December 28, 2015

My Top 5 Mom Lessons (So Far)

I approached first-time motherhood pretty much the same way I did getting my bachelor's degree: like a crazed maniac. I was going for a 4.0 in pre-motherhood studies, baby. I read everything I could get my hands on about how to wash tiny onesies, how to swaddle a baby, how to breastfeed, how to give my baby a bath, how to get my newborn to sleep through the night, how to provide adequate tummy time for my infant, how to ensure proper sensory stimulation for my baby, and, just for good measure, how to discipline a toddler and raise a respectful teenager.
Then I had the baby. And pretty much gave up on everything but that sleep deal.
Over the course of the 17 years since the birth of my eldest (who is, as it turns out, a pretty respectful teenager, thanks for asking), I kept up my on-the-job training in the school of motherhood. I learned how to get permanent marker off the walls, how to hem a dance costume at the eleventh hour, and what in the world “box multiplication” is. But while I was figuring out how to be a mom (a learning curve that still hasn't straightened out for me), I also gleaned a few lessons that spill over into the rest of my life. And honestly, I'm not sure I could have learned these any other way.
A baker's dozen (at least) of triple-chocolate caramel cookies goes to Power of Moms for letting me ramble on about these lessons. They put this up awhile ago, but the start of a new year seemed like a good time to throw it on here. I know it's a pain to be redirected, but I'd be eternally grateful if you'd head on over and peruse my top 5. And as long as I'm being demanding, I'd also love it if you came back and added your own hard-won maternal wisdom to the list. Thanks, mama. You deserve an A+.

December 2, 2015

The 12 Days of Christmas Things I Love

Good enough.

These two words have helped me refocus my attention and recapture the joy of the Christmas season the last few years.

Good enough.

Not to "settle." Not to give less than my best to the people who mean so much to me. Not to just get through and get by.

But to filter all the shoulds and coulds to make room for what matters more and most.

If the decorations are good enough and the food is good enough and the gifts are good enough to celebrate the season and the Savior Who is its Reason, they are good enough for me. 

There is always one more decoration that could be put up or one more new recipe that could be made or one more gift that could be given. But if not putting up or making or giving one more leaves time or energy or money for something better, then what is already put up or made or given is good enough.

The 12 songs and traditions and recipes and stories on this list make up a lot of what my little family cherishes most during the Christmas season. We think these are very good. And they are more than enough.

1. The 12 Days of Christmas...Straight No Chaser-style. The only place I can rightly start this list. A gift in and of itself.

2. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski. Other than the original Christmas story, this is far-and-away my favorite. 

3. Family at-home Christmas Eve service. One day-before-Christmas morning several years ago when my girls were younger and required more intervention from me to stay occupied than they do now, I suggested they plan a family Christmas Eve service for us to all attend that night. They took the idea and ran with it, and now it is one of our most precious family traditions. We've had dances and hymn sings and comedy routines and clarinet-flute duets and readings and raps. I can hardly wait to see what they come up with this year. (Girls? Are you with me?)

4. Cut-out sugar cookies worth marrying into. Saying "I do" to my patient, kind, loving, and generous husband came with a lot of perks (that he puts up with me not the least among them). His mom's fabulous sugar cookie recipe is high on the list. If you like crisp cut-out cookies, this isn't your gig. (Try this list at for some options that'll be more your style.) But if you like soft, tender, melt-in-your mouth pillows of happiness, you need to stir up a batch of these soon. Now would be good.
I bake. I don't decorate. Obviously.

Cream-Cheese Sugar Cookies
Don’t forget to plan ahead for this recipe: the dough has to chill for at least 2 hours before you can work with it. But it will be worth the wait.

(Click here for a printable version.)

10 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ of an 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened and stirred until creamy (you’ll be using half of one “brick” of cream cheese…do not use anything in a tub)
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice (yes, this matters)
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda

Cream together the butter, sugar, egg, cream cheese, and lemon juice in a large mixing bowl.  This is easiest using an electric mixer. Beat until fluffy but do not overbeat or the cream cheese will get runny. Mix together the dry ingredients and beat them into the butter mixture just until incorporated.  Divide the dough into 2 equal portions, wrap in wax paper, and place dough portions in a plastic storage bag. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to a couple days, or freeze for up to a few months.

If dough is frozen, transfer it to the refrigerator to thaw for several hours before working with it. When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 350° and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or coat them with nonstick cooking spray. Remove one portion of dough from the refrigerator (keep the rest of the dough chilled until you need it) and place on a well-floured work surface. Roll out to about ¼” thickness and cut into desired shapes with floured cookie cutters. This dough can be very sticky, especially as it warms up, so if it sticks to your counter or pastry board, just gather it up, re-flour your work surface, and start again. It will be worth it! Bake cookies at 350° for 6-8 minutes or until just set but not browned. Cool on cookie sheets for 2 minutes, then carefully remove to wire racks to cool completely before decorating or freezing (unfrosted). Makes approximately 1-2 dozen cookies, depending on the size of your cookie cutters, how thick you roll out your dough, and how many scraps of dough you and your helpers eat. Frosted cookies can be stored airtight for up to a week—if they last that long.

