Thursday, December 22, 2016


Ho, ho, ho!  Where have you been, Jane?  Well, Christmas prep is rearing its ugly head.  I'm running here and yonder, ordering gifts online, unpacking and wrapping gifts, planning the menu, shopping for our Christmas morning brunch, and...making sweets to bring to family gatherings.  Deep breaths.  

I am now applauding, and I mean out~of~my~seat applauding you savvy ladies who start everything right after Thanksgiving.  The other day I had an incredible light bulb moment.  I thought to myself, "Self, you have 5 more days until Christmas.  You are good.  You are fine.  The decorating is almost done and you are nearing the finish line in wrapping presents.  All is good, Self."  And then I nearly keeled over with the realization that I was actually happy to finish decorating by Christmas day.  What?  This is a real Dickens nightmare come true.  What happened to enjoying your festive home before Christmas?  That day I packed up the remains of my sporadic holiday decorating and brought it all downstairs.  I swept up the glitter and organized all of my present trimmings; the bows and ribbon and excessive rolls of Scotch tape.  Christmas enjoyment has officially begun.  

I want to laugh (in a small way).  All of those tips I wrote about and shared with you a few weeks ago.  I posted them on this blog partly because I was so swamped I could barely write a post!  But things are moving along now.  I've lowered the expectations as many of you recommended.  What a sigh of relief that is.  I sometimes wonder why some of us push and push to make things so perfect to the point of exhausting ourselves.  Well, I have a very wise friend who tells me we sometimes feel that something so good, like a sweet treat or a beautifully decorated room, will be even more spectacular with more, much more.  We never seem to know when to say, "Enough."  Wise words...they didn't fall on deaf ears.   

I apologize for the color quality of these photos.  Night time pictures are always difficult for me to edit with zero natural lighting.  I believe 2017 will be the year to get better acquainted with my faithful old camera.  

After I last wrote I went to my favorite nursery for our tree.  I've written about this place many times over the years.  I go here to get my trees, my spring flowers and fall pumpkins and mums.  And I've been doing it since my kids were babies.  It's a bit different now...I get a little more anxious to get the tree in time to let the branches fall a bit before decorating.  The Husband sometimes doesn't get home from work until 7:00 p.m.  And then he is in charge of hauling that baby in and making room for it in our tiny living room.  This year our tree (seen above) is the smallest I've ever bought.  It actually looks bigger than it is in this picture...maybe it's the glowing lights.  

The Husband has been making fires non stop but then again I suppose you know about our cold Chicago winter thus far.  He likes to go to bed early so I continue to stoke it gently for the heat until my eyes are heavy.  It's also a good excuse to bask in the glow of the tree and reflect, dream and plan. 

I had these stockings custom made a few years ago.  The Husband cut out wood rounds from his enormous pile of firewood at the lake, drilled holes in them to hang, and I stamped the names of our kids on each round.  And no, new dear readers, we do not have 8 children (although I shockingly came from a family of 7!), they are my kid's husbands and wives/partners.  With no additional room I have granddaughters Elsie and Madelyn's stockings hanging off a shelf out of view.  

Emily helps me with the lights.  Her motto is, "No branch should be without lights."  It works for me.  And I love my tree jam packed with a mish mash of ornaments.  I have such an abundance.  My favorite is that replica of a shopping bag from Marshall Field & Co.  If I'm boring longtime blog readers...sorry.  My best memories are the three years I worked in downtown Chicago (about ten years ago) and my desk faced a window on the 8th floor of our building looking out over Washington and State St.  Right smack in front of me was Marshall Field and the iconic clock.  I still remember that incredible sadness when Macy's took it over.  This bag is a little remembrance and yes, I bought it there the last Christmas Fields was Fields.  Sniff, sniff.  

I mentioned in one of my last posts that I like to decorate cheap dollar store bags to fill with gifts.  I've been using this cute little reindeer for a long time.  I buy the white and craft paper bags~~~they are sold in large and small and they are a $1 for two.  Yes!  I have a few fun stamps, and you can go simple like this or all out.  This year I was a little feverish about having enough bags so I think I may need to look for some stamps for other occasions. ;-D

This is actually Layla's chair in the den but every once in a while Milo steals it.  She is clearly not happy about that as evidenced in this photo.  She spends a lot of time under my bed close to the radiators along the wall.  These floors are so cold, I know.  I've taken to wearing woolly socks and I really do not like socks at all.  She has gotten so, has outgrown her sweater so I picked up another at HomeGoods.  Blasted dog was out of it in about a minute.  

