Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Humble Beauty of Soup

I'm a soup girl. Not the store-bought, canned variety -- homemade soup. I ate a lot of it growing up and love it still. And while I fully admit that there are some perfectly wonderful soups that are well worth making on purpose (a good, creamy clam chowder is one), the best kinds of soup, to my mind, are those made with what one has on hand.

On Christmas Day, I roasted a pork picnic (bone-in). This typically inexpensive roast is wonderfully flavorful and makes a great soup or stew afterward. We feasted on Christmas Day and had loads of meat left on the roast. I wrapped it up and stuck it in the fridge.

On the fourth day of Christmas, I put the roast in a Dutch oven, covered it with water, and set it to boil. Then I simmered it for a few hours, til the meat was falling off the bone. The last 30 minutes, I added some cut up carrots and potatoes. I forgot to add some onion, so I threw in some onion powder -- I really missed the onion, though.

When the vegetables were cooked but still a tad crunchy, I removed the bone and meat hunks. Then I cut up the meat and put it back in the pot along with some some leftover limas. All other leftovers are worth consideration here, as well. The broth tasted thin, so I grabbed a jar of ham-flavored Better than Bouillon paste and added a tablespoon or so to the soup. This made all the difference in the world and really gave the soup depth it had lacked before. Then I let it simmer a bit longer to finish up the vegs and let the flavors blend.

(Aside: I've come to prefer Better than Bouillon base over bouillon cubes in the last few years. I have jars of chicken, ham, and beef flavors in my refrigerator as I type. I use it to flavor vegetables, soups, stews, you name it. The sodium is, of course, high, so take that into account if you need to watch such things. However, a tablespoon in a big pot of soup is not really that much.)

This was probably the best soup I've ever made. Good thing, since I had quite a vat of it in the end. I had some cornbread (not the yellow, sweet kind, but the Real Thing) in the freezer, and it was the perfect complement. The rest of my family (sweet yellow cornbread muffin lovers, all) preferred saltines.

And when the weather is chilly and damp, like it is today where I live, there's nothing like soup for soothing body and soul. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Most Perfect Gift

"All I want is what's coming to me. All I want is my fair share."
-- Sally in Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

On this Christmas Eve, I thank my God that what He had planned is so much more than what I should have coming to me, so much more than what I really deserve. In the gift of God's son, Jesus Christ, there is more grace than I could ever comprehend.

And that's what Christmas is all about.

Blessings from our family to yours as we celebrate the most perfect gift, the birth of our Savior.

Hallelujah! The King is here!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Few Kitchen Successes

Not everything was a flop this season. The red velvet cupcakes with the white chocolate peppermint cream cheese frosting were tasty. I even managed to locate four candy bows that weren't hideous or embarrassing and put them atop four of the cupcakes, which I gave to friends.

The Tuscan shortbread is always a winner, and so is the saltine toffee. I've had requests for recipes for the latter two, so here they are.

Saltine Toffee
Everyone who tastes these thinks they are divine. I have to agree.
At least one sleeve saltines
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 cups (1 12-oz bag) semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 chopped nuts (optional -- I never use them)
more butter for greasing the pan

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter well a jellyroll pan (cookie sheet with sides) and then line with the saltines in a single layer, breaking pieces to fit if needed. Set aside.

Combine butter and brown sugar in a saucepan and melt over medium heat, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil and boil for three minutes, stirring constantly.

Immediately pour over saltines and and spread to cover as best you can. there may be a few at the edges that remain uncovered. Bake for five minutes. Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle chocolate chips over top. Let sit for five minutes.

Spread melted chocolate over all the crackers and then sprinkle with nuts, if using. Cool completely. I often pop them in the fridge to speed up the cooling process.

Break into pieces. A pizza cutter helps immensely. Whatever you do, remember to hide some of this stuff in your pantry. After one bite, you're going to crave it.

