Archive for December, 2011

With all my traveling, sewing, soap making and present wrapping, i missed out on participating in much handmade holiday conversation here at Not Dabbling, so my post this week will be a run down of all the projects i worked on this year.

Check out An Austin Homestead in the next week or two to see all my projects revealed. You can also find all my original handmade holiday posts in the archives on the left sidebar.

I got started with my holiday gifts early this year, beginning in September with some canned blackberry jam made from berries i picked just down the road, blended with dried cayennes saved from my Austin garden.

While i harvested gobs of berries and sold veggies to folks at the local farmer’s market, i was inspired to make my own produce bags for use at market and at home. I played around with my crochet hooks and came up with a sweet and easy pattern. I made at least 6 of these to give to several family members as Christmas gifts. *And i’ll be posting a tutorial on how to make your own market bag soon- so stay in touch and crochet with me!

My spinning wheel was a big contributor to my gifts this year. Not only did i give some beautiful skeins of “meriboo” (merino/bamboo) yarn to my mother in law, i also spun the yarn for several knitting projects for other loved ones. One mother has a new scarf, one father has a new hat, and each sister has a headband or hat. I am especially proud of two hats i knitted for my two best friends. One is in Texas, the other in New York and thus one has ‘not so warm’ hat, and the other an extra warm hat made of handspun quivit fiber (musk ox). I don’t yet know how to follow a knitting pattern, so all my projects come out rather “uniquely” which makes them even more special: they’re the only ones like them!

Giving my handmade gifts filled me with so much pride this year. I think my recipients loved their gifts, and i could tell they were all touched by my truly ‘hands on’ experience with each of their presents. Whether spun then knit, or picked then canned: all my gifts started with me from scratch to become treasured and useful possessions that will hopefully remind my recipients of me whenever they taste, wear or use them. To sit down to spin yarn for a project for someone you love to enjoy for years to come: THAT is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. For me, at least.

In these dark days after Christmas (and other gift giving holidays) and before the new year, what thoughts and gifts are you pondering – both given and received? What present (given or received) stands out in your memory as the most treasured this year?

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Winding down….

I don’t know about the rest of you, but we’re still winding down from Christmas.   We were able to spend a lot of time with our family, which was truly a blessing.  I’m the oldest of 6 kids.  I have 2 younger bio sisters as well as 2 younger sisters and a younger brother who were adopted from Haiti.  While me and two of my sisters still live in the area, the younger 3 are spread out… one of my sisters lives in Arkansas, is married and expecting her first baby in April (yay!!!!), my brother is in the USMC and currently lives in Virginia, and my youngest sister is in college in Illinois.  They were all able to make it home for Christmas, so we were very excited!

Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we spent with both sides of our family, and while it was a lot of fun, it was also exhausting!  We are taking this week off at work to just relax and get caught up on things at home, as well as hang out with our boys.  My brother will be leaving soon to head back to Virginia, so he came over to spend a little extra time with the boys.  They think he is super cool because he’s a soldier!

Speaking of super cool, check out the Christmas gift some friends of our family made for my parents, grandpa and cousin…  You see, my grandpa, my 3 uncles, my cousin, and my brother have all served as United States Marines.  My 3 uncles are at the top, my cousin on the bottom left, my grandpa in the middle, and my brother on the bottom right.  I thought this was so creative and thoughtful, and it’s something that will be treasured for many years to come.  (And it goes right along with our Handmade Holidays theme!)

So did you receive any great handmade gifts for Christmas?  Do you take time off after the holidays to wind down and prepare for the new year?

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We had our friends Steve and Gayle over for the holidays last week (here’s the meal we made). Our grown daughter and their two grown sons (one of whom played Simon Birch just as an aside!) were over too, and we told them about a New Year’s Eve in about 1979 or 1980, when, as the poet says “it snowed and it snowed.”

Steve and Gayle had arranged a New Year’s Eve party. And then a blizzard hit, and then the temperature dropped to well below zero (we’re talking Fahrenheit here). We decided it was just too awful out, so we stayed home. About 11 they called us and told us we had to come, as they had food for 70 and no one was there yet.

So we relented, got on the L (it only costs a penny on New Year’s Eve in Chicago, to this day), and trekked to their place.

