Monday, December 29, 2014

Bacon and Cashew Caramel Corn

This fall we went to a local gourmet candy business for a special event. One of the products that sold out was bacon caramel corn. Because of the demand, they made another batch of it for those who wanted to come back the next day and purchase it.

Clearly this was something worth trying. Yet, I wanted to learn how to make it myself rather than pay someone else to make it for me.

So, I looked online for a recipe that sounded good. Came across one for Bacon and Cashew Caramel Corn at Bon Appétit. The picture shows popcorn all covered with caramel with lots of bacon and cashews.

Making the recipe as noted below won't produce the same results. It is delicious and something I would make again. Plus everyone who tasted the bacon and cashew caramel corn liked it and wanted more.

This is the bacon and cashew caramel corn that I made. 
Look closely...there are actually pieces of 
bacon and cashews in there.

That being said, I would double the caramel next time and at least triple if not quadruple the cashews and bacon.

I also did not use the tea bag or cayenne pepper. Rather, I completely skipped the tea bag step (which was fine) and substituted black pepper (again, tasted fine).

Below is the recipe and how I modified it the first time I made it. The next time I make it, I'll do what I believe will result in an even better batch of bacon and cashew caramel corn by doing what I suggested above.


• 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 6 ounces bacon, chopped (I doubled this)
• 1/2 cup unsalted raw cashews (one 2.5-ounce package) (I doubled this)
• 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt or coarse sea salt
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used black pepper)
• 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
• 1 oolong tea bag (I didn't use this)
• Nonstick vegetable oil spray
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 1/4 cup water
• 2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Nutritional Information 

One cup contains: Calories (kcal) 199.7 %Calories from Fat 40.3 Fat (g) 9.0 Saturated Fat (g) 2.6 Cholesterol (mg) 13.8 Carbohydrates (g) 26.6 Dietary Fiber (g) 1.2 Total Sugars (g) 17.9 Net Carbs (g) 25.4 Protein (g) 4.6 Sodium (mg) 257.0


• Preheat oven to 300°F.
• Heat popcorn and oil in covered heavy large pot over medium-high heat until kernels begin to pop. Using oven mitts, hold lid on pot and shake pot until popping stops. Pour popcorn into very large bowl.
• Cook bacon in heavy large skillet over medium heat until almost crisp. Using slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain; cool.
• Add bacon and cashews to bowl with popcorn. Sprinkle with coarse salt and cayenne (or black pepper); and toss to coat.
• Bring cream and tea bag just to boil over medium heat. Remove from heat; let steep 15 minutes, occasionally pressing on tea bag with back of spoon to release flavor. Discard tea bag. (Note: I didn't do this step at all - even the heating of the cream. I just left it cold.)
• Line rimmed baking sheet with foil; coat with nonstick spray. Coat 2 wooden spoons or heat-resistant spatulas with nonstick spray; set aside.
• Stir sugar, 1/4 cup water, and corn syrup in large saucepan over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to high; boil without stirring until syrup turns deep amber, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with wet pastry brush, about 13 minutes. (Note: It took less time to reach a deep amber color on my stove.)
• Remove from heat and immediately add cream (mixture will bubble up). Stir until blended.
• Immediately drizzle caramel over popcorn mixture; toss with sprayed spoons until evenly coated.
• Transfer to sheet.
• Place caramel corn in oven and bake until caramel is shiny and coats popcorn, tossing mixture occasionally, about 20 minutes.
• Immediately get all pans, spoons, and anything that touched the caramel into hot, soapy water. This will save a lot of time with washing these items since the caramel won't have had time to harden.
• Cool the caramel corn completely on sheet on rack, tossing occasionally to break up large clumps.
• Note: this can be made 2 days ahead.
• Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

15 Nature Study Goals for 2015

Inspired by Barb at The Handbook of Nature Study who set nature study goals for the past year, I wanted to do the same for 2015.

Sophia and Olivia exploring a creek at Banning State Park 
which was the site of an old quarry.
June 3, 2013.

As I looked back on pictures that I took of places that Sophia, Olivia, and I have explored throughout the past six years, I realized what beautifully rich memories I have of these experiences together in nature.