It seems the cold affected the whole country as well as Canada.  We were below zero a few days and nights.  I really treasure a day when I know I have no where to be and no errands to run and that just happened to be this past Monday and as the fates would have it, a -5 degree day.  I stayed in my PJ's and got a lot done including some reading...yay! Yesterday I had a list a mile long and as I ran in and out of every place, I said a few thanks that it was 19 degrees and not -5.  It really makes a difference.  Yeah, yeah, yeah...she's boasting about how the Midwesterners are of such hearty stock.  Well, I'll tell you where I totally cave.  We dress in layers; a long sleeve shirt, a heavy sweater or sweatshirt, warm pants, thick socks and insulted boots (I like Northface) as well as a hat, scarf and mittens.  All bases covered, right?  Well, what usually follows is you are in a store or the post office or wherever, and after you thaw out you sort of start to feel warm and the wool is now scratching your skin.  Soon your layers have turned into a sort of sauna and you are yanking at your scarf and using it to wipe your brow.  If the snow, rain or wind didn't get to your hair, the sweat is now making it hang limp or in my case, frizz up.  Sheet.  That cold air really invigorates you when you finally step outside...19 degrees is heavenly.   

I have a few more gifts to wrap and I'm going to start my baking.  This year I'm making fudge, just the recipe on the back the Tollhouse chocolate chip bag.  It's been years and I just don't want to search THE BEST FUDGE recipe on Google or Pinterest.  I make pretzels dipped in almond bark every year as well as sugar cookies.  This year I have a great recipe from Doreen at Fox Den Road where you spread raspberry jam on the cookie after baking and top it with another cookie in which you have punched holes with a straw.  You can then see the bright red of the jam.  They are so pretty!  And I also have a new bar cookie recipe which involves graham crackers, a 'from scratch toffee', chocolate and chopped pecans...all in layers.  I'm gaining weight just thinking about them.  I'll take pictures and include links to the recipes if, and only IF they turn out!

I know I won't have a minute to post in the next few days...lots of festivities and parties.  I'm so looking forward to Christmas morning when all of our kids are here laughing, opening gifts, finding a few things we knew they needed and many surprises.  Elsie is at the perfect age, 22 months, to really go gaga over the presents and fun.  Having our precious 6 week old Madelyn is the icing on the cake. I have two pregnant daughter in laws and I feel my heart swell when I truly stop to think of it all.  It trumps all of the time we put into making the holidays perfect.  We gather together, smile, hug and laugh.  We eat and drink and get really merry (!!!), and we forget our problems for awhile.

So in ending, I'm wishing all of you a wonderful and blessed Christmas.  Your friendship means so much to me.  Thanks so much for all of your support in my new writing endeavors this year and for continuing to follow when my posts are so erratic.  I promise to get better.

Fa la la la la
...and a partridge in a pear tree! 

Jane xxxx

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Thanksgiving 2016

I had to go back a bit in my blog posts to see where I left off after giving you a little taste of my newspaper columns.  I want to thank all of you for writing that you were able to see the differences in my writing the articles from the way I write my blog.  Being able to adapt to what I need to write for  certain publications and audiences is not as easy as it seems.  But most of all, you, my longtime friends, commenting that you were able to use some of the tips, well, that's what it's all about for me.  So thank you from the bottom of my heart.  

Thanksgiving is long over and although my table wasn't the fanciest, I wanted to share it. Totally no fussing my centerpiece was a simple vase of pretty yellow roses.  I mixed dishes, silverware and napkin rings.  I had a great deal of help with appetizers, desserts and side dishes from the family.  We had a record 29 for dessert, all extended family.  It was a tad crowded but we all had a ball.  
Everyone brought some sort of dessert and I made plates for all to bring home.  I sure didn't need the temptation!  It was such a relief to clean up most of it and call it a night.  :D

Abby spends a good amount of time with us, sometimes it feels as if she never moved out.  I made over her bedroom as a guest room and so far she has been our only guest.  And now she has her beast, I mean dog, Squall.  I introduced him here.  An 8 month old rescue who had lived in the shelter all his life.  

