Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Eats: Chocolate Chip Butter Cookies

Hello! A recent thrift store trip resulted in a purchase of Taste of Home's Chocolate Lover's Cookbook. I guess you could say I'm a chocolate lover - and my husband is even more so. So what better than a cookbook loaded with recipes devoted to that ingredient? 

Decided to make what sounded like an easy but good cookie recipe yesterday, Chocolate Chip Butter Cookies. How easy? After the inaugural baking, I had already memorized the recipe and rattled it off to my appreciative husband. (I should add he was appreciative of the cookies, not my memorization skills!)

Check out the recipe and see for yourself how easy it is:

Chocolate Chip Butter Cookies (from Taste of Home's Chocolate Lover's Cookbook; recipe credited to Janis Gruca, Mokena Illinois)

1 cup butter (no substitutes)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup powdered sugar
1 cup (6 ounces) miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Melt butter in a microwave oven or double boiler; stir in vanilla. Cool completely. In a large bowl, combine flour and sugar; stir in butter mixture and chocolate chips(mixture will be crumbly). Shape into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets; flatten slightly. Bake at 375 for 12 minutes or until edges begin to brown. Cool on wire racks. Yield: about 4 dozen. 

Notes: I hastened the cooling of the melted butter by placing it in the refrigerator while I waited for the oven to preheat. My yield was 30 cookies, probably because I made them a bit bigger than specified. 

The results:

"...these crisp, buttery treats can be made in no time" Gruca commented in the note that accompanied her recipe in the cookbook. I agree with her - these taste a bit like a cross between shortbread, Russian teacakes and chocolate chip cookies. All good cookies, so these are good as well! And they really are very fast to make. I saved even more time - accidentally - by neglecting to flatten the cookies before I put them in the oven. This didn't seem to affect the baking time, and in fact, I think they look better than the ones photographed for the cookbook. 

And there you have it - an easy, delicious cookie. If you'd like a homemade treat but don't have much time, give these a try!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Thrifty Acres: Only In Alaska

Hello! I'm not sure why, but I have a fascination with reading of people who settle in isolated areas. I don't really have a desire to do without central heat, indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences, but I like reading about those who willingly - and seemingly cheerfully - live far away from the rat race. By now, I've enjoyed learning about the lives of adventurers who experienced very different lifestyles after moving to Alaska(Four Seasons North), Maine (We Took To The Woods)or west-central British Columbia (Ruffles On My Longjohns). 

I picked up another "we got away from it all" book recently at a thrift store:

Only In Alaska, written by Tay Thomas and published in 1969. Thomas' book recounts her family's adventures after moving to Alaska in 1960 - shortly after it had become our 49th state. The impetus for the relocation was their desire to escape what had become an increasingly hectic and congested lifestyle in New Jersey.

There's a couple of big differences in this book and the three I listed above, though. For one thing, the Thomases didn't settle in an isolated area; they moved to Anchorage. Their lifestyle there didn't sound much different in many ways from that of those living in similar-sized towns in the lower 48. Indeed, the first chapter is entitled "But I Don't Live in an Igloo".
Another big difference is that Tay's husband, Lowell Jr., was an accomplished pilot and had his own plane. They also owned a sturdy vehicle. The folks in the other books had no planes of their own and were limited in other forms of transportation as well.

Consequently, much of Only In Alaska reads like a travelogue, as the Thomases and their two children journey all over the state. Flying to visit a friend's cabin on Mt. McKinley, camping trips, and excursions to remote communities were just some of the adventures Tay Thomas describes. 

Her father-in-law, Lowell Thomas Sr., was a well-known traveler, writer and broadcaster. His son Lowell Jr. seems to be much like his father: he, too, is an avid explorer, and also worked as a producer in film and television. Flying his single-engine plane was a huge passion as well. One chapter, "Lowell and His Flying Machine", details some of his many flights - whether ferrying party guests to a gathering at that Mt. McKinley cabin, landing on other mountains to climb them(a "glacier pilot", she calls him), or taking the family to native villages in the far north - there didn't seem to be any place he wouldn't fly.

Naturally sometimes a flight became more challenging due to poor weather conditions. During one flight back from a big celebration of the Episcopalian church's presence in the northern village of Point Hope, very poor visibility prevailed. The author only agreed to that return trip because a pilot she considered even more skilled than her husband suggested they could follow his plane's taillights for their navigation. That pilot happened to be an Episcopalian priest who had had to learn to fly in the late 1940's in order to visit his flock around Alaska.

