29 December 2013

Snowstorm Finds

 On a recent trip to visit Bailey in Indiana, we were plagued by snow and ran into terrible roads on the way home, forcing us to overnight in Iowa City. Truly, it's not a bad place to be "stranded", as we enjoyed dinner and a movie...and I got to spend some time in the very nice Goodwill store, which happened to be right next door to our hotel! I walked out of the store with a whole bag of treasures for only $13. What a cheap date I am! :)

One of my great finds was this hand-stitched picture. I'm not sure if it would be considered embroidery or crewel, but I think it's going to look awesome once I have it re-framed. I love the idea of giving new life to something that someone created by hand.

I also found this adorable little reindeer for less than $1. I was all ready to check out when he sort of hopped up into my hand and demanded to go home with me. I was powerless to refuse him! As you can see, he looked pretty adorable on this red chair from my childhood next to one of our Christmas trees. In addition to these treasures, I also picked up two holly dishes to match my mom's set and a brand-new Yankee candle. What great finds!

While in Iowa City, we stopped at the Caribou Coffee where I found these adorable felted coin purses. Unfortunately I didn't buy them at the time so had to track them down when we got back to Des Moines. They could not be cuter! 
 Sure, my daughter reminded me that I'm trying to GET RID OF THINGS instead of bring new things home, but I'm a firm believer that if something speaks to you, you have to buy it...then figure out what to do with it! :)

28 December 2013

Christmas Connections

If you've been following my blog, you know that I brought home a lot of stuff from my parents' house while preparing for our estate sale. While I had a hard time making decisions about certain things to keep or sell, there was never any doubt about two particular sets of dishes which belonged to my mom -- her Syracuse china and her holly dishes. I kept most of the Syracuse pieces and all of the holly dishes and actually used them on Christmas. Truthfully, it has been too hard to even look at them, so it was a big deal for me to even consider getting them out this year.

I always loved the Syracuse china Mom collected. She picked up pieces of this heavy white china here and there so it doesn't all match, which makes it especially appealing to me. Most of it has a green ring around the outside, but some pieces are plain white. These dishes are sturdy and practical enough for everyday use, so I kept several serving pieces plus a few pieced-together place settings. You can see some of her collection in this photo from last summer.

The holly dishes, on the other hand, are obviously just to be used for Christmas. Mom didn't use her them very often which always puzzled me -- at least until I took a good look at them. Turns out she had a lot of decorative and serving pieces but only two dinner plates, which meant that her collection was pretty much reserved for dessert. So I used the holly dinner plates to hold cookies and mixed in the Syracuse china dinner plates for lunch. Going forward, I may look into purchasing a few more holly dinner plates on Ebay to make the set more versatile. In the meantime, I enjoyed using her decorative dishes this year and even picked up two more matching pieces at Goodwill for next to nothing!

 I used her two dinner plates to hold Nutmeg Sparklers and Gingerbread Cookies. Dad loved gingerbread and I always sent him home with a big supply.

   This year, Bailey made Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies which aren't necessarily a Christmas cookie, but why couldn't they be? They were really good and looked cute on this tree-shaped plate!

I used Mom's holly dessert plates, cups, cream and sugar set, and a few other pieces for my little dessert table. The Starbucks deer do not match but kept appearing in the midst of things (sort of like the Elf on a Shelf!) so I let them stay. :)

 For the actual table setting, I decided to go a little more casual -- mainly because I had to mix and match everything. I also added in my mom's green water glasses which aren't a perfect match but were fun to use for the first time. Sure, the table could have looked a lot more pulled together if I'd given it more thought, but I lowered my expectations for this holiday and just went with it. :)

   Like my mom and grandma, I usually try to make some type of decoration for each place setting. This year I just dressed up some candy canes with die cut holly leaves and twine. Very simple and quick, and it kept me from eating all the candy canes!

My grief counselor reminds me that each object I have kept is a connection to my past, so with that in mind I'm glad that I was finally able to use Mom's dishes. I definitely felt the connection to her, almost like she was part of the day with us. 

26 December 2013

Holiday Stovetop Potpourri

 I'm all about a good-smelling house. Seriously. I've always been highly influenced by scents, and I think that the first thing you smell when you walk into a house can make a huge impact. That's why I always pay attention to what our house smells like when you walk through the door. Now given my propensity to kitchen calamities, it can sometimes be a real challenge to make the house smell like something other than burned rubber! :) But most of the time I aim for a more pleasant aroma, like the scent of apples or pears.

When I ran across this recipe for Holiday Stovetop Potpourri, I knew it would be a keeper. Rather than make it the stove, I tossed it into my small crock pot. Could not be easier!

