Christmas Contemplations

This post is courtesy of my sweet and godly mom…enjoy, and have a blessed Christmas day!

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I picture the shepherds of Bethlehem as a quiet lot, not given to much conversation, not living exciting lives, experiencing some boredom on the night watches, wondering if this was all that life held.    (I don’t think of them as having poetic souls though I am reminded of the Shepherd-King, David who spent many years as a shepherd…and we have the songs of his solitude to refresh us).  Picture the shepherds, out in the darkness, waiting for morning, not expecting anything more exciting than perhaps a wolf or dog agitating the sheep.
But the angel of the Lord!  Why, it could almost give you a heart attack!  Don’t you love that ‘And, lo’?  Out of the darkness of the night sky, the angel of the Lord came upon them.  I think my own heart would have stopped!  And the glory of the Lord shone round about them.  I see the glory of the Lord in the Scriptures when they reveal Him to me.  But these shepherds were ‘sore’ afraid.  No wonder!  They were stunned!  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!  Proverbs 9:10.  I bet they were awestruck!  A very logical response to the appearance of the glory of the Lord.
And the first thing the angel said was, ‘Be not afraid!’  I wonder if that really calmed them; it calms me when He speaks ‘be not afraid’ to me.  But then he revealed what every Jewish person had been waiting for for hundreds of years…Good news!  Good news!  Unto you is born this day a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.  And you will find Him in Bethlehem.
Then, on top of that astounding sight, a multitude of heavenly hosts appeared with the messenger angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God’!  It was a ‘Messiah’ moment, bursting into praise and glory…wonder if that is how Handel felt when he was writing that wonderful Hallelujah Chorus.
Let’s give God glory for the birth of His Son!  Let’s accept the peace God promised at the birth of His Son and at the new birth when we receive Him.  Rejoice in the Lord always because of God’s gift of good will!  The law came by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ!
As the shepherds immediately headed for Bethlehem to find the Babe, let us seek Him also; let’s join in the fulness of grace and truth which He has promised when we seek Him in prayer and the Word.

Cheesecake Gifts and Recipes

In early December, my friend Kim called with a brilliant Christmas gift  idea. She needed to borrow my springform pan to carry it off.  Why? Because cream cheese was on sale for .59 cents a package! And because cheesecakes make such delectable gifts! With her springform pan and mine, she could save a lot of time baking two at a time. So we both stocked up on cream cheese and got busy!

But here’s the *brilliant* part. Kim and I both used totally different *base* cheesecake recipes and found that we could tweak the basic recipe by adding specific variations to the filling. This way we could bake 4 different cheesecakes, with our different add-ins, and be able to cut each one in fourths, producing cheesecake “samplers” to give away. In the end, I gave out several cheesecakes that were each divided into four options: Chocolate, Mini-chocolate chip, Raspberry Swirl, and Plain. Fun! And they looked so pretty in the professional cake boxes we got at the Cake Supply Store for .69 cents each. While you are there, they also have white cardboard cake circles for .39 cents apiece. Handy items, I highly recommend them!

This is a gift idea that can be given away fresh, or frozen, as cheesecakes do freeze very well. I opted to give mine away fresh, but told each recipient to stash it in the freezer if they wanted to save it for a later date.

I’m so kicking myself for forgetting to take pics! Here is the Cheesecake Factory recipe I used, with instructions on how to pull off the variations I mentioned above.

Added bonus–this Cheesecake Factory Filling recipe always makes enough for a test batch…so have a glass dish on hand (or another cheesecake pan!) and make a smallish cheesecake with the extra filling to keep for the family to try!

Cheesecake Factory Cheesecake Filling

Graham Cracker Crust: 2 cups crushed graham cracker crumbs, 1  1/3 cups sugar, 1 stick melted buttermix together, and press in bottom and up sides of 9 inch springform pan. Bake at 350*F for 10 minutes.

Filling:

1 1/2 lbs cream cheese
1 1/3 cups sugar
5 large eggs
16 ounces sour cream
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Cheesecake Directions:

1. All the filling ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. Beat the cream cheese until light and fluffy with an electric mixer set on low (keep the setting at low during the entire mixing process).

3. Add the sugar a little at a time and continue beating until creamy.

4. Add one egg at a time and beat after each egg.

5. Add flour, vanilla and lemon juice, mix well.

6. Add the sour cream and beat well.

7. Pour cream cheese mixture into the springform crust-lined pan.

8. Place on the top rack in the middle of a 325 degrees preheated oven for one hour and 15 minutes.

9. When time is up turn oven off, prop open oven door and leave in oven for one hour.

10. Remove from oven and let cool then refrigerate for 24 hours.

Important tip : A cheesecake should season. The wait is worth it. The flavor ripens and becomes enriched.