Olivia and Sophia at Jay Cooke State Park on June 4, 2013.
The water was very high and had flooded some areas.
The bridge at the park also was destroyed and later rebuilt.

We have had fun hiking and exploring so many different areas not only in Minnesota, but in different states; and have met obstacles and challenges along the way that we have faced and accomplished.

Sophia crossing the suspension bridge at 
Tettegouche State Park on June 4, 2013.
The bridge moved quite a bit with each step that you took, and 
no more than two people could be on it at the same time.

The reward of pushing ourselves at times was well worth it. We saw places that others may not ever see or know about because they just drive or walk by parks and other natural areas.

The girls by the highest waterfall entirely in the state on Minnesota 
at Tettegouche State Park on June 4, 2013. 
(There's another waterfall that is higher, 
but it is in both Minnesota and Canada.)

As I look at 2015, I want to continue to do what we have been doing - hiking, exploring, and having fun in nature. Equally as important is documenting our experiences and what we learn either in journals or online.

In addition, I have an opportunity to take a trip in March to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas (three states I have never visited) so I've been focusing on the national wildlife refuges and historic parks; and state parks in each of those states as I thought about what I wanted to do in 2015.

Also, I wanted to continue to explore Minnesota's state parks and wildlife refuges. So far I've been to 17 of the state parks (there are 67) and only 1 of the wildlife refuges (there are 13 - not including the wildlife districts).

So, my goals for 2015 include:

1. Visit three new national wildlife refuges in Louisiana, Mississippi, and/or Arkansas.

It's interesting to explore the wildlife and natural landscapes of different states.

Nature Walk at State Park
Olivia and Sophia on the Ridge View Trail on the 
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway in Osceola, Wisconsin,
on September 24, 2012.

All three of these states that I will be traveling to have a variety of refuges that have such diverse features and elements that are significantly different than what I would see in Minnesota.

2. Visit three new national historic parks in Louisiana, Mississippi, and/or Arkansas.

I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a few national historic parks. Each one has different elements that make a visit worthwhile.

Olivia by a Dinosaur Track
Olivia near dinosaur prints at the visitor center at 
Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut,
on September 4, 2011.

There are several national historic parks on my list of places to visit when I travel in a few months.

3. Visit six new state parks in Minnesota as a family, and take the dogs with us as we explore new trails (St. Croix, Afton, Fort Snelling, Minnesota Valley, Frontenac, and Forestville/Mystery Cave).

Eventually I would like to visit all of the state parks in Minnesota. It seems like there a few that we keep returning to because of their beauty (like Gooseberry Falls) and proximity to home (like William O'Brien and Interstate).

Mom Dad Sophia Olivia at Gooseberry Falls
At Gooseberry Falls State Park with Sophia, Olivia, and my parents 
on September 7, 2010.

The parks we visit have all been with family - so memories are made there each time we take a walk, go on a hike, or do a program.

Going on a Nature Walk
The girls with Gretel and Montague at 
William O'Brien State Park on December 9, 2011.

4. Visit two new national wildlife refuges in Minnesota (Sherburne and Upper Mississippi) as a family, and take the dogs with us as we explore new trails.

The wildlife refuges are further away from our home so it will be necessary to take them so that we can spend more time exploring each one.

Olivia Looking at Hawk in Tree
Olivia watching either a Cooper's Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk at 
the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge on March 16, 2009.

I'm excited to see what two more of the refuges look like, and what type of wildlife we'll see at each one.

5. Identify and journal three new birds.

Rarely do I see new birds in Minnesota. It is when I travel that I have the opportunity to see birds that I have never seen before.

Roadrunner at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge 
on May 1, 2010.

I'm hoping that in March there will be quite a few birds before they completely migrate north. If nothing else, I'm hoping to see birds that are native to the southern states that we don't see in Minnesota.

6. Identify and journal three new types of wildlife.

As I've been reading about wildlife in the southern state and national parks, and wildlife refuges there's been quite a few mentions about alligators, poisonous snakes, and the Louisiana black bear that is active year round. Reading about this type of wildlife makes me a bit nervous.

