Thursday, December 22, 2011

Community Christmas

A few years ago my family moved to a quirky little neighborhood with its own little identity.  Neighbors are proud to tell you all about the intersting and odd history of the community and how long they have lived there (in decades, not years).

This was TWO plates of delicious sugar cookies 10 minutes ago!
Our first Christmas, one seemingly random December day, the doorbell rang about 6 times.  Each time it was a different neighbor bearing gifts, mostly baked goods but sometimes a basket of Mexican delicacies, or a handmade quilt for our children.  And each would drop off these gifts with a jolly "Merry Christmas."  At first Hubby and I were a little overwhelmed; this did not happen in our last neighborhood.  Then we rushed to the store and started baking.

That was three years ago and we have firmly settled into the routine of delivering baked goods to the neighbors.  It has become an important part of our holiday traditions.  Each neighbor brings something different and we all have a chance to chat, exchange holiday plans, laugh, and feel a part of a community.  Clearly I am a sentimental sap but I love this part of my neighborhood, where I actually know my neighbors, their gandchildren's names, their birthdays, the good, and the bad.  Plus, those people can bake! 

For the last couple of years I have settled on Pumpkin Apple Bread as my "neighbor gift."  I love this bread, it is rich and spicy and not too sweet.  I have adapted the recipe from The Gourmet Cookbook, a must have in my opinion.  There are a couple of things that I do differently, such as using whole wheat flour for half of the flour and substituting half of the oil for unsweetened applesauce.  Do those two things and you can have a second slice!  I also typically add nuts.  Here's my translation, with my apologies to Gourmet if it's just not quite the same:

For Strudel Topping:
1 T all-purpose flour
5 T sugar (I used half granulated and half brown)
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t unsalted butter, softened

Mix all ingredients with fingers until "pebbly" and set aside

For Bread:
3 C all-purpose flour (I used 1 1/2 all-purpose and 1 1/2 whole wheat)
3/4 t salt
2 t baking soda
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 t each ground cloves and allspice
1 can, 15oz solid pack pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
3/4 C vegetable oil (1 small "snack pack" of unsweetened apple sauce is exactly half of this and cuts down of the fat while still making the bread moist)
2 1/4 C sugar
4 large eggs, slightly beaten
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and chopped (about 2 cups)
1/2 chopped nuts or raisins, if desired (I used chopped almonds or walnuts)

Preheat oven to 350and spray non-stick cooking spray into loaf pans.  Sift together dry ingredients into a medium bowl.  Whisk together pumpkin, oil (and applesauce), sugar, and eggs in a large bowl.  Slowly add flour mixture, stirring until well combined.  Fold in apples (this is also where you would add nuts and raisins if using).
Divide batter evenly between loaf pans.  Sprinkle strudel topping evenly over batter.  Bake until a wooden toothpick or butter knife comes out clean, about 50-60 minutes for large loafs or 45 minutes for smaller loafs. Cool about 1 hour.  This recipe makes 2 large loafs or about 5 small gift-tin loafs.  I usually double it to come up with 10 small loafs.

Cook yourself some pumpkin apple bread and get to know your neighbors!  Merry Christmas from my community to yours.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Advent for the Little Ones

This year I was asked to contribute a devotional to our church's Advent booklet.  I was honored and a bit flabbergasted, as I still consider myself a silly child and not yet a "real" adult.  Shhhssss, don't tell my children that!  Anyway, I kept thinking of what I hope to teach my children and the following is what I came up with:

Last year, we introduced an Advent calender to our children.  At first they wanted to pull out all of the pieces and play with them, but we explained the purpose of slowly preparing the manger for Jesus while counting down the days to Christmas.  Every morning, my daughter would ask what we would add to the Advent nativity that day.  One day it was a small fuzzy lamb, once it was a wise man clad in purple and gold finery, and once it was a single shimmering star.  Each day we talked about what that particular element meant to the greater story.  It was a joy to watch their faces as the story of Jesus unfolded day by day.  On Christmas morning, when baby Jesus was laid amidst His carefully arranged surroundings, the picture was, at last, complete. 
In the “outside” world, we are bombarded during Advent: 12 more shopping days until Christmas!  Order your holiday meal now!  Get the latest must-have gift here! 
Inside the Lord’s house, we are taught something profoundly different:  Reflect, hope, prepare, love.  Learning to keep this counter-cultural perspective during the Christmas season has resulted in a deeper and more careful approach to the holidays.  I want my children to understand that we are celebrating the coming of Christ, that His love and presence in our lives is the true “gift” of the season. 

