Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Thoughts on the New Year: Decluttering (Yawn!)

I don't know about you, but I never make New Year's resolutions. I have enough failures upon which to ruminate should I so desire; why add to the list?

However, I do like to contemplate fresh starts, clean starts, if you will. And in that spirit, I've been hard at work here at home. The first order of business: our study.

Command Central: the computer and desk 

When one begins a large project, say, the cleaning out and reorganization of one's study (schoolroom, kitchen, closet, etc.), one often begins with energy, vigor, and enthusiasm. Here's a tip for you: keep at it until the job is complete. I had to break up my study reorg over three days. Day Two found me standing amidst piles of stuff, looking disconsolately around me, and wondering where to begin. I didn't have near the verve of Day One. And by Day Three. . . . You get the picture. It was depressing and robbed me of a portion of joy I should have had at the completion of this Herculean task.

The storage shelves were so cluttered, the girls had resorted to keeping their supplies on the floor. 

So. No matter how onerous, boring, or just plain yucky the task may be, throw yourself into the job and get 'er done. That's my decluttering advice.

Our art supplies chest and my bookshelves

I thoroughly cleaned out and reorganized our art supplies chest. In fact, I amassed a nice box or new and nearly new craft items that we don't use (or won't use anymore) and have listed it on Craig's List for free.

The girls' bedrooms are on today's list. I'm sure you can imagine how thrilled they are at the thought. But I am standing firm. Their rooms, which are small to begin with, now boast of a small path leading from door to bed. Every other surface -- remaining floor, bookshelves, dressers, chests, bedside tables -- is covered with all manner of things. Miss Priss, who readily admits to slobbery (if that's not a real word, it should be), happily walks on top of discarded clothes, shoes, quilts, and other sundry items that litter her floor.

Now, it's a well-known fact that I have a high tolerance for clutter. But even I cannot stand another moment.

It's the New Year. Time for a fresh, clean start.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Blessed Christmas to You All

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
in the Body and the Blood
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of Light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged seraph;
cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
"Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord Most High!"

-- The Divine Liturgy of Saint James, Fourth (or Fifth) Century A.D.

Here are two renditions perfect for the mystery of the miracle. The first is an instrumental.

The second is an a cappella solo.

May the peace of Christ, which transcends all understanding, rest on you and yours this season and forevermore.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Craft and Gift Idea: Gussied-Up Picture Frames

While wandering around Michaels a few weeks ago, I saw a project sheet for holiday picture frames, and I thought, "The girls could make these for their grandparents for Christmas." (Every once in while, inspiration strikes me, especially when it's right in front of my face.) So I bought four unfinished frames for $1.99 a piece, Mod Podge, and an X-ACTO blade. The girls selected scrapbooking paper, paint, and embellishments.

You know me; I never follow any directions exactly. Where's the fun in that? As a loose guide, we used the directions for the Santa frame. I never found any Terrifically Tacky tape at the store. If the girls had chosen to use ribbon on their frame edges, we would have used the Mod Podge instead. However, they both painted the edges at the same time they painted the backs.

We completed the project over two days. On the first day, the girls painted the backs and edges of their frames and left them to dry. Miss Priss chose a metallic gold paint that went well with the papers she'd selected; Tiny Girl opted for white paint.

On Day 2, it was time to trace the frame and frame opening onto the back of their scrapbooking paper.

Since I didn't relish a trip to the emergency room right before Christmas (been there, done that), I used the X-ACTO blade to cut out the tracings.

The girls then spread Mod Podge onto the backs of their cut-outs and smoothed them onto each frame.

After that, they added their embellishments. The stickers were all adhesive, so we didn't need a glue gun. Miss Priss used Mod Podge to adhere her ribbon. And here they are!

 Tiny Girl's finished frames

Miss Priss's finished frames

Last night, a friend -- a high school junior whom my girls adore -- came to hang out with the girls while Himself and I attended a company Christmas dinner. "These frames are great!" she said, and added that she'd like to make some for her friends.

The frames can be fun or fancy, depending on your paper and embellishment choices. Plus, Michaels has tons of frame ideas on the company's website. Check it out to get some ideas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Goodie: Homemade Ganache

Flush with the grand success of Wednesday's salted caramel, I flung myself into today's project with gusto. Homemade ganache was my goal. I Googled around and came across this recipe from Foodie with Family. I armed myself with the necessary ingredients, chocolate and heavy cream, and sped into action.

 The ingredients. Note the lovely brown bowl, which I inherited from my precious Mam-ma.

After adding the hot cream to the chocolate chips, wait five minutes and then begin to stir. 

Just keep stirring until you get a bowlful of bliss. 

The first cute little jar sitting amid our Christmas village.

I made two batches, which perfectly filled the four cute little jars I bought at Michaels, with a tad left over for the chef. I then adorned each jar with a Christmas-themed adhesive border from Martha Stewart Crafts(bought on clearance at Michaels) and a tag with suggested uses for the ganache. I'll give these away as gifts.
Not too shabby for a culinarily- and craft-challenged girl like me. Although I must point out that ganache is easy-peasy to make.