You have to know a little about Chicago apartments to appreciate what happened next. Many old Chicago apartment buildings are 3  to 5 story U-shaped structures around an open central courtyard. About 2 a.m. the 20 or so intrepid souls who had come headed outside where we built a huge snow dragon the size of the whole courtyard (the picture is the actual building).

As we were celebrating this amazing artistic feat, a neighbor leaned out his window (it must have been close to 4 a.m. by this time), yelling,  “I’m going to come down there and show you what I think about you!”

Now, this worried us, but we waited for him. And what he thought about us was that we needed a bottle of pink champagne and some whisky. We poured the champagne into the dragon’s eyes to turn them pink, and drank the whisky.

My daughter’s response to this story: “Today I learned that my parents are human beings, and were once young and did crazy young people stuff.”

Good Times.

Here’s a traditional Greek New Year’s bread which I try to make every year:

This recipe is from Adventures in Greek Cookery by Kapulos and Jones.


1 cup milk
2 yeast cakes if you can find them (or equivalent dry yeast)
3/4 cup + 2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup melted butter
3 eggs, well-beaten
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon mahlepe
1/3 cup lukewarm water
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 or 2 clean coins

for topping:
3 tablespoons light cream
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/3 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sesame seeds

Scald the milk and set aside to cool. Crumble the yeast in a small bowl, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons sugar, and set aside for 10 minutes, or prepare dry yeast per packet directions. Don’t put the dry yeast straight into the mixture, however careful you are with temps. It doesn’t work as well. *

When milk is cool (I cooled mine in the fridge, to about 100F/38C, or just warm to the touch) combine it with remaining sugar, and the next 5 ingredients (through the mahlepe) in a large bowl. Beat with electric beater for 5 minutes. If using fresh/cake yeast, add the lukewarm water to the yeast, blend until smooth, then stir into the mixture. For dry yeast, simply stir the foamy, activated yeast into the bread. Add the flour and knead the dough until soft and pliable. Place on a floured board and continue kneading for 10 minutes. Thoroughly grease the sides and bottom of a large bowl. Turn the dough into it and rotate until all sides are greased. Cover with a heavy cloth and put in a warm place to rise for two hours. It should at least double in size.

After two hours, turn the dough out on a floured board and knead lightly. Divide into two parts and put a clean coin in the center of each, or for one loaf leave dough in one piece and use one coin. Then knead until the coins are well hidden. Shape the dough to fit into two greased 9 inch round cake pans or one 12-inch round pan. Combine the cream, sugar and cinnamon, brush over the tops of the loaves and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Cover with a cloth and put in a warm place to rise for two hours. It will double or more in size again.

Bake at 350F/175C for 50 minutes (check at 45) for 9-inch loaves, or 1 hour for 12-inch loaf. Remove from pan immediately and cool.

The first slice is for the lord (or the goddess, depending on how you roll). The second is for St. Basil, patron saint of Greece. Dole out the remaining slices from the youngest person at the table to the oldest. A coin in either of the first two slices means good luck for the entire household; if an individual gets the coin, they get the good luck all to themselves.

What are your New Year’s tales and traditions?

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Merry and Bright

I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year.

As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays – let them overtake me unexpectedly – waking up some find morning and suddenly saying to myself: “Why, this is Christmas Day!”

~David Grayson

For those of you who are celebrating the Christmas holiday today, we hope your day is filled with all that is Merry and Bright. Happy Holidays from all of us here at Not Dabbling in Normal!

Our Dark Days recaps will resume next week with the East Group.

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A few days ago, I went up to the attic and pulled out two reindeer to sit on our table. The table is sitting in the middle of the kitchen right now (not its normal spot). Somehow, I didn’t plan too well and we had all 22 of our windows replaced a week ago. Every bit of furniture has been pushed to the center of each room. All the blinds were taken down and over four days all the windows were replaced. With all the craziness and disruption of the window installation, I knew I wasn’t going to put up the tree and decorate this year.

I grew up in Wisconsin until I was 10 years old and then we moved to Minnesota. For Thanksgiving and Christmas we would always go to a relative’s house in Wisconsin and have a nice family holiday. It was either at my Great Aunt Adeline’s house or my Great Aunt Ida’s house. It was a planned potluck. I remember after we moved to MN, the requested item for us to bring was French Silk pies from Bakers Square (formerly known as Poppin Fresh Pies.)

