Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nature-al Gift Wrap

As much as I had planned having all the gifts wrapped and stacked by now, it just hasn't worked out that way. So, to get the little ones involved with the task, we put a little spin on the standard potato stamps with our own nature-stamped gift wrap. It was simple, fun, and has that "imperfect homemade charm" to it! My daughter, who loves to help wrap presents anyway, really loved wrapping presents in paper she made herself.

I took some blank paper that came as packing material with a shipment I received this week (hence the wrinkled look) and some acrylic craft paint. Add unused snippets of boughs and a few of our tree blocks from Christmas trees past, and we went to work.

I just love the way the grain from the wood shows through the stamped paint!

Roo found that by rolling the log instead of stamping it on one end only, she could recreate the look of an entire tree trunk imprint:

Such a fun way to spend a morning: Christmas carols playing in the background, cookies baking away in the oven, and stamping our own gift wrap. This day turned out to be one of the few times this Christmas season I actually felt like we had captured a quintessential holiday moment! Even though my youngest wasn't willing to get his hands dirty, he directed his big sister as to where to stamp and generally enjoyed the process as a spectator-sport only.

The wrapped gifts, complete with bows and tags look just precious as they wait to be placed under the tree on Christmas Eve. I think that this just might become one of our new holiday traditions!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fresh From the Oven...

The past few weeks have brought a few opportunities our way for indulging in some home-baked sweets. A couple weeks back, we needed something to accompany our impromptu forest picnic after chopping down our Christmas tree. Apricot-pecan cinnamon rolls, hot cocoa, and clementine slices seemed just the thing for that occasion. Then, a few nights ago, we celebrated our anniversary by trimming the tree (our annual anniversary tradition). Cherry-chocolate cream cheese cinnamon rolls and hot cider filled our tummies while we filled our tree's branches with ornaments new and old. Such a sweet way to celebrate another year growing and learning as a couple and as a family!

Generally speaking, I make cinnamon rolls from scratch. The whole kneading, rising, kneading, and rising process may be more time consuming, but I think it produces better-tasting, tender rolls. But, since the two cinnamon roll-noshing occasions I mentioned above came at busy times of the year for us, I decided to use a shortcut.

I've been holding onto a magazine clipping for no-yeast/no-rise cinnamon rolls (I think it may have come from Southern Living mag). The results were better than expected. Even my Dad, who doesn't care for cinnamon rolls (how is that possible, right??), raved about them and had second helpings.

So, if you are looking for a quick recipe for Christmas morning goodies, or just want a sweet snack while curled up on the couch, give these a try. Here are the recipes for the two different versions, based on the same basic formula. I imagine you could really get creative and come up with your own combinations too.

Apricot-pecan Cinnamon Rolls:

1 pkg. frozen biscuits (12 count)
1 (6 oz.) pkg dried apricots
All-purpose flour
1/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted

1 cup powdered sugar
3 Tbsp milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Arrange frozen biscuits, sides touching, on a lightly floured baking sheet in 3 rows of 4 each. Let stand 30-45 min. or until biscuits are thawed, but still cool to the touch.

Pour boiling water over the apricots and let stand 10 minutes (this makes the fruit nice and moist for baking. Don't skip this step!). Drain well and chop.

Pat the biscuits into a rectangle, pressing and pinching biscuit edges together.
Brush dough with softened butter. Stir together brown sugar and cinnamon; sprinkle over butter. Then sprinkle chopped pecans and apricots over the sugar mixture. My photo below shows the alternate recipe using cherries and chocolate, but the process is the same.

Roll up the dough, starting at one long end. Cut into 1-inch thick slices. Place rolls into a lightly greased 10-inch round pan or 9-inch square pan.
Bake at 375 for 35 min. or until just lightly browned. Cool slightly. When my cherry-chocolate rolls came out of the oven, they seemed lacking in chocolate, so I sprinkled on additional chips.
Stir together powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. Drizzle over rolls. I do this step once when they first come out of the oven and then again after they have fully cooled. This way, the first application of icing melts right into the rolls and the second application leaves a nice thick coating that hardens on top. I like the extra sweetness and "gooeyness" of two doses of icing.
*For the Cherry-Chocolate Cream Cheese rolls: Prepare apricot-pecan rolls as directed, substituting 1/2 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese for 1/4 cup butter, 1 (6 oz.) pkg dried cherries for the dried apricots, and 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips for the pecans. These rolls are pictured at the top of this post, while the apricot-pecan ones are here:

These cinnamon rolls do not have the tender, yeast-like taste of traditional rolls. But, if you are short on time or just don't want the hassle of kneading and rising, these rolls still meet the sweet, home-baked goodness expectations most of us are looking for this time of year.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Things that go beep in the night...

