Traditional May Day Baskets

May Day Baskets

Popcorn, pretzels, cheese puffs, suckers, hard candy, bubble gum, licorice … snacks and treats layered into disposable cups outfitted with a pipe cleaner handle and, possibly, some stickers or a ribbon on the outside creates a May basket. Simple and generous, this gift, delivered to the door of friends and neighbors, celebrates the arrival of Spring and rejuvenation. It is as much about the gesture as it is the contents.

Traditional May Day Baskets

My First May Basket

The first May Day basket I remember receiving was not a typical basket. This was not a cup or small container of treats. This particular “basket” was made from a shoe box and it was delivered for me by our sweet neighbor, Muriel. Muriel and her husband, Wilbur, lived on a farm just a quarter-mile from ours and they were the sweetest couple. Having lost their only daughter as a teenager, they loved seeing kids riding bikes past their home. They encouraged me to stop and pet their horses and watch their fancy chickens in the yard. Muriel had a heart full of kindness and took advantage of simple holidays like May Day to spoil us. The shoe box basket was decorated with crepe paper and filled with treats. I don’t really remember exactly how it looked or what the treats inside were but I do remember that it was big, made specifically for me, and it made me feel special.

My brothers remember one year when she gave them each a blue toy truck with treats filling the truck bed. This was no small toy either. It was at least a foot long. My mom recently found those trucks, had them cleaned and repaired and gave them back to my brothers, along with that memory.

May Basket Supplies

May Baskets down memory lane

I called my mom today to ask her what she remembered about May Day. What started off as a discussion about candy and popcorn, soon evolved into story after story. She first reminded me how we would use whatever we had to create our “baskets”: shoe boxes, 2-quart milk boxes, any carton or container that could be cut down, decorated and filled. What I didn’t remember was that we would make baskets for entire families and that it wasn’t as much about one day as it was the whole month! You just never knew when friends and neighbors would make a delivery. It was always simple, never expensive and given in person.

Soon, Mom’s stories turned to those from her childhood. A neighbor who would add a big box of candy, an uncommon treat, to the top of her baskets. Mom laughed as she told me about the people who would try to deliver the basket without being seen. In particular, one man who would yell out after leaving the basket and go hide in a barrel while the kids tried to find him. He would throw his voice out of the barrel in different directions to confuse their search.

May Basket 1

the tradition continues

Fast-forward to 1996. Marty and I bought our first home. Our boys were young (a 5-year-old and a 8-month-old). We could not have asked for a better neighborhood for them: lots of young kids, little traffic, kind people and a hearty love for even the smallest of holidays. We learned quickly that delivering May baskets was a sport. The old tradition of delivering a basket without being “caught” was alive and well in this community. The doorbell would ring … and often some loud knocking too … and everyone would run to the door or the nearest window to try and catch a glimpse of the giver. Whether or not you saw them or chased them or missed them completely, a cup of treats was your reward.

One of our neighbors, Lori, loved this tradition so much, she would make baskets for the kids long after her girls had transitioned to baby-sitting, rather than playing with, the younger kids. Lori started adding sidewalk chalk, bubbles and even kites to the baskets. She had more fun watching the kids run and play and would wave to everyone as they opened their doors to catch the door-ringers.

It never occurred to me until I wrote this down that Lori and Muriel would have been great friends.

more may basket ideas

There are two recipes that I would highly recommend for filling baskets:

Seasoned Pretzels for May Baskets


These seasoned pretzels take the traditional popcorn and pretzel element of any May basket to the next level. You might as well include the recipe, because you will be asked for it every time! They are simple to make (no oven needed) and can be made ahead and frozen to maintain freshness and, therefore, are ready to grab whenever needed.

May Day Basket with Almonds

Lori’s Sugar & Spice Pecans

A small bag of these delicious pecans … or in the case of the picture above, almonds, will leave a big, happy impression. Imagine one of these on each place-setting at a May brunch or wedding shower!

The beauty of these recipes is that they can be made ahead and frozen.

When leaving May baskets, it is always a good idea to have the treats contained in some way. It is sad when a basket is ruined by a brief rain shower or a wandering pet; however, even then the spirit of the gift remains.

May Day Basket on Door

it’s time to meet the neighbors

We moved from that home to an acreage this past year and have only met a few of the many neighbors around us. I’m grateful my mom told me about giving May baskets all through the month because it is the perfect way to meet them!

Do you know your neighbors? Maybe a May basket is in order? A loaf of sweet bread or a bag of cookies would do the trick. If you don’t want to give food, consider a small bouquet of flowers or a garden plant.

Remember, keep it simple and fill it with kindness. Happy May Day, every day!

The Tradition of May Day Baskets






Goodbye, Kitchen … Thanks for the Nourishment

I know I’m going to cry. Very soon, my pots and pans, dishes and glassware, cutting boards and corkscrews will be moving into a kitchen I’ve ever only imagined. I have baked, fried, chopped, boiled, canned, mixed and served food in the same 132 square feet for 22 years. I am riding an emotional teeter-totter.

Excitement bubbles up inside me as I think about the Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer that will not dominate the countertops or throw my back out while removing it from a cupboard. Self-closing drawers and quartz countertops await. Hello, walk-in pantry! Keep the clutter off that island because I think I’m going to take a nap on it.

