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.