Sunday, October 31, 2010

Poetry, Pumpkins, and Reposts

Quote of the Day: 
The Dragons are Singing Tonight.
by Jack Prelutsky

Tonight is the night all the dragons
Awake in their lairs underground,
To sing in cacophonous chorus
And fill the whole world with their sound.
They sing of the days of their glory,
They sing of their exploits of old,
Of maidens and Knights, and of fiery fights,
And guarding vast caches gold.
Some of their voices are treble,
And some of their voices are deep,
But all of their voices are thunderous,
And no one can get any sleep.
I lie in my bed and I listen,
Enchanted and filled with delight,
To songs I can hear only one night a year--
The dragons are singing tonight.

This is a poem that I love reading out loud to my boys. On Halloween night when large and small creatures come knocking on my door, and weird sounds are all around, imaginations light up like the flame in our jack-o-lanterns, and I think of the dragons that are singing tonight.  Thank you, Jack Prelutsky.

Speaking of Jack-o-Lanterns, here are our afternoon creations.
Yep, waited until the last min.

*ding dong*
"Trick or Treat!"
"Hi, freshly carved pumpkin guts, or candy?"
(that's how I test if they're real ghouls or just kids dressed up as ghouls.)

My boys, plus a neighbor boy who helped us carve our pumpkins.
The guy in the pizza hat went trick-or-treating for the food shelf.
They call it "Trick or Treat help others eat."

I decided to dress as a computer geek tonight.  Here I am with my laptop, Scriptfrenzy hat, dorky glasses, and my cat.  I'm on facebook, typing up my blog, and listening to the Halloween program on the radio. Here's my theme song:  I don't stay out late, Don't care to go; I'm home about eight, Just me and my radio. Ain't Misbehavin'; I'm savin' my love for you.

I stumbled upon a great video for NaNoWriMo on InkyGirl.  Click her site or Errol Elumir's original post.  The title of his song is "I am the very model of a WriMo individual."  The tune is from The Pirates of Penzance.  It's brilliant!  My hat goes off to anyone who has taken the challenge to write a novel in a month. (That's what NaNoWriMo is about.)  I did Scriptfrenzy in April, and although I didn't finish my script in a month, I got a really good start on it, and developed a momentum to keep on going.  In fact, the script is nearly ready for a read-through with some actor friends, and then I'll put it out there to the coffee shop crowd.  Cheers!

Journaling Prompt:  Write about a Halloween memory, recent or distant past.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Taco Pasta

This recipe is fast, simple and E. A. S. Y.!  My kids loved it and said, "this tastes like tacos!"  I, too, was surprised at the flavor.  The sauce is creamy, with a hint of spice (depending on what kind of salsa you use), and the pasta gets coated with all the yummy deliciousness creating a simple main dish. 

I doubled everything in this recipe except for the ground beef, to make sure we had enough for dinner and lunches for me and the hubby.

Taco Pasta
Recipe Source: Plain Chicken

printable version

1 pound ground beef
8 ounce small dry pasta shapes
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup salsa
2 tablespoons taco seasoning (or one packet)
3 ounce cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
Salt and pepper
Shredded Cheese for topping

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook pasta according to the package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook the ground meat and onion over medium-high heat until no longer pink. Once the meat is cooked through, drain off the excess fat and mix in the garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Mix in the salsa and taco seasoning and let simmer over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Stir in the cooked pasta, cream cheese, sour cream and reserved pasta water, and continue stirring until the cream cheese is melted and the sauce is well blended. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with shredded cheese and more sour cream and salsa if desired

Total Cost-$4.12 (Dinner and 4 lunches came from this!)
Ground Beef-Free (purchased with catalinas when beef was on sale for $1.99 per pound)
Pasta $1.00
Salsa-Free (Garden Salsa)
Taco Seasoning-$.10
cream cheese $1.25 (marked down)
sour cream $1.00
Salt and pepper
Shredded Cheese for topping $.50 (Tilamook on sale)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Cake that Thinks it's a Pumpkin . . . Happy Halloween Pumpkin Cake!

Happy Halloween to all you scary, spooky bakers out there. Can you guys believe it's already the end of October? Holy moly, huh? Before you know it we'll be haulin' out the holly (gulp). But never mind about that. Before the calendar advances any further, I just wanted to share with you my contribution to the current spooky festivities. We made these cakes in my Theme Cakes class this week.

