Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I Don't Want to Get My Hopes Up...

The weather forecast for Christmas Eve:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mutt Monday: Holiday Spirit

What is it about the holidays that makes us eat more?

Okay, honestly, she does that everyday.

Every Christmas that I can remember (and often at other random times throughout the year) my family would watch "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that several of my North cousins got involved in theater, and might have had something to do with that time that I forced them into performing a play I'd written called "The Christmas Tree That Ate My Mother" one Christmas Eve (more on that some other day).

Anyways, the favorite musical number turned out to be "Sisters," which if you haven't seen the movie:

Later spoofed in the movie (and in real life by my cousins Chad & Chris--wanna send me the video, guys?) by Bing & Danny:

All anyone in my family has to do is hum a few bars from this song, and we all crack up. It seems like the mutts are getting in on the action:

We're also very happy to be visited by my grandparents this week, Joe's great-grandparents, and they have integrated very well into the napping landscape.

The Feline Overlord tried to nap with Nonnie about an hour before this shot was taken, but was disturbed by Nonnie's pleas for us to remove the cat from her head. Can't imagine why she'd want us to do that....

Sunday, December 20, 2009


One of the first Watkins family Christmas traditions ever (actually, probably one of the first traditions period) is baking gingerbread. I started the first year that Bill and I lived together, and have kept it going for the past 4 Christmases. I think I made about 70 loaves that first year. I don't know what got into me, but we brought in loaves for everyone in both of our offices, mailed them to friends and family members, and ate about 20 loaves on our own. This was before I had my stand mixer, so I stirred every batch by hand. My right arm was approximately 3 times bigger than my left by Christmas. They have been mailed to several states and both Iraq and Afghanistan with fairly positive feedback across the board. I've recently tried experimenting with lower-fat and gluten-free versions, but I still have a long way to go in those departments.

As the years go by, the numbers of loaves being mailed out have dwindled due to astronomical postage prices from Oklahoma to everywhere else in the world, so I have decided to reproduce my recipe here in case readers want to make their own. A word of warning: if you are a bah-humbug type of Christmas avoider, do NOT make this bread. It will make your house smell like ginger and spice and everything nice and you'll have visions of sugarplums dancing in your head as you sing carols uncontrollably at the top of your lungs. Consider yourself warned.

Watkins Family Gingerbread
The original recipe that I print out and tape to my kitchen cabinets every year can be found here, and I only slightly modify it as I go. I've made so many batches of this stuff that I don't really need the recipe, but it doesn't feel like Christmas until it's taped up. One of these days I'll actually take the time to print it out on nice Christmas-y paper and frame it so it actually looks decorative instead of like I'm cramming for finals.

I start by creaming a cup of butter with a cup of brown sugar until light and fluffy:

Add 2 eggs and beat well. Then combine a cup of molasses (unsulfured) with a teaspoon of baking soda and a cup of boiling water. It will smell, sound, and look like science class:

The original recipe says to dump this in with the creamed butter mixture, but I like to add it alternatively in thirds with the flour for a better consistency. Thank you, Alton Brown, for teaching me that one. Add a total of 2 and 3/4 cups of flour alternatively with the molasses mixture to the creamed butter, with the mixer on low to avoid hot splashes of molasses. Voice of experience here.

Add 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and get excited. It's spice time. The original recipe calls for 4 tsp ginger, 2 tsp cinnamon, and 1 tsp each of allspice and cloves, but I dump at least a tbsp and a half of ginger in there, a full tbsp of cinnamon and heaping tsp of allspice and cloves, plus a pinch extra if I feel like it. I go through a LOT of spice. That's why when I stumbled upon a spice sale at my grocery store, I freaked out. A tiny jar of ground cloves is normally $8, but I got mine on sale for $.99! A Christmas miracle? I think so. I also have started zesting some orange into the mix to add brightness to the flavor.

