Christmas Recap and Camping Plans

We had a nice Christmas this year, but I will admit that I’m glad that life is soon going to return to normal once again.  I enjoyed the two Christmas Eve church services that we attended more than anything else this year, especially the midnight service that we have not been to in many years.  It was so special to come out of the service at midnight to the beautiful sound of the cathedral bells tolling outside.  Our son did not get off from work in time to go to our usual service at 5 pm, so we went to the midnight service with him and took my mom to the earlier service, which was jam-packed once again but as beautiful as always.

We had some great food to eat again this year, as we cooked another turkey with Alton Brown’s famous recipe, along with my own homemade dressing for our big dinner on Christmas night.  I’ve only made dressing for about the past five years, but it is so good and easy that I doubt I ever buy the frozen stuff again.  I added some diced mushrooms to it this year, and everyone really liked it a lot.  My sister and her husband joined us for a snack supper on Christmas Eve, which included a honey-glazed ham, sliced cheeses, Parmesan bread and some other munchies.  For Christmas brunch, just before opening our gifts, we had our usual scrambled eggs and sausage toasts, along with the Harry and David pears that our daughter and her husband sent us.  It was a great food lineup, for sure, even before all the cookies that adorned our snack table for several days.

Hubby surprised me with a set of Beats Executive headphones, something that was not even on my “gift radar.”

Beats Executive
My New Beats Executive Headphones

Now that I’ve had a few days to try them out, I realize that I’ve missed out on some amazing sound quality by just using my regular ear buds with my iPod.  These headphones are awesome, especially when I select a good preset or tweak the equalizer for the songs that I listen to as well.  The only downside to these headphones is the fact that the noise cancellation feature must be on at all times or the headphones will not work.  At lower volumes, such as listening to an audiobook, the slight buzz of the noise cancellation can still be heard, too.  For that reason, I will just continue to use my ear buds when listening to an audiobook.  Otherwise, these headphones are great for listening to all of my music, and that is an understatement!  Hubby did very good this year.  😉

Of course, our real Christmas gift will be arriving in less than two weeks.  We will be getting our new standard poodle puppy, and we still have not picked a name for him.  Right now, we just call him Little Red, but we really need to decide on a name before we pick him up.  Hopefully we can finally decide on a name while we are on vacation next week.

We are making a camping checklist once again today, and checking it twice, for sure.  I’m so excited to soon be on the road in the RV once again, as we will be headed out for an entire week of vacation on Monday.  Our son will be joining us on this trip, which is nice because his birthday is next Saturday.  We have something pretty neat in mind to celebrate his birthday, too.  Another couple will also meet up with us on Thursday for the rest of the week, which should be fun.  We have not been camping with them before, so we are looking forward to having them join us on this trip.

Our camping trips right after Christmas the past two years have been among the most enjoyable trips that we have made in the RV.  I think we are just so ready to get away and relax after all the holiday hype, and it has been such a great thing for us to do, even though we are actually leaving a few days later than usual this year.  We actually like the cooler weather, with highs in the 50’s and 60’s and lows in the 30’s.  That is pretty much perfect camping weather for us, it seems, and it makes for some great hiking to exercise off the cookies that I’ve been eating lately.  Hopefully, we will have some excellent star-gazing opportunities on this trip, too, since we will have dark skies at night while we are gone.  I even cooked our black-eyed peas today so that they will be ready to just reheat and eat on New Year’s Day.  We have always eaten black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, even when we were kids, and we are not about to break that long-standing tradition.

wpid-IMG_20120807_235336.jpg
Black-Eyed Peas, before cooking

I hope you had a great Christmas this year, and I wish you all the best for the new year!

D Reindeer_sm

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Christmas Cookies 2013

I am finally done with my Christmas cookie baking escapades, thanks to a last-minute “push” to bake and decorate almost 80 cookies on Saturday night, in addition to all of the others I baked last week.  Since Thanksgiving was a week later than normal this year, I knew that I was going to be behind in my baking, and that proved to be true, unfortunately.  I would liked to have baked about three more types of cookies, but it just didn’t happen this year unless I decide to bake a batch or two after Christmas for our upcoming RV trip next week.

I also included homemade fudge, homemade peanut butter Rice Krispie bars, assorted chocolate and hard candies, Bob’s Candy Canes, homemade instant spiced tea mix and some flavored popcorn with most of the cookie trays, and I liked those additions this year for these gifts.  I haven’t had the spiced tea mix in years, and I made sure that I kept some of the mix for us to enjoy for Christmas, too.