An alligator at the Estuarium on 
Dauphin Island on August 31, 2009.

I suppose, though, it has been no different than some of the hikes I've taken in northern Minnesota where black bears, moose, coyotes, and wolves are common. I recall, the time that the fisher (the animal) was stalking Sophia, Olivia, and me on Ridge View Trail on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway in Osceola, Wisconsin, as we were walking the dogs. We're thinking that Aspen - who was a mere 7 weeks at the time - might have looked like a good meal.

7. Take 12 hikes throughout the year.

Although I'll be doing quite a bit of hiking at state parks and wildlife refuges this year, I'm hoping that perhaps some of the hikes will take place in other areas as well.

Sophia in Gnome House in Tree\
Sophia tucked in the "gnome tree" at 
William O'Brien State Park on June 1, 2008.

There are many natural areas that have pathways and walkways that would make for a nice hike.

Another Section of the Trail
A wooden pathway through a bog and forested area at 
Lake Itasca State Park on September 4, 2012.

If I need ideas, there's a website that has hiking suggestions in Minnesota.

Dogs in St. Croix River
Montague and Gretel in the St. Croix River on May 27, 2008.

Maybe even driving around I'll come across some local, county, or regional parks that have good hiking trails.

8. Visit 6 nature centers at the state parks and wildlife refuges.

I enjoy visiting nature centers and looking at the displays - especially when there's a hands-on element.

Olivia - Arm and Wing Span Comparison
Olivia checking out how her arm span compares to 
that of different birds at the 
William O'Brien State Park Visitor Center on May 26, 2012.

Reading the information gives a much deeper and better understanding of the area I'm visiting.

9. Post a nature photo each week based on the Nature Photo of the Week Prompt List.

There's a great list of ideas of what to photograph in nature.

Fossils at Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut 
on September 4, 2011.

Two years ago I did a weekly photography challenge and enjoyed it. Last year, the format changed so I found another one. I did the challenge for about four months and stopped. The prompts weren't ones that I found inspiring. Having nature prompts, on the other hand...well, that's something I would enjoy.

10. Do nature studies at least three out of four weeks of each month (36 entries) both online and in my journal.

This may be the most challenging goal for me this year. I enjoy taking photographs and documenting what I see outdoors. However, I wasn't as diligent as I have been in the past in terms of keeping a nature journal and/or posting a record of what we've done.

An alligator sunning itself on an island at 
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center on April 30, 2010.

I'm hoping that in 2015 I can get re-focused and re-committed to nature journaling again. It's something that I truly enjoy looking back's just the effort of written and visual documentation that can be overwhelming at times.

11. Try 2 new outdoor sports.

As I look back on the past several years, we have experienced many fun and memorable outdoor sports. One of our favorite ones was dog sledding. We did this twice - once in Duluth and once in Ely.

Sophia, Olivia, and I dog sledding near 
Duluth, Minnesota on February 25, 2014.

We also went ice climbing which was a new experience. Although it wasn't a favorite of Olivia's (because of the heavy equipment), I certainly enjoyed the challenge and would do it again.

Getting a firm hold
Olivia and I went ice climbing at Gooseberry Falls 
on February 26, 2014, while Sophia watched.

We have tried some outdoor sports - like canoeing - through the state park's "I Can!" program.

Learning How to Paddle
The girls learning how to paddle a canoe 
on June 24, 2012.

The park provides all the equipment for free or either a very low cost in order for people to learn new skills and enjoy the outdoors.

Sophia and Olivia in the Canoe
Putting their new skills to work by canoeing on Lake Alice 
at William O'Brien State Park on June 24, 2012.

We have learned how to do rock climbing - first at Taylors Falls a couple of times.

Sophia and Olivia Rock Climbing
Olivia and Sophia rock climbing 
at Interstate State Park on June 23, 2012.

And then Olivia and I moved onto rock climbing on the North Shore which was far more challenging since you start from the top of the cliff, are lowered down to a point, and then climb your way back up. There is no ground beneath you - only Lake Superior.

Olivia making her way back up the cliff at Tettegouche State Park 
on July 12, 2014.

