...Growing, Building, Cooking, Preserving, Crafting...

2006 began our urban homestead when I broke ground on a garden, which now includes perennial fruits, flowers, & many vegetable varieties. We dream of solar panels, keeping bees and hens. Until then we'll continue growing and preserving our own fruits and vegetables, building what we can for our home, cooking from scratch, and crafting most days.


Time to Relax and Enjoy

(Warning:  Mom, if you're reading this, SHUT IT DOWN because you promised not to peek!)

The holidays are here--Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Yule, Las Posadas, and almost Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year's.  I completed my final homemade gifts yesterday morning and am now [figuratively] putting my feet up.  I hope to engage in a physical foot-up session this weekend when we'll travel to see relatives for the holidays.

The goal with choosing and/or creating my parents' Christmas gift each year is to make my mom cry.  In the past I've given them family photos, framed original poetry, or have written my mom a short story--we share a great love of reading and writing (afterall, she's a retired English teacher...my high school English/Speech teacher, in fact.)  For the past several years, since I took a Geneology class via the Milwaukee County Geneological Society, I've been hoping to put together a basic family tree and gift it to my siblings and parents.  It finally came together this year.  I was originally thinking I might hire someone to hand draw the tree because I wasn't able to find an appropriate template online (or on Etsy--although there are some super cool original designs available there), but then realized I should just draw it myself.  The whole process of sketching, photocopying, touching up (usually with white-out), recopying, and finalizing reminded me of my days in high school and college designing T-shirts and program covers for various events and teams.  I'm glad I went this route; the design is exactly how I'd hoped--five generations with my parents at the center, and spreading out more in an hourglass shape than in a pyramid--and much more meaningful as a result.  In keeping with using the resources and supplies on hand, as I tried with all the other homemade gifts, I retrofitted the hand-colored final piece into a mat/frame that was out of circulation.  I'm pleased and I hope my parents will be tremendously touched.

Alice's new duds (not easy to sew so straightly
sometimes on these little garments.)
Baby doll Alice trying on her new coat and bonnet

My new "work" shoes
I also put the finishing touches on Vera's doll clothes yesterday morning then wrapped them, which lasted all of eight hours until our family gift exchange last night.  Santa, knowing we'd be running around for the actual holidays, delivered last night while Vera and I were out getting my hair cut.  He took the peppermint stick and carrot we left for him and Rudolph, respectively, and responded "Thanks!" on our note.  Vera displayed slight disbelief, but then happily handed out and opened gifts with Mommy and Daddy.  Her doll Alice was thrilled to finally have a coat and bonnet, though she had to fein amnesia upon opening it since she'd just had the final fitting earlier that day.  And Vera was very excited about her Kermit pillow and Lois Ehlert autographed book.  Ben came up with a lovely pair of locally purchased fair trade slippers for me based on the requirements for my annual slipper replacement--sturdy soles, warm, slip-on, dark color.

My first time playing Santa/Rudolph

The "Kermie" pillow is a big hit!
He also earned himself husband of the year when he presented me with a personally-designed certificate of 12 "Get-Out-of-the-House-Free" cards to be used monthly in 2012.  He knows that rejuvenation will make me a better mama, but I won't go out and do something for myself without this push.  I can't wait to use them.
Best. Gift. Ever!
This week we've managed to sneak a couple more holiday activities into the schedule.  Besides making a run for the Wisconsin essentials for my parents--this year it was Danish Kringle and a certain label of brandy that my gramma always preferred--Vera and I went downtown to check out the holiday lobby display at  M&I Bank downtown.  Then we hopped over the Grand Ave. to see the Leonard Bearstein Orchestra, which Vera absolutely loved.  We made potato latkes to acknowledge Hanukkah and may go see the Polar Express at the IMAX this afternoon.  So many opportunities though with V being a little under the weather this week, we've had to slow down a bit (hidden blessing for sure.)

Packing Santa's sleigh, holiday bank display
Winter Wonder-land
Leonard Bearstein Orchestra in all their green and gold best.
Home just in time to make potato latkes--I fried mine in
goose fat (instead of chicken fat) against my favorite
Jewish friend's wishes.
The Winter Solstice greeted us today as we read The Shortest Day, which I recommend for preschool and school-age children.  There are many activities included as well.  We made a Yuletide hand wreath via instructions in Yule, a book that I highly recommend for getting information on the history of wintertime celebrations and symbols.  It's about time to kick back with some [spiked] eggnog and reflect.