I have delivered most of the cookie gift trays, and it has “blessed my socks off” to deliver them to my elderly friends and some family members.  Our next door neighbor, who is a sweet elderly widow, loved hers so much that I thought she was going to cry right there at the front door.  She has already written me the sweetest thank you note, and she just went on and on in great detail about how she was going to enjoy each and every cookie on that tray.  It was priceless, and I will keep it forever.  I took a gift tray to our son last night just as he got off from work, and he was so grateful to receive it, too.

If you want a blessing during the holidays, I highly recommend taking a plateful of baked goodies to elderly friends and family members, especially if you can surprise them with it.  I hope that I can continue to do this for many years to come.  After my experience this year, I would love to be able to give many more cookie trays away, too.

Here are the cookies that I baked this year.  Hubby volunteered to help with decorating the sugar cookies all on his own, and he did a great job.  Of course he did.  He has that artist’s touch, much more than I do, for sure.  I told him that he is officially hired for future decorating needs.  That will teach him to volunteer!  Seriously, we had a fun time decorating cookies, although in the fifth hour of decorating about 11:30 pm on Saturday night, we were both getting a little slap happy.  Hence, you may see a few decorated cookies that are a bit “different.”  How about a stocking covered in dots as just one example?

I will let the photos tell the rest of the story.  My personal favorites are the “psychedelic snowflakes,” and they are actually quite easy to do.  I came up with that design, and they really are so pretty and bright!

Christmas Cookies 1
Decorated Almond Sugar Cookies (trees)
Christmas Cookies 2
Decorated Almond Sugar Cookies (snowflakes)
Christmas Cookies 4
Decorated Almond Sugar Cookies (stars)
Christmas Cookies 3
Decorated Almond Sugar Cookies (stockings)
Christmas Cookie Gift Tray
Christmas Cookie Gift Tray
Christmas Cookie Gift Trays
Christmas Cookie Gift Trays
Christmas Cookie Gift Tray
Christmas Cookie Gift Tray
Christmas Snickerdoodle Cookies
Christmas Snickerdoodle Cookies
Tangy Lemon Glazed Cookies
Tangy Lemon Glazed Cookies
Oatmeal Lace Cookies
Oatmeal Lace Cookies
Peppermint Almond Snowballs
Peppermint Almond Snowballs
Meltaway Sugar Cookies
Meltaway Sugar Cookies – My Mother’s Recipe
Harry and David Pears
And… a surprise gift for me! Harry and David Pears – yum!

D Reindeer_sm

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Wordless Wednesday – Baking Cookies

Oatmeal Lace Cookies

Tangy Lemon Glazed Cookies

Christmas Snickerdoodle Cookies

D Reindeer_sm

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Spot the Station

Once again last night, we saw a great fly-over of the International Space Station.  We watched it for a full five minutes in our backyard as it first became visible in the southwest, proceeded to fly directly overhead, then finally flew off in the northeast.  I first started watching these great flying machines in space back when the space shuttle was still flying and a schedule of their fly-overs was made available, along with the fly-overs of the space station.

ISS - Image courtesy of NASA
ISS – Image courtesy of NASA

I will never forget one very memorable sighting that our whole family witnessed a few years ago, even though I don’t remember which space shuttle mission it was that year.  We dined out together that clear night in 2007 at a restaurant on the far western edge of town, where the view was great with few street lights or other viewing obstructions around.  We finished our dinner about ten minutes before the scheduled fly-over for that night, so we all went outside to the edge of the parking lot away from the lights and just waited to watch it together.  This was the first time that I persuaded my family members to hang out and watch this awesome sight with me, and while I was jokingly accused of losing my mind when they grew impatient to see it after a few minutes, they were quite impressed once it happened.

