Nov 29, 2016

From Scratch, DIY Hot Cocoa Recipe

DIY Hot Cocoa Recipe
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Recently, my kids asked for hot cocoa - one of their favorite winter treats. We were at Walmart, and sticking to my rule of reading all food labels, I picked up their favorite brand and read the ingredients list. I stopped reading at the second ingredient: corn syrup. Then I read every other hot cocoa label on the shelf. All of them contained corn syrup, plus a host of other icky ingredients. Sigh.

(Wondering why I don't want my family consuming corn syrup? The short answer is that high fructose corn syrup is one of the most common and most unhealthy ingredients found in processed food. It is linked to diabetes and a host of other health problems...and now it can be listed simply as "corn sugar." In addition, corn products are almost always genetically modified (GMO). I am not comfortable feeding GMOs to my family; you can read about some of my reasons here.)

When I got home, I got on Facebook and asked my friends if they knew of a brand of hot cocoa that didn't contain corn syrup. Some suggested Ghirardelli's, and one friend touted AhLaska Organic Cocoa Mix. But another friend said, "Why don't you make it from scratch?" I was a little embarrassed, because I'm that annoying person who's always suggesting making everything from scratch - yet it never occurred to me to do DIY hot cocoa.

So I looked at a gazillion from scratch hot cocoa recipes, and finally settled on this one (from Epicurious). Incidentally, you can find recipes for making your own hot cocoa mix, too, but everything I saw was contained processed ingredients (like powdered creamer), so I decided it was better to make each batch fresh, with fresh dairy.

From Scratch Hot Cocoa Recipe

Multiply this recipe as needed for the correct number of servings.

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (found in the baking aisle of grocery stores)
1 - 2 tablespoons cane sugar
pinch of sea salt
1 cup whole milk (or 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/2 cup cream)
1/4 teaspoon real vanilla extract
Organic marshmallows (optional)

1. In a saucepan placed over medium-low heat, whisk together the cocoa powder, sugar, salt, and 2 tablespoons of milk until sugar is completely dissolved.

2. Whisk in the remaining milk/cream; whisk occasionally until the mixture is hot.

3. Stir in vanilla.

A Few Notes About the Recipe

* When choosing sugar for this recipe, I prefer real cane sugar. That's because beet sugar, or sugar that doesn't mention its source, is usually GMO. Avoid agave, since it's proven the worst source of sugar you can eat. I also avoid Truvia, which is highly processed and full of questionable stuff. Real, pure, stevia may work for this recipe, but I have not tried it.

* I use sea salt exclusively, because processed salt (any salt other than natural sea salt) is linked to autoimmune disease.

* For the dairy, I recommend whole milk, since it's less processed than other types of milk. (It will also make the cocoa creamier.) Ideally, I'd use raw milk, since it isn't processed at all, but it's illegal in my state. (I need to add dairy goats to the homestead!)

* Check your vanilla extract to be sure it's the real thing, and not full of artificial ingredients.

* Regular marshmallows are made from high fructose corn syrup. Look for organic marshmallows, which are usually made from real cane sugar.

But most of all, enjoy! No matter how hard we try to eat healthy, we live in a fallen world, and our food will never be perfect! Eat the foods God provided through nature, but don't get stressed about every bite (or sip), friends.

Nov 21, 2016

Teaching Kids to Be Thankful...All Year Round

It's good that we set aside one day a year to focus on being thankful. It's bad that we set aside one day a year to focus on being thankful.

Both statements are true. A yearly holiday that's at least supposed to make us think of all the things we're thankful for is a good thing. But cultivating a thankful heart every day is really what the family of a Proverbs 31 Woman aspires to. Indeed, an attitude of thanksgiving is readily recognized as a balm for much that plagues our society today.

But as parents, just how do we go about encouraging a thankful heart?

* Show gratitude yourself. Parents have a tremendous influence over their children. If your kids see you expressing gratitude on a regular basis, they are more apt to dwell on the things they are thankful for, too. Action Ideas: Say thank you more often than you need to; express grateful moments out loud ("Mrs. Smith is so kind to think of us this way!"); show how gratitude leads you to do for others ("Mrs. Smith gave us her son's old books, so I think it would be nice to make her a batch of cookies.")

