Friday, August 29, 2014

Busy Bag of the Month: Felt Pizzas with Menus

This busy bag is one of my most favorite ones ever. It is so simple to make, uses very few supplies and is super cheap.

Here's what you need to make a felt pizza busy bag:
  • Felt in a variety of colors {I used tan, red, white, green, yellow, black, pink and brown}
  • Scissors
  • Pizza toppings template {I made my own templates for the toppings, sauce and cheese}
  • Cardstock
  • Crayons
Here's how you make a felt pizza busy bag:

Decide which toppings you would like to incorporate with your busy bag. I chose the following toppings and used these colors:
  • Pineapple - yellow
  • Bell pepper - green
  • Ham - pink
  • Onion - white
  • Mushrooms - tan
  • Pepperoni - red
  • Ground beef/sausage - brown
Once you've chosen your particular toppings, you can gather all the felt you will need. Don't forget to grab felt for the crusts, sauces and cheeses.

I made templates by hand for the entire pizza. There are templates available online for free {just search: pizza busy bag template}, but in the end, I liked what I could make on my own better than what I could find online.

I made the templates on cardstock, then cut them out. I used the templates to then cut out the pieces I needed. I made 2 crusts, 2 sauces and 2 cheeses. For the toppings, I made extras for everything. Be sure to save your templates in case you need to make replacements for later.

Once everything is cut out, you're ready to make your menu cards. I made only 5, but you can make loads more. Feel free to use your favorite pizzeria's menu as inspiration. These are the menu cards I made:

Meaty Papa
Veggie Mama
Hawaiian Love
Joey Special {inspired by Joey Tribiani, the character from Friends}
Chef's Choice

I designed the menu cards on the computer and assigned a value to each topping. After I printed the menu cards, I hand drew, with crayons, the toppings that went with the values.

Aren't the pizzas so cute? Bug is a bit too little to play with these right now, but I know she'll be ready sooner than later! I can't wait for her to make pizzas.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

This Book Room: Home to Chicory Lane

Audrey Whitman’s dreams are coming true. Now that their five kids are grown, she and her husband Grant are turning their beloved family home into a cozy bed and breakfast, just a mile outside of Langhorne, Missouri.

Opening weekend makes Audrey anxious, with family and friends coming from all over to help celebrate the occasion. But when Audrey’s daughter, Landyn, arrives, the U-Haul she’s pulling makes it clear she’s not just here for a few days. Audrey immediately has questions. What happened in New York that sent Landyn running home? Where was Landyn’s husband, Cory? And what else was her daughter not telling her? One thing was for sure, the Chicory Inn was off to a rocky start. Can Audrey still realize her dream and at the same time provide the comfort of home her daughter so desperately needs?

Additional notes: This is the first book in the Chicory Inn series.

My thoughts: When the book first started, I was so into it. I've read a couple other books by Deborah Raney before, but her writing in this particular book reminded me a lot of Karen Kingsbury. Since I really like books by Karen, I thought the book was off to a good start!

But honestly, Landyn kind of ruined it for me. She is very whiny and unsupportive of her husband. The issues that were bothering her were lame. I don't want to give away what their issues were because I honestly kept thinking, "Okay, but there's more, right? This can't be it." Landyn's problems were seriously first-world problems and ones I could not at all relate to.

I can kind of see where this series might go - a book for each of the siblings - and I would read the other books in the series with the hope that Landyn is the only whiny one and the others are more relatable. Overall, though, I was a bit disappointed.

Thanks to Litfuse Publicity Group for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Crafty Christmas: Lavender Oatmeal Bath Soak

Christmas Countdown: Christmas is just 17 weeks away!

Don't even ask me why I haven't really ventured into the world of skincare before. I regret that sorely.

But now I'm fully immersing myself into it, I am loving it. Now that I'm a mom, I really try to make time for just me each day. I fail most of the time, but when I get a few moments to relax, I want to really relax, you know?

I love oatmeal and I love lavender. And I love baths. This soak is really just a win-win-win all around. I also oddly had all of these ingredients on hand. Because I just have an odd stash of crafting ingredients. I plan to sew together lavender sachets in the future to use up some more of the pound of dried lavender buds I have. Not to fully go on a tangent here, but they're also food grade buds, so I'm contemplating making lavender lemonade or some other delicious concoction.

So to get back to the point of this post... here's what you need to make this lavender oatmeal bath soak:
  • 4 cups old fashioned oats
  • 1 cup baking soda
  • 4 Tbsp. dried lavender buds
Here's how to make lavender oatmeal bath soak:
  1. Measure the ingredients into a bowl and whisk together.
  2. Working in batches and using your blender/food processor, blend the mixture until it is finely ground.
  3. Carefully scoop the mixture into Mason jars or some other type of airtight storage container.
With one batch, I was able to fill four half-pint jars. It's difficult for me to judge the cost of this project because I had everything on hand. I do buy oats at Aldi's, and the cost is $2 for a huge canister. I also buy my baking soda there for 50 cents. You'd need half of each to make this, so that's $1.25. If you grow lavender and dry it, that would make this project extra economical for you. I bought my lavender a few years ago from and used gift cards I earned through Swagbucks. If you don't have gift cards to use, the bag of lavender was about $13 and I used a microscopic amount. I would say about 50 cents' worth (and that's seriously overestimating). That brings the project's total cost to $1.75, so each gift is about 44 cents.