I remember what fun it was, as a child, being with all those people. I don’t remember if it was a Thanksgiving or a Christmas get together that my second cousin, Mark, worked with me as I learned to tie my shoes. There was lots of activity around us and dinner was suddenly on the table. My brother and I were seated at the “kids table”, you know, the card table off to the side for kids. We were the youngest in the group and I don’t remember the “kids table” being such a terrible place to be. There were so many people that a few of the adults were seated there with us.

Aunt Adeline had a beautiful Victorian house, complete with a turret. The staircase had two ladings were it turned 90 degrees and kept going up. On the first landing sat her enormous Christmas cactus, always in bloom at the right time. My second cousin now lives in that house and still has the Christmas cactus, but it seems to have a mind of its own now and blooms when it wants, not when you want it to.

I remember one year I spent Christmas with my exchange family in Tasmania. It certainly was strange to be sitting out on the deck in shorts instead of being in knee deep snow in Minnesota. Then we celebrated Boxing Day complete with snags (sausages) and oysters on the barbie.  Another Christmas was spent in Kenya where my husband and I were living at the time.  We celebrated with the friends we had made there. It was a nice day and we all had many family stories to tell and share in the laughter.

Since I moved away from Minnesota in the late 90’s we have had eclectic Christmas gatherings. Where ever we are living we will invite friends and neighbors over for a meal if they are not celebrating with their family. This year we have decided to have a quiet Christmas, just the two of us.  My husband doesn’t get many days to sit and relax that I figured we would try that this year.  He has requested a few special dishes for me to cook and there will be plenty of food. I know we will enjoy the left-overs for several days.

I have been playing Christmas music, but I still haven’t found my favorite Christmas album (yup, the old round black vinyl thing). I don’t have a record player to play it on, I just want to set it out and look at it. Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer – that was my favorite album, although I did like one by Andy Williams also. And the weatherman says there is a chance of snow. While many of the northern states are still without snow, we may be getting some in South Texas!

As I reflect on our family traditions and talk with my husband about his memories, I realize that we do not have any of our own family traditions. I asked my husband if he would be alright if I made pizza for our Christmas dinner. He said he would rather have stuffing, potatoes, corn casserole, the works.  So, I guess we do have some traditions. Since I missed cooking a big tradition Thanksgiving dinner, I am thrilled to do it for Christmas, even if it is just the two of us.

It was nice to take this little walk down memory lane and think about years past and the things we have done. We have a lot to be thankful for this year, and years past. And who could forget dad and that big blinding light on the 8mm camera to capture some of our holidays on film.

Sincerely, Emily

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I have been feeling the weight of the short days and dark nights. Wrapping up our first whole year as farmers has been interesting. Intense moments of extreme frustration and system failures combined with those moments I live for, at the farmers market when a mother with her three children approaches our table and thanks us for growing healthy food for her family, has had me up and down, tired and exhilarated.  It is those instances of the light, strung together, that has founded this vision of our farm and is helping me figure out where it is going in the next phases of development. The solstice is beginning to have greater and greater meaning for me as I become more centered and rooted to my sense of place and service to the Earth and my community. This year we celebrated by hosting new friends and old friends for a potluck and bonfire. Standing around the flames, watching the connections growing among these people, a season worth of brush burning on a future garden site, lit me up and fueled me to move forward with my visions. A fire cleanse on the darkest day,  my passion and energy has been renewed and I am ready for the year to come.

How did you celebrate the solstice? 

I blog more about my farm ventures and feasts, inspirations and all things permaculture at Phoenix Hill Farm

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“Winter is icumen in, Lhude sing Goddamm, Raineth drop and staineth slop, And how the wind doth ramm! Sing: Goddamm.”
Ezra Pound

Rejoice, sun-lovers! (And forgive me if my quote offends; I have a lot of Appalachian roots; this really spoke to me.)

Today is the shortest day of the year. From this point on we will have more and more sun until the height of summer when, blast it all, we’ll have so much sun it will leave our poor vegetable plants flopped lethargically across the bleached soil. Nearly all of my students, family and friends have been pining for a white Christmas (or Hanukkah) and here in Michigan there is just no way it’s going to happen. The fields are a deep brown, the sky is a broken grey and the thermometer is just gracing freezing over night where it ought to be dipping into at most the twenties.

