Best Ever Homemade Chocolate Chip-Oatmeal Cookies

I really do believe that everything begins in the home.  What we like, what we don’t like, how we act and how we live outside our homes first get shaped in how we live in our own space.

Take Chocolate – or the love thereof…

My love affair with it began at a very early age.  My dad was a candyholic.  Weekend Saturday and Sunday nights were the best.  He would take us six kids to the store, buy himself and our mom their favorite candy bars (Clark Bar and Almond Joy) and then he would buy $1.00 worth of penny candy for the six of us.  Back home we would each get our own separate sandwich bag full of candy that we had anxiously watched him divide into six equal piles.  Then as a family we would watch TV – black and white of course!

Before long my dad began to fill the crystal bowl in our living room with Peanut M&M’s.  Well, besides Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Peanut M&M’s are my absolute fave.  Saturday mornings week after week and year after year I awoke first in my household, crept to the candy dish and removed a handful of these scrumptious treats.  Then I would go to the kitchen, pour myself a glass of milk, rush back to bed and blissfully read in silent heaven.  Nothing could be finer than chocolate, a warm, cozy bed and a good book to read!

As an adult in my own space I put in my head that part of making a comfy, cozy home was to have fresh baked goodies on hand.  (Must have been that June Cleaver thing.)  Now I have to admit, I’ve never been able to bake a cake- each and every one falls flat upon leaving the oven.  But, I can make a mean cookie – especially ones with chocolate chips.

So, I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to recently hear on the news how good chocolate is for us.  Too bad all those years ago no one asked me, as I would’ve been able to tell the experts. Chocolate makes me smile and makes my heart full and happy.  To this very day, my morning begins with 2 or 3 pieces of chocolate.  Let me tell you – the feel good vibes come rushing in!  Nirvana for sure!  So, now that it’s a health food, I feel it’s apropos for me to share my recipe for the best Chocolate Chip-Oatmeal Cookies ever.  And, as an added health benefit, I recommend all organic ingredients!

Without further adieu, here’s my recipe tweaked over the years to create heaven on earth:

Chocolate Chip-Oatmeal Cookies

Cookies ready for baking

Ready for baking

2 c. butter
2 c. sugar
2 c. brown sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
4 c. flour
2 c. oatmeal
2 c. oat bran
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
24 oz. chocolate chips

Cream together the butter and sugar.  Next add the eggs and vanilla, mixing well.  Add all the dry ingredients and again, mix well.  Stir in the chocolate chips.  Make into golf ball size shapes and place on an ungreased cookie sheet about 2 in. apart.  Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.

Cookies ready for eating

Ready to enjoy

Helpful Hints:

  • Use all organic ingredients.
  • Remove cookies from the oven while slightly brown, as they will continue cooking on the cookie sheet while cooling.  (I like a slightly soft middle to my cookies.)
  • These cookies freeze well and you can also freeze the cookie dough for future use.

For an extra treat:

Summertime Barbeques are a fun time to make your own homemade ice cream sandwiches.  Simply take two of these cookies, spread the top of one will softened ice cream and top it off with the other cookie.  Freeze until ready to serve.

To enjoying the chocolate part of life…

Favorite Christmas Traditions

For the month of December I purposefully chose not to publish many posts on my Blog.  Quite frankly, I figured most everyone had enough to do preparing for Christmas.  With making lists, checking them twice and doing all the multitude of items on these lists before Christmas, who would have time to squeeze in something I wrote?  (By the way, whatever you were thinking as you read that last sentence keep your comments to yourself- I want to think you have missed my weekly posts!)  Anyway, with all the extra time on my hands not devoted to writing I reminisced about Christmases past.  Well, that got me to thinking and wondering about what other people’s favorite childhood traditions of the season were and what they are today as grown-ups.  So, I promptly sent out an email to all the guest authors on the Blog and posed these questions to them with the intention of sharing their responses on the Blog.  For those that had the time to respond, I want to share their answers with you.  Some even sent me pictures as well.

I have to admit I thought this would be a fun thing to do for the Blog.  But, as with most things that happen, I got so much more than interesting info from each person.  I got a wonderful glimpse into their personal lives that not only told me much more about who they are and what makes them tick but, I also got laughs at visualizing some of what they wrote, much to ponder from some of their thought provoking responses and to sum it up – I got a real sense of peace and joy reading their words.  Read for yourself and I hope your heart is filled with joy and laughter as well.

Susan Muehl

Susan and Jane visit Santa

1954, Jane and Susan visit Santa Claus at Santa Claus Land

My favorite childhood holiday memories and what the season now means to me as an adult seem to have blurred lines!  As a child, I thought it was magic!  It was all about our Christmas traditions.  Before Christmas, our mother would take my twin sister and me to Santa Claus Land in Santa Claus, Indiana.  That’s where we got to speak to Santa about what we’d like for Christmas and ride the rides at the park.  Also before Christmas we would get dressed up and go Christmas shopping in downtown Louisville with our mother and while there, we would view the department store windows decorated for the holidays.  The days leading up to Christmas and the few days after were all about going out to visit friends and family, or they came to see us.  My mother shared cookies and fudge she made.  This is also when we would drive around looking at Christmas lights.  Santa had a surprise he always left at our house ~ he would put a special gift on the beds of my sister and me.  We shared a bedroom so whoever woke up first would wake the other and we’d feel around our beds in the dark for the gift which we could unwrap right then.  Now as an adult many of the same traditions remain.  When my daughter was little, Santa also left her a special gift in her bed each Christmas and it thrilled her as much as it did me when I was young.  We established a new tradition in our family and it was choosing a name from the “giving tree” at a local department store and purchasing gifts for that child.  My daughter enjoyed doing that each year ~ she loved trying to find a little girl who seemed a lot like her based on the gift requests.  Nowadays, I still love to look at Christmas lights ~ the more lights the better!  As a photographer, I’ve enjoyed photographing some of my favorite houses over the years and have a special photo album of “the best of the best” which comes out each Christmas.  Spending time with my family and friends at Christmas time is still important to me.  Everybody seems so much busier these days, but when we can take the time to visit, it’s always special.  I enjoy seeing everyone’s homes decorated for the holidays and sharing mine, as well as sharing fudge (from my mother’s recipe) and cookies I have made.  The Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas morning gift opening with my husband, daughter and son-in-law is a special time each year which I always look forward to.  I have never outgrown the magic of Christmas!