Special note: After a full day of simmering, I wondered why I couldn't smell the potpourri as much as I expected. Turns out you need to remove the lid from the crock pot! DUH! :) Trust me, it smells GREAT once you take the lid off! Thanks for the tip, Spouse!

* * * * *  
Holiday Stovetop Potpourri
1/2 cup fresh cranberries
1 orange (sliced)
4 cinnamon sticks (broken in half)
1 TB cloves
1/8 tsp nutmeg
2-3 cups water

Combine ingredients in a small pot and simmer over low heat for as long as desired. Add more water if it gets low. Enjoy the holiday scent!

25 December 2013

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

The kitties and I wish you the happiest of holidays! Thank you for all the kindness you've extended to me during the past few months. 
Here's to a wonderful year ahead!

24 December 2013

New Cookie Recipe: Nutmeg Sparklers

 I'm not planning to do much holiday baking this year, except my beloved Gingerbread Cookies. But I recently ran across a recipe for Nutmeg Sparklers from an old Penzeys Spices catalog and thought it might be fun to try something new this year. I have found that if you're facing a holiday season after a significant loss, it helps to shake things up a bit and try some new things. 

Click on the image below to see the recipe. It's sort of like a sugar cookie, but firmer (at least mine were!) and with nutmeg! You really can't go wrong with nutmeg!

Of course, I always have one or more problems when baking. This time, I was mixing the dough in my stand mixer when I discovered it looked quite dry and crumbly. OOPS! Forgot the eggs! A closer check of the recipe indicated that I forgot the vanilla, too! Good grief. So I added both of those ingredients LATE, hoping this mishap wouldn't affect the results too much. Luckily the cookies taste great. I'm sure they would be even better if you actually followed the recipe! :)

I used my cute new owl measuring spoons, a gift from my friend Sharon, to mix up the sugar and nutmeg used to coat the cookies.

Six tablespoons seems like a LOT of sugar, but I used nearly all of it. And I only spilled just a tiny bit. :)

It seemed like the more cookies I rolled, the dough there was! I guess that's how it is when you're rolling dough into balls and coating them with sugar. That part takes awhile. 

Another tip: Be sure not to over bake these cookies, or they'll get a little hard on the bottom because they're coated in sugar. (Spouse, however, didn't seem to notice as he snatched a few from the cooling rack!) The recipe indicates 10-12 minutes in a 400-degree oven. I found that 10 minutes was just right.

But they turned out great in the end, and they are quite festive! Nutmeg Sparklers will be a nice addition to my very limited repertoire of holiday cookie recipes!

20 December 2013

Feline Friday: Secret Treats!

I swear, when it comes to FOOD, Lily has a mind like a steel trap! 

Several months ago, I got the misguided (but sounded good at the time) idea to put a bag of Temptations in the drawer of my nightstand so I could entice Lily to get up on the bed with me to sleep. My second mistake was letting her hear and see where the Temptations were stored, and now she is FIXATED on that drawer!

 Any time of the day or night, whether I open that drawer to grab a bottle of hand lotion or a bookmark, she comes flying into the room, ready for tasty NOMS!
I'm really doomed at this point. Even if I move the Temptations, Lily will always believe there are secret treats in that drawer!

19 December 2013

Holiday Decorating "From Memory"

 After putting up my Dickens Village, I mustered up a bit more holiday spirit and decided to continue decorating. This year I have many "new" things to use, as I brought home a lot of my mom's Christmas decorations plus many very old pieces which belonged to my grandma. The holidays have always been a sentimental time for me, and I found comfort in bringing out some of the decorations which reminded me of home.

One of the most significant pieces is my mom's Christmas house, the last of the four dollhouses she made. The inside of the house is set up like a Christmas store, and the details are incredible. It's in a Plexiglas case which makes it a little hard to photograph, but it keeps out the dust and kitties.

The house is positioned on a typing table which functioned as my childhood art/school desk. When I found it in my parents' basement, my Crayons were still in the drawer! I thought about selling it but in the end decided to keep it. I'm so glad I did.
There are many treasures in the next photo. The reindeer belonged to my parents. The cellophane wreath is one of several which belonged to my grandma, salvaged from a dusty box stored in our garden shed. The others have candles which actually work, but I'm not sure where to use them yet. Meanwhile, the reindeer looks cute sporting this one.

The elves are from the 1950's and are predecessors to the current "Elf on a Shelf" fad. I remember them fondly from the many Christmas day lunches we enjoyed in Grandma's big old house.

