Monday, December 31, 2012

A Warm And Cuddly New Year's Eve!

We don't really celebrate New Year's Eve in a big way . . . I am wearing lots of fuzzy layers (it's COLD - well, for us, Arizonans, anyway!) and the cats are sleeping in piles at the moment.  

 Allistair is very elegant

Bjarne just wanted to shut out the light so he could sleep (on my super-secret sign you'll be seeing tomorrow!)

This is what I found when I wanted to sit down for dinner . . . so of course I had to get a chair from the dining room!  Can't disturb a cute sleeping kitten!

Stephen looking alert and intelligent.

And a story about ice cubes . . . 

Did you know that most people decide within 3-8 minutes of walking onto a church's campus whether they will come back?

Church #1: Nope

Our search is leading to some fascinating and thought-provoking discussions between us.  I am blessed to have a husband who is brilliant and can help me clear my head when it gets foggy.  He reminds me of the truth and keeps pointing me in the right direction when my brain gets off track.  Of course, if I just need a hug instead, that's okay, too!

We have a list of churches we're going to visit next.  In fact, this coming weekend, we are going to try to visit more than one!  I'm excited to see what's in store.

Have a wonderful last evening of 2012!  I hope you have fond memories of the year that is passing away, and high expectations of the coming year!


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Spur Cross Recreation Area

a piece of dead cactus

Since it's my first weekend not heading up "my" team, I thought I might need a little distraction, so I went for a nice hike this morning.  I decided to try a different trail at the Spur Cross Recreation Area (where Cindy and I hiked on Christmas Eve).  I eventually ended up on the Elephant Mountain trail, which was completely empty on my way up.  Lovely.

The trees continue to change into even more beautiful colors in the canyon

Why NOT to touch a prickly pear cactus!

Why NOT to touch an ocotillo!

The best trails are labeled like this:
It means that very few other people will be there!
This is what the "not maintained" trail looked like!


Don't worry, though; I wear my Road ID, so that if I get lost or lose my memory suddenly, the rescuers will know whom to call!

Cave Creek (the city where this trailhead is located) has the best signage!  They are all unique.

This one made me laugh especially!  It says, "Noise Ordinance Enforced" and the little black sign underneath says that there's an 80 decibel noise limit!!!  I was a little nervous to sing along to my iPod!

Look at the beautiful textures and colors.  This area has a gorgeous palette of many colors - the dirt comes in red, yellow, white, and black.  Most areas in this part of the state are just brown.

Here is a turkey vulture.

I wonder who lives here?  Gila Monster?  Rattlesnake?  Gopher?

This is a very very large wash.  A "wash" is an area where water runs when there IS water.  For example, when there's a lot of rain, the run off would rush through this area.  I felt like an Israelite, walking through the river on dry land!

On to kitties!!!

Hands UP!!

Baltazar allowing Allistair to snuggle him

Bjarne's tail wrapped around Allistair's neck!

Close up of the sweet little white face

Stephen and Allistair snuggling

Stephen being his cutesy self!

Only two more days of 2012!


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Christmas Day Experiment!

Usually on holidays, I try some new recipe.  This year, I decided to try a sweet egg bread.

I didn't even know what makes "egg bread" special until later - it just looked yummy at the time.  I don't usually try breads that look as if they are meant to be extra fluffy, because gluten-free breads don't get extra fluffy no matter what I do.  So I usually stick with moist breads and dense breads.  That's my preference, anyway . . . I am of Eastern European heritage - we like our breads chewy and dense! (or maybe that's just me!)

I used the Better Homes & Gardens recipe for braided raisin egg bread (from the red plaid cookbook everyone has in their kitchen!) with some tweaks. 

For flour, I used Pamela's Gluten-Free Bread and Baking Mix, which my Dad thoughtfully bought for me to try out.  I use Pamela's Pancake and Baking Mix for most of my cooking and baking, which is gritter and which makes lovely cookies and quick breads (like banana bread and cupcakes), but does NOT make good yeast breads.  THANKS, DAD!  I will definitely be buying more - I'm glad you bought some for me!

