Time is getting away from me in a hurry this year, so I will bid all of you nice friends a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year at this time. May this be a meaningful season for you, filled with joy and gratitude for this precious gift that has been given to us all! — D
For my final post of 2014 here at Animal Wonder, I would like to share one of my favorite photos. I am quite partial to this particular photo because it is one of two photos of mine that have been awarded first place ribbons in local competition. The actual award-winning photo was a black and white version of this photo that still hangs in our home today in a simple black frame with a white mat.
I enjoy watching and photographing our backyard birds at the bird bath and the feeders so much, but some photos are just more memorable than others. This lovely White-winged Dove posed beautifully during a surprise snow storm in March 2010, and it sat there for the longest time, seemingly just relaxing and enjoying the scenery in the yard.
I gave this photo to friends and family on our Christmas cards the next year, the…
I won’t often reblog posts from Animal Wonder here, but this is one that some of you fellow RVers and other friends, especially photographers, might be interested in, if you are not already aware of this project. I would love to do this in the future, even though it won’t happen this year. Photography is optional on this project, as the main purpose is just the count. This is the 115th yearly count! — D
Did you know that starting December 14, and going through January 5, the yearly Christmas Bird Count will take place? Did you know that such a thing even existed?
I first learned about this project a few months ago through one of our local state parks that participates in the project. It is a long-time project that has apparently spanned over 100 years and is also a holiday tradition for many people and families. It is the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world, and I have enjoyed learning more about it. While I will not be able to participate in a nearby project this year, it is something that I am going to explore further in future years.
The National Audubon Society has a great page on this project, so I will just happily link to it here, for anyone else that might be interested in participating this…
I started off my holiday baking escapades this week with a new twist on a favorite recipe. I have always liked peanut brittle, even though I will confess that I am really not a fan of the peanuts, per se. The buttery and sweet brittle is what I love the most. As I have dieted over the past year, one food that I have enjoyed almost daily for a little snack is pistachio nuts. Costco sells a big bag of the shelled nuts at a good price, and I have been so grateful to keep a bag of these healthy nuts on my kitchen counter over the past year when a snack attack hits me.
Hubby and I discussed some of the sweets that we would like to have and give this year during the holidays, and we both agreed that substituting pistachios for the peanuts might be worth a try, as we both love to eat them. I have also had a slightly spicy pistachio brittle in the past (similar to the recipe at that link), and it was very good. However, for this first attempt, I opted to use a more traditional recipe and substitute the nuts as the only change.
This was definitely a successful modification, and I seriously doubt that I will ever make regular peanut brittle again, unless I make it for someone who prefers it over this kind. The wonderful green color from the pistachios even makes the brittle more festive for the holidays, too.
I used a recipe from Land O Lakes, with only two slight changes, in addition to substituting the nuts in equal amounts. After adding the baking soda, I also added one teaspoon of Watkins vanilla extract, and I also turned the entire recipe out into just one buttered pan instead of dividing it between two pans. In my opinion, it came out great! Using a candy thermometer makes this a simple recipe to prepare, too.
I buttered the baking pan well, turned out the hot brittle mixture into the pan, spread it to the edges with a buttered spatula, then let it sit for about an hour until it was completely cooled. Once it was cooled, I then turned the pan upside down over a large cookie sheet and gently tapped the bottom of the pan with a hammer (that I only use in the kitchen) until the brittle fell loose. While the brittle was upside down on the cookie sheet, I used the clean hammer to gently break the pieces apart, using only the edge of the hammer when tapping. There is no need to line the pan with foil or parchment, as the brittle slides out quite easily after it is allowed to completely cool in the well-buttered pan.
I also experimented with another new recipe that has pistachios, too.
I made a little gift to take to our yearly Christmas party with some dear friends on Sunday evening, and I wanted to share it here. Blame it on Pinterest.
Here is the list of items that I included, and I also included a separate printout of the legend of the Candy Cane story. I only buy Bob’s Candy Canes at Christmas, and I did not include any homemade treats, as these friends will soon receive one of my cookies platters, too.
I made a kit for each of my special friends, and they both loved their little surprise, in addition to their “real” gift. The total cost, including the gingerbread box, was less than $10, and I used clear snack sized bags to hold each of the items on the list. If you want to include more items, there are several good ones listed online. Just search for “holiday survival kit,” and you’ll see some of them.