I found the Christmas light bulbs in the top of my dad's garage. When I was growing up, we used the lights on our house and around our evergreen trees. I brought some home which still have working cords but I couldn't part with these loose bulbs. Spouse (bless his heart) cleaned them all, then I put some in a heavy bowl my mom used for potato salad.

As you can see, I have a few more bulbs cleaned and ready to display. The blue ones in particular are meaningful to me. My dad hated putting them up each year and would swear a blue streak, completely losing his Christmas spirit! My mom finally quit having him put them up because it caused everyone such stress. Of course, I had to keep them!

The snowman in the next photo was a gift from my good friend Sharon. In going through Mom's decorations, I found a bag of large pine cones she had spray-painted gold and silver and decided to put them in one of her baskets. The basket is resting on a three-legged stool made by my parents' next door neighbor. It is designed to fit onto a 5-gallon bucket so you can sit down when you're fishing and keep your fish in water at the same time! :)

The large jar below belonged to my grandma. I filled it with some of her old ornaments, plus a few from our original Christmas tree, purchased to match our wedding colors. The frame holds a sheet of my favorite Christmas scrapbooking paper which happened to match. Mom made the Santa set in her ceramics class one year, and it was always my childhood favorite. When I found it in their basement over the summer, I hadn't seen it in years. Just looking at it brought me to tears.

 I thought it would be fun to bring out Teddy, who is over 100 years old, and put him in the my mom's old doll bed under the Christmas tree. I'm not sure where Teddy will end up in our house, but for now he looks happy and ready for Santa. (Teddy went to the Iowa State Fair one year and won a ribbon. Read Teddy's story in this post!)

The cloth wreath at the end of the doll bed was made by my daughter when she was little. The books include some from her childhood and a few from mine.

My absolute favorite childhood set was the Nutshell Library. What a joy it was to find these tiny books at my parents' house!

When cleaning out the garden shed, I found boxes of Christmas treasures from my grandma's house. The snowman candle was pretty dusty but I cleaned him up with a Q-tip. He looks happy to be out of that box now. :) The paper mache boots held candy and were gifts from Santa to my mom and her sister. The metal skaters also belonged to Mom, but I played with them when I was a little girl. I discovered them in a box of my old toys. Just holding them in my hand transports me back to my childhood.

I placed a few more special objects on the kitchen shelf. The milk bottle is always on display, purchased by my parents because it says "Bailey", our daughter's name. The decorated potato masher sat on my parents' refrigerator year-round. The Santa cup belonged to me when I was a little girl and was used for Santa's milk and cookies, of course. The red lantern was mine, too. It's in great shape and still works.

Spouse and I have a small collection of old world Santas. Next to this one is a set of carved wooden animals I bought in Germany during college. The cowbell is one I played with as a child. I found it when cleaning out Dad's garage this summer. :)

The little bookcase I brought home from my parents' house has proven to be the perfect spot to display a few seasonal pieces. Of all of Mom's dishes, the ones I wanted most were her holly dishes, a few of which are shown here. The postcard belonged to my grandma's brother (see the postcard album I'm working on in this post) and The Night Before Christmas book belonged to me as a child. I'm lucky to have all of the books from my childhood. They are some of my favorite keepsakes.

 In this final picture, you'll see a pillow Bailey sewed with a little help from my mom. And everyone knows about the furry gray baby next to it. Maybe she's dreaming of a white Christmas!

While it has been difficult to find the Christmas spirit, I have found some comfort in bringing out cherished pieces from my childhood. In doing so, I discovered that these treasures are more powerful than they appear, connecting me to my family, past and present.

17 December 2013

Christmas Decor: Dickens Village

  Christmas will be here in less than 10 days. Truthfully, I'd like to jump ahead to December 26 and skip it all together this year. I knew it would be a hard year, difficult to find the holiday spirit. In fact, I've put off decorating until just the past couple of days, with the exception of the big tree which Bailey helped put up over Thanksgiving break.

I normally put up my Dickens Village around that same time, but I just couldn't find the gumption to do it. Finally I decided that I had to at least get out a few pieces and create a pared-down display, instead of all 30+ houses. Even though my Christmas spirit is lacking this year, a wise person once told me that sometimes you have to "fake it until you make it!"

When sorting through my mom's Christmas things this past summer, I discovered cords with multiple light bulbs, designed to accommodate lots of houses without the bulk of individual cords. Mom had her own village and never told me about these handy cords, or (more likely) if she did I paid no attention! Boy, did they make my life easier! :)

Instead of the 12 or more houses I normally place on this shelf, I decided to use only five of the original houses given to me by my parents back in the late 1980's. After positioning the houses with the cord (and elevating one house on an upside down casserole dish), I added quilt batting "snow" to cover everything. Luckily there is an outlet in the cabinet below, allowing me to run an extension cord through the hole in the shelf to reach it.