If you know me well, you know this is a distinct possibility.

It’s important to me that you like it too. After all, I want you to love the food pictures I share. This space will provide the simple, bright and cheerful backdrop to up my photography game. Tears of joy, right?

Those might come later but first there will be a steady flow of tears of remembrance.

My Kitchen

oster versus kitchen aid

That stand mixer I covet? It will replace an Oster mixer/blender/food processor that was given to us for our wedding shower by Marty’s grandpa and grandma. The shower was held in the basement of my childhood church and, as with most church showers, there was protocol involved. The gift opening was done after an opening introduction and prayer, a buffet of every kind of salad and dessert imaginable, and a thoughtful and cute program. But Grandpa Anderson didn’t care for protocol and was not a member of this church and he wanted us to open their gift the minute they arrived. He was pleased with their gift and couldn’t wait any longer to give it to us. So, I begged pardon for breaking protocol and opened this generous gift. It was as clean as it would ever be again and begging me to mix up that first batch of Soft Molasses Cookies or Grandma Opal’s Coffee Cake.

After 22 years, it is ready for retirement. The blender and food processor have been upgraded and the mixer itself is no longer white but an aged yellow; however, it still makes awesome cookies and cakes.

Maybe that Kitchen Aid can wait a little longer.

Rolling Out Pie Crust

cookies and pies

Speaking of cookies, the original, white formica countertops have provided the space for annual Christmas and Valentine cookie sessions. Hearts, trees, stars, and gingerbread men have been shaped and decorated on this surface. Countless pie crusts have been rolled out and crimped before finding their way to the oven. The food I make may photograph better on quartz but I seriously doubt anyone will taste the difference.

mishaps make memories

Many culinary mishaps occurred in this kitchen too and some have attained legendary status. One of our favorites was when our boys decided they were qualified to make their own ice cream shakes. Marty and I were in the family room downstairs when we heard the unmistakable sound of something hitting the floor hard, followed by the tell-tale words, “Uh-oh!” When I reached the kitchen, all I saw was the aftermath of a chocolate shake hitting the floor and exploding out of the container and onto almost every nearby surface including the ceiling. I wish I could say I was the kind of laid-back mom who would relieve the tension by laughing and then hand them each a roll of paper towels. I wasn’t. My focus was on the milky mess that would require more than paper towels to fix and certainly couldn’t wait until the next day to clean properly. Maybe those are the lessons we learn to prepare us to be really good grandparents?

Daily Bread Sign

signs of change

There are two signs in our kitchen/dining room. One says “Cooking is Love Made Visible” and the other says “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”.  They are a constant reminder that:

  • the love I put in my food is more important than the size of my kitchen, the age of my cookware or the quality of my appliances, and
  • gratitude is the most important ingredient in any meal.

As I pack up my “office”, rest assured the memories, lessons and recipes that have developed there go with the Oster mixer, the cookie cutters and the chocolate syrup. May the next family who calls this home be blessed by the food and memories they make.

Cheers! Salute! and Welcome! to the next chapter of my culinary diary! 

Bundt Coffee Cake

Grandma Opal’s Coffee Cake

If I close my eyes and try to remember my Grandma Opal, I picture a 4′ 10″, gentle, but yet strong lady with the most beautiful white-grey hair, kind eyes and an easy laugh. But if I want to remember our time together, all I have to do is make her signature coffee cake and the smell of cinnamon, pecans and sweet vanilla will bring her right back to me.

The dishes and tablecloth in this picture were passed on to me by my grandma.

I think the thing that is truly remarkable about my grandma was the courage that was required of her in the first 30 years of her life.  She and her brothers and sisters were orphaned when she was eight years old. In 1918, her father died of influenza and pneumonia. Less than two months later, her mother died from pneumonia following a hernia surgery. She and her five brothers and sisters were taken in by family and neighbors and, being the oldest, she cried herself to sleep many nights, worried about the care her siblings were receiving.

Grandma loved school … well, she loved learning. She remembered being bullied by the big kids (nothing new under the sun, as they say), often walking two miles to the nearest country school, and changing schools seven times in eight years. Despite all that, she had a gift for spelling and being a good student, she hoped she could continue beyond the typical 8th grade education and go to high school.

In those days, and given the circumstances of being cared for by relatives, there just wasn’t money to pay for her continued education. At 14, she went to work. Three dollars a week was her wage for housekeeping, laundry and caring for new mothers and babies. By the time she married my grandfather, she was earning eight dollars a week. She was 22 years old.

From what we would consider a meager wage, Grandma was able to save money to buy her own furniture. She ordered a new cookstove for $49 and a heater for $65 from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Starting their life together in the heart of the depression taught them great lessons on being self-sufficient, frugal, and grateful.

After losing their first baby at childbirth, she developed some form of kidney poisoning and nearly died. A new drug saved her life and she was later able to deliver two healthy baby boys.

The first 28 years of her life sound full of sadness. Then, I see a picture like this, my favorite of her, and I know that she also experienced much happiness.

She lived for 101 years. This is what she wrote to describe her life:

As I look back through the years, I know my life wasn’t easy at times,
but can see God’s hand was guiding me through the years.
I had a good husband and my two boys for which I am grateful.

Faith … gratitude … and a whole lot of class.