Tay Thomas readily admits that she was nervous throughout most of the flight, until they reached a point where the weather cleared. She was actually no slouch herself, however - her father was an executive with Pan Am, and he counted Charles Lindbergh as a close friend. So no doubt her formative years were full of interesting experiences, which prepared her for marriage to Lowell Thomas Jr. 

She was an excellent writer as well - at the time of Only In Alaska's publication, she had written two other books and went on to write more - including one about that priestly pilot! 

As I reached the last chapter of the book, "Earthquake!", I realized I had read a portion of it before, in an old National Geographic  passed down from my late grandfather. Even as a kid of around 10 or so, I was struck by the vivid first-person account of the earthquake that hit Anchorage in March of 1964. The article had been written by Tay Thomas. 

According to her book, most of the "Earthquake" chapter had originally appeared in the July 1964 issue of National Geographic - the one I'd remembered reading as a kid. Her narrative was as riveting as I'd remembered from the magazine. The homes of the Thomases and many of their neighbors were destroyed, and two neighbor children were killed.

But this is really the only chapter in her book that describes great loss; overall this was a very entertaining read! Vivid descriptions of dramatic scenery, travel adventures via car or plane, drama, humor - this book kept my interest on every page. 

Thanks to the Internet, I can read up on authors to learn what they'd done since their book was published. As I'd already mentioned, I discovered that Tay Thomas had written more books and had been active in several organizations in Anchorage. She became the "2nd Lady" of Alaska when her husband became Lieutenant Governor in the mid 1970's. She died just last year at the age of 87. 

Lowell is still alive and is in his early 90's. Not surprisingly, after his foray into politics, he owned and operated Talkeetna Air Taxi, a bush flying service, in the 1980's. 

Remarkable people - no wonder Only In Alaska was such an enjoyable read!


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Thrifty Acres: Spring Fling

Hello! Spring has sprung, and with it thoughts of springtime home decor. 

I wanted a springlike wreath to decorate our front porch, as the wreath I'd hung outside for the winter has been (thankfully) packed away. I do have a wreath decked out with silk-flower tulips, but I like to wait until May and the local festival that honors that flower to hang it up. 

It's not May yet, though, so I pondered making some sort of wreath to display now. I began keeping my eye out for craft supplies at thrift stores, and I meant to browse Pinterest for ideas too. 

But before I bought any supplies or looked at Pinterest, I found a perfectly fine, springlike wreath at a thrift store last week:

How large is this wreath? Well, the base is an adult-size hula hoop, of all things, so it's fairly large. The base had been wrapped in something that's dark green; I think it's some paper twist stuff. But that green is barely noticeable, as the wrapping is covered with various silk flowers, silk leaves and lengths of tulle in several pastel colors. 

A close-up: 

A pretend daffodil with pale pink tulle behind it.

The use of a hula hoop for a wreath base may border on the tacky, but the variety of flowers and tulle colors make for a pretty look. And the price was right: two bucks. Even at thrift store prices, I might have spent just as much, if not more, on supplies to construct my own wreath, and of course would have had to spend time to make it too. I didn't mind that someone else had spent that time and money instead!

I also had spring in mind when I bought these during the same thrift store visit:

We have enough coffee mugs, but a couple of them have snowflake designs on them. I don't want to be reminded of snow this time of year, so I'll pack those mugs away for next winter and use these two instead. I liked the design, especially the one on the right. Its close-up is below:

Very pretty, I thought. 

The bottoms of these mugs are labeled "Norleans Korea". I wasn't familiar with this brand, but felt that these mugs looked 1970's-ish. According to eBay and Etsy, I was right. Perhaps because these mugs are vintage, some sellers are asking as much as ten dollars or more for a pair of them. Needless to say, I was happy I'd only paid 50c for my two. 

So now I'm set for spring with my "new" decorative items - too bad I can't say the same for my spring cleaning!


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Made It: Springtime Scrap Fabric Wreath

Hello! As seen in this post from last year, I'd made a wreath by cutting fabric scraps into strips and then tying them around a wire wreath form. The finished wreath, with its myriad colors, pleasantly dressed up our front porch last summer. 

Found another wire wreath form last week at a thrift store, so I thought it'd be fun to make another scrap fabric wreath. This time I would aim for a spring-like look by limiting the colors to green and pink. 

Here's the finished wreath:

This wreath, like the one I'd crafted last year, is 12" diameter. 

