A Dutch New Year’s

New Year’s always seems one of the more dutchy holidays to me, because while at Christmas Dutch traditions look a lot like everyone else’s (stockings, Sinter Klaus, special pastries and desserts), at New Year’s our family did stuff no one else did. Dutch stuff.

First there is Ollie Bollen. Traditionally served New Year’s Eve or for breakfast New Year’s Day, these doughnuts are nothing pretty to look at and their name means “Fat Balls”! But their beauty lies in the crispy, funky protrusions formed by spooning a wet, yeasty dough into hot oil, and the plumped raisins studding the mildly sweet dough. The resulting golden-brown creation always reminds me of a manatee. Growing up, we at them as fast as my dad could lift them out of the hot grease and mom could dust them sufficiently with powdered sugar, and it never seemed as if they made quite enough. Making them for my own little family, we actually have leftovers which we enjoy for breakfast the next day.

After Ollie Bollen comes another Dutch Tradition. The Peppermint Game. A small stool is chosen — low in height and not over-generous in surface size. It’s key that it hold a man’s weight without tipping. It is set in the center of the room and a single, Dutch peppermint is balanced tantalizingly on the edge of the stool. Anyone is invited to help themselves to the treat, with just a few rules. You must 1)retrieve the mint with your mouth while 2)standing on the stool.

You can imagine the entertainment value of the game when friends and family, young and old, flexible and not-so-very, driven by competitiveness or the simple lust for a good peppermint, climb atop the stool. The most common technique is balancing the tips of one’s toes on the edge of the stool opposite the mint, gripping the stool firmly on the sides, and squatting — slowly, to maintain balance — until one’s lips can coax the mint inside. But those without the ability to do a severe squat must often resort to extreme measures, involving precarious hand stands atop the stool and, sometimes, loud sucking noises. Drooling often sets in when one had been at it a while with no success. It’s all quite hilarious to observe.

I introduced my kids to the game this year for the first time. Sadly, I didn’t think ahead enough to pick up some mints so we had to use peanut M and M’s. But I had just the right stool and it was hilarious to watch them — first their faces while Mommy demonstrated, then their own juvenile attempts to follow the rules to get their treat. Jesse was a pro — smoothly bending to deftly pluck up the treat — proof of good, strong dutch genes, I said. Claire didn’t quite get it, unwilling to commit to the risk to lower her head below her spine while perched in the air. She ingeniously used one hand to cup the candy a few inches off the stool, then licked it out of her hand, all while giggling. She bounced up like a gymnast her face shining with triumph. Finally it was Daddy’s turn. The kids shrieked with delight while Mommy tried to get photos — Jeremy being one of those who has to use extreme techniques to reach the treat.

After this, the family may play a home version of Scategories – we called it “Boy’s Name, Girl’s Name” growing up. It was a list of ten general categories and all that was needed was paper and pen for each person  and a dictionary, and a timer. One person opened the dictionary and, with eyes closed, dropped a pencil to the page. Whatever the tip landed on was our letter. We’d set a timer for 3 min. and then race to fill in all the categories with as unique choices as possible, for you only got a point for your word if no one else had thought of the same one. Again, a simple game, but with the dutch (or was it just my family’s?) competitiveness, it was a rousing good time.

The dutch, despite their reserved attitude and reluctance to show emotion, have a wonderfully dry sense of humor. My sisters and I used to laugh so hard at my Pake’s jokes when he would come visit.

Q: What do the Dutch do when it rains?
A: They let it come down.

Q: What’s white and has two legs?
A: A chicken
Q: What’s white and has one leg?
A: A glass of eggnog

Trust me, it’s hilarious if you’re Dutch.

I’ve never actually celebrated the New Year with my grandparents as they live across the country, but each New Year’s I feel especially close as to them as our celebrations echo my heritage.

Happy New Year to you and yours! I’m curious…how do you celebrate?

Letters From Home, Volume 3

This has been a unique Christmas Season for our family. As I mentioned in my reasons for a simplified Christmas this year, we drove to Orlando, Florida for a seminar Jeremy was attending, and were gone for 11 days at the beginning of the month. Coming home with just 12 days left to be ready for Christmas — minus 3 days recovering from the stomach flu which hit us on the way home – means Christmas has been even more simply elegant than I’d planned!