I loved spending time with her. Whether is was sharing a frozen pizza between my high school activities, baking cookies together at Christmas, canning and freezing garden produce side-by-side, or just playing a long game of UNO! together, we created simple memories. We had a lot in common but she envied my 5’8″ height and was quick to say so each time I could reach the upper shelves of her kitchen cabinets for her. I can only hope the grey hair that I keep camouflaged will someday be as beautiful as hers. To be remembered as a good-natured, fun-loving, faith-filled woman like her, would be a huge compliment. To be remembered by the smell of something warm and comforting fresh from the oven … well, that would be icing (or glaze) on the cake.

The hand-written version of this recipe, signed with a wish and, as always, given with love.
Print Recipe
Grandma Opal's Coffee Cake
The smell of this coffee cake baking is enough to make a non-coffee drinker crave a cup to accompany their first bites! A few simple steps and even more simple ingredients are all it takes to make my grandmother's cinnamon-struesel specialty.
Bundt Coffee Cake
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 50 minutes
16 slices
  • 1 14.5-oz package yellow cake mix
  • 1 3.9-oz package vanilla instant pudding mix
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup minced pecans
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 50 minutes
16 slices
  • 1 14.5-oz package yellow cake mix
  • 1 3.9-oz package vanilla instant pudding mix
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup minced pecans
Bundt Coffee Cake
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Coat the inside of a bundt pan well with butter or cooking spray. Sprinkle liberally with flour, turning the pan on it side and rotating to distribute flour evenly. The entire inside of the pan should be well coated.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, combine cake and pudding mix. Add oil and water, mixing on a low speed just until combined. Increase mixer speed a little and add eggs, one at a time, allowing 2 minutes of mixing between each addition.
  4. Struesel mixture: combine sugar, cinnamon and pecans in a small bowl; set aside.
  5. Pour half of the batter into the bottom of the bundt pan. Sprinkle the struessel mixture over batter. Pour remaining batter into pan.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until cake is brown and set in the middle. Cake is done when a toothpick, inserted in the center, comes out clean.
  7. Remove from oven and allow to cool 15 minutes. Use a very thin knife to gently release the outside edges of the cake from the pan. Place a serving dish over the top of the pan and invert quickly so the cake will drop onto the dish.
  8. Allow to cool completely.
  9. A powdered sugar frosting or glaze may be drizzled oner the cake, if desired.

Coffee Cake

The Gumdrop Tree

Last night, I stopped at the grocery store and was scooping mixed nuts in the shell from the bin when a sweet lady approached me from the side and said, “Excuse me, but are you, by chance, buying those because it is a Christmas tradition for you?”

A lovely conversation followed, she gave me a light hug, and wished me a “Merry Christmas”.

Does it get any better than that? Was she a ghost of Christmas past? I prefer to think of her as an angel of Christmas present, sent to remind me of all the simple, happy memories of Christmas.

Growing up, Christmas Eve was as big as, if not bigger than, Christmas Day. Christmas Eve centered around the Children’s Christmas Program at church. Weeks of practicing went into learning our speaking parts, Bible verses, and songs which we then presented before a packed house (of God). Good behavior and excellent effort was not only pleasing to God, our teachers, and our parents, it was pleasing to Santa, who apparently started his journey a little early over NW Iowa while we were at church.

Not that we got to race home right after church to open presents … we first made a visit to Grandma’s house. No over-the-river-and-through-the-woods for us: I was fortunate enough to live in the same town as my grandparents. Grandpa and Grandma Hinkeldey lived in town and Grandma Glienke (my grandfather having passed away when I was very young) lived right across the road from our country church. We would spend Christmas Eve at one house and Christmas Day at the other, and then alternate days the each year. I have lots of wonderful memories of the Christmas season with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides of our family.

Which brings me to the gumdrop tree.

Isn’t it funny how something so simple, and yes, even a bit cheesy, could hold such fondness for so many years and end up becoming the subject of a food blog?

Every Christmas, Grandma Glienke would set out her gumdrop tree … a clear plastic form in the shape of the trunk and branches of a tree … and fill each branch end with a gumdrop. Around the base of the tree was a well that held extra gumdrops. This sparkling, sweet decoration could be found on her dining room table, a very solid oak pedestal table, all through the Christmas season. If you helped yourself to a gumdrop, you were expected to refill the empty branch with one of the candies from the base of the tree.

Be forewarned: when Grandma doesn’t get many visitors for a few days, the gumdrops tend to get a bit dry and chewy.

We didn’t care.

I can only imagine how many bags of gumdrops she bought ever year. You were extra lucky if you happened to like the anise flavored drops … there were always plenty of those left at the end of the season. In fact, as I was placing gumdrops on my newly acquired tree (Amazon has everything), I quickly popped a red one in my mouth expecting the cinnamon burst only to be assaulted by anise. Why in the world would you make red the color of anise and not the color of cinnamon?? Why, I ask you?


Orange is safe.

You know what else is safe? FUDGE!

Next to the gumdrop tree would often be this bright blue glass bowl filled with fudge. More about this pretty bowl and my favorite recipe for fudge can be found in a blog I wrote last year at this time. Every time I use Grandma’s blue bowl, it is a trip back to her house and the joy of the season.