And don't worry that I'll become impossible to live with after a few kitchen success stories. I know better than that. When one's ambitions far outreach one's actual capabilities, one learns to expect catastophes from time to time. One also learns to savor the moment when things turn out nicely, too.

Christmas Goodies: Chewy Chocolate Drops with Salted Caramel Frosting

Oh. My. Word. If ever a taste combination was fashioned in heaven, this is it.

The cookies are Soft and Chewy Chocolate Drops, the recipe for which I found on the back of a box of Baker's unsweetened chocolate squares. The recipe calls for a glaze of melted Cool Whip mixed with melted semi-sweet chocolate. However, I used the salted caramel frosting I made yesterday.

And I am so glad I did.

With my handy-dandy Pampered Chef cupcake decorating kit, I piped a swirl of frosting atop each little cookie.

Then I arranged them in cookie boxes I bought at Michaels for neighbor gifts. Not all of them, mind you. Some stayed here to spend Christmas with me.

Aren't they precious?

Each bite is a tiny bit of joy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Goodies: Salted Caramel and Salted Caramel Frosting

So far, my Christmas baking has gone well. Not one catastrophe yet. So I thought I'd up the ante and try my hand at salted caramel frosting.

I found two recipes I liked, the first from Daydreamer Desserts and the second from Blackberry Farm. The first recipe calls only for sugar, water, vanilla, heavy cream, and salt. The second uses different amounts of those ingredients and adds butter and lemon juice as well.

I attempted the Daydreamer's recipe first. It was a debacle. Since she's had success, I can only assume it was my fault. No surprise there. Here's what I ended up with:

Chunks of rock candy in vanilla cream. It was actually tasty, but not what I'd hoped for. Plus, it wouldn't make good frosting. If I'd saved the cream to sweeten my coffee tomorrow morning, I'd have to call this one a minor, albeit surprising, success. Alas, I poured it out along with most of the sugar chunks.

So then I tried Blackberry Farm's salted caramel recipe. All went smoothly, and I ended up with a bowlful of delectable, gorgeous caramel.

The sugar, water, and corn syrup bubbling away.

The sugar syrup turning amber.

The finished salted caramel. Ahhhh....

When it came to making the frosting, I opted to go with Daydreamer's version, which calls for butter, confectioner's sugar, salted caramel, and salt. Blackberry Farm adds cream cheese, which I am sure is wonderful. However, I wanted a pure salted caramel flavor this time. And, since this recipe calls for merely 1/3 cup of the salted caramel, I had some left over. Woot!

It was all I could do to keep from sticking my face in the bowl. 

Tiny Girl showing off the frosting. After I took the photo, she dug in!

This, my friends, is ambrosial perfection. And it's waiting in my fridge.

I'll let you know its final destiny tomorrow....

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Baking: Butter Mint Cookies

I'm enjoying my second foray into Christmas baking this season, the first being the cut-out cookies for our Girl Scout meeting. So here's what's in the oven at my house this afternoon:

Butter Mint Cookies
1 cup butter mints
1 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 T water
1 t vanilla
2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour

Finely crush the butter mints. (I used my small food processor, and it made such a racket that both dogs started barking hysterically.) Pour crushed mints into a medium bowl. In another bowl, beat butter at high speed for 30 seconds. add 1/4 cup crushed mint and the powdered sugar. Beat until combined, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the water and vanilla. Beat in as much flour as you can, and then stir in the rest with a wooden spoon. (I was able to beat in all the flour.) Cover and chill dough for about an hour.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake about 15 minutes or until bottoms are light brown. Cool for one minute on a wire rack. Pour remaining crushed butter mints into a bag. Shake warm cookies, two at a time, in the bag of crushed mints to coat them. Cool completely on wire racks.

These turned out to be quite tasty, like a minty shortbread. The girls did not care for them, but Jasper and I did (one fell on the floor, to Jasper's delight). Later today, I'll brew a cup of tea and enjoy one or two of these alongside.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Backyard Sighting: Cooper's Hawk

I happened to glance outside my bathroom window just in time to see a Cooper's hawk land on the deck railing below. My camera was downstairs (of course!), so I contented myself with spying on it for a minute or two before it soared away.

I can hear you now. So, Ellen, how do you know that it was a Cooper's hawk and not the similar-looking sharp-shinned hawk? Well, it just so happened that I did NOT know for certain, so I did a bit o' research, as is my wont. I came upon a wonderful article, Tricky Bird IDs: Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper's Hawk, from Project FeederWatch, which cleared up the conundrum. Now I know my particular hawk was a Cooper's.

As much as I like seeing hawks -- we mostly see red-tailed hawks in our backyard -- I admit to a touch of anxiety when they stalk our feeders. Yes, I know they need to eat, too, and that their entree of choice is other small birds. But I don't like witnessing such National Geographic moments in my face and in real time. You know, in reality.

