Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Heavenly Peace

I have always loved nativity sets, having a special fondness for the one we owned at home when I was growing up in the 1950s. I remember well the cardboard stable nestled beneath the dining room buffet, offering easy access for performance of Christmas season rituals......

My two sisters and I convened before it every evening, propped up on elbows, to carefully negotiate the advancement of the wise men. It was important that their arrival precisely coincide with early January's Feast of the Epiphany. On that day, those travelers would join the other sheltered plastic figures, an ethereal gathering gently illuminated by a single Christmas tree bulb. That is where I wanted to be too. Right inside, with the kneeling virgin Mary, her handsome bearded husband, and the fuzzy little trio of sheep who cozied up and waited with them beside a childless crib that steadily became filled with softness and warmth.

During the week, we adhered religiously to what we were taught at school by Franciscan sisters. We kept track of our sacrifices and charitable acts and, at each completion, prepared a comfortable bed for the divine child by laying down a single strand of straw.

I wish I could say that I was attentive to the second part of those instructions. The good deeds were to be a guarded secret between myself and the holy infant. But more often than not, I boldly announced that I was on my way to enjoy the crib-side privilege I'd earned, inviting along anyone who wanted to watch in envy. Needless to say, the race to become the favorite big sister of baby Jesus occasionally escalated into heated, finger-pointing, not-so-friendly competition.

We sisters strayed from sainthood too, on of all days, the morning of his birth when he could finally lay down his sweet head on what was by then a very ample pillow. Instead, we raced downstairs to the magic of Christmas morning, extending him not a momentary glance or congratulatory thought. Only hours later, when gifts were no longer fresh and new, did we wade to his home through knee deep discarded paper to make things right for our newborn king.

      The nativity scene at my home parish, Saint Alphonsus

And he was always there, waiting for us. Somehow I don't think he ever really minded, though. He knew he was in a place where he was loved. And I have heard that his patience and forgiveness knows no boundaries. "Love is patient. Love is kind." His words.

Love waits and forgives and understands, and chooses to be born in a plastic trough filled to the brim with strands of straw by three imperfect sisters who, with all their hearts, believed in him then, and believe in him now.......

Friday, December 21, 2012

Grandma's Third Annual Christmas Cookie Baking Party!

Santa cookie jars, one per family, wait patiently to be filled
and taken home for Christmas!

Even though everything, including the tree, goes up the day after Thanksgiving, it never really feels like Christmas around here until I host Grandma's Annual Cookie Baking Party! It's for my daughters and grandkids only...daddies stay home, eagerly waiting to see what tasty stuff returns by the dozen later on in the evening. Traditionally we meet on a Friday at 5 PM, enjoy a light dinner, and then bake our little hearts out amid a level of fun and laughter exclusive to the close company and this beloved season of the year.

It helps to be a veteran of two previous parties. Each one brings improvements based not only on experience, but on increasing abilities of the three oldest grandchildren who participate. For example, I decided after last year to pre-bake the sugar cookies that we'll decorate. Kids love to roll and cut the dough, but waiting for each sheet to bake and cool doesn't work! This year they jumped right into the best part, knowing exactly where to put the frosting and sprinkles......

It's grandma's house! That means sprinkle-eating is not only allowed, but encouraged!

At ages two and four now, the kids are pretty self sufficient so I was able to add extras to the menu. Each daughter was handed a ball of dough that yielded a dozen or so peanut-eared Christmas mice, and a red spiraled log to slice and bake into pinwheels. Butterscotch pudding "gingerbread men" were another choice.

A new year brings new celebrants! "Three month's cute" twin sisters Ava and Angeline attended grandma's baking party for the first time, opting to pass on the sprinkles, but observing everything very intently!

Christy had a great idea. She suggested that we make keepsake Christmas ornaments each year. Her choice was a handprint cast in air dry clay that becomes a happy Santa face once grandma whisks her magic paintbrush across the surface.

Ava placed her little hand on the surface of thinly and smoothly rolled air dry clay.

We gently pushed to make an impression. Then I used the rim of a jar as a cookie cutter to make a circular ornament.
I'll deliver these on Christmas eve!

Oh, Santa!.....his friendly face was everywhere! Not only did those big old cookie jars go home with each family, but hand made aprons declared devoted affection for that jolly old elf! I traced a dollar store kid's apron for the pattern, trimmed them in bias cut fabric, appliqued hearts, and ironed on letters to complete the set of three.

Ever try to get the perfect photo of all your kids where everybody smiles cutely at the camera
and no one has anything to tattle about? Good luck!

Shhh! This is where baby gingerbread boys are being born!

                                              Party favor! Plastic eyeglass straws!

