With the four kids home from college, our family has grown from three to seven during Christmas vacation. Things have really slowed and the usual day consists of everyone hanging out at home: watching movies, playing games, bad snacking, staying up really late and sleeping in. I guess it's just life in the Snowlane Limo...
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
A couple of weeks ago I started listing things in my Etsy shop. No fanfare. No big announcement. I just quietly began. It was an attempt to actually get some Christmas items up before the whole holiday was past. This was difficult for me to actually make the jump into selling. I am the kind who has to have EVERYTHING in place before I pull the trigger. I didn't feel ready, but I forced myself to get started anyway. I mean, I could just keep thinking of stuff I still needed to do to prepare FOREVER.
I was pretty shocked when I received an email a few days later that $140 was transferred into my Paypal account. I was confused until I realized I had my FIRST ETSY SALE!
It was a gorgeous vintage red lace dress. 1950s. A woman from Australia bought it. Since then I've sold some more things and I'm now up to 16 listings. It takes a bit of time to complete a listing - photos, description, calculating shipping, etc., but I'm getting in the groove. I still have a LOT more!
So, ok - go check it out... if you're interested. Just click the red lemon wedge on the upper right of this screen. I'm so happy to finally begin.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Merry Christmas everyone! So now it's the day after and we are wading through wrapping paper, integrating gifts into the household inventory and still eating terribly.
Everyone has their favorite Christmas treats. You know, those goodies that just mean it's holiday time. My family has way too many and my hips are here to testify. One of our favorite Christmas treats are simple to make and have a 29 year history in our family... we call them "Flips."
I discovered Flips during my BYU years. I lived with a bunch of girlfriends from home - we called ourselves the "DQs" - the Dairy Queens of Wisconsin. We even had blinking Christmas lights in the outline of DQ in our front picture window. Anyway, one of us discovered a "dietetic" (Remember when things were labeled dietetic instead of "low fat" or "low sugar"?) candy at the Varsity Theater candy counter called "Flips." They were delicious! Coconut, chocolate and marshmallow... at least we thought they tasted like coconut, chocolate and marshmallow. Upon further investigation and inquiry at the candy counter, we found out they were really made of whipped egg white, carob and toasted almond slivers - hence dietetic designation. None of it mattered because they were so yummy! What a fantastic deal! We stuffed ourselves with Flips every chance we got... guilt free. They were dietetic! Ha ha - I guess the concept of volume didn't occur to us. After we left BYU we got someone to pick them up for us every chance we got. Finally, they were no longer sold at the Varsity Theater. What became of our beloved Flips? We didn't know so we had to duplicate them. I wasn't sure where to get the special "dietetic" ingredients, but I did know where to find coconut, chocolate and marshmallows.
Start with a 14 oz. bag of flaked coconut and spread it out in a jelly roll pan. Use a jelly roll pan so you can easily stir it without spilling all over.
Put it into a 300 degree oven for ten minutes. Remove and stir. Repeat this three or four times until the coconut is toasted to a nice golden color. The Santa salt shakers approve.
This time of year, Kraft puts out 10 oz. bags of tree and star marshmallows - the perfect size for Flips - plus there's the festive pink and green when you bite into them.
If the pink stars and green tree marshmallows aren't available, I usually cut regular marshmallows in half.
Chop up your chocolate (about one and a quarter lbs.) and melt it in the microwave. Toss some of the marshmallows in and coat.
Roll them in the toasted coconut.
Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet.
Put the pan in the fridge or a cool place - like my unheated front porch. I call it the walk-in cooler.
Your Flips are now ready for happy consumption, but just remember, these are not dietetic so don't over do it like a DQ would!
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
My finish-itis compels me to complete the gingerbread house story, but so much has happened in December that I am not blogging about! I have so many Christmas posts in my head. Plus A LOT has been happening with the school board... so stay tuned.
