Friday, April 15, 2016

Times Such as These

 It started with a drizzle, the drops weren't rain, but ice. The wind picked up and the ice droplets poured fast and faster, raining down on me in my heaviest coat as I crossed the empty lot next door with two of our dogs. Had it been a different year, we could have patronized the water ice stand. Now, all we had to do was open our mouths and look at the sky.  It went on like that all night, and of course I forgot to cover the ornamental shrubs that hadn't even had a chance to grow yet. 

 Over the next few days there were whispers, rumors, and outright truths. Fruit farmers to the north were setting controlled fires in their orchards on twenty degree nights to keep the trees warm. Some crops were already in trouble, apples in some places, peaches in others. No one mentioned the rumor we all used to believe about an early spring. Whatever happened to that groundhog anyway? 

 Fresh out of my recovery from the winter blues (oh yes, I got them this year and it was awful) I am ready to inhabit my natural environment of t-shirts and flip flops. I'm thinking about summer, and have made discounted pre-season ticket purchases to Little Boy Fun Land, Mother Goose Land, and Milk-A-Fake-Cow Land. Then I commit to a bigger one: For the first time years we might be able to take a break away from home for just a little while. When I attempt to reserve a hotel online, my credit card rejects it. 

That's strange. 

 I try again, and it goes through, but within minutes the bank is contacting me because someone is trying to use my card on a travel website, and surely, that can't be me.  I assure them that the impostor is me, we, we' are actually trying to do something this year, and it's a little bit insulting when the bank tells you that it's unusual for you to have that much fun. 

I was like...

 In times such as these, we need a sense of humor. When the laughter dies down, and the wind picks up again, you can hear it whisper God is in control.  

 How about an easy and hearty side dish to stretch out any meal? While my favorite red-skinned mashed potato recipe of all time is this one here, some days I just need something tasty and exciting to happen with minimal fuss. I like that in this recipe the potatoes are a little crisp on the outside and creamy inside.

Loaded Red Potatoes

5-6 Red potatoes (about 2.5 pounds) cooked AND diced

6 Tablespoons of butter, melted
Seasoned salt
3/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
Bacon pieces, cut up

Side note: I use a potato bag to make this dish even easier. In case you don't know what a potato bag is, it's a cloth bag that allows you to quickly cook potatoes in the microwave. You can find them sold for around $8-10 at most Amish markets or housewares stores. I always include one with wedding shower gifts and the thank you notes always mention how "it actually works!" Maybe sometime I'll do a potato bag giveaway. 

Place potatoes on bottom of an 8x8 inch pan or 2 quart casserole dish. Pour butter over top and sprinkle with with seasoned salt. Top with cheese and bacon. Bake uncovered at 350 for 30 minutes. (I added chives for garnish because we have some in the herb garden right now.

  This comes on the heels of being told by my doctor that if I want to reach my next weight loss goal quickly, I should give up potatoes.

Once again...

Friday, April 8, 2016

Five Ways to Make the Most Out of Your Small House (That Work in Any House!)

   One of my favorite themes to talk about is small and tiny house living. As you know, our house is definitely small and may even fall in the tiny house category. It currently consists of:
  • 2 bedrooms
  • 1 bathroom
  • Kitchen
  • Open living room/dining area 
  • small mudroom/storage area by the back door
   We have plans for an expansion some day, but we'll probably never get past a thousand square feet. We like our big backyard too much.

I told you it was small. No, we're not elves. Thanks for asking.

   Over the past nine years, I've picked up so many excellent space saving and micro-living tricks, including some I've never read anywhere else. I came up with a list of my FIVE BEST and quickly realized that these are things that would maximize living space in any home. I'm posting them here in hopes that they can help someone maximize their living space in any home. Simply put, more living, less stuff.


1) Move It Out Monthly. 

Since doing a complete de-cluttering of my home last year, I keep a box or large shopping bag in a corner of our bedroom for things that are no longer needed. I usually try to sell the item, but if it doesn't sell then I donate it to a non-profit thrift store. When the box is full of items that we no longer can use, I move it out. To keep the pile from growing, I do this once a month.

2) Reorganize Constantly. 