For your viewing pleasure (not in real time or reality), here's a photo I found on the GeorgiaInfo webpage:

Photo by Vicki DeLoach
In addition to this hawk, we were glad to see the dark-eyed juncos arrive! What are you seeing in your backyard this winter?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book Review: Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo

Like many of you, we have our favorite Christmas books that we re-read every year, and I also love to find new ones to add to our enjoyment. Last Sunday, I saw Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo, in our church library's Christmas display, and I snatched it up. Ever since we read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane we've been DiCamillo fans.

Great Joy is a picture book, gorgeously illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (who also illustrated Edward Tulane), and the girls and I snuggled on the couch last week to read it together. This is one of those rich and layered stories best enjoyed by older children and adults. This is not to say a young child wouldn't love it; but the themes of homelessness and compassion, so delicately interwoven in the fabric of the narrative, are certain to spark thoughtful discussions between you and your children.

Here are some questions that came to us:
  • What prompts Frances's concern for the organ grinder and his monkey?
  • Why might Frances be especially attuned to their situation?
  • What might be an explanation for Frances's mother's response?
  • Why do you think the organ grinder responded to Frances's invitation as he did?
  • Are all the problems solved at the end of the story? How is this realistic?
  • How would you continue the story?

This simple yet powerful story will stay with me for a very long time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Weekly Happenings: Rollin' On

I didn't find much time to post this week -- a disappointment. I wrote down some ideas, but I have been busy with other things, not the least of which is looking for some paying freelance work.

But we're rollin' on with our lessons! We're enjoying our advent candle, which we light during our morning devotion and prayer time. And we've also enjoyed some of the chocolate from Tiny Girl's advent garland. One of the notes this past week asked us to call someone we hadn't talked to in a while. So I phoned a dear friend, an elderly gentleman who is our neighbor in Maine. He spends winter in New Jersey. It was good to hear his voice.

Here are some highlights from the week.

Howard Pyle's King Arthur stories and Plutarch's "Poplicola" continue in their vaunted position as favorites. We do wonder when the ousted king of Rome will give up his fight to regain the city, though. He's one tenacious guy, but one would think that, after his multiple defeats, he'd get a clue. The girls get a kick out of one of Pyle's favorite expressions, in which he likens the noise of battle to thunder. Every time I come across that in our reading, I say (dramatically, of course), ". . . with a tumult like to a monstrous roaring of . . ." and the girls shout, "Thunder!"

In the Storybook of Science, it was spiders again, this time the epeira. We wre intrigued by Fabre's detailed description of this spider's web-weaving. Did you know that the word epeira comes from the Greek eirein, meaning "to fasten in rows, string together"? Neither did I until I looked it up on the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. (Another point of note: "Epeira is currently in the bottom 10% of lookups on" I'm not really surprised; are you?)

Our favorite thing this week was that we took some time on Thursday to visit our local dollar theater to see Dolphin Tale, which was marvelous. We highly recommend it. The movie was a celebration, in part, of the remocal of Miss Priss's cast. Woo hoo! No more playing beauty parlor at the kitchen sink!

Our Girl Scout Cadettes had a blast decorating cut-out cookies for a local charity. They ate a few, too, of course. They were pleasantly surprised that the cookies were just as good (better, in my opinion) naked as they were frosted. If you missed my post of that particular recipe, click here.

Our other activities rolled along, too: riding, piano, drama, choir, and mid-week Bible study. Next week is the children's Christmas program at church!

I hope you had a great week! I'm linking up with The Homeschool Mother's Journal and Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. Join us!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Simply *The Best* Recipe for Cookie Cutouts

Yes, I know that's a bodacious claim, but I believe it to be true. Deliciously, lip-smackingly true. A delicate-tasting cookie with more flair than your basic sugar cookie cutout, these are even wonderful plain -- sans icing or frou-frou decorations. Although both are fun!

Our Girl Scout troop is going to decorate Christmas cookies for a local charity at our next meeting. I'm making the cookies and icing ahead of time. Regular sugar cookies are fine, but if you really want to surprise folks -- in a good way -- try this recipe this season.

Simply the Best Cookie Cutouts
2 ½ cups plain flour
1 t cinnamon
½ t ginger
½ t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
3/4 cup butter
½ cup honey
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg

Stir together flour, cinnamon, ginger, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Cream butter, honey, and sugar until smooth.

Beat in egg.* Stir in half the flour mixture, beating well. Beat or stir in rest of flour.

Cover and refrigerate for 1 ½ hours or until firm enough to roll and cut. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on a well-floured surface (flour your rolling pin as well!), about 1/3 of the dough at a time. Cut with desired floured cutters.

Place on lightly greased cookie sheets and bake for 8-10 minutes until lightly browned. Makes 3 to 4 dozen cookies.

After the cookies cool completely, ice with your favorite cookie icing (the kind that sets up is best) and decorate in the way that makes your heart the happiest. Don't forget to much a few naked cookies!

* I emphasized this step because I forgot to do it in my first batch of dough and had to add it in after the flour. The cookies didn't suffer a bit, but it's easier to add the egg when you're supposed to.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Streaming Christmas Music -- From Europe and UK Web Radio

For an interesting twist for your Christmas listening at home, check out this website:, which features radio stations in Europe and the UK streaming live on the internet. Last night, I rolled and cut out cookies while nodding along to music broadcast from France, and this morning it's the UK.