One friend keeps her little grandchildren after school each day, and they are going to explore the items in order by taking an item out each day in the order listed. I never even thought of that possibility, but what a cute idea that is. The kit could certainly include a few more kid-friendly items for that purpose, too.
This was such a fun little project and took less than an hour to put together after purchasing the necessary items. Let’s just say while it not definitely not diet friendly, it is a fun little gift to make and give! 😉
We made a long weekend trip in the RV after lunch on Thanksgiving Day, and it was our first time to be in lovely Abilene State Park in the month of November. What a treat we found there as the leaves were changing color. Even though we were just a bit past the prime fall colors, it was still a treat for us to see the vibrant red oaks, as well as the many beautiful live oak trees, too. While we have visited the park in other seasons, all pictures in this post are from our most recent November trip.
The photos above primarily show the trailer camping areas in the park, except for Wagon Wheel Campground that is also nearby. Wagon Wheel is a large grassy common area with nice trees and restrooms that is surrounded by large trailer water and electric hookups that is more suitable to group and open camping needs. For those wanting to spend time at the pool area in summer months, Wagon Wheel is a perfect choice because it is the closest trailer campground to the pool and concession area. There is also a nice tent campground with large trees in a different part of the park, too.
The beautiful day use area in the park has many large trees, picnic tables and restrooms, and the CCC era buildings, including the newly renovated swimming pools that are so popular in the summer months, are an outstanding and popular feature. The old buildings are beautiful and add so much character to the park that is now celebrating its 80th year.
We first discovered this park in February 2012, and we return fairly often for long weekends away in the RV. We also overnighted here on two occasions in route to state parks further away. This is an extremely popular park for RVers, and most weekends tend to be booked up in advance for the large trailer sites. However, sites are usually available in Wagon Wheel at the last-minute, if needed.
Geocaching is a great family friendly activity at this park, and in my opinion, it is the best state park for geocaching that we have visited to date. My goodness, what fun we had when we visited here with some family members in April 2013 and found so many great geocaches. We also embarked on the Elm Creek Trail at night with the teenagers and our flashlights to find the epic night cache. We found the cache, but we also got lost in the dark trying to find our way back to camp. All eventually turned out well, but we learned to set “markers” on our GPS unit when attempting a feat like this in the future.
The quaint and historic town of Buffalo Gap is only five miles from the park, and we always enjoy visiting the town on each visit. If time permits, pay a small fee to see the Buffalo Gap Historic Village, and check out several interesting gift shops in town. While there are a few small restaurants in Buffalo Gap (not on the main road), Perini Ranch Steakhouse sits between the park entrance and Buffalo Gap, and I would encourage any first-time visitors to plan to dine there for lunch or dinner while in the area. Reservations might be needed, as it is a legendary Texas steakhouse and will not disappoint. For a quick trip into Abilene, just drive fifteen minutes on Buffalo Gap Road to visit the mall and many restaurants and stores nearby, including two large grocery stores, Albertson’s and United.
On a different note, my holiday baking escapades will be happening once again this week, and I am ready to get started. A few new recipes will hopefully make it into the preparation schedule, along with our regular favorites. As things progress, I will share some photos and recipes here.
Also, my mother once again took a nasty fall in her apartment on Sunday, but thankfully, she did not break anything this time. Just to be on the safe side, the ambulance carried her to the ER so that she could be checked out thoroughly and make sure she did not break her pelvis once again that she fractured back in January. We were there about four hours before they finally sent her back home, and I still made it to a scheduled Christmas party on Sunday night. All is fine today, and she will take things very easy this week as she recovers from the trauma of the fall.
As today is National Cookie Day, I wanted to share some of my own adventures in cookie baking over the past two years. My own Christmas cookie adventures began in earnest when our long-time bakery shut its doors forever and left many of us in dire straits for decorated Christmas cookies. This had been a tradition for me for a number of years, and I was not ready to give it up. So, I embarked on making my own decorated cookies for the first time with some success the first year and even better success last year.
I have not worked on further honing my cookie skills since last Christmas, due to my weight loss effort. It was a necessary sacrifice and one that I was more than willing to make this year. But, it’s time to once again start baking cookies for gifts, and I am so ready to get going once again! Last year, hubby and I embarked on a cookie decorating day where he helped me “blitz” the decorated cookies mostly in one day, and we had a lot of fun together. As it turns out, he has a great artistic flare for decorating cookies, too.