Patti Baron Schreiber

Wow!  It’s hard to pick just one favorite holiday memory from my childhood because my family was so steeped in traditions and they all centered on home.  First came the decorating – it was the same decorations every year and they went in the same location but there was such comfort and joy in pulling the little elf out and setting him on the table or seeing the same ornaments nestled in their boxes, waiting to be hung on the tree.  Christmas Eve began with me setting out a plate of homemade cookies and a glass of milk for Santa.  Then came a visit to my Grandma Martha’s house, where all of my Dad’s brothers, sisters (7!), their spouses and children gathered in a very small space with the men drinking Blackberry Brandy and all of us eating Grandma’s homemade bread.  Magically, when we returned home, Santa had arrived!  Piles of presents were under the tree – quickly placed there by Mom before we left for grandma’s house while Dad and I impatiently waited in the car wondering what she could be doing in there.  After the present opening, we were off to Midnight Mass followed by an open house for anyone who wanted to stop by for ham sandwiches, salads and a dessert buffet.

I have continued many of these same traditions with my own children when they were young and now that they are teenagers; it’s fun to see which traditions are important to them.  Decorating and cookie making are at the top of the list.  This year we can hardly wait to make our special frosted cutout cookies, as we didn’t get to eat any of the time and labor intensive treats last year.  After making the dough, cutting them out, baking and decorating them (a two day affair), my oldest child decided her siblings were hogging the cookies so she hid the plastic bin in the oven.  A short time later, flames erupted in the oven, smoke poured from the vents and the plastic had melted all over the oven and the cookies.  I’m still missing the bottom oven rack which is covered in molded plastic but there’s no doubt in my mind the memory of THAT moment will live on in our minds and give us some good laughs in the coming years.

Jennie Stockslager

When I think of Christmas as a child, I keenly remember making gifts (cigar boxes encrusted with elbow macaroni sprayed gold), wrapping gifts (proud that my mom trusted me) and making millions of cookies – all fun, all exciting.  But I remember, too that at some point during my high school years, I was grateful that the fun and excitement were sustained much longer than usual in our home, all because two little brothers, Rich and Bill, were born when I was 11 and 14, respectively.  The tinsel would have lost its shine for the three older siblings- myself, Chuck and Connie – but because we had two little ones in the house, we were swept into their vortex of believing, which was the best gift ever – and not to be repeated until I had children of my own.

As an adult, I can find myself so overwhelmed with the holidays that if I’m not careful, I start to think of all the decorating, buying, wrapping and addressing cards as a “part-time” job.  At times like this, I recognize that I need to get “real”.  “Real” means getting quiet with myself for as little as five minutes – meditating, journaling, listening to Christmas music, sipping on a cup of chai tea, looking at the snow falling on the twinkle-lighted trees in our yard – anything that helps me remember the truth: I don’t “have” to do anything; I “get” to do the things I choose.  This reality brings me back to the present moment; it slows my mind down…and helps me once again see life as a child.  All possibility.  All magic.  All a gift.

Lindsay Torry

Awaiting His Birth

Awaiting His Birth

Having been given the task of sharing my favorite holiday memory, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks racking my brain, going through them all mentally and changing my mind over and over again about which to share. I mean, there are just SO MANY! However, the answer came to me today as I was watching my children decorate gingerbread houses at my grandparents. My youngest daughter is only two years old, so we are in the really fun stage of exploring every aspect of the holiday season: introducing her to the decorations, lights, music, and that odd, robust old man in the red suit. Today at my grandparents’ house I made a point of showing her one of my favorite Christmas decorations, an antique ceramic nativity set. Now I realize that just about every Christian household has at least one nativity set of some sort, but this one was special. Even as a small child I recognized its delicate beauty, with its soft warm colors and fragile elegance. But the thing that made this nativity unique was the baby Jesus. He wasn’t fixed in the manger like in most modern nativities. No, this baby Jesus didn’t make his presence known until Christmas morning! Every time we went to visit, I would go almost immediately to check his status, anxiously awaiting him in his absence, and always making sure he was there if Christmas had come already. I truly anticipated his arrival! Now, even as an adult, every year I go to admire the nativity and note his absence or presence.

He is born

He is born

Today was no different as I pointed out all of the figures of the set to my daughter. It occurred to me just how very cool this idea is: withholding the baby Jesus from the manger until the morning of his birthday celebration. What a fun way to anticipate his arrival and keep the focus on the true reason for the holiday season! As an adult, each year it has disgusted me a little more how ridiculously commercialized and really off base our society has allowed Christmas to become. It’s more than a little ironic that a season originally about the spirit of giving has become more about getting the best deal and the biggest gifts. Today I was listening to a local radio station that plays all Christmas music during this time of year, and it dawned on me that of the 10 or so songs I had heard, not a single one mentioned Jesus. Sometimes it feels as though he’s been lost in the hustle bustle, that so many people like to take advantage of the decorating, partying, and gift getting, yet don’t ever get to the heart of the matter. Needless to say, after today’s realization I will be searching out a nativity set with a removable baby Jesus for my own home! And I will look forward to sharing in the excitement of Jesus’ arrival year after year with my own children and hopefully, one day, grandchildren!

Sammi Blake

After having thought about this for several weeks, it is still hard to zero in on what my favorite holiday memory is of when I was a child.  And, as an adult thinking back, I realize that my favorite holiday traditions as a child are the same ones I have now.  I still hold near and dear to my heart the traditions I had as a child.  Four of them stick out in my mind though.  I loved baking Christmas cookies, the annual punch-out chocolate Advent calendar, decorating the tree and riding around on Christmas Eve to see the luminaries.

