Saturday, April 23, 2011

Friendship baskets

Do you remember the Solo coffee cup inserts that were sold in the 70s?

I remember turning these into Easter baskets for my parents as a kid.

Easter has great significance for me. It is, of course, a milestone holiday in my Christian faith that symbolizes the resurrection of Christ. It's also a time to remember family and friends.

I've always felt people should be able to share in the celebration, regardless of age. One year, I decided kids shouldn't be the only ones to get Easter baskets. But kids have few resources, or at least that was true for the kids I knew. I bought a little candy with my allowance, colored some eggs and then scoured the house in search of something to use for baskets.

I don't actually recall my parents drinking from the Solo cups but they were in our cupboard, so I snagged them, punched some holes in the sides to add pipe cleaner-handles, filled them with Easter grass and candy, then snuck out of bed early Easter morning to add the hard-boiled eggs and surprise my parents with them.

Playing Easter bunny has always been tons of fun. When my older kids were little, certain candies became an annual tradition. Somehow, the list of favorites grew each year until the piles of candy lasted nearly 'til Halloween. OK, so maybe I'm exaggerating, but no child needs that much candy.

The solution: share! As winter turned to spring, it became another tradition to search out nifty baskets or  to deliver Easter goodies to our friends who lived alone (Hint: always take a whiff of natural-material baskets before buying, since they often have a musty smell). We would find pretty ways to wrap them, sometimes add flowers and get a kick out of making a friend's day when the basket was dropped off.
Sometimes we made mini baskets too. I've seen some beautiful cupcake wrappers in the stores that would be perfect for minis. The ones at left are by Wilton, which I often see in larger grocery retailers as well as places such as JoAnn Fabric and Craft Stores. If you're looking for ideas for Easter basket cupcakes, check out this link: http://www.bakerella.com/eye-candy/.

Because none of my close friends live alone anymore, they eventually became immersed in their own family traditions; sadly, the basket deliveries came to an end. My older children now live out of state and most years I send them a small Easter basket so they can celebrate the holiday in their own apartments. Not so this year, since the fam will be getting together for a late, "Fake Easter" celebration that our friend Lauren has dubbed "Feaster."

It's too late this year, but next year, I'm thinking of assembling a few baskets for children staying in homeless shelters. I remember an elementary school where students did this. It was so touching how much it meant to the little ones, even though they didn't realize other kids were play the role of Easter bunny helpers.

Thinking about the strawberry bear book the other day brought to mind another Easter tradition when my kids were young, the story of "The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes," by Dubose Heyward and Marjorie Flack.

The bunny, who is parenting a large family of bunnies on her own, gathers her well-mannered children to see the jack rabbits compete to become the next Easter bunny and finds herself being considered for the job. But to do so, her children have to pitch in while she's trekking around the world bringing joy to little ones. It's always heart warming to see well-behaved children who pitch in; this book is no exception. I read this as a child and always aspired to have a family this close, and thank the good Lord, I've been pretty blessed. Read this book, I think you'll love it too. If you can't find it close to home, it's sold on www.amazon.com.

I hope you have a very happy Easter. We'd love to hear about your own family traditions, so please feel free to share!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Of mice and strawberries

Maybe I'm trying to hurry spring along by focusing on all things strawberry-related, but I doubt anyone in the northern U.S. would blame me. It's been so chilly this year that I fear we'll never get a true taste of spring.

Although I only get a few small strawberries each year, I love when Michigan-grown strawberries hit our grocery stores. One of our favorite ways to serve them is with a cream cheese dip. I scribbled the recipe down after seeing it on a TV talk show years ago, when my daughter was just a baby. For the Strawberry Dip, unwrap a 3-ounce block of cream cheese and microwave it 20-30 seconds in a medium-sized bowl until it's soft and easy to whip with a fork. Add 2 large spoonsful of marshmallow creme; stir it together. Squeeze a teaspoon or so of fresh lime juice over the mixture and stir it in. Refrigerate a couple of hours and serve with fresh strawberries.

Strawberries are also tasty between layers of angel food cake with whipped cream, along with kiwi slices. One recipe idea that would never have occurred to me was for this strawberry pasta salad. Since my classmate Celia introduced me to this site, I'm eager to try it.

Last summer, strawberries and mice were the focus during one day of the 10-session "Cousin Camp" my son and I organized for my nieces. Because our camp was all about having fun while ramping up reading skills, our theme that day was mice. That day's books included one of my forever favorites, "The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR" by Don and Audrey Wood.


           If you haven't read this book with your children, you're missing out! There's lots of opportunities to use different voices and just enough mystery to keep a little one enthralled. OK, maybe you don't have to be so little ─ it's pretty obvious I'm a fan. Then again, I absolutely love children's literature.


With some sliced almonds, a little melted chocolate and some red shoestring licorice for tails, we were able to turn red, ripe strawberries into little mice the day we read this book. My creative nieces decide to top wedges of Swiss cheese with the melted chocolate too. 


 The strawberry mice were so much fun to make, and perfectly complemented our book selection that day. If you'd like to make your own, here's more information on creating the strawberry mice. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Easter recipes wanted!



This hardly qualifies as a blog post. It's more like shameless begging for your favorite yummy, easy, pork-free main dish recipes. If they are inexpensive and healthy, so much the better.