A close-up:

Even though I only used pinks and greens, there's still plenty of variety among the various prints and solids. I do enjoy playing with fabric, and also enjoy finding a use for scraps too small to do much else with. 

Now that I have a rotary cutter, I used that tool to trim the fabrics to 5" x 1 1/2" strips, though I've found it's okay if the strips vary a bit in size. This step is a bit laborious, but the tying step is fun to do. 

I did both the cutting and the tying while watching some of the NCAA tournament basketball games. I was too nervous, however, to watch my alma mater Michigan State makes its improbable run to the Final Four. No matter - this is a portable craft, so I took the wreath form and the fabric strips up to another room in our house.

And too late, after I'd already cut the fabric strips for the wreath, I realized I should have gone for a green and white color scheme to represent the school colors. Perhaps I'll find another thrift store wire wreath form sometime. 

But for now, I have my springtime wreath decorating our front porch, hopefully encouraging the natural colors of green grass and pink flowers to show up soon! 



Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Made It: The MCC Comforter

In this post  from February I mentioned that in honor of my late mother and her massive pile of flannel scraps, I was going to make a comforter. The finished product would be given to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to pass along to someone in need. 

I was happy to find a worthy cause for my mom's fabric, especially since I started this project during a very cold, very snowy month. After all, I have my own house to keep me warm, whereas MCC distributes comforters to those who have lost their dwellings due to natural disasters or the ravages of war. Reflecting on this as I worked on the comforter made the bitter weather outside more bearable.

The making of this comforter also happened to coincide nicely with the duration of Lent. It didn't take me quite the proverbial 40 days from start to finish - I took a day off here and there if I was tired from shoveling mountains of snow, and I took a week off while we were out of town last month.

Anyway, Lent is almost over, so it was time to hand my comforter over to MCC. Here's how it looked before I sent it off:

As per MCC suggestions, the comforter filler is a blanket, and I used a sheet (twin size) for the backing. The layers were tied together where the corners of the squares met (again, the tying was part of the instructions). 

Close-up of some of the flannel squares:

MCC had requested that colorful fabrics be used, a reminder that these comforters are meant to warm the souls as well as the bodies of the recipients. I think that my mom's flannel stash fit the bill. 

I will readily admit that the finished comforter has several - uh - irregularities. The squares above line up together perfectly, which they're supposed to do, but this wasn't quite the case in other parts of the quilt. No, it's not like the squares are way out of alignment, but I'm sure a more skilled quilter would have had every corner of every square in perfect order. 

And let's just say that the blanket I used for the filler seemed to have a mind of its own, which caused some issues when it came time to sew the comforter layers together. I did my best, but the design of the comforter top became a little skewed on the top and bottom rows.

When I mailed the comforter off to the MCC Great Lakes regional office (Goshen, IN), I enclosed a note saying the irregularities were a reflection of my own inexperience, not a reflection of lack of concern for the recipient on my part. Surely the MCC folks have gotten better comforters - but maybe they've gotten worse ones as well. 

I think I still have enough of my mom's flannel to make another comforter, so that can be next winter's project. I think I've learned from my mistakes, though, and round 2 should go better!

Still, I'm glad I did it, and I think my mom would be glad too. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mid-South Meanderings Part Two

Hello! After two plus days in the Baltimore area last week, it was time to pack our bags again and begin the trip home. We drove close to 600 miles our first day heading west, going from Hunt Valley, MD to Lexington, KY. 

That may sound like a long day on the road, but thanks to the scenery and to part of the route being new to us, the day went by fast. 

By scenery, I mean mountains, rolling hills, rivers and historic towns. I know that the mountains we encountered are nowhere near the size of the ones out west, but we traversed some in Maryland that top out close to 3,000 ft. That's taller than anything in our home state of Michigan, so that's good enough for me!

The hills continued, of course, as we crossed into West Virginia. Previously we'd only traveled through a small portion of this state, but on this day we went from its north-central side to its western end near Kentucky. My husband plans the majority of our driving routes and loves to take new routes when we can. I'm fine with that too, especially if the route leads us to new stops. 

Alas, our only stops in West Virginia were a lunch stop at a rest area (we'd bought take-out food at a grocery store food court before we left Hunt Valley) and a gas fill-up near the town of Jane Lew. So basically, what I mainly saw as I drove our rental car up and down those hills was the scenery around us - and the quaintness of place names like Jane Lew, Strange Creek and Big Chimney. Would like to get off the interstates in WV sometime and drive around on the lesser roads. 