Vera's Hand Wreath
Now you can personalize
Speaking of eggnog, it was fridge cleaning time yesterday as we prepare to travel for a week or so.  And sometimes when you reorganize and wipe down the refrigerator you just end up making a chocolate cake.  Well, not usually, but when I found a flat, half-empty bottle of locally made rootbeer in the fridge, I wanted a way to use it creatively.  Ben and two of his close buddies who live in our neighborhood have been leaving holiday cheer on each other's front stoops for the last couple of weeks.  A personalized bottle--as in, he and his son are pictured with Santa--arrived from one friend and after a single, delicious root beer float made with Sassy Cow's Orange Chocolate Chip ice cream last week I tucked it into the fridge and kind of forgot.  Have no fear, I found a recipe for a Root Beer Float Cake and we were on our way. It was a perfect treat for Ben and I to savor along with some of that holiday cheer after the gift exchange and after Vera had turned in for the night.  We caught up by the light of the tree and licked our forks and plates clean.

Root Beer Float Cake (Gluten-Free)
Makes a 6-inch layer cake (nice and small!)

Sometimes you just gotta make room for chocolate cake
Adapted to gluten-free from a recipe from Joy the Baker.  I was incredibly surprised and thrilled with the texture and flavor once it was converted.  I didn't think this cake tasted much like root beer, but it ended up being a fantastic gluten-free chocolate cake recipe at least.

1 c. root beer (not diet, heaven's no!)
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 c. + 2 T. granulated sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar, packed
1 c. all-purpose gluten-free flour
1/ 4 t. xanthan gum
3/4 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Grease 6-inch springform pan and either dust with GF flour or line with a parchment round.  In a small saucepan, heat root beer, cocoa powder, and butter over medium heat until butter is melted.  Add sugars and whisk until dissolved.  Remove from heat and let cool.  In a large bowl, sift flour, xanthan gum, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  In a small bowl, whisk egg until just beaten.  Then egg into cocoa mixture until combined then gently fold flour mixture into cocoa mixture.  Batter will be slightly lumpy.  You can give it a quick whisk, but don't overbeat.  Don't worry, the batter is very loose.  Pour into prepared pan and bake about 45 min. or until a skewer/knife poked into center comes out clean.  Let cool completely, remove from pan, cut in half cross-sectionally.  Frost first layer and place second layer on top, frost all over cake, smoothing top and sides.  Slice and serve with eggnog cream.

Serve with fork AND spoon!
Chocolate Root Beer Frosting: (The salt gives it a nice balance once paired with the cake!)
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
3 oz. semi-sweet gluten-free chocolate chips, melted
1/2 t. salt
1 1/4 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. root beer
In the bowl of a stand mixer or with hand mixer, beat softened butter and cocoa powder.  Once combined, add melted chocolate, salt, powdered sugar, and root beer.  Beat together until smooth.  Spread on cake layers as directed above.

Eggnog Cream:
2 c. eggnog
1/2 c. sifted powdered sugar

Beat with whip attachment in an electric mixer (or with hand mixer) until frothy and slightly thickened.  This won't whip up stiffly like heavy whipping cream, but will gain a little more body at least.  I recommend pouring the cream into a shallow bowl and placing the cake slice on top. (Serve with both a fork and spoon!)

Nothin' but crumbs left.
We're spending Christmas in Tinseltown (where it will be 70 degrees--I've never celebrated this holiday in a warm climate before...should be interesting).  Can't wait to see extended family and Vera's beloved cousins.  We're also heading to downstate Illinois to catch my family next week.  Although I was hoping to see my siblings, in-laws, nieces, and nephew I'm relieved at least about the lodging situation.  Although my parents have a sizable home, there's often little room at the inn.  With everyone's sleeping quirks and requirements, it's often impossible for individual families to be contained to one room, not to mention my parents having to sleep clear across the house from each other.  One of my favorite lines from Tina Fey's Bossypants on the topic of heading home for the holidays:
"...the retro chic of spending Christmas just like Joseph and Mary did--traveling arduously back to the place of your birth to be counted, with no guarantee of a bed when you get there.  You may end up sleeping on an old wicker chair with a dog licking your face while an Ab Rocket infomercial plays in the background.  It's a modern-day manger."
Lights on Wisconsin Ave. at Grand Ave.
City Hall via the M&I Bank Christmas Tree
On that note, enjoy the holidays and this new season however and wherever it will find you.  I'll be taking a break from blogging probably until the New Year.  Have a happy one!

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