I love hearing old favorites in new (to me) arrangements, as well as songs I know and unfamiliar tunes. I've never heard Lou Rawls's wonderful rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" until I hopped on Cherie Noel last night.

And the best? No commericals! Every once in a while, a Voice says the name of the station, but that's it. On Cherie Noel, the Voice also flung out something more I couldn't comprehend. So much for my conversational French.

I'm going to work my way through the list this season just for fun. Why don't you come along?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Weekly Happenings: A Few Beginnings and Advent

The house is very quiet. Himself and the girls have gone on an overnight trip out of state to see Himself's alma mater play in football play-offs. Although I've been looking forward to some quiet time alone, and I enjoy my own company, I have to admit the quiet is deafening. This must be how the dogs feel when we leave them behind.

We began two new AO Year 5 readings this week: Abraham Lincoln's World and Of Courage Undaunted: Across the Continent with Lewis & Clark. We said goodbye to Abigail Adams last week; you can read my thoughts on that here. Other readings we enjoyed included King Arthur and His Knights, This Country of Ours, Gods and Heroes, and "Poplicola" from Plutarch's Lives.

Much to Miss Priss's revulsion, we learned about spiders and silk in Storybook of Science this week. I was so intrigued that I hopped online to find a video and more information. I blogged about my findings, and you, too, can learn more by popping over to that post. And in A Child's Geography: Explore His Earth (which is a tweak of mine; AO schedules volume 2 for Year 5), we tried our hand at a project that depicts the moon's gravitational pull on the ocean tides.

Gravitational pull project.
Our geographical study of gravity nicely coincided with our recent readings from Sir Robert S. Ball's Great Astronomers and its biography of Sir Isaac Newton. While we'd been following along quite adequately until last week, Ball's writings on Newton's gravitational studies are too esoteric even for me. We managed to understand that Newton proved mathematically Kepler's laws of observation regarding planetary movement in our solar system; but I felt we needed a bit more explanation. Turning to the online world once more, I found what I was looking for at Physics4Kids. Here's the link to the article we found most helpful.

Miss Priss has been making strides with Math Mammoth, but then I found (via Blossom at North Laurel Home & School; thanks, Blossom!), the home of "customizable, free, curriculum-aligned content for K-12." So we did some work in their sixth grade math program, which was a review for her. I only wish they offered a teacher's edition of this flexbook! It would save me some time. Tiny Girl began a geometry segment in MEP math, working with perimeter, area, and volume of solid figures.

We also got a handle on direct objects with our new grammar program. Read my post on that here. And we also began a new online and free French program, provided by our library system.

But it's not all been work, work, work! We managed to get in some Christmas decorating. Our tree is in all its glory, the Christmas village bedecks the top of the piano, the stockings are hung, and the nativities are gracing our foyer dresser and bookcase. Both Tiny Girl's advent garland and our advent candle, a gift from our friends from Germany who visited for Thanksgiving, add to our time of preparation.

My first nativity, a gift from my mother many years ago.

A smaller, funkier nativity, another gift from my mama.

Our Christmas village, a mix of Dollar Tree finds and handpainted treasures from Michael's.
Miss Priss, still sporting her purple cast, decorating the tree.

Today was our second morning of hard frost. Miss Priss was so taken with the hoary world that she ventured out for a few photos.

A sweet gum ball leaf in the grass, both silvered with frost

Look at the lacy edges of these tiny leaves!

Tonight I will be cutting out and baking Christmas cookies for our Girl Scout troop to decorate at Sunday's meeting. We each eat one or two, but we give the majority to a local charity for women and children. A double batch of dough chills in the fridge while I type. Perhaps this will be the kick-off to my Christmas baking bonanza! If you need something to get you started, I'll post the recipe in the next couple of days.

I'm linking up with:

Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Spider at Work -- With Silk

The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web.
-- Edwin Way Teale

Today the girls read Chapter 25, "Spiders," from The Storybook of Science, by Jean-Henri Fabre.* Uncle Paul's description of the spider spinning its web is facinating, but seeing such a work in action makes an unforgettable impression. I searched on YouTube for a video that clearly showed a spider's spinnerets in action, and this one is really nice. A few seconds into the video, the camera zooms in for a close-up view.

The Smithosonian National Museum of Natural History has an excellent article on spiders here. Although technically dense, I found especially intriguing the three paragraphs related to spider silk. Did you know that a spider can produce different types of silk to use in different ways, such as one for spinning webs, another for cocooning eggs, and yet another for wrapping captured prey? Silly me; I thought it was all the same!

Silk is also extremely tough. This article on Wikipedia states, "A frequent mistake made in the mainstream media is to confuse strength and toughness when comparing silk to other materials. As shown below in detail, weight for weight, silk is stronger than steel, but not as strong as Kevlar. Silk is, however, tougher than both [toughness being the ability to absorb energy before breaking]." The article goes on to delineate many other of silk's impressive qualities. I had no idea it is so remarkable.