Decked out like a pumpkin, complete with curling tendrils , fallen leaves, and acorns, this is a relatively simple cake to construct and decorate. While entirely edible, only the cake itself would be appealing to eat; the little decorations are made of fondant that's been allowed to harden, and then been airbrushed to enhance the colors.

The cake itself is made up of three thick 9" round yellow layers. You can make this easily by combining two cake mixes (forgive me, Gods of from-scratch baking--I swear I only use them for my cake decorating class!), one plain yellow cake and one pound cake (I think Duncan Hines works best). The pound cake gives the cake a firmer texture, and that makes it carvable--a critical quality for a cake like this.

How was this all accomplished? It's really not too complicated. Here's how to make your own:
  • Set the bottom 9" cake layer on top of a cake-board (a round of corrugated cardboard) that is 2" smaller than the cake itself. Put that on a cake decorating turntable. Ice the top of the bottom layer. Put on the next layer and ice the top of that. (We just used plain white buttercream.) Put the third layer on top of that, but don't ice it.
  • Then, trim the top outside edge of the top layer, and the bottom outside edge of the bottom layer, carefully with a sharp paring knife in order to make the whole thing look somewhat rounded. 
  • Now ice the outside of the entire cake with one "crumb coat" of orange buttercream then, keeping the whole cake on the turntable if possible, chill the cake in the fridge. When that coat of icing is firm, then lay on a thick final coat (we used vanilla-flavored, but orange-colored, buttercream) of  icing. (We applied both coats of icing using a pastry bag with a large round tip; you start at the bottom and pipe fat stripes of icing upward to the stem area, then after each coat is piped you smooth the stripes down with a spatula. This just allows you to more evenly distribute the icing all over the cake with less angst--it's the easiest way.)
  • Now, cut a simple little tool made from a firm but flexible piece of thin plastic. It should look like a bat's wing with only two scallops cut out. We just cut ours from the lid of a clear plastic food container (make sure not to make the outer corners too pointy or they'll cut too deeply into the icing). This is used to carve the curved grooves in the pumpkin's surface. Starting at the bottom of the pumpkin, gently curve the piece upward, pressing it slightly into the icing surface. Swipe it all the way to the top of the pumpkin where the stem would go. Wipe off the plastic after every single swipe. Proceed until the whole thing is shaped as you wish.
  • If you have access to a cake-decorating airbrush, know how to use it, and want to add some dimension to the cake with color, you're golden. If not, don't worry about it. You already have a very pretty orange pumpkin cake! You can easily create a stem from fondant that you color green or brown, if you like, or just use something else for the stem. Those little fondant leaves are really easy too (you can use a special fondant cutter for those; all of this fondant related stuff is easily accessible at places like JoAnne's or Michael's craft stores--just check out the cake decorating aisle). Definitely make the fondant items ahead of time (days ahead of time is fine) so they can firm up before you need to use them on the cake.

    Don't be too fear-filled to try this. Like Halloween itself, cake decorating is meant to be enjoyable, and this was a really fun cake to create.

    Have a wickedly tasty Halloween!

    (If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, just click on the purple COMMENTS below!)

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010

    First Snow!

    Quote of the Day: 
    Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening
    by Robert Frost

    Whose woods these are I think I know.
    His house is in the village, though;
    He will not see me stopping here
    To watch his woods fill up with snow.

    My little horse must think it queer
    To stop without a farmhouse near
    Between the woods and frozen lake
    The darkest evening of the year.

    He gives his harness bells a shake
    To ask if there is some mistake.
    The only other sound's the sweep
    Of easy wind
    and downy flake.

    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    Our backyard woods after a stormy, snowy night.  Gale force winds that would have sent waves flooding our house if we lived near the ocean, instead, sent trees toppling, shingles rattling, and disturbing sounds that woke me from time to time.

    And, yet, it is so beautiful.

    It puts a smile on your face.

    And, hey, when life sends you snowstorms in October, make snowmen!

    I love the poetry of Robert Frost.  I think with a name like Frost you are destined to write poems about nature and snow and woods that are "lovely, dark and deep."  My oldest son is named Robert (we call him Bobby), but taking after the famous poet, he is a frosty guy.  He loves the cold and didn't think it at all odd to be going to school today in a t-shirt and shorts!  And, rolled his eyes at me when I suggested a jacket.  I sent him out the door with shouts to "drive carefully!"  and "I love you!"