Yet I find myself reveling in the calm of a shortened to-do list, sighing in the peacefulness of a simplified schedule. Our celebration of the season has consisted of the daily reading of our Advent book (with all three kids taking turns opening the doors this year!), my tradition of 12 days of gifts for my true love, and a shortened list of Christmas Baking. Which is what the photos in this post illustrate…

Can you tell the girl child is so very excited about cookie decorating?

Everyone has their helping stools pushed close to the kitchen island while mommy finishes mixing the icing.

Mommy scowls in concentration while spreading a sample smear on a sample cookie. Seth presumes this is all for him and begins rooting in excitment.

Thanks to Daddy’s deeper reservoir of patience, Seth is permitted to help decorate.

In his 16 month-old-brain, this is also permission to lick, pick and eat!

Thankfully, Daddy understands his boy, and Seth was permitted to eat his cookie as soon as he finished decorating it!

Of course, this spawned the idea that all the cookies were there for Seth’s express enjoyment. Soon after this photo he was whisked off to the bath while his more mature brother and sister continued decorating.

Please note: The red nose is washable marker. It was all his idea. He was being Rudolph, dontchaknow. Oh, look – it’s our Christmas tree in the background! Let’s look closer…

 I usually have a theme for my tree. This is what a simplified Christmas tree theme looks like. One and a half strands of popcorn garland and half the usual ornaments. And it’s still beautiful. Amazing, isn’t it? I could get used to this….
This will be the last you’ll hear from me till after Christmas, when we’ll enjoy series of short posts highlighting the best content from the blog from the past year, with follow up on a few topics, and a hint of what’s to come in the new year!

Merry Christmas to you and yours!!!

How to Make Your Own Vanilla Extract

This is the ultimate One Size Fits Most gift. It’s appropriate for anyone from 10 to 100, male or female, as long as they
a) love baking
b) love baked goods.
It’s readily available, and can be found in almost everyone’s cupboards already. BUT you can make a superior product for less money in your own kitchen that will wow and bless all your friends.

What am I talking about? What is this amazing gift item?

Vanilla Extract
And now, at the risk of being tacky, I’m gonna answer all your questions about Making Your Own Vanilla Extract (those of you who will receive a bottle from me please dis-remember this post, ok? Cause my mom taught me it was tacky to tell how much you spent on a gift!)

Can you really make your own vanilla extract? Yes! And it’s crazy simple. I think the only reason more people don’t do it is ’cause it can be a little tricky sourcing the ingredients. That’s why I’m gonna tell you exactly where I got everything. :)

What do I need to make my own Vanilla Extract? Three things:
1. Vanilla Beans
2. Vodka
3. A Bottle to put it in.

What kind of Vanilla Beans should I buy?

To my understanding, there are three main types of vanilla beans. I use the Madagascar or Bourbon bean as it creates the same flavor as you would normally get in the grocery store, and is in the middle price range. I purchase my beans in bulk from Amazon this year – 1 Lb (90-100 beans) for $31.95, plus I got a bonus pack of beans ’cause my order was over $30. The beans were extremely fragrant and moist, and came out to $0.32 each.

What kind of Vodka do I use to make Vanilla Extract? The key word here is “cheap”. Any brand will do. I buy it in the largest bottle my liquor store carries, when it’s on sale (I watch our local Pennysaver ads). I got a 60 oz bottle for $17.82.  For those who’ve never been in a liquor store or bought hooch before (like me) it’s clear, like water, and my bottle looks like this…Feel free to inform the cashier what you’re really going to do with 3 gallons of Vodka while you check out if it makes you feel less guilty. ;)

What do I put my Vanilla Extract in? I like to buy little 4 oz. bottles for gifting, but if your making it for yourself you can use any old jar. I bought beautiful, blue, recycled glass jars with corks last year, but this year I got amber jars with a nice little screw cap from Frontier for $0.80 each, half the cost of last year’s jars. If you don’t have acccess to Frontier through your local co-op, these bottles on Amazon were similar in style and price.

