Monday, December 17, 2012

Mom's Christmas List

Below is a copy of the letter that I sent out to my children.

Dear Children,

Every year you ask me what I want for Christmas, and every year I tell you the same thing -- well-behaved children who love God.  That's what God got on the first Christmas ... if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me. 

However, I know that you are all quite generous and want to give me more than that.  So here's what I'd like (in addition to the above-mentioned):  TIME!  My lists of what I have to do, what I'd like to do, and what I daydream about doing make me long for more time, not more stuff.

So, be creative.  If you've already bought me a spatula or a book or a $300 sweater, explain how it will give me more time.  Or fix a dinner or fold some towels.  You're not too old to come up with an old-fashioned coupon book.  I'd gladly have some of your time.  I love gifts because they're an expression of the time and effort the giver took in selecting them.  That's why I'm not very good at giving lists.

I can most honestly and profoundly say that having you as children is one of the greatest gifts in my life!


Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Etsy Shop

At my house, I often say, "I'm the clever one."  Not that everyone agrees, but I say it nonetheless.  Sometimes, I'm also the crafty one.

When I was a kid, I would watch my mother sew, paint, crochet, and attempt a lot of other handmade crafts.  My siblings and I wore a lot of outfits that our mother had made.  And we wore them proudly because they were so well-made.  I learned from my mom that busy hands were happy hands.

I know how to knit basic stitches and have made wash clothes, scarves, sweater vests, and afghans the size of a double bed.  In need of something new to make, I had a fortuitous meeting with a friend who mentioned a knitted, beaded bracelet.  I bought a kit with directions and quickly became addicted.  Even though I don't wear a lot of jewelry, I can appreciate pretty things.

After I'd made 7 or 8 bracelets, I figured I should do something with them.  A few are set aside for gifts; but I needed to find an avenue to make some money off the rest.  And, making a little money would also help justify the expense of the huge selection of beads that I've purchased.

Enter Etsy!  I've opened my own shop, Jasper Gate,  selling these beautiful hand-made creations.  My original name choice was "007 Mom," but that was taken.  So, I chose one of the gems listed in the book of Revelation.  Jasper is one of the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem, and is found on Aaron's breastplate.  (See the Precious Stones website.)

My initial offerings on Etsy.  Check them out!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I had two writing options this month.  In addition to writing comments on my students' papers and the regular e-mails for my school board gig, I thought it would be good to challenge myself.  This month is NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) and NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  What to do? What to do?  I could either challenge myself to post a daily blog entry or to write 50,000 words towards a novel. Since "biting off more than I can chew" is one of my characteristic traits, I chose to begin that novel I always thought I should write.

I'm not necessarily regretting my decision because I'm enjoying the process.  But, do you have any idea what 50,000 words looks like?  It's roughly 65 pages of single-spaced text.  For me, at 500 words an hour, it's over 100 hours of typing.  It's meant leftovers and piles of dirty laundry.  It's been ignoring pleas for help with homework and screening calls on my cellphone.  Instead of falling peacefully asleep, I think about that next chapter. (Unfortunately, the brilliant ideas I have at 1 a.m. are forgotten by 7 a.m.)

On the flip side, do you know how many distractions a person can concoct in order to procrastinate?
"I'll think more clearly once the dishes are done."
"If I just fold laundry for an hour, I'll have more time for myself in the long run."  (Really?  How does that work?)
"I'd better check my e-mails and Facebook. Someone may have posted something clever that will inspire me."
"Bathroom break."  (There is a price to pay the multiple cups of coffee that writers seem to think they need.  I'm a novice, what do I know?)

And so it goes.  About halfway through, I strangled my inner editor and traded my tight, concise writing inclinations for abstract, over-the-top ramblings.  After all, 50,000 words is 50,000 words!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Elections, Again

Four years ago, I wrote a short response to the 2008 elections.  I wrote it because, even though some of the people I had voted for were not elected, it was important to me that I look forward in a healthy way.  And I wanted to encourage others to take the high road.

I could have just copied the text of that blog into today's post.  (Go here to read it for yourself.)   I'm just as discouraged by the negative ads and mud-slinging. I'm disappointed that so many bright, intelligent people have stooped to insulting and maligning candidates and the people who support them.  I've read the rhetoric from Republicans and Democrats and have been struck that facts and details are notably replaced with inflammatory remarks and accusations.And now I feel even more strongly that we need to guard our hearts and tongues.

One of the differences for our family this time around is that my two youngest children are old enough to be involved in political discussions at home and at school.  They, too, have felt the pressures of this election season.  Many times they found themselves outnumbered by students who had values and voting preferences opposed to theirs.  Like me, they chose to be gracious and to listen respectfully. As a family, we've chosen to value people as individuals and our relationships with them over politics.  As I told them one day, I'm just fine being confident in my convictions without having to argue my points or to prove that I'm right to someone else.