At our Maine cabin, there's always a spider or two that makes a web in the corner of our picture window (outside!) or in the corner where the exterior wall and roof overhang meet on the deck. I let them be. I like watching them in action when I can, although they tend to be secretive. To me, their webs are things of beauty.

* The Storybook of Science is a new addition for science in AO Year 4, but I'd heard pleasing things about it in the past and decided we'd read it even though we're in Year 5.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Daily Grammar: A Comprehensive Grammar Website

I am the King of Rome, and above grammar.
-- Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor from 1433 until 1437

I happened upon a thorough and well-done grammar website I wanted to share with you. Daily Grammar, which describes itself as "a great teaching tool for both public and home-schooled children, ESL students, and anyone needing to refresh English grammar skills," offers 440 free lessons and 88 associated quizzes. Click on the Archives button at the top of the page to access the lessons.

The Archives are very simple to use. Lessons are arranged in two ways: by number, e.g., "Lessons 71-75 -- Prepositions," and by subject, which functions like an index. Just click on the hyperlink of the lesson(s) you need. Each lesson comprises a blessedly brief (but not too succinct) explanation with examples and then five sentences or items in which the student identifies the part(s) of speech or part(s) of a sentence or supplies information as instructed.

Another most helpful feature is a Glossary defining grammar terms. Each definition also includes hyperlinks to that term's associated lessons.

Daily Grammar offers a workbook and ebook available for sale; however, I have found the free lessons to be more than sufficient for our grammar needs at this level.

Grammar, which knows how to control even kings.
-- Moliere

Take that, Sigismund!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A "Study, Pray, and Serve" Advent Garland

In Sunday school this past weekend, Tiny Girl made what I call an "advent garland." It's now draped across the fireplace mantel in our family room.

It's made of plastic wrap, curling ribbon, ornament-shaped cards with notes printed on them, and Hershey's Kisses.

The notes on each paper ornament include Bible verses to look up and read aloud; good deeds to do, such as "Contribute a toy to a toy drive for children who don't have toys"; specific prayers to say; and many opportunities for family discussions. After completion of the day's "task," the children can enjoy a Kiss.

I found instructions for making a similar garland here at Vanilla Joy; in her version, Kelsey tucks Scripture readings in with the candy, and she only uses one piece of candy per bundle. Tiny Girl's garland attaches the paper ornaments with the curling ribbon when tying off the Kisses bundles, and includes two candy pieces: one for her and the other for Miss Priss.

You might be inclined to have each child in your family make his or her own advent garland, perhaps with different Scripture readings (or individual verses of a reading), good deeds, service opportunities at home and/or in the community, prayers, and topics for family discussion pertinent to the season.

What I love about this advent garland is that it actively engages children in both study and service, making the countdown to Christmas more meaningful.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Closing the Book and Saying Goodbye

We finished Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution, an AO biography for Year 4, the day before Thanksgiving, and it was like saying goodbye to a friend. The last few paragraphs I read through tears. Even Tiny Girl, who did not like this book at the beginning, was sad to see her go.

I wish I could have known Abigail. I am sure her industry would have shamed me, but oh, to witness her quiet strength, to learn from her uncommon wisdom, and to share, even in the smallest fashion, her experiences would be astonishing.

And what a time to be alive! It was certainly a time of grave uncertainty and horror, not merely due to the events leading up to a revolution, but also due to the immense difficulties of the every day, the spider's web-fragility of life. Abigail and her contemporaries suffered losses and trials many of us avoid today due to our improved health care knowledge and resources.

The lack of education for girls greatly irritated the young Abigail, and as an adult, she deeply believed in women's primary role as wives, mothers, nurturers, and healers. But she also believed that husbands and wives were equal partners in life. The precarious position of women in society prompted her to write to her husband:

... and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.

Along with the confusion, anxiety, and fear of war came to chance to create something new. Abigail, through John, was greatly involved in these events. John sent her "a feast of letters" detailing events in Philadelphia, and Abigail followed military operations on her own map. Joh relied on her to run their farm, but he also relied on her good sense and wisdom, which she sent in numerous letters of her own.

Reading this most wonderful book allowed my children and me to live vicariously though Abigail. We were concerned when she faced difficulties, like her many and long separations from John, her "dearest friend." We were sad when she grieved her losses. We appreciated her wit, so evident in her letters to others. We, too, wondered at the outcome of events. We watched the birth of the United States. Together, we learned much.

As for me, I've so often longed for a quiet life, but Abigail had something to say to me about that wish. On her way to join John in Europe, Abigail's ship endured a dead calm, which left the ship motionless. She wrote: "a Calm is not desireable in any situation in life. . . . Every object is most Beautiful in motion, a ship under sail trees gently agitated with the wind & a fine woman danceing (sic). . . man was made for action" (p. 124). And so am I.

What a lovely, blessed life to celebrate!

P.S. If you're interested in reading more of Abigail's letters to John and others, please see,'s page on John and Abigail Adams, which features links to digital bookshelves.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Heart Full of Thanks

A heart full of thanks is one of the greatest blessings.