How do I make my Vanilla Extract? Pay close attention ’cause this is really simple. 

  1. Cut one vanilla bean in half, then in half again lengthwise. (scissors work great)
  2. Put all four pieces into your 4 oz bottle. 
  3. Fill bottle with Vodka
  4. Cap bottle, label, and wrap ribbon or raffia around for gifting. 

Is that it? Well, the vanilla needs to steep for 4-6 weeks, with an occasional shake. Last year I made my extract in October so it was all ready for my recipients to use in their holiday baking. Didn’t get to it that soon this year, so I’m just telling people to save it till January. They don’t seem to mind and like feeling involved in the process (shake it once in a while! I tell them). I also tell my friends that when the bottle gets half empty, they can add more vodka to get the most out of the beans.

How much does it cost to make my own Vanilla Extract? Well, if you buy your beans in bulk, vodka on sale, and jars by the case, this is the breakdown of what you may end up spending per bottle…
Jars -       $0.80
Beans –    $0.32
Hooch -   $1.15
Total -     $2.27

I know — it’s almost laughable. A comparable product (pure, without any additives) on Amazon goes for $13.

The best part about making and gifting your own Vanilla Extract is the thanks you’ll receive for the rest of the year, ’cause this stuff really is superior to your run-of-the-mill extract. Your friends will adore it, savor it, save it for their favorite recipes, and thank you every time they see you for this little bottle of elixir. (If the raving seems to be over the top, it may be because they drank the whole thing right before they called you, but I have yet to have that happen)

If you want to make a large batch of Vanilla Extract for your own use, you can just put 12-15 beans, snipped lengthwise, straight into a 60 oz bottle of Vodka, or pour it into a quart jar or two like Sarah of Real Food Outlaws did. She has a very informative post about Vanilla Extract over at her blog, which you can check out if I haven’t answered all your questions. 

I’ve made the making and gifting of Vanilla Extract a yearly tradition at our house for many reasons, but my favorite thing about it is that it’s something my kids can do with me. Jesse snipped the beans all by himself this year while I poured the Vodka in the bottles. We did this together with a friends last week and between 3 kids (ages 5-7) with scissors and two mommies we made 30 jars of vanilla in 20 min. And boy, did we all smell good when we were done!

This is just one of the many ways I simplify Christmas so that I don’t get totally stressed out during the holidays. I’m sharing all my secrets with you this week ’cause I want you to have a peaceful Christmas, too!

What’s your best strategy for simplifying Christmas? Ya’ll have been sharing some great ideas in the comments – I appreciate all the feedback and am takin’ notes! 

This post included affiliate links. Using a blogger’s affiliate links to amazon or elsewhere for your shopping is a great way to bless your blogging friends at Christmas time!

My Bestest Tip for Simplyfying Christmas {for real this time}

You knew I was kidding yesterday, right? It is truly my aim each year to simplify our Christmas as much as possible, otherwise I wouldn’t have time for the tradtions that are most meaningful to us.

I mean, if I’m wrapping presents till 2 am on Christmas, then I wouldn’t be able to join in on the big, family, sleep-over under the Christmas tree, now would I?

And if I’m spending too much time on everyone else on my list, I won’t have creative juices left for my husband’s all time favorite tradition (which you can read more about over in my post at Passionate Homemaking this week). That would be a crying shame. 

But I DO love gift giving, and my list is as long as yours of people I love whom I want to bless in this season. So what do I do?

Well, at the risk of revealing all my secrets for friends and family this year, I’m gonna share my #1 tip for simplifying Christmas.

Are you ready?

I call it “One Size Fits Most” gifting.

Here’s what I do:

  1. Find a great little something that fits multiple people on my list.
  2. Then I just buy or make in Bulk. 

Amazingly simple, and stunningly efficient.

Here’s some of my favorite One Size Fits Most gifts for each person on your list…

For Kids: Homemade Playdough. Packaged in Jam jars with a shiny new cookie cutter tied around it. So fun and yet simple – you could make a dozen jars in less than an hour, and have gifts for every child under 10 on your list. Check out this cute idea for Candy Cane Playdough from The Artful Parent!