Right on time, just as the last light of the sun was barely waning in the west, we first saw the space station as it approached from the southwest, and about three minutes later, the space shuttle was seen as it was still in its approach to the space station.  The shuttle was still chasing the station to catch up to it after launching the day before in Florida, and it was quite a sight to see as they both flew off to the east, not flying directly over our heads but still very visible to us for several minutes.  This was the only time that I ever saw both the shuttle and the station together in a single viewing, and it was one of those rare moments that was so memorable and special.  I will always remember seeing it with my family, too, especially when they had to admit that mom really had not lost her mind after all.  😉

It is simple follow the passes of the space station in the area where you live.  Just go to this link at NASA and sign up for text message alerts.  They are usually sent the morning before an evening flyover later that same day, and of course, your normal text messaging rates will apply.  One of these days, I hope to grab a long exposure photograph of this great sight, too.D Reindeer_sm

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HDR for Mobile Photos

Here is a little mobile phone photo tip for today.  Did you know that many smartphones today have the option to take HDR photos right in the camera app?  HDR stands for High Dynamic (or Definition) Range, and if you want to read a little more about the benefits of HDR photography, just do a quick Google search on the topic.  I won’t attempt to try to explain the detailed ins and outs of HDR imaging because I can’t, but I can share that it is definitely worth using at times.

I have a Samsung Galaxy S3, which I love, and on our trip last weekend to the canyon, I took the photo below with the HDR feature of my phone camera.  I was walking directly toward the sunset, which was breathtakingly beautiful but I also had good golden hour light on the trail, too.  I knew that the camera would have a difficult time capturing proper exposures in both areas, since I was pointing right toward the sunset, so I switched over to HDR mode.

By taking the picture in HDR mode, it actually produces two images with one click of the shutter.  Here are the images straight out of my phone in the order that they were produced.

Normal image
First Image – Normal Exposure
HDR Image
Second Image – HDR Combined Exposures

HDR seems to work a little photographic “magic” by taking several images with various exposures and merging them into one final image, using the correct exposure for each part of the photograph as best it can.  HDR is not a perfect process by any means, but it can help to compensate for difficult exposures at times.  While I’m not sure exactly how many images my phone camera uses to produce the final HDR image, my camera gives me what appears to be a normal picture and a HDR picture each time I use that setting, and the pictures have the same file name.

I don’t think that either of the pictures above is a good one.  In the first image, the sky was over-exposed and did not capture the beauty of the sunset at all, which is what I wanted to capture the most.  However, if I made an in-camera adjustment to the ISO, I knew that the trail area would be overly dark.  So, I opted to give the HDR option a try, to see which photo would give me the most detail to work with once I got home and had my regular photo software to make additional adjustments.  The HDR photo definitely gave me more to work with, despite the fact that it has a bit of a flat, unnatural feel to it.  I was able to make just a few more slight adjustments to get the image to more closely resemble the magnificent beauty that my eyes actually saw that wonderful evening on the trail.

On the Canyon Rim Trail just before sunset
Final image after a few more adjustments in PSE

If you haven’t explored this neat feature in your phone’s camera, give it a try sometime and see what results you get.  (On my Galaxy S3, this option is found under Settings in the camera app, then under Shooting Mode.  That is also where several other helpful modes are found, too, such as Panorama.)  I get varied results, depending on the lighting conditions, but often I like to use the HDR image for final processing adjustments.  Just keep in mind that your camera is quickly taking multiple images, and you will want to hold it very still until the processing is done. 😉

We are still in the midst of “The Big Chill” here.  Saturday’s high… the high… was just 17 degrees, and the low was 12 degrees.  Fortunately, we may get above freezing for a little while later today, even though we had another thin layer of ice fall overnight, making the roads slippery once again.  If the temperature rises to the predicted 41 degree “heat wave” later today, we will no doubt get out of the house for a while and try to take Girly Girl out for a walk, too.  The roads cleared a bit for a few hours on Friday afternoon, which was just long enough for me to slip out to do a little Christmas shopping.  Unfortunately, it is supposed to turn colder again tomorrow and remain below freezing once again for at least a couple of days.  Brrrr!!!

D
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Winter Weather and Cookie Chatter

Yesterday at 5 pm, it was 72 degrees.  Today at 11 am, it is 20 degrees and ice is falling outside.

Winter is here again with yet another big arctic blast for us today, and it appears that the temperature will not get above freezing until sometime next week.  Our low temperature on Saturday is going to be around *5* degrees, which is just getting ridiculously cold for us.  Add in even the lightest wind, and we will have chill factors below zero.

Needless to say, I am staying inside as long as humanly possible this weekend.

All of this wet stuff falling outside is going to remain frozen for days, and after dealing with ice and snow just two weeks ago, I’m seriously going to have to get my Christmas shopping list organized to make quick work of it when the streets finally thaw, since I opted to forego the madness of shopping after Thanksgiving once again this year to spend some quality time in the great outdoors, which I wrote about in my previous post.