Lexington, KY was our stop for the night. Drove into town to have dinner at the Good Foods Market and cafe food co-op. We'd eaten there last year for the first time and had enjoyed it. Many healthy food choices among the offerings at the hot food and salad bars, and it's fun to browse in the market section of the co-op too. 

We returned to nearby Berea the next day. We'd gone there for the first time last year as well but had visited on a Monday. There wasn't much going on in Berea that day, plus we only had a short time to look around. This time my husband promised a longer visit, and as it was a Thursday, I hoped there'd be more to see. 

Demonstration loom at the Berea Welcome Center, located in the Artisan Circle section of town. Under the direction of one of the women at the information desk, I did two rows of weaving. It was a lot of fun and had me daydreaming of getting my own loom. 

Kitty-corner from the welcome center was the Weaver's Bottom shop, where several looms were at the ready. The man there explained how he'd found one of the looms in pieces at a barn sale and eventually put it back together. A black and white runner was being woven on it. 

Also nearby was Gallery 123, a new business in town. Inside, friendly printmaker Grace Wintermeyer showed us her studio, where I took a few photos:

Her sketch of Queen Anne's Lace

And the sketch recreated as a printing plate. 

The photo I took of one of her Queen Anne's Lace prints didn't turn out well, but my picture of another of her prints did:

I love squirrels, so that image was a sure photo-op for me. Almost bought that print, but resisted the urge. Now I'm sorry I didn't.

Wintermeyer explained that Gallery 123 is meant to encourage younger artists to stay in Berea after graduating from the college there. To that end, studio space is free, which she certainly appreciated. 

Berea is a cute town, and Berea College is a pretty campus, but there was occasional light rain, so I didn't take any more photos. Instead, I poked around in some of the college-run shops. Students' endeavors in broom corn, woodworking, weaving, jewelry and ceramics are sold. 

I also greatly enjoyed the Appalachian Fireside Gallery, where crafts, books and more are available. Just as I enjoy regional foods when I travel, I also like to check out the crafts and book subjects of a region during our excursions. So often one hears that our country has become one great Walmart/fast food/big box store, but that's not true if you pay attention to what each state or region has to offer that makes it unique. Sure, one can find old-time crafts anywhere, but the down-home, mountainy flavor of the arts and crafts in Berea makes them seem quite different from the handcrafted goods sold in my more northerly environ. 

Even though we had more time in Berea than what we'd had last year, the afternoon still went by too fast for me. It was hard to pick among so many interesting things for sale. So instead of buying a handmade broom or a charming book, I bought organic Delicata squash at the Berea College farm store. Besides produce and meats from the college farms, local and regional foodstuffs are offered - things like barbeque sauces, unshelled pecans from a local pecan farm, and more. Nice store, worth a visit. 

But the biggest foodie stop of all was coming up the next (and last day) of our vacation: the incomparable Jungle Jim's in suburban Cincinnati. It's a HUGE grocery store. The wine and beer section alone is probably bigger than some grocery stores. I left my husband there to poke around for craft beers and I steered a shopping cart toward the produce section. As I headed there, I took notes of the dairy department. There are cheeses from around the world, which is the norm in smaller grocery stores nowadays too. But how many countries are represented in a typical grocery store butter case? At Jungle Jim's, all sorts of imported butters abound. 

Passed the large in-store bakery area, the freezer display of exotic meats, and more. Finally I was in produce. Good prices and quality, so I got a few things to save on a grocery store trip when we returned home. 

All too soon, my husband caught up to me with his shopping cart of craft beers. Knowing I could readily spend hours at Jungle Jim's (and I'm sure I'm not the only one who would do so), he kept me hustling through the rest of the store. Bought a few things in the Oriental, Latin American and Italian sections (their private label olive oil is very good), but sadly could only glance at the small rooms along a side wall that house the foods of various European countries. 

Jungle Jim's strength is in its vast international foods offerings, but products from all over the US are represented too - lots of hot sauces, plus honey, maple syrup and jams from different states as well. I'm sure there's even more I could take note of, but although I've been to Jungle Jim's several times, I always feel that I've yet to see it all. 

It's well worth the stop if you find yourself in the Cincinnati area! But home beckoned, and that's where we ended the day. Last year's vacation at the same time of year had ended with us walking into a house partially waterlogged by a burst pipe. Thankfully, everything was in order this year!

It had been a busy vacation - but a good one. 