This is a big tip that I never see, but that saves my sanity every single day. I don't know how many times I got great deal on bulk baking supplies or a huge amount of paper towels and thought in the car, I have no idea where this will go. It always turns out that once I reorganize a cabinet, a closet, or move out something we no longer need, I can easily find the space to accommodate things that matter right now. This attitude works well for small stuff, like food, clothing, toys, books, and other daily living supplies. While every item in your house needs a "home", be flexible  about where that is and don't be afraid to move things around.

However, I must also add...

3) Don't Buy Big Stuff Unless You Know Where It Will Go.

This one seems like common sense, right?  But trust me, when you are confronted with a lovely and oversized piece of furniture, wall picture, or other home accessory that costs next to nothing, it can be hard to say "no". Trust me, you don't want to have a white elephant sitting in the garage or shed for a few years because it doesn't fit with your house. Send white elephants back to the zoo. 

4) Figure Out Where Your Space Is, and Use It.

Even if it's in an unusual place. I've seen high ceilings lined with shelves that hold books and extra high kitchen cabinets that stock empty canning jars on top, and all kinds of clever storage on the back of doors. When we realized we would never be able to fit large book cases in our living room, I eyed our wide hallway that leads to the back door and found plenty of space for an instant library. It wasn't what we would have planned, but it works perfectly. 

5) Keep Seasonal Decorations to a Minimum.

I love decorations! So does the rest of the world. My local yard sale page on Facebook is awash in gently used decorations for sale. Exercise equipment, too, but that's another post.  While seasonal decorations make your world brighter for just a few months, they take up space somewhere else in your house for the rest of the year. Then, people still get tired of them and want to change decorating schemes. For myself, it has worked better to invest in things that I can display and enjoy all year long, and accent them with a few selective seasonal or holiday items at certain times of the year. This way, instead of storing up treasures for most of the year, I can look at things I like all of the time and save the space for something more important. 

So, these are my biggest and best ideas ever when it comes to small space living, and I hope that in posting them that even the lady with the grandest home can find some inspiration in simplifying her surroundings. 

Most importantly, if you can think of anything that works for you, whether it's listed here or not, feel free to add it in the comments. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Quaker Connection

 It was cold and rainy on the day of the funeral. It always is, for me. I have never stood graveside without a coat or umbrella. Besides the awful weather, the clocks had been set back, making for a long and dark morning. The Mister did not wake up with the sun like he does most days, but with the clouds and an hour late. We scrambled to get out the door for the funeral of the Mister's great-aunt, who came from a branch of his family tree that I never met and who, it turned out, are Quaker.

 This distant aunt had spent the last ten years of her life in a haze of confusion. She did not recognize people, and often asked for those who had died long ago. It will warm the hearts of mothers of sons to know that she had been lovingly cared for in the last the last decade of her life by her son, in the home she always knew, right there on the farm.

 In survival mode, I pulled myself together and dressed Little Mister in his good shirt. We ate breakfast in the car on the way, giving me anxiety as little boy hands picked the chocolate off of a chocolate peanut butter protein bar, the closest thing to a travel-friendly breakfast I could provide under duress. When he decide that was too tedious, he unearthed a bag of chips from the back seat. I also noticed that we forgot his coat, and quietly gave thanks that he was wearing shoes.

 We arrived a few minutes late, as I always do when someone needs to be buried or married before noon.

 I saw a man with a long beard in bib overalls. He wasn't the only one. The service was reverent, but informal. People stood up to speak their heartfelt memories of a woman who I now wished I had been able to know in this life. There were many mentions of a life filled with honesty, integrity, and service. Also, cinnamon rolls, fourteen day pickles, and something called fruit cocktail cake. There were no admonishments, or the type of "As I am now, so shall you be!" warnings to repent. The message lay in the examples of her life, Scripture applications, and the demonstration of a quiet faith strengthened by serving others. "She taught me how to work," said a large, burly man wearing his best Carhart overalls. Quite a compliment, I imagined.

 The flowers were few. We placed single spring blooms on the casket in the cemetery at the Quaker Meeting house, a small group of mourners such as you would expect when the deceased has outlived all others. 

 The experience was beautiful in its unabashed simplicity.