Each year growing up we spent two solid days making and baking cookies.  We made at least eight- dozen.  I remember my mom and I both wearing our aprons.  Every single year my mom would say the same thing to me and I learned to look forward to it.  She would say, “You are the messiest baker I have ever known”.  Once we baked all the cookies we would wrap them up and give them as gifts to our neighbors and friends.

Our yearly Advent calendar took careful planning to figure out the days each of us kids got to pop a chocolate.  As an adult, I still like getting one for my stepchildren to enjoy.

And, oh the Christmas tree!  Every year our Christmas tree was decorated with ornaments we had made ourselves.  The rest of the ornaments were from my mom’s childhood.  It was the most wonderful feeling pulling all the ornaments out of their boxes one by one.  Each one we would stop and talk about.  I can still hear the tingle of the old rusty bell that was my mother’s when she was a child.  Decorating the tree was wonderful and I remember we took such time and care into placing the ornaments on the tree.  Now as an adult, I take the same joy, love and care in decorating our tree.

The luminaries were lit in neighborhoods near where we lived every Christmas Eve.  After church and dinner we used to ride around as a family to see the lights.  We would always turn Christmas music on the radio and we usually drove around in silence so that we could each reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.  I especially loved going up and down the hills, as the brilliance from all the luminaries was truly majestic.

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year and I look forward to all that it brings.

Crystal Balzer

Ryleigh and Blake with Buddy Rudolph

Ryleigh and Blake with Buddy Rudolph

The Christmas Season as a child and even now as an adult brings me much joy!  I love the smells, the decorations and even the shopping!  Although now as a mother I must admit- my favorite part is creating memories and traditions for my children.  Some of my favorite Christmas memories from my childhood would have to be spending Christmas Eve with my dad (my parents are divorced so this was a special time) and always opening my stocking last (I have carried this tradition on with my own children, after all, the stocking is the best part with each treasure wrapped- it is amazing what you can stuff inside a stocking).  Now with a family of my own we have added a couple more traditions.  We make reindeer food and spread it across the lawn on Christmas Eve so the reindeer know what house to stop at.  We also have an Elf on the Shelf.  The children named our elf, “Buddy Rudolph”.  He arrives each year on December 1st.  He flies to Santa each night telling him how the kids have behaved and when he returns he hides in a different location.  The children rush around in the morning to see who can find him first.  I also have each child pick a gift and we donate it to the Toys For Tots Program.  It is a joy to watch them choose a gift so carefully, each considering what another child their age would like.  It is my hope that when they grow up they will remember the fun, simple traditions we have as a family and even carry them on in their own.

Making reindeer food

Making reindeer food

Merry Christmas everyone, I hope you have enjoyed these glimpses into Christmas memories and traditions.  Now I wish for all of you the true peace and joy that comes with Christmas.  See you next year!

My Materialistic Holiday Gift Wish List For You

First let me say that I really don’t enjoy the commercial side of Christmas.  I never have and I never will.  For me, the holiday is more about the smells and feelings the season evokes than what I want for myself and what I want to give others.  Spending time with family and friends and opening cards that come in the mail from people I may not hear from but once a year make for a perfect holiday season.  Oh, snow helps!

Growing up in a household of six kids, the gift rule was to ask Santa for three gifts each.  I have no idea why three was the chosen number.  Rarely though did I actually get the things on my list.  I can remember asking for an Easy Bake Oven that Santa didn’t bring.  I’m 55 years young with way too much gray hair (OK, so I color it) but, by golly I am dying to make brownies in an Easy Bake Oven.  You can bet Ansley, aka “God’s Littlest Angel” (my granddaughter) will get one from me in a few years – whether she wants to or not, we are going to bake brownies together!  Do they make organic mixes for the Easy Bake Oven?   In the early 1960’s when most girls were getting as their first Barbie, the puffy-haired blonde, I got the redhead.  Go figure.  Or the year white Go-Go boots were the rage- I got boots yes, but they weren’t the ones that were the ones to have.  I can still remember going back to school after the holiday and of course, Jenny Terry sat at her desk, legs crossed, wearing her brand new to die for white Go-Go boots.  She also got to have long hair.  It flipped ever so perfectly on the ends just at her shoulders, too. I, on the other hand had a pixie cut.  Or the year signet rings were the gift to get for Christmas.  Yep, sterling silver signet rings.  I got a gold one instead – in an unusual style and unusual font.  Jenny Terry got the real thing…

Now don’t get me wrong- I haven’t had to spend years in therapy getting over Christmases past. What I think actually happened was I learned to be unique and not follow the trends.  And, I will say my mother made the most wonderful clothes for our Barbies’ that no store bought Barbie outfit could compete with.   By the way, I still have my Barbie, the case and most of the clothes my mother made.  What love and care she took making those clothes.  Not to mention the time!

Looking back on all those years I am thankful that I didn’t get what every other girl my age was getting.  In other words, I like to think the gifts I got were not ordinary but extraordinary.  Not part of commercialism but, standing for creativity instead.

As a young mother I kept to the rule of three gifts for each of my kids.   I also tried to give extraordinary and not ordinary.  But, I guess you would have to ask my kids what they thought of their gifts.  Now that’s a story for another day, right?  Or maybe a therapy session?

With all that said, the holiday season does in fact promote materialistic gift giving.  Therefore, in the spirit of giving I have three things that IF I could buy them for you I would.  And, IF you asked me suggestions of what to give to someone else, these three things would be my suggestions.  Here they are:

A Nebulizer ~ Absolutely, positively the smell of your home is the most important thing to be aware of.  Using a nebulizer with 100% organic essential oils will send wonderful aromas through your space and at the same time, the oils will actually alter and affect the energy of your space.  Read my recent post, “Aromatherapy In Your Home” to learn more.

Wyndmere nebulizer

My nebulizer

Cast Iron Cookware ~ What better way to cook?  What better way to be environmentally friendly at the same time?  Start with an iron skillet and add other cast iron cookware at other gift giving/receiving times of the year.  Read my recent post, “A Cast Iron Skillet – The Only Must Have For Your Kitchen” to learn more about cooking with cast iron.