Tuscan Shortbread
Not your run-of-the-mill shortbread, these scrumptious bars are fantastic with a cup of tea. Frankly, they're fabulous any way you eat them.
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 T chopped fresh rosemary or 2 t dried (I've used both successfully, but prefer fresh)
1 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pine nuts on a cookie sheet and toast in preheated oven til they are a bit darker and fragrant, about five minutes. Take care not to burn them! Remove from oven and pour onto a plate.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. remove from heat and stir in confectioners' sugar, rosemary, and pine nuts. Then stir in flour to make a stiff dough.
Pat into an ungreased 8-inch square pan, making sure the dough is even. Bake until golden and firm at edges, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cut with a sharp knife into 16 squares. Let cool in pan at least 10 minutes before removing with a small spatula.
The bars can be stored tightly covered for five days, but I highly doubt they'll last that long. You can also freeze them for future use.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Confessions of a Mediocre Cook

I've spent more than seven hours in my kitchen today, attempting to throw some things together for Christmas. Many things were going against me. One, I try too many new things. Two, my cooking fantasies far outstrip my actual capabilities. This is never good.

Here's what my kitchen looked like today. And sort of still does. I spared you the photo of the sink piled high with dirty pots, pans, spoons, etc.

The red velvet cupcakes I made for friends turned out nicely, albeit a bit plain-jane looking. The frosting was a first-time recipe, and I was pleased with the results. I wanted a really white frosting, and this fit the bill. But I have to admit, the cupcakes I envisioned were certainly more noteworthy. If not elegant, then at least flashy. But no.

On the flip side, this Tuscan Shortbread is fabulous. I've made it dozens of times, and it's so easy. Fabulous and easy -- what's not to love?

Here's one of the completely new things I tried. I used Wilton Candy Melts and a decorating bag with a writing tip. I drew bow figures with Sharpie on parchment paper, flipped the paper over, and then piped the bows. As you can see, most look like a toddler made them. Note the blobs of white chocolate on and around the bows. But the red sugar was a nice touch, right?

The second tray was much, much better. So I was aghast to note that I'd forgotten to flip the parchment paper before piping. Here's the result. So the prettiest bows are now languishing in my trashcan. Ah, well. Live and learn.

Dh just got home and looked over what I'd done. He had a hard time believing me it took all day. It takes longer when you're not very good at it. By the way, if you want any of the recipes, let me know and I'll post them.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bake Your Way to Happiness

Or something like that. In an effort to rid myself of a dispirited, bah-humbug frame of mind, I have flung myself into some baking this afternoon. So far, I've made cupcakes (26), and a dozen cinnamon/orange/cranberry muffins are in the oven now. I've never made the muffins before; if they turn out nicely, I'll post the recipe. Here they are! I have high hopes for them.
I'm planning on a white chocolate peppermint buttercream for the as-yet-unfrosted cupcakes.

Some of the cupcakes turned out a little wonky-looking, but it's nothing a heap o' frosting can't fix. Like a lot of things in life.

MUFFIN UPDATE: They were awful. The fresh cranberries were so tart that the muffins were inedible. Oh, well. I guess the birds will be glad.

It's Christmastime in the Suburbs

And I am SO behind. I haven't sent any Christmas cards. I printed out several yesterday, and addressed them this morning. But I still need to print more. I'm on of "those" people who sends a Christmas letter, but only to friends and family we see rarely. I actually enjoy reading other people's Christmas letters and hearing their news. It's faster than a phone call.

I've done no baking, but the girls and I went to the grocery yesterday to buy what we needed. This year, we're going to try our hand at these really cute Christmas tree meringues, featured on Duh-licious. Also on the list are peanut butter fudge, buckeye bars, Tuscan shortbread (with rosemary and pine nuts), and chewy ginger cookies. We'll see what actually transpires. My plans tend to exceed my reality.

We've turned to Christmas books for our family readings, as well. For our scriptural study, we've read and discussed both Matthew's and Luke's writings on the birth of Jesus and his presentation at the temple. We've also consulted Isaiah to read Old Testament prophecies about Jesus. Just a smattering of other books we've enjoyed at Christmas are: Terry Kay's To Whom the Angel Spoke (this is especially wonderful); Henry van Dyke's The Story of the Other Wise Man; Charles Tazewell's sweet (albeit scripturally unsound -- humans do not transform into angels after they die) The Littlest Angel; and Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

So, time marches on. Christmas will come whether I've made my shortbread or not. But as I look at our busy-ness and the busy-ness of friends and neighbors around me, I feel a deep need to simplify, to settle in, to be quiet at home, and to truly contemplate the miracle of Emmanuel. God with us.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Our Week in Review, Sort Of

When I sat down to write a wrap-up of this past week, I realized that we had really just continued everything we'd been working on the previous week. Just different pages. And nothing terribly fabulous or exciting had occurred either. This is not the sort of exciting stuff with which a wrap-up to make. So I skipped it. I guess some weeks are just like that.