God is smiling right now. I know that He has a sense of humor because of what happened last night. I had the choice to either laugh or cry, so I chose to see the humor in it. Here it goes (Oh! And it's important to set the stage with this little tidbit: we have a vaulted ceiling in our bedroom. It's easily 15-17 feet high. I know you don't yet know why this fact is important, but you will soon):

My youngest child finds The Sandman to be his biggest foe. When the gentle Sandman cometh each and every night for every other child in the world, my son sees it has his chance to rebel and show off his freakish resilience to sleep. He fights it like it's the plague.

It is not at all uncommon for my son to sleep from 7 pm until 8 pm. One hour. One glorious, fleeting hour. Then, from 8 pm until midnight or 2 am, my husband and I take turns trying to coax our son back to sleep. (Oh how I wish I was exaggerating or embellishing here, but I'm not. Sadly, I am not). He often proceeds to wake again at 3 am, 4 am, and then he is usually up for the day around 5 am. There is lots of tossing and turning, flip-flopping around on the bed, screaming, crying, kicking, hair-pulling, and pushing. And let's not even discuss the antics on my son's behalf. {Just kidding. We don't kick or pull his hair. All the aggression is coming from him toward us during these nightly bouts. The poor little guy just hates to go to sleep. We practice peaceful parenting as much as humanly possible, but we do struggle to remain calm and patient come the 4 or 5 hour mark}.

Last night I had to do the whole bedtime routine solo. My husband had some important documents to print up, scan, and fax. So, he drove back to work to do those things. That left me to get both kiddos off to sleep. It's not a huge deal, but if Rascal puts up a fight, I'm on my own to deal with it.

Poor Roo, she waited patiently in her bed while I tried to get her brother to sleep. I told her I'd rub her back and belly once her brother was asleep. She fell asleep while waiting for me. :(

After one and a half hours of me nursing, singing, and patting Rascal in our bed, his eyes began to flutter closed. I waited another few minutes before I dared move my arm away from him, as he was curled up against it. I was almost ready to start celebrating my swift and successful sleep induction. Almost.

Then, approximately 11 seconds after he had officially nodded off (but while he was still in that easy-to-wake stage of early sleep), guess what happened? Go on, guess. I'm telling you that you will never guess because even I can't believe what happened and I was right there to witness it.

Wait for it...

The smoke detector began to chirp. You know that high-pitched chirp the detectors make every 30 seconds or so to warn you that the battery is low? It's an unbelievably loud and disturbing chirp when you are in a dark and quiet room listening to it. And I thought to myself, "Have we ever changed the battery in that thing?? Many a night I've laid awake in this bed for the last several years, looking up at that smoke detector. I've seen it's light blinking in the dark and often wondered just how long one battery could possibly last."

Well, it failed to last about 8 hours longer than I needed it to.

WHY couldn't it have waited until morning? Why couldn't it have started the warning chirps during the daytime, when the children were not using the room for nocturnal sleep? Why did it have to start now -- while my husband is gone and unable to fix it for me (vaulted ceiling, remember? Otherwise I would have fixed it myself).

Just for the record, to demonstrate how ridiculously uncanny the whole situation was, my husband has NEVER gone back to work late at night. He does not hold the kind of job that requires him to do any additional work once he gets home for the day. I remember once when he left his wallet at work, he didn't even drive back to work to get it. He just called and asked the guy that sits nearby to put the wallet in his desk until my husband could get it the next morning. My beloved never leaves me stranded at home in order to run back to work. Until last night.

So, having it MY way, I would have preferred for the chirping to start sometime over the long holiday weekend. When my husband was home for 4. straight. days. Looking for something to do. That would have been a good time to go out to the shed and get our rickety old ladder, maneuver it up our long, narrow staircase, move our queen-size bed out of the way, climb to the tippity top, perch himself precariously on the uppermost step, stretch his long arms up and still barely reach the smoke detector. But, instead, he had to do all of those things late at night. In the dark. After a super-exhausting day of work.

Oh, yes. I think God got a good little chuckle watching that scene play out in our bedroom last night.

And as for Rascal, he fell right back to sleep just as the sun was rising and his sister was waking and it was time for this tired Mama to get up and start her day. Does it count as "starting" a day when you never went to bed the night before?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hanging the Advent Stockings

I've finally done it. It was down to the wire, as usual, but I did it. I completed the Advent stockings and actually hung them up last night (or was it early this morning??). This little project has been in the works for almost four years now. Four years. But, better late than never, I say.