Anyway, when you're all mixed up, you'll look like this:

Here's where I'll break and let you know that I used to make the lemon glaze as directed in the original recipe. It was good, but very very messy and sticky. This year I experimented with sugaring the pan and making a cinnamon-sugar topping, like I did in the Amish Friendship Bread earlier this fall, and had AMAZING results. I can't explain the tasty, I can only testify that it is mighty.

Once your pans are sugared and your oven is 350 degrees, fill 'em up. Sprinkle a generous helping of the cinnamon sugar mix on top of the loaves and toss them in the oven. It takes around an hour, give or take, but I never set the timer. At this point I can tell by smell, and I check with a cake tester. The finished product will look like this:

Well hello, you. Pull them out and let them cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes, then remove from the pans and allow to cool completely. If you can. These wrap up and freeze VERY nicely, obviously mail really well, and generally taste better the second day. Now, before you start thinking that I'm some Christmas fairy or something, I have to be brutally honest and admit that my kitchen looks thusly when I'm finished:

It's worth it. Trust me. Remember, you're going to be so busy singing carols loud enough for the neighbors to hear that you won't care about cleaning up.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Okay people, for those of you who know me or are getting to know me from the blog, you probably are aware that Christmas is a big deal to me. I can't explain it, but I'm hooked on the holiday. If I were elected president, I'd probably declare Christmas a year-long celebration.

That said, I feel very strongly about one of the major symbols (albeit pagan) of the season: the Christmas tree. My tree rules are as follows:

1. The tree must be real. I have ALWAYS had a real Christmas tree, and after reading this article about the environmental and economic impact of real vs. fake trees, I felt less guilty about cutting down a tree that spent many years growing tall. I've also resolved to rent a chipper and make awesomely beneficial mulch from our tree, which will be used in around the blueberry patch.

Last year's Christmas tree was the biggest tree I've ever had. The thing was at least 9 feet tall and round...I mean, we're almost talking Griswold tree. Unfortunately, it was dead about a week before Christmas and it was all we could do to keep a few needles on the branches until December 26th when we tore that sucker down.

This year we were all gung-ho to cut down our own tree so that it was as fresh as possible (and resolved to actually water the darn thing) and we even found a local Christmas tree farm just a few miles from our house. Unfortunately, they'd only been growing trees for 4 years, so they were all about 4 feet tall. Very nice and good for local economy/sustainable/small carbon footprint/yadda yadda, but I've already succumbed to my yuppy enviro-guilt this Christmas, and the only way a 4-foot tree would work in our living room would be to put it on the coffee table on a stack of phone books. Not happening. So we paid the nice man for one of his pre-cut trees which had been trucked in from North Carolina, swallowed our guilt, and went home. I'm actually planning to go back to the tree lot this summer and tag a tree for us to cut down next year or the year after, depending on how fast they grow.

2. Ornaments are sentimenal, not stylish. I'm not sure when the trend of having, well, trendy Christmas trees got started, but I am not a big fan of matchy-matchy Christmas trees that coordinate perfectly with the living room decor and are full of non-descript glass balls in 2 colors and giant cascading ribbons, also in 2 colors. Plus, I am a color traditionalist when it comes to Christmas decorating--red and green, please, with a little gold and white thrown in here and there. No offense to anyone who has the HGTV look going on right now--I know I am in the minority. With the exception of a few random balls purchased last year from Walmart to help fill out our giganto tree, all of the ornaments we use were gifts or from our childhoods. I think it really hit home that I was married when I picked up my box of ornaments from my parents' house to take home to MY house.

I can honestly say that almost every ornament on our tree means something to us, and even though the tree is a bit sparse now, I'm looking forward to filling it up with Joe's ornaments, etc.

It's probably not a surprise then to know that I'm not a fan of the bow topper trend, either. They seem sort of impersonal to me. Now, I don't really care if you've got a star or an angel or a picture of Chuck Norris up there, but it should mean something. Here's ours:

The head of this angel came from a doll that actually belonged to my grandmother, who passed away when I was 3. She had a few of these dolls in her house and they are one of the very few memories I have of her. My mom and aunt had the dolls made into Christmas angels a few years ago and the wave of memory that I get when I look at her is overwhelming.