So what happened after I won the $50,000 in the Gingerbread House contest? Check in hand, I headed for our bank. We did not have a savings account and I wanted to start one. I waited in line at the teller window with my two boys in tow. I stated that I wanted to open a checking account and was referred to the next teller who referred me to a woman at a desk who referred me to another woman at another desk. I suppose I didn't look too interesting in my parka (Hey, it's Wisconsin! And they were "in" at one time. At least I tell myself that.) with two little boys dragging along. I was finally seated and told the woman that I had a check and I wanted to deposit some of it into my checking account and use some to start a new savings account. "Ok," she said. "How much do you want to deposit?" Looking her in the eye - I replied, "$10,000 in the checking account and $40,000 in the savings." Silence. Her eyes got big and then bigger. "Really? Is it all in one check? Why do you have a check for $50,000?" Soon there was a crowd of bank employees crowded around us looking at the picture of the gingerbread house. That was fun.
I also started getting phone calls from other people who had entered the contest. They wanted to know if I really did win the money. Many people wanted to know what my house looked like. They wondered how I was going to spend the money. They wanted to tell me how they would have spent the money if they'd won. One woman told me she and her sister got drunk and made the gingerbread house and she was planning to give part of her winnings to a home for handicapped children. She seemed a little perturbed that I won. Brach's mailed a flyer with photos of the winning houses to the $3,000+ people who entered the contest and I unlisted my phone number for a while.
I don't know what you think, but that one in the lower left of the page is pretty cool... but he didn't take it outside, did he?
If you've been paying attention, you know I had some other unfinished business in the way of promises to keep. My friend, Heather, talked me into entering the contest and I told her if I won, I'd give her a thousand dollars. I wrote her a check and we had a fun buying spree one day at the big outlet mall in Kenosha.
I also promised my niece the "Guess" outfit of her dreams if she helped babysit the boys. We went to Boston Store and she bought some "Guess" overalls, a "Guess" belt and a "Guess" shirt.
An article appeared in the local paper.
Those bangs. Ouch.
The article is incorrect - there was no wallpaper.
Larry and I determined that taxes would claim about $15,000, so we immediately deposited that much into a CD which earned another $1,000 in the year we had before it was due on April 15th, 1991. With the rest of the money we paid some bills and student loans. I gave $5,000 to my church for tithing. We saved some. I bought an armoire to put our TV in. It went way too fast.
The house? It was on the freezing front porch and the hard candy had started to "drip." My boys had been chipping off pieces and eating it. I threw it in the garbage when I won because I knew everyone would want to see it and it was a mess.
The reason for the title of this story? I told one of our friends about the contest - a corporate business man. He wasn't very interested, "So, what did you get for the cookie house? A bag of mints?" "No," I answered, "$50,000." Suddenly, he was at rapt attention and full of interest and new found respect. Why does money do that?
Most important of all, we determined that we could afford to have another child and I delivered a healthy baby girl on April 20, 1991... should have named her Ginger.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Is this story over yet? I didn't think it would take so long! Sorry if my telling exceeds your attention span, dear blog reader. OK, where was I? The entry was sent in, the gingerbread house was relegated to the unheated porch, I got some sleep and went on with my life... January... February... March... March is when I started to think about the contest again. That's when Brach's said they would be notifying winners. Maybe I was delusional, but I really thought I might win something. An entertainment center would be spectacular. All we had was a TV sitting on a table.
Brach's said they would notify winners on or around March 12th. I started to make a point of being at home around mail delivery time a few days before that. Sure enough, on the 13th the doorbell rang. It was the postman and he had a certified letter for me. This is what it said:
I read it over and over. "Possible Grand Prize winner" - "Possible Grand Prize winner" - "Possible Grand Prize winner!" What does that mean - "possible?" I thought it meant that I was the winner if I did what they said: complete the release and return it. Could it be? Could I actually win the grand prize of $50,000??? I called my parents. My dad was cautious, "Well honey, be careful. Don't get your hopes too high. You know these contests - they tell everyone they could be the winner." You know like the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes - "You could be the next winner... blah blah blah..." He had a point. Maybe he was right. But it said all I had to do was complete the release and I WAS the winner.
So I completed the release right then and there - with hands shaking - in the neatest handwriting I could muster. I had to sign that I was not an employee of Jacob Suchard, Brach's parent company. I had to sign to allow them to use my name, likeness and photo of the gingerbread house in advertising and publicity. I had to sign that I abided by the rules of the contest. There was also a bunch of legal-ease to agree to. The signed release had to be received by March 21st. Brach's provided a prepaid certified mail envelope. I made a copy of each document and proceeded to the post office to mail it off the same day. Done. Now what? I waited.