I have linked to my cookie posts at the bottom of this post, as there are links to many of the recipes I used in those posts, in case you are also ready to embark on your own Christmas cookie adventures soon!
See my note below about the pretty cross cookies, please! 😉 Also, the reindeer cookies were made from my peanut butter cookie recipe.
One note – I love baking the pretty decorated cross cookies (pictured in the 2012 trays). A word of caution, though. They tend to break easily when included in a tray of other cookies, it seems, so I wrap them individually now with a cardboard backing when giving them with the gift trays. After going to all the effort to make these pretty cookies, I want the recipient to get them in one piece. I allow one cross cookie per person, and I include a handwritten note that this is a “special” cookie for them and include the verse, John 3:16, in my note. They can certainly freeze their special cookie to eat at Easter, if they prefer, as long as it is properly wrapped, but so far, I think everyone has eaten their cross cookies for Christmas.
We enjoyed a great traditional lunch with family at our home on Thanksgiving Day. While I did not get a picture of everything we had to eat, here are a few quick photos that I managed to take amid the process of getting everything served. Sadly, I did not get a picture of the new brussels sprouts recipe that I made, and it was most definitely a hit with everyone, too. It also had fresh cranberries, pecans and feta cheese in it, and it was such a pretty dish, as well as a tasty one.
Recipe for Pan-Seared Brussels Sprouts (To make it a bit more diet compliant for me, I omitted the barley and used sugar-free maple syrup. I used feta cheese crumbles since I already had it on hand. It came together in a skillet nicely right before we were ready to eat lunch, and this will likely be a regular holiday dish for us now.)
We also had mac and cheese and hot rolls, of course. I’m glad that my family was just fine to skip any kind of green bean casserole this year. It seems that we have all grown a bit tired of that particular dish, at least for now, and it’s just no fun to prepare a dish that really doesn’t even sound good.
We took off in the RV once again this year after our big Thanksgiving lunch for a nice, long weekend away, carrying most of the leftovers from lunch with us. After some brutal winter weather only a few days earlier, we had absolutely gorgeous weather for our quick trip, even though it was a little bit windy at times. A little wind seldom stops us these days, though, and we had a great outing once again this Thanksgiving weekend, instead of opting to stay home and fight the crowds in town for Black Friday weekend shopping. I am just so done with that now. I also got to see a friend from high school while we were in the Abilene area that I have not seen since 1976, and that was quite a treat for me indeed. She is as sweet as ever, too.
This was our first trip to Abilene State Park in the month of November, so it was interesting to compare this trip to past trips there in different months. The park is actually located near the tiny community of Buffalo Gap but is still only fifteen minutes from the main retail area in Abilene. I still have not written a post about this nice park yet and need to do so sometime. We have now been in each of the seasons except summer, and I honestly do not think we will try to go in those very hot months either. We are quite happy to visit there in the cooler months, even though we ran our air conditioners in the RV on two afternoons on this trip. Almost every weekend is often booked at this park in the large trailer sites, and winter is definitely the least crowded time for this park.
I also completed the NaBloPoMo blogging challenge on Sunday, having posted every day in the month of November at my new site at Animal Wonder. If you haven’t yet taken a peek there, I hope you will do so soon. It is an ongoing project and one that I really enjoyed working on in November. Many of the photos I shared over the past month are among my favorite bird photos, even though I still have many more favorites to share, too. I’m excited to continue working on even more animal posts going forward, not just limited to birds that I focused on during the past month.
And speaking of birds, there is some big news right now in birding circles (picture at that site) that is based in my area. A very rare bird, a Eurasian Common Crane, has recently been spotted among the many Sandhill Cranes at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. After the news broke a few days ago, I followed their page on Facebook and have been following updates on the rare Eurasian Common Cranes that have been spotted there. These rare birds have created quite a “circus” at the refuge, according to the people posting the Facebook updates, and people are traveling from as far away as California to see these birds. So far, I think two Eurasian Cranes have been spotted. I would love to drive over there soon to see if I could see them, but I’m not sure our crazy December schedule will permit me to do so. We’ll see. How I would love to personally take a photograph of this rare bird that is most typically not even seen on this continent! Birding in our area may be better than normal this year, thanks to some nice fall rains that have left many playa lakes with some much-needed water.