Result (in case you can't wait for the end of the post!): I am definitely going to make this over and over again, though I don't think I will braid it unless it's a special occasion.  The braided part is nice because little chunks of bread can be torn off - no knife necessary!  But the gluten-free version doesn't rise enough to make the braided loaf appropriate for sandwiches (the pieces of braid don't rise together and connect to each other), and I would like to make this and use it for sandwiches.  I don't remember exactly, because it's been 15 years since I (purposefully) ate gluten, but I think the texture of this bread is similar to a very soft bagel.  

When I looked up "egg bread," it was often compared to Challah, a dense Jewish bread.  Here's a link to a site about Challah that explains it in a hilarious way!  Challah uses oil instead of butter and milk.  Also, Challah has a hard crust because of the egg wash used, and this egg bread has a soft tender outside and a chewy inside.  The egg bread I made has more sugar, so it's sweeter, and I put in more raisins and sprinkled the top slightly with cinnamon.

Another thing I found while I was researching egg bread is that most yeast breads do NOT use eggs!  However, it's probably best for me, as a gluten-free baker, to use eggs, because "The protein-rich whites act in breads as both a binder and a leavener, because of their ability to hold air. The fat-rich egg yolks add color, flavor and richness to breads" (thanks to eHow!)

1.  Dough is mixed and rising

2.  Raisins are incorporated

3.  Three bunches of dough, first one rolled into a cylinder

4.  Second piece rolled

5.  Third piece rolled

6.  Three pieces braided, bread in the oven

7.  Done baking - golden and firm

8.  With icing!

It had just gotten pulled out of the oven when we had to leave to go see "The Hobbit," but I had a couple pieces when we got home, and it is VERY good.  I had some for breakfast, too.  And I expect there will be some in my lunch plans!  If you invite me over on any holidays, I would be willing to bring this delicious and festive bread.

In the future, I plan to make this bread braided with chocolate chips instead of raisins, rolled into cinnamon rolls instead of braided, with dried cranberries at Thanksgiving, and plain (regular loaf shape and size) for sandwiches.  I also plan to try adding xanthan gum, a rising agent that was created to replace the gluten that breads need to rise.  The flour has some in it already, but I'm going to experiment with adding more to see what happens (though this texture and taste would be hard to beat!)  

A small loaf of the best gluten-free bread out there (which is not as good as this, I'm happy and proud to say!) costs $7!  A large bag of gluten-free flour is about $16, and I could get at least two batches of this bread (which would have made two loaves) out of a bag, so that would be definitely less expensive than buying loaves of pre-made gluten-free bread, AND it would leave my house filled with delicious aromas AND I would be able to customize my bread each time I baked it!

It did take a while, but since I work at home, I can do the mixing, then work while it rises; the kneading, then work while it rises again.  So it's not that time-intensive.

Hooray for those times when experiments lead to wonderful discoveries!

Happy Boxing Day!


Monday, December 24, 2012

And To All . . . A Good Night!

"And I in my jammies and cats in their fur
Had just settled in
for a looooong, warm slumber . . . "

. . .
"And you'll hear me exclaim, ere I turn out the light -
Happy Christmas to all! And to all a good night!"

Christmas Eve!

Christmas is different here in Arizona.  
It's different because we typically have pleasant, cool, sunny weather (today was 41 for a low and 61 for a high).
It's different because a lot of people who live here don't have families in the state.
It's different because those of us who live here have created our own traditions that are . . . un-traditional.

Something new I did this year was get up early today and go for a hike with Cindy.  It wasn't a long hike (a couple of miles, I guess, but we didn't measure . . . just looked at the website, and we did the Metate Trail, which connected to the Tortuga Trail, meaning we went 2 miles).  The drive up there went through gorgeous Cave Creek (drool-worthy homes and views!), and the location of the park itself was fabulous.  We got there around 8:45 AM, and there were only a few cars in the parking lot.  It was getting pretty full by the time we left (around 10:30 AM).  Not too difficult, except for in two spots where the incline was steep and Cindy and I were trying to carry on a deep conversation about the fact that our fashion choices are one way we can take control when we feel slightly (or completely!) out of control.  So the walking uphill made that conversation a little . . . sporadic . . . because. . . . breathing . . . was more . . . challenging!

