Wordless Wednesday – New Camera and Lenses

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Holiday Survival Kit

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.

Holiday Survival Kit
Holiday Survival Kit

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.

Holiday Survival Kit Text
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! 😉

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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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An Unexpected Gift

I am so blessed to be friends with some truly wonderful people, and I’m also blessed to even know some of their elderly parents so well that I call them friends, too.  The father of one of my best friends is not in good health, and her mother cares for him full-time now.  Once a month, I try to cook a meal for them, and I’ve also kept them supplied with fresh tomatoes from our garden for the past few months, which they have absolutely loved.  Taking a meal to them is also a treat for me because I enjoy chatting with them.  They are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and take this difficult stage in their lives with a patience that I only wish I possessed.

About two weeks ago, I took a meal to them which consisted of Pioneer Woman’s potato soup and some sweet cornbread to go with it.  I joked with them that they were test subjects for this new soup recipe from PW and that I was afraid it might not be fit to eat.  Of course, anyone that knows anything about Pioneer Woman’s recipes knows that they are all pretty much fabulous.  My friend’s mom told me that I could cook anything for them anytime, especially if it was a PW recipe, and I agreed to continue to look for more of PW’s amazing recipes online to prepare for them in the future on my monthly visit.

A few days ago, my friend’s mom stopped by to return my dishes from that dinner, and to my huge surprise, she brought this along, too…

Pioneer Woman Holidays_sm
Pioneer Woman Cooks – A Year of Holidays

… and it is for me!!!  😀

I would have purchased this cookbook at some point on my own because I’m a huge PW fan, but receiving it as a special, unexpected gift from a dear friend makes it a treasured keepsake for me, not just a cookbook.  She also gave me a card with a sweet note inside that she had written, and I just got very teary when I read it.  I love these people so much and never, ever expected something like that.  I can’t wait to make them a meal from the new cookbook now, too.  Unexpected gifts are just the best, aren’t they?

As I think about the gifts I will give to others this year for Christmas, I need to continue to try even harder to find some special gifts that will hopefully be remembered and treasured, even if it is not the primary gift that I give them.  I did a great job of doing just that a few years ago, when I compiled family recipe scrapbooks for my kids, as well as one for me.  The scrapbooks contained all of our long-time family recipes, and I made sure to include my own recipes, as well as recipes from their grandmothers and great-grandmothers.  I worked very hard on the scrapbooks for about two months, and both kids were just blown away by them, even our son.  Both kids spent a lot of time on that special Christmas Day looking through their new scrapbooks and realized that I had put a lot of work into them.  Honestly, I’m not sure I will ever top that gift, but I would like to keep trying to find ways to give more thoughtful gifts like that – the gifts that will be treasured for a long time.

D
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Christmas Cookies

I am in love with Christmas cookies and have been for many years.  There is just something about a sweet treat with that special holiday touch that just puts me in a particularly festive mood each December.  In past years, I have always purchased our Christmas cookies from a wonderful bakery here that has been open since before I was born.  But, a few months ago, the bakery shut its doors, and the owner said it would not be reopening, which has been a sad development for our community indeed.

Given the loss of the bakery, I vowed that I would do my best to learn to bake our treasured decorated Christmas cookies on my own.  I’ve spent hours and days researching cookies and recipes and decorating techniques.  I have bought many supplies, and after baking an initial small test batch, I have now completed my first big batch of decorated Christmas cookies.  Thankfully, this is something that I can do, at least well enough to make my family (and even some friends) quite happy.  And as a result of all my cookie research, I even chose to make several different kinds of cookies this year to see if we can find a few more favorite holiday cookies, too.

In an effort to make some of my Christmas gifts a little more personal this year, I just completed eight big assorted cookie platters and gave them away to some friends and family members this past weekend, calling it a “Twelve Days of Christmas” gift, and five of the eight platters went to elderly friends and family members.

My Christmas Cookie Trays for Gifts
My Christmas Cookie Trays for Gifts

I opted to give them well before Christmas for some good reasons.  The main reasons in giving them early were to get them done ahead of my Christmas cooking rush, give them while they are freshest, and free up the week prior to Christmas for me to finish up shopping, wrapping, cooking and house cleaning.  Another good reason for giving them early was to keep everyone from just having yet more sweets to eat on Christmas Eve/Day.  I think most people will enjoy having a cookie or two each day leading up to Christmas, and everyone just loved them when I delivered them.

Here is the list of cookies that I baked, with links to the recipes.  I tried to have a variety of cookies on the platters, and I also chose to avoid cookies with nuts in them, as I was not sure if a couple of people might have nut allergies.  Also, as you can see from the list below, I chose to add a few non-cookie treats to the platters for variety and to get the count up to twelve items for the “Twelve Days of Christmas” theme.