We are packing up to make the trip to my cousin's house for our extended family Thanksgiving. My mother is the ninth of ten children, so there is always a large gathering -- typically around 70 people -- and that's not all of us, either!

Children run in and out, a few of the younger males congregate around the TV to watch football, the more senior members gather in the sunroom to chat, and someone usually plays a few tunes on the piano while others sing. It's really great fun. It's also my favorite day of the year.

And the food! With everyone bringing a dish or two, our buffet line is bounteous. Turkey, of course, along with ham, casseroles, salads, other side dishes, and homemade yeast rolls. My sweet aunt who always made her famous dressing passed away this summer; I wonder if someone else will attempt her recipe. I hope so. In keeping up traditions, we pass on the important things to our next generation.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Chocolate Thanksgiving Dessert

Every Thanksgiving, my extended family gathers at my cousin's house for a big potluck hoopla. (More on this later.) Since it's about an hour and a half from my house, I can't bring anything that needs to stay hot, so I tend to select a dessert, salad, or appetizer. This year I'm bringing a dessert for the dessert buffet table, and my offering is Anne Byrn's "Darn Good Chocolate Cake," a Bundt cake featured in her cookbook, Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor (page 116-117).

Darn Good Chocolate Cake, by Anne Byrn (with notes from me)
1 pkg (18.25 ounces) devil's food or dark chocolate fudge cake mix (I chose Duncan Hines devil's food because all Duncan Hines cake mixes were BOGO)
1 pkg (3.9 ounces) chocolate instant pudding mix (Be careful here! Jell-O brand was the only instant that measured correctly)
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup water*
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used canola)
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I used Hershey's Special Dark chips)

* You know I tinker with recipes. Instead of using plain water, I heated 1/2 cup of water in my microwave til hot and then stirred in one heaping teaspoon of instant coffee. I let it cool before proceeding with the recipe.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray with nonstick spray and then flour a 12-cup Bundt pan, shaking out excess flour, and set aside. (I used Pam for Baking, which includes flour.) Place in a large mixing bowl cake mix, pudding mix, sour cream, water, oil, and eggs.

Blend with electric mixer on low for 1 minute. Stop machine and scrape down sides of bowl. Blend for 2-3 minutes more on medium, stopping to scrape down sides again if needed. Batter will be thick. Fold in chocolate chips, distributing them well throughout the batter.

Velvety smooth goodness!

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth out with rubber spatula.

Place pan in oven. Bake til it springs back when touched lightly, about 58 to 62 minutes. Remove pan from oven and place on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run a long, sharp knife around edge of cake and invert it onto a rack to cool completely.

At this point, you could dust with confectioners sugar, but I did as Byrn suggests. I gilded the lily with her "Martha's Chocolate Icing," because, with chocolate, there's no such thing as too much of a good thing.

Martha's Chocolate Icing
1 cup granulated sugar
5 T butter
1/3 cup whole milk
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Heat sugar, butter, and milk in a medium sized saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir til mixture comes to a boil. Continue stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate chips, stirring until chocolate has melted and mixture is smooth. Pour icing over cake and let it flow over the sides.

I opted to use a ladle to pour the icing, and I found it set up quickly, hence the uneven appearance. I tried to smooth it out with a spatula, but that made things worse, so I let well enough alone. There was a bit of icing left over, which I quickly scarfed down. That stuff is wonderful!

The cake is now resting in my cake saver, awaiting the moment tomorrow when it will be revealed in all its glory.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Going On Right Now...

Oh, my word. Have we been busy! This past weekend was the horse show season finale for one of our state's largest equestrian association, and Tiny Girl qualified. We were at the equestrian park most of Thursday AND Friday, from 6:30 AM til 2:00 PM Saturday, and from 10 AM til 3:30 PM on Sunday. My folks spent Friday and Saturday nights with us to watch her compete. On Saturday, she won three eight-place ribbons out of 18 other riders, so we were happy for her. But during Sunday's derby, her pony, Tappy, ran out on one of the 10 jumps (she ran around the jump), so they didn't make the cut. It was a shame because the rest of the course was beautiful. Ah, well.

Last night was the Christmas piano recital. Miss Priss, bless her heart, had to sit out this year; her cast for the broken right wrist keeps her from playing.

Today, we made sandwiches for a homeless shelter downtown. Several of our church members are going there on Thanksgiving Day to serve the men, and we're also providing bag lunches for the next day. The girls and I made four loaves of sandwiches and also provided packs of cookies. And this evening, tonight's my night to cook supper for a neighborhood family whose son was just released from the hospital following surgery.

Since our school week was cut short last week, we are catching up on some readings and working on multiplication tables this week. And of course we're gearing up for our family Thanksgiving. More on that tomorrow!

What's going on at your house right now?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Adventures in Frugality: Potato Soup

This has been a super-busy week for us; more on this later. However, one night I threw together a really nice potato soup that began with a recipe and then I changed most of it. Typical. Here's exactly what I did. Feel free to alter at your pleasure.