A well-seasoned iron skillet

A well-seasoned iron skillet

A Living Plant ~  Nothing like literally going green!  Your homespace (and airspace) will thank you for bringing nature inside.  A plant, a terrarium or even a teacup fairy garden will create a healthy environment for you and add immeasurably to your décor.  Read Becky Balzer’s recent post, “Top Twelve Best Indoor Plants For Purifying The Air” and Jennie Stockslager’s post, “The Magic Of Fairy Gardening” as guides to what to buy.

Becky Balzer’s Terrarium creation

Becky Balzer’s Terrarium creation

So, there you have it.  My materialistic holiday gift wish list for you.  If you are still out there shopping, throw in one or heck, all three of these items for yourself or someone on your list.  And, while you are out there in the hustle-bustle of the holiday season, hum the tune from the old Coke commercial, circa 1971 called, “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” and think about living in perfect harmony.  It was actually this song that somehow came to my mind while walking in nature one day and  inspired me to create “Living in Perfect Harmony”.  Back in December of 2006 a chance encounter on an airplane woke me up to the realization that life is all about spreading kindness and caring while at the same time accepting the past.  From that chance encounter I decided that for the rest of my life I wanted to strive to live in perfect harmony with not just myself but all of humanity as well.  And guess what, everything begins in the home.  How we live in our homes, what we surround ourselves with in our homes, how we treat others and ourselves in our homes – all this sets the stage for what we do in the outside world.   So if I  can, I will teach the world, one person at a time to live in perfect harmony.  And as the words from another song ,”Let There Be Peace On Earth” play in my head right now, I do wish for peace on Earth.  Let it begin with me.

To living in perfect harmony…

Simple And Natural Holiday Décor

Ever since I can remember the Christmas season was a wonderful time for decorating.  As a child, I can remember watching my mother decorate and then as I got older I enjoyed helping.  Our yard was the source for most of our holiday decorating.  We had a huge Magnolia tree in our backyard that my mother and I used to clip beautiful branches from.  We also had numerous pine trees (we had six planted in the front yard alone – one for each of us siblings) and Holly bushes laden with red berries.  With all of these items collected, we would spend hours decorating the fireplace mantle, the front doors and the dining room table.  I loved all these found things from our yard and I also enjoyed the collecting and decorating we did with them.  But, I viewed this part of  holiday decorating as a quick, simple and inexpensive plan – after all we only needed to step outside to collect natural elements for free!  Once I had my own home I realized that the most beautiful holiday decorating comes from natural and found things.  You sure can’t smell artificial greenery!

Carrying on the tradition

So, throughout the years my home has traditionally been decorated with much of the same things that I grew up with.   Greenery comes either from the yard, leftover trimmings from the tree or from the woods.

When my children were young we used to love to sit in the evenings together watching Christmas specials and movies like “Miracle on 34th Street” while we strung popcorn to use as garland on the tree.  Talk about memory making – a slow, relaxed evening stringing popcorn as a family can’t be beat!  And, who cares how much popcorn you eat along the way!

Year after year my three children traditionally hunted (yes, Sammi did, too) during Turkey and Deer Season.   No holiday season was complete without them returning home with mistletoe they had shot down from the trees for me to hang.  It was a wonderful holiday tradition they enjoyed.  What memories we all have of them bringing the mistletoe home to me and then hanging it in the foyer as a symbol of love in our home.

As you can see, using elements of nature in my holiday décor is important to me.  This makes my home beautiful in a non-commercial way!  And, I love the smells, the freshness and the feelings natural decorating gives to my homespace.  Why not incorporate some natural decorating in your own home this year?

Ways to go natural

Here are some simple suggestions that you can use either decorating alone or making it a family affair for building memories and traditions:

  • Use fresh greenery from outdoors to grace your front door, staircase, mantle, dining table or coffee table.
  • Gather found things in nature like dried pods, dried wildflowers, dried hydrangeas, pinecones and twigs to artfully arrange in baskets or as part of your garlands and centerpieces.
  • String popcorn and cranberries and use as garland to hang on the Christmas tree or as part of your fireplace garland.
  • Decorate lanterns with nuts or cranberries nestled around a large candle.
  • Surround a grouping of candles with fresh greenery with red berries or other found treasures of nature artfully arranged throughout the greenery.  A grouping of candles looks beautiful on a console table, mantle, coffee table or any other space you can safely allow candles to be placed.
  • Make a centerpiece for an occasional table with a small log.  Cut the log in two.  (Plan to use the cut side on the table with the uncut side facing up.) Using a circular saw cut three holes in the uncut side of the log and place small candles or votives in the holes.  Nestle the log on a bed of fresh greenery.
  • Artfully stud oranges with cloves and place in a wooden bowl as a centerpiece for your kitchen table, coffee table or hearth.
  • Hang Mistletoe in doorways or from your foyer chandelier.

Whatever style home you live in, whatever décor you enjoy- you can incorporate nature in your holiday decorating.  Go outside today and pick from nature’s bounty wonderful things to grace your home with.  And while you are there, breathe in the glorious fresh air!

Happy decorating…

Be sure to check out Living in Perfect Harmony’s Facebook Fanpage each day of December from Dec. 1- 24 for daily decorating tips and helpful hints for the holiday.  Enjoy the season!

My Favorite Holiday Tradition

Whenever I think of traditions I immediately start singing in my head the song, “If I Were A Rich Man” from “The Fiddler On The Roof” and feel my body move to the rhythm of the beat much like the lead character, Tevye.  This Broadway play that became a sensational hit movie with the well-known actor, Topol as the lead character is one of my all time favorites.  The theme of the movie has to do with adjusting to changing times and changing traditions.  It is a timeless theme as the observance of traditions gives you safe and secure boundaries in life.  There is comfort and order in knowing from year to year how things will be.

I understand the security in traditions.  Growing up, each holiday had very definite traditions.  What we ate and when we ate Thanksgiving dinner was the same from year to year.  I will never forget one year getting our Balzer clan together for Thanksgiving and several of us debating how to properly make a broccoli casserole.  You see some of the kids were old enough to want it done the way they traditionally ate it in their own homes while others liked it a different way.  Oh, the perils of not getting to keep the traditions exactly like you want!

