Monday, December 31, 2012

Year in Review 2012

Happy New Year, my friends!  Just had to share this photo I took of my neighbor's cat trying to take a nap in the snow.  It seems like it snows about every other day during the holiday break.  The snow is pretty, but I'll be happy when the temps warm up again!

Here's a photo recap of my favorite moments in 2012.  As you can see, they involve gardening, baking, traveling and outdoor activities.

We had such a warm winter, the spinach was still green in the garden last January! No snow then.

And can you believe, I planted my first pansies in March?  My fall pansies were blooming all the way to Thanksgiving!

I've been fascinated with container gardening, and I made a successful attempt at growing peas in a reuseable grocery bag.

I also grew a ton of tomatoes this year, thanks to my husband, who dug up our backyard to expand our garden.  It was also fun to dig up the rainbow carrots I planted last spring.

I wasn't as successful in the kitchen as I was in the garden.  A couple of my favorite recipes were the skillet chocolate chip cookie, s'more bars (which are my new favorite), peanut butter sandwich cookies and homemade ketchup, made from all those tomatoes I grew.

I was fortunate to do quite a bit of traveling this year. I got tickets to the Blue Ribbon Festival in Des Moines, where I discovered bacon gelato!  I also visited my mom and stepdad in Arizona, and they took me to an Arizona Diamondbacks game. I traveled to Traverse City, Mich., for work, and found some free time to visit the nearby sand dunes. My sister and I ate our way through the Iowa State Fair, and I made a memorable trip to the White House for a tour of the kitchen garden.

Finally, I spent as much time as I could on my bike or jogging this summer.  I finished my first 5-mile race at the Iowa Speedway with my sister last spring.  All together, I ran more than 10 races in 2012, including the Dam to Dam 5K in Des Moines, where I wore a tutu to help promote Billy Elliot the musical at the Des Moines Civic Center.  I also completed the bike leg of the Hy-Vee triathlon with a great relay team, and I rode the Boland bike ride with my mom.

Even though 2012 was a terrific year, I'm really looking forward to 2013.  I have a feeling it's going to be the best year yet.  Thank you all for sharing the journey with me!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

PW's Christmas finger jello

So this is the story of how my sister ended up making this epically beautiful Christmas jello.

About a week ago, I pinned a photo of the Pioneer Woman's Christmas finger jello on Pinterest.  My sister is just getting into the whole Pinterest thing, so she saw my pin and decided she wanted to try to make it for our family holiday party.  I cautioned here that it would take a lot of time to make, but she still wanted to give it a go.

Fast-forward to last week, and my sister was snowed in her country home for two days during the recent blizzard.  Her husband was staying at a hotel near his work, so she was by herself for two days and couldn't leave until he came back home to clear the driveway.  He finally made it home on the night before our family gathering, and she insisted that he drive her to the grocery store so she could get the ingredients for this jello.

Then I got a phone call from my sister, asking where she can find the gelatin called for in this recipe.  She had never heard of unflavored gelatin before. Ha!  I told her to look for it in the jello aisle.

It took her all day to make this jello.  The hard part was waiting for each layer to set before adding the next, she said.  But it turned out beautiful!  I can't stop eating it, I love it so much!

She also made these adorable cookies, pretzels and cornflake wreaths.

And just to prove that this is finger jello, I ate it with my fingers!  It was perfect!

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, with lots of food, family and laughter. Does your family have a favorite Christmas treat that adds to the holiday joy?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Blizzard December 2012 & Snow-shoeing

We got our first real blizzard last week after nearly a year without much snow.  The weather folks say we got more than 10 inches in my neighborhood.  It was an extremely odd storm. On the first night, the blizzard delivered "thunder snow," with lightning and thunder.  My husband loves thunderstorms, so he kept taking photos of the heavy snow from our porches.  At midnight, we noticed that one of our trees had lost quite a few large branches, so my husband had to move his truck from the driveway.

We spent the next day shoveling all the snow from our driveway, porches and sidewalks.  My husband did most to the work, because we only have one shovel that works at lifting heavy snow.  And it was heavy!

Our neighbors' cat Levi, trying to take a nap in the cold.

Two days later, the road to work was still blocked by a stranded vehicle, so I took the day off and tried out my new snow-shoes on the nearby trail.  It looked like the snowmobiles had got there first, even though they aren't supposed to drive on the trail.

Breaking in my snow-shoes.  I got them for a 50 percent discount from Active Endeavors in West Des Moines.

I wish my legs were this long. Ha!

Very unflattering photo, but wanted to show off my rainbow colored balaclava.

I snow-shoed for about a mile. I wanted to go farther, though, because the snow was so beautiful. 

Did you get hit by the blizzard last week?  What did you do to keep you and your family entertained while you were snowed in?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Crochet ornaments

I love making homemade ornaments for our Christmas tree. And it gives me an excuse to try a new crochet project!  I saw these bright, fun ornaments on the Red Heart yarn website and wanted to give the pattern a try.  I had to order the celebration yarn on the Red Heart website, because I couldn't find it at the local craft shops.  These ornaments are bigger than they looked in the pattern photo, but they are still pretty cute.  Here's the patten if you want to make them yourself. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Iowa recipes: Cream Caramels

Are you all busy with holiday baking?  I still have lots to do this weekend, and my Christmas tree isn't up yet!  But we took advantage of a (light) snow day and made homemade caramels last weekend to give away to family and friends.