3. Presents go under the tree. This is big. We all can acknowledge that Christmas is mainly a holiday for the children, but nothing brings out the holiday spirit in even the biggest too-cool-for-Christmas grinches like a big ole box under the tree with their name on the tag. So as soon as they are wrapped, presents go in their rightful position where they act as temptation and up the excitement factor for everyone within view.

Sidebar: Presents are not to be opened before Christmas. Even when I was a kid, I felt like this was cheating. Opening Christmas presents on any other day cheapens them, in my opinion. Who cares if Santa comes on the 25th if I already have a giant haul? Now, not all presents go out before Christmas morning. Obviously there are some biggies that would be a dead giveaway, and there needs to be ample room for Santa's delivery. Growing up we had "hide-your-eyes" which usually came at the end of the Christmas gift-opening ceremonies, and were mostly gifts that were too big to wrap; ie, awesome.

And most importantly,
4. The tree is to be enjoyed. How many times throughout the year would it be nice to come home at the end of a long day and bask in the glow of a twinkling, magical present-magnet in the middle of the living room? It's so nice to sit and admire all of the mismatched ornaments and think about the people and times they represent. I try to do as many things in close proximity to the tree as possible. Like wrapping presents. Or blogging.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Crash

Christmas is kicking my butt this year, friends. Actually, this time of year usually causes me to irrationally bake, overbuy gifts, obsess over cleanliness, and unnecessarily lose sleep for no good reason. It's a little more worth it this year since all of this effort is actually for the benefit of my son, which is what Christmas is all about, really.

However, I am tired. This is one of the lame "I promise to post soon" posts that I hate writing. But I will! Promise! I have pictures! And enthusiasm! Just no energy. Sorry.

Ho ho zzzzzzzzzz.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mutt Monday

Boston, in her natural state.

Yes, that is an indentation in the ground under her bum and that line across the yard was caused by her and Hokie running back and forth.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Soup Saturday

Things are CRAZY at our house this time of year, especially since our Christmas guests are going to start arriving on the 17th--5 days! And with this being Joe's first Christmas, I want to make sure we (meaning me) have plenty of time to soak up the family time and not worry about cooking or chores. I'm splurging to have my house professionally cleaned and I'm stocking the freezer with lots of homemade soups for lunches.

Today I'm cooking up a beef & barley vegetable soup in the crockpot. It's fairly self-explanatory: beef, barley, carrots, green beans, onions, garlic, and whatever spices and herbs I have handy.

On the stove I have a new favorite cooking: butternut squash w/bacon soup. This soup proves the rule that you can add bacon to anything and my husband will eat it. But despite the tasty baconness, it's also low-calorie and nutritious. I can't find the original recipe I used, so I'll reproduce here.

Use 2 large halved butternut squashes with the pulp and seeds removed. Cook covered in the microwave in an inch of water for 15 minutes, until soft.

Meanwhile, cook 6-8 slices of bacon in a large pot and remove. Set aside for later. In the bacon grease, saute an onion and 3 cloves of garlic. Scoop out squash flesh and add to pot. Add enough water (or chicken stock, but this adds sodium and calories) to cover and let simmer until the flavors are blended. I usually take a potato masher to this to help integrate the flavors and break down the squash, but you can skip that.

Pour the soup into a large blender and pulse until smooth. If you will be freezing the soup, add the bacon back in so this gets chopped up into the soup. If serving immediately, then just crush the bacon on top of the soup.

This soup freezes so well and is very hearty. You can add things like cream or other seasonings to it when served, but I keep it simple to keep it diet-friendly. Yes, it's hard to imagine anything cooked in bacon grease as diet-friendly, but this is only 77 calories per 1-cup serving. Can't beat that!

Okay, back to the kitchen I go. Besides baking for gifts, I still need to stuff some peppers for the freezer and I'm running out of thyme!