By trying new sports, we have learned ones that we prefer. For example, we have done both canoeing and kayaking now. Without hesitation, we all agree that kayaking (using sea kayaks with rudders) is much more enjoyable and something we would like to do more regularly.

Sea kayaking on Lake Superior at 
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on July 12, 2014.
The lake was so calm we were able to explore a shipwreck 
that was easily visible from our kayaks.

Doing sports that we had not done before has given us opportunities to see places that we would never have seen otherwise.

Sophia (in front) in the kayak exploring a cave along the shores of Lake Superior.
This was below and to the northeast of Split Rock Lighthouse. 
The only way to access it is by kayak or canoe.
We did this on July 12, 2014.

One of the favorite activities of the girls is swimming.

Playing in Lake Shetek
The girls having fun swimming in Lake Shetek 
at Lake Shetek State Park on June 9, 2012.

One of the things I need to remember is that not all our outdoor activities have to take place at a state park.

Sophia, Olivia, and I back from canoeing on Gunflint Lake in
Grand Marais, Minnesota, on June 5, 2013.

There are so many places to explore and do outdoor sports throughout the state.

Olivia kayaking in a tandem sea kayak and 
Sophia paddling her sea kayak far ahead and to the right
on Gunflint Lake in Grand Marais, Minnesota, 
on June 5, 2013.

It's just a matter of searching for them and being open to new experiences.

12. Have 6 picnics when the weather is pleasant and we aren't battling with mosquitoes.

I remember growing up how we would go on picnics. I think it was a way for my parents to save money rather than going to restaurants.

At any rate, my mom and dad would pack well-balanced lunches and even include a free treats - like chips and - if we were lucky - pop. They found parks that had playgrounds so we could play for a bit.

Picnic on the Way to Pella
Having a picnic in Albert Lea, Minnesota, on April 29, 2009. 
We were on the way to Pella, Iowa, to see the tulips in bloom.
It was a bit chilly that day - as evidenced by 
Olivia wrapping herself in a blanket and 
my mom wearing the hood on her coat.

Sometimes just having a picnic under a tree on the nature trail or on the deck in the backyard is equally as special.

Sophia and Olivia on Picnic
Having a picnic on our nature trail on August 27, 2010.
We brought Gretel and Montague out to join us 
after we ate the food.

I've introduced doing picnics when we travel with mixed results. When the weather is nice and there's playground equipment...and no bees or mosquitoes...we have a great time.

Picnic in Lindbergh State Park
Having a picnic at Lindbergh State Park on September 4, 2012.
We went on a short hike and the girls played on the swings
before we continued on our driving trip.

Perhaps one of my goals - in addition to doing picnics - is to make sure that we have all the equipment we need (like forks, knives, and spoons) and that there is enough food and beverages for everyone. I've been known to forget some of these items which has made the picnic rather challenging.

Stopping for a Picnic
Having a picnic on the way back from the trip to 
Lake Itasca State Park on September 6, 2012.

There are a lot of inspiring images on Pinterest and recipes I'd like to try that would make good picnic fare.

13. Go camping twice during the year at new state parks.

We have been camping at several state parks in camper cabins and a tent. For me, the camper cabins feel safer and are more comfortable than tent camping.

Inside the Cabin
In a camper cabin at Lake Shetek State Park on June 9, 2012.
What this doesn't show is that the temperature and
humidity were both very high...and there was no air conditioning.
It was rather stifling inside the cabin, but 
we were thankful to have brought fans with us.

We can concentrate on other things besides setting up a tent and making sure everything in it stays dry - especially if it's raining.

That being said, the girls enjoyed camping in a tent in June 2014, so perhaps purchasing a tent and doing some tent camping may be something we explore in 2015.

The Girls and I  at William O'Brien Camping
Olivia, Sophia, and me making dinner over a campfire 
while we were camping at William O'Brien State Park 
on August 24, 2008.

One thing that we want to do is improve our skills and the diversity of what we prepare for meals while we are camping.

Olivia making dinner while camping 
at Wild River State Park on June 7, 2014.

We need to learn how to cook more complicated meals over a fire, and to cook meals (or parts of it) on a portable stove.