    This first snow has made me oddly cheerful.  It's cozy, and beautiful, and invites a new kind of fun (see above pictures).  It also sparks memories of hot chocolate after a cold slide down a hill, fresh baked cookies on a snow day, and cuddling under a blanket and reading a good book.  And, yes, Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas!

    Journaling Prompt:  How do you feel about the First Snow? What are your memories of snow days, or storm days, or weather related adventures?

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    Rewarding Weekend

    Quote of the Day:  Rich man, poor man, come away.  Come to dance the Macabray. from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

    This is an excellent book to be reading the week before Halloween.  I was inspired to pick it up by this sweet, young thing...

    She was reading The Graveyard Book and learned of the song Danse Macabre which I happened to find in a classical book, level 4, challenging, yet accessible to her.  We looked it up on Wikipedia and heard a chilling recording.  Click here for the link.  I get excited about connections between the arts and our lives and when it brings out creativity in my students, and myself.

    Besides reading a spooky Halloween book, I have taken a bit of a blog break to spend some school-free days with my boys.  It was teacher convention time, so we visited a corn maze...

    Off they run!

    They're out there somewhere!

    Even big girls like to slide.


    That was a lovely walk between the corn stalks, talking to my friend about art and artist dreams, and losing and finding our kids.

    The next night, the boys dragged me to The Haunted Trail at the Arboretum.  Yikes!  One of the first guys got a real scream out of me because he was dressed in camoflage and popped out of the rustling leaves.  After that, I linked my arm in my 12-year-old and grabbed onto one of the twins.  As they say in my next of the woods, Uff-da!  Of course, the boys LOVED it.

    I also received a great blog award for literary excellence from Laura over at Pray for Rain.  Her blog has history and writing tips and I really like reading it.

    We are asked to name five of our favorite words, and name three favorite bloggers.


    Phantasmagoric (usually found in the works of Poe)
    Adventure (as in, Let's go on an adventure!)
    Rhythm (life, music, my heart, my passion)
    Fabulous! (It's just fun to say, especially when it's true.)
    Extraordinary (however you pronounce it, that's what I strive to be.)

    And, now for the Literary Bloggers that I follow:
    Roxane, at Peace Garden Mama for building up readers and writers.
    Shannon, at Book Dreaming because she believes that picture books have something for kids of all ages.
    And, Kittie, at The Block, for her post on passing books along to people in other countries and cultures in a mission to bring hope and education.

    Thanks for reading about all my recent adventures!

    Go. Create. Inspire!

    Journaling Prompt:  What adventures have you been on lately?

    Saturday, October 23, 2010

    HomemadeTaco Seasoning

    Once in a while I find a recipe that calls for a packet of taco seasoning.  I don't buy them because of a very bad taco dinner experience I had in high school when I didn't read the directions all the way through and ended up with a very salty taco filling.  Needless to say, I found that tossing seasonings into my meat was a better option than the little packets.  That is, until the times I need a packet of taco seasoning for this recipe or that recipe.  After passing yet again on a recipe because I just didn't want to buy a taco packet, I decided to make my own, using all the same ingredients I always use for tacos but in bulk.  Using this method means I always have some pre-made and ready to go.  The thing I love most is I can control how much salt, how much spice, how much of everything I add to the mix so I can ensure my family will love it every time. 

    Taco Seasoning
    Recipe Source: A Cook's Quest

    **As is this recipe will make about 6 tablespoons.  Or you can increase the amounts so you have more on hand.

    1 T chili powder
    2 tsp garlic powder
    2 T minced onion (the dried kind)
    2 tsp onion powder
    1/2 tsp oregano
    1/2 tsp paprika
    1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
    2 tsp cumin
    1 tsp salt
    1 tsp freshly ground pepper

    Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container.  I use 1-2 T per pound of meat depending on how strong I want the flavor.

    Total Cost-less than a dollar for 3-6 servings!

    Friday, October 22, 2010

    Orange-Zest & Yogurt Cheesecake . . . with Marcona Almond Brittle

    I experienced a few intriguing culinary firsts this past week. First among them, I learned how to stretch and shape strudel dough in my Pastry I class. I've wanted to witness this procedure, live and in person, for years. It's pretty much a lost art among home bakers. Picture a small cluster of students, all clad in white, solemnly pulling a small lump of dough into a tissue-paper-thin sheet that's several feet long and wide. I felt kind of like I was participating in an ancient ritual. Chef Roger, our normally rather taciturn teacher, was clearly pleased to demonstrate and explain the technique, regaling us with funny anecdotes of the portly Austrian chef who trained him.