In other news, both girls were invited to a sleepover birthday party in our neighborhood on Friday night, so Dh and I enjoyed a rare date night. It was lovely. We went out to eat at a non-kid-friendly restaurant, and then I beat him at Scrabble in front of a roaring fire. (Only by six points, but still.) What more could a girl ask?

My parents visited the next day and spent Saturday night with us. On Sunday, we went out to lunch at our favorite barbecue place to celebrate my Dad's birthday. A live band entertained us with a varied program, including bluegrass, Simon & Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, the Beatles, John Denver, etc. We all enjoyed it, but my Dad particularly enjoyed it, which was wonderful. I have been especially blessed in my parents, and it was a joy to celebrate my Daddy.

All in all, it was a great weekend. I'm feeling quite warm and fuzzy at the moment, and I intend to enjoy every second. A few challenges await me in the coming days, so I'll relish all the warm and fuzzy I can get.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Frohe Weihnachten

My sister's friend and her daughter from Germany visited with us this Thanksgiving. They brought gifts for my daughters, one of which was this unique advent calendar. I say unique because it's unlike any advent calendar I've seen in the States.

It came on two sheets of cardstock: one of which was the stable and the other features all the figures for the scene. Nothing is perforated, and the directions were in German, which I don't read; so we sort of winged it. I cut out the stable and folded where I thought I should and then glued it together. Each day, we cut out that day's figure (they are numbered) and glue it into place. The baby Jesus (squalling, appropriately, and complete with halo) goes into the manger on Christmas Eve.

Several of the figures are humorous, but the astronaut on the right (in the photo below) has us quite flummoxed!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Drop In & Decorate Scout Event a Success!

I posted a couple of weeks or so ago about Drop In & Decorate, a non-profit organization that helps people plan and organize a cookie-decorating party for a group and then donate the cookies to a charitable organization. Last week, our Girl Scout troop (Juniors) had a blast taking part.

Before our troop meeting, I baked a slew of sugar cookie cut-outs, made white icing (see recipe below), made buttercream frosting, and bought a few other decorating items (like tubes of "writing" icing). I already have enough sprinkles to stock a bakery. The day of our meeting, I tinted some of the buttercream yellow, green, and blue. I prefer to use the Wilton gel colors because you only need to use a tiny bit and the colors are quite vivid.

Since I did not want a cookie-decorating-free-for-all, I divided our troop into two groups. Another leader had printed out photos of nicely decorated cookies, and we also checked out the Drop In & Decorate webpage of decorated cookies. I stressed the idea that they should take their time to decorate a cookie that people would actually want to eat -- unlike the ones kids tend to make for themselves to eat. Gag!

Of course, after they had decorated their cookies for donation, they each got to decorate one to eat right then. I told them to have at it, and they took me at my word. You would have had to pay me to eat any of those cookies!
Let me tell you, it was fantastic. The girls put a lot of thought into their cookies. I think it really helped that they knew we were donating these cookies to a local homeless shelter for women and children. The girls wanted the cookies to be special. And they were.
I wanted to pass along the recipe I found for the icing because it was so easy and hardened nicely into a shiny white glaze. Most recipes I saw used either egg whites or meringue powder to make a stiff royal icing. That wasn't what I wanted; but this recipe is perfect.
Sugar Cookie Icing
1 cup confectioner's sugar
2 teaspoons milk
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
In a small bowl, stir together confectioner's sugar and milk. Add more milk in small amounts if needed until it's smooth. Beating with a fork, add corn syrup and extract until icing is smooth and glossy. If it's too thick, add a bit more corn syrup. Divide into separate bowls, if desired, and add food colorings to each to desired intensity.

Sick of Being Sick

I've been sick for more than a week now, so today I broke down and visited my handy neighborhood Minute Clinic (inside the CVS pharmacy). It was fast and easy. I am now armed with two prescriptions: an antibiotic and a cough syrup.

Fingers crossed that it will not be long at all before I stop sounding like Demi Moore, minus, of course, her bank account.