Okay here’s what I did for variations on this theme:

  1. Chocolate Cheesecake–add 1/2-3/4 cup cocoa powder, or more to taste!
  2. Mini-Chocolate Chip Cheesecake–add the entire 12 oz package mini-chocolate chips to the filling!
  3. Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake–heat one cup raspberry preserves slightly, and add half of it to the filling. Pour the filling into the prepared crust, and then drop dollops of the preserves around on the filling. Swirl it in with a knife.

Bake for the same amount of time as you did for the plain cheesecake, and enjoy! We also made a Raspberry Swirl-Mini-Chocolate Chip cheesecake and it was just amazing. Ten thumbs up by the five people that live here!

Deborah Vogts also has a wonderful recipe for Chocolate Chip Cheesecake–the crust alone is to-die-for–as you can see in the picture.  Check this lovely author’s blog out for more delicious recipes!

Deborah Vogt’s Delicious Chocolate Chip Cheesecake

Crust:cheesecake
2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs
1/2 cup flaked coconut
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons baking cocoa
1/3 cup butter, melted

Cheesecake:
3- 8 oz packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

In medium mixing bowl, combine vanilla wafer crumbs, coconut, sugar, baking cocoa. Add melted butter and mix well. Press onto the bottom and partially up the side of a 10-inch springform pan. Set aside.

In large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth. Beat in sugar, and then add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla. Fold in miniature chocolate chips. Pour into prepared crust. Bake at 325 degrees for 50-60 minutes until center is nearly set. Turn off oven and allow cake to cool for an hour. Carefully run a knife around edge of pan to loosen. Let cool completely and then refrigerate overnight. 16 servings.

Great Dip Recipes for the Holidays

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I was going to have to post some recipes from the October Writer’s Retreat I attended. Here are some goodies for you! More to follow!

Julane’s Corn Dip

  • 2 cans Mexicorn
  • 2 bunches green onions ( or one regular onion, diced pretty small)
  • 1 can chopped green chilis (can use chopped jalapenos if you prefer–but it does make it hot!!)
  • 1 cup real mayo
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2 cups grated cheese ( Julane recommends  sharp cheddar or the taco seasoned kind)

Drain corn.  Chop onions.  Add mayo, sour cream, chilis and cheese. Mix well and chill. SO EASY!!

And SO good!!

Julane’s ESPINACA Dip

Julane says her boys would eat this like soup if she’d let them!! Just watch that your crock pot doesn’t get too hot and scorch the cheese!

  • 2 (8 oz) pkgs cream cheese
  • 4 oz. Velveeta cheese
  • 1 cup whipping cream (or heavy cream if you have your own)
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes
  • 1 sm. onion diced
  • 1 small pkg frozen chopped spinach, (thawed)
  • 1/4 c. chopped jalepenos, with juice (I use the canned chilis because we don’t like it quite so hot when kids are eating it–unless your kiddos have really “tough” taste buds)

Place cream cheese, Velveeta cheese, whipping cream, milk and Ro-Tel in a crock pot on medium to high heat. While cheese is melting, dice the onion and add to crock pot. Add chilis (or jalapenos, juice and all) and add spinach that has been well “squeezed” of any moisture (want it as water free as possible). Reduce heat on crock pot and cook about two hours.

These sound like great appetizers to have on hand prior to your holiday feasts! We’re going to try them out on New Year’s Eve!

Enjoy! And treat yourself to a visit to Julane’s blog, Inspiration From the Commonplace!

Graham Cracker Gingerbread House Traditions

generalstoreEvery so often there are blog articles that deserve being reposted. This one qualifies! Hopefully it will inspire some fun times for your family!

(The following was originally posted in December of 2006…)

Yesterday the girls and I spent from 8:30 AM-5:30 PM making graham cracker gingerbread houses. We do this each year with homeschooling friends…one of our favorite Christmas traditions!

This is a craft that can be as detailed and intricate as you want it to be. Using graham crackers instead of gingerbread takes a lot of the headache out of the process, making it very “mom” friendly!

northpolebiblechurchOver the years I’ve made these fun little houses in many sizes and themes. If you want a fun and easy version go here or here. For this version, you can use as few as 3 full graham crackers per child. Here’s another cute site with several to look at.

For a more impressive version, you’d have to get Traditional Christmas Cooking, Crafts & Gifts by Cy DeCosse. There’s a several page spread in there with diagrams to help you make a fancy town…

We start by combining our efforts with another family or two. We decide which candies each family will buy, and then we pool all of them together for the maximum effect!