Potato Soup
Eight cups water
Six heaping tsp Better than Bouillon chicken (a real measuring tsp, not flatware)
5 red potatoes, peeled and chopped
onion powder to taste
cut-up ham (I had some leftover and I just used that; I didn't even measure it)
1 cup half-and-half
2 1/2 generous handsful of shredded Cheddar

Bring water and bouillon to boil and add potatoes. Cook til tender. Reduce heat to low. Scoop out at least half of the potatoes with some liquid and carefully blend in a blender til smooth. Pour back into soup pot. Add ham, half-and-half, and Cheddar. Stir til cheese is melted and soup is heated through. Serve.

If you happened to have any on hand, sour cream and/or chives would be a nice touch. I pureed half the potatoes because I didn't have any (and never do, actually) dried potato flakes, which so many potato soup recipes use as a thickener.

The girls and I loved this; Himself enjoyed it, but pronounced it "very soupy." He prefers his potato soup thicker and chunkier. If you do, too, simply reduce the water (and bouillon) and skip the pureeing.

Ah, soup. One of the best delights of chilly weather, to my way of thinking.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fine Autumn Fare: Busy Lady's Cassoulet

I mentioned in my latest post about book club that I planned to serve a fake cassoulet. It was well received! I started out with a recipe I found online, and then I altered it quite a bit, as I am wont to do. Here's the recipe, which I made up as I went along.

Busy Lady's Cassoulet
This is best made one to two days ahead for flavors to blend.

3 slices of thick bacon, coarsely chopped
2 lbs fully cooked smoked sausages, cut into rounds and casings removed (I used 1/3 Andouille and 2/3 kielbasa. Use all kielbasa for less heat.)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 1/2 tsp jarred chopped garlic
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
1 T fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup red wine
3 15-oz cans Grest Northern beans, drained
2 14 1/2-oz cans diced tomatoes in juice
2 cups chicken broth (I used 1 cup water mixed with 1 tsp Better than Bouillon chicken base AND one cup homemade chicken broth I had saved in the freezer)
3 T tomato paste
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 to 2 cups chopped cooked chicken

Panko bread crumbs
2 T butter
Big handful shredded Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook bacon in a heavy large ovenproof pot (I used a cast iron Dutch oven) until brown and crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove to a bowl. add sausages to drippings in pot and saute until brown. transfer to bowl with bacon. Add onions and garlic to pot and cook until beginning to soften. Stir in rosemary, thyme, and red wine. Simmer a minute, then stir in beans, tomatoes with juices, chicken broth, tomato paste, allspice, and cooked chicken. Return meats to pot and bring to a boil. Cover pot and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover, cool one hour, and refrigerate covered til next day or so.

When I was ready to continue the next day, I transferred the cassoulet to a rustic pottery baking dish I have because I wanted everyone to have some breadcrumb topping; the Dutch oven is deep.

To continue: bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, adding more broth of dry. Meanwhile, melt butter and mix into panko breadcrumbs with a fork. Then mix in parmesan. Sprinkle over cassoulet. Increase oven temp to 400 degrees and bake uncovered til topping is golden.

This makes a delightful fall or winter meal and is much easier than traditional cassoulet. Crusty French bread is a natural accompaniment, as is a nice red wine. I served Bogle Cabernet Sauvignon.

Make plans to try it on a particularly chilly evening!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Weekly Happenings: When Things Go Wrong

Another busy week. This one included a few planned and a few un-looked-for events that intervened into our already packed schedule.

In my life this week:
  • On Monday, we were back at the orthodontist's to make new molds for Tiny Girl's replacement retainer. Did I tell you last week that the dogs managed to get the case off the kitchen table, open it, and then chew it up? Well, they did.
  • On Tuesday, Georgette was spayed and has thus been sporting the so-called Cone of Shame (from the movie Up) all week. Today we noticed her incision was seeping and reddish, so off to the vet we went. The verdict: a bit of infection and some pulling. We need to do a better job keeping her still and quiet. A five-and-a-half-month-old puppy.
  • Also on Tuesday, I had to put my van in the shop for leaking oil and I attended the women's Thank Offering service at my church. Thankfully, my dear friend, Carol, was able to taxi me around.
  • Last night I hosted book club. It was lovely and fun, as usual. It also took some shopping, preparation, and cleaning time, which I enjoyed (okay, maybe not the cleaning, but I enjoyed the result).
  • Also last night, about an hour before the book club ladies were due to appear, Miss Priss came home from a friend's house with a hurt forearm and wrist. She was in a lot of pain, but Himself (who was out to dinner with friends) and I decided to wait and see what the morning held. The verdict: this afternoon's x-ray revealed a broken wrist. Now she's sporting a purple cast.
  • Tonight we are going out to dinner with two fraternity brothers of Himself, one of whom lives here and is bringing his family, and the other who is in town from New England.
  • Tomorrow is Miss Priss's twelfth birthday party, which my parents are hosting at their home in the country. This afternoon, I made her cake (cookies and cream cake) while she was at the doctor's. Now some alterations to our plans are necessary to account for the broken wrist.
In our home school this week:
Of course, not everything was harriedly atypical. We still managed to pull off a decent week of educational pursuits. The girls are really enjoying several of our readings, i.e., King Arthur, Gods and Heroes, Abigail Adams: Wintess to a Revolution, and "Poplicola," from Plutarch's Lives. In our biography of Isaac Newton, which the girls find interesting, we began reading about his gravitational studies. Just for fun, we also watched the Schoolhouse Rock episode, "Victim of Gravity."