Our nation is in danger of further polarization.  As we look forward, we only do ourselves a disservice if we continue to defame and revile opposing political parties or any of our elected officials.  Christians are charged by God to pray for all in authority.
"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (I Tim. 2: 1 - 4)
  Let me encourage you as I did four years ago.  If you really want to see real "change" in your community or nation, take special care about what's in your hearts and on your tongues.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Italian Cheesecake

Now that I have fresh ricotta, I have to come up with some new recipes.  The only recipe for which I've used ricotta in the past is lasagna, however I've usually used the cheaper cottage cheese.  One evening I served a bowl of fresh ricotta and some blackberry jam.  Mixing the two, my son commented that it had a cheesecake flavor.  Back to my computer I went looking for a good cheesecake recipe that uses ricotta.

I found it at  Italian Cream Cheese and Ricotta Cheesecake.  Because my husband has to eat gluten free, I adjusted it a bit.  I had some thick, firm homemade sour cream that I used instead of the required cream cheese and also substituted the sour cream at the end of the recipe with strained yogurt. I also made a smaller recipe for a pie plate instead of a spring form pan.  (I rarely make a recipe exactly as it appears.  If you want to see the original version, check out the link.)

Italian Ricotta Cheesecake -- Gluten free
8 oz. cream cheese
8 oz. homemade ricotta cheese (or store-bought)
3/4 c. white sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 t. lemon juice
1/2 t. vanilla
2 T. cornstarch
1 T. gluten-free flour (I use Bob's Red Mill all-purpose flour substitute.)
1/8 t. xanthan gum
1 c. sour cream
1/4 c. butter, melted and cooled (which I forgot to add)

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly grease a 9 inch pie plate.
2.  Mix the cream cheese and ricotta cheese together in a mixing bowl until well combined.  Stir in the sugar, eggs, lemon juice, vanilla, cornstarch, flour, and butter.  Add the sour cream last.
3.  Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
4.  Bake in the preheated oven 1 hour; turn the oven off and leave in the oven 1 hour longer.  Allow to cool completely in refrigerator before serving.  Serve with your favorite fruit toppings.

If you go to the allrecipes link, you can read other comments by other cooks.  This turned out to be a deliciously light dessert.  Though I love graham cracker crusts, this is a good crustless version.  We served it with cherries and blueberries.

Try it, you'll like it!

Three Cheese Experiments

Below are my three experiments, continuing my adventures with milk.  The first was exactly by the recipe that I found on the "Chef in You" website.

Ricotta Cheese #1
2 quarts whole milk (I didn't use organic as the website suggests)
1 cup whipping cream (again, not organic)
3 Tbsp white vinegar
1/2 tsp salt

1.  In a heavy saucepan, combine mile and cream.  Warm in moderately high heat until the surface becomes foamy and steamy and a thermometer reads 180 - 185 degrees.  Don't let the milk boil.

2.  Remove the pot from the heat.  Add the vinegar and stir gently for 30 seconds; the mixture will curdle almost immediately.  Add the salt and stir for 30 seconds longer.

3.  Cover the pot with a clean towel and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours.

4.  Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth, allowing several inches of overhang.  (Note:  I didn't have "butter muslin," just the cheap grocery store stuff.  The weave is far too loose and the curds and why ran through.  A cotton tea towel worked much better.)
5.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the colander.  (Note:  It would take far too much time to spoon a half gallon of stuff into a colander. Using a metal mesh colander and a tea towel set  over a large bowl, I simply poured it all over the towel/colander set-up.)

6.  Let the ricotta stand, stirring occasionally.  I let mine sit for a couple of hours, squeezing the liquid out every now and then.  When you're satisfied with the consistency of the cheese, it is ready and can be refrigerated.  It will last at least 4 days.

The next cheese experiment occurred because I had a batch of yogurt that didn't set.  I tried the suggestion from another website and let it incubate a little longer.  Still no yogurt.  Thankfully, this yogurt maker had a further suggestion for using failed yogurt.

Ricotta Cheese #2
1 quart of "failed" yogurt

1.  Heat the yogurt until the white curd is visibly separating from the greenish, watery whey.
2.  Set a colander over a bowl and line with a towel.
3.  Pour the entire contents, "curds and whey," into the colander.
4.  Allow the cheese to drain for a couple of hours.  As with the cheese above, I occasionally stirred the mixture and squeezed the liquid out.
5.  Refrigerate and use.