    Secondly, I was introduced to the quince! A fruit that looks kind of like a cross between an apple and a pear, I'd never tasted one before. They're not common here in Michigan, and not a single student in our class could identify one when the Chef showed it to us.  The following day, I discovered some at the grocery store and scooped up four to take home, so now I'm on the hunt for a good recipe to try them out.

    Third on my list of firsts was the creation of a fondant-covered cake designed to look just like a wine bottle, made in my Theme Cakes class. I was pleased with the results but realized only after I brought it home that I'd made a spelling error in French, piped in curly script out of black buttercream, onto the bottle's label! (I should have spelled the word "petite" with no "e" at the end, using the masculine form! Quelle tragedie! Je ne parle pas tres bien francais.  Ah, well.)

    The fourth notable first was the creation of this fluffy yogurt-based cheesecake, along with the accompanying brittle garnish made from Marcona almonds. I'd never made a cheesecake that was so dependent upon yogurt before, nor had I ever tried the famous Spanish Marconas.

    I've read rave reviews in the past about these special almonds so when I stumbled upon them recently in Trader Joe's, I grabbed one of the little pouches. Consider yourself forewarned that these babies don't come cheap. They cost about the same as macadamias, but really are delicious. Not as hard and crunchy as regular almonds, they're also rounder and sweeter. A fine nut to use in brittle. I recommend them.

    About this recipe . . .

    Among my favorite dessert cookbooks is Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen, by Gina de Palma, and both recipes are adapted from it. I altered the recipes for the cake and the brittle a bit. I decided to flavor the cake with orange zest and a dab of orange extract, so it wouldn't be just plain vanilla.

    And also, because I didn't have any mascarpone cheese on hand (though I love that stuff!), I substituted cream cheese mixed slowly with a bit of heavy cream. And, I changed the brittle formula by using salted Marcona almonds instead of the indicated pine nuts. I figured the pine nuts' strong flavor in combination with the delicacy of the orange would be like putting a lion in a lace dress--not a good combo. Luckily, the changes I made worked out splendidly. Always a relief when this happens! 

    This crustless cake is rather airy and fragile in comparison to a typically dense cheesecake. It's a light fresh  alternative to the norm, and the addition of the buttery, sweet-salty, crushed brittle topping adds unique texture interest. Very tasty indeed.

    Orange Zest & Yogurt Cheesecake 
    with Marcona Almond Brittle 

    (For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

    For the cheesecake:

    Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and lightly butter a 10" springform pan. Sprinkle a couple teaspoons of granulated sugar in the pan to coat the bottom and sides; tap out the excess. Fit a couple sheets of foil tightly around the outside of the pan, beneath the bottom and up the sides. This will sit in a water bath while the cheesecake bakes, so the foil sheets really need to be able to keep the water out. You'll need a large pan that's deep enough to accommodate a couple of inches of water, and wide enough to hold your cake pan without it touching the sides.

    3/4 cup granulated sugar
    3 cups of plain, unflavored Greek-style yogurt (I used the higher fat variety)
    1 lb. of cream cheese, softened and slowly but thoroughly mixed with 3 Tbsp. heavy cream (In lieu of this, the original recipe calls for 1 and 1/2 cups of mascarpone cheese; I didn't have that on hand so this was a good substitute.)
    3 Tbsp. confectioners' sugar
    3 large eggs, at room temperature
    6 large egg yolks, at room temperature
    1/2 tsp. kosher salt
    1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (I used 1 and 1/2 tsp. of vanilla bean paste instead; it is a thick liquid that visibly contains vanilla bean seeds)
    1 tsp. orange zest
    1/2 tsp. orange extract

    In the large bowl of your electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat together the yogurt, the cream cheese-heavy cream mixture (or the mascarpone if you're using that), the 3/4 cup granulated sugar, and the confectioners' sugar on medium-low speed. Beat until it's smooth and creamy, for about 1 minute, stopping once to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl.

    One at a time, add in the egg yolks and the whole eggs, just until each one is incorporated, still at medium-low speed. Add in the salt and the vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste, then the zest and the orange extract.