My lungs always feel cleaned out after a good hike.  I think the dry desert air (at least where it's clean) gets in there and scrubs things out.

Saguaro "bones".  Saguaro have stiff ribs, which I believe carry water and help them stand upright.

Beautiful - it was slightly cloudy this morning, which made the mountains go from green to blue to gray as they were farther away.


Cindy loved this cactus and requested a picture of it closer up because it's wibbly.  Most cacti grow with straight sides, but this one is ripply.  

We are trying out a new church tonight even though our last day at our old one was yesterday.  Might as well get the "first date" out of the way!  After all these years of spending time with my wonderful volunteers and students on Christmas Eve, the day will just not be right without a church service.  It reminds us of why we have this holiday in the first place.

This website has some great facts about Christmas and the symbolism in the colors chosen (red = blood of Jesus, green = life!), the Christmas tree (evergreen = no death), the date (we don't know when Jesus was actually born, but it was decided to celebrate His coming to rescue us at the darkest time of the year - the winter solstice has the shortest day of the year and Jesus brings light!)



Sunday, December 23, 2012

Thanks for the Encouragement

THANK YOU to those of you who have given me encouragement on my last Sunday with my beloved team.  It's been a difficult process to leave after 10+ years . . . the team started as one child with Autism and me, and now we have four classrooms (each with excellent leaders and volunteers who know and love those kids), each of which has between 4 and 7 regularly attending students.  I love each and every volunteer like family members - because really, they are my family members, even if they're not biological.  We have weathered storms together and celebrated joys together.  And I will miss them.  Thanks to those of you who have been praying for the transition to be seamless and for me to navigate cautiously through saying the right things and doing what's best for the team.  God enabled me to finish well.

I got some great cards and hugs.  My favorite cards were from student volunteers (one is 11, one 15) who told me that I have been a great role model for them.  The 15 year-old wrote that she hopes to do something as amazing with her life as what I'm doing  WOW.  I pray that God uses each one of these volunteers to keep reaching kids for Jesus and blessing families!

And now some cute kitties . . . it's still chilly here, so the babies are doing a lot of very cute snuggling!

Though hanging out in the sun is nice, too.

Baltazar and Bjarne are even sleeping closer together than usual.

Though Baltazar found a sunny spot, high atop the pile of pillows in the guest bedroom!

And Claude found a stack of freshly-washed towels.  She looks like a queen!

Allistair enjoys sleeping with all his paws in the air!  (This gives me a chance to kiss his soft belly!)

When he sits up tall, his tail swoops around!  Very elegant!

Juildeen came over on Friday and we made chocolate-chip-raisin cookies (by her request - I wanted to make Christmassy cookies, but she had a strong opinion on the matter)!  Allistair kept getting on the counter, which Juildeen thought was hilarious.  And then he stole Juildeen's shoe.  She said, "Allistair, bring back the shoe!  That's MINE!"  Great memories.

A couple of days ago, Allistair was sleepy and chilly, and he climbed up on the couch and just plopped himself down on top of Baltazar.

My brother made up a word when we were little: "put-up-a-tive".  It means tolerant.  Baltazar is exemplifying that quality here!!! 

Last night our friends Joe and Laurie (Mark, this is the Joe that worked in the lab with you at the U of MN - he lives less than a mile from us now!) took us to see some Christmas lights and displays we hadn't seen before.  There's a neighborhood that strings lights from house to house across the street!  The picture below shows how many people were there and you can see Santa's sleigh and reindeer crossing above the street.

Then there was a family that transformed their backyard into a walk of remembrance type of thing . . . there were stations with beautiful paintings, music, and recorded audio, telling the history behind Jesus' birth and the reason for His coming to Earth.  It was moving and very beautiful.  I found it especially touching when small children would say, "Look!  It's Jesus!" and point, all excited, for their siblings or parents.

Piles of cats:

More piles of cats - the little ones seem to think the big ones are pillows!

Allistair does the cutest face-washing!

Face-Washing, Part Two

A secret hiding under the blankie!

Another secret!!!
And one last photo that just made me happy because I am a science-fiction girl through-and-through!  (Though I don't love Pez - I prefer Sweet Tarts or cinnamon or butterscotch flavors!)