We've always had an Advent wreath on the table (and will continue to do so), but now that Roo is getting to the age when she is asking "How much longer until Christmas eve?" I thought it was high time I pushed myself to finish this craft. It's the Christmas "countdown" made visible.

I used a variety of winter/Christmas fabrics. I was so pleased to finally use some Superbuzzy fabric that I had been hoarding. I love Superbuzzy, but it can be pricey. When I use their fabric to sew clothes for the children, I always mourn the day when they outgrow the piece I made them (or stain it beyond saving). So to be able to work those particular fabrics into something that will never be outgrown or stained (I hope), but will be brought out year after year for this special time was such a pleasure!

Since this has been a tradition I have been hoping to implement for several years now, I've amassed pages and pages of stocking stuffer thoughts. I love the idea of filling the stockings with ideas for relishing the holiday season. This is certainly not an activity that has to focus on the material goodies stuffed inside (although, there will be some of that here and there). In fact, that is a trend I most definitely do not want to start with my little ones. That whole "expectation" thing is not on our agenda. With 24 stockings and two children, that would be 48 little gifts that I would have to dole out over the next few weeks. So, (ahem), that is not going to happen.

My plan is to use some of the things I would be doing anyway (giving new Christmas pj's, making a gingerbread house) and turning that into the "gift" tucked inside (a scroll tied with ribbon, explaining the special activity of the day. I will try to use as many symbols and drawings as I can since my children are not reading yet). For days when the gift is an actual present instead of an activity, and it is too big to put inside the stocking, then I will put a clue or series of clues in the stocking that will lead to where I've stashed the present. If it is something that I would be spending money or energy on anyway, why not include it as one of the 24 surprises? Plus, the great thing about young children is their genuine excitement over the simplest ideas.

I decided to go with removable tags on the individual stockings, noting the day (1-24). This was partly due to lack of time to sew or embellish each one with a number, and partly due to my urge to change things up year to year (or even within the current year). For instance, I don't always want Day 6 to be a huge stocking. Because what if I don't happen to have something on hand that is appropriately sized for Day 6? I want the freedom to change stocking sizes around to suit what I have planned for that particular day, year to year. Honestly, I am quite sure I will be scrambling a few times the night before, looking for just the right idea for the next day's stocking. So, if I need to change things around, I can.
Today, being December 1st (although the "real" Advent started Sunday), Roo peeped into the first stocking a found a polished stone in the shape of a heart. It symbolizes the love God has for us and the way my sweet little ones make my own heart swell with love.

I will be peppering my posts throughout this month with some of the plethora of ideas swirling inside my head. For the next few days, I have the following planned:

Day 2: Our Book Basket is currently sitting empty. It's time to break out the Winter books! Since we only have our seasonal books out for a short time, it's always a treat to see these old familiar friends again. I will be cutting my fair share of paper snowflakes tonight. When the children come downstairs in the morning, they will check the stocking for Day 2. Inside will be a scroll of paper telling them to look for the clues to the day's special activity (I will draw snowflakes on the paper or maybe I will tuck an actual paper snowflake into the stocking, thus prompting them to look for the snowflake's friends). Looking around, they will see and then follow the trail of snowflakes to the hiding place where I will stash our Winter storybooks. We will then fill our Book Basket with fresh titles and cozy up and read right after breakfast. {This activity falls under the category I talked about above: take something you would ordinarily do (drag the Winter books out of storage and read them) and make IT the stocking stuffer. Of course, adding a little fanfare (the snowflake trail) always helps! It costs nothing to do and makes the ordinary extra-ordinary}.

Day 3: Decorating our own wrapping paper. I have a few potatoes that I will cut into desired designs (here's hoping Roo chooses something simple!) and we will stamp blank paper with our painted potatoes. Even my youngest can participate. There's something so touching about a gift wrapped up in paper designed by sweet little hands.

Day 4: Set up our little snow village on the hearth. My daughter is just like me: she loves to arrange and rearrange things. In this case, it's the village of houses, bridges, barns, and figurines ice-skating and caroling. For me, this is basically a continuation of holiday decorating. But to my daughter, it's an EVENT. She will spend hours setting everything up just so!

That's all I have for tonight. I must get off to the craft room and work on a few presents. But, I have no shortage of ideas related to Advent stockings. So, check back if you're interested in hearing more. If you're not into Advent stockings this year (but you really should consider it for next year or down the road-- it really does help one slow down and savor the joys of this busy season), don't worry. I've got other topics to cover: food, books, and some craftiness.