We had a really difficult time getting Squall and my dog, Milo, to get along.  It took a whole afternoon of walking them together and playing while keep them on their leashes.  Milo is not having anything to do with strange dogs anymore and Squall reacts very aggressively.  After a lot of work, Abby, her boyfriend Tom, and The Husband were able to bring them in our house and they only got into a few tussles (and the ones before were really scary).  I think Milo finally gave up (grudgingly) and Squall just has a field day exploring our house and getting good smells and nibbles from me as I prepared our Thanksgiving feast.  

He acted like the typical puppy and I  couldn't fault him.  Sadly, I had to keep Layla in our bedroom.  She is afraid of other dogs yet she will go into attack mode when confronted.  It was pretty apparent Squall and she would clash and an 8 pound dog vs. a 50 pound dog would not end up pretty.  On top of that,  Jeff brought Tulo with him for Thanksgiving dinner (Tulo is well over 100 pounds) so I had four dogs and all of these people.   To top was found a few days later after a routine blood test by Abby's vet, Squall had two different parasites which could be spread by his feces.  My vet recommended I bring in Milo and Layla's samples in a week or so.  Oh, joy. Still haven't begun to look under the frigid snow.    At the cost of not being very popular, I had to say none of this was working so there will be zero dogs here other than my own for awhile.  

My most relaxing time at the lakehouse  

We had a three day weekend after Thanksgiving.  I am so enjoying sitting on the sofa in front of the crackling fire, relaxing and reading.  We won't have Wifi and Internet for a few more weeks and I truly hope I can stay away from it and continue to catch up on my reading.  Here, I was well into Isle Of Dreams by Susan Branch.  She  really weaves a wonderful memoir.  I love reading about women and their experiences in finding true independence.  :)

Tons of progress there.  No more boxes to unpack, everything washed and extra bedding and pillows are packed in heavy bins which I scored from Dollar General in town for $8.00.  We have a pull out couch, 2 inflatable beds and 2 twin bed in the guest house so I have extra of everything.  The bins stack up nicely in closets.  

The best quiche ever

I really love quiche and it's been awhile since I've posted a recipe.  This goes together quickly with few ingredients and it's great as lunch or dinner with leftovers for breakfast.  It's also tried and true for small gatherings along with a salad.  Just remember it takes about 50+ minutes in the oven so it's something you have to plan ahead.  The best part of this recipe is you get your daily dose of veggies with the zucchini, which makes its own crispy crust, as well as mushrooms.  And it's light and fluffy.  I think you'll love this.

Zucchini & Mushroom Quiche

2 medium zucchini sliced in rounds
1 T olive oil
1 T butter
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2 t fine bread crumbs 
5 eggs
1/2 c cream
1/2 c milk
1 c shredded cheddar cheese
1 t dried thyme
S & P

Toss 1/2 of the sliced zucchini in the olive oil.  Butter an 8 inch pie pan or casserole and arrange the zucchini over.  This will be the 'crust'.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes  

Remove from oven and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the bread crumbs over the zucchini...this will help absorb the water secreted from the veggies.  Arrange the mushroom over and then the other half of zucchini.  Sprinkle the remaining teaspoon of bread crumbs over and S& P as you desire.  

Whisk eggs, cream and milk together until frothy, this will make the dish very light and fluffy.  You can use a whisk but I used my mixer for about 2 minutes.  Stir in the cheese, thyme and salt and pepper.  Pour over veggies in pie dish.  Place in the 350 oven and bake approximately 45 to 50 minutes.  Check center of quiche with a fork or toothpick to see if it is firm.  You can also check by tapping your fingers over for firmness.  Serves 4.  Enjoy~

You may have noticed granddaughter Elsie's new picture on my sidebar.  This is another from her photography shoot for Christmas.  I love this one.  She's just darling.  She is really attached to The Husband.  He, my son and Elsie go out for breakfast almost every Sunday morning.  When she comes to visit she really enjoys walking through our home with it's maze of rooms and hallways.  We keep her toys in the family room and she's eager to take me by the hand to help her bring them to the living room where we usually sit.  On our way we pass the guest room where we keep our parrot (for lack of a better place).  She waves 'Hi" to Nina.  Nina squawks a few times and all is good.  