Gorgeous butterfly

Photo Credit: Susan Muehl

In my family of origin we opened all our Christmas presents Christmas morning.  I had friends that got to open one on Christmas Eve.  I remember one year my family debating on changing our tradition and opening one gift each that Christmas Eve.  I can still feel the lump in my stomach over the mere thought of breaking with tradition.   I get why Topol held so tightly to tradition.  Breaking with what you always do or changing it can be difficult on your psyche.   Besides which, just like Tevey discovered in the movie, once you bend tradition just a wee bit, there is the risk of continuing to bend and bend until voila, the tradition disappears!   By the way, I am happy to report that we didn’t bend our tradition that year and we opened all our gifts the next morning.  In fact, I don’t think growing up we ever veered away from opening all of our gifts Christmas morning.

Year after year with my own three kids, holiday traditions remained constant and predictable.  Nothing ever changed.  My kids knew Christmas Eve meant church, dinner and a drive through nearby neighborhoods to look at the luminaries.  Those of us in my family that aren’t curmudgeons (I’m not naming names) still do this every Christmas Eve.  Then, Christmas Day had another set of traditions spread through the day.

A new tradition

Things never changed…until just a few years ago when I discovered a NEW tradition for the Christmas season.  Turns out, it has become my very favorite.  I discovered this tradition quite by accident.  I happened to be in Richmond, VA sometime obviously near the upcoming holiday and was invited to my niece’s house for dinner.  My niece, Jackie and her husband Scott had also invited his parents over.  When Barbara O’Connell arrived, she came in the front door lugging a huge garbage bag that appeared to be very heavy and very full.  Ever the one to not mind my own business, I asked what was in the bag.  “Advent gifts”, Barb said.  I was intrigued.  Then she showed me the Advent Calendar she had made Jackie and Scott for Advent.  Now I had always had an Advent Calendar in my house for the season as well.  But, traditionally mine was full of chocolates to punch out, one for each day of Advent. (My three kids spent copious amounts of time each year writing a spreadsheet of sorts to methodically divvy up the days equally amongst the three of them so that they could pop open the same number of chocolates on the Calendar.  This was more time consuming than choosing a tree!)  Barb’s calendar for Jackie and Scott was not only gorgeous – it was her handmade creation to boot.  Barb went on to say that her tradition for Christmas was to give each of her kids’ one small gift for every day of Advent.  With Scott now married to Jackie, she made sure Jackie was included.  I can still see Jackie’s infectious smile as Barb explained the whole thing to me.  Jackie loves Advent gifts.  In fact, she told me it’s one of her favorite traditions.

Bird loving berries

Photo Credit: Susan Muehl

The very next year after witnessing Barb O’Connell’s Advent tradition (it was too late to start that year) I began my own with my kids, David’s boys, spouses and grandkids.  My David is Jewish so Danny, his wife Lindsey and Michael get a Hanukah gift for each of the eight days of Hanukah.  Addison and Austin (my step-grandchildren) like this Advent tradition better than any other or so they tell me.  Many of the gifts they open are freebies we have collected over the year.  Once Austin got a small flashlight.  Several years later, it still sits on his nightstand beside his bed.  Mind you, these daily gifts are really, really small items.  There isn’t a lot of money invested in them.  But the fun I get in doing all this and the fun I think they all get in receiving them is priceless.

The season of Advent

By the way, for any of you unclear about what Advent is here’s a simple explanation.  Known as the season of “Anticipation” and ”Hope”, it marks the beginning of the new Church calendar each year in Western tradition.  Advent means “coming” or “arrival” and prepares Christians for Christmas.  It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday closest to November 30th and ends Christmas Eve.

As Advent approaches the gifts are almost ready.  I love this time of year and am giggling inside with the anticipation of it all.  Thank you Barb for teaching me about this O’Connell family tradition.  Making this a tradition in the Balzer-Solganik family has been wonderful.  Oh, and Barb, you should sell your calendar creations.  They are true works of beauty!

To traditions…

Whatever your traditions are for the season, I hope you enjoy the special moments to come.  Life is to be lived with bliss.  Let this season be full of blissful moments!

Add This Tradition To Your Thanksgiving Day

Our American Holiday, Thanksgiving is just a few days away.  Most of us have already planned where we will be, whom we will be with and what we will eat.  Whether you are traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, staying home with just your core family unit or taking part in festivities in some other fashion – memorialize the day with a photograph.

What a difference a year makes

One of the things I seem to say all the time is, “What a difference a year makes”.  This is so true.  And, this year is no exception as there have been many changes in my family since this time last year.  My precious granddaughter is of course the big change, but there have been a ton more.  Some are good.  Some not so good.  Regardless, they are changes.

For all of us a year truly does make a difference- kids grow, family dynamics change and friends change as well.  In my family growing up, the Thanksgiving table reflected these changes.  Friends with nowhere else to go were always invited to our family festivities.  Outlaws, in-laws, you name it – the table size always changed.  To this day it is still the same.  Everyone is welcome at our table.

The Tradition of a Kodak Thanksgiving moment

In my little corner of the world My David will be snapping his camera furiously in order to capture each moment.  Sammi and Kathleen will as well.  (I will just enjoy looking at all the pictures later as I am a really lousy photographer!)  But, my suggestion to you is more than to just snap pictures all day.  Make the festivities of the holiday a real Kodak moment.  Forget the warm fuzzies you get from the holiday Hallmark commercials.  Create a history of warm fuzzy moments yourself by making sure you capture this holiday feast (and each year after) by photographing it, framing it and then displaying each framed piece together as a focal point for the holiday each year to come.  What fun to have a display of these photographs showcasing an array of yearly Thanksgiving pictures from past feasts.  Talk about an instant conversation maker!