For Guys: There is nothing wrong with gift cards, people. (I have to keep reminding myself) Especially for guys. Especially if it involves food. How about a “Five Guys Burgers” card? Mmmmm. I’d like one of those myself. Another great idea? Gloves. This is not corny. I don’t know a single guy who wouldn’t appreciate a nice pair of work or winter gloves. Find them at Lowes or Home Depot in packs and individually wrap a pair for each of your brothers or uncles.

For the Whole Family: OK, this one isn’t cheap, but it really does cover everyone in one fell swoop! I’m talking about a World Magazine Subscription. Both of our extended families love getting news from a Christian world news for an entire year. And, as the giftee, I got access to World Magazine Online for the entire duration of the gift subscription. (Although I much prefered reading the hard copy at my MIL’s after Sunday dinner!)

For Girls: Have you seen these yet? Oh. My. Word. I received one of The June Bride’s handcrafted felt flowers from the Tiny Twig at Relevant last month, and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I even want to sleep with it. (I know that may be taking things too far, but it’s Cashmere, people – purple cashmere!) Her flowers are exquisite, reasonably priced ($12-$15 each, compared to some I saw in a boutique last month for $22!) and would work for young women and mature ladies both! Oh, and free shipping. Yes. Perfect. Pin to your winter coat, snag it on a scarf, or accessorize your favorite purse! OK, I’ll stop raving now.

Are we done yet? Have you got something for everyone now? Still a few gaps? I know just what to fill it with. I’ve got one more “One Size Fits Most” gift to share with you, but I’m gonna hold off till tomorrow. Can you stand it? It’s gonna be worth it, ’cause I’m gonna share my biggest secret yet. ‘Cause I love you. And I want you to enjoy Christmas, ya know?

Merry Christmas!!!

Do you do any ‘one size fits most’ gifting? What are some of your favorite gifts to give? Do you ever give the same gift year after year?

Top Ten Tips For A Stressful Christmas Season

I hope you can read this ok, ’cause I had my tongue in my cheek the whole time I was typing…

The key to a truly stress-filled Holiday Season is always keeping in mind these two goals:

  • To impress. Everyone. But especially those you don’t know.
  • To Meet All Expectations. Especially of those closest to you — the Higher the Better.

At no point should you shift your vision to how you can worship God more fully in this season. Definitely worship People and Things

Here’s a helpful list of the Top Ten Ways to Build and Maintain Stress during the next month.  Print and tape to your fridge (you also may find it helpful to keep a copy in the car to review at red lights.)

1. Out-do Yourself Whenever possible, choose gifts that require heavy investment in both Time and Money.(ie. create handmade gifts that use expensive materials you can only pick up across town) The key to achieving a high stress level with good staying power is to maintain the idea that the best gifts come wrapped in packages, and take more out of you and your bank account that you can realistically afford.

2. Increase Media Be sure to spend extra time in front of all kinds of media to keep you pumped up about the latest and greatest gifts for everyone on your list. Beware of spending too much quality time with the ones you love, getting to know them and their heart needs and how you can uniquely bless them this month. This can eat into your Media Time and Shopping Time! (see above).

3. Bake It All! Try to spend at least 4 days a week slaving in the kitchen till 11pm to make all the great holiday recipes you’ve come across in your Media Time, as well as all the family favorites. The lack of moderation and added sugar of these holiday treats will be sure to add as significant stress to your body as the preparation of them does to your schedule.

4. No Permission! – Avoid the word “permission” as in, permission to scale back, shorten lists, cross things off the list before you’ve done them, to say ‘no’, or to un-obligate yourself gracefully from anything that adds stress. Permission destroys stress.

5. Forethought is Bad – Do not get at least a general idea of the gift you’d like for an individual or the amount you can afford to spend before you go shopping. Planning ahead destroys stress.

6. No Records! – be sure to rotated your purchases on at least 3 different credit cards so you’re never quite sure how close you are to your credit limit, nor how much you’ve actually spent total. Cash should only be used when purchasing a little something for yourself in each store you go into, and that latte needed for extra energy.