Oh boy was that joy loud! I must preface the rest of this story with one valuable piece of information. I have 44 first cousins on this side of my family. Granted, not all of them made it to her house on Christmas Eve every year, but I can honestly say that every couch, chair, arm of chair, door jamb, and square inch of floor space was filled.

The celebrations would begin with tiny glasses of wine (imagine a small shot glass) for the adults … and not just any wine, homemade wine. My grandmother was the first vintner I ever met. She taught me that a little wine was good for the stomach and the soul. Wine … and music …

Very soon, the hymns would begin …

  • Away in a Manger
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  • Joy to the World!
  • O Come, O Come Emmanuel
  • Silent Night (with at least one verse in German)
  • and, my grandmother’s personal favorite, From Heaven Above to Earth I Come

Beautiful, though not professional, harmonies would rise and even the kids were not in any hurry (even through about 7 of the 15 verses of From Heaven Above). I remember one year when I was pretty young, suggesting that we sing Jingle Bells and receiving a subtle head-shake from my mother. After all, that was not a hymn. But, the family was willing to amuse me and everyone sang a hearty verse.

Before Grandma would hand out presents, those of us who had parts in Christmas programs were asked to stand and recite our parts … yet AGAIN. We did so, silently counting the number of years before we could join our older cousins who had aged out of the tradition.

Gifts open and favorite hymns retired, we all made our way to the basement to eat! Grandma’s basement was far from the fully equipped family rooms with bars and big screens of today. A concrete floor and wood-paneled walls surrounded a long, open space filled with all types of tables and chairs. Mismatched card tables, wood and folding chairs, benches, and … you guessed it … even picnic tables sat at the ready for this crowd. Every table held a simple centerpiece … a bowl of mixed nuts, in the shell.

Walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, filberts, and peanuts … waiting for us to begin the work of cracking them open. Each table also provided one or two sets of nut crackers. Yes, we were a German family but please do not picture a wood figurine with a mouth that opens and closes and looks like a soldier. These nut crackers were hand-held silver tools that allowed you to place a nut between its arms and squeeze until the shell broke. The goal was to squeeze hard enough to break the shell but gently enough to keep the nut inside whole.

Yes, contests ensued.
Yes, messes were made.
Yes, we worked very hard to liberate nuts that we had no desire to eat.

I think my grandma actually liked that … when the night was over, she had nut meats to use in her post-holiday baking compliments of free labor.

The feasting was not limited to bowls of nuts, of course. A small room off the “dining hall” had been turned into a buffet filled with a potluck array of sandwiches, salads, cookies, and pies. If the singing was loud upstairs, the laughter in the basement would rival a small earthquake.

As the food disappeared and a few yawns escaped, families slowly started making their way to the bedrooms to unearth their coats from the mountainous piles on the beds. Goodbye and Merry Christmas accompanied hugs and kisses at the door as parents tried to corral the kids who were taking one more lap around the giant dining table …

… to grab just one more gumdrop for the road.

May God bless you with happy memories, boisterous laughter, and sweet time with family and friends. Merry Christmas!






County Fair Iowa

How I Spent My Summer

What is it about childhood memories?

Those rose-colored, temperature-controlled, glamour-coated days of carefree simplicity?

OK … so that’s a bit of a stretch, but I recently revisited one of the places that has held a prominent place in the mental photo album of my youth: the Buena Vista County Fair (BVCF). To imagine what summers on the farm were like, picture Little House on the Prairie, but with indoor plumbing and cars. As a kid, I had chores: gardening, canning, cooking, cleaning, mowing, and walking beans (a dirty and hot job of walking through the bean fields, pulling weeds in the ever-so-pleasant company of my brothers). There was also plenty of time for riding bikes, swimming, and hanging out with friends. For one week each summer, the county fairgrounds became my home-away-from-home.

When many people think about fairs, I think they picture state fairs: Rogers and Hammerstein stanzas play in the background as images of sparkling carousels, giant corn dogs, ribbons of blue, red, and white flutter in the breeze, and children riding on the shoulders of their parents as they take in the shows.

Now take this extravaganza and divide it by 99 and you find the county fair. Why 99? There are 99 counties in Iowa and each has its own fair. The purpose of the county fair is to focus on the “education of the youth of Iowa, and showcasing Iowa’s agricultural, industrial and domestic heritage” (Association of Iowa Fairs). The “education of the youth of Iowa” is largely centered around the 4-H and FFA clubs. The former is what provided me with so much involvement, opportunity, and fun at the fair.

If you are unfamiliar with 4-H, it is a national youth organization with local, county, state, and national activity levels fostering self-improvement and community service. Kids are introduced and encouraged to explore areas like food & nutrition, sewing, home improvement, animals & livestock, citizenship, photography, public speaking, agriculture, and so much more.

By the time I was 9, thanks to my mom and my grandmothers, I had a pretty solid foundation in cooking, baking and gardening. 4-H was the perfect opportunity for me to build on and expand my food-loving spirit. All throughout the year, our club would meet monthly and divide the responsibilities of hosting, presenting, planning, and sharing ideas. But when school let out in May, it was time to start planning and creating for the fair.