14. Learn 3 new outdoor skills and/or hobbies.

In addition to camping, cooking over an open fire, and outdoor sports, it would be good to add to our list of skills and hobbies that we can do.

Last year we learned how to fish.

Sophia learning to fish at 
Wild River State Park on June 7, 2014.

The year before that we learned how to operate a motor on a fishing boat. We had better luck with operating the motor in 2013 than we did in 2014.

Sophia learning to operate a motor on a fishing boat 
on Gunflint Lake on June 4, 2013.

Our ride back to Gunflint Lodge after our (rather: my) mishap with the motor was a quiet one as we reflected on how our ride with death could have had a rather unfortunate outcome had the safety bracelet not come undone from the motor and we had not had a paddle to get us to a dock that (thankfully) had a year-round resident who assisted us. 

But I digress. Let's focus on the positive. We learned a new skill.

For 2015, I'm thinking along the lines of things that can be done around our home and farm. Skills that would be practical - like new types of gardening, learning to build raised beds, making an outdoor oven in which we can bake pizza or bread. All of these things would be done outdoors - and surrounded by birds, wildlife, and a beautiful landscape.

15. Attend 4 workshops, classes, or activities at state parks.

Adding Seaweed
Olivia doing a fish painting at a program offered at
Interstate State Park on June 5, 2012.

Building a bluebird house
Sophia learning how to build a bluebird house on
March 16, 2013, at William O'Brien State Park.

And so there it is: 15 goals for 2015. I'm looking forward to doing them.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Countdown to Christmas 2014

Last year Cooper ate part of the Advent calendar...the one I hand-embroidered that had little pockets. I never got around to making new little felt envelopes to put the calendar, so although I planned out this year's activities, the girls didn't open an envelope each day from Thanksgiving weekend to Christmas.

Because we didn't do the countdown, we didn't do activities each day for Christmas. Nonetheless, we did do quite a few while still homeschooling and lots of practicing on the piano and harp for multiple performances during December. It seemed like the presence of the Christmas season was in our home each day, but just not in additional activities like we've done in past years.

So, 2014 included the following activities:

On November 29th, Sophia played the harp at Northwoods Humane Society for some of the dogs, cats, and kittens who were waiting to be adopted. 

Many came in quite anxious, but as they listened to the music they relaxed and seemed to truly enjoy the music.

There were several staff and volunteers who came in and listened to Sophia play as well. So, both people and animals benefited from her playing the harp that afternoon.

On December 1st, we made snowman pizza. 

Even though there was no snow on the ground, it seemed like a fitting thing to do.

On December 4th, we had a 4-H meeting and the girls brought toys for Toys to Tots. Collectively, the club donated over 500 toys. Between the ones that were shown here and the ones that are not shown, they were able to fill an entire car. 

Needless to say, the Marines were very happy with their visit to the club meeting, and the impact that the club would make on children this year who otherwise would not have received a toy.

They also worked on activity bags that will be donated to a shelter for women and  children who are escaping domestic violence situations.

The  fabric was donated by one of the families, and I sewed several bags. The canvas ones were pre-purchased ones that I ironed decorative fabric onto. The mother who donated the fabric was so happy to see how the material was used.

The next day, December 5th, we did our second-annual program for seniors about St. Nicholas.

We showed them figures that represented St. Nicolas and symbols that tie into the season.

This year we played a game after I read a story about St. Nicholas. The seniors had three fabric bags of "gold" (actually, dried lima beans) that they were supposed to throw into the basket. We went around the room twice. The top two winners from the nursing home and the top two winners from assisted living got to pick out prizes.

Then - so that everyone left with something - I made little shoes out of paper and put about a half dozen candies in each one.

Sophia and Olivia passed them out.

They had fun doing it and seeing how happy the seniors were to receive a gift and chocolate.

The gold coins were definitely a treat.

The next day, December 6th, was actually St. Nicholas Day. One shoe for each family member was put on  top of the bench in the mudroom. St. Nicholas filled them during the night.

Sophia's and Olivia's boots are shown below.

Olivia enjoyed looking at her book about Egypt right away.

Sophia - after looking at what she received - divided the coins by denomination.