Our school week has been lighter than normal, due to my being under the weather and struck with laryngitis. The girls have had independent work to do, but other work has fallen by the wayside. I'm praying that I'll be back up to speed, even if my voice is not completely, by tomorrow.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Our Week In Review: Nov. 30 -- Dec. 4

It's been too long since I've posted. The week of Thanksgiving was difficult and busy, and this week was also nuts. To top it off, I am now sick. The family is, as I type, at a party I'm missing. So I thought I'd post instead of wallow in misery.

I know several homeschooling bloggers who write about what they did over the past week, so I'm jumping into the fray.

Bible: We used the Word for the Week flyer that comes home from church each Sunday. this week, the theme was faithfulness. Some of the scriptures we read and talked about were: Psalm 20, Jeremiah 29:11, and Proverbs 16:3. We also worked on our memory verse: "Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth" (Psalm 86:11a). We only attend to memory verses sporadically; after the New Year, I intend to focus more fully on this aspect of scriptural study.

History: We are in the Middle Ages, and we use Our Island Story, by H.E. Marshall, as our spine. I download free from LibriVox and then burn CDs. This week, we learned about Henry III (Henry of Winchester). I bought a neat little book the last time I was in England, Life in Medieval England, by Rupert Willoughby. Each two-page spread features a theme with fantastic artwork. This week, we studied the chapter "Life and Death in the Towns." Here's a link, in case you're interested.

In honor of Thanksgiving and our American heritage, two weeks ago we began reading Pilgrim Stories I: From Old Homes to New, by Margaret Pumphrey. The girls are reading independently Mary of Plymouth, by James Otis. Both of these wonderful e-books came to me via the Homeschool Freebie of the Day site. If you are not on their weekly email list, sign up right this second! I've downloaded audiobooks, e-books, and more from their wonderful site, all for free.

Science: We are studying James Watt and his steam engine in Great Inventors and their Inventions, by Frank P. Bachman. I must admit that the more technical sections of the story are not that interesting to any of us (pistons, cylinders, vacuums, condensers, you get the picture). However, instead of chucking the entire thing, we opted to read the historical parts and eliminate the more tedious information. I am fully aware that some families find this sort of thing riveting; to each his own. You can find this book for free on the Baldwin Project's website here.

Literature and Poetry: This week, we read together "How Perseus Slew the Gorgon," from The Heroes, by Charles Kingsley, and available here on the Baldwin Project's site for free; "A Winter's Tale," from Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare, by Edith Nesbit (which I downloaded free from LibriVox here and we listened to it in the car at Miss Priss's request); "The Light of Truth", from Margaret Gatty's Parables of Nature, also available for free from the Baldwin Project here; and finished Nesbit's The Railway Children. Miss Priss is reading The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald, and Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild. This week, Tiny Girl finished Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. We loved all of these.

For poetry, we have been studying selections from William Blake's Songs of Innocence. Truthfully, Blake is not my favorite. Come to find out, he is not my girls' favorite, either. (I did nothing to sway their opinions, honestly!) After one reading this week, Tiny Girl asked, "Can we go back to Christina Rossetti? I like her a lot better than Blake."

Language Arts: The girls completed three days of copywork and one day of studied dictation. Tiny Girl also worked on spelling, which is much more of a trial for her than for Miss Priss. In foreign language, they each studied French with Rosetta Stone for 10-15 minutes per day. Miss Priss and I only managed one day of Latin (we use Latina Christiana). Our schedule is two days; but my illness scrapped that for this week. Instead, she practiced the Table Blessing on Friday.

Math: Both girls are working on multiplication facts with me (flashcards) and independently (, which we highly recommend). We also did our MEP lessons.

Test Prep: In our state, each homeschooled student must take a nationally-recognized standardized test every three years, starting in third grade. This year is Tiny Girl's turn. She has a Spectrum test prep book for third grade, which she works in every day.

Artist/Music Study: I slacked off in this area this week.

Extras: We also had piano lessons, choir rehearsal for the children's Christmas concert at church, and Girl Scouts for both girls. Tiny Girl had riding lessons, as well.

Writing all this out was a really good exercise for me. Some days, I feel like we aren't doing enough, that the girls are "missing out" on something crucial to their educations because we homeschool, that I stink at this, etc., etc., ad nauseam. But when I take the time to write it all at (instead of merely looking at a chart), I see that we did quite a lot. Affirmation! Yippee!

Now I think I'll go read my twaddle and have a cup of hot tea. Maybe a nap, later.