkin or red velvet cake roll, sliced and portioned out. Wrapped in cellophane and frozen, these are great last-minute hostess gifts or they can help fill out a plate of goodies for someone. I'll just have time to get everything whipped up and baked, then I'm headed out to help watch a group (not sure how many) of toddlers and children from our congregation.  We're giving the young moms and dads free babysitting so they can have a date night, or get their Christmas shopping done.
Saturday: Food, friends and fun are on today's lineup.  I'm not sure what the menu is, at least as of today, since I'm not sure if this will be sit-down formal or come-and-go casual.  (Word to the wise:  this is what happens when you let guys invite guys over....)
Sunday:  After I whip up a batch of homemade marshmallows as gifts for my third grade students (I give them each a mug filled with hot cocoa mix and homemade marshmallows), it's a designated day of rest.  And really, everything that needs to be done will have been done:  the trees are decorated, gifts are wrapped, cookies baked and the candies made.  Phew!

And then it's time to sit back and enjoy truly the best parts of the season - visiting with friends and family, admiring holiday lights, and stealing away for a few days to celebrate our (29th!!!) anniversary, then slipping back just before anyone has a chance to miss us.

You may choose to pace yourself and spread out your Christmas preparations a little more than I do, but if you're pressed for time, like most of us are, hopefully these two weeks with ten big to-do days will inspire you to create your own streamlined lists and leave yourself plenty of time to savor the season.

Happy holidays!

Print Friendly and PDF