During the following week I told everyone I knew that I thought I might have won. Might have won. Might have won. By the end of a week, I was beginning to think like my dad and Ed McMahon would not be ringing my doorbell with a 6 foot long cardboard check. 7 days went by and I heard nothing. I couldn't stand it any longer. Did I win or not? I waited until Nathan was down for his nap and Lars was comfortably watching something on TV and tracked down the phone number for Brach's. With my heart beating a mile a minute, I called. When I told the person on the other end who I was I heard a chuckle followed by, "Well, we thought we'd heard from just about everyone who entered this contest... except the winner... and that is YOU!" I dropped to my knees and started gasping for breath saying, "ARE YOU SERIOUS? I WON? I REALLY WON? I REALLY WON?" She laughed, "Yes, you are the grand prize winner and you'll be getting a check for $50,000." I was in shock. I don't really remember our whole conversation, but one thing I do remember is her question, "Tell me, we're all dying to know... What possessed you to take your gingerbread house outside to photograph it? That was so cool. It made it look like a real house." God bless Model Building 101!!! That may have been the difference. Whew! Thank goodness we got it through that door! When I hung up the phone I started crying. Lars had made his way over to me. He knew something big was going down. He asked, "Why are you crying, mommy?" I hugged him, "I'm crying because I'm so happy. These are happy tears."
On April 11th, the mailman rang my doorbell again. As I was signing for the certified letter from Brach's, I wanted to tell the mailman that there was a check inside for $50,000. I wanted to scream it from my front porch for the whole neighborhood to hear. But I didn't. I just told the mailman that I won a contest. There was no 6 foot check. There was no prize team with helium balloons hiding in a van. No fanfare. I was OK with that because inside the envelope, I found this (minus the "void" which appeared when I made this copy):
Next post: Keeping promises and opening a savings account... and spending a little.
Monday, December 14, 2009
I hate all-nighters. And I speak from experience. I have pulled my fair share of marathons getting ready for stuff - finals, girl's camp, speeches, making my daughter-in-law's wedding dress... Building the gingerbread house was not exempt from my perennial underestimation.
It was now noon on January 30th - a Tuesday. My sister and mother arrived to assist in any way. I was behind the eight ball to successfully enter the Brach's Gingerbread House Contest by January 31st. I needed a photograph. By the rules, the judging would be based on one photo not larger than 8 "X 10". This was before digital photography. I had to snap a bunch of pictures, get them developed, pick the best one, have it enlarged, and get it in the mail before 5 p.m. for overnight certified mail delivery.
I was tired, but still completely focused on accomplishing my mission. We called around to find a photography studio that offered photo finishing while you wait. There was one about 12 miles away. My camera wasn't anything special - I think it was an Advantix - the kind that would take panorama shots - point and shoot. The professor in my model building class taught us that the cardinal rule of model building was to take your model outside and photograph it in daylight. The light and shadows cast by the sun make the models come to life. I was determined to take my gingerbread house outside to photograph. There was one big obstacle standing in my way: the house was now royal frosted to the 32" wide drafting table base and my doorway was only 30" wide. Even with the door off the hinges, it wasn't wide enough. Out of desperation I looked at the big picture window. Could I remove it? Yes, but even if I did, it would only get me to the enclosed front porch and another doorway! What to do? I HAD to find a way! Tilt the gingerbread house diagonally until it fit through the doors. Would that work? The house was now very heavy - it might fall completely off the base. The house was also very big - even sideways it would only clear the door by a few inches. I settled on a plan. I would take a whole batch of pictures inside and then, do or die, I would tilt that board until it fit through the doorway and take some more pictures outside. If it tumbled... I had the inside shots.
I covered the dining room table with a sheet and started snapping from every angle.
A close up of the front entryway featuring stained glass Lollydrop windows, Snappytarts Queen Anne shingles, candy cane pillars, red hot cobblestones, and nonpareil roof shingles.
A side angle showing the Nougat Gel chimney
and Burnt Peanut pine cones on Spearmint Leaves tree.