The fair was our chance to display and have judged the things we learned about and made throughout the year. The fairgrounds had (have) a special building for 4-H and each club in the county had (have) a space to decorate and display. Each project had to be entered under a specific category and was judged at the very beginning of the week. Baked goods and nutritional information, arts and crafts, sewing and quilting, refinishing and refurbishing, posters and instructional displays filled the building, waiting to be adorned with a purple, pink, blue, red, or white ribbon.

Once the decorating and judging was over, there was more time for socializing. For the next few days, my cousin and I would wander the fairgrounds, spend time in the cattle barns where her dairy cows were housed for the week, eat fair food (specifically the homemade pie at the Peterson Family Food Stand), and watch whatever events were scheduled for that day. If my cousin was involved in something like the cattle show/judging, I would watch. If I was involved in giving some kind of presentation (usually involving food … go figure), she would watch. The fair was where we got to know a lot of kids from other towns, so we watched what they were doing. There was always a small midway with rides and games that was a true novelty … a couple of rounds on the Tilt-a-Whirl and a bunch of quarters lost to the bulldozer game usually sent us exploring again.

The evenings were reserved for special 4-H events and grandstand entertainment. In the early evening, there would be events centered around 4-H like the Fair Queen Contest, Pie Baking Contest, Share the Fun, and a teen dance. Our fairgrounds were the home of the BV County Stock Car Races during much of the year so the entertainment often involved a night of races, an evening tractor pull (don’t knock it till you’ve watched it), and concerts.

As I wandered around the fair this year, I noticed the 4-H building seemed smaller, there weren’t as many kids or adults milling around, the number of projects and entries had declined, and, sadly, the Peterson Food Stand was no longer operating. I thought, “Where IS everybody?’

I was disappointed.

There were still fun things to do … a rock-climbing wall, kids activities, presentations, animals ranging from large horses to a huge variety of hens and roosters, rides and games, etc.

Pedal Pull Contest

There were still fun things to see … beautiful arts and crafts, kids showing their cattle, 4-H projects, and cute baby contests.

In a world where a 2-hour movie costs $10, a concert runs $75-$100 per ticket, a trip to the aquatic center is $8-$10, this day at the fair was a true bargain. Admission was one dollar. The pork burger I bought from the Pork Producers was two dollars. That evening, the Pork Producers and Corn Growers were sponsoring a free dinner: pork burgers (no, I didn’t mind eating two pork burgers in one day), fresh-from-the-field sweet corn, and ice cream. They were collecting donations to support veterans and as I waited in line for free food, it was pretty easy to contribute after spending a total of $3 for a day of entertainment and memories.

Maybe the fair hasn’t changed nearly as much as my perspective has. I’ve moved to an urban area where instead of supporting county fairs, I’ve been going to the State Fair. Is it possible that those memories have been running through my brain under the influence of rose-colored glasses? I don’t remember it being miserably hot and humid during the fair. I remember it being … well, ideal. I remember it being a busy place, full of people I knew. Or maybe it was not quite as busy as I remember but was full of the friendly, supportive people of my youth.

The fair was a place of freedom, competition, cooperation, networking, community, and education. As a kid, I didn’t realize I was getting all of these life lessons when I paid the admission at the gate. I was just paying for a day of fun. For 9 years, I pledged …

my head to clearer thinking,
my heart to greater loyalty,
my hands to larger service,
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

I repeated this 4-H pledge over and over again. I think it took a trip back in time for me to realize I am still a student of 4-H. Next year, I pledge to spend a few days visiting the county fairs in my area. After all, “Shop Local” applies to entertainment too.

Mother’s Day Picnic

As Mother’s Day approaches, it is impossible for me not to think back over the years since I first became a mom (and how quickly that time has passed). My two little boys are now grown men but they still like to make me smile. Sometimes it is a warm and appreciative smile. Sometimes it is a shake-my-head-and-sigh smile. And sometimes it is a throw-my-head-back-and-laugh-out-loud smile.

When they were little, I loved the cards and gifts that were made at school. Things like:

  • little ceramic, hand-formed vases or cups,
  • construction paper cards decorated with buttons and drawings of me (thank heavens stick-figures are skinny, am I right?),
  • poems with prints of their paint-dipped hands, and
  • anything with a photo of them smiling into the camera

are all stashed away in my memory trunk (literally and figuratively).

As they grew, and baseball started dominating our spring calendars, we spent many Mother’s Days at the ballpark. The bleachers became my throne and the concession stand my buffet.

And then there were the teenage years …

I’ve heard stories about the “less than enthusiastic” participation of teenagers in honoring their mothers on this day. In our home, this was not the case. These were the years that sarcasm and humor became the vehicles for sharing feelings and appreciation. My boys would search and search for just the right card for me … especially cards with recorded messages that played when you opened them. Here’s an example of what could have been expected:

Hoops and YoYo by Hallmark

Sometimes I would see a television commercial or on-line video that would bring tears to my eyes because it just seemed like something my boys would do:

I Smiled Last Time

As more years would pass, we started doing things together FOR Mother’s Day but not necessarily ON Mother’s Day. One year, I was presented with four tickets to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game scheduled for Father’s Day! I was a good mom and used the other three tickets to take them with me.