Prayer:  God of love, God of hope, hear us as we pray.  Help us to share in this Advent season, filling our hearts and communities to bursting with the joy of Your priceless gift, at Christmas and throughout the coming year.

It really was fun to write and inspired me to hunt out a more permanent Advent nativity than our paper cut-out one.  They are surprisingly hard to find!  I did finally find a beautiful (and expensive) heirloom-quality one but I could just imagine my wild monkey of a son instantly destroying it.  Maybe in a few years...

Then, I stumbled upon this set in Barnes and Noble.  It is a fold-out nativity with each day represented by a small book that tells a part of the story of Christmas.  The books also have gold thread so that they  hang on the Christmas tree after you have read them.  So each day this Advent season, we have pulled out the correct number book, read a small slice of this wonderful story, and then hung in on the tree. 

 My children are learning about Jesus's birth in manageable snippits, having fun hanging them on the tree, and learning to wait patiently for the promised "finale."  Plus, it's a great counting tool!  What a fun way for pre-schoolers to participate in Advent, thank you B&N!  Of course, it's a little late this year but if you are like me, you will snatch this little beauty up on clearance after Dec. 25th and have it waiting for next year!  One day I'll have that beautiful hand-painted nativity, but for my family right now, this is perfect.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Upcycled" Crayons

My son loves crayons.  He loves breaking them, eating them, peeling them, and stabbing things with them.  He really doesn't care much about coloring with them, but he can certainly destroy them.  So I have ended up with an entire box of broken crayon bits.  I had been planning on melting the bits and making "new" crayons for a while but today we finally did it.  So, here's the steps:

Start with a non-stick muffin pan, preferably in a cute shape.  I had hearts.  Disregard the potatoes, they have nothing to do with the crayon project!

Liberally coat pan with cooking spray, unless using a flexible silicon pan.  It will help them come out easier.

Fill each cup in pan about 3/4 full with broken bits of crayon, paper removed.  Put those kids to work sorting the crayon bits!  I told you I had a lot!  It helps to use a variety of colors in each cup so that you come out with rainbow crayons. Heat oven to 225 degrees and about 15 minutes or until soft and partially melted.  Turn oven off and remove crayons.  They will continue to soften and cook on the counter.  I have made the mistake of over-cooking before and this will make the crayon solids separate from the oil, pretty much ruining your "easy" project.

Let crayons sit and cool for at least 30 minutes.  Be patient, taking them out too early will also ruin your project.  Clearly, I have some "trial and error" behind me here.

When crayons have fully cooled, slip a thin knife into the side and gently pop crayons out.  Arrange nicely on a plate and marvel that they actually turned out really well.  Or maybe that's just me...

Give to kids and watch them have an entire new set to maul.  Enjoy!

Here's a bonus tip:  I store the kids' crayons in an old wipes container.  It works really well because it allows the kids to reach their hands in to get the crayons without spilling easily.  Really, these little babies are great for storing all sort of stuff!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dear Santa...

Today we stayed at home.  Fairly unusual for us but I do try to work in a lazy day sometimes and a cold Friday is just perfect for one!  We stayed in pjs until lunch, watched an entire Sesame Street...and wrote letters to Santa!  Or, to be more accurate, Mrs. Claus for my daughter (a budding feminist apparently).

A few months ago our neighbors "gifted" us with this holiday paper with matching envelopes.  While I appreciated the sentiment, I'm not really a "Christmas newsletter" type of gal (surprisingly) so it just went into a drawer somewhere.  However, today I remembered it and thought it was the perfect paper for our letters to Santa, er, Mrs. Claus.

I gave each child a sheet to draw their picture on while I carefully addressed the envelopes (1 Mistletoe Lane, North Pole, North Pole, 01225 if you need the big guy's address).  Then, they dictated their letters, with a few suggestions from mom of course.  I mean, I wanted to make sure they used their best manners, of course!

My daughter thought Mrs. Claus needed a picture of a tree and a rainbow.  Smart girl, she knows that's probably a rare sight at the North Pole!  My son of course, just did lots of scribbling, crayon "stabbing" and screaming at Sister for getting too close to his personal space.  Sigh...

We managed to get through our letters with minimal freak-outs, then it was time to decorate the envelopes with glitter (never good for the nerves of a Type A moms like me) and Snoopy stickers.  Then, it was off to the mailbox!