I don’t know about any of you but I get attached to things very easily.  I form attachments to everything from smells to songs. In other words, I have attachments to everything from “soup to nuts” as the saying goes.  I think that’s why I have so many Déjà vu moments.  I have a feeling attached to everything. For me, Thanksgiving and all it entails is no different. And for me the photographs of Thanksgiving add to the feeling of the holiday.

Memorialize the feeling of Thanksgiving

So, this Thanksgiving get out the camera and memorialize the holiday.   Frame the picture and put it away until next year to display for the holiday.  A yearly tradition of displaying past years’ Thanksgiving photographs creates history and an opportunity for not just reminiscing, but reflection as well.  Group them all together and I guarantee you that people will gather around throughout the day to take in this wonderful display of celebration.  Everyone will experience the feeling of Thanksgiving.

Enjoy Thanksgiving with whomever you are blessed to be with.  And, don’t forget those less fortunate this holiday season as well as those in Assisted Living Facilities, hospitals or situations that restrict them from getting out to be with others.

Give thanks.  Be blissful.  Live every moment this holiday brings to you.

For any of you that would like to share your Kodak moments of this Thanksgiving holiday, please send them to me and I will post them on my “Living in Perfect Harmony” Fanpage.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is just around the corner.  Then, on the heels of Thanksgiving starts the busiest season of the year – the Christmas season.  For me, both holidays signal a time of not just fun and family gatherings but a time of giving to those not as fortunate as I am.

Glorious fall leaves

Photo Credit: Sammi Blake

Everyone has traditions for the holidays.  My family and I certainly had our own while I was growing up.  Most of my Thanksgivings were spent in Roanoke, VA with extended family.  Two of my aunts, Aunt Mary Ann and Aunt Becky were members of a Woman’s Club that always served a Thanksgiving dinner to the less fortunate the night before Thanksgiving Day.  In many ways, this set the tone for the entire Thanksgiving weekend.

This tradition of serving food to the less fortunate left an indelible impression on me.  I can see that it helped to shape me and instill in me the value system I have today.  It is my heart’s desire to carry on a tradition such as this with my daughter Ansley who is a week away from her first birthday.  From the time she was just a little bump in my belly I have thought about how I wanted to teach her the important things in life.  Reverence to God and the Earth as well as Stewardship to others are some of the core values to name a few.

Ansley was due to be born last Christmas Eve.   Funny, growing up and as a young adult thinking about having my own children, the only month I thought I would never want to have a child was in December.  God has his own timing I guess!  Once I knew her due date was Christmas Eve, I knew I was being given an angel.  So what if it would be in the month I had always said I would avoid having a baby in!  Not that I really thought she would come on her due date.  And, guess what?  She didn’t.  Ansley came a month early.  She was born on Thanksgiving Day.

I don’t want to relive the details of why Ansley came early.  Suffice it to say I don’t remember much of that day and didn’t get to see, touch or hold my daughter until a couple of days later.  The first time I “viewed” my new daughter was on a camera.  No celebratory Thanksgiving meal for me and as for my family- well, Ben and Kathleen brought it into the family waiting room and everyone except me ate there.  I couldn’t even get out of the hospital bed.  I have to say though that looking back I realize this last year has flown by like the speed of light.  And although that particular Thanksgiving was not the most traditional Thanksgiving, I can now say it was not only the most memorable, but also the most special Thanksgiving I have ever had.  I have a healthy, happy and yes – beautiful little daughter that is thriving.  For this I give thanks.

Beautiful fall day

Photo Credit: Sammi Blake

I also give thanks for having the opportunity to help my stepchildren learn the importance of stewardship.  Recently, my stepson, Austin had a food drive at his school.  It actually lasted the entire month of October.  While doing my normal weekly grocery shopping I bought items for the food drive.  I got enough food to fill a grocery bag for almost every day of the food drive.  At first Austin didn’t understand why in the world I would have bought so much- I took this as a teaching moment to explain about giving to the less fortunate.  I talked to him about how blessed we are and that we get to pretty much eat whatever we want at our meal times.  I told him that many kids throughout the world and even right here in our own city don’t sit down to regular meals.  I explained to him how important it is to help others in need.  Since that conversation there have been several times when Austin has talked about people in need and the other day he even reminded me about how he got so much Halloween candy while Trick-or-Treating.  He asked me if he could share his candy with the less fortunate.  I explained to him that it was important to provide nourishing food to those that need it.  To say that his desire to give even his precious candy to others touched me would not even cover the emotions I felt during this conversation with him!  Austin’s heart is in the right place.  For this I give thanks.

The Christmas season was another important season of stewardship I was taught growing up.  I can remember at least one year adopting a less fortunate family and giving gifts to them instead of getting many gifts for the three of us kids.  Doing this in your own family might seem a bit extreme.  You might even think your kids would rebel.  I challenge you to try it – the outcome might surprise you.  I can remember only feeling good about getting less and giving more.  For this I give thanks.

I myself need to do more for others.  I do know though that doing one small thing can always lead to another.  I challenge anyone reading this to start a tradition of stewardship with your own children and keep it going through the entire year and then, through their entire lives.  Teaching them stewardship is giving them a gift that keeps giving.

I give thanks for so much.  I truly am blessed in more ways that I can begin to count.  May you be as blessed.

To giving thanks.  Oh, and Happy Birthday my precious daughter…

Ansley

Photo Credit: Sammi Blake

Our children are our future.  We need to teach them to reach out and help others in need.  Start planting the seeds of caring in your own family when your children are young.  Instilling the value of stewardship never begins too soon.

A Cast Iron Skillet- The Only Must Have For Your Kitchen

My mother used to tease me when I was younger about being a hopeless romantic.  From the time I can remember ever being described by her to someone she would say I wanted to believe only in the good side of things.  She called that being naïve.   I felt like this wasn’t meant to be a compliment.  Whatever it was, I have grown to be all right with this – it is who I am and I am comfortable in my skin.  Try that I might, I cannot nor do I want to view the ugly side of life.  Perhaps that is why Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books about living on the prairie have always appealed to me.