7. Planning – Poor Idea! At no time should you sit down to collect your goals, ideas, and lists all in one place, like a binder or tablet. This is over-thinking things! Be spontaneous in your effort the pack as many activities and tradition into the holidays as possible. The only time I advocate taking a moment to ponder is about 3 days before Christmas when you should ask yourself if there’s anything you’ve forgotten that you really should pack into the next 72 hours. If you’re not frantically wrapping gifts late into the night on Christmas Eve, you know you’re over-organized.

8. Decorate – Everything. Follow the urge to decorate every room in the house. If last year’s decorations aren’t enough, or seem out-of-style, head out for more! Remember, it’s not about creating familiar family traditions and an atmosphere that welcomes – it’s more like a competition to make it on the cover of Martha Stewart. Don’t forget plenty of outside lights and decorations, too! The neighbors and strangers who drive by will appreciate that you’re not the only one in the neighborhood without lights.

9. Continue the Tradition! Don’t forget the importance of making stress a continuing tradition in the years to come. The ticket is to cultivate materialism and expectations to your children. If done well, by the time they’re in their teens they’ll have learned well how to celebrate the season and you’ll never see them ’cause they’ll be out shopping for all the people on their list, and working extra hours so they can make the minimum payment on their credit cards.

10. Just Say It. And finally, the simplest way to add stress to the season – just go with the flow and say “Happy Holidays” like everyone else. The word ‘Christmas’ can be an nagging reminder of the real reason we celebrate.

I hope this has been helpful…have you got any more tips for adding stress to the season? *wink*

Come back tomorrow for my all-time worst (best!) tip for simplifying Christmas! :)

Photo Credit

Whimsical and Shiny – My Christmas Decorations

Several years ago I saw this lovely silver and gold themed Christmas tree in Pottery Barn’s catalog. I LOVED the mini picture frames with family photos all over the tree. I started watching stores for similar frames. Finally, I found them at the dollar store this year! Hooray!

The sliver balls were in my stash of decorations, the gold ones were 4 for a dollar at the same dollar store. So, I spent $7 on my Pottery Barn Copycat tree this year.

We moved an end table out of our little living room temporarily to make room for the tree. I am in love with the tree in this spot – mostly ’cause there has been no tracking of needles all over the house – everything stays in the corner! 

I had to do something with the beautiful birds Jesse and I made for last year’s bird-themed tree, so I hung them all over my grapevine arch in the doorway to the studio.

I don’t usually do whimsical well – I’m too perfectionistic, I think. But I believe I scored with this garland. I think I like it better than the tree, and may leave it up well past Christmas…

(I like themed trees, if you hadn’t noticed. Some day, maybe when I don’t have toddlers? I’m going to have a Christmas tree in every room, each with its own theme. Seriously. I know several people who do this every year. I love a Christmas tree in the kitchen! But these women do not have toddlers.)

The manger scene and a little Dutch Christmas touch to the dining room, and that’s it. I didn’t have a lot of time to decorate, so we went simple this year. It feels lovely, especially when I think how quickly I’ll be able to put it all away come January. Sorry, gotta be super practical in this season!

Do you ever have a theme with your decorations? How long do you leave your tree up?

Sweet Temptations and Nourishing Compromises

“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” -Buddy the Elf

 There’s no question about it – Christmas means candy, and an increase in all forms of sugar, even at our house. I’ve been brainstorming this month about ways to reduce our sugar intake without completely sacrificing all those tasty holiday traditions. Here’s some of my ideas…

1. Find Nourishing Ingredients!
Make your treats as good for you as possible. Use a natural form of sugar, rather than ultra-refined, bleached white sugar. Use real butter over crisco or margarine. (Trust me, this does not negatively affect most recipes!) Use dark cocoa and quality chocolate. Shop your health food store for the ingredients for fresher, more nourishing ingredients. Nuts and flours go rancid so quickly - find sources for the best quality you can afford. If it costs extra, it will be just one more reason not to over-indulge! I’m using sucanat in all my baking, coconut oil and butter for fats, and avoiding food coloring all together. 

