Monday, January 2, 2017

Chewy Cranberry Orange Oatmeal Cookies with White Chocolate



   The frost on the ground crunches beneath my rubber boots. I'm walking our two dogs, and my eyes still scan for the third we lost in November. My heart is still tender. It took a few days to realize that my eyes were constantly scanning to see her, seeking her distinctive red coat. It was as if she had gone missing, and I missed her so badly that I was still looking for one more glimpse. I find solace in the relief of knowing that our old Cattle Dog with the wonky ear and arthritic legs is at rest. 

   Cattle dogs have a distinctive bark that I describe as the sound of a polar bear attacking a seal. High pitched, unusually annoying, and unbearably shrill. It's not nails on a chalkboard. It's a 747 crashing into the RMS Titanic. Oh, I long to hear it just one more time! 

   I hustle my dogs inside and hear the Carol of the Cough that has hounded us since the day after Christmas. The sniffles and the blowing, the quest to uncover yet another pack of cold relief tablets and a ready stock of tissues. 

   The one-year diary I purchased some years ago with such faithful intentions now serves as a multi-year diary because I seldom update it. When I think of it, I simply write the current year next to the correct date and write my brief note. Christmas and New Years always gets an entry. Every new year I think, this will be the year when I remember to write down when things happen. I can start right now. I'll probably forget, but it's better to live in hope. 

   The first seed catalog has arrived and I am in my glory. Only a New Year's baby is a better symbol of renewal than a seed catalog on January first, so sayeth me. As a chilly rain drips by the window, I'm transported to warm barefoot days of planting and harvest. It speaks of earthly renewal, a timely message as the calendar begins anew. I can't help but wonder what will grow in my heart this year, what seeds will I plant that will bear eternal fruit?  What a way to start the year, to know that there are unseen possibilities at the hand of a God who can make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19) 

I'm sure you have all completed your to-do lists for Christmas, and those with tasks gone incomplete have given up and moved on. Don't be a quitter! Bake one more batch of cookies. Here's a comforting chewy oatmeal cookie that has a wintry combination of sweet and citrus. I make them every year at the holidays, and plenty of other times because they are so good. These go great with a cup of tea and a seed catalog. 

Note: This recipe makes a lot of cookies, I think around 3 dozen. You may want to cut the recipe in half. 
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. orange extract
3 cups oatmeal
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup dried cranberries

In a mixing bowl, cream the sugars with the butter until mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in eggs until light. Stir in oatmeal. 
In a separate bowl, sift the measured flour with salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Stir into oatmeal mixture. Mix in vanilla and orange extract. Stir in white chocolate and cranberries thoroughly.

Drop by the teaspoon onto a cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 12-14 minutes. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pecan Pumpkin Gingerbread Whoopie Pies

     My goal for November was to underwhelm my schedule. The next thing you know, I was swamped with volunteer church commitments, pre-holiday organizing projects, and the death of a beloved family pet which merited a period of mourning. Then the invitations for parent meetings and volunteer opportunities at the school began rolling in and you can see how well my plans to clear my schedule worked out. I just wish schools would tell us in September how much they will need us in December. 

   It all reminded me of the time we had our garden shed delivered, and I asked the owner of Most Excellent Dutch Market Shed Broker about the chicken coop that was also on the trailer. Was it for someone local? 
   "No, we're bringing it in for inventory. It could be yours. I noticed you have some nice grass growing back there," and he gestured toward a thin patch of wilted blades of green that gives the appearance of some nice grass if you are extremely charitable. No thank you, I explained. When you start doing chickens, you end up with too many eggs and have to hang  a sign out front to sell them. You would probably want me to buy the sign from you too. Then if they don't sell you have to stop what you're doing and make noodles. That's on top of caring for the chickens, and you know whose job that would be, right? No, I've already got too much going on. 

   It's a lot like when you clean out that closet or cabinet, and you have so much extra space. I keep hearing that the universe is expanding, but that never shows up in my kitchen cabinets. Within a few months, an empty space is filled again. We fill the space we have and the time we have. As long as our hearts keep growing, I guess it's okay. 

   That reminds me, I was cleaning out an old box of mementos and found this relic from my childhood under some stacks of old greeting cards. Who remembers her name?

I can't wait to bake some new things this month and share them with friends and family. I like baking most of the year, but Christmas baking is extra special. This whoopie pie recipe was adapted from one I found a year ago, and I revised it to make it more busy-mom friendly, with easy ingredients and a brown sugar-cream cheese filling I made up myself. 