Pictures completed inside, it was time to git 'r done and go outside. The sun was shining on a freshly fallen blanket of snow - perfect. One person on each side, my sister and I lifted the gingerbread house. We carried it to the door. Like the two stooges who needed more than four arms, we tried to support the house and tilt the board at the same time - huffing and puffing and giving each other directions all the way. The angle got dramatically steep before we cleared the door and against all odds... IT HELD! Hooray! We made it down the steps and plopped it in the snow.
Here is the money shot - literally.
Next I jumped in the car with my roll of film and drove to the photography place (slapping myself to stay awake.) I slept in their waiting room while the pictures were developed. Thank goodness nobody was around. After a while someone came out and showed me the picture they thought was the best. I agreed and went back to sleep while they enlarged it to an 8 X 10. I had addressed an envelope with the entry blank and list of candies used (see below) inside. Everything was ready to go once they handed me the photo. A quick stop at the post office for overnight delivery and the waiting would begin... and sleeping.
23 candies used in the construction of the G-bread house:
Burnt Peanuts - pine cones
Candy Canes - porch columns
Christmas Nougats - medallion in front door pediment
Cinnamon Imperials - window trim decoration and cobblestones
Crimp Ribbon - under eave "gingerbread" trim
Fruit Bunch - turret window crowns
Gumdinger Balls - fence post caps
Gumdrops - column capitols
Holiday Mix - porch lights and panels below windows
Jots - porch lights and front door pediment decoration
Kentucky Mints - foundation decoration
Licorice Twists - corner fence
Lollydrops (melted) - red, green and gold glass windows
Mellowcreme Toys - Santa in the chimney
Milk Maid Caramels - dentil trim on turret
Mint Filled Straws - porch railing spindles
Nonpareils - roof shingles
Nougat Jels - bricks for chimney and porch posts
Nut Goodies - fence post rocks
Snappytarts - Queen Anne shingles
Spearmint Leaves - evergreen tree and bushes
Starlight Mints - column capitols and bases
Toffees - firewood logs at front door
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Finding Christmas candy after the holidays was a challenge. It took a bit of leg work, but I was able to get just about every candy I was looking for. I had quite a pile of goodies when I actually started assembling the house, yet I was constantly running for more (or should I say, sending my poor husband for more).
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I had to figure out walls and dimensions. For an elaborate gingerbread house with intersecting roof lines, angles, and walls - this could be very tricky. Making everything fit gets much more complicated than it looks and I was just eyeballing a magazine picture! One really big thing was working in my favor: I had taken model building in my interior design coursework in college.
I needed to build a mat board model to make sure all the walls and roofs would fit together - then the model could be taken apart and used for pattern pieces. I didn't take very many pictures of the process back in 1990, but here is a shot of the model in early stages.
Once the candy was purchased and the model built, it was time to start baking. But there was one problem left... or should I say two... a curious five-year-old named Lars and a hungry three-year-old named Nathan. Mommy needed some serious concentration time to create this thing, so I decided to call in reinforcements. My niece, Amy, was 12 years old and an excellent baby sitter. She happily agreed to keep the boys busy and I promised to buy her the "Guess" outfit of her dreams if I won. As if.
Let the baking begin. I cut out my gingerbread dough along the lines of my mat board pattern pieces with a knife. Crushed Lollydrops (by Brach's, of course) were sprinkled into the window openings. They melted into colorful stained glass windows while the dough baked.
My dining room table wasn't big enough for all the gingerbread walls and roof sections. It took many rounds of rolling, cutting and baking. This was going to be a big house. Propped against the wall in the background, you can see my 32" x 42" drafting table top covered with foil waiting to be used for a building base. When complete, the house measured approximately 24" x 36" and stood 24" tall. That's a lot of gingerbread.
I spent approximately 60 hours over the course of two weeks to bake and build my contest entry. By the time it was over, empty pink Brach's candy bags were everywhere. If I had to lick one more drop of royal frosting off my fingers, I'm sure my arteries would turn to rock. The smell of gingerbread actually became... is nauseating too strong of a word? Every nonpareil shingle was smooshed onto the roof, each nougat gel brick was holding its place in the chimney, the toffee logs were stacked by the front door and every Milk Maid caramel was dentil trimming the turret. Making the gingerbread house had taken much longer than I'd planned. I even stayed up all night the last night to complete the decorating. It was finished.