    Pour the batter into your prepared, foil-wrapped, springform pan. Place the springform into the larger pan and carefully add water to come about halfway up the sides of the springform. Be careful not to let any water splash onto the batter.

    Cover both pans with a large sheet of foil, tenting it carefully so it doesn't touch the batter; make sure it covers the larger pan completely. Gently transfer this into your oven, on the middle rack.

    Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees. Bake for 20 more minutes, and then remove the foil tent. At this point, the original recipe says that the cheesecake should be "puffy but not cracked, jiggly but not liquid in the center." If that doesn't seem to describe what you see, just keep baking the cake until it's set. (I had to bake mine about 15 minutes longer.) 

    Remove the large pan from the oven. Let the cake cool in its springform pan, still set in the water bath, until the water feels lukewarm. Then remove the springform pan from the water, and continue cooling the cake until on a rack until there's no trace of warmth. At that point, remove the foil from the bottom and sides of the pan.

    Chill the cake, in its pan, in the fridge at least 8 hours before serving. Before removing the sides of the springform, run a thin knife along the inner sides of the pan. Be sure to refrigerate any leftovers, if there are any!

    To make the almond brittle:

    You'll need a cooking thermometer with a probe, or a candy thermometer.

    2 cups granulated sugar
    1/4 cup water
    4 Tbsp. unsalted butter (doesn't need to be soft)
    4 Tbsp. light corn syrup
    2 tsp. kosher salt
    1 and 1/4 cups Marcona almonds

    Use parchment paper to fully line a 13" x 9" jelly roll pan. Grease the paper lightly with butter. In a large heavy saucepan, stir together the water and sugar. Add in the corn syrup and the butter.

    Turn the heat on medium-high and immediately start monitoring the temperature with your thermometer. Bring the mixture to a boil.

    With the heat now on high, continue cooking until the mixture looks golden brown and registers 350 degrees on your thermometer. Immediately turn off the heat and remove the thermometer. Stir in the salt, using a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula, then stir in the almonds. Make sure you coat all the nuts.

    Turn the mixture out onto the buttered parchment in your jelly roll pan, and quickly spread it out so the nuts are in a single layer. (It will still be super hot at this point, so don't touch it with your hands.)

    Let it completely cool before you try to break it into chunks. Store the pieces in an airtight container, and keep it in a cool, dry place. To serve it with the cheesecake, crush a couple of small pieces and sprinkle them over the top of individual slices.

    (If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please just click on the purple  COMMENTS below!)

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Clearing up some confusion....

    Today I received a message asking me if I was quiting coupons.  I guess my Marinara sauce post indicated I wasn't supportive of shopping for items with coupons. I just want to say, for the record, I am a bargain shopping girl!  I hate paying full price for anything and will buy all my food on sale whenever possible. 

    My post about the sauce wasn't meant to deter anyone from coupon shopping.  I am a coupon girl and find great joy in saving over half (or more) simply by watching sales and using coupons.  I still intend to bargain shop, but instead of buying prepared foods I will be stocking my pantry with whole foods that are minimally processed.  Sometimes that means I might pay a little more but that is OK with me because I am still saving money.

    If you want to start coupon shopping, go check out the girls at Fabulessly Frugal.  Without them, I would be lost!

    Slow Cooker Marinara Sauce

    The minute I read this recipe I knew I would make it sooner than later for many reasons:
    • Since the middle of summer, I have been slowly weaning my family away from processed foods, opting instead for a more healthy approach. 
    • Because I have never been very successful at making homemade Marinara Sauce, I was still using the jarred varieties.
    • My attempts at the homemade version always ended up acidic, tangy, too sweet or some strange combination of flavors that wasn't enjoyable to eat. 
    • I wanted to make the sauce that tasted like an Italian grandmother had made it. 
    Finally, I found this recipe and it is not understatement when I say, this sauce has saved me from Marinara despair!  Yes, it is more expensive to make than getting a jar for free using coupons, however sometimes it's worth it to me to pay a little more for the flavor and health benefits of making my own.  It is rich and tomatoey, but not with that weird raw tomato flavor.  It is wonderful alone on pasta with a sprinkling of cheese or with the addition of Italian sausage or ground beef.  So next time you can get canned tomato products on a great sale stock up and try this sauce, you might never go back to the free stuff again!

    I am sharing this recipe over at Premeditated Leftovers, go take a look!