I told The Mister that these may be the best whoopie pies I ever made.
"Well, I would have to think about that."

No, these really are the best. 

Makes 20 small or 10 large pies. 


2 and 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
3 Tablespoons molasses or sorghum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1 orange
2 eggs
15 oz. can pumpkin

4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 cup toasted, chopped pecans

Heat the oven to 350. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. 

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Using a whisk, stir in the cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and allspice. 

In a mixing bowl, beat together butter, oil, brown sugar, molasses, and vanilla. Add the zest and eggs and combine. beat in the pumpkin puree. Stir in the flour mixture. 

Drop the dough in mounds onto the baking sheets, leaving several inches to allow for spreading. Depending on your desired size, you should have 20-40 cakes. Bake for 15-20 minutes and allow to fully cool before filling.

To make the filling, beat together the cream cheese, butter, vanilla, and sugars. Beat on medium-high until filling is fully blended and creamy. Drop a large spoonful onto the flat side of one cake and press the flat side of another cake on top. 

Place the pecans on a small tray or plate, then roll the edge of each whoopie pie in the pecans to coat. 

Refrigerate in an airtight container. If you need to stack them, be sure to separate the layers with wax paper. 

Sorry. Couldn't wait. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

That Day I Had Business at the Castle

   Last spring, I was advertising a gently used tricycle for sale that had been taking up space in Grandma's garage for a while. It was in great condition, but it languished and finding a buyer for such a great little trike wasn't as easy as I imagine it would be. After a couple months, I dropped the price down to $25, the least amount I would accept. Soon, a lady expressed interest. I took the trike out of the shed and wiped it off to ready it for pick up. I was sad to see it go, such a great little trike! But I knew it would find a new life elsewhere.

   My potential buyer then made an offer for five dollars less. I said I was sorry, but I would not take any less than $25. She quickly agreed.

   On the day she was supposed to pick it up, my buyer was having difficulty getting out of the house, what with a baby and nap time and all. Since she lived locally, I offered to drop it off at her house. I had never been to her neighborhood but had driven by the road she lived on many times.

   As I turned onto her street, I passed a couple farms before a new housing pattern emerged. Brand new custom built mansions lined the rest of the road. Well, who knew this was back here?

   My GPS guided me to a long, circular driveway and a spectacular home where the balconies had balconies. The structure was so immense I could not even figure out where to park or where to find an appropriate door to make the transaction. Maybe the butler would come out to meet me? Surely the surveillance camera has pegged our older model sedan as a possible security threat. I pulled off to the side and texted my customer while beholding a large backyard with farm animals and a swimming pool. She directed me to a side entrance by a garage, outside of which stood an enormous stack of UPS boxes. A beautiful dog ran out to greet me. This was where the lady who wanted a five dollar discount lived? I was pretty baffled. Five dollars wasn't going to go far here. 

   My customer was a jovial and polite lady, thankful and apologetic that she had to pay for part of it in quarters. Unable to get to the bank, husband at work with the wallet, she scrounged for dollar bills and coins around the house and I understood completely because I have done that, too. Then, she gave me an additional one dollar coin for the Little Mister's piggy bank as a good will gesture. 

   As I pulled back onto the road, I thought of how the lady who wanted to pay me less unexpectedly paid me more  and turned out to be not only courteous but rather delightful. If I had held any preconceived notions that a stingy Queen of her castle was afoot, they drowned in the moat after I crossed the drawbridge.

   Wouldn't it be refreshing to discover that you had been a blessing to someone, regardless of their preconceived notions? If meeting you bypassed their own ideas of what they imagined you might believe or what things about them you might hold in disapproval? My prayer is that those who meet me will ignore the externals and material distractions of this world so they can see a pure heart who wants to know and love them. I want to be an unexpected delight and day-brightener to others! 

   You know what else brightens my day? Right, recipes that are simple and tasty. 

  Once a week or so we have breakfast for supper. It's economical and there's often something new to try, although we really like egg and cheese sandwiches. If I'm really pressed for time, I mix up a frittata and put it in the oven to serve alongside something else. It's easy, healthy, and forgiving. You can add in vegetables, any kind of cheese or seasonings. This is my base recipe, and one of my personal favorites. 

   Oh, and the Little Mister usually finishes any leftovers from it for his real breakfast, so, kid approved if your child is not extremely finicky. Which mine is not. Praise God. 