It's fun to add new things to make and do every year, but one thing about Grandma's Cookie Baking Party will always remain the same. Mommies sincerely appreciate the opportunity for their kids to enjoy the tradition of seasonal baking alongside their cousins, aunts, and grandma...everything ready to go without having to squeeze the preparation, the mess, and the clean up into the busiest month of the year. That's grandma's job!.....and I love it!

Here and here are stories about last year's event!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sugar Bug Bake Shop Sale

For the past six weeks, my three oldest grandchildren have joined me every Friday to bake up an inventory to sell to family members. We made a few crafty items too, so our vendor's carts would groan with irresistible goodies for our guests. Finally, when those were done and grandma's freezer could hold no more, we set a date and welcomed our shoppers - grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents - to browse our quaint little marketplace. I'm glad you stopped by too, because we are....
                                                             Now Serving

When our 13 adult guests arrived, this front door event poster, featuring grandma's "sweet as sugar, cute as a bug" bakers greeted and welcomed them to the home of my twin grandsons.....

....where a market square of vendor's carts, one for each young entrepreneur, awaited. 
At left is Bree's pink push cart, with Nick's stand at center.....

....and Sae's little "supersonic" (he loooves airplanes!) shop right around the corner.

For a festival feeling, two garlands, tied with yarn, spelled out "BAKE SALE" and connected the three little carts.

Brielle conducted business from the "Bumble Bree Shop," so named because her Halloween debut as a two month old bumblebee earned her that affectionate nickname two years ago!

"Nick's Turnpike Treats" wasn't randomly named either. As a twin, and therefore no stranger to waiting and sharing, he asserts himself by calculating time and loudly announcing, "Nick's turn!" after he's been patient long enough!

We clipped our hand printed turkey potholders beneath the awnings. Those were accompanied by menus of the day's offerings. Assortments of treats, packed inside cupcake boxes, were identified by the color of package bows; yellow offered two peanut butter and two chocolate chip cookies, orange held three brownies, etc.

Before the onslaught of customers, the twins had a chance to practice their quick-action sales moves! Home made aprons were made special after Bree's Nana embroidered names on each one.

When customers descended, the kids were ready. It was so cute to overhear them describing the goodies and naming random prices for them.

Sae's yia yia, an expert baklava maker, hears a sales pitch for kid-made peanut butter cookies.
Nick brokered a deal with his daddy for muffins....
...and then stashed his cash in the deep pockets of his apron.

Bree enlisted mommy as a sales assistant...


and together they sold Nana a healthy amount of merchandise!

Daddy couldn't wait to buy from his little princess!

Grandparents...the high octane fuel that drives a Sugar Bug Bake Sale to resounding success! 

Full tummies, full wallets, full cookie jars, full shopping baskets.......our first annual Sugar Bug Bake Shop Sale was full of nothing but family fun!

"SMACK! SLURP! BURP! Those home made dog treats won't go to waste either!"

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Turkey Farmer

If you know cats, you know that they are micro managers. Of everything. Gotta see it. Gotta sit on it, next to it, or preferably, inside of it. Oh my yes, sometimes they do annoy me. But I am grateful for them. Grateful for the way their little padded feet have filled our empty nest. Grateful, mostly, for the opportunity to have brought them home - shivering with fear, cold, skinny, or in the case of Mickey, soaking wet. I made them well here, smug with prosperity and plump with gratitude, becoming a hero to myself in the process.

Of course I am grateful for the usual faith, my family, a multitude of friends and the fortune to live in this wonderful country. But I am also grateful for my pets, especially today for Iggy, the turkey farmer, who has taken on the job of making sure these birds don't get away before I need them!

Thank you Lord, for the cherished companions you have blessed me with....for those with two feet and for those with four!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sugar Bugs!

Look what came crawling out of grandma's kitchen! Sugar Bugs!

It makes sense. On Fridays, I call my kitchen the "Sugar Bug Bake Shop" because all three of my grandkid baking buddy guests are sweet as sugar and cute as bugs. And boy, do we ever produce in this shop! Even two and four year old attention spans hang in long enough to crank out several dozen cookies or a pair of banana bread loaves on those days. Our best treat though, is our signature "sugar bugs." We craft those for special events like our upcoming family bake sale.

I have the recipe here for the basic bug body, including more pictures and tips. In the meantime, how about some highlights from the day my Sugar Bug Bake Shop baking crew went to work to turn out an entire colony of sweet, but fearsome little critters to sell for equally sweet, but fearsome prices?!

Something about this picture makes me itch! It's the first step in sugar bug construction - either oval (short or long) or round shaped.

Some features are suitable for baking, and those can be added before the bugs go into the oven. Raisins and dried cranberries, for example; those can be cut in half lengthwise and used as stripes on long, skinny bugs.
Red hot spots, too.......