As you may have noticed, I often use this beautiful, wicker, picnic basket in my photos. It has a very special place in my heart and reminds me of one of my earliest Mother’s Days. Marty and I were both in grad school (i.e. broke) and our oldest son was maybe two. There was a wonderful kitchen store in downtown Ames that I loved to browse. It was one of those stores that, when money is tight, you can stroll through and think, “Someday, I’d love to have a (insert object of desire) just like that one.” That was the case for me with this picnic basket.

On Mother’s Day that year, Marty told me that he and Nick had a surprise for me but we had to go somewhere to get it. We drove to a nearby park and got out. He asked me to get something out of the trunk of the car and when I did, there was my beautiful picnic basket … and it smelled like fried chicken! When I lifted the lid, I found fried chicken and all the appropriate accompaniments to make a perfect picnic.


The credit for the creativity, thoughtfulness, and joy of giving that my boys have goes to their dad. Marty always took the boys shopping, included them in his master plan, taught them how to keep secrets, and showed them the joy of making their mom feel special and loved. I’m not sure if my “warm and appreciative” smile, my “shake-my-head-and-sigh” smile, or my “throw-my-head-back-and-laugh-out-loud” smile will be most appropriate tomorrow. All I know is that I will be smiling because I have been blessed with two happy, healthy boys and a picnic basket loaded with good memories.

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The Traveling Jelly Jar


This week, I said good-bye … or, as I prefer to say, see you later … to a very dear friend. Lou was 76 years old, sweet to children of all ages, a kind-hearted practical joker, and faithful and courageous to his last days with us. About 14 years ago, we met Lou and his wife, Dianne, when we joined their congregation and they quickly went from “those sweet, kind people at church”, to beloved neighbors, to an extension of our family . In fact, our boys consider them honorary grandparents.

When Dianne called and told me that Lou had gone to his eternal home, memories from the last 14 years started running through my brain and good tears started running down my cheeks. One memory in particular stood out …

In 2008, we took a vacation to Door County, Wisconsin. Lou was curious if we were going fishing. He loved fishing. He loved fish stories. He wanted to hear all about it when we returned.

We did take our poles and we “drowned a few worms”, as they say. But we didn’t have much luck. There were plenty of stories to tell though … fish boils, lighthouses, the National Mustard Museum, cheese curds and the McVey-family-vacation-requirement, a baseball game (Miller Park √).

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Even then, I couldn’t resist a roadside market or winery. And, just ask my guys, there are a LOT of them in Door County. As many of you know, this area is famous for cherries. I’m not a big fan of cherries but the sight of jars and jars of beautiful, clear, berry-pink colored jelly in sweet little canning jars was too much to resist. Since my husband and boys are fans of cherries, we made our purchase and we thought Lou and Dianne might enjoy one too. They enjoyed our stories and the jelly.

A few months later, they stopped by one evening and handed us the jar, sans jelly, filled with black walnuts. In the fall, they would pick them up off the ground and Lou would make it his winter project to remove the green hull, dry the hard brown shell, crack open the shell, and remove the nut meats.

NOTE: I just came across a website LOADED with black walnut recipes
and information and pictures (including the one above):
Hammons Products Company

I had seen these stinky nuts under trees and driven over those hard road hazards for many years but never knew anything about them. I just told you the first thing you have to know about black walnuts: they stink! Well, they stink when they are still in the green hull, and they will stain skin, fabric and surfaces so WEAR GLOVES during the gathering and hulling stages and cover your work area.

The second thing I learned is black walnuts have an acquired taste. They are stronger in flavor than traditional English walnuts and have a smoky edge and smell a little like black licorice. I am still trying to find that perfect recipe that makes me crave these gems … maybe one of those from Hammons will take me from “appreciation” to “infatuation” (future blogging potential)!


Over the years, that jar has traveled back and forth between our houses filled with simple gifts. One year at Christmas, I filled it with peppernuts. One Easter, it came back filled with green and pink mint meltaways (those little mint candies that look like chocolate chips) because Lou and Dianne remembered me telling that the boys’ grandma had always put a bag of those in their Easter baskets. After randomly meeting outside our local grocery store and browsing the clearance table of perennials, I bought the plant they denied themselves and dropped it off at their house with the jar filled with Miracle Grow. Discussions about making dandelion chains as kids resulted in the delivery of this little ballroom dancer to my door. She’s made from a flower and a bud of one of their outdoor perennials (I’m ashamed to admit I’ve forgotten the name of the flower).The picture does not begin to do her justice.

Back and forth … treats and candy … flowers and Bible verses … holidays and every days … simple gifts filled this jar. But the contents of the jar were far outweighed by the friendship between the joint owners.



So, Lou, I thank you for all the hours you spent on those black walnuts and for sharing them with me. I hope you spend your days watching the hummingbirds, planting trees, handing out Starburst candy, singing “Jesus Loves Me”, and telling all who will listen about “the one that got away”.  Better yet … I hope you CATCH all those that got away!

And don’t worry … the jar will continue its travels back and forth from our house to yours.


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A Handful of Mixed Nuts


Pfeffernüsse … pebernødder … pebernoten … peppernuts …

Whether they have German, Danish, Dutch, or English/American influences, these cookies are an addictive, tasty bite of holiday goodness best accompanied by coffee, tea or wine. (Yes, I know everything is better with wine but bear with me here.)