Here are some of our favorites:

  • miniature candy canes (for stair rails up into churches or for “props” to hold up a 1/4 graham cracker door overhang)
  • normal sized candy canes (these are cute stuck in snow icing with a gumdrop stuck to the curved end–ta-da: a lamp-post!)
  • wafer cookies–the rectangular kind (we make benches out of them–to put under the lamp-posts. Use sugar cubes for the bench “feet”. You can also use wafers to make shutters for your windows, or to line the roof of store-front type buildings such as the General Store in the the book I linked above)
  • Gumdrops (flattened and cut to fit, these make great window panes. Cut them in different shapes/sizes and make stained glass windows for your town’s church)
  • Sugar cones (steeple for the church, or frost with green icing and decorate for Christmas trees)
  • Red and Green M&M’s
  • Red hot cinnamon candies
  • Peppermint hard candies (great stepping stones to your bench)
  • Hershey Kisses
  • Cereals: Grape nuts for gravel pathways, Shredded Wheat for hay bales, Chex for shutters
  • Pretzels–straight ones for porch railings, miniature rounded ones for fences around the yard, simply stick them in snow frosting
  • Marshmallows–use toothpicks to make snowmen out of these, or cut them into small pieces and pile in the yard for snowballs
  • Red and Green sugar, or candy sprinkles to shake on snowy rooftops

You get the idea…

MsgingerbreadhouseEach family also needs to bring cardboard bases to be covered with tin foil. We like to use Cinnamon Graham Crackers because the darker cracker looks more authentic for buildings. Plan on one box per house, if you’re tackling a large one.

For icing, you can buy meringue powder at any cake decorating store or in that section at Wal-Mart and follow the instructions inside for Royal Icing. Or, an easier and quicker way, is to use white Almond Bark. Melt it in the microwave and pipe it, or spread it with a knife to “caulk” your house seams together.

Yesterday we made the house w/yard, the church and the general store pictured above. On Saturday we’ll be taking them to our local rest home for their visual enjoyment!

Tips for Bake Sales

bake sale 1.1Family and friends have been anxiously awaiting this post since mid-November! Not because they need the vital information I’m going to share for hosting a successful bake sale, but rather for the glory this post is going to give to God for the great things He hath done!

A friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer in July.  This homeschool mother of 7 and her husband have had a rough year in all areas, and then along came this cancer diagnosis. In an effort to *do* something helpful, our homeschool group decided to host a bake sale. Here’s what I learned in the process!

PRAY hard!

Hosting an outdoor bake sale in November isn’t the most *brilliant* of plans, but that’s what we did. Here in the mid-west, November weather is typically pretty blustery. The week leading up to the bake sale was chilly, but not too bad. However, the forecast for the Friday of the sale, was downright awful! Everybody called to let me know that Friday was going to be miserable, hands down. But what can you do when you’ve got ads out everywhere, and all the radio stations have been announcing this fundraiser for days?

You pray, that’s what you do. And it helps to have a 13 year old in the house reminding you that God is a miracle worker. I told all my girls that we were packing a change of clothes to take along, because we would probably get soaked…with a forecast of 100% chance of rain, and 30 degree temps…don’t you think it prudent to plan ahead a little? But my daughter kept chiding such plans…”Oh ye of little faith, Mom!”

So we kept baking, baking, baking…and praying, praying, praying!

Involve the Kids!

bake sale 2This tip deserves its own spot in the post. Being homeschoolers, each family had children coming along eager to help. One family had the awesome idea of making costumes! They came with the cutest sandwich board type costumes–one of a cupcake, and another of an M&M cookie. Another family had a chef’s costume, and another donated a banana costume (banana bread, anyone?). We had a line of around 20 children clowning around attracting business for us. Those costumes did the trick!

One of the boys threw in a pogo stick for extra credit. Now THAT got people’s attention!

Enlist help!

This goes without saying, but I thought I’d better say it anyway. Mass email your support group, being sure to call the ones who aren’t online and try to get an idea of what items they are bringing to the sale. You don’t want to end up with four tables of brownies, for instance. Well, maybe you do–especially if a moment of chocolate is necessary for the morale of the troops on sale day.

We shared around the following jobs:

  • Decide on a good location for your sale, and work out all the details. Staples graciously allowed us to use their parking lot free of charge.
  • Get ads in the local newspapers, and call/email the local radio stations with a public service announcement to make sure news of the fundraiser reaches as many in the community as possible. Do this a week or two in advance. In our case, the radio stations gave a free blurb every day leading up to the bake sale, and then really pushed it for us on sale day. The newspapers gave us a free “story” spot due to the sale being a fundraiser.
  • Make flyers to put around town at the local businesses!
  • Make signs to put up at big intersections on sale day!
  • Make colorful neon poster board/cardboard signs for the kids to hold to attract traffic and passersby on sale day. (It’s a good plan to make plenty of these, and bring extra poster board and permanent markers along to make more if necessary. Wind and rain–and kids!–can wreak havoc on the best of signs!)
  • Get two (at a minimum) canopy tents for your sale, and make sure you have weights to anchor them down at all four corners. In addition to this, buy two or three shower curtains and rings to attach to the back of the tents to provide added protection from wind and rain. The rings will clip along the upper tent poles perfectly, and the shower curtain can be clamped at the bottom corners to the tent legs. Works great!
  • Do you want to raffle an item off to make a little more money for your recipient? We raffled off a homemade quilted denim throw. Just be sure to have tickets and a ticket jar on hand!
  • Have a jar on hand for donations, and tape a picture of the recipient to it so buyers will know where their money is going. They may want to donate additional funds directly to the family, or a medical expense account. So be prepared with that information.
  • Round up however many tables you will need to display your culinary works of art!
  • Be sure to let the home bakers know how you want the foods packaged, and whether or not to price their items.
  • Be prepared with a money box and however much change you think you’ll need on hand. Many people start out with $50 in ones, fives and about $15 of that is in quarters.