Herb and Cheese Frittata

2 tsp. olive oil
8 large eggs
4 ounces cheese of your choice, crumbled or shredded (I like feta, or any finely shredded cheese.)
1/3 cup loosely packed parsley or basil, chopped
1/4 cup milk
2 Tablespoons fresh rosemary or thyme, chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 400.

In an oven-safe, non-stick skillet, heat oil over medium heat until hot.

In a medium bowl, using a wire whisk, beat eggs, cheese parsley, milk, and herbs until blended. Pour egg mixture into skillet; do not stir. Cook on the stovetop until egg mixture begins to set around the edges, about 3-4 minutes. Place skillet in oven and bake until frittata is set, 13-15 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Unwrapping Our Gifts & Easy-As-Pie Caramel Apple Cheesecake

   I usually tend to write a post when I hear God speaking into my life, and then I share it for His glory, or so it can be edifying for someone else, too. This month I've had a hard time listening as I was so busy doing. Finishing fall cleaning, tearing out the garden, and planning our son's fifth birthday. It turns out that even a small pizza party at Pop Pop's farm with only immediate family takes time and planning.

During a time of lament when I was feeling overloaded, I recalled a conversation I had with a friend who was getting ready to visit her sister-in-law's family out in the mid-west. 

"She's the kind of person who is very well organized and has everything under control."

We briefly contemplated this extremely together woman who mothers ten children and yet was unflappable in the face of domestic storms. We nodded solemnly in agreement that we were not, nor could ever have that gift. I think we are part of the club that most women would identify with in membership. 

But later on, I thought, could that really be that one person would be gifted with so much? I'm sure if we asked that lady about her shortcomings, she would be able to name one or two, or ten. 

As we approach the season of gift giving, I think of the gifts we already have and how we use them. I can think of many sisters who are experts at hospitality, which is one of my own particular struggles. While I don't mind making large quantities of food for events, enjoy baking for others, and am helpful with mundane tasks, other necessary activities like childcare and committee meetings drain me to the core. We all have enough deficiencies, to go around.

I can look back to a youthful time when my current gift inventory would have seemed too big, too scary, even to draining to contemplate. Then it hits me, that our gifts aren't instantaneous blessing bestowed on us at birth, but are cultivated by time, experience, and the journey of learning to love. Even the mandate to love another is not an expression that resides effortlessly in our hearts, but a goal that will stay with us our entire lives as we learn to know one another, serve one another. 

Have you noticed that empathy-producing experiences are great vehicles to channel our love? You can form an immediate kinship with someone who has walked in your shoes, and intuitively know the best way to support them. Believe me, if I ever encounter a mother of small children who is laid up with a broken ankle, I would be able to name ten needs off the top of my head and how to fill them. Also, if your dog every got sprayed in the head by a skunk at six in the morning while you were trying to pull him out from under a pallet where the skunk was hiding, come talk to me. Tough times not only soften our hearts but show us how to serve. 

A true gift will express appreciation, lighten a load, or add value to another person. What a relief that I don't have to shop for it. What a joy to know that we are here to be needed and purposeful, a shining light on the journey. 

I almost didn't put up this recipe, mainly because it was almost all gone before I could get a really decent picture of it. It was SO good! I relented because it is also very easy to make and you know I'm all about busy mom cooking. For one thing, it's a cheesecake you make in a pie plate, which for me is always less daunting than dragging out the springform pan. So get a graham cracker crust going:

1 and 1/2 cups finely ground graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup sugar
4 T melted butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl until they are well blended, and then press into a 9-inch pie plate. Bake at 350 for 7-10 minutes, and then allow crust to cool to room temperature. 

21 ounces of apple pie filling or 1 pint of home-canned. 
2 8-ounce packages of softened cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup caramel topping
chopped pecans

Spread 3/4 of the pie filling on top of the pie crust. Reserve the other quarter of filing for topping. 

In your mixer, whip the cream cheese until fluffy. Add sugar, vanilla and eggs and continue to beat until smooth. Spread this mix over the pie filling. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes, and then cool to room temperature. 

While the cheesecake is cooling, heat 1/4 cup caramel and the reserved pie filling in a small saucepan. When the cheesecake has cooled, pour this mixture on top and then sprinkle with chopped pecans. Refrigerate until ready to serve. 

When you are all ready to take the picture and this happens.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Reaching Out in Love

   Living in a Mennonite community off the beaten path has its blessings. There's less fish bowl, more intimacy, and fewer pressures to follow the trends that sweep through churches like a swift but silent wind that could tear off a roof. There are also inconveniences. We are the furthest branches of the grapevine, so news from afar comes late. Some of us long for home comforts or cooking ingredients you can only find (at the best price!) in a particular Amish bulk food store two hours away. It's a balance that at is freeing at its best, and on the worst days, lonely.