* Show them the world. Americans, even those who are considered poor, mostly have it easy compared to people in much of the world. It's a big mistake to shelter your children from the difficulties so many other people experience - or to simply neglect to teach them about those who have less. Instead, make a point of regularly talking about, learning about, and seeing people who have less than you do. Action Ideas: Take a family trip to a third world country; look at photos from National Geographic (or an online search) showing how the less fortunate live; read articles about daily struggles in other countries or communities; volunteer at a homeless shelter; think out loud about other people's needs ("Did you notice that Judy seems lonely? I wonder what we could do to cheer her?").

* Do something about it. Praying for the needy is very good. But come up with other ways you and your children can help those in need. For example, my sister's family has made it a tradition to cook dinner for the homeless each Thanksgiving. Whatever you do, though, don't limit it to the holiday season. Each month, aim to have a project that helps others. Action Ideas: Have your kids focus on earning money so they can give to their favorite charity, like World Vision; encourage your child to mow your neighbor's lawn or help the neighbor with weeding; as a family, visit the elderly; at least once a week, have each child find one way to be kind to a sibling.

* Make thankfulness an important part of daily prayer. When you teach your children to pray, be sure to insert prayers of thanksgiving on a regular basis. Action Idea: There is always something to be thankful for! Make sure you acknowledge that before your Creator - and during family prayer times.

* Write thank you notes. Growing up, I was never encouraged to do this, and where we live, it seems to be a dying tradition. Let it not be that way at your house. Action Ideas: Children who can't yet write, can draw a thank you picture; kids who can scrawl a few words should; young children needn't write a thank you note for every single gift (that could be an overwhelming and negative experience), but perhaps they can write one big thank you note and send copies of it to every gift giver.

* Think of others first. Gratitude is the natural outpouring of the greatest commandments: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind'....and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matt 22: 37-39) Therefore, teach your child what true love is: Putting others before yourself. Action Ideas: Talk about specific ways to love others in everyday life; when you see someone put others first, point it; think out loud about showing love ("I'm going to bring Mrs. Jones her mail today, just because.")

* Everyday traditions. Consider adding some traditions to your life that encourage every day thanksgiving. Action Ideas: Have one night a week where everyone at the dinner table talks about things they are thankful for; once a month make gratitude rolls; keep a family gratitude journal - a list of things you are thankful for.

* Memorize Scriptures about being thankful. Do it as a family! Some suggestions to get you started:

"Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."
1 Thesselonians 5:18

"And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."
Colossians 3:17

"Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!"
Psalm 106:1

How do you teach your children thankfulness? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments!

Nov 19, 2016

Weekend Links & Updates

My daughter's pet rabbit, relaxing on her bed.
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 In which I share my favorite posts from this blog's Facebook page.

"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."
Joshua 1:9
* Today, I have to call my Dad and tell him I'm sorry his birthday card won't arrive on time. Do you think he'll believe me when I tell him the puppy ate his card? Because it's true! He also ate or chewed up my cell phone charger cord, my old laptop's charger cord (my children were using it for some school projects), the television cable cord the previous owners left attached to the dining room wall, my new-to-me dining room chair rails, his bed (he now sleeps on old towels), a myriad of papers (including my notes for a new recipe I'm working on), and our living room wall. Yes, the wall. So you can see I spend a lot of time "parenting" the naughty dog. 

I'm also spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with our mortgage company, which seems bent on making it difficult for us to re-build our pole barn. (The insurance company was legally bound to put our mortgage's company's name on our check...and now the mortgage co. gets to control the money.)
Just another thing the puppy tried to destroy - a new recipe I'm working on.
Otherwise, I am busy homeschooling, preserving figs, and just keeping up with everyday homestead chores like laundry and caring for animals. Did someone say Thanksgiving is coming soon? Ah well; I'll be ready...somehow.

