Ginger cookies filled with buttercream

She made them better than anyone else could: small and perfect rounds, soft and sugared. And then she’d make them in miniature, the size of an American quarter, just for the little people.

We called her Tiny Grandma, and her hallmark cookies? Ginger.

ginger cookies 1

I have her recipe, and when I bake her cookies I remember a lady I loved, though I can’t match her product. She was a careful baker—Cool the melted butter to room temperature; use your fingertip to scoop the last egg white out of the broken shell. Her work never varied, unless of course she forgot something. She did make pumpkin pies once without the pumpkin…

Grandma’s Ginger Cookies

¾ cup margarine
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
½ cup molasses
4 ½ cups flour
4 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. salt

Melt and cool margarine. Add sugar, eggs and molasses and beat well. Add dry ingredients. Chill dough, then form into 1” balls. Roll in white sugar and place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375° for 7-8 minutes. Do not overbake; when they crack, take them out, and let them finish baking on the cookie sheet.

Sometimes I make ginger cookies when I miss her. And this season, I copied my aunt and tried something new: filling them with lemon buttercream and sticking them together as sandwich cookies. Or with coconut cream filling. You won’t believe it—heaven!

ginger cookies 3

Buttercream Filling

10 Tbsp. butter, softened
3 ½ cups powdered sugar
Dash of salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Beat ingredients well—frosting will still be crumby until liquid is added. Divide in half. To one half, add

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

and beat till fluffy. To the other, add

2-4 Tbsp. whipping cream
½ cup coconut

and beat.

ginger cookies 4

Frost the underside of one cookie and stick it to another—making some sandwiches with coconut buttercream and some with lemon. Place cookies in an airtight container and leave alone for a day to soften, so the filling does not squeeze out when you eat them… if you can wait that long [wink].

ginger cookies 2

Then… enjoy.

And that’s all the news from the Zooks for the year!

Merry Christmas, folks. See you in January!

xmas-children-2014 JPG

A Christmas hymnsing

Confession: I never, ever get my fill of the Christmas carols. For this reason, one of our new favorite-of-favorite holiday traditions is inviting friends in for a hymn sing.

Each year, our local community enjoys a Christmas concert at 4:00 on a Sunday afternoon—and we’ve found that in the evening afterwards, very few of our friends have other plans made. We’re already dressed up and in the mood for joy. It’s the perfect time to get together.

hymnal - Silent Night

We borrow Songs of Faith and Praise from our church house, and The Mennonite Hymnal from our sister church; and we ask my dad (who is good at things like this) to bring along lesser-known sheet music for us to try.

Then we line up two very capable babysitters to entertain our 15-20 kiddos upstairs, with books and games and child-friendly food.

And then—we sit in the living room and just sing.

And sing.

Partway through the evening we break for food: this year, a build-your-own taco bar with lots of fixings.

taco salad

It doesn’t all go as planned. My boys throw hissy fits about sharing their Legos. I later vacuum chip crumbs from every corner of my upstairs. And when we try to finish the music with a rousing rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus, we can’t remember where to go, and get stuck in an endless circle involving “King of Kings” forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever—And so we end the evening hunched over my very quiet laptop instead, listening to Christopher Hogwood’s chorus perform it, so at least we can get the final chord Exactly Right.

But oh, it is JOY!

I love to see the bright faces of family and friends. I love the way the children glow over the fun they had. Most of all, I love the beauty of a dozen or more full voices blending together in worship of a newborn King, and in friendship with one another. This is the part I long to come back to each year. Glorious!

*****

Where do you sing the songs of Christmas? Which carol do you love best?
And if you are local and wish you were here, tell me! I’d love to include you next year…

Mod-Podge-n-Yarn candle holders

Guess what?

all three

I just found a cheap, simple, and thoroughly cute craft for any occasion. Found, I say, not invented. My mom introduced me to it over Thanksgiving, but our original source is my friend Renee Shafer (A Beautiful Captivation), and her sister Andrea Graybill.

closeup

Renee made these for a bachelorette party two years ago already, so … let’s just say it takes some of us a while to catch on. She and her sis also made them in fall colors this year. My mom, organizing a family craft, chose Christmas colors to match the season.

I think they’re darling.

You will need:

Balloons – any color
Yarn – any color
Mod Podge
Styrofoam plate
Latex gloves (optional)*
Battery-operated tea light

Blow up a balloon. Cover your workspace with newspaper or something disposable to catch drips. Pour some Mod Podge onto a Styrofoam plate and dip your yarn in it to soak, wrapping and crisscrossing it around the balloon. Hang up to fully dry. Pop balloon. Insert a battery-operated tea light into the yarn globe and hang somewhere pretty.

*(We did ours barehanded, but we were sick of Mod Podge by the time we were done, and picked shreds of it off our hands for the rest of the day…)

white one

Now I think that’s a pretty awesome craft, and customizable for any size and season. Thanks again to my mom and Renee Shafer!

portrait against wall

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Posted with permission.

If you want some inspirational words for moms in the thick of it, don’t miss this beautiful post of Renee’s: “Why NOW is the Time to Speak.”

Holiday traditions

If you sat down to a dinner something like this in the last few days, you are among the most financially wealthy people in the world.

Thanksgiving dinner

salad and roll

As am I.

Sometimes it almost seems like a sin, feasting so much—in a way that has nothing to do with whether or not I overeat. But I remember the feasts built into God’s laws from the earliest days, and I know that whatever simplicity may be called for in ordinary living, and however joyfully He invites us to share our abundance with the less fortunate, He loves when we celebrate His good gifts together.