And here we have Maddy.  She is 4 weeks now and is really filling out and becoming more alert.  She sleeps most of the least more than any baby I've ever had or known.  I have her all day on Mondays when Emily works downtown.  Sometimes I want to wake her up just to have some quality time, as if you can with a newborn.  She gets her bottle every three hours, we chat (or I do..."This is Milo and Layla.  They will be your forever friends.  This is me, grandma, I'm going to spoil you to no end."  And then I lay her back down.  Isn't she precious?

Off I go.  You might notice there is nothing Christmasy about my post.  I have nothing to show at this point.  I'm working on packing up a lot of what I have around here and there, which I've been planning on doing forever, to make room for my Christmas decor and favorite pieces.  I'm going for the tree tomorrow at my favorite garden center.  It takes some moving around of furniture so I need to round up some help for that.  Then I like to let the branches fall a bit for about 2-3 days, then I do the lights and ribbon and finally ornaments.  Can you hear me catching my breath in a panic?  Some mornings I wake up feeling a humongous cloud of anxiety over me.  Barely any Christmas shopping accomplished much less present wrapped.   Cards to fill out, address, stamp and send.  Planning and making sweets I give as gifts, at least the ones I freeze.  I've never been so behind the eight ball.  Still, I needed to write a post and believe it or not, I really relax doing so.  As much as you guys say you like reading my blog posts as if we were having coffee together,  I feel this, too.  I'm grateful we are friends. 

Back soon...

Jane x    

Friday, December 2, 2016


I want to thank all of you who read my last post which was previously published in Neighbors newspaper last December.  It was one of the longest articles I ever wrote, 16,000 words, and took up 2 pages.  A few asked how I could have so much to write and keep it organized.  Well, while I'm on my Tip Trip, let me clue you in.  For my blog posts, which I try to write once per week, I write straight from my head (and heart) mostly guided by recent photos I have taken.  If I have a thought or come across something I want to share, I add it to my Notes on my iPhone.  Simple.  But for this particular article for the newspaper, I broke everything down into categories starting with how I begin my holiday preparations.  I find this to be the easy part.  The difficult part is the proofreading.  I can do it 100 times and each time I'll find something wrong.  I finally have to just let it go.

So here is Part 2 of A Newspaper Article (or Holiday Tips By Blondie) minus me in my bathrobe.  Which I am now in.  Blame it on the Chicago cold weather.

If you've been reading my column each month you know I have a thing for pretty dining tables whether it be for special occasions, casual dinners or holidays.  I'm not pretentious by any means, I simply love the opportunity to be creative and make guests feel special.  I've also found so many ways to do a beautiful table on a dime, and I've written about those in the past.  You can find inexpensive dishes, napkins, candles, platters, vases and just about anything you need for making a beautiful table that reflects your style at stores like Marshall's, TJ Maxx, HomeGoods and Hobby Lobby just to name a few.  I love my Winterberry dishes from Pfaltzgraff and I collected each and every plate little by little over the years.  Until I had enough, I alternated simple white plates with the Winterberry---I'm crafty like that!  My silver is all mismatched, collected over time by many visits to antique and thrift shops.  I pick up napkins, place mats and tablecloths on sale or clearance.  Just a few ideas where you might be able to stretch the budget.  

And that brings to My Tip #9.  There is no reason to not use your everyday dishes,  Mine are quite plain.  If you want to jazz them up, lay your napkins on top of the plates and place your silverware on top.  No need to take the traditional route for placement all the time.  In fact when we deviate from the rules it's often quite interesting.  My Tip #10:  Paper napkins are absolutely wonderful but be sure to get something strong.  One of the things I like to do to jazz up paper napkins and take them up a notch is to pull out your holiday stamps and a few ink pads and stamp something cute on them.  Snowflakes, stars, Santa's...the ideas are all there in your stamping aisle at the local craft shop.  I have a whimsical reindeer stamp that I've used on everything from napkins to gift bags and tags, to the envelopes of my Christmas cards.  People love my little reindeer.  Sometimes  I even color his little nose in with a red pen! :)  So, the idea is to have fun and not worry about what the Jones' are doing.  