* Glyphosate (Round Up) found in many common foods. This is really not a surprise, once you learn how much Round Up is used in commercial farming. I would caution, though, that the group that did the testing is pretty radical; I look forward to other organizations doing their own testing. In the meantime, do your best to cut all processed foods from your diet. Buy from local farmers who you trust to be honest about their growing practices. Better yet: Grow as much of your own food as possible!

* A good introduction to use the use of herbal medicine.

* Simple ways to focus on thanks this Thanksgiving. 

* Need some new and different - or classic! - pie recipes for Thanksgiving? Please consider my ebook or paperback Easy As Pie! I'm definitely making chocolate chip cookie dough cheesecake pie! Sooooo yummy!

Oldies But Goodies:

* Getting Children to Listen During Devotions
* Teach Little Ones an Easy Way to Put on Their Own Jackets
* Thanksgiving Cookie Ideas
* Thanksgiving Games for Kids 
* Make Ahead Thanksgiving Food Ideas


Nov 15, 2016

How to Know When Figs are Ripe

Since moving to our new homestead this summer, I've learned a lot about figs. Turns out that while figs are easy to grow, it's a little tricky to know when they are ripe. That is, unless you know these easy tips:

* Look at the color. Figs come in a variety of colors. Some stay green, even when ripe. But most turn a darker shade when they are ready to harvest.

* Touch the fruit and pay attention to firmness. Figs that aren't ripe are hard. As figs ripen, they get softer. A truly ripe fig will be quite soft; you can create an indentation in it by gently pushing with one finger.

* Look for cracks along the skin. When a fig is soft and has cracks, it's time to harvest it.

* Look for pests. In my experience, when a fig is ready for harvest, you'll find ants on the fruit, and possibly fruit flies.

* Check the stem for sticky sap. If it's there, the fig isn't quite ripe.

* Finally, do a taste test. If the fig doesn't have much flavor, it's not ripe yet.

* Do note that figs don't ripen once they are off the tree, but you can store fresh figs in the fruit drawer of your refrigerator for several days.

Nov 12, 2016

Weekend Links & Updates

A regular visitor to the homestead.
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

 In which I share my favorite posts from this blog's Facebook page.

"For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

Ephesians 6:12

* Bear Update: Our neighbors have reported bear sightings, too. Hard to say if it's the same bear, but it's certainly a bold one. One neighbor reports loosing a goat to it (there were bear prints all over the area where the goat was), and another says that when she was walking her dog, she made a lot of noise at a nearby bear, and instead of running, the bear kept walking toward her. Also, we discovered a bear bed right next to our burned down pole barn. So I'm being careful to get the kids inside before dusk (when black bear are more often seen about), and I'm the one who braves dusk for locking up the chicken coop.

* Chicken Update: The chicks are now pullets - basically, teenage chickens. They are very curious about the puppy - and the puppy would love to play with them. But I keep the pup on a tight leash when the hens are nearby. Two funny things: These hens don't roost at night! Instead, they cram themselves into a single nesting box, which results in a lot of squawking until they settle in. I've never seen hens do that! Also, I had no idea chickens liked to eat bamboo, but there's a clump of it in their run, and the leaves are their favorite food.

* Recall of frozen strawberries due to Hepatitis A outbreak.

* GMO potatoes have been here for a bit, but the FDA just approved two new GMO varieties. To avoid GMO potatoes, buy only certified organic. Avoiding russets in favor of other types of potatoes will also keep GMOs out of your body, at least for now.

* "On Daughters and Dating: How to Intimidate Suitors."

* My son is a right brained learner, and I'm busy learning ways to better teach him. One thing I've learned is that while he struggles mightily with phonics, he does much better with sight words. So while he can't read, say, the Bob books, he reads Dick and Jane pretty well. The only trouble is that it's very difficult to find sight word early readers these days. Fortunately, Google Books has a trove of them available for free. Here's an excellent post from Contentedly Humble, which offers previews of what the books look like inside, plus links to the various editions available.
Order my print or ebook in time for holiday baking!

* An interesting article about the dangers of drinking too much water.