 In defense of my begging, let me just say this is finals week at school and I've been swamped. Plus the son and I are battling a nasty cold. But I still need recipes for a small crowd, since this year we're combining the family Easter gathering with a small celebration after my graduation (yes, after returning twice to college I am finally, officially graduating!). Having switched computers this year, my normal pre-party computer search for past menus is turning up nothing, nada, zilch. So I'm desperate for recommendations.

The pork-free main dish requirement is out of respect for my sister-in-law, who is Seventh-Day Adventist. Although I'd love nothing more than one of the mouthwatering spiral-sliced hams that are on sale this week, that won't be on the Easter table, at least not for a main dish. Our main dishes also steer clear of shellfish, organ meat and cloven-hoofed critters of any kind.

All this adds up to me asking you to lend your tried-and-true recipes to a sista in need. So can you lend a hand?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Guys in grass skirts

        It's April 3 and my snow has not only refused to disappear but there are big fat flaky flurries here in Michigan, with hail incessantly hammering the windows. So maybe this is a good day to reminisce about the better-late-than-never Disney trip we took a couple of years ago.


        I always regretted not taking the whole fam to Disney World, so even though some of my kids were grown and out of state, we converged at Palm View Villa, part of the Terra Verde Resort in Kissimmee, Florida. It took lots of research and digging through online tax records for my inner skeptic to feel confident the place existed. I'm glad we went the private villa route, though, because it was easily the most wonderful, relaxing part of the vacation. If life's complexities hadn't gotten in the way, no doubt we'd have been back for more.


        The beautiful Villa became the site for a double surprise party celebrating the birthdays of both David and my son-in-law. In keeping with the lush Florida landscape, we packed up ingredients for a portable luau (minus pig and hula dancers), FedEx'd it to the Villa, and hid everything in my daughter's closet, since her hubby wasn't arriving for a few days.


         A surprise party takes plenty of planning; finding theme items that don't hog much packing space is another matter. We found fabric flower leis at Dollar Tree and tropical napkins and plates at the local party store, plus drink coasters, tropical plastic hurricane glasses, folding paper lanterns and grass skirts through Oriental Trading Company, where I'd previously purchased luau glow cups for a glow-in-the-dark party (that's a story for another time). I also found acrylic margarita glasses on Amazon.com. Turned out the Villa already had nice shatterproof drinkware, but the other goodies really set the mood.
        We'd downloaded a summery playlist with Bob Marley, the Beach Boys, some Jimmy Buffett, Toad the Wet Sprocket (my old favorite) and tunes such as "Hawaii Five-O," "Wipeout" and the Jose Cuervo tune. We also took a small portable speaker to plug into the MP3 player, just in case we needed it (we didn't).

    
        The plan was for David and my daughter to zip over to Orlando Airport to pick up her hubby. So we had just minutes to decorate and get the food ready. A green plastic tablecover was thrown over the breakfast table, with grass skirts taped to it. Leis were flung on everything, including a poolside inflatable whale. We wrapped another tablecover around a bowl, cinched it with a lei and dumped in ice to chill the bevvies, then draped a clean tropical towel over the sofa for some added color.

 
        Fruit and pineapple spears were skewered and arranged in a split pineapple and set out, along with barbecued mini sausages and other quick snacks to go with the take-out chicken we bought. My older son split an angel food cake and filled and topped it with whipped cream and fresh fruit, then circled it with a lei. When the guys pulled into the drive, we dimmed the lights and flipped on the music.
        Were they surprised? Absolutely. Especially when they found out they'd be putting on the grass skirts. But hey, when the guests of honor double as entertainment, I say it's win-win.


           Ah, vacations. They have the power to magically take you away. It's hard to leave, but on a day like today, it's nice to have the memories.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Crafty Get-Togethers

I have a great friend who likes being crafty and domestic as much as I do.  She's been coming over a lot lately, and we'll bake, make things, watch movies, talk... drive my husband crazy... it's a lot of fun!

We recently made some really great hairpins with felt flowers on them, and then yesterday I had a brilliant idea to make crocheted baskets out of old jeans.  Denim is not the easiest material to work with, I have plans to make other things with old t-shirts, but they turned out really cute and didn't take very long once I got used to the material.  Denim is pretty to crochet with, because a pair of jeans turns into so many colors- the inside is lighter, the space where your pockets were is darker, and it looks really cool!  Plus, who doesn't have a pair of old, torn-up, too-large or too-small jeans lying around?!

I used these instructions as a basis, and cut the denim into strips as long as possible, in a zig-zag pattern.  I couldn't find my seam ripper, so I cut most of the seams off, or hacked at them until they went away.  Definitely remove the pockets.  Denim is thick enough as it is, add a seam in there and it's nearly impossible to work with.

I found the instructions on the above link worked best, however, because of the bulkiness of the material, I found myself adding an extra loop after each stitch.  I must mention that I'm not the best crochet-er.  I generally don't get it- I'm much better at knitting.
 I knotted the strips of denim together, using a square knot.  It made cute little bows randomly around the basket, which I love, but try to keep them to a minimum, they're hard to work around.  Cut those strips as long as possible!

And it turned out like this!  So cute!  It would make a great Easter basket, but I'm going to use it to keep track of my hairpins and headbands that live all over my nightstand.  I'm also going to attempt to make an extra-large one to use as a cat bed- I've been wanting to make a cat bed for years, but always thought they'd tear it up too quickly.  Not only is this super durable due to its construction, but denim is so sturdy it'll be perfect!