I’m also going to try to put my time at home to good use over the next few days.  I still have some Christmas decorations to put up inside, and I need to start preparing my kitchen and freezer for my upcoming cookie baking escapades in a few days.  I need to clear everything off of all the cabinets in the kitchen to make as much room as possible for the baking process and for the baked cookies as they come out of the ovens.  My plan at this time is to get the kitchen re-organized over the weekend and start baking cookies next week.  I freeze the cutout cookies until I am ready to begin decorating them, and hopefully the decorating process will begin next weekend or shortly after.  I also freeze any other cookies that I bake until I am read to put the gift platters together.  To freeze the cookies, I first separate the layers of cookies with wax paper, then wrap them in plastic wrap as tightly as possible, and finally wrap them in a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil.  The longest period that I kept them frozen last year was about two weeks, but I think they would be fine for a longer period of time when properly wrapped, too.

Christmas Cookies 2012 in detail,
with pictures and recipes

I delivered my cookie platter gifts about ten to twelve days prior to Christmas last year, and I hope to have them ready to deliver to friends and family about that same time-frame this year.

My Christmas Cookie Trays for Gifts
My Christmas Cookie Trays for Gifts
Decorated Christmas Cookies
Decorated Christmas Cookies

Decorating cookies is the highlight of Christmas food preparation for me now.  I even shared a bit of the decorating fun with a friend and her two little grandchildren last year, and we all had a fun time creating our own unique cookie works of art.

Until last year, I always purchased our decorated Christmas cookies each year from a fabulous bakery nearby, but I had to learn to make them myself last year after our treasured bakery closed for good.  Learning how to apply the icing properly was most definitely a trial and error process, but I finally got the hang of it after a few attempts with the flood icing.

The most difficult decision for me right now is deciding on the other cookie recipes to bake this year, along with the decorated sugar cookies.  Decisions, decisions!  There are so many great holiday cookie recipes to choose from these days, and if you really want to jump into the holiday cookie scene, just start searching on Pinterest.  Just make sure you have a few hours once you do.  It’s also a great way to unwind with a glass of wine after a spending an entire day dealing once again with an out-of-control extended family member or two as well.  Don’t ask me how I know that.  😉

Bring on the cookies!

Today’s holiday gift suggestion: “Decorating Cookies” – by Bridget Edwards – available online or at your local bookstore!

D
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A Great Thanksgiving Weekend

We had a truly blessed Thanksgiving holiday.  Even though we had a small group of four for lunch at our home, it was a great meal and good company, for sure.  Our son and my mom joined us for lunch around 11:30 am, and we all had our fill of traditional food and pie, followed by watching a few recorded episodes of Duck Dynasty, which I thought might be a hit with our little group.  My hunch was correct, and my 92 year-young mom laughed until I thought she would make herself sick, especially over the episode about the RV road trip.  Who knew that RV stands for “Redneck Vacation” anyway?  😉  Seriously, we laughed more than we have laughed in a very long time, and it was wonderful.  We also went on a little walk around the neighborhood before taking my mom back home.  We also got to talk to our California daughter by phone for about an hour late in the afternoon, too.  I miss having my girl close by, but she and her hubby are doing well.  That is something to definitely be grateful for.

Speaking of pie, I made a new pie recipe, and it was so good!  It was a Caramel Apple Pie, and that recipe is most definitely a keeper.  Of course it is.  It is from The Pioneer Woman.  Here is the link to that recipe, and it is also in her new holiday cookbook, too.

The Pioneer Woman – Caramel Apple Pie Recipe

Around 5 pm on Thanksgiving Day, my husband and I left in our RV for a long weekend of camping at Caprock Canyons State Park.  The snow storm that hit earlier in the week apparently caused some other campers to cancel their holiday camping reservations there, so we were able to secure a reservation on Wednesday night for the holiday weekend, which was a big surprise for us.  We had just about given up hope of finding an open campsite for the holiday weekend, but when we checked online on Wednesday night, there was one 50 amp site available.  We reserved it right away and spent Wednesday evening loading a few more supplies for our trip.