   At the end of the summer, our church hosts an annual community day, a bonanza of hospitality we sponsor to show love to the neighbors. Come out and meet us! Have fun! We'll feed you for free! For a small fellowship, this takes a lot of energy and teamwork. Almost too much. Especially if it's a 95 degree day and the bouncy house, positioned in full sun, is filled with squabbling kids who have been abandoned by their grandparents who have sought the comforts of air conditioning in the church building. Seeking refuge in the church is usually done under the guise of being overly interested in the bake sale. I'm not pointing fingers. I saw everyone because I was in there trying to cool off, too. 

   I really enjoy baking for the bake sale. Even though I'm asked to bake the same mini-banana bread loaves, and two types of cookies every year, I never mind a day of baking. It makes me feel good to see tables full of homemade treats priced so low that anyone could indulge in our deliciousness. At the end, we give it away for free.

   I'm not overly optimistic about outreach. I've met the curiosity seekers, the check-list churchers who want some of the stuff we have, but no, not that, and then some stuff I've never heard of. We've met the families who agree with our beliefs but find our demographics all wrong or simply live too far away. I have met the people who come to be nourished by our kindness and our wholesome food but miss out on the "good part" that Jesus described to Martha.

   At the end of the long, hot day we have broken bread with those who are passing through and extended a hand in love. It's what any of us are called to do on any given day. To show unmerited love, kindness, and peace to those we interact with in our daily lives. Aren't we rich that we have so much to give?

   There are still some ears of corn floating around market stands, but when the weather turns cooler I look forward to some warm baked corn. Baked corn is an old favorite around here, and never lasts long. It's a warm and filling side dish.

   This recipe came to me years ago in a slightly different form, from an Amish lady. If you want to duplicate Esther's Baked Corn, simply add a small jar of chopped pimentos. I never have pimentos and can never remember to put them on my list. I often use half of a green pepper and half of a red, for color and taste. In this instance, I used some roasted red peppers for a little seasonal taste. 

Baked Corn Casserole

Combine in medium bowl:

1 can creamed corn
1 can whole kernel corn
1 large onion, chopped

1/2 cup roasted red peppers, chopped OR 
1 medium bell pepper, chopped

2/3 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1 cup cracker crumbs
1 cup shredded cheddar
1/4 cup butter, melted
salt and pepper to taste
a dash of red pepper

Mix well and pour all ingredients into a 2 quart casserole dish. Bake at 350 for one hour.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Lightening Your Load By Extending a Hand

   In the midst of my endless canning time, school time steps in without any subtleties and inserts its new sneaker firmly into our well-established routine. I'm still picking and canning tomatoes. This year I did a lot of pizza sauce since the tomatoes are free. I figure I make at least 50 pizzas a year. What if I had sauce for every one of them? Anyway, I'll be ready for fall when most of you are wrapping Christmas gifts.

   School, however, can't be ignored. Things shut down after Labor Day. The weekend before school started, Little Mister liked my spontaneous suggestion of a backyard picnic on a blanket by the swings. I could not have concocted a better idea had I spent all night planning one. The basket! The turkey sandwiches! The special drink that he has no idea is Kool Aid! Honestly, a strategic team of fun experts that couldn't have produced this grand a time. Secretly, my heart was a little dim with the knowledge that in a few short days I would put him on the bus for another year of preschool and speech therapy. While I'm grateful for all of the speech therapy he has gotten from the local school, there is still a part of me that feels no child should be experiencing their THIRD first day of school at the tender age of four. A child that age should be home baking cookies with mom, getting into things in the backyard and begging me for ice pops on joint trips to the store.

   Little Mister would like it just fine if we turned it down. He doesn't care if someone doesn't understand him when he talks. That's their problem, he figures. 

I like having fun at home, he tells me. 

"You have to understand," I say to his Dad, "I am extremely fun." 
He howls. 
What? Who wouldn't want to spend all day with some lady telling you to clean up your mess and to stop messing with the dog, he does not want to pull your sleigh. I sometimes yell. I have to yell because my house is loud.

Sandwiches, blue corn chips, guacamole. 
I have Morning Glories everywhere right now.
   Yet, the school has done so much good. He has made so much progress. You absolutely wouldn't send him if it wasn't the very best for thing him. I had to keep reminding myself. We send money to missions in other countries so that children with little opportunity can go to a school. Oh, the irony.