Since I was spending the morning in the kitchen, I thought I might as well give a little time for experimenting, as opposed to following any specific recipe.  I really don't know what you would call the result.  It was like a super-thick sour cream/cream cheese/quark kind of thing.

Not-Ricotta Experiment
1 quart whey strained from the week's batches of yogurt
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3/4 cup yogurt that didn't set right.
1 T. vinegar

After incubating it for a while longer, I reheated the mixture to 190 degrees and added the vinegar.  Like the other ricotta recipes, I let it set for a couple of hours before pouring it in a colander/ tea towel set up.  The whey drained out, leaving sour cream.  It got pretty think, and was really delicious.

More Deliciousness -- Ricotta Cheese

This has turned out to be a dairy-oriented summer for us!

It started with digging out our old yogurt makers and using them for making fresh yogurt for my family.  We also decided that we like to strain our yogurt so that it would be thicker.  Store-bought yogurt has thickeners (pectin or gelatin), and some of our batches with skim milk turned out pretty runny.  Whole milk makes a much thicker yogurt.

Straining the yogurt gave us a significant amount of whey.  I wondered, "Does this stuff have any nutritional value?" and "What should I do with it?"  One website, Livestrong, gave instructions for making ricotta cheese with the whey leftover from the strained yogurt.  I tried these instructions twice, and it failed both times.  But that got me thinking  (which I do on a frequent basis, anyway).  "Is there another way to simply make ricotta cheese?"  And, viola!  I found multiple recipes on-line.

Before I explain this wonderful process, let me explain what whey is to other novices like myself.  In yougurt and cheese making, two main proteins exist:  whey and casein.  The liquid that separates from the yogurt is whey.  The uninitiated, like me a little while back, think that when they see this on the top of commercial yogurt that it's a sign that it is going bad.  While some pout this down the drain, yogurt whey contains all of the vital amino acids that make a protein "complete."  It also contains calcium, potassium and vitamin B-12.

Now to my ricotta cheese experiments.  One morning, armed with whole milk, cream, vinegar, whey, and yogurt, I put my hand to making my own soft cheese in my own kitchen.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Simple Granola

I've written about our family's increased use of yogurt.  Along with yogurt, the kids are eating more granola.  They've always loved granola mixed with other cereals, yogurt, or ice cream.  I found that I just couldn't get to the grocery store enough to keep up with demand.

Solution:  make my own.  Again, like granola, this was something that I used to do about 20 years ago when the older kids were little.  I went to my faithful More-with-Less Cookbook and an old recipe I used to use.  It's one of the simplest recipes you'll ever find.

Basic Granola
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

7 cups dry ingredients (at least 3 - 4 cups oatmeal)
1 cup liquid ingredients.

Mix the dry ingredients and spread them in a jelly roll pan or large roasting pan.  Mix the liquid ingredients and pour over the dry ingredients.  Mix with a spoon or a pastry blender.  The pastry blender will result with a finer granola, as opposed to a chunkier granola.

Bake for 60 minutes, stirring the the granola every 15 minutes with either a spoon or a pastry blender.  Let the granola cool before storing in a container.

About the ingredients:
Dry ingredients can include:  quick oats, old-fashioned oats, white flour, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, bran, wheat germ, dry milk, sugars, oat bran, sunflower seeds, coconut, chopped almonds, raisins, cranberries, mixed dry fruits, cinnamon

Liquid ingredients:  Milk, water, oil, melted butter, juice, honey, vanilla, maple syrup, peanut butter, (note:  I try to use at least 1/3 c. of oil/butter)

Making Yogurt

With my old yogurt makers out of storage and dusted off, I've rediscovered a simple love for making and eating fresh yogurt not doctored with sugars, gelatins, and other misc. ingredients.  With a yogurt maker, the process is really pretty simple.  I've found a few websites (here, here, and here) that were especially helpful. Some people have alternate ways to incubate the yogurt using a crockpot, the oven, or a cooler with a heating pad.  I'm glad I have my yogurt maker because it takes some of the guess-work out of the process.

Here's my process:
1.  Heat 1 quart of milk to at least 185 degrees.  (In the old days of unpasteurized milk, they suggested bringing the milk to a boil.  I did this once and had burned milk on the bottom of the pan.  If you want more information about the "whys" of milk temperature, follow this link.)

2.  Cool the milk to 110 degrees.  My yogurt maker has a scoop with a built-in thermometer that is marked with a range of 100 - 110 degrees.  At this point I add the starter with my scoop, which is about 2 tablespoons.

3.  Put the yogurt in the small 6 oz. cups and place in the yogurt maker.  When the yogurt maker is plugged in, it keeps the yogurt at a constant temperature.  I've never measured mine, but the pros say the temperature should stay between 85 and 100 degrees.