The entry was due January 31st and it was now January 30th. The race was on.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming
for the following announcement:
The predictions were coming in all week - it was going to be a dumper. Eight inches, ten inches, fourteen inches - blizzard warning - state of emergency for the entire state of Wisconsin! The grocery stores were crowded, the salt trucks were loading up, and the school superintendents were starting to shake in their winter boots because they get angry parent calls if they do close school and angry parent calls if they don't. They can't win.
The snow started falling yesterday afternoon and by evening it was a winter wonderland. Here's the view out my front door at 11 p.m. when my husband and son were down the street helping a neighbor dig out his truck that was stuck.
I've never seen a stuck city plow, but that's what's happening in this picture. It's heavy, it's wet, it's bending over the trees and bushes and causing havoc with the power lines. It's backbreaking to shovel and clogs the snow blower. And it's not over. In a couple of hours the temperature is predicted to drop and the winds will pick up - with gusts of 50 mph. Shovel heavy wet stuff now or chip at crunchy ice later - your choice. My choice? Bake cookies. It's a snow day tradition. (Maybe I'll get another post up about the gingerbread house contest, too.)
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
It was well into the new year (1990) when the gingerbread house contest information from Brach's arrived - January 17th. The rules stated that the gingerbread house must include a minimum of three different Brach's candies. The entry form was to be completed and mailed along with one color photo no larger than 8"x10" and must be received by Jacobs Suchard (Brach's parent company) no later than January 31st. The information also stated that entries would be judged under the supervision of Rogers Merchandising on or about February 9th and winners would be notified by mail on or about March 12th. I found out later that Brach's hired a company (Rogers) to run the contest. For heaven's sake - Brach's can't be running a contest, they have candy to make! Probably a good idea to hire specialists - I imagine there are many things to consider when running a nationwide contest: setting up the rules and legalities, promotion, judging, dealing with inquiries from entrants, distributing the prizes, etc.
Since I made up my mind to enter the contest, my brain had kicked into full gear and I was coming up with a myriad of uses for all kinds of Brach's candy from Gumdinger balls to Mint Filled Straws. My imagination was running wild. I was laying awake at night dreaming of Kentucky Mints, Nut Goodies, and Mellowcreme Toys. I decided the house should be something special - not just your average gingerbread house with four walls and an a-line roof. Nope, that would not do. I also knew it had to be more traditional and be completely edible - no cardboard roof with electric lights, no fake Christmas tree inside, and no floral paper ribbon wallpaper. What should the house look like? At the time I was in love with all things Victorian. It had to be classic Victorian - gingerbread trim and all.
I loved Victoria magazine. LOVED it. Just a few months ago, I finally tossed all those beloved issues of Victoria but not before I checked through them one last time to rip out any pages that still inspired me. I could not believe it when I came across a frosting splotched page in the back of a 1989 issue featuring an ad for mail order plans of an elaborate Victorian home. There was my house - the one that I patterned my gingerbread house after! Two and a half stories, wrap-around porch, dormer windows, turret, pediments, railing, and chimney! So many details - so many opportunities to use so many kinds of candies! I had to get to work. There was shopping, planning, baking and decorating to do and the deadline was closing in fast...
...and I had these two knuckleheads to deal with.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
It was Christmas 1989. My husband, Larry, and I had just (three weeks before) moved into an old house in Menomonee Falls. We had two children - Lars (5) and Nathan (3). My husband was in his fifth year teaching middle school and I was busy raising the boys. Needless to say, money was very tight, but we were happy to be in a house - even if we were just renting at the time. My friend, Heather, told me about an ad she'd seen in the coupon section of the Sunday paper. It was an advertisement for a gingerbread house contest sponsored by the Brach's Candy Company. Heather encouraged me to enter the contest because she thought the gingerbread houses I made every year were "so cute." I was amused and flattered that she would think of me, but "nahh" I thought - the only contest I ever tried was correctly singing the Gilligan's Island theme song on the radio and winning tickets to the Haunted House at our State Fair. I'm not a big risk taker and it would cost a lot of money to buy the candy and supplies to make a gingerbread house. I also knew the kinds of houses that won those contests - they were amazing and I couldn't even hold a cake decorating frosting tube steady. Besides, it was almost Christmas already and I didn't have the time. No, I thought.