When I first read these books in elementary school they made me feel good about life in a simple way.  My favorite make-believe play (outside of playing school with Julie, Cindy and Lisa) was with a school friend, Estelle Moundfield.  I have no idea where Estelle is now but we had such fun together.  You see, she lived on a large piece of land in what was the nearest to being a farmhouse of any of my friends.  Estelle even had a barn so we would play for hours in the hayloft.  I would be Laura and she would be Mary.  It was great fun until one day I watched nature in real-time when Estelle’s cat leapt in the air and caught a bird flying by.  So long little bird.  Ugh!  That was enough of the loft for a while…

Life on the prairie

Anyway, my point to this is that my inner child has always been a little bit Laura Ingalls on the prairie.  I love everything about the idealistic side of how she and her family lived.  Now here I am in the big state of Illinois right smack dab living on the prairie.  I am a good case in point for intention bringing to fruition what you want to achieve!

Pancakes cooking on the stove

Pancakes cooking on the stove

Having read “The Little House” series dozens and dozens of times I know that the one pan Ma always used was an iron skillet.  I’m thinking that might be why it is my all-time fave cooking utensil for my kitchen.  I am guessing my skillet is over thirty-five years old or rather in iron skillet lingo, thirty-five years “well seasoned”.  I cook everything imaginable in my cast iron skillet each and every day.  I use it on the stove and in the oven.  I use it for everything from making my Sunday morning pancakes I wrote about in my post, Homemade Pancakes – What Could Be Better?  to stir-fry to oven baked chicken potpie and cobblers like the recipe in my post, Quick Summer Fruit Cobbler.

The benefits of using cast iron cookware

Did you know that cast iron cookware has been around since 513 BC?  Did you know that the Chinese first introduced it?  I figure that for most of you readers, acting like you live on the prairie isn’t a reason to own and use cast iron cookware.  So, here is a list of reasons why if you don’t already own and use any you will want to now:

  • Cast iron is virtually indestructible.
  • Cast iron is an excellent heat conductor, retaining heat well and distributing it evenly over the cooking surface.
  • Cast iron is a long lasting choice and can be reused irrespective of its age.
  • Most seasoned cooks believe that food has better flavor when cooked in cast iron than other cookware choices.
  • Cast iron is the healthiest option for cooking, as it requires little or no oil at all.
  • Cast iron is low on maintenance and can be cleaned using dishwashing soap, hot water and old-fashioned elbow grease.
  • Cast iron is environmentally friendly unlike non-stick cookware that releases toxic fumes into the air.
  • Best of all ~ cooking in cast iron has tremendous health benefits.  One of the biggest health benefits is cast iron’s ability to increase the source of iron in the food that is cooked in it which then increases the iron you absorb in your diet.

Using cast iron properly

Stuffed Peppers hot out of the oven

Stuffed Peppers hot out of the oven

In a previous blog post, Creating Homespace Beauty With Family Treasures, I wrote about the clearing and dividing of our mother’s home we six siblings did after we moved her into Richfield, an Assisted Living Facility for Alzheimer’s care.  As I wrote in the post, the six of us very carefully and methodically thought through dividing Mom’s furnishings and each of us six sibs chose items we personally treasured.  Most of what I chose I then passed on to my children.  All three of my kids are stellar cooks.  We all routinely text each other photos of our latest beautiful meals we have cooked.  But, Jimmy (my baby) has a deep love of all things happening in the kitchen and so I gave him one of my mother’s cast iron skillets I got.  Well seasoned, it is ready for whatever Jimmy has in mind to prepare!

“Seasoning” is a must so be sure to do this when you purchase any new cast iron.  For those of you new to the world of cast iron cookware, here are a few tips on how to season your pieces:

  • Clean your new cookware thoroughly with dish soap, hot water and a plastic brush.
  • Rinse and dry the utensil completely.
  • Apply a thin, even coat of vegetable oil to the surface of the utensil.
  • In a pre-heated oven of approximately 300 – 400 degrees, place the utensil upside down on the oven’s top rack.  (Put some aluminum foil under the utensil to catch any oil that might spill.)
  • Bake the utensil for one hour and then allow it to cool in the oven.

Enjoy the art of cooking with cast iron.  In this modern world we live in with new gadgets and gizmos developed every day and advertised as the “latest and greatest”, do yourself a favor and return to cooking the way your ancestors did.  You and the environment will be glad you did!

To cast iron cooking…

Fabulous Outdoor Décor For Fall

I am astounded each year at how much money is spent on Halloween decorations for the outside. Surveys show that Halloween is by far and away the second largest holiday we decorate for. I know I am an old-timer but growing up, the most anyone did was put out a pumpkin that became a jack-o-lantern for Halloween.

Now, it seems that all front doors have at the very least a pumpkin per child in the family.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not opposed to this.  But, what for years and years was a one-night festivity has turned into a full-blown holiday season.  Manufacturers and retailers now provide us with every imaginable way to decorate for Halloween.  Lights, moving figures, spooky music – you name it, you can find it in a store to buy for decorating.

I love Halloween.  I will never forget the Halloween when I looked like I was carrying my own pumpkin because I was a couple of weeks overdue with my first child, Benjamin.  Or the time I was in charge of his sixth grade Halloween party.  I can still see him cringing in embarrassment as I turned the jam box volume up on “The Monster Mash”.  I think I was a tad too enthusiastic for him.  Those were the days…

And I am the first to admit that I do enjoy the varying degrees to which people decorate for the candy holiday.  Just the other weekend while driving to Wisconsin to go apple picking, my David and I laughed hysterically at the massive black spiders we saw on the roller coaster at Six Flags.  I mean they were HUGE even from the interstate!  Traditionally every Christmas season my family and I have driven around at night to see all the different holiday lights and decorations.  Now I find myself doing it during “The Halloween Season”.  See?  I even refer to it as a season without realizing it.

Go natural the day after Halloween

Obviously, the colors of Halloween are also symbolic of autumn.  Why not convert your outdoor décor to simple fall décor the day after Halloween?  Get rid of the spooky.  Get rid of the creepy.  Get rid of anything that has to do specifically with Halloween and think fall.  Let the front entrance of your home honor the season as we approach Thanksgiving.  Let the colors of fall emblazon your home and send a welcoming message to those that enter or merely drive by.