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mid-South Meanderings Part One

Hello! Eager to escape the piles of snow that were melting ever so slowly in our yard, my husband and I took a trip to what I'll loosely call the Mid-South last week. Our vacation began with a flight to the Baltimore area. Why there? Partly because we like that part of the country - and oh, Southwest had a pretty darn good fare sale from Bishop Airport (Flint, MI) to BWI Airport(Baltimore-Washington International).

It was dusk when we landed at BWI on a Sunday night, so no chance to see how far spring had sprung. But the next morning, when we took the light rail train into downtown Baltimore to pick up our rental car, we saw greening grass and the blooms of daffodils and pansies. Nice!

We picked up the rental car at the downtown Hilton, where I noticed a large sign welcoming the honorees of the NFL's Ed Block Courage awardThis award was going to be presented at the hotel that evening, so I looked around eagerly to see if any of the NFL players who would be receiving it were around. But truthfully, I'm not likely to recognize football players out of uniform, so even if the two guys in expensive suits chatting in a corner were from the NFL, I wouldn't have known it. 

We were near our favorite museum, the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), but it's not open on Mondays. So instead we drove to another favorite stop of ours, the Amish enclave of Lancaster County, PA.
We used to live about an hour east of Lancaster County and I never tired of the pretty scenery there and the old-fashioned ways of the Amish. The county is more than an hour away from Baltimore, but is still easily doable from there.

One stop on our excursion was Shady Maple, a huge grocery store that draws people from well beyond Lancaster County. We picked up baking supplies in the bulk food section, and then I checked out another must-see (at least to me) part of the store: the potato chip and pretzel aisle. 

I don't know why, but this part of the Keystone State seems to be the king of those snack foods. I love hunting down regional foods when I travel, and what could be more regional than eatables made within a half hour or less of the store? I took a few pictures:

I bought these; the box was labeled "low salt", which was fine with me. I do enjoy a good pretzel, but I often find them too salty. This brand comes from Akron, PA, 11 miles from Shady Maple, and these are very good pretzels!

I've not had this brand, so I don't know if Good's is good. These are made in Adamstown, PA - also 11 miles from Shady Maple, but in a different direction. 

Another big box of pretzels, Uncle Henry's from Mohnton, PA - a whopping 15 miles to the north. 

There are other local brands besides these three; I just didn't have time to take pictures of all of them. It's nice to see local brands in the midst of heavy hitters like Snyder's of Hanover (also made in Pennsylvania; Hanover is south of Lancaster County). 

I didn't just ogle snack foods this day, though - we also went to Ephrata, home of the Ten Thousand Villages flagship store. TTV is a chain of fair trade stores run by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). I wanted one of just about everything I saw, but settled for some window shopping, like the beautiful wall hanging made from embroidered sari scraps:

Some close-ups:


Very pretty fabrics and needlework! 

Headed back to our hotel in suburban Baltimore, and the next morning we used the light rail system again to return to the downtown. Got off at Camden Yards and walked a few blocks to AVAM:

Unfortunately, only exterior photos such as the one above are allowed at AVAM, which is a shame since the art therein really is fantastic. It's home to "outsider art" - works dreamed up by creative types from all walks of life, most of whom are self-taught. 

The current themed exhibit, "The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis To Finster" was very interesting and thought-provoking. Dreams, visions and "inventive new spiritual groups" fueled art that featured biblical sayings, references to cosmic consciousness, scientific theories and more. The works on display, and the stories behind them, made for fascinating viewing and reading!

Upon exiting the museum and its cool gift shop (bought a few small trinkets there), we strolled around the Inner Harbor. It was sunny and in the upper 60's, so many people were out and about. It was St. Patrick's Day, which added to the holiday feeling. 

View of the "Chesapeake", one of several museum ships moored at Inner Harbor. Behind the ship is an old power plant that's now home to offices and retail businesses - Phillips Seafood, Barnes and Noble and Hard Rock Cafe are visible in the photo. It's an impressive building. 

A different kind of watercraft:

These paddle boats are called "Chessies", a play not only on "Chesapeake" but also on Nessie the Loch Ness monster. A short while later, we encountered more Chessie paddle boats, but these were electric. I guess if there's electrified bikes, there might as well be electrified paddle boats as well!

One last picture, taken as we were walking back to the train station:

Above, the oldest church edifice in Baltimore in continuous use; it  dates to 1785. Once the home church of the United Brethren of Christ denomination, it now is part of the United Methodist Church.

Note the ultra-modern office building behind the church - do you think it'll still be standing 230 years from now?

That's all for now - my next post will cover the second half of our trip.