For that price, make this for everyone and a few for yourself. You deserve to be pampered!

Happy crafting!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ornament of the Month: Felt Cross

One thing I love about Christmas is that it literally is for Christ. It is the celebration of Christ's birthday. To fully celebrate that and teach my child about Christmas, I love having things to signify Christ around the house at Christmas. I have several cross ornaments, but none that I had made myself. I set out to change that with this ornament. This is a very simple but profound ornament and I truly hope you make it this year for your tree. It's a sweet ornament with a sad but joyous story.

Here's what you need to make this felt cross ornament: 
  • White or purple felt 
  • Red heart buttons
  • Red embroidery thread 
  • Needle
  • Pins
  • Scissors 
  • Cross template
Here's how you make this felt cross ornament: 
  1. Print out the cross template and cut it out. 
  2. Cut out felt for your ornament. You will need two felt pieces per one ornament. 
  3. Using needle and thread, sew one red heart button on the front felt cross. 
  4. Sew a loop on the back cross piece. 
  5. Pin the two crosses together and using a straight stitch, sew the two crosses together.
It is truly wonderful that God sent His only Son to Earth for us. Can you imagine such a thing? It reminds me of Abraham and his son on the hill. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for God. At the last second, God saved Abraham and his son from that fate. Sometimes, I wish God could have spared His Son, too. But I know Jesus had a greater fate than that Cross that day. His fate was to save all of us. The red heart symbolizes the blood He shed that day, but also the overwhelming and immense love He has for us. I'm so thankful that He came to Earth for us, that He lived for us and that He died for us. Thank you, God, for all your wonderful blessings.

Monday, August 25, 2014

In the Kitchen with Jason (and David): Southern Pecan Pie

I've only had an encounter with pecan pie once before in my life, and that was a day-old pie at a bakery I used to work at so I didn't have a lot to go on with this.

This pie turned out fantastic. With that being said, boy are pecan pies rich! Don't think you are going to have 2 pieces of this pie in one sitting; it just won't happen.

A side note about the pie crust: I have made a few different recipes for pie crust and this one seemed very complicated for no real improvement over other recipes, so if you have a favorite pie crust recipe, feel free to use that instead of this one.

  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 stick butter, diced
  • An unknown quantity of very cold (ice) water
    • This will be dependent on the hardness of the water, the humidity of your kitchen, your elevation compared to sea level, and a bunch of other scientific things that I have no clue about.
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup dark corn syrup
  • 2 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 cups pecan halves, toasted
    • I missed this toasted part and made the pie with straight from the bag pecan halves and it turned out fine.
  • In a food processor bowl, measure in the first 3 ingredients and pulse a couple of times to mix it all together.
  • Add the butter and pulse about half a dozen to a full dozen more times. 
  • With the machine running, add in 3 Tbsp of the water. If the mixture does not hold together, keep adding 1 Tbsp at a time of additional water until it just holds together.
  • Take the dough from the machine and compact it (with your hands) into a ball.
  • Flatten the ball into a puck-like shape.
  • Wrap the dough-puck in plastic wrap and put in the fridge for about an hour.
    • Note: If your wife tries to convince you that leaving it in the fridge overnight will be just fine and that you should go to bed: do not listen to her! The dough-puck will become as hard as a hokey puck and you will need to start over.
  • Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface.
  • Roll it out into a 13-inch round shape.
  • Transfer the pie crust from the counter to a 9-inch pie pan.
  • Cut off any excess, leaving about 1/2 an inch overhang.
  • Fold under the overhang and crimp with your fingers.
    • If you have the skill, you can even crimp it decoratively, but I don't have that skill yet.
  • Refrigerate the crust for another hour.
  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  • Line the crust with buttered aluminum foil and fill with dried beans.
    • I found that you only really need to fill the bottom with beans. Also, if you have pie weights, they will work instead.
  • Bake for 7 minutes, then remove the beans and foil.
  • Bake for about 5 more minutes, until the middle of the crust is a golden brown.
  • If the crust bubbles up, press it back into shape with a fork.
  • Let the pie crust cool as you make the filling, but leave the oven on.
  • Whisk together the brown sugar, corn syrup, and butter in a bowl until blended.
  • Whisk in each egg, one at a time.
  • Stir in the vanilla and salt and then fold in the pecans.
  • Pour the pecan mixture into the prepared crust and bake for about 50 minutes, until the center is just set.
  • Let the pie cool for 30 minutes.
The recipe also included a whipped topping, but I don't think it is needed and I omitted it when making the recipe.

Please enjoy!

-Chef Jason

Friday, August 22, 2014

In the Kitchen with Jason: Best Freezer Cooking Meals

Tater tot casserole
Freezer cooking has literally changed my family. We have more time to spend together, we use less time to cook, we eat out less often due to poor planning, and we have meals ready for whenever we want to deliver a meal to someone.

The best way to get started in freezer cooking is to cook one meal per week. When we cook meals, we'll usually quadruple the batch, so we'll have 4 meals for the freezer. I prefer to store my meals in freezer gallon ziplock bags. I put the food inside, smoosh the food down so the bag is flat and freeze it like that. It takes up less space in the freezer and the freezer is easier to keep organized. There are some meals this won't work for, but for casseroles, this generally works.