In this week's chapter of This Country of Ours, we read about the United States under its first president and new constitution. We've already read about these topics in George Washington's World and Abigail Adams. However, the girls noted that each author presents information a bit differently and adds or omits details. They decided they like reading different authors' takes on the same topics as it gives them a broader and deeper understanding.

I saw this in action when we watched another episode of the PBS production, Liberty! AS I've mentioned before, this is an excellent series, but, due to its nature, some information is omitted. While we watch, the girls ask us to pause the DVD so we can talk about things. Or one or the other will simply say aloud, "They left out part of that." I'm realizing how little I learned of my own country's history when I was in school.

In math, Tiny Girl worked on multi-digit multiplication as a review. Miss Priss continued with her Math Mammoth lessons. I am still pleased with this curriculum for her. She's gaining some new math confidence that was lacking before, and it makes this mama's heart happy to see it.

I'm cooking...
For supper one night this week, I made some fabulous broccoli-cheese soup, which I served in homemade bread bowls. I whipped up a fake cassoulet for book club, which everyone seemed to enjoy. I'll post recipes this weekend.

Here's a quote from Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I read in a British home decor magazine, of all things:

The real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.
Sometimes things just go wrong, and we do our best to roll with it. That's what we did this week and what we're still trying to do.

I'm linking up with:

Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers

The Homeschool Mother's Journal

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Club Tonight! And We're Eating Cake

I've been part of my book club for many years, and it's one of the things in my life that really makes me happy. I'm grateful to Himself for encouraging me to join, indeed even asking one of the members (they worked at the same office) if there were room in the club for me.

I know some book clubs are more social than literary; ours is a mix of both. We have a great time together at our monthly meetings, but we also discuss the books we're read. Whoever hosts the meeting picks the book and wines and dine everyone, too.

I chose Eat Cake, by Jeanne Ray, for our November book. I've read it before, and the storyline pops into my mind from time to time. It's meatier than a beach read, but not as heavy as some we've read. Frankly, it's delightful. I'm looking forward to discussing it this evening.

For supper, I'm serving a (fake) cassoulet with crusty bread and fried green tomatoes alongside a nice red wine. The weather is cooperating with my chosen menu: it's windy and chilly outside this evening. Dessert will be ginger-pear cupcakes with creamy lemon frosting. I considered a fancy cake in keeping with our book, but I just wasn't up to it mentally or culinarily. (I'm quite certain the latter is not a word, but it suits perfectly what I wanted to convey.)

I'll leave you with this quotation from the book:

Cakes have gotten a bad rap. People equate virtue with turning down dessert. There is always one person at the table who holds up her hand when I serve the cake. No, really, I couldn't, she says, and then gives her flat stomach a conspiratorial little pat. Everyone who is pressing a fork into that first tender layer looks at the person who declined the plate, and they all think, That person is better than I am. That person has discipline. But that isn't a person with discipline, that is a person who has completely lost touch with joy. A slice of cake never made anybody fat. You don't eat the whole cake. You don't eat cake every day of your life. you take the cake when it is offered because the cake is delicious... a cake is a party, a birthday, a wedding. A cake is what's served on the happiest days of your life.
So I will bite into my cake this evening with relish!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Weekly Happenings: Gathering Treasures

When I think back on this past week, I think of a week of gathering treasures. One of my memories is of the girls, dogs, and me snuggled in the family room one evening, reading our books while the rain poured and the wind howled outside. All was quite and cozy. I love times like that.

Earlier, I wrote a post about one of our favorite treats: pumpkin muffins. I included a link to Tricia of Hodgepodge's recipe for chocolate-chocolate chip-pumpkin muffins. Yum!

I'm reading a most delicious biography about Beatrix Potter by Linda Lear; I wrote a review of it here. Ambleside Online suggests possibly reading a biography of Potter for Year 5, but does not recommend a particular title. I'm in the process of reviewing several, some for adults and others for children. When I finish my research, I'll write a post about my findings.

We finished up our Year 4 readings of This Country of Ours, and we've almost completed Abigail Adams: Wintess to a Revolution. The latter will be like saying good-bye to an old friend when we close the cover for the last time. The girls and I have learned so much about this particular era of history. I quickly realized that my prior knowledge was quite sketchy, and I've been impressed with AO's history selections. I'm also immensely cheered by the depth and breadth of my girls' understanding of this period, both in America and abroad.

Miss Priss's drama troupe learned their play and parts this past week. The musical is Wonderland, a jazzed up version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Miss Priss was chosen for four smaller parts. She is elated!

I'm going to leave you with a well-known quote of Beatrix Potter:

"Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality."

Happy weekend!

I'm linking up with:
The Homeschool Mother's JournalWeird Unsocialized Homeschoolers