I grew up with, but failed to fully appreciate, these tiny treasures. Looking back in older versions of my childhood church’s cookbooks (1952 and 1980), there are primarily German influenced recipes with some Danish and Dutch versions as well. My grandmothers and mom recruited my help at an early age when making two different versions of peppernuts. Little hands are very useful when you are cutting 1/2-1 inch ropes of dough into 1/4 inch slices, rolling hundreds of them in cinnamon and sugar, and carefully placing them on the cookie sheet. At this young age, I was more interested in the frosted sugar cookies with sprinkles and the peanut butter kiss cookies than these spicy-sweet “nuts”.

Foolish child.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the word “peppernut” might imply a combination of “pepper” and “nuts”. What is interesting is the list of ingredients for these cookies typically excludes both. The “pepper” in the name refers to aromatic spices. Some recipes will include finely diced nuts but the reference here refers to the size of the cookies. They are meant to resemble nuts and be eaten by the handful. Can you think of a single reason I shouldn’t be completely infatuated with this concept??


When I see peppernuts for sale in stores, they are frequently rolled in powdered sugar. This is not traditional (at least from any recipes I have found and Wikipedia agrees so it must be true). There are, however, many variations on the spice combinations, sweeteners, and additions of fruits and/or nuts. Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise, ginger, allspice and cardamom all make appearances in my cookbooks. Molasses, honey, dark corn syrup, brown sugar, and granulated sugar are found in varying combinations. Until this year, I had only made or tried peppernuts without nuts or fruits. That changed when I found a recipe right next to my two go-to recipes that looked so interesting I had to try it. It had citrus peel, coffee and walnuts! (Shhh … don’t tell my grandmothers, but this might be my favorite.)

Even the choice of fat … butter, margarine, lard … makes a big difference in the flavor and texture of each recipe. If you have been following me for a while, you probably know that I have a mild obsession with lard. It probably has something to do with my Grandma Glienke’s peppernut recipe that reads “1/2 pound butter or goose or duck lard”. Yep … because everyone has goose or duck lard hanging out in their refrigerator. I wish!

Now that you’ve allowed me to ramble on the history and variations of these simple-looking tidbits, we should get started on the recipe. Time consuming? Yes. Difficult? No. Worth it? Definitely!


Christmas Peppernuts


1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1/2  cup butter
2 medium eggs (or smaller “large” eggs)
1/4 cup strong coffee
1 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, divided
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup finely chopped lemon peel
1/8 cup finely chopped orange peel
1/2 cup granulated sugar


Cream brown sugar and butter together until smooth; add eggs and coffee and blend until creamy. Fold together or sift 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, flour and baking powder together and slowly add to batter. Remove bowl from mixer and fold in citrus peel and walnuts by hand until evenly distributed.

Roll dough into ropes 1/2-3/4″ in diameter. Wrap individually in plastic wrap or place on a cookie sheet covered with plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours.

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine granulated sugar and remaining teaspoon of cinnamon in a flat-bottomed bowl. Remove 2-3 ropes at a time from refrigerator and place on a slightly floured cutting board. Cut into 1/4″ slices, roll in sugar/cinnamon mixture, and reshape into circles if necessary. Place about 2 inches apart on cookie sheets that have been lightly coated with cooking spray (first batch may take longer as cookie sheets are cool). Reapply a small amount of spray after each use. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Cookies are done when the bottom of the cookies are golden brown. Allow cookies to cool 1-2 minutes on cookie sheet then transfer to parchment or waxed paper. Make sure pans are completely cool before refilling.


The cookies at the bottom are all from the same batch. The one on the left was baked a minute too long. The one on the right needed another minute or two. The one in the middle is perfect. Good news? None of them are anywhere close to ruined. It just makes them look more like mixed nuts!

This is the recipe for half of a batch. You can easily double it (only use 3 large eggs not 4). A full batch will over-fill a gallon-sized ziploc bag.

Danish Peppernuts


1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup margarine, softened
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons cream or evaporated milk
3 cups flour, divided
2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup granulated sugar

Cream brown sugar, butter, and margarine; add egg yolk and cream/milk and continue mixing until smooth. Mix in 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and the ginger. Sprinkle the cupboard with the additional cup of flour and place dough on flour. Gently work flour into dough in a kneading motion (lifting and turning) until all flour has been absorbed into the dough.

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine granulated sugar and remaining teaspoon of cinnamon in a flat-bottomed bowl. Roll the dough into 1/2 inch diameter ropes and cut into 1/4″ thick slices. Toss the slices in the sugar/cinnamon mixture and place, 2 inches apart, on a cookie sheet that has been lightly coated with cooking spray (first batch may take longer as cookie sheets are cool). Reapply spray between uses. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until bottom of cookies are golden brown. Allow cookies to cool 1-2 minutes on cookie sheet then transfer to parchment or waxed paper. Make sure pans are completely cool before refilling.

This recipe will fill a gallon ziploc baggie about half full.