We're forever finding new meals to try, but here's a compilation of the best freezer meals we've made:

We change nothing for the recipe found here. When we make it, we tend to eat half over the course of a week and freeze the other half. We wrap each piece individually in plastic wrap first, then wrap each individual piece in aluminum foil next.

Chicken broccoli rice casserole
We change nothing for the recipe found here. We quadruple the recipe, then store flat in ziplock bags. It's really easy to make and very tasty.

Tater tot casserole
To make up the casserole for the freezer, you'd just be cooking up the meat mixture. Freeze the meat mixture in ziplock bags so they will lay flat. We always at least quadruple the recipe, but have been known to even make 6 batches in one go. You would keep the tater tots and cheese separate until you're ready to actually make up the meal.

Breakfast burritos
This recipe is a family favorite and makes breakfasts really easy. We wrap each burrito individually in a paper towel, then in aluminum foil. When you're ready to eat one, just take off the foil and pop the burrito with the paper towel still on it in the microwave. Microwave for about a minute and you're good to go.

Taco chili
We change nothing for the recipe found here. We quadruple the batch and always have lots of leftovers from each batch as we cook it up.

Barbeque chicken with veggies
This is a fun and unique recipe. It's also fairly healthy. It's chock full of good veggies! We quadruple the batch, and this makes a ton of leftovers.

Chocolate chip pancakes
We don't keep pancakes in the freezer very often, but they are a nice treat to have on hand. They're more of a pain to make than most other freezer cooking recipes. When we're ready to eat them, I just heat them up in the oven.

Chocolate chip cookie dough
This recipe is incredibly easy to make and it's practical to keep cookies on hand. I've also heard other people say they wished they could just make 1 or 2 cookies at a time - well, this is your answer! Never again will you feel obligated to eat a dozen cookies before they go bad. You just can make 1 or 2 and save the calories.

There are a million freezer cooking recipes available online, and we've made quite a few that we didn't care for at all. There are lots of recipes we still have yet to try. If you have a favorite not listed here, please feel free to share it!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

This Book Room

Christina Kempf has always known that God chose Aden Reese to be her husband. As children, he was there to save her when she fell through the ice, and he’s been by her side ever since. After his parents died in a car accident ten years ago, the Kempfs raised Aden as one of their own, and everyone sees Aden and Christina as brother and sister. But Christina has never given up hope that Aden will one day ask her to be his wife.

Aden always planned to court Christina. But losing his mother and father changed everything—except his love for her. Her parents generously welcomed him into their home and treated him like a son. He can’t betray their kindness by admitting his feelings for the girl who is like a sister . . . yet so much more.

Pressured by her parents to court, Christina begins to accept the attentions of Sugarcreek’s young men, and now, Aden must make a choice. Will he stand by and watch the love of his life slip away? Or will he risk losing the love and trust of the family he holds dear to tell Christina how he truly feels?

Additional notes: This is the second book in the Return to Sugarcreek series. You can read my review of the first book here. The third book in this series will be out later this year.

My thoughts: This was very much a trite boy/girl love story, but I enjoyed the depth of the story. Christina was very fearful and really let it get in her way of living. It was a good reminder to me to let the past go and live in the now. We can't let past fears stop us from living the life we desire to.

At a car boot sale in Sussex, three very different women meet and fall for the same vintage teaset. They decide to share it - and form a friendship that changes their lives.

Jenny can't wait to marry Dan. Then, after years of silence, she hears from the woman who could shatter her dreams.

Maggie has put her broken heart behind her and is gearing up for the biggest event of her career - until she's forced to confront the past once more.

Alison seems to have it all: married to her childhood sweetheart, with two gorgeous daughters. But as tensions mount, she is pushed to breaking point.

Dealing with friendship and families, relationships and careers, highs and lows, The Vintage Teacup Club is heart-warming storytelling at its very best.

My thoughts: This was such a fun read! I really wanted to just sit and devour this book. It reminded me a lot of Kate Jacobs' knitting series and books like that. I sincerely hope the author writes more books similar to the Teacup Club.

Marcy can’t wait to see the new exhibit at the Tallulah Falls museum on antique tapestries and textiles, including beautiful kilim rugs. But her enthusiasm quickly turns to terror when, the day after the exhibition opens, she discovers a dead body behind her store, the Seven-Year Stitch, wrapped up in a most unusual fashion.

The victim appears to be a visiting art professor in town for the exhibit. Did someone decide to teach the professor a lesson, then attempt to sweep the evidence under the rug? Along with her boyfriend, Detective Ted Nash, Marcy must unravel an intricate tapestry of deception to find a desperate killer.
Additional notes: This is the seventh book in the Embroidery Mystery series. As far as I know, this series is ongoing. You can read my review of the first book here, the second book here, the third book here, the fourth book here, the fifth book here and the sixth book here.

My thoughts: Generally speaking, it is hard to imagine one tiny town could have so many deaths and mystery. But maybe that is the point - to be so far outside what is real so you can really just delve in and enjoy this whodunit. If nothing else, this series always inspires me to craft a little bit more and I can always use motivation in that arena.