I'm going to consolidate gift giving with baking because so many of us who love to bake also love to give it away.  I do it year round because I would be bigger than a cow if it were in my home!  At Christmastime it has been a very longtime tradition to give food as a gift to those we love, including family, friends and anyone else you love or who cannot bake to save their life.  

Sometimes a cute inexpensive tray from the Dollar Store or your local Walgreen's  is the perfect way to hold a variety of your cookies and candies.  Handy little glassine bags and small boxes can be found at craft stores as well as little baskets that you can line with tissue paper.  Presentation is important now because you really want it to look like a gift, not a bag of leftovers.  Use colorful ribbon and bows to embellish your goodies.  And by all means, use those stamped bags I've been extolling the virtues of!  

Some of the easier treats to make and bake for me are Almond Bark Pretzel Rods (as seen in this picture), and bar cookies which can be sliced up to fill several boxes/bags.  And try some sweeter party mixes like Puppy Chow and Muddy Buddies, as well as an assortment of cookies.  Never rule out your own toasted nuts or maybe some caramel popcorn.  You can Google all of these recipes or find them on Pinterest.  And that is My Tip #10.  All of these treats are not only very simple,  they use a minimal amount of ingredients and each batch can be spread out for a great number of recipients.  Happily, they can all be made ahead.  Does it get any better?

And speaking of 'make ahead'.  My Tip #11.  I have and love recipes for 'make ahead' cookie and pie dough that you can freeze.  You can Google them or type them into a Search on Pinterest if you do that sort of thing.  I love that I can make up the dough, and then at a later time have the fun part of rolling put, cutting up, baking and decorating.  Like my method of wrapping gifts one day and decorating another, you don't tire yourself out to the point of losing the joy.  It also helps when you're busy, the process of making cookies or pie is half done.  Yay!

My Tip #12:  You may have heard of that very thoughtful gift of giving a Mason or Ball jar you've filled with all of the dry ingredients used in a cookie or cake recipe for example, even soups.  I love the idea and we can take it one step further to make life easier for ourselves.  For your own baking, mix all the dry ingredients for a particular recipe and store it in large jars or plastic bags tied up tightly until you are ready to make the whole batch.  You're halfway there when you are ready to go and then clean up is a snap.  Here I go again, dividing everything into halves!  Which brings me to My Tip #13.  Never feel like everything has to be homemade.  I'm not a fan of preservatives but that doesn't mean everyone is, so if you are making a huge batch of cookies, cakes or pies, go for the shortcuts of store bought mixes, pre-made cookie dough and pie crusts as well as canned fruits.  I really love the decorating part and it was always the highlight of baking with my daughters when they were young.  They lost interest during the actual baking in the oven.  Most mixes are perfected beyond belief so you will get a lot of bang for your buck, and your time and energy can be spent elsewhere.  Like just sitting back and watching It's A Wonderful Life.

My last few thoughts are on gift giving and doing that on a budget.  I simply can't tell you what to buy your husband or mother in law but I have a few ideas for gifts that may be perfect for many of those on your list simply because they take thought, can be tailor made, and have your personal touch.  Oh, and did I also say not break the bank?  Again, think gift bags as they can contain a variety of different shapes and sizes. And think of those odd numbers, for some strange reason they are just better.  So, My Tip #13.  

Gift bag ideas for your favorite people:

~~~2 pretty candles and a jar
of matchsticks (Yankee Candle and White Barn Candle Co. carry them).