Heather, however, persisted. The next week she brought the ad to me and said, "You really should do this. You could win!" I looked over the prizes. Well, even if I didn't win the grand prize of $50,000 ('cuz let's face it - that would never happen), there were some awesome runner up prizes. We could definitely use an entertainment center or a deluxe gas grill. Well, maybe... I thought... and the idea began to work on me... or maybe it was all of Heather's flattery. By the time I made up my mind, it was past Christmas and there was no longer a Brach's candy display to be found for an "official entry form/recipe booklet" so I gave Brach's a call to request one.
"Heather," I promised, "If I win, I'm giving you a thousand dollars!"
Friday, December 4, 2009
Back in the mid-eighties, I met Betty Middleton. (Betty, if you should google your name and find this post, How are you? Long time! Where are you now and how are your kids and Ernie?) Betty was a friend I worked with at church. We knew each other for a few years and I haven't seen her since.
I found out that Betty had authored and published a book about making gingerbread houses. It was a cute little book, actually in the shape of a house, filled with recipes, patterns and ideas. As you can see, my copy has been well used.
What fascinated me about Betty's approach to making gingerbread houses was two things: She put real, plug-in Christmas lights along the roofline...
AND she decorated the interior of her houses with Christmas trees...
This really appealed to the interior designer in me!
I was smitten and had to make one.
Here's one of my first tries. See the lights? Betty always included miniatures, too. That was what made her houses so enchanting. I added skis to the front porch. She also recommended a seven-minute frosting for the roof. This kind of frosting covered the lights which were taped to cardboard and allowed the pulling of icicles down over the eaves and hardened into a rubbery coating. About this time I also learned from my friend, Brenda, that crushed lifesavers would melt nicely into window panes while the gingerbread baked. Here I have a red, heart shaped window in the front door.
If you look inside, you see a Christmas tree with garland, gifts and white fur tree skirt. I had so much fun making this house that I even used 3 inch wide paper ribbon to wallpaper the interior and hung a miniature framed picture of my family on the wall. (See the red frame?) When placing the lights on the roof, you had to get a few inside the house to light the interior, too - so when it was plugged in, it truly became magical. Everyone liked looking in the front door to see Christmas unfolding for the imaginary family who lived in the little gingerbread house.
The next year, the imaginary family who lived in the little gingerbread house went on vacation up north. I made this cabin with field stone chimney, frozen pond, dock, sled and fishing poles. (Watch your head coming out that door!) Once again, there are lights on the eaves - got a second use out of my skis - and a Christmas spread inside. I'm trying to remember if that was a stump with an axe in the background -- but I do recall the red sap bucket hanging from the tree on the left. I always got carried away with the details - even if maple syrup doesn't come from evergreens... As usual, Santa was required to peak out of the chimney!
I had so much fun creating these when my kids were little. Thanks to Betty for opening up a whole new world of gingerbread house ideas.
Next post: the ad and the encouragement that started it all. Could I really win $50,000 for baking a gingerbread house?
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
It's December and we've already received our first greeting card (grrr - I already feel like a failure - especially after not getting cards out at all last year) so we need to get talking about Christmas and all the creativity that goes along with it! December 25th will be here before you can say, "Honey, can you get our 32 Rubbermaid tubs of Christmas decorations out of the attic?"
Many of us make gingerbread houses and I admire those of you who bake them every year. When my kids were little, I made my share of graham cracker houses. You know the ones - top heavy with m&ms, starlight mints and candy canes pushed deep into messy royal frosting spackle.
Actually, I made my first gingerbread house as a teenager (above) using such complex design elements as a partially open door, a chimney, and sugar coated orange gel sunburst with silver dragees (oooh) and of course, lots of royal frosting.
Here's another house - circa 1985. This was about as far as my imagination went, but then I met Betty and she taught me a whole new way to think about gingerbread houses. More about Betty in the next post... stay tuned.