Life hasn't been a bed of roses for Londoner Molly Taylor lately. Newly divorced and struggling to
find a new home and a way to support her three boys, she's stunned when her beloved Aunt Helena dies and leaves her Harrington Hall, a three-hundred-year-old manor house on the Devon coast, where Molly grew up. But does Molly really want to run a bed-and-breakfast in an old house where the only thing that doesn't need urgent attention is Aunt Helena's beautiful rose garden? Or care for Uncle Bertie, an eccentric former navy officer with a cliff-top cannon? Or Betty, his rude parrot that bites whomever annoys it? Yet Molly's best friend Lola is all for the plan. "My heart bleeds. Your very own beach, the beautiful house, and Helena's garden. All you have to do is grill a bit of bacon."

But with Molly's conniving brother running the family hotel nearby, the return of a high school flame with ulterior motives, and three sons whose idea of a new country life seems to involve vast quantities of mud, this is not going to be easy. And then Harrington Hall begins to work its magic, and the roses start to bloom...

Warm, witty, and chock-full of quintessential British charm, A GOOD YEAR FOR THE ROSES is a story for anyone who has ever dreamed of starting over...with or without bacon.

My thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, particularly Molly's children. They were absolutely delightful and hilarious. They made the book for me. The characters reminded me a lot of the characters in Gil's other novels, which was somewhat confusing at first. Overall, I'm a fan of this book and can't wait for her next one!

Ramona the Pest takes a pint-sized perspective on the trials and delights of beginning school. Ramona can't wait to learn all the important things. But she's disappointed when her teacher can't fill in missing parts of story lines, such as how Mike Mulligan (of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel) went to the bathroom while digging the basement of the town hall. Nonetheless, Ramona loves her teacher, and loves going to school in spite of the torments--having to wear hand-me-down boots, for example, or having to (sometimes) suppress the urge to pull on another girl's "boing-boing" curls. Ramona's energetic take on life appeals to children who have passed through this stage, or who are dealing with a kindergarten-age sibling who is exhibiting Ramona-ish tendencies.

Additional notes: This is the second book in the Ramona Quimby series. You can read my review of the first book here. There are eight books in this series and all have been released.

My thoughts: Oh, Ramona. You are far too silly for your own good. I loved her view on her kindergarten teacher. Ramona and her family crack me up, and I'm so excited to keep reading about them!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

In the Kitchen with Jason (and David): Skillet Corn Bread with Scallions and Cheddar

This corn bread recipe worked like a charm. The corn bread was fantastically yummy. Be warned that the 8 to 10 servings stated in the cookbook are very big servings and most likely you will be cutting it into more.

Sign me up for a slice of that!

  • 2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 4 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup chopped scallions
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese
  • Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
  • Put the canola oil in a 10-inch oven safe skillet and put the skillet in the oven for 10 minutes.
  • While the skillet is heating in the oven combine the flour, corn meal, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl and give it a quick stir so it is evenly mixed together.
  • In a smaller bowl, whisk together the butter, egg and buttermilk.
  • Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients.
  • Before stirring, add the scallions and cheese and then stir with a spatula only until it is all incorporated.
    • Note it is ok if 'all' the flour and/or cornmeal doesn't get mixed in, it is more important to not over stir.
  • Remove the skillet from the oven (with an oven mitt or similar device to avoid burns) and pour the mixture into it.
  • Return the skillet (again with protection) to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, turning the skillet for even browning half way through.
  • Remove the skillet (once more without burning yourself) from the oven and let it sit for 10ish minutes.
  • Place a plate upside down over the cornbread and flip the skillet so that the cornbread falls onto the plate.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature.
Please enjoy!

-Chef Jason

Monday, August 18, 2014

Life & Style: The What, How + Why Behind a Success Notebook, Part 2

You can catch up on what a success notebook is in this post here.

Once you have your success notebook set up, you're officially ready to take action on the behaviors, attitudes and actions you've determined are what makes a person (aka YOU!) successful.

But to just look at your list can be incredibly overwhelming. Where do you start? How do you take any action and get where you want to be?

It's time to break down each successful action into bite-sized chunks. If you've determined that a successful mother will have her child potty trained by 2 (this is something that is in my success notebook under mothering), you can't just start today and your child will be potty trained tomorrow... at least not at this early age.

Instead, I broke down this successful action into small actions. Jason assists a lot with this particular action as he is the primary care-giver of Bug while I'm at work. We are slowly building up how many times we put Bug on her potty each day. We also avidly listen to and watch her cues as she is notoriously helpful for letting us know either when she needs to go potty or when she has recently gone.

We have routinely always put Bug on her potty once per day. Starting in early August, we starting putting her on her potty twice per day. Each week, we up how many times a day we put her on her potty. We sign potty to her, we say potty to her, etc.

If, as another example, you want to read 52 books this year, that means you need to read 1 book a week. Once you know which book you're reading for the current week, you can break down the book goal even further by figuring out how many pages or chapters you need to read each day to stay on track.

In essence, each week, you're going to create goals. Your goals will directly come from your success categories. For instance, my goals list often includes these items:
-Read 1 book
-Read 7 books with Bug
-Complete a couple of crafts
-Play a game with Jason

Each week, I write my goals list down in my success notebook. I also share my weekly goals on our Facebook page as a way to hold myself accountable. Honestly, this really helps me stick to my goals. When I share my goals with our community, it helps me continue on with my goals, even when I don't really want to.