Next I added a few trees. One can never have too many trees! One year I broke off pieces of tree branches to create some variety. I'm not quite that ambitious this holiday season!

And finally I added a few people and smaller pieces.

There is a shelf on each side of the fireplace, so I set up the other one in the same fashion using additional older houses, including the puppet theater at the far left. When Bailey was a little girl, my parents made her a real puppet theater and gave me this miniature one that same Christmas. I still remember how excited they were!

I decided to put more of my favorite pieces here and there in the family room. One of my absolute favorites is the East Indies Trading Company.
  This is a newer piece, Cratchit's Corner. The bridge was one of the first pieces I received from my mom and dad.

 Finally, I placed seven houses down the center of the dining room table. No cords, just trees and people. I'll leave most of these in place as a centerpiece for Christmas dinner.

I usually set up part of my village on top of the china cabinet, but not this year. Instead I put two antique crystal pieces and one of our old world Santas there, high out of the reach of certain kitties!

So altogether, I put out 19 of my 30+ houses this year. Using fewer pieces gave me room to use some different decorations this year. Not a bad compromise, and I'll admit that putting up the village helped me feel a tiny bit of the holiday spirit. Traditions are important, even though they're sometimes hard. They can help you feel grounded when you need it most.

16 December 2013

News Flash: Sheep Fashions are IN!

 Each year at the Iowa State Fair, I search for sheep in spandex. Yes, I know that farmers dress their sheep to keep them clean, warm, and secure, but I think they're completely adorable wearing outfits. So adorable, in fact, that it's become sort of a quirky tradition for me to document sheep fashions each year at the fair.

Imagine my surprise last week to receive a call from a guy at Modern Farmer online magazine who was writing an article about...wait for it...SHEEP OUTFITS and wanted to use some photos from my blog. (Apparently it was SHEEP WEEK at Modern Farmer -- ALL SHEEP, ALL THE TIME.) Considering this is one of my favorite topics, I couldn't have been happier to oblige!

Click HERE to see his photo essay, adorably titled "Lambie Jammies", which includes a few of my pictures plus some others which are just too cute!

15 December 2013

Recipe: Mom's Cracker Snack

 Although it's been five years since we lost my mom, I have not been able to bring myself to make very many of her recipes. Mom had several "signature" recipes which she made quite frequently and the thought of making them has just been too painful. If you've lost someone important to you, you'll know what I mean -- it's amazing how scents and tastes can take you back to a certain place and time, accentuating the fact that your loved one is gone.

I recently organized a lot of Mom's recipes, incorporating them into my binder system. Now I frequently run across her favorites while trying to figure out what to make for dinner. I hoped that mixing her recipes into my system would eventually give me the courage to try some of them.

Finally, it worked. This weekend when I needed to take an appetizer to a party, I thought of Mom's "Cracker Snack" recipe which she used to make each year at Christmas. So I decided to be brave and give it a try. And to my surprise, it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. Instead of the searing pain I had feared, making this recipe brought back good memories of Christmas at my parents' house, with a big fire in the fireplace and silver bowls of this addictive snack all around the family room. Mom always put a ladle in the bowls for scooping, which never slowed us down much. Especially not my dad, who loved this snack and always had a handful of it wrapped up in a Christmas napkin. If you make it, I think you'll see why.
Cracker Snack
1 pkg pretzels -- I used holiday-shaped pretzels
1 pkg Ritz Bitz -- our store was out, so I substituted mini Club crackers
1 pkg Wheat Thins -- I used reduced fat

Mix together:
1 cup oil
1 pkg (dry) Hidden Valley Ranch Salad Dressing
2 t dill weed
2 t lemon pepper

Pour over crackers. Cook 3 minutes in microwave. Stir, then cook 2 more minutes.


You will need a big bowl for mixing. My mom used this big yellow Tupperware bowl and she made sure I had one, too. I don't use it very often but it comes in very handy for recipes like this.

This is the liquid, ready to pour over the crackers. If you love dill, you'll love this recipe.
 Pour it over the crackers and stir. Since this bowl is way too big for the microwave, I transferred the crackers to a smaller glass bowl for microwaving, then put them back into the yellow bowl for mixing.

When the cracker mix comes out of the microwave, it will be warm and the crackers will be slightly damp with oil. I spread it out on cookie sheets to cool and dry before putting it into plastic bags.

And just like in years past, this cracker snack didn't last long at our house. It was just as good as I remembered. Thanks, Mom. :)