The following day, December 7th, we got a Christmas Tree. After looking at the ones at Prairie Restoration, the girls picked one that they felt would fit into the family room.

This year they were old enough to help tie the tree to the roof of the car.

Up until this year, they haven't been able to do this.

Definitely a milestone year...and a rite of passage.

Decorating the Christmas tree took two days because the lights from last year didn't work. So, the girls sorted the ornaments. We decided on ones that were important to us, and ones we could let go.

There were decorations that we also felt ready to donate to the thrift entire bag full.

By the evening of the 8th, we had the tree decorated.

On December 9th, we focused on the Grinch. We made a healthy snack - Grinch kabobs.

And a not-so-healthy drink: Grinch floats with green sherbet and Sprite.

On Friday, December 12th, we went to the nursing home again. This time - while Sophia was downloading music onto the nursing home's computer for the Music & Memory program, Olivia and I went around to visit the residents.

First, she went to the room where a relaxation activity was taking place. She was dressed as St. Lucia, and Tia asked that walk around so everyone could see her. It ended up that many of the ladies wanted to give her a hug...and vice versa. It was very touching to see how much they enjoyed seeing her.

The girls had filled each of the Swedish baskets I had made with Swedish fish - a type of candy. They have the texture of a Gummy Bear and are slightly sweet.

Olivia - in her St. Lucia outfit  and holding the tray of Swedish baskets - headed out with me to  visit seniors. We focused on seniors who were spending their first Christmas at the nursing home or assisted living...and we tucked in a couple visits to seniors we always try to visit when we are there.

We saw our friend, John, we was so happy that we visited him.

Visited new residents.

And we visited residents who we always make a point of seeing, like Dale and Dorrine.

The next day, December 13th, we celebrated St. Lucia Day at home. I made Lucia Buns for the girls.

Some had raisins and others didn't. Olivia was awake, but Sophia was still pretty tired when they came out of the oven.

On Sunday, December 14th, the girls were in the Christmas play at church. Sophia was the accompanist on the piano and played all the songs - not only for the children to sing to, but the entire congregation. 

It was a HUGE responsibility and honor for her to be able to do that. She played the pieces flawlessly thanks to her many hours of practice.

Olivia was a reader and got to stand at the pulpit.

She even sang at the pulpit along with the choir on the altar while Sophia was playing the piano.

The children sang Silent Night holding battery-operated candles.

They finished with Joy to the World.

Although we had done the activity bags earlier this month at the 4-H meeting, I knew that many of them had multiple items (e.g., color crayons, coloring books, stuffed animals). 

So, on December 15th, Sophia went through each one and pulled out the duplicates. By doing this, we were able to create six more activity bags.

Now the bags are ready to be donated to the shelter so that the children who are coming in with their moms have something to keep them occupied. 

Each of the bags has things to keep a child busy while the mother fills out paperwork. Some of the youth at the 4-H meeting created homemade games - like puzzles and tic-tac-toe boards. 

On Tuesday afternoon, December 16th, we spent time at the open house at the nursing home. Sophia played the harp during the party.

While she was doing that, Olivia, John (one of the residents), and I passed out gifts to those in assisted living.

This is the second year we've done this, and John and we were looking forward to having this time together to do this special activity.

The next day, December 17th, Olivia made a gingerbread tree.

Sophia made a gingerbread house.

When they first started doing this, they needed my help. Now, they work by themselves and then surprise me with their creations. I was very impressed with what both did this year.

On December 20th, we put candies and cookies in the mailbox for the postman. I had been baking for the past few days, and we wanted to share what we made.

There were vanilla-frosted brownies, peppermint shortbread cookies, almond macaroons with a cherry center, spiced pecans, macadamia nut/coconut candies, peanut butter balls, pretzels and Spanish peanuts in almond bark, bacon-cashew caramel corn, caramel corn made with puffcorn, and some candies.

On December 22nd, Sophia, Olivia, and I did a Christmas concert at the nursing home. This time the concert was for the nursing home residents, but many from assisted living also came over to hear us play the harp and piano.

Sophia played many songs on the harp; and Olivia and I each played three songs on the piano. 