Get it? Just a little kitchen dork humor for you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blue Light Special

The Watkins family considers itself to be somewhat "crunchy," "tree-hugging," "green," and any other dirt-implying adjective used to describe people who believe in global warming and not littering.

Okay. Maybe we take it a step farther. Yes, we use cloth diapers, make our own baby food, grow our own vegetables, recycle, compost kitchen scraps, buy energy star appliances, drive a hybrid. And yes, at Christmas we use LED lights.
Here's where I'm going to be brutally honest and say that I can't stand our Christmas lights. I cringe when I see them. Truly. Not only do they harshly clash with our lovely incandescent faux candles in the windows, but they really seem to make the cold nights colder. I mean, come on! We don't put hundreds of lights on our house to save money, we do it for purely aesthetic reasons! What is the point of stringing up lights you can stand to look at? Oh wait...the alternative is to have no lights up for Christmas because you don't want to be a yuletide hypocrite and string up energy-guzzling traditional lights? Um, that's not an option for me. I am nothing if not unapologetically and ruthlessly festive.

When we bought our lights last year, no stores in town carried the then-hard-to-find "warm white" LED strings. So we shrugged and bought the "cool white." The only two houses in our neighborhood decked out in the icy, bluish hues were ours and the electrician down the street. And of course, after laying out a ton of not-so-cool cash on lights, we couldn't just yank them down and rethink our commitment to the cause. Sure, THIS year all of the stores are now stocking the warm whites. Buy more lights, you say? Well while that might be feasible at the incandescent price of $1.99 per 100 lights, it's not so much at $11.99 per 60 LED lights. Bill promises me that next year we can save up and splurge on the warm whites, but this year it's blues or nothing. Besides, he says, we're making a statement!

And he's right. This year it looks like more folks have jumped on the enviro-friendly--albeit blueish--bandwagon as there are now THREE houses in our neighborhood with cool white LEDs and several more with colored LEDs (including one for-real blue LED house). Was it our awkwardly clashing and kind of ghoulish display last year that convinced them? Probably not. But I'm sure that, like me, once they saw that they wouldn't be the only weirdos on the block with an eye on the electric bill, it was slightly more okay. So after much inner turmoil and mind-changing, I decided to throw up the blue-tinted white flag and stick with the statement-making LEDs. For one more year.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go hug my trees and make another batch of granola.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mutt Monday: Deck the Dogs

Hokie is all about some Christmas decorations.

Boston, not so much.

It doesn't help that Hokie got dibs on the pretty tree skirt and stuck Boston with the ugly garland.

Come on Boston, give us a smile. Don't you want to make it on the Christmas card this year?

The Feline Overlord even got in on the act...a little.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Midnight Society of Applesauce

Who lurks in the shadows of the kitchen late at night, hunched over a bubbling cauldron? What is that intoxicating spicy sweet smell in the air? Why are all of the doorknobs sticky?

Ah, welcome to the the Midnight Society of Applesauce! You can find us peeling and chopping cheaply-wrought apples deep into the night, long after attention-demanding babies have retired to their cribs. Why do we toil into the wee hours, night after night, concocting these addictive brews?

Well when else do we have time? Applesauce making is a new hobby of mine, which is super convenient since applesauce eating is a favorite hobby of Joe's. Unfortunately, it takes several hours from peeling to canning, and it kind of has to be done without stopping; i.e., without baby. It's all worth it, though, because this tastes SO MUCH BETTER than the yellow goop you buy from the store.

We go through so much of it, so I don't make small batches here and there--I've been learning how to can my wares the old-fashioned way. I love for canning instructions and all of the great advice (and gifted tools) from across the street at the One Acre Homestead.