    Slow Cooker Marinara Sauce

    Recipe Source: Modified ever so slightly from The Cooking Photographer

    printable version
    **Note from The Cooking Photographer- This marinara cooks for about 10 hours, so it’s often easier to make this the day before you’ll be using it for your recipe.
Using good quality canned tomato products makes a big difference in this sauce. Also, If you have time, rubbing the leafy spices between the palms of your hands helps release their flavors.

    28 ounce can crushed tomatoes in rich puree
    29 ounce can no sugar tomato sauce
    6 ounce can tomato paste

    1 cup water
    1/2 cup good red wine
    1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

    3 cloves garlic, crushed and finely minced or pressed through a garlic press

    1 teaspoon sugar, to taste

    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon black pepper
    2 teaspoons onion powder

    1 teaspoon sweet paprika
    1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
    1 teaspoon dried oregano
    1/2 teaspoon dried basil
    1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

    1 large bay leaf or two small

    Stir the ingredients together and cook on low for 10 to 12 hours in your slow cooker, stirring occasionally.

    Total Cost- About $3.76
for 9 cups of sauce.  I froze half and used half for spaghetti
    Tomato Products-$2.00
    Olive Oil-$.20
    Spices-$.40 (give or take I haven't figured all my spice yet)

    Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    Cold Camping

    Quote of the Day:  It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling.  There was no wind.  The trees stood still as giant statues.  And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine.  Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.  from the first page of Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

    I went camping with the Flying Eagle Scout Patrol this past weekend.  We are in Central Minnesota where it starts to get very cold at night by mid-October.  In fact, last year at this time, we'd already had our first snowfall of the season.  We did not have snow, but temperatures dropped below 30 degrees overnight.  We slept in thin tents intended for summer camping.  I slept in a sleeping bag on top of an air mattress, sandwiched between my twin sons and piled three blankets on top of us.  I tried to read a little by the light of my flashlight, but my fingers got too cold, so I turned out the light, snuggled down inside the sleeping bag, pulled the top over my head, which was covered by my winter cap, and tried to sleep.

    I heard all the sounds described in Jane Yolen's book Owl Moon, including an owl!  I sleep lightly, and when you're outside in a thin tent, you hear every neighborhood dog, cars driving by, and the train.  But, somewhere in the night while drifting in and out of dreams wondering how on earth someone could survive being homeless in Minnesota in the winter, I heard the screech of an owl.

    A local group called New Pathways sponsors what they call a "camp"aign to raise awareness of homelessness in Central Minnesota.  The kids brought home a flyer about it last week.  They host an overnight experience where groups can sleep in a tent or a cardboard box.  They also raise money to help homeless people in our area and support the Soup Kitchen.

    I tossed the flyer in my recycle bag.  I thought, I can feel compassion for the homeless without sleeping in a tent on a cold October night.  After our scout night, I paused with our boys and said, "We just had our own 'Tent City' experience," and we talked briefly about how hard it would be to have to find shelter and food if you were homeless.

    I came home feeling grateful.  I always had options.  I didn't have to stay in that tent all night long.  I could have gone inside the house.  (We camped in the Den leader's yard.)  I could have gone home.  In the morning, I went home and made a pot of hot coffee.  I washed my face in warm water.  And, later in the day, I soaked in a hot bathtub and took a long nap on my comfortable couch.

    That campout taught me so much.  I learned that I can survive a night in a tent, wrapped in many blankets and snuggled close to the warm bodies of my boys.  I learned that I have so much while others have so little.  I learned that the will to live is strong, and your outlook is greatly improved by a hot meal and a warm bed. 

    The Coats for Kids drive is on for one more week.  I plan to drop off something warm for a child who needs the protection from the cold and the hope from someone who cares.

    Journaling Prompt:  Have you ever had a "Tent City" experience?  Have you contributed to or needed a social service? What are you feeling grateful for?

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    No Bake Peanut Butter Bars

    In this house peanut butter rules, add chocolate and everyone is in dessert heaven.  We will pass on anything sugar related if it means we will get some form of peanut chocolate decadence.  These Peanut Butter Bars were no exception.  Every single person stopped to comment on what I was preparing as I prepared it, and my husband literally did a little dance in the kitchen as he took his first bite.  Oh, and did I mention they were NO BAKE?  So we have, peanut butter, chocolate and no need for the oven, this cook is one happy lady!