* I've done a post of two about whether Pinterest tricks actually work (like this and this). Here's Rodale's Organic Life's take on which of those amazing tips work - and which don't.

Oldies But Goodies:

* 7 Make Ahead Thanksgiving Food Ideas
* Freezing Apple Pie Filling makes holiday pies a breeze
* How to Freeze or Dehydrate Eggs

Nov 7, 2016

Why Magnesium Might Be Making You Feel WORSE, Not Better

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this sit

All over blogs and social media and even medical websites, you'll find a ton of information encouraging you to take magnesium supplements, especially if you're having trouble sleeping. They are not wrong; taking a magnesium supplement can be an excellent way to sleep better at night. But here are a few things I've learned about magnesium that might surprise you.

What You Don't Know About Magnesium Supplements

1. A lot of blogs insist magnesium is better absorbed by the body when it's in lotion form. I  asked my naturopath about this, and she confirmed this is a myth. If your body needs magnesium, you'll absorb it just fine with a good quality complex supplement like that made by Professional Formulas (the brand my naturopath recommends). (Incidentally, I've used both magnesium lotion and magnesium in pill form, and my body absorbs magnesium much better in pill form)

2. How much magnesium your body needs may vary from week to week and month to month. If you start having diarrhea, this is one common sign you need to back off on magnesium. If you take a supplement right before bed, but are still having trouble sleeping, you may need to increase your dose a little.

3. Magnesium could actually be making you feel much, much worse.

Why Magnesium Might Be Making You Feel Worse

For years, I've been taking a magnesium supplement to better my sleep, but in the last few months - especially this last month - I've been so very, very, very tired. I felt like I was getting plenty of sleep, but I could hardly drag myself out of bed. And to do anything - even think! - felt like a huge thing. In addition, my muscles almost felt weak. Going up the stairs in our house, for example, just wiped me out.

So I asked my naturopath about this. Her first question was: "How much magnesium are you taking?" I was well within her guidelines (and under the guidelines on the bottle). But she said, "Magnesium is a natural sedative and muscle relaxant."


And when I mentioned this on my private social media page, a few friends contacted me right away. They'd been exhausted, too, and never thought to condemn their magnesium supplement.

I stopped taking magnesium and the very next morning I could feel a difference. I was much more wakeful and my muscle weakness was gone. I'm giving my body a break from the supplement. Maybe I don't need it any more. Or maybe I just need to lower my dose. My sleep will tell!

Nov 3, 2016

Crock Pot (Or Not) Cheesy Noodles, Beef, & Spinach Recipe

slow cooker
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I have a sort of love-hate relationship with my crock pot. Like the rest of the first world, I love it's convenience and simplicity. But I'm also not much of a fan of most crock pot recipes - and neither is my family. Recently, though, I discovered a recipe that is inexpensive, hearty, and the whole family loves. Yay for me! So very yay, I gotta share the recipe with you.

A Few Recipe Notes

I found this recipe over at Becoming Betty, and I've discovered there are lots of ways to go about preparing it. The original recipe called for using a slow cooker or crock pot for almost the entire cooking process. I have a smallish crock pot, so this doesn't work for me. Therefore, I pour the contents of the sauce in the crock pot and let the flavors cook and meld together all day, then finish the dish on the stove top. But if you wanted to, you could do the whole thing on the stove top. It's your choice: All in the crock pot, partially in the crock pot, or entirely on the stove top.

So far, I've only used ground beef for this recipe, but you could easily switch that out for ground turkey, venison, or a mild sausage.

Crock Pot (Or Not) Cheesy Noodles, Beef, & Spinach Recipe

1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, minced
15 oz. tomato sauce
about 15 oz. crushed tomatoes (I actually use a quart jar of home canned tomato halves, then use two knives to cut the tomatoes up into tiny pieces my children won't recognize in the finished dish.)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (scroll down for a recipe to make your own)
Sea salt

Freshly ground pepper
about 10 oz. fresh spinach 

16 oz. spiral pasta (I use Tinkyada gluten free)
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 cup + 1/2 cup shredded Mozzarella cheese

Make the Sauce:

1. Place a large frying pan over medium heat and add the ground beef. (If the meat is lean, add a tablespoon of olive oil to the pan first.) Crumble and cook until no longer pink.