 Over the next two weeks we searched diligently for signs of new life. Snow encrusted daffodils don't count. Little Mister and I have taken to evening walks in the field where we examine deer tracks and construct make-believe campfires from old remnants of corn stalks. I'm reminded that we don't walk alone. As new life is breathed into our surroundings, we reflect on the joy of serving a risen Savior. He lives!

This old irrigation pump still works. 

 As the sun drops in the sky, we take our treasures of sticks, flowers, and a deer antler home for preservation. Negotiations for bath time and late night snacks will give way to a crescent moon and bedtime stories. Or maybe spilled milk and a forgotten laundry load. I'll remind myself again. I am not alone. 

And neither are you.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Homemaking Encouragement from the Farmhouse

 Driving home along the fields as the work season begins, I rejoiced in the new warmth and light. During this time of refreshment and renewal, the things I learn from others during my own personal season of busy family life fall like new rain on a dry garden. It's my prayer that these three memories will encourage you as we journey together. 

 Memory: It was an old style farmhouse, multi-story and planned for production, not aesthetic design. The front door opened into the living room which was tiny by today's standards. A third of it was dominated by a staircase, the rest of it cramped with furniture, laundry, and an old upright piano. Behind it was the kitchen, where the real living took place. Indeed, the couch was there and that made sense. It also held the dining set, and cluttered counters full of dishes and produce. It was summer, and the kitchen table was lovingly set with plates of tomato slices, watermelon, applesauce, bread and cheese. Because it was summer, the busiest time of the year, food splatters and preservation paraphernalia were bountiful. So were barefoot children with hard, blackened feet dressed in otherwise clean and tidy clothing. Among the domestic calamity there were excited chatter and smiles.

 That's where I learned that the best homemakers are not always the best housekeepers.

 Memory: It was a remodeled farmhouse, with a spacious new kitchen that doubled as the laundry room. Outside of the back door was a mountain of rag-tag children's bicycles in all sizes and colors. Just inside the back door, a large towel on the floor held a landscape of muddy boots and shoes. The footprint of the shoe pile was so large you could see it from space. Generic root beer sat on the counter awaiting a birthday party scheduled for later on the same day, and stainless steel bowls filled with fresh picked green beans sat on the table the kitchen table. It was suggested the oldest daughter put down her book and go outside to supervise the younger children, who were climbing a step ladder on top of a John Deere Gator for who knows what goal. She quietly set her book down and went outside, although I felt her lack of enthusiasm for the assignment. The mothers sat inside and enjoyed tea and conversation. We were too busy for this, but not too busy for one another. 

 That was how I learned that hospitality didn't have to be a perfectly clean house for a Sunday visit, but hat hospitality was a spirit, not always a distinct form.
 Memory: The swing set and trampoline just outside the back door were alive with laughter. Inside, the living room floor was strewn with toys, some of which were so old that the first children to enjoy them many very well be grandparents now.I was helping to pick them up when the screen door slammed and in a blur someone grabbed a banana off of the kitchen counter. "No, you can't ride the scooter down the slide!" The children's grandmother was sweeping up an upset houseplant, collateral damage from the fun. A bumped head and an escaped goat caused a moment of excitement before all was well again. As mothers arrived to collect their respective folds, a calm settled over the house. The vocal mirth gave way to the chirping of birds and the hum of a tractor in the distance. Grandma quietly exhaled and smiled as she sat down in an easy chair and took out a scrapbook page that she had been working on, and that was when I knew it won't always be like this. 

 We made these delicious peanut butter cup cookies one night as a special treat. They are baked in a muffin tin which makes them all the perfect size. At one point I had to leave the kitchen and the bag of candy was left unattended.
"Mom. Mom. I ate a few of these," came the guilty confession.

 Oh, that's okay. Most of us would have wiped out half the bag and blamed someone else. 

Peanut Butter Cup Temptations

1 cup butter
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 and 1/2 cups flour
1 package peanut butter cups

 Cream butter, peanut butter, and sugars. Add eggs, vanilla, salt, and baking powder. Gradually blend in flour. Form dough into one-inch balls and place in tart or muffin pans. 

 Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and place 1 peanut butter cup in each center, pressing gently into the cookie. Cool for a couple minutes and remove from tins. Finish cooling on wire rack.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mile-High Shoofly Pie

 It was a rare night when I was alone in the house, and got the notion to tackle a sewing project. I haven't sewn in years. Well, there's the mending pile, but that's not real sewing for me. Real sewing, where you cut and work on an actual project, was usurped ages ago by daily domestic life. It turned out I liked cooking. When we started the garden I liked that, too. It turned out I loved canning and that is a real blessing. A home to decorate, a baby, I liked sewing less and less. Finally, I put away my sewing things for a day in the future when I will navigate a season of quilting projects and pretty dishes. Today is not that day. Tomorrow doesn't look good, either. 

 It was a reminder to be content with here and now. You can't build a snow man while you're planting tomatoes, and each season of life brings its own tasks, rewards, and sacrifices. The only sensible thing to do is build contentment and honor God by practicing gratitude and give thanks for what I can do today. I have found that practicing gratitude, good fellowship, and setting attainable goals go a long way towards a fulfillment that overflows into cheerful giving and a joyful heart.

 In resignation, I packed up my machine and the project that didn't go well, and tried not to get upset at the time I wasted that night as I attempted to rekindle a forgotten talent. In that time I could have baked a dessert. Or removed the tree limb someone brought inside. What happened to my "no sticks in the house rule"? It turned into a "no sticks at the dinner table" law and then the serious "no sticks in bed" mandate.
 For well over a year now I've had in my possession an authentic state fair prize-winning shoofly pie recipe which I had every good intention of baking long before now. This recipe is not mine. You can find my old tried and true standby here. This shoofly is based on the blue ribbon winner at the PA state farm fair back in 2014. 

 I've made two significant changes to it. I used my own pie crust because the crust in the recipe would easily take half a day to prepare. At this phase of my life, I appreciate short cuts and busy mom techniques as much as possible, so making my own usual pie crust was a sanity saver. 

 The other change I made was I swapped the molasses out for sorghum. When I make shoofly I usually do a 50/50 sorghum and molasses mix for the filling, but this time I went all out. I had a recently heard that sorghum is a wonderful antioxidant and also boasts a low glycemic index. Plus, I had a whole jar of it and I'm out of molasses. 

 When I pulled it out of the oven, I was shocked to find that the pie had risen as high as a cake. It didn't deflate as it cooled, either. I called it a mile-high shoofly. It was a little dense and cakey, not quite as wet as I like mine to be, but never a complaint was heard. 

1 9-inch pie crust, unbaked

Pie filling:
Pouring sorghum into the filling

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup molasses (I subbed sorghum)
1-1/2 cups flour
1 cup boiling water

1-1/2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
6 Tablespoons cold butter

In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, molasses/sorghum, egg, flour, and baking soda. Gradually add the boiling water. Cool to room temperature. Pour into crust. 

In a large bowl combine the flour, brown sugar, and baking soda. Cut in the butter until crumbly. (Note: I like a pastry cutter for cutting cold butter into any flour mixture.) Sprinkle over filling. Bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack
"This pie is better than the other pies."
- Impartial taste reviewer, age 4 

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Question for My Readers

I'm a little late posting this month. You see, we've had a very, unusually healthy winter so far and I want to keep that going in the right direction. This is the first time in three years that Little Mister hasn't spent November through March in a constant state of congestion. There is no way to be thankful enough, except to take the blessing we've been given and run with it. I've been keeping things as simple as possible in order to sustain our health and not run us down. That is where I have been this month.

But I've been pondering something else, too, and I need to ask you about it. What keeps you coming back to my blog? 

As you well know, I just write for fun. Some people ride bicycles so they won't forget how, I write here in this little space so I won't completely degrade to filling out school forms and writing shopping lists. As I'm fond of saying, I would write my blog even if no one read it. Yet, the stats tell me that sometimes many people read it. It surprises me every time! 

So what do you like to see here?

My favorite winter salad: Mixed leaf lettuce, apples, dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, Gorgonzola or Blue cheese. Dress with a vinaigrette. Yum.



Or just a little of everything? 