Writing down my goals helps me stay focused (most of the time). I check them off as the week goes on, and seeing my progress always spurs me on.

Your goals list for each week may not include something from every category in your success notebook. It's important to keep the goals list aspiring, but achievable. You don't want to wear yourself ragged just trying to achieve goals. The point is to have fun and enjoy life, too! I make it a point to include fun activities on my goals list, and this is a great reminder that I can complete goals and make progress and that includes building memories with my family.
Now it's time to make your goals list and get started on achieving all the successes you've set your sights on!

Friday, August 15, 2014

This Book Room

The Reverend Curtis Black hasn't spoken to his son, Matthew, in over a year-not since Matthew dropped out of Harvard to marry his girlfriend, Racquel, and be a full-time father to their infant son. Curtis knows that it was he and his wife, Charlotte, who drove Matthew away, but he prays that one day his son will forgive them and come home.

Matthew, however, can't seem to forget the pain his parents caused him and Racquel. Still, he wonders if maybe they'd been right, as fatherhood is not what he expected, and Racquel's behavior has become increasingly erratic. Matthew genuinely wants to be a good husband, though, and swears he'll never repeat his parents' mistakes. But when an old friend expresses her desire for Matthew, the temptation may be too great to resist...

Then, there's Dillon Whitfield-Curtis's long-lost-son-who has settled in as a member of the Black family. Yet the transition has been anything but easy. Charlotte, convinced he's only after Curtis's money, wishes he would move back to where he came from. Dillon, however, has no intention of going anywhere. After a lifetime in the shadows, he's determined to take his rightful place as Curtis's first-born son and heir, and he'll do whatever it takes to win his father's affection-even if it means playing dirty...

As jealousy builds and secrets pile up, both of Curtis's sons will be pushed over the edge and forced to take drastic action. Can these two troubled young men find their way back into the Black family fold, or will their family ties be undone once and for all?

Additional notes: This is the eleventh book in the Reverend Curtis Black series. You can read my reviews of other books in the series by searching "Reverend Curtis Black" in the search box on the blog.

My thoughts: Sometimes, I really question why I even read these books. They're just so full of drama and craziness. The books are enjoyable to read, in that I always feel much better about my own life, and they are just quick reads, too. Read at your own risk is what I would say!

From Mary Hunt comes a collection of tips on saving money and time in the areas of home, auto,
travel, clothing, cooking, shopping, finance, kitchen, gifts, special occasions, kids, yard and garden, laundry, health, organizing and more. It contains sound advice for getting out of debt, managing money, curbing spending, finding creative solutions, and “bringing dignity to the art of living below your means.”

My thoughts: The good news is that I found a few really good tips and tricks I had never heard of before, including a nifty way to clean one's hairbrush. The book was a quick, easy read and was perfect for on-the-go and bathroom reading. I would highly recommend reading it and seeing what new tricks you discover.

In the Amish town of Sugarcreek, love comes in many forms. But will it come at all for Miriam?

Miriam Zehr has worked at the Sugarcreek Inn longer than she cares to admit. The restaurant is a favorite of town residents as well as the many tourists who come to taste the famous Amish fare. Though she always tries to have a smile for every customer, deep down Miriam knows something's missing: a family of her own.

Miriam has never felt particularly beautiful, especially because she's always been a bit heavier than other girls her age. When Junior, the man she's pined for all her life, suddenly seeks her out, she's thrilled to be noticed . . . until she realizes he's only asking her to help get the attention of Mary Kathryn Hershberger, her pretty friend.

If Miriam helps Junior court Mary Kathryn, she'll get to spend a lot of time with him, but she might lose him in the process. Are these few stolen moments worth a lifetime of sacrifice? Is Miriam right to even hope for the life she dreams of?

Additional notes: This is the first book in the Return to Sugarcreek series. The second book has already been released, and the third book will be released soon.

My thoughts: I was so happy to see a new series from the author and one in which we re-visit a familiar land! Of all the Amish books I've read, this author is one of my all-time favorites. If you're a fan of Amish fiction, you've got to check out her books.

Nine-year-old Beezus Quimby has her hands full with her little sister, Ramona. Sure, other people have little sisters that bother them sometimes, but is there anyone in the world like Ramona? Whether she's taking one bite out of every apple in a box or secretly inviting 15 other 4-year-olds to the house for a party, Ramona is always making trouble--and getting all the attention. Every big sister can relate to the trials and tribulations Beezus must endure. Old enough to be expected to take responsibility for her little sister, yet young enough to be mortified by every embarrassing plight the precocious preschooler gets them into, Beezus is constantly struggling with her mixed-up feelings about the exasperating Ramona.

Additional notes: This is the first book in the Ramona Quimby series. There are eight books in this series and all have been released.

My thoughts: I know I read some of these books as a kid, but that was at least 20 years ago. I'm thoroughly enjoying getting into the series and Ramona's crazy antics. It also helps me envision what sort of craziness I am in for as Bug grows older. This series would be a fantastic read-aloud series for your littles.

In the tradition of Out of My Mind, Wonder, and Mockingbird, this is an intensely moving middle grade novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family.

Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life... until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

My thoughts: This is a tragically wonderful read and perfect for middle-schoolers on up. The characters are so lovable and well developed. I was rooting for them all and was very happy with how the book ended. If you're looking for a great book to end your summer reading with, this is the one.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

In the Kitchen with Jason (and David): Smoked Gouda-Bacon Cheeseburgers

These were delicious. So good in fact that we altered our schedule to have them again, only a week after the first time we had them (don't tell anyone that we had leftover ingredients that would go bad if we waited any longer than that).

Yummy cheesy goodness in a bun. Sign me up for 2.
  • 5 bacon slices, uncooked and diced
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 cup fresh baby spinach
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp liquid smoke
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1 lb ground chuck
  • 4 oz gouda cheese, cut into 4 pieces
  • 4 hamburger buns
  • Heat your grill.
  • Place the bacon in a large skillet and cook over medium heat, for about 6-8 minutes.
  • Add the onion and spinach and cook for about 2 more minutes.
  • Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
  • Remove from heat and set aside.
  • In a large bowl whisk together the egg, liquid smoke, salt, pepper, and cayenne.
  • Using your hands, mix in the beef and the bacon mixture to the egg mixture.
  • Shape the beef mixture into 4 patties.
    • This will be a little less firm than normal hamburgers; this is okay.
  • Put a piece of cheese in the center of each beef patty.
    • You will probably have to reform the patty a little bit after adding the cheese as well.
  • Grill for about 7-8 minutes per side over medium heat.
  • No ketchup or mustard is needed (but you can use it if you want to).
Please enjoy!

-Chef Jason

Monday, August 11, 2014

Life & Style: The What, How + Why Behind a Success Notebook, Part 1

photo credit
A few months ago, I was feeling very much like I was in a rut. I had a lot of goals and dreams, but I felt clueless how to go about achieving anything of any importance.

I've always set goals and made it a point to slowly chip away at them, but I needed something more concrete for every area of my life. As I was thinking on how to do this, I just decided to sit down with a spiral bound notebook and write down everything I wanted to do.

What is a success notebook? It's a dedicated notebook for all things success in your life. My success notebook will be different than yours because what is success to me will mean something different than what success means to you.

Organization is key to my life and keeping my sanity somewhat in check, so I organized all my dreams and goals into categories. The categories that are part of my success notebook are:
  • Mother
  • Wife
  • Finances
  • Fitness/Health
  • Business
  • Homemaker
  • Personal
What does being a successful mother look like? What that means for you will be different than what it means to me, but here are some of the things I wrote down:
  • Read to Bug every day
  • Concentrated playtime with Bug every day
  • Potty trained by age 2
  • Do new activities with Bug (like crafts, sensory bins, etc.)
To give another example, here's some of what I wrote down for Wife:
  • Demonstrate and display patience
  • Say only what is kind, necessary and true
  • Concentrated playtime (playing games, watching movies, etc.)
To set up your success notebook, I recommend sitting down with a spiral-bound notebook, a pen, and a cup of something nice. Be sure to choose a quiet and calm time to complete your notebook - kids should be asleep or out of the house and you should make it a point to be in a calm, focused and positive state of mind. No negativity is allowed when setting up your notebook. The sky is the limit here and confidence is key.

Once you determine which categories are relevant and important to you, write those down on the first page. You can add on to this list later; my list of categories doesn't take up half the page.

On the next page, write down the first category name at the top of the page. Contemplate what being successful in that category means to you.

I can't stress that enough - do not compare yourself to others. Do not think about what your friend is doing in this area of her or his life. Do not consider what your mother would call successful. This notebook is a reflection of you and only you.

Depending on your own situation, you may want to chat with your partner and children about what success looks like in certain categories. I did not speak with Jason regarding my success notebook but I absolutely considered what he would call a successful wife and integrated those characteristics in that particular category.

For each category, write down what success is for you in that category. How do you use this notebook to actually achieve something? Check out part 2 of this series next week when I reveal how to put your success actions and attitudes into action.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Purposeful Parenting: Play Ideas for Infants

Your baby (less than 1 year old) may not be able to do a whole lot on his or her own quite yet, but believe me - they are definitely interested in playing. Their playing can be limited, but there are still a ton of activities they can and want to engage in. Here are a few to get you started:

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall
One of Bug's favorite games early on (as young as 6 weeks) was to look into a mirror at herself. You'll need to hold the hand mirror for your little or hold your little up to a mirror, but it's a great time for littles to look into a mirror. It can also be a good learning tool for identifying body parts, identifying people and so on. You can point to baby and say "baby" and they will see the baby (themselves) in the mirror.

Bath Time
Bug's favorite activity was bath time. We didn't soap her up every night, but once your infant is about 5 or 6 months, I see no reason why he or she can't play in the tub every night. No need to buy special bathtub toys if you don't or can't spend the money: measuring cups, regular cups, wash cloths, etc. are all game for toys for baby.

Bubbles can be a great thing for baby to see. They're so fun and don't require a lot of activity on baby's part beyond just seeing and feeling. Bug loved bubbles (and still does).

Sensory Activities
If you have a high chair, you have the perfect set-up for sensory play with your infant. We put Bug in her high chair and put flour or water on her high chair tray. That was good fun for her to play with.