4.  Incubate for 10 hours, according to the directions for my 2 makers.

5.  Refrigerate for a couple hours before eating.  This further allows the yogurt to set.

6.  I strain about half of my batch to make a Greek-like yogurt.  Homemade yogurt is a little runnier than commercial yogurt because it doesn't have gelatin or pectin.  I use a paper coffee filter and a mesh colander to strain out the whey.  I like the result of this over using  multiple layers of cheese cloth or even a cotton tea towel.  The resulting whey has NO milk in it, which by the way makes it impossible to use for making ricotta cheese.  Sometimes I let the yogurt strain for 20 minutes and sometimes for 2 hours.  I like to scrape the sides and bottom of the filter; this seems to help the straining process.

Lots of websites give more detailed information and may answer specific technical questions.  I'm more of an experimental cook who likes to view directions/recipes as suggestions as opposed to commands.

Next up:  making ricotta cheese!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Loving Yogurt.

This summer, with kids eating breakfasts and lunches at all hours of the day, yogurt has become a hot item with my family.  (I say that figuratively since they had been reaching into fridge for their little cups of Yoplait, Gaymont, or Old Home yogurt.)

I started inspecting the ingredient lists on the packages at the grocery store.  So many of them had sugar and high fructose corn syrup high on the list.  In fact, in the Yoplait yogurt, 63% of its calories are from sugar.  Even the trendy Greek yogurts have a high sugar content.  I decided that it was time to crawl into the depths of my kitchen cupboard to find the yogurt makers that I used when the kids were little.

Years ago I'd gotten 2 yogurt makers at garage sales.  They were both Salton 5-cup yogurt makers with simple instructions, and I used them quite a bit at that stage of my life.  Thankfully, I saved the manual/ instruction booklet.  In simplest terms, you heat the milk, cool the milk, add the starter and incubate it.

The result is a most beautifully smooth and creamy yogurt.  I've been straining it using a mesh colander and a paper coffee filter. The whey drains out, leaving Greek-syle yogurt.  When I have pictures, I'll post them along with directions.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Own Adventure

Some people travel the world over on a regular basis.  They hop on a plane with their carry-on’s and end up in other countries.  They do it all the time while so many of us stay pretty close to home. They’re travel-weary from airports, luggage, and diet cokes and pretzels.

I, on the other hand, am a mom of 7 who has homeschooled for twenty years.  When my children were little, it was enough of an adventure to go to the grocery store and the library on the same day.  My husband and I have gone on some big trips together, but I’ve only flown by myself once.

So here I am at 50 years old planning “Mom’s Great Adventure!”  I was so excited when I booked my flight that my hands were shaking!  I decided my itinerary and researched inns, guest houses, and train schedules.  I was going to travel to another country all by myself. 
Unfortunately, my trip fell on the heels of Christmas celebrations. Cooking, cleaning, decorating, buying and wrapping presents, and spending quality family time had almost worn me out.  Following Christmas Day, I had a day and a half to get myself and my family ready for my 12 day absence.  I must admit that I spent very little time on the house, children, and meals.  But, I was packed and ready to go on time, even if I was shaking a bit in my boots.

How to Get to England

All my life I’ve wanted to go to England.  As a little girl I’d put on a fake British accent.  In college, as an English major, I devoured British novels and poetry.  Once at a thrift store I found a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir which set me on a long path of reading everything about the Tudor dynasty that she’s written.

When my daughter left to work on her Master’s degree at Durham University in England, I would ache whenever I saw her pictures.  I knew that this was finally my opportunity.  Whenever I tell my husband that I want to do something out of the ordinary that will cost a lot of money, he tells me that I should pray the money in.  So, I did.
I teach at a homeschool tutoring academy.  Since I get paid per student, I started praying for more students.  I wanted enough for another daughter’s college tuition AND a trip to England.  I started with only 20 students.  That wasn’t enough.  I prayed some more; I also gave some money as “seed.”  Voila!  I got 16 more students.  Just looking at the numbers, I had enough for both needs.  However, I forgot to figure in the tithe, but that didn’t bother me.  I knew that if God could bring in more students, He could also provide what I needed for the trip any way He wanted.

 My sisters and I had gotten vouchers after a trip last winter for $600 with US Airways.  They agreed that I should use it on this trip.  I found a flight, applied the voucher, and bought a round-trip ticket to England for $284.  When I checked my receipt, they had only charged my American Express card $128.  A dear friend gave me a hundred dollar bill for the trip, making this a $28 trip to England!  Now, isn’t God good?