While Sophia played, Tia (the volunteer director) sang to some of the songs. For "Go Tell it on the Mountain," Tia started singing and before long we could hear many of the residents singing along with her and the harp music. It was really touching to be able to see and hear the group singing together.

On December 23rd we had another snowman day. This time we decorated powdered sugar mini-donuts with miniature chocolate chips and a candy corn in the middle for the noses.

In order to get the chocolate chips to stay, we had to use a bit of white frosting. It was more challenging than we thought because frosting does not want to stick to powdered sugar. Nonetheless, we thought the whole plate of snowman faces looked cute.

Before we knew it, it was December 24th - Christmas Eve. We had a relaxing day, and then went to the 3:00 church service. Sophia played the piano for two songs while the children's choir sang to one of them, and the choir and their parents and friends sang to the second song. Again, she did a great job playing the piano.

After the service, we saw two family friends - Ruth and Thom - and they all gathered by the tree in the fellowship hall.

At home that night, we opened some presents. One was for everyone: a new griddle. We haven't had one for months, and now finally we have one again. The girls have missed having pancakes, French toast, and grilled cheese sandwiches. These things taste best when made on a griddle....or at least they do to us.

Sophia and Olivia made a plate of cookies and strawberries for Santa along with a glass of water.

This year they cleverly made the treats into a happy face.

They left notes for Santa.

Sophia's was colorful and detailed.

Olivia was so tired that she didn't want to write one. So she left that to Sophia instead. Needless to say, it was brief and to the point. "Dear Santa, I have nothing to say. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. P.S. I'm in a bad mood. Please send me so Christmas spirit." Olivia signed her name so she must have approved the letter.

She said the next morning she was just very tired and wanted to go to bed. It had been a long day...and a long week so far.

The girls made a plate of treats for the reindeer. I didn't notice it at the time, but did when I was looking at the pictures: the carrots create a face and hair.

Normally they haven't done this. I think they were either tired or having more fun with doing these things this year than in past years.

Finally....December 25th - Christmas Day. Eenie wanted to sit by the nativity scene. It's in a new location this year because Aspen and Cooper would have tried to pull the burlap off the bureau and - along with it - all the ceramic figurines.

So, we put a low table where the couch used to be in the family room. Not having the couch there thanks to the ice dam damage back in March actually worked to our favor this Christmas.

We took a look at the top of the piano. There are stockings for the horses, cats, hedgehog, and dogs. Now, there are more animal stockings than there are people stockings.

The last three stockings I made were done on Christmas Eve of all days. I started during the day and finished at night. The bones and candy cane have sequins and beads on them, thus they took a while to make. I still need to add the names of the pets onto the top with fabric paint.

Our tree was missing some lights - one string that we've had for many years went out.

It seems like this is the year of things breaking and needing replacement.

Lucy wanted to take a turn at the nativity scene after Eeenie was done.

Olivia woke up early on Christmas Day as usual, and we both went downstairs. We open our stockings together. Shadow wanted to join us.

After we opened our stockings, we got ready, gathered the dogs, and headed over to my mom's home. Last year she was in the hospital for Christmas, so I think it meant a lot to her to be able to have it at her home again.

We opened stockings first and then presents. During this time the dogs were having a challenging time with all the activity and noise. They were having a difficult time with all the sensory overload and people.

Despite their challenges, the girls enjoyed opening gifts and spending time with their cousins.

I realized I didn't take any pictures of our meal together. It was a nice one: ham, scalloped potatoes, green beans, rolls, coleslaw, applesauce, and many desserts.

Before we left, I had Olivia take a picture of my sister,  brother, and me. I realized that I don't have any pictures of just us three together.

We came home, rested a bit, an then opened the gifts that Santa brought and that we wanted to give to one another.

Again a common theme this year was replacement of things that had broke or were destroyed. 

For example, those boots that Sophia received. One of the dogs ate half of one of her boots. They are essential for doing farm chores - especially when the ground is wet by the barn. She was wearing a tall boot and a half-eaten boot for several months...until Christmas. Now she has two boots that hopefully the dogs won't get their mouths on!