Or something else entirely?

This blog is my happy place where I can post little bits of joy, but the best part is when you can share in the joy, too. I like to share how God is working in my life, and hope that it encourages others in their walk. I'll keep doing that right here no matter what, sharing the abundant, the blissful, and even the mundane.

Pictures are no laughing matter.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Finding Purpose in a Storm

  Winter is hard on those of us who experience hypothermia when the temperature falls below seventy degrees. At the peak of my hibernation, I could sleep twelve hours a day, a number that will easily half itself in six months. Of course, no busy mother has the luxury of that much sleep. Winter is still a time of doing, with maybe a little scheming mixed in. 

   The blizzard arrived with much fanfare and emptied store shelves, fingers firmly crossed that no power would be lost because the only thing worse than a snowstorm would be a dark and waterless one. The 40 mile per hour winds pounded our house all night. 

   In the morning we awoke to a varied landscape of both flurried sprinklings and deep drifts. As I drank hot coffee, I dreamed of a future filled with weedless raised beds and a rejuvenated strawberry patch. What better gift can you give your husband than following him around with the seed catalog and brainstorming aloud about the backyard? It's what every man wants to do when there's two feet of snow that needs to be shoveled on the front step. 

   Oh, but there was much to do inside, as well. New bookshelves still in their boxes awaited their assembly, followed by boxes of books that had been stored and almost forgotten. 
"Hello, old friend!" I thought as I unpacked my small collection of books. My collection isn't large. During my ten years as a librarian I had the keys to the kingdom and could borrow most any book I wanted to read. What I do own is usually rare, truly loved, or was received as a gift. Once they were unpacked and shelved they looked a little strange, and I had forgotten ever reading some of them. A new book is like a snowstorm, I decided. It arrives with much hype and hope, you delight in its beauty and might as the pages turn, and ultimately hope for a happy ending. Then it's quietly forgotten until someone brings it up in their memory and wants to reminisce about it.

    I also thought a weekend of being shut in would be a great time to put up the gallery wall that I've been furiously pinning for two years. The Mister got out his tools, the levels, and in his tender and sensitive way asked me, "So what do you want?" 
Music to my ears except I couldn't remember how I wanted the shelves and the frames, and maybe I had written it down but I couldn't remember that, either. Further discussion uncovered that we couldn't agree on what pictures would go in the frames, and my project idea sunk in a sea of incompatible preferences. In the end, we decided to do something else on the wall. 

   Marriage, too, is an ever changing forecast of sunshine and shadows. The wind may howl, the rain may come, lightening, and you hold hands as you appreciate a clear day all in the same week. 

   So much of our daily lives is indicative of nature, all of it reflecting our Maker. We are created for the purpose of reflecting the glory of God. What a relief that it isn't to collect books, hang pictures, or even bake the perfect bread. It's a relief, in the same way it is when you realize life is not about you or your wants or needs, but about showing love to others. It is a relief, yet a challenge and opportunity.

     The blizzard left in the way they often do, with plenty of sunshine and blue skies. Rising temperatures began to melt those drifts, and two days later it was all forgotten. It makes you wonder what that was all about, a big snow come to disrupt our life for a weekend. I'm sure it had purpose.

   A few years ago I started making this savory macaroni and cheese with butternut squash. It's one of my favorite cold weather comfort foods. The secret is to use at least three kinds of cheese in addition to one soft garlic cheese. 

Four-Cheese Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese

1 pound butternut squash, cooked, seeded, and lightly mashed
8 ounces elbow pasta
4 teaspoons butter
2 Tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup low-fat milk
2 Tablespoons semi-soft garlic and herb cheese  
1 cup mozzarella
1 cup cheddar or other shredded cheese combination

Cook pasta and drain. In a medium sauce pan, melt butter and whisk in flour, salt and pepper. Add milk and continue whisking until mixture is smooth and thick. Add the garlic cheese and whisk until fully melted. Stir in squash and cooked pasta. Stir until coated. 
Use cooking spray or butter to coat a medium casserole dish. Spread half of the pasta mixture evenly in the dish and sprinkle with half of the mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. Repeat the layer and bake at 375 for 25 minutes. 


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