5. Christmas Eve spaghetti and meatballs. My favorite recipe is from Cooking Light. Among other reasons this is our family's go-to night-before-Christmas meal: spaghetti + meatballs in red sauce + green vegetable = Christmas colors all on one plate. Eat first with your eyes and all that...

6. Go Fish Christmas. From the best version ever of "Little Drummer Boy" to the beautiful, puts-everything-in-perspective "It's About the Cross," I love, love, love this entire album, start to finish.

7. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. After the original Christmas story and The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (see #2 on this list), this is my long-time favorite. For one thing, it has possibly the best opening line ever: "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world." I mean, seriously...genius. It also has one of the best closing lines ever: "HEY! UNTO YOU A CHILD IS BORN!" Read (or reread) this book. You'll see what I mean.

8. Page CXVI's "Silent Night." Get. Ready. For. Gorgeous. In case Roman numerals baffle you like they do me, these amount to 116. And tell me this isn't the most beautiful quote to base a group name comes from page 116 in their copy of The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis: "In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.”

9. The Christmas roast. On Christmas morning, families the world over can be divided into two categories: those whose members simultaneously tear open their gifts in one frenzied fit of gift-getting delirium, and those whose revelers take turns opening their bounty. The family I grew up in fell squarely into the “take turns” category. Once the Christmas-morning stage was set—Christmas music on the stereo, a fire in the fireplace, all of us in our robes and slippers—we determined the gift-opening order, and the unwrapping began in deliberate fashion. We tried new clothes on over pajamas, read packaging, commented on each other’s gifts, and told shopping back-stories. (“This was the last _____ in the state of Michigan!”) Thus, our gift exchange easily lasted several hours, at which point my brother and sister and I began to make noises about being hungry, at which point my mother realized she hadn’t even started Christmas dinner yet.

Because I am more worried about eating than my mother is, I like to have dinner well in hand before a single gift is de-bowed. To that end, I usually make “Forget-About-It and Open the Gifts” Pork Roast. This roast requires no trimming, trussing, or tying; you just throw it in a large pan, sauce it up, and park it in the oven for many low-temperature hours while you ascertain whether or not your spouse listened when you dropped hints about what you wanted for Christmas. It is delicious enough to serve to company (I once fed it to my mother-in-law, and she loved it) yet simple enough to please children if they are willing to eat meat at all. My 17-year-old daughter, our resident carnivore who plans to serve steak at her wedding reception, is wild for this pork. Our 12-year-old daughter, who would be a vegetarian except that she is not all that crazy about vegetables, will usually consume her obligatory three bites of this meat without too much complaint or bartering. (“If I eat an extra bite of broccoli, can I only take two bites of meat?”) A note of thanks for inspiring this dish goes to my surrogate big sister, Karen, who served us another version of this pork and whose family is, I’m quite certain, in the “take turns” camp of Christmas gift-opening.

“Forget-About-It and Open the Gifts” Pork Roast
I cook food.
I don't photograph it. Obviously.
(A printable version of this recipe is lurking here.)

1 (4-5 pound) boneless pork loin
½ cup apricot preserves
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar*
Olive oil
Nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 400°. Spray the bottom of a roasting pan with cooking spray. Remove the pork from its wrapping, rinse it with water, and pat it dry with paper towels. Brush or rub it with olive oil, then sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Place in roasting pan (you’ll want the layer of fat to be facing up) and roast, uncovered, at 400° for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, put the apricot preserves in a 2-cup glass microwave-safe measure, and heat in the microwave on High for 20 seconds. Stir, then mix in orange juice and balsamic vinegar.

When the roast has cooked at 400° for 20 minutes, remove it from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 225°. Spread the apricot glaze mixture over the top of the pork. Cover the pan (use two layers of aluminum foil if your pan doesn’t have a lid—make sure the foil is crimped tightly all around the sides of the pan) and roast at 225° for about 6 hours, or until the meat can be pulled apart with a fork. Allow to rest, covered, for about 20 minutes. Serves 12-14. Leftovers can be shredded and mixed with barbecue sauce for sandwiches or frozen for later use.

10. A Christmas Carol. My dear husband introduced me to this holiday classic, and far-and-away our favorite movie setting of it is the George C. Scott version. We watch it every year on Christmas Eve with all the lights off and candles glowing. God bless us, every one.

11. Dove Peppermint Bark Promises. No list on Guilty Chocoholic Mama is truly complete without (wait for it) chocolate, and in my opinion, no holiday season is complete without this form of it. Note to the serious: stockpile these babies for the non-holiday months. Let's not take chances here.
12. The best gift ever. "The angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord'" (Luke 2:10-11).

Now: what do you love at Christmastime?
Share it in a comment or on Facebook!
This post originally appeared on Blogs By Christian Women's Christmas Blog Tour.
Stop by the tour and find more holiday happiness. 
You've even got time to make your own batch of Christmas bark
to snack on while you read.