Pricing or Not Pricing?

On the subject of pricing, initially we price-checked what pies, rolls, breads, cookies, etc were selling for at local grocery stores. We wanted a good idea of what the public would be willing to pay for the same items–of the homemade variety.  We asked our contributors not to price their items, thinking we would make up a pricing sheet or board that would cover everything in generalities. However…

The day before sale day, we decided–after much prayer and weighing out the pros and cons–to not price anything. Talk about a leap of faith, but we felt impressed that we needed to let the Lord pour out His blessings on this sale, and that pricing things would only limit our profits.

So we made it a “donation only” bake sale!

Sale Day Arrives! Drum Roll…

Okay. So we were ALL praying that God would give us great weather, right? Well, the local farmers must have been praying for rain, because the night before the bake sale the wind howled, the skies erupted and the rainwaters gushed! However, morning arrived and we loaded our Suburban full of baked goods in only a slight misting of damp! All the way to the bake sale, we watched the sky. Incredibly, it looked fairly clear above the city! We arrived at the Staples parking lot along with several other families, and got both of our canopy tents set up with no wind or rain or damp at all! God is SO good!

In fact, besides being chilly, the weather that whole morning was great! We had a ten or twenty minute shower mid-morning, but other than that, it was truly a miraculous answer to our prayers! We had two moms that really planned ahead for “miserable” weather, one brought a cooler of hot chocolate and cups (which we and our customers guzzled freely!) and the other brought a bag of ponchos for the kiddos out holding signs. She also brought a gigantic pot of hot chili, cheese and crackers for those of us working through the lunch hour! (I’m telling you, these ladies are the ones you want for friends when the going gets tough!)

Around 1 p.m. the wind came up, and the radar was warning of major rain moving into the area by 2 p.m. Sure enough, it moved on in! Still we held out, and people stopped by, feeling sorry for us, I’m sure! Many of them told us they wouldn’t have stopped except for the children lining the sidewalks by the road.

Soon we caved into the weather around us and started tearing things down. We were cold, but happy! Off we went to a friend’s home to count money and see if the day had been the success we hoped for!

The End Result

bake sale 3Doing the bake sale on a donation basis made our job so easy. Most people didn’t ask for change, so we had them directly deposit their cash and checks into the donation jar we had on one of the bake sale tables. We did come prepared with change, but would have only needed maybe $20 worth of quarters, ones and fives at the most.

90% of our customers responded SO generously to our “donation” bake sale.  We had people buy $50 worth of foods, and pay for it with $150! One guy paid $30 for a pie…and the stories go on and on. Yes, some people got away with a steal, but the generosity of others more than covered those instances.

Our bake sale might have made $300-$400, had we priced every single thing. We were hoping to make $500 which would cover two chemo treatments for our friend with cancer.

But guess what? Back at the house after the sale, we just kept counting and recounting the money because we could hardly believe our eyes!

On a Friday, a day that everyone expected to be absolutely miserable (and indeed, it turned into an awful, miserable day after 2:30 p.m.)…God must have pulled out all the stops because we ended up making exactly $1,500!

Yes, $1,500! We immediately called our friend, the one we were raising funds for, and told her the good news. She was blown away. Finally she was able to speak and she said,

“I have 3 months of chemo left and $1500 is the exact amount I need to finish paying for them.”

Wow. Of course God knew this need, and knew how to meet it. It was our privilege to be His toolsl! Especially as many of us were a little bit skeptical about how much money we could make off of a bake sale in the first place.

In spite of our misgivings, we turned the end results over to God–weather, profits, getting a late start planning, etc. We decided ahead of time, no matter what happened, we would praise Him. And He sure blessed our socks off!

Luke 6:38 says,

“Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”

That is sure truth to take to heart in times of need. Not necessarily referring to money, but also to love and service, and sharing whatever talents God has blessed you with. We all have something He wants to use for His glory!

And while you’re at it, NEVER underestimate God!