Board Books
Bug obviously cannot read, but that doesn't stop her from loving to flip pages in a book. Before she was 1, we did expose her to real books so she could start to learn to turn paper pages. She is really good at it, but I recommend starting with board books. As your baby progresses with board books, slowly, gently and patiently introduce real books. You'd be surprised how gentle your baby will learn to be with books with a bit of guidance and a lot of practice.

Smile for the Camera
My girl's already outgrown this activity for now, but she was quite obsessed with the camera early on. I would bring it in close so she could see it, take it out further and encourage her to play and be silly for the camera while I took photos. She really enjoyed doing that for a long time, but now she's over the camera. Sniffle.

Sing Your Heart Out
I'm a terribly awful singer, but Bug has loved music since she was in my womb. Even in the car, if she's a little fussy, all we have to do is turn on worship music and she settles right down. It's magic. She has heard worship music since she was 1 month in my belly, and she loves us to sing to her. When she was just a wee one, she would be so transfixed. Now she tries to sing along with us. It doesn't really matter so much what you sing as long as you're confident about it. I stick with worship songs or Christmas songs because I know the lyrics and music. Sing what you know and be happy while singing. That's all your baby really cares about.

Play Cards
Kids love high-contrast ideas. Playing cards are perfect for them. I would just take a deck of cards and slowly show each card to an infant Bug. She was so mesmerized by them.

Touchy Feely
Touch and feel board books are great for kids because they love to touch new textures. Another idea you can do is create your own textured cards: gather up a bunch of textured items and make textured cards. Think sandpaper, textured cardstock from a crafts store, a painted surface, etc.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

In the Kitchen with Jason (and David): Pepperoni Pizza Pasta Bake

This recipe was very good... too bad Bug didn't see it that way. In her opinion, the noodles were good and everything else just got in the way. That is why we don't let the 16 month old decide what is for dinner.

The noodles went together good with the meat and cheese, though it didn't really give me a pizza feel. But who cares - I enjoyed it quite a bit and would gladly make it again.

Noodles + Cheese + Pizza sauce + Pizza toppings = Delicious!
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 12 oz dry penne or zeti (the recipe calls for a 12 oz box but I have never seen a box of pasta that is smaller than 16 oz.)
  • 1/2 pound ground Italian sausage
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 14 oz jar of pizza sauce
  • 1 8 oz jar tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 lb sliced pepperoni
  • 1/4 cup diced Canadian bacon
  • 1 tsp Italian seasonings
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella
  • 1/3 cup grated parmigiana-reggiano cheese 
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Spray a 2 1/2 quart baking dish with cooking spray.
  • Bring a pot of boiling water to a boil.
  • Add salt and noodles to the boiling water and let cook for 8 minutes.
  • Drain noodles and set aside.
  • Heat a large skillet over medium heat.
  • Add sausage and onions to skillet.
  • Cook for about 7 minutes.
  • Drain any drippings to the best of your ability (I didn't have any but I'm sure that I just got lucky).
  • Combine remaining non-cheese ingredients along with sausage mixture in a large bowl and stir.
  • Stir in the pasta.
  • Transfer to prepared baking dish.
  • Top with cheese and cover with aluminum foil.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, remove the foil and bake for 15 more minutes.
  • Garnish with fresh chopped parsley if you would like.
Please enjoy!

-Chef Jason

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

This Book Room: the Butterfly and the Violin

"Today." Sera James spends most of her time arranging auctions for the art world's elite clientele. When her search to uncover an original portrait of an unknown Holocaust victim leads her to William Hanover III, they learn that this painting is much more than it seems.

"Vienna, 1942." Adele Von Bron has always known what was expected of her. As a prodigy of Vienna's vast musical heritage, this concert violinist intends to carry on her family's tradition and play with the Vienna Philharmonic. But when the Nazis learn that she helped smuggle Jews out of the city, Adele is taken from her promising future and thrust into the horrifying world of Auschwitz.

The veil of innocence is lifted to expose a shuddering presence of evil, and Adele realizes that her God-given gift is her only advantage; she must play. Becoming a member of the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz, she fights for survival. Adele's barbed-wire walls begin to kill her hope as the months drag into nearly two years in the camp. With surprising courage against the backdrop of murder and despair, Adele finally confronts a question that has been tugging at her heart: Even in the midst of evil, can she find hope in worshipping God with her gift?

As Sera and William learn more about the subject of the mysterious portrait--Adele--they are reminded that whatever horrors one might face, God's faithfulness never falters.

Additional notes: This is the first book in the Hidden Masterpiece series.

My thoughts: I am obsessed with reading anything and everything from the World War II era, particularly anything to do with Germany and the concentration camps. This book did not disappoint. I wanted to read, read, read until I found out what exactly happened to Adele and Vladimir.

Sera and William are somewhat distracting from who, and what is, undoubtedly the true heart of this story: Adele, Vladimir and anyone else who suffered during this horrible time in history. Honestly, I felt this book was one of the better ones I've read for this specific time period. I could easily picture the concentration camps and the different scenes the author wrote.

Sadly, I felt the ending was much too rushed. Yes, I found out what happened to Adele and Vladimir, but I wanted to know more. It felt like the author just wanted to wrap things up and move on, and I wasn't ready to. Still, this book was a fantastic read and I'm looking forward to see what the author has planned for book two in the Hidden Masterpiece series.