    No-Bake Peanut Butter Squares
    Recipe source: Modified every so slightly from What Megan's Making

    printable recipe

    2 cups powdered sugar
    1 cup margarine or butter, softened
    1 cup peanut butter
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    2 3/4 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 36 squares)
    1 cup chopped peanuts (optional, Megan's version called for them but we don't like them in our house)
    1 cup of semi sweet chocolate chips
    2 T  peanut butter

    **you can use chunky peanut butter if you want, but we are strictly creamy people here so I didn't try it
    **If you want a thicker chocolate topping, use the whole package of chocolate chips and up the peanut butter to 1/4 cup

    Line square pan, 9x9x2 inches, with aluminum foil, leaving 1 inch of foil overhanging on opposite sides.

    Crush graham crackers.  I used my food processor, but a sealed plastic baggie works well too!

    Mix powdered sugar, margarine, 1 cup of peanut butter and the vanilla in large bowl. Stir in cracker crumbs and peanuts (mixture will be a little stiff). Press in pan

    Heat chocolate chip and 1/4 cup peanut butter over low heat, stirring frequently until smooth. Spread over crumb mixture. Cover and refrigerate about 1 hour or until chocolate is set.

    Remove from pan, using foil to lift. Fold back foil; cut peanut butter mixture into squares. Refrigerate uncovered about 2 hours or until firm. Cover and refrigerate any remaining squares.

    Saturday, October 16, 2010

    Kansas City Sue's Slow Cooker Chicken

    It is slow cooker season at my house.  It seems that when Fall and Winter are here I utilize my slow cooker more than ever.  There is just nothing better for me than coming home to the smell of dinner waiting, especially when the recipe is so utterly simple to make.

    Kansas City Sue's Slow Cooker Chicken was discovered at My Kitchen Cafe.  The chicken cooks all day in a flavorful, tangy sauce creating a moist delicious chicken perfect for any variety of side dishes.  I did exactly what Mel did and served ours over rice, spooning the extra sauce over the top.  Delicious!

    Kansas City Sue's Slow Cooker Chicken
    Recipe Source: adapted slightly from  My Kitchen Cafe

    Printable Version

    *Serves 6-ish
    4-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
    2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
    1/4 cup ketchup
    1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
    1/2 cup granulated sugar
    1 onion, diced
    1 tablespoon soy sauce
    1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
    1 cup low-sodium beef broth

    Place the chicken in the slow cooker. In a large bowl, combine all the other ingredients. Whisk well. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Cover the crockpot and cook on low for 6 hours. Serve with rice or noodles.

    Creative Spirit

    Quote of the Day:  Do not worry beforehand what to say.  Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. - Mark 13:11

    Did you know that the creative offices for Highlights for Children are located on Church Street in Honesdale, PA?  Churches of various denominations stand side by side, lining the street.  Old homes and parsonages where pastors and their families lived are scattered amongst the steeples.  This quick shot that I took from the minivan is a bit murky, not unlike our understanding of religion, ours and others' faiths.

    No matter where you are on your faith journey, or how you were raised, or what might have clouded your understanding of God, most people seek to love their neighbor, find peace in nature, and know that the great gifts of beauty, inspiration, and love come from an inner Creative Spirit that does not abandon us.

    At times, we feel broken and bent like this tree.  And, yet, something beautiful and interesting comes of this change in direction.  Whenever I gather with a new group of people, I feel a bit anxious.  Will I say the right thing?  Will they like me?  Will I be comfortable around them? 

    The Holy Spirit is there to guide my words and actions.  I was given intuition to discern the trustworthy from the wicked.  If I listen to that voice, when I let the Spirit guide me, I learn that in mere hours, I can be surrounded by loving and caring people who have gathered for a similar purpose, who truly want to create something good, and who want to bring out the best in me.

    By Saturday afternoon of our writer's retreat, after we'd shared our writing from a deep, emotional memory, we became bonded to one another in trust.  We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, to talk about the pain, and to realize that the characters we create must experience pain, be unsafe for a while, and become empowered through their stories.  Through our creativity we empower ourselves and others.

    Journey on, fellow Creative Spirits!  May our paths cross in spiritual and physical ways as we follow our callings to create art and music and literature that connects people and brings understanding to a world that often seems like Hell, yet gives us glimpses of Heaven.

    Go. Create. Inspire!

    Journaling Prompt:  Write about a time when you allowed yourself to be vulnerable and found true compassion and healing.