I've actually posted this caramel recipe on my blog before, but for some reason, it's gone mostly unnoticed. Maybe because I wasn't specific enough in the title?  But this is a terrific recipe that I found in an old Iowa church cookbook from back home, so I want to share it again.

My husband was thoughtful enough to whip out the camera and take some photos to document our caramel-making process.  I've been a little slack on the blog lately.  (Sorry about that.  I just haven't been spending as much time in front of a computer, which is probably a good thing!)

So the first step is getting the cream, corn syrup and butter to reach the boiling point.  It doesn't look like much yet.

But as the mixture starts to boil, it begins to "caramelize" and turn brown.  My husband used both the cheap-o candy thermometer we got at the neighborhood grocery store, and a digital thermometer just to double check the temperature.  You want the caramel to reach the "soft-ball stage," or 245 degrees.  If the temperature is any higher than that, the caramel will be too hard to cut and eat.  (We've learned this from experience, unfortunately.)

My handsome husband kept stirring the pot to keep the caramel from burning.  You can tell he's working in the kitchen, because the cupboard door is wide open. Ha!

When the caramel is finished, pour into pans and let it cool, then cut up in tiny pieces once it's firm.

Then we just cut up square pieces of wax paper to wrap the caramels up.  I was smiling at this point, but after wrapping caramels for an hour, I was pretty much sick of this chore!

It may look like a complicated recipe, but it really isn't, as long as you keep an eye the temperature.  And people are so impressed when you give them homemade caramels as gifts.  So it's worth the time and the little bit of mess.

Here's our homemade caramel recipe.  Enjoy!


Cream Caramels

  • 2 C. sugar
  • 3/4 C. light corn syrup
  • 1/2 C. butter
  • 2 C. cream
  • 1/2 C. finely chopped nuts (optional)

Butter 8 x 8 x 2-inch pan. Spread nuts in pan. Combine sugar, corn syrup, butter and half the cream in large saucepan. Heat to boiling over medium heat, stirring constantly. Stir in remaining cream. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, to 245 degrees on candy thermometer (or until small amount of mixture dropped into very cold water forms a firm ball). Immediately spread mixture evenly over nuts in pan. Cool. Cut into 1-inch squares. Wrap in squares of plastic wrap.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

King Arthur Flour brownies

On Sunday morning, I was checking out Facebook while eating breakfast. My husband walked in the kitchen to refill his coffee mug, and he asked me: "What is King Arthur baking today?"  I guess he's figured out that I'm a big fan of the King Arthur Flour recipes!

A few seconds later, I saw that King Arthur Flour posted a fudgey brownie recipe on its Facebook wall in celebration of National Brownie Day. Well, it just so happened that I've been craving brownies and was looking for an excuse to bake a batch.  So I followed my husband's advice and tried this favorite brownie recipe from King Arthur Flour.  I was impressed by all the good reviews these brownies have earned, and the recipe didn't disappoint.  And I loved the shiny crust!  Just like the boxed brownie mixes, which I also love. But it's even more fun to eat brownies that I've made myself from scratch.  Give the recipe a try next time you have a craving for brownies.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Brown sugar cookies

Have you been busy baking Christmas cookies?  I haven't even started my holiday baking. I'm just not feeling it yet, I think because of the unseasonable warm weather.

I've been admiring all the beautiful cookie recipes on Pinterest right now, but for some reason, I couldn't get this recipe from the latest King Arthur Flour Baking Sheet newsletter out of my mind.  It's so simple, I had to see why the authors were raving about it.  And these brown sugar cookies were excellent.  I added toffee chips, and I'm glad I did.  These would make a great "lunchbox" cookie, if you're looking for a simple and sweet snack.  Here's the recipe, if you want to try it yourself.


Brown Sugar Cookies
From King Arthur Flour's Baking Sheet

  • 3/4 C. unsalted butter
  • 1-1/4 C. brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2-1/4 C. flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 C. bittersweet chocolate chips, optional
  • 1 C. toffee chips, optional

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets, or line with parchment.

In large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg; scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Mix into the butter and sugar until combined; scrape the bowl, mix for a few seconds more. Stir in chips if using.

Scoop by the tablespoon on the prepared baking sheets and bake for 8 to 12 minutes, just until the edges turn golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool on the pan for crispy cookies; for chewier cookies, transfer to a rack. Yield: 3 dozen plain, 4 dozen with add-ins.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Joy the Baker's Chewy Almond Coconut Raisin Bars

My husband and I eat a lot of granola bars because they make great portable snacks when we're at work. I've been trying out different homemade granola bars, just for fun. These granola bars from Joy the Baker are my new favorites.  They were crumbly, but not to soft; sweet, but not hard as a rock from all the sugar (like some of the bars I've tried).

I found the recipe in the Joy the Baker cookbook (which I love!), but here's another version I found online. Give them a try if you're looking for a break from holiday cookies.
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