This brings me a lot of joy.

I like holidays steeped in tradition. Our Thanksgiving dinners are with my parents, and seldom vary: turkey, stuffing, both sweet potatoes and mashed, cranberries, and pumpkin pie (not to mention the vegetable sides). The day after, I dig boxes out of storage and decorate the house for the Christmas season. I’ve seen a lot of facebook pictures of lovely and costly decorating, and sometimes I really wish I were that kind of a person. My Christmas decorations come mostly from the woods.

berries in stoneware jug

Scrabble word Immanuel

Pine boughs, red berries, birds’ nests (I can take photographs that make them look artsy, but sometimes they look tacky, even to me)… and a few carefully-stored treasures.

The Nativity scene for babies, bought at a craft fair by my Aunt Rhonda several years ago. It will win no prizes for beauty, but little hands love these people…

wooden Nativity

And the jeweled Nativity, which Kelly arranges and rearranges and adds to, with her best matchbox Minnie Car and a bobblehead named James, so that they can worship as well…

porcelain Nativity

And the Baby Jesus doll, best beloved, in the manger my husband and son built together. He is sleeping on a crocheted dresser scarf for now, to be quite honest with you, until I can get outside to cut some dried grasses.

baby Jesus doll

Did you know that you can buy a baby doll for five dollars, and cut him some swaddling clothes and a hat from white fleece? Kelly loves this Baby with all her heart, and looks forward to him year after year.

We like to add a pair of baby boy shoes somewhere—in fact, one pair has been sitting in my living room for a year now because I never had the heart to take them down. I’ll soon be making Party Mix and Buckeyes, and perhaps we’ll do our Advent of Quiet again this year. These are the traditions.

And then there are the surprises. Such as coffee grounds leaking all over my pot. And kindness in unexpected places. And fostering twists and turns. And my dog’s astonishing Black Friday gift to me: puppies.

puppy paws

I have no idea how she managed this, since she does not exactly hang out with other dogs, nor how I missed all the signs. Does this kind of thing happen to normal people? I’m naming the darlings Shades of Evening–partly for their coloring and partly for their uncanny arrival. Midnight, Twilight, Starlight, Dusk, Gloaming, and Sunset. I have two thoughts: What a dumb time of year for this, and How utterly adorable!

newborn puppy

I invite you to celebrate both tradition and surprise this season (this is me forcing an Important Lesson Out of Nothing)… but, however you celebrate, don’t forget—this month-long ecstatic exhausting Jubilee is all about a baby. He was small and messy and helpless. Put Him in your children’s hands. Welcome Him. Cherish Him. Touch Him.

Baby Jesus' hand

God with us.

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Your turn! What do the children in your life love best about Christmas? What early-season traditions does your family enjoy?

Seven homemade gifts for Christmas

Oh me, oh my!

Our homemade gift exchange brought out some delightful creativity in the family. We had homemade log cabins and furnished doll houses for little girls, wood-framed Lego baseplates for boys, gift baskets of treats, personalized T-shirts, denim blankets, wooden shelves, pretty scarves, knitted slippers, and more…

Here are a few our little family made, most of them super-simple. I share them to spark your thinking. I’m going to say this only once: Do not try them all. I had to make a mental note for 2014–no more than (x number) of homemade gifts!

1. Prepaid dates basket

12 dates

Inspired by this website and armed with funds from a personal project, I created this for my husband: twelve envelopes containing plans and gift certificates for date nights, one for every month of the New Year. You can be as extravagant or frugal as you wish in planning time together! I interspersed bigger dates (an IMAX movie, dinner out, or a mini-golf spree) with no-cost fun (a hike, a picnic, a free concert, an intimate rendezvous). He was delighted, and the planning and scheming brought me much joy.

2. “Fun in a Box” for couples

fun in a box

Using an idea from thedailydigi, I made a list of spunky, low-cost, slightly tacky activities for couples to do together, and gave them to our brothers-and-sisters-in-law in Christmasy little boxes. View or print my list here: Fun in a Box (for couples).

3. Grapevine wreath with seeds

For a sister-in-law who loves to garden, I saved seeds from my flowers and herbs, packaged them in little envelopes, and hung them with ribbon on a homemade grapevine wreath. You could buy seed packets instead of making them yourself; but if you live in the Midwest and have access to woods, chances are you can find an abundance of wild grapevine. The wreaths are sooo fun to wind up.

4. Chocolate chess set

chessmen

With a simple chocolate mold (available here from amazon), we made black and white sets of chessmen, gluing the chocolate halves together with caramel. And of course, here’s how to make the board if you want a playing set…

5. Sock puppets

sock puppets

This was another favorite project—forgiving, low-cost, and open to infinite variation. Simple instructions at wikihow… and then, the sky’s the limit!

6. Jar mixes

For another SIL, my son layered gluten-free food mixes in Mason jars.

For the fourth jar in the set, we combined bath salts with fragrance oils and a drop of food coloring, for layered relaxation.

7. Framed word art

And finally, you know the rage with photos of alphabet letters in nature, to spell inspirational words? Believe, Rest, Love and so on? We shot our own, with the kids forming the letters to spell our word of choice. Turned them black and white, added simple black frames from Dollar Tree, and called that project complete.

We even got our cat in on the E!

E b&w

F

F b&w

G

G b&w

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Are you inspired? Tired? Haywired? I’m singing Christmas songs…