So far this year I have made around 7 or 8 gallons of applesauce (I've lost track because we've been eating it along the way and using it for baking), canned in quart-sized jars and freezer containers. I don't have any dedicated canning tools yet, other than the gifted funnel and jar tongs from my sweet neighbor, but they are definitely on my wish list for Santa this year. For those of you who haven't canned before, it involves packing hot sauce into a hot jar and then submerging the jars in boiling water for a certain length of time.

I like to throw some cinnamon in when the sauce is cooking. You wouldn't believe how great this makes the house smell.

Needless to say, after an evening in the kitchen with all this steam, my skin looks fantastic. Once removed, the cool air outside the jar does some suction magic and the jars seal. They make an awesome "PING" sound when they're sealed up.

A magic potion? A mystical elixir? Freakin' delicious? You too can strive to join our secret society...or you can be really nice and I might share a jar.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Behold the awesome!

This, my friends, marks a new day in my kitchen, even though it is technically in the garage. All of the baking, meal assembling, and baby food making that I do can now actually be preserved long term! Probably the greatest Black Friday purchase we could have made.

Marvel in the energy-starryness of it all! I no longer need to worry about stuffing everything we harvest into an already crammed side-by-side freezer (hate!).

I haven't even had time to pull the tape off of it or set up the lovely shelves (so many!) into the door, but I had to christen it with what will be our Christmas dinner in a few weeks:

Bask in the 20 cubic feet of glorious zero-degree air! That is a giant pork loin, friends. Look at it just languishing in there like a teenager in a rented prom limo. No longer are you forcing me to rearrange every thing in the door of my crummy tiny freezer every time I try to close it!

I don't usually get this excited about appliances, but I'm a little jazzed about this one.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fruit flies, don't bother me!

*I'm working on a few posts about recent activities around the ranch since we got home from our trip (including an absent Mutt Monday--sorry, gotta upload the photos), but in the meantime this is a post I started before we left.

This guy.
Who does he think he is? Why does he think it's cool to invite 30 or so of his best friends to come and keep me company in my kitchen? (FYI, the google images search for this guy is going to give me nightmares.)

The ugly truth about this whole organic/crunchy/homegrown/diy lifestyle that we're trying to lead is that much of what we do around the kitchen draws these little critters like...well...flies. We've got tons of kitchen scraps from making everything from scratch (eggshells, peels, veggie refuse, etc.) We use those scraps in our compost pile, which gets started in our cute little kitchen compost crock. We have a 9-month-old who sprinkles little bits of food ALL OVER THE PLACE when he eats. Seriously, I found a cheerio in one of my socks.

Basically our kitchen is the holy grail for fruit flies. This often leads to me keeping the windows shut tighter than Fort Knox, but every once in a while a beautiful afternoon breeze will tempt me into opening, ever so slightly, one of the kitchen windows.....then BAM. Dozens of fruit flies.

And guess what, folks? You can't smash them. Not only do they move at a hauntingly slow pace and in unpredictable floaty pattern, they are so darn small and light that they are normally gently pushed out of the way by the air current I make as I frantically try to crush them with whatever is handy. So what's the solution? Trapping them.
This was my first attempt at a trap, made from an old salad dressing jar, some chardonnay (I'm more of a pinot grigio girl), and dish detergent. The theory is that the bugs lean in to drink the wine and are poisoned by the soap. Or something. They mostly slip in and drown, which is fine by me.
The next method I tried was suggested by my friend, Lacey. Similar 3-ingredient set up, this time with a mason jar, apple cider vinegar, and a rolled up piece of paper. The idea is that the little idiots fly merrily down the cone and into the jar, and then freak out a bunch when they can't figure out how to get out. More drowning, more satisfaction on my part.
I found that a recycled page from one of my freelance jobs worked nicely. It was a 5th grade math workbook that I proofread. Combining my old hatred for fractions with my hatred for fruit flies? Sheer beauty.

As nice as these traps look on my counter, I'd really rather not need them at all. Does anyone out there have an end-all-be-all solution for these nasty house guests?

*Update: upon our return from Thanksgiving, it appears as if we had won the war. Lots of casualties, no live hostages. Yes!