   In the midst of the first-day blues, I longed to take the focus off of my feelings of being deprived of what could have been Little Mister's last year home with mom. I needed to stop thinking about me and readjust my thinking to what is right for him, at least for right now. 

   On Sunday morning I heard the sound of a vehicle stalling at the nearby intersection. One of our ministries, if you can call it that, is helping the numerous people who break down on our busy road. I have lent out tools for changing flats to confused teens at an hour before midnight. It's a mission that chose us when we unknowingly purchased a home along a rural mini-intrastate. Out the kitchen window, I saw it was an older man with a nearly new truck that was overheating. I walk over and set him up with a bucket of water while he waited for his son to arrive and offered what help I could. 

   Later, when he returned the bucket, he tried to give me a cash tip. I wouldn't take it. 

"No, you take it, you don't find friends like this anymore," he told me. He threw it in my bucket and walked away. 

   "We're all just here to help each other," I hollered back. The simplicity of that truth rung in the air.
The first day...again.

   I sprinted up the steps into the house, feeling a little more "free" from "me". If I could effortlessly drop my routine to help strangers with car trouble, my own longings could surely take a backseat to doing what's best for my own child. It's true what they say. A pity party can be disbanded quickly when you reach out to help others What a blessing that I don't have to leave home to do it, and neither do you. 

   For my birthday, a good friend and fellow food lover gave me this wonderful book on making fun looking, healthy food for children: (Amazon affiliate link) What I love about this book is that all of the ingredients are things you likely have on hand, so you don't need to make special purchases. Also, the ideas are all healthy and animal-themed, so it's nice that your child recognizes what that pancake with eyes is supposed to be. Also, if you're not gifted enough to make any of them, it gives you some ideas, like this peach parrot I put together: 

  It's not perfect, but I kind of pride myself on posting recipes that I actually feed my family and that fit into a busy mom lifestyle. With two peaches, a knife, and a pair of scissors, this is fairly easy and fast. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Pictures & Peaches

A common view these days.

   This will mainly be a picture post as we arrived home from our planned family time to tomato stakes groaning under the weight of heavy fruit-laden vines, ripened corn, and that was on top of the peaches that came home with us. I got busy as soon as we unpacked, and spent day 3 resting as I wore myself out after two long days. It's funny how ten years ago I could work a full day at the library, drive an hour home, and can food deep into the night while still being able to get up the next day. I couldn't do it now, and I'm grateful I don't have to at this age. 

   For the most part, we had a refreshing time and I was pleased with how the Little Mister behaves better in restaurants, except for his occasional one-boy improv routine that can happen anywhere. I was very proud of The Mister who rode amusement park rides like a champ and tackled a large waterslide multiple times. I'm usually in charge of water-themed activities, so it was great to not be the only person spouting reminders about not drinking the water.

   Oh, I also got to meet Lydia of Thrifty Frugal Mom and her precious newest baby. She was a complete joy, and it was a pleasure to spend an evening getting to know her better. 

   One afternoon, we took a train ride through the beautiful countryside, and I used it as an opportunity to work on my landscape photography. Landscapes and places are my favorite photo subjects. 

It is deceptively hard to get landscape pictures that don't contain utility poles, trucks, random people walking into the frame, and pterodactyls. Just kidding. 

Feeding a mini-pony. I almost want one as a pet. We could take it to the vet in the mini-van. 

Little Mister and me, on yet another train ride. For a while there he wouldn't pose for pictures. Who would believe it? he stayed awake on this train ride because it only cost a dollar or something. The expensive train ride knocked him out in five minutes. 

A farmhouse as seen through the wavy glass windows of a historic mill.

One of my sanity-saving tactics during the summer is simple suppers and no baking. I made the exception when one of my jars of peaches didn't seal and I had some very ripe peaches that needed an assignment. Also, I think the men were getting tired of Oreos. I know. We should all have such problems.

Peach Praline Pie
Before the bake

4 cups peaches, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup sugar
2-3 Tbsp. corn starch, for thickening
1 tsp. lemon juice

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup butter

1 unbaked pie shell

In a large saucepan, combine peaches, sugar, lemon juice, and cornstarch. Heat and cook until the mixture has thickened, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with cinnamon, about 1/4 tsp. 

In a small bowl combine flour, brown sugar, and pecans. Cut in butter until the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle 1/3 of crumbs over the bottom of the pie shell; cover with peach mixture. Sprinkle remaining crumbs on top. 

Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 20 minutes longer or until peaches are tender and topping is golden brown. 


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