2. Bake Cookies
I’m serious – just deciding not to make cookies yourself means you will be in complete withdrawal and subject to uncontrollable cravings when you visit others or receive plates of cookies from friends!  Make your own treats so you can have something yummy along with everyone else. Don’t be ashamed to bring your own plate of treats to the Christmas party, even if it’s a little different than the other choices on the buffet. You’re doing what’s right for your family.

3. Exercise  Moderation
Just because there are piles and stacks and bins of cookies all around you does not mean YOU have to keep them from going stale! Decide ahead of time what your favorite treats are, and what forms are sugar just aren’t worth it (For me, it’s chocolate over candy every time!)  Limit yourself to one treat a day. Savor it. And share your goodies with others so you don’t have so much lying around!

4. Save the Sugar for Dessert
Try to keep sugar to a minimum in the other meals you make. Choose savory over sweet for your breakfast menus. Traditional Christmas Breakfast is usually sweet rolls or coffee cake. This year try making a yummy breakfast casserole the main course, and skip the hot chocolate. I’m planning lots of nourishing oatmeal for breakfasts this month – it’s easy and gives your body an nice break after over-indulging.

Sugar puts a strain on your body and weakens your immune system. So often, when I over-indulge on sugar, I can feel it – either a general sluggishness, or succumbing to a head cold when it’s the least convenient. Keep your family’s Christmas joyful and healthy - nourish them with good cooking between all the sweet treats, and make sure the goodies you make are natural as well as tasty!

For more ideas, see last year’s post on Guilt-Free Holidays. 

This post is part of Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday!

How do you make healthier choices during this season of sweet temptation?

Tree Traditions

It was our 6th year cutting our tree from the local tree farm. I can’t believe we have such a solid tradition already in our young family!

Soon Jesse will be able to help cut the tree down and drag it. Until then, he pitches in to ‘help’ daddy whenever he can.

Daddy was piggy-backing Claire so I got a turn dragging our tree, while holding Seth in the carrier in front!

Yes, Seth was there, all wrapped up in blankets and cover-all snuggly layers. Last year he was just a twinkle in his mommy’s eye – he was with us, but we didn’t know it for another week or so. And now look at us – three little childrens to make memories with this Christmas!

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Christmas Books

And now I share with you one of my fondest Christmas Traditions.

When I was growing up, we didn’t have an advent calender – we had Christmas books. Twenty-four pages told the story of Christmas from Creation to the Cross. Each day we would draw our interpretation of the story, carefully guarding our pages to keep siblings from copying our ideas.

The books are a record of my artistic abilities from the age of 3 1/2 to my last book, sometime in my teens.

When complete, Mom would bind our books with ribbon or yarn, and in later years she took them to the print shop to have them proffesionally bound. We each chose our favorite Christmas card to illustrate the cover.

On Christmas Eve the books would be passed around, and the box of last year’s books would be opened, and the whole family would enjoy paging through and remember past Christmases, and when so and so always gave everything they drew, including the donkey, a prominent belly button. There was no way to forget the true meaning of Christmas with this special tradition.

This year my eldest is finally old enough to make his first Christmas book. I have waited for 20 years for this day – I can hardly wait to pass on this fun activity to my children, starting tomorrow! Each day we will read the sentence for the day, talk about what it means, and brainstorm ideas of what we could draw to illustrate this. If you want to join us, here is the file for you to download and print.

Christmas Books
The document is 12 pages with two lines of the story of Christmas on each page. Simply print the pages and then cut them in half crosswise to make (24) 5 1/2in x 4 1/4in pages. Give one to your child (children!) each day, starting December 1st. Have fun!

Our Thanksgiving

 Seth keeping Grandpa company while he carved the turkey.

 My sis-in-law’s delicious egg bread.

 The table set for 16

 This was the first Thanksgiving in their new house.

 They have been putting up final decorating touches – I love the wall decals and these wood-burned hymn plaques over the piano.

 A crackling fire (on the t.v.) completed the homey feeling…

 The afternoon’s entertainment included seeing if we could pop popcorn with all our cell phones…until Jeremy went on snopes and found it was a myth. It was fun trying.

Then the pies. Oh, yes, the pies. Cherry-Almond-Crumb, Lemon Meringue, Apple, and Pumpkin. With Whipped Cream, of course!