Caprock Canyons is such a great state park, and fortunately, it is within a reasonable drive for us for a quick little getaway trip most any time of the year, as long as we can plan far enough ahead of time to secure a reservation for a water and electric site.  The more I go there, the more I love it, too.  It is a uniquely beautiful and secluded place, and it seems we learn more and see more with each return trip.  The park seems to be drawing more visitors from distant places now, as we note when we say “hello” and are greeted in a foreign language, which is always a treat for us.  One family greeted us in German on this trip, or at least we think it was German.

I will write a follow-up post with more details about Caprock Canyons sometime soon, but for now, I want to share some things about this particular trip that made it so special.  God surely knew how much I needed a sanity break right now, I think.  We camped next to a very nice family from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, and we enjoyed visiting with them.  It’s always fun to have nice neighbors, and we’ve found this to be more the rule than the exception when we go camping, thank goodness.

We made two long hikes (for us), one that was three miles and another that was four miles, and on each hike, the scenery was just breathtaking.  Girly Girl loved hiking with us, as always.  Our first hike was along the Canyon Rim Trail near our campsite.

At our turnaround point on the Canyon Rim Trail
At our turnaround point on the Canyon Rim Trail

The view below is only a ten minute walk on an easy trail from where we camped in Honey Flat campground.  This panorama photo just does not do it justice either.

View on the Canyon Rim Trail
View on the Canyon Rim Trail. We call this “Hidden Canyon.” Breathtakingly beautiful!

We also hiked on Eagle Point trail for about a mile into the canyon for the first time.  Unlike the Canyon Rim Trail which is flat for about over a mile at the beginning, Eagle Point trail starts at the top of the canyon and goes down into it.  The weather was cool and wonderful, and we just kept going down and down into the canyon and enjoying the hike so much.  Of course, what goes down must come up when hiking, so the climb back out of the canyon took a little longer.  My legs “talked” to me a bit afterward, but it was totally worth it all to make that beautiful hike.

We also went on several shorter hikes, especially in the evenings just before sunset, and the stillness, the beauty, and the sounds of the birds and wildlife all around almost made me want to cry.  It was so very peaceful and good for the soul.  I took the photo below while taking a hike with Girly Girl while hubby was getting our fire ready to cook steaks on Saturday evening.  No one else was around, except a few birds and a coyote that was pretty far away but howling nonetheless in the distance.

On the Canyon Rim Trail just before sunset
On the Canyon Rim Trail just before sunset

We also enjoyed a nice, long motorcycle ride one afternoon, and we were even able to drive to another small town in the area for a quick visit with some friends that were there on their own holiday getaway.  As we rode back to the park, we made a quick detour to Monk’s Crossing to take a look at the “rail to trail” path there that leads to Clarity Tunnel.  This is an epic bike ride that we would like to make sometime, hopefully sooner rather than later, and it is also a part of the state park, even though it is several miles away.  On our way back to the park, we saw yet another amazing sunset.  Again, the photo doesn’t do it justice, but I had to give it a try.

Sunset near Quitaque
Sunset near Quitaque

Finally, on Friday night, a family with some children that were camped nearby built a campfire at their site, toasted marshmallows for s’mores, and sang Christmas carols around their campfire.  They sang very well, too.  We could see and hear them as we sat outside by our RV under the stars, which were amazing on that clear night with no moon.  We drank some hot apple cider as we star-gazed and listened to our wonderful carolers nearby, and it was as if God was saying that it was finally time to begin celebrating the Christmas season once again.  That was one of those special moments that I will likely remember for a very long time, too.

I also found myself missing our Big Ol’ Baby once again on this trip.  I will probably always remember him when we go camping, I guess.  I saved the last picture that I took of him and Girly Girl in the RV back in September when we camped in New Mexico, and I brought it up on my phone to look at it a couple of times as I sat inside and looked at the empty place on the sofa where he would usually sit.  Girly Girl is doing pretty good, but it is obvious that she is more insecure now, too.  This is the first time in her life that she has been alone, and we are not happy with how she is behaving since losing her buddy.  So, we will be getting a new puppy pal to join her in early January when he turns six weeks old.  We finalized the deal last week, and he will be our mutual Christmas gift.  Now, we just have to decide on a name for him, but fortunately we have five weeks to do it.  We are looking forward to adding another four-legged family member, too!  😀

This was our third consecutive year to go camping during Thanksgiving after our family meal, and I think it’s safe to say that this is probably now a new tradition for us.  I hope we can do this for many years to come.

D
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