Unfortunately for us snow lovers, this winter is supposed to be one of the warmest we have had in many years. I’d like to say I’m prepared, but living a life of Michiganian farmdom means I am more comfortable trudging through feet of snow than I am through slops of mud. The horses are already knee deep in mud when they pass through their pasture gates. The sheep all have brown knees from bedding out in the orchard (though some days they decide they prefer the dry of the barn to the convenience of the orchard). The chickens are scratching away what little grass is left in the barnyard and the ducks?

Oh, the ducks. Who knew they could destroy so much sound earth in such little time? All it takes is an adorable dabble here… and adorable dabble there… and behind them they leave a slick, muddy path of destruction, and never where I’d prefer. They pick the delicate garden beds and the important elements in the yard to dabble on, leaving the more hardy earth to it’s own devices. (You might say they avoid dabbling in normal… bwahaha. Sorry.)

Still, when snugged by the fire this morning, half of me is dreaming of longer days and sunnier afternoons, and the other half is left to imagine the winter as I would like it. In this morning’s case, I imagine it full of fluffy white snowflakes and afternoons exploring. I like to think about the way our dogs spring through the new snow out into the orchard and then freeze perfectly still, having detected something beneath the white crusts. Moments later they might launch into the air, pounce into a snowbank and produce (or not) a very surprised wriggling mouse. (Connor, our German Shepherd, has never quite mastered winter mousing. Basil, however, is a professional.)

Of course there are sobering events this morning, such as the muddy dog prints trailing through the house that indicates somehow I forgot (again) to tell the dogs to stay on the porch when we came in from doing chores. There is also the distant splat splitter splat of ducks destroying my shade garden just outside the kitchen window, and don’t think I could ever forget the thick, brown crusts of clay mud that stealthily crept up and over my short boots and onto my socks while I wasn’t looking (not to mention the now-crusted dots of mud that fleck my pants from where the new ram splashed me while scrambling to his hay pile this morning).

Ah well. I guess I’m not sure what to look forward to more, with this being the first day of winter: the freezing of the earth or the thawing of the earth, however I’m definitely looking forward to more sun in my days!

How does your winter look to be shaping up for you? Muddy? Snowy? and what do you prefer?

Want to read more from Tanglewood Farm? Check out Emily’s blog over at A Pinch of Something Nice where she writes about her experiences with her gardens and her livestock, her quest to become a cottage foods bakery and her adventures in leasing a small 19th century cottage and orchard in SE Michigan.


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It was a matter of course that the lucky one whose holiday (birthday) came around could expect a present from everyone in the house; and of course, one didn’t just go to the store and buy with cold money something turned out by a factory with no relationship at all to the young sister or brother. A loving heart and gifted fingers can produce a wonderful of little miracles.

Maria Augusta Trapp The Story of the Trapp Family Singers

One of the things I love about Chiot’s Run being in a northern climate is winter. I love the reduction in the amount of activity starting mid-November. This is perfect timing for those of us that like to spend time making holiday gifts for friends & family. This year I was wondering if I’d end up having time to make a lot of holiday gifts because I got a new part-time job at the beginning of October. Lucky for me, the job is one in which I’m encouraged to be creative and to make videos about the creative things I’m doing. Thus, it has allowed me to not only make some wonderful Christmas gift, but to make how-to videos and write blog posts about it. Here’s a round up of all the crafty things I’ve been making & doing for my holiday gifts this year.

Of course I talked about my calendars before, which everyone is excited to receive once again. This year I purchased 15 of these and just about everyone on my list is getting one.

I also made photo canvases featuring some of my photos for some of the members of my family (and I made some for myself as well). This is such a wonderful project and I had a lot of fun doing it. I made a how-to video for the Your Day Blog at Ethel, head on over & watch the video if you want to see how it’s done.

I also made a bunch of these little chalkboard and wooden tile gift tags for my gifts that I’m planning on saving and reusing year after year. A batch of these would make great gifts too or you could use them as ornaments for your tree. Using scrabble tiles to spell out words like NOEL and PEACE would be lovely as Christmas tree ornaments. Head on over to the Your Day Blog and watch this video about how I made these.

There are also a few gifts coming from my kitchen. Every year I make up a few batches of caramel corn and hand them out to all the people we come in contact with throughout the year; this includes the friendly people at the bank, library and post office. We certainly appreciate that all these folks do their jobs so well throughout the year we want to make sure they know how much we appreciate it!