Seasonal Mums

Seasonal Mums

Nothing beats what nature provides for us.  Go natural with your outdoor fall décor.  Fill your planters and urns with seasonal plants such as mums, ornamental cabbages and pansies.  Keep the pumpkins, too- at least the ones you didn’t carve.  Ignore the fact that you are giving the squirrels a feast to nibble on everyday.  Do what I do and enjoy their show!  Add gourds, Indian corn and cornstalks.  Think Pilgrims!

One of my decorating mottos is less is more.  A simple natural fall wreath on your front door speaks volumes.  But, add whatever makes you happy.  Just make it unique and inviting.  Remember, the outside of your home is the first impression you give of how you live in your space.  Make sure it reflects whom you are.  As with all things you do in your homespace, honor yourself in this way.

A simple fall decor

A simple fall decor

As I said, I love Halloween.  I remember many years as a kid walking in the dark with my sister, Mary Ann carrying our pillowcases door-to-door for treats.  We walked until we couldn’t hold the heavy pillowcases much longer.  When my kids were young, Halloween signaled “Bat Stew” for dinner and then the night that the dads in the neighborhood took over.  Kids in tow, they walked the neighborhood while we mothers handed out candy and enjoyed the moments of alone time.  And, since 1987, I celebrate every Halloween lovingly remembering my own dad as we buried him Halloween afternoon and then took all the grandkids trick-or-treating that night on October 31, 1987.  My dad loved candy more than anyone I ever knew.  How fitting that he was buried on the candy holiday!

Happy Halloween to all of you and may tonight’s fun fill you with laughter and love.  And, cheers to you Daddy.  I think I’ll eat some Mary Jane’s for you!

Fall on the farm

Fall on the farm

To celebrating fall…

Homemade Pancakes – What Could Be Better?

I don’t know about most of you but I associate certain foods with certain seasons.  This is not just for the obvious reason that fruits and vegetables have specific growing seasons.  Rather, food for me has memories and feelings associated with it specific to different times of the year.

For example, summer for me includes daily trips to the local Farmers’ Market for the makings of a summertime feast.  (Unless it comes from my own garden!) Give me a meal of mouth-watering slices of watermelon, silver queen corn, tomatoes fresh off the vine topped off with freshly made iced tea and cobbler and I’m a happy camper.  (You can find my recipe for cobbler on my post, Quick Summer Fruit Cobbler.) And, what summer doesn’t include outdoor barbeques?  Nothing beats the aroma wafting through the air of something on the backyard grill.  It signals summer for me just as much as the smell of freshly cut grass does.

For many of us, the autumn chill signals football and tailgating as Chef Ryan writes in his post, Tailgating- A Great American Tradition.  For me, the changing season signals pancakes.

The smell of pancakes cooking on a cool autumn morning does much the same thing for me as smelling a backyard grill in the heat of the summer.  For me, pancakes are a way to feel warm and cozy as the weather changes.

The tradition in my home is to have pancakes every Sunday morning.  It is something both David and I look forward to as it is really the only breakfast of the week that we actually sit down and enjoy together – the rest are eaten on the run or are eaten quickly to merely fortify our bodies and start the day.  Sunday morning pancakes are a total feel good experience for us!

Years ago I thumbed my nose at pancake mix in any pre-made form.  Seriously, what could be better than homemade pancakes?  I can whip up a batch in less than ten minutes using all organic ingredients that are better than any out of a box, can or bag. Last Sunday morning when David and I sat down to eat he looked at me and said, “Pancakes together on Sunday morning is my favorite time of the weekend”.   My David loves food but, this Sunday morning ritual is what he looks forward to as much as the yummy meal!

How to prepare pancake batter

Getting started

I do have one secret step in making my pancakes that I want to share.  It is a step that in my view absolutely, positively makes the lightest and fluffiest pancakes ever.  I witnessed this step years ago while I was in junior high school.  I had a friend whose mom was Swedish and so every Saturday morning she made Swedish Pancakes.  I was always thrilled to be invited to Laurie’s house, as I loved these pancakes.  I noticed one day that Laurie’s mom let the batter sit on the counter for a long time untouched.  Nosy me, I observed this and watched the batter actually rise up with tiny bubbles forming on the surface.  (I later realized this is what crepe recipes call for you to do.)  Once I began to make pancakes myself, albeit the traditional kind, I did this as well.  I soon learned that perfect pancakes are the result of letting the batter sit untouched for about 45 minutes.  So, every Sunday morning after I have started brewing a pot of coffee I make the pancake batter and let it sit.  David and I enjoy our mugs of coffee, play scrabble on our IPad and wait for breakfast.  This Sunday morning ritual of relaxing while the pancake batter rises gives us both warm fuzzies!

Here’s my recipe:

1 ½ c. flour                    1 egg, beaten

2 T. sugar                       1 ½ c. milk

3 t. baking powder      3 T. butter, melted

1 t. salt

Cooking homemade pancakes in an iron skillet

Cooking in the iron skillet

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Combine in a separate bowl egg and milk; blend well.  Add egg mixture and melted butter to the dry ingredients until the batter is stirred.  Be sure to leave it lumpy.  Let sit for 45 min. to an hour.  Cook preferably on a griddle or cast iron skillet.

Get creative:

Add any fresh berries or fruits you want.  You can also add nuts such as pecans or spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.

Enjoy!

Best homemade pancakes

Mmm,Mmm good

Everything begins in the home.  How you live in your home, the way you interact with others in your home, the traditions and rituals in your home and the foods you eat in your home all evoke feelings in you.  Each part of the goings on in your space is vital to your essence.  Be cognizant of the importance of this!

Food does more than nourish our bodies. It nourishes our hearts and souls as well.

To living and loving life…

I know Chef Ryan is the resident foodie on this blog but every once in a while I feel compelled to share with you one of my own favorite food recipes that for me adds to making a wonderful recipe for life!  Look for Chef Ryan again soon!