I love that the kids are big enough now to mail their own letters.  I have no idea why, I just think it's cute.  See???  I wonder what my neighbors sometimes think of me.  'Cuz trust me, they're watching!  The cross to bear of living on a street full of retired people.  Sorry for the tangent!

So, we mailed Santa and the Mrs. their letters requesting princesses and footballs and now it's just two weeks of waiting to see if Santa delivers.  Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas Girls' Night Out

One of my favorite things to do a Christmas time is to go see The Nutcracker.  When I was little, my mom would take my sister and I.  Even into college and adulthood, I have always tried to make it at least every few years or so.  I love it all, the magic, the music, the amazing colorful array of so many different types of dancers, it ALL.

Growing up in Tulsa, we always went to the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, which puts on, in my limited opinion, one of the best versions of this ballet ever.  However, I don't live in Tulsa anymore and going would provide a lot more planning.  This year, I wanted to share my childhood experiences with my daughter, who is 4 and obsessed with all things ballet and princess.  This year, we tried out the OU Festival Ballet for our Nutcracker fix and it did not disappoint!  The set was not nearly as elaborate as the more "professional" productions that I have seen but the dancers were wonderful, very animated and graceful.  Plus, in the smaller venue, we could actually see details like facial expressions, costumes, and the musicians more clearly.  The children were especially a treat to watch, some were clearly a little dazed by the lights and audience and some were such little hams dancing around with huge grins on their faces.

My daughter was thrilled to be out WAY past her bedtime, doing something "fancy" with the grown-ups.  We could barely get her to sit still, until the performance started.  Once the lights went down, I don't think she made one noise or moved a muscle until intermission, she was so mesmerized.  Of course, about halfway through the second act she completely passed out, but she saw enough to know she loved it!  This was such a fun holiday season activity and I already know that it will become a tradition for years to come.  Maybe next year we will even invite the boys!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Victoria Jones has lived her entire life in foster care.  Now, at age 18, she has "aged out" of the system and is left to survive alone with what little skills and social savvy she possesses.  Paralyzed by her own inexperience, she ends up living in a San Francisco park and tending a secret garden.
Flowers are Victoria's only true language and she lovingly tends, selects, and gifts them to people as a way to communicate her anger and confusion.  She is drawn to them like nothing, or nobody else, and soon discovers a local florist willing to give her a chance, and a job. 
While Victoria begins to thrive and gain a following as a brilliant florist, her past refuses to release its grip on her.  When a chance encounter with a local flower vendor provides the link to Victoria's only real home, she is terrified of repeating past tragedies.  Victoria must make a choice between risking more pain in order to form lasting bonds for the first time in her life, or to withdraw completely into a life of solitude.
The author of this book has been a foster mother herself and tells this story with a unique love and understanding of children being raised by "the system."  It is a beautifully told coming-of-age tale that is completely original and enthralling.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Autumn time is fun time...

A few days ago we went for a walk down to the pond at the end of our street and into the adjoining woods.  It was one of those perfect fall days with the crisp cool air that is just right for leaf jumping.  We picked cattails and whacked them on the ground, releasing their seeds into the air.  My son could have stood for hours at the edge of the pond tossing in small pebbles while I tried to unclench and let him enjoy himself rather than imagine his drowning in 1 ft of murky water.  Then we went into the "scary woods" as my daughter calls it.  Marching around in the tall grass we saw yellow butterflies, beautiful fall leaves, and the tracks of something that may have been a raccoon (a Girl Scout I am not).

This day reminded me of the importance of taking small moments to spend with my children, letting them just "be."  As a mostly-SAHM you would think I would have all of this time to spend with them but the truth is there is laundry, dance class, grocery shopping, playdates, kitchen clean-up, and about a 1000 other things to do all day that involve not being tuned in to my kids.  Not to mention the daily "Can you just give Mommy 5 minutes, pleeeeassssee?" time that I comes up.  Surely I'm not the only one!

 At the doctor's office today for my daughter's 4 year check-up, I watched her sit up and answer the nurse's questions like such a big girl.  She is growing up so much and it is amazing to watch.  I am glad I took 30 minutes to walk in the woods with them.  The laundry was still there when I got back but so what?  I need to remember to take more time for things that don't have anything to do with "getting stuff done."  I hope I always make time for a walk in the woods with my children, and I hope they always want me around for their walks in life.