~~~A cute mug with a few tea bags or packets of instant cocoa, and cinnamon sticks tied in a bundle

~~~A manicure kit from your fave drugstore, a few bottles of nail polish and a bottle of polish remover

~~~A package of soup mix, a few wooden spoons and a pretty potholder 

~~a clay flower pot, spade and some seed packets

***For the guys in your life***

~~~A gift bag with shave cream, a nice razor and aftershave cologne

~~~A knit cap, small ice scraper and insulted coffee mug

~~~Grill tools, an oven mitt and a Bobby Flay BBQ book (maybe a spray bottle for good measure!!!)

Just a few ideas.

The last of my crazy ideas, My Tip #?? (I've forgotten at this point!)  

~~~Do anything and everything in advance, especially cooking for the big day.  Do your side dishes a day or two before your celebration.  When I have run out of refrigerator space I have put my side dishes and cold items in the car in our garage.  Ha!

~~~Set your table the day before if possible.  If not, gather up everything you need from plates to silverware to glassware.  And also pull out the bowls and platters you will be using so you are not hunting through your cabinets at the last minute. 

~~Clean your house a few days before the big day, it's not going to accumulate a lot of dust after that point.  I always wanted everything to be freshly done and could be found vacuuming an hour before company arrived.  The only thing you need to worry about is tidying up the bathrooms as everyone will be using them.

~~~Get yourself ready first and foremost.  You can touch up your hair and make up later, and by all means, wear an apron so you don't have to change your clothes when the gravy splatters all over you.

~~~Have some simple appetizers planned.  No one expects to sit down for dinner the minute they arrive and some guests will arrive on an empty stomach.  Doing so will also give you a chance to relax with your company for a little bit, have a little bite and drink before you head back to the kitchen for the last of the preparations.   

~~It's tried and true advice to enlist help in the kitchen.  I personally don't like more than one or two people helping me out, my kitchen is not the biggest.  Ask your very best friend and/or someone who loves you unconditionally so you can bark orders and rely on them to do the dirty work-like washing dishes and taking out the trash.  Just kidding.  People like to feel needed.  And I always have fun chatting and laughing with someone while I'm slaving away.  It's also a good excuse to have a glass of wine at 11 a.m.  Cheers!

~~~Remember to relax.  Turn the heat down in the oven and hold back on rushing the rest so you have time to interact and enjoy the fun.  I also ask my kids to help clear the table after dinner so I can sit longer and visit with my guests.  Taking a walk after dinner with those who want to is so refreshing as well.  Forgive those who want to take a nap on the couch.  I hold off on dessert for an hour or more after dinner is cleaned up.   We have a bit of an appetite back then and the coffee wakes us up.  We have additional guests who have had other dinner plans that come later, too.  We often bring out more snacks and appetizers.  In my home the celebrating goes on until late.  And I sit back, have fun and watch my family and friends having a great time.  :)

~~~Last but not least, keep your expectations reasonable.  You can see the photo of my living room from Christmas of 2015.  It's so small that we had to move the coffee table out to accommodate our ever growing family.  That's okay, it's not about all of the fussing you've done, Christmas is a celebration and a time to reflect on the true meaning the season.  Everything else falls to the wayside.


As you can see, I have an enormous amount of ideas.  I know this is not the first time you have heard many of them  It just makes me happy to think some of you will be inspired to try a few new ideas or just simply enjoy the traditions you have and add to them.  My philosophy is to start planning and putting those plans into action a bit earlier---it's really not a bad thing.  I also want so many of you to feel that you don't have to be a Rockefeller to have a festive home and beautiful gifts while keeping  on your budget.  

It has been a wonderful year contributing to Neighbors.  I am so thankful to Phil Vitale for having the confidence in me to write these columns without knowing what he was in for.  I'm also chuffed by so many of you readers who have sent emails with questions, ideas and sincere compliments.  In the coming New Year I would love to include some of your decorating ideas, gardening tips, recipes and just about anything that you want to put out there.  Are you on board?

I'm going to sign off now.  Thanks to all of you for reading.  I'm so excited to see how 2016 unfolds for all of us in this beautiful part of the Midwest we call home.  I wish you joy, peace and happiness this holiday season.  Bless all of you.  

From my family to yours~~~

I'll be back early next week with a 'Live' post.  No lake this weekend as The Husband is working on a big trial and I will be decorating.  You can be sure the carols will be going strong, the hot cocoa flowing and maybe my 135th Hallmark movie on the television.   ;-D

Jane x