Vanilla Almond Decorated Sugar Cookies
(Wilton recipe, various cutout shapes)

Decorated Christmas Cookies
Decorated Christmas Cookies

And from this same cookie recipe, I also made a few
Stained Glass Christmas Tree Cookies with Red Hot Berries.
Easy, easy, easy to do! 😉

Stained Glass Cookies
Stained Glass Cookies

Chocolate Pepper*Mint* Cookies
(The Idea Room)

Candy Cane Cookies
(This Betty Crocker recipe is similar to our family recipe.)

Candy Cane Cookies
Candy Cane Cookies

Snickerdoodles with Red/Green Holiday Sugars
(Betty Crocker recipe)

Holiday Snickerdoodles
Holiday Snickerdoodles

Apricot Linzer Sandwich Cookies
(Wilton recipe)

Linzer Sandwich Cookies
Linzer Sandwich Cookies

And, I just could not resist baking the tiny little snowman cutout centers!

Centers of Linzer Sandwich Cookies Baked
Centers of Linzer Sandwich Cookies Baked

Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies
(Food Network – I used fresh chopped cranberries)

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies
Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

Peanut Butter Cookies, some with Reindeer Faces
(Jif Recipe – I used Rold Gold Mini Pretzels)

Ginger Crinkle Cookies
(Jamie Deen, Food Network)

Ginger Crinkle Cookies
Ginger Crinkle Cookies

Ultimate Double Chocolate Cookies
(Ghirardelli recipe)

Ultimate Double Chocolate Cookies
Ultimate Double Chocolate Cookies

Holiday Shaped Pretzels
(found at World Market, a salty option to offset the sweets)

Bob’s Candy Canes
(a long-time family tradition)

Hershey’s Chocolate/Caramel Kisses
(a tasty variation to the traditional kisses)

For the record, the following blog posts were invaluable to me in coming up with a special decorated sugar cookie that I know we will love this year and many years to follow.  This was my primary goal in learning to bake our traditional Christmas cookies, and I’m thrilled to know now that I can continue that tradition for my family.  I actually think these cookies may rival or best the bakery cookies, too.

The Pioneer Woman – Decorated Christmas Cookies
As always, her detailed posts answer so many questions and the pictures are wonderful!

Bake At 350: Vanilla Almond Sugar Cookie Recipe
I am not using this exact recipe, but it’s very close to the Wilton recipe that I used.  The recipe is down the page a bit, and her detailed information here and at Pioneer Woman’s post above is very helpful.

Bake At 350: Royal Icing Tutorial
This is probably the best tutorial on Royal Icing that I’ve found and helped me get it right the very first time, especially with the additional information from The Pioneer Woman’s post on making and working with the flow/flood icing.

Happy holiday baking!  Christmas Day is just a week away!

D
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Early Christmas Gift

I actually received my main Christmas gift early this year, and I am thrilled… a new Professional Model KitchenAid Mixer!  In my entire life, I have never had a decent mixer, and now I am literally making lists of recipes to bake before Christmas.

My new Kitchen Aid Pro Mixer
My new KitchenAid Pro 600 Series Mixer, 6 Quart

I’m not sure if my husband actually intended to give me the mixer early, but he decided to go ahead and give it to me anyway after I saw a really good sale on them last week and asked him if we should think about getting one.  We had both been looking at them for the past few months, so he literally just got it out of the trunk of his car and brought it in the house.  I was so happy, and he said that he had thought about giving it to me early anyway so that I could use it for holiday baking, since this is the main time of the year that I would really benefit from having the mixer.  I’m so glad he gave it to me early, too.  I know some ladies might not appreciate getting a mixer for Christmas, but I am thrilled!

The owner’s manual says this mixer can handle up to 14 cups of flour at once.  Crazy.

The only thing that will take a bit of getting used to for me is not being able to swing the top back like a traditional mixer.  Instead, it has a lever that raises the bowl up to the beaters.  I can definitely handle that, even though it is a little different to use.   It also has a clear splash guard that is going to be so nice to have for a change.  Hopefully, there won’t be any more “flying flour” in my kitchen on baking day.  It even came with a decent cookbook to help transition recipes to its more powerful mixing capability, as it warns that most recipes do not need to mix as long when using this mixer.  That will also be something different for me.  It’s fine, too.

I guess I must admit that just having a real KitchenAid mixer makes me feel like a better baker already.  Why is that exactly?  😀

Decorated Christmas cookies… here I come!  More to come on that soon.

Seems fitting that it is once again “snowing” on my website again, too.   Just love that every December.

D
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12 Days of Christmas Gifts

My 12 Days of Christmas gifts arrived last night!  Since I will be out-of-town for a week, my special “elf” said that I can start opening some of them now!

4-365 12/2/10 Twelve Days of Christmas

This is a decades-long tradition that a special out-of-town friend and I have enjoyed… sending twelve “Pre-Christmas” gifts to countdown to the big day.  They are just smaller gifts, sometimes even from the dollar store, but I wouldn’t trade for all the years of fun and joy it has brought to us.

And one thing I know for sure… I will always give (and will always receive) a box of Hot Tamales candy.  Long story.  Maybe those will help to rid me of this lousy cold and sinus infection.  😉

Fun times!
D