I didn’t make all my gifts myself. The boy from the farm we get our raw milk from were making suet bird feeders this summer and selling them to raise money to be able to attend their uncle’s wedding. I purchased a bunch of these to give to everyone on my list as well. They used fallen branches from the farm and suet from their pastured cows. The suet is in the freezer and I’ll stuff the feeders a day before I give them out. I’m going to make some nice tags for them explaining where I got them and put a nice ribbon on them for gifting (I’m not about to wrap them since they’re so beautiful as is). I might tie a pine sprig to the top.

What gift under your tree have you crafted with your own hands?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, maple sugaring, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Your Day Magazine and you can follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Even in a non-religious household like mine, it’s important to remember the religious, cultural and spiritual underpinnings of this most dear of holiday seasons.  Forgotten in modern consumer focused holidays, is that Christmas is a season and not just a day.

We tend to think of Christmas as happening on December 24 and 25th, and we try to fit so much into that tiny window of time–large meals at a couple of households, religious services, family visits. And who doesn’t have a relative who has felt slighted because they “only” got to host Christmas Eve, and not Christmas Day, as though they are in competition.

But Christmas, like all the winter solstice holidays, isn’t just a day or two. Christmas is a season.

It starts with Advent, the lovely anticipatory holiday that builds to the brilliant apex. When I was a little girl, despite the fact that we aren’t Christians, I LOVED Advent calendars. Mind you, I had no clue what Advent was beyond the vague understanding that something wonderful happened at the end of it, having to do with babies (I was a little unclear on the concept that it was a specific baby). And I loved getting a surprise-a-day.

Today I see that in fact, I did understand Advent on the most important level–that every day brings gifts; sometimes anticipation is a gift in itself; that all you have to do is open the door.

But even Advent, and its end in the birth of the savior, or the rebirth of the world, depending on your spiritual outlook, is not the end of the holy season. We’ve telescoped the celebration to serve our modern idea that things, even things like worship, have an end, and a place, and a time.

Remember that Jesus himself had to wait for the blessing of the wise ones, and they didn’t get there for twelve long days.

My mother had been raised Greek Orthodox, so we stretched the season out, celebrating Christmas Eve and Day, and then again on Epiphany on January 6, the Feast of the Kings, with lovely New Year’s traditions sandwiched in between. We used to make all our friends jealous, bragging that we still had Greek Christmas to look forward to. (Off topic: Don’t get me started on non-religious families celebrating Christmas. That’s worth several years on a therapist’s couch.)

Christmas isn’t just a day. Christmas, or any of the mid-winter celebrations, with all their wonderful seasonal symbolism, celebrates our understanding that the earth is eternal, that winter has an end, that the cycle should be celebrated,  that the earth and its people are worthy of salvation.  Whether you are joyfully celebrating the birth of your Redeemer, or the imminent solstice (December 22 this year) that heralds the return of the goddess, or Chanukah, which celebrates the Almighty’s miracles, (and starts today), remember that neither God nor the goddess exists on only a single day.

Honoring the holy is a daily, and ongoing, act, and after all, the point of the entire exercise.

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At our house in Michigan, we’re spending the next few days wrapping and decorating all the gifts we’ll be giving over the next couple of weeks. It seems I just don’t get along with the cost of wrapping paper and gift tags, so instead I try to reuse when possible or use up what I have a lot of. This year I’ve decided to design something more personal than I can purchase and use some of the extra craft supplies I have on hand.


And I’m sharing them with you! You can get them here.

(Click on the link, then right click on the image to save it to your computer. You can then resize the image to fit your needs.)

I just took some seasonal card stock and scrapbooking papers and cut out the tags themselves. A ruler, craft knife/x-acto blade, and a self-healing cutting board are nice, but not necessary. You’ll  want the tag to be just larger than the image you’ll be placing on the tag so you have enough room to write whom the gift is for and from!

Trace, and then cut out your image on some really fabulous fabric or paper. Then glue them onto your tag using either fabric or craft glue. I found that placing my tags under a heavy book as they dried helped them from curling, but a warm iron would work just as well (just be sure the steam setting is off).

Finish them off with a hole punch, and a bit of ribbon or yarn and attach to your package!


And there you have it! A simple, personalized gift tag from you to your loved ones. One last thing, I keep the really spectacular “used” gift tags to hang on my tree as ornaments the following year!


You can find Jennifer at Unearthing this Life where she blargs about a little of this and a lot of that, but it usually has to do with food, her daughter, and missing her chickens.

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