2. Add the onion and garlic and stir and cook until onion is tender and almost translucent. Drain off the fat.

TIP: Cook the beef, onion, and garlic mixture ahead of time and freeze. When you're ready to cook this meal, toss the frozen ingredients directly in the crock pot. (No thawing needed!)

3. Pour the beef, onion, and garlic mixture into the crock pot, then add the tomato sauce, tomatoes, oregano, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper. Cook in the crock pot for 6 hours on low, or 2 hours on high. (I turn the crock pot to "warm" after 2 hours on high and let the sauce sit for most of the day before proceeding with the rest of the recipe. This helps bring out the flavor of all the seasonings in the sauce.)

TIP: If desired, you can make the sauce on the stove top, simmering over low heat, and stirring occasionally.

Putting It Together:

4. 20- 30 minutes before you want to serve, cook the pasta according to the package directions, and drain. Add the pasta to the crock pot.

TIP: If your crock pot is small, return the pasta to the pot you boiled it in and pour the sauce over the pasta. Add the remaining ingredients to the pot on the stove, rather than the crock pot. Be sure to keep the heat on the stove very low, and stir occasionally.

5. Add the spinach. Add the Parmesan cheese and 1 cup of the Mozzarella cheese. Stir. Cook on low for another 10 - 20 minutes, or until spinach is wilted and cheese is melted.

6. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of Mozzarella cheese, stir, and serve.

Makes about 8 servings. 

DIY Italian Seasoning

Why make your own? It's cheaper, for sure. But it also means you don't have to worry about any added, unwanted ingredients, like preservatives.

2 tablespoons dried basil
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
2 tablespoons dried rosemary
2 tablespoons dried sage

Mix ingredients together. For a finer texture (more like what you'd buy bottled), run through a food processor or clean coffee grinder for about a minute, or until desired texture is reached.

Oct 31, 2016

Bear on the Homestead

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Nothing like looking out your bedroom window Halloween night and seeing not little children

dressed in costumes, but a large black bear sauntering by. Yep, my friends, we don't live in the suburbs anymore!

Of course we knew there were black bears in our area, and we even knew one had been on our property; when moved here in June, my children led me through a walk in the woods, and I found bear scat just feet from our house.

But I'd hoped all the commotion of moving, plus noisy children, plus all the engine noise my hubby makes when he's around had scared the bear further into the woods.

Then a neighbor told us he'd seen bear scat nearby, all full of apples. Sure, there are apple trees here and there around people's homes on this mountain, but we have by far the most apple trees - and our orchard is on the edge of logging land, where people are scarce and critters abundant. We wondered if a bear was coming into our yard at night...

Then last weekend, when hubby and I were taking a walk on the logging road just above our house, we saw a bear bed, right by the road, just 5 minutes away from our house. Hmmm...

Then last night, I heard my son banging around downstairs. (He's like a clumsy moose wandering the house when he gets up to use the restroom at night). I was getting out of bed to remind him to be quiet when I noticed one of our motion detector lights was on. So I took a peek out the window as I passed by...and there was the bear, casual as you please.

I woke my hubby because the bear was headed straight for the chickens and my daughter's pet rabbit. Both are secured in cages, but if a bear really wanted in, he probably could break in. Fortunately, black bears mostly eat plants. Still, we listened hard for any commotion. However, the two fruit trees that still have a few apples on them are in that same area - and apples are a much easier food source for a bear who's already pretty well fattened for the winter.

But now I feel like I can't let the kids play outside alone. (Yes, we have a dog, but he's still very much a puppy.) Worse, hubby has to cross the yard in the dark to get to his car in the early morning. "Maybe you should take your spotlight with you every morning," I said. "Um...yeah," he replied.

The good news is, black bear attacks are very rare. Nevertheless, today I'm teaching my kids the best way to deal with a black bear who thinks our orchard is his.

Anyway, better a black bear than a cougar!