Thanks to Litfuse Publicity Group for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Life & Style: Cultivating a Heart of Contentment

photo credit
We were in the car one day, not long after I had started working at my new job which I love, and in the course of chatting, Jason mentioned, "It's nice to be able to buy whatever we want."

This really struck me.... because he is completely correct. We can buy, quite literally, whatever we want.

Some of you may be thinking, "How much do you make?" Honestly, by most peoples' standards, we make a very modest living. The key is that we live a simple, content life.

We went shopping that weekend and literally bought what we wanted, which included a new computer. I spent $22 at Kohl's on slippers and sunglasses. I bought everything I wanted at Kohl's.

Sure, there are big ticket items I'd love to eventually have part of my life: a huge rambling farmhouse, for one. But I'm not ready for that kind of purchase (mentally and emotionally) right now.

My wants are pretty basic: basic clothing, a car that runs, clean water, a roof, and so on. I don't yearn to own diamond earrings, a new car, a boat, fancy shoes, or hundreds of handbags.

Let me reassure you: I was not always this way. But things just clutter life and instead of spending time with the people you love, you end up spending time making sure all of your things are taken care of and put away. I don't want to do more laundry because I'm wearing more pieces, I don't want to clean jewelry, I don't want to clean 4 bathrooms, and I don't want to spend time away from my home to go another home that I have to maintain.

Nope, I'm good in my simple life where I have plenty of time to love on my family. People, not things, are what matter most in this season of my life, and honestly? I hope that never, ever changes.

Friday, August 1, 2014

State of Our House Address: July in review

July was such a month of transition for us, and I'm really glad we're settling into our new routines - Jason staying home with Bug and me at my new job.

By mid-month, Jason had officially said goodbye to his employer and co-workers. It was rough with both of us working full-time, but we enlisted the help of his mom and my mom so they each watched Bug one day a week. We also hired a teenager to take care of Bug one day. She attends our church and from what I hear, is very nice. I was unable to meet with her before she took care of Bug, but Jason completed the preliminaries with her and I trust his judgment.

While both of us were working, we also cat sat for a family who was going out of town. It was for 13 days and we went over every day to pet the kitties, feed them, clean their litter, etc. Thankfully, their house is just a few miles from my work, so it was easy for me to do it before or after work. Jason and Bug did it on days they took me to work, and Bug had a great time playing with the toys at their house.

My mom's side of the family used to hold family reunions at the county park in another town, and I remember there was an awesome water park as part of the county park. I was determined to take Bug and Jason, so on what ended up being a very cold day in July (high of 73), we headed out to the park. The water was beyond frigid, but Bug had an amazing time. She was shivering a lot, so we left the water park sooner than expected, but it was well worth the trip. We also played on the play structures at the park.

We started out for home but were really craving hot dogs because everyone had been grilling them at the park. Once we hit the next town over, we saw a bunch of signs for a free family fun fair at a local church. We decided to go and agreed if it was lame, we would just ditch.

My goodness, it ended up the best.time.ever. The entire fair was free, and there was so much there! There were several bounce hairs and inflatables, a fire truck for kids to sit in plus a real fire outfit to put on, several games, an arts and crafts tent, pony rides and more. Lunch was also served for free!

We all had an amazing time. When Jason was little, he wanted to be a firetruck when he grew up. While he and Bug were in the firetruck, he said, "Get a picture of me steering!" He talked about the fire truck pretty much the whole way home.

July is one of my favorite months because it means blueberries are ready to be picked (and eaten). It is much easier to pick blueberries without a toddler, so Jason and I each went a couple of times solo. Jason and Bug also went together for fun and Bug had a great time picking blueberries. She enjoyed picking ones off the bushes and off the ground.

Bug has grown so much, it makes my heart hurts. She walks everywhere and is one of the most active toddlers I know. I love it! She's almost running now, which is pretty cool. We have quite the little helper in Bug. She loves to hang laundry on the dryer racks, unload the bottom half of the dishwasher and color pictures.

Our garden has yielded a couple of carrots so far. There are no strawberries and at this point, I'm not sure we will get any. We have several tomatoes growing, and our jalapeno pepper plants turned out to be bell pepper plants. They were given to us for free and honestly, we're pretty stoked they are bell pepper plants. Quite a few peppers are growing. Our marigolds are growing crazily. Bug has been a pretty good helper in the garden. She likes to pet the plants and play in the dirt when I water the plants.

We have made good headway financially on some of our goals. We purchased a new computer which we desperately needed, and it's made all our lives better and less stressful. We have been working the envelope system faithfully, and we're more committed to it than ever before. We each get blow money each month and I still have some left in my envelope. It probably helps that I'm too busy to spend money! We've been blessed continually with odd jobs for Jason that he loves and food and other benefits (like free pizzas, food, gift cards, childcare for Bug when needed, etc.). Our emergency fund is a little low at the moment from where we normally keep it, so our goal right now is to work it back up again while buying the things we've been putting off, like a bike trailer for Bug.

It was a pretty full month between all the activities and working so much, and I'm not sure August is going to be any less busy, but my hope is that as the months pass, we continually settle into our new routine. Soon, it will be fall and by default, things will slow down because we won't be able to swim anymore. I'm praying you all have a great August!