When the long skinnies come out of the oven, poke a wooden skewer into the sides and insert pretzel legs to make formidable centipedes. Sour candy strips make great antennae and the buggy eyes are attached with royal icing. Those items can't go into the oven.

"I can't take my eyes off of you!" I didn't ask the little baker if he'd ever actually tasted those nasty red hots generously piled on the back of this little guy he named "Spot." My guess is "no."

Despite the frightful look of this, no sugar bugs were actually harmed during the decorating process!      

Grandma has observed that if you put out a tray of 500 candy eyes, then the first bug decorated will sport 500 candy eyes. When you offer little bowls of 12 or so, that same critter will manage to see quite well with, well...12 or so of them! I call it "grandma math" and yes, I did learn it the hard way!

These little bowls are 3" small. What they hold is ENOUGH! Really. ENOUGH!

I mentioned grandma math. There's also grandma zoology at play here. See that pretzel stick protruding from center front of bug #3 in the top photo?'s a proboscis....a useful little thread that insects use to poke around in the grass to find bugs smaller than themselves to vacuum in and eat. I defined it to the kids. The boys looked up at me, frowning, with chubby little cheeks stuffed full of pretzel sticks and chocolate chips. Only their eyes spoke. "Oh grandma. Please. Stop! Save it for 4th grade! We're in pre-school and we came here to have FUN!" With that, I quietly scrapped my plan to feature "entomologist" as the spelling word of the day.

These little red critters have a name. And a story. I call them "Amara Bugs!" My grandma blogger friend, Kc, at Amaraland posted a charming story about her granddaughter's gift of a recipe binder from beloved Aunt Sandy. Kc invited readers to email favorite recipes for Amara's collection. It was quick work to customize a sugar bug into a little red iced spotted critter resembling the ladybugs that Grandma Kc and Amara have joined forces to collect. I love Aunt Sandy's gift idea and it was so much fun to participate in the project of filling it up with recipes that her niece might enjoy making someday - alongside grandma of course!
It's a good idea to inform your retail customers about what you are selling to them. In fact, I think it might be federal law! So here's our creatures, all packed up, nestled into dollar store paper party favor buckets and ready to go to market, prominently tagged with the truth: "Caution! Live Sugar Bug!"

Speaking of attractive packaging, we had more work to do. The dog shaped pet treats we made last week needed to be counted and bagged and the kids were up for that task, too.

Small paper sacks were decorated with paw shaped stickers and a puppy face rubber stamp. Then we formed an assembly line to efficiently count out six treats per bag. Tomorrow's customers should be pretty happy about taking home a "doggy bag" too!

What an adventure these past weeks have been, preparing for tomorrow's Sugar Bug Bake Shop Sale! I really think we're ready for a big success because the kids have worked hard and are anxious to show off what they've done. In the next few weeks, I'll have all the pictures and the entire story right here. As always, you're invited to come back and read all about it.

We'll be lookin' for ya!                                     

Sugar Bug Recipe

Here's how to make cookie bugs from our "Sugar Bugs!" post.......

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt                                            
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp. almond extract                              
  • 1 large egg
Royal Icing:

  •      1 egg white
  •      confectioner's sugar
  •      food color
Decorating items:

  •      thin pretzel sticks
  •      raisins, currents and/or dried cherries
  •      red hots
  •      icing eyes
  •      roasted peanuts
  •      candy
  •      chocolate chips
  •      sprinkles
  •      wooden skewer
  •      squirt bottles for icing (optional)

1.  Whisk flour and salt together in a small bowl. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer at medium speed, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes).

2.  Beat in almond extract and then egg. Scrape bowl.

3. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and blend on low speed. Gradually add remaining flour until combined.

4. Shape into 2 balls and refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 2 hours.

5. Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment and form bugs into 2"-3" ovals or balls, 1" thick. Decorate with items such as red hots, peanuts, raisins or chocolate chips.

6. Bake 15 minutes. As soon as cookies come out of the oven, poke holes with a wooden skewer to insert pretzels or candy strips.

7. When cool, complete decorations with candy eyes and other features attached with royal icing. Mix your own recipe, or use this one if you don't mind raw egg white:

To make a small amount of royal icing, beat one large egg white until foamy and slightly thickened. Add confectioner's sugar 1/2 cup at a time until icing is the consistency desired. Use thick icing to attach eyes and candy, thinner icing in a squirt bottle to draw stripes, etc. Tint with food color.

These sugar bugs just came out of the oven with decorations that can be baked - red hots and chocolate chips for spots and roasted peanut wings.

When children are decorating with royal icing it's a good idea to fill plastic squirt bottles for easiest handling. Here, baked bugs are getting detailed with green icing and other items (candy and pretzels) that must be applied after baking.

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