German Peppernuts


1/2 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cup molasses
1/2 cup lard
1 cup sugar, divided
1/2 (rounded) tablespoon baking soda
2 tsp boiling water
3 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon, divided
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg

Place corn syrup, molasses, lard and 1/2 cup of sugar in a saucepan and bring to a slow boil, stirring frequently, until well mixed.  Remove from heat and stir for 2-3 minutes to cool.  Combine baking soda and boiling water and stir slowly into molasses mixture.  Allow mixture to cool to room temperature.  Sift flour and spices into mixing bowl.  Slowly add warm cooled molasses mixture with the mixer on low until combined.  Dough will be sticky.  With floured hands, divide dough into four parts; wrap in plastic wrap and let dough stand for at least one day in a cool, dry place; do not refrigerate. (This is the original instruction from the days when everyone had a cold room … refrigerating for one day is permitted.)

Preheat oven to 350°.  In a shallow pan, combine 1/2 cup sugar with 1 tsp cinnamon; set aside.  On a lightly floured surface and working with one portion of dough at a time, divide into two or three parts and roll into a 1/2-3/4″ rope and cut rope into 1/2″ slices.  Place cookies in sugar/cinnamon mixture and toss to coat.   Place on cookie sheet that has been lightly coated with cooking spray.  Bake for 10-12 minutes or until set in the middle and the bottom of each cookie is golden brown (first batch may take longer as cookie sheets are cool).  Remove from oven and allow to cool 2-3 minutes on the cookie sheet.  Remove from pan and cool completely on parchment or waxed paper.  Make sure pans are completely cool before refilling.

This last recipe is credited to my grandmother in one of those church cookbooks I mentioned earlier. I love her final instructions:

Do not freeze; store in an air-tight container in a cool place. 

“These will keep until all gone.” 

They will indeed!

But once you start giving some of these little delicacies away to friends, you will not have to worry about how long they will “keep”. I like to combine all three kinds into small cellophane bags and tie them shut with cording or ribbon. As the recipient starts sampling, they can taste the subtle differences and struggle to decide which is their favorite.

Joy in tiny morsels …

… by the handful!

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Thanksgiving Humble Pie


It doesn’t happen very often.

In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to pull an original prank on my boys like I did that one glorious Thanksgiving. It was shear genious and completely unplanned. The opportunity presented itself and, for once, I recognized it and owned it.

It lasted for two days.

You see … I am guilty of the following phrase when I make substitutions in recipes:

You won’t be able to tell the difference.

Yes, they can. And they always do. They have their father’s discerning taste buds.

Before I tell you the story, you must know that pumpkin pie is not just a traditional dessert at our house. It is sacred. The whipped cream is just as sacred. My husband must have homemade and our youngest has a life-long obsession with the kind he can spray directly into his mouth. Anyway …

Two years ago (the “boys” were 24 and 19), I was doing my Thanksgiving meal prep work the day before the feast. I was cooking sweet potatoes. One of the boys walked in the kitchen, took one look at the sweet potatoes, wrinkled up his nose, and said:

What are you making? 

Opportunity knocks.

Sweet Potato Pie!


Because I am going to prove to you guys, that you cannot taste the difference
between pumpkin and sweet potatoes! I am making one pumpkin pie and
one sweet potato pie and you have to try them both.

Our house is never quiet but panic was setting in. Not panic that they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Panic because there was only going to be ONE pumpkin pie!

By the time the boys were up and ready for church the next morning, both pies were baked. They were gorgeous! They looked exactly alike. The boys started to get nervous.

They sniffed them. They questioned me over and over if I was sure I knew which one was which. My father-in-law arrived for the meal, which we devoured. The boys had filled him in on the pie situation. I very carefully cut the pies into thin slices and laid a slice of each on everyone’s plate, being very careful to put one on the right side and the other on the left. The boys have never taken so long to eat dessert. They were examing the texture and concentrating on the flavors. My father-in-law glanced at me and gave me a little smile.

He figured it out.

When the boys had finally made their guesses, they were not as certain as they thought they’d be. There was fear of having to admit that mom was right. Or, maybe, it was fear that mom would start substituting sweet potatoes in all of their favorite pumpkin recipes. Doesn’t matter … there was fear.

Drumroll please!

They are both pumpkin.

My father-in-law started laughing. The boys didn’t.

But what about the sweet potatoes you were cooking?!?!

I pointed to the sweet potato casserole that had been passed around the table during the meal.

The looks on their faces? Priceless!

They started laughing, dug into the pie with typical gusto, and gave thanks that there was going to be a lot of leftover pumpkin pie after all.



Fried Apples

This week, I am writing about my pre-Thanksgiving meal that controls my cravings for the ultimate feast that is weeks away. That first blog covered the main dish: turkey meatballs! Turkey is the premier entre for Thanksgiving but it’s the side dishes that crowd the plate. It is hard to leave any of our favorites out of the feast, but our tables are only so big! That is the best part of a pre-Thanksgiving meal … make some of those sides that didn’t make the cut for the final menu.

Or, maybe you are ready for a new line-up and just need some good recommendations.

The second post this week featured a simple and healthy side-dish: Parsley-Mustard Glazed Carrots.

Having covered the protein and the veggie, it’s time to add a little fruit.

By reading the title, you might be thinking we’re breaking out the deep-fat fryer or at least some serious amounts of oil. But we’re not.

In fact, these apples really aren’t fried at all. They are steamed and simmered but there is no oil involved. A little butter? Yes. We are talking Thanksgiving, after all!

My mom would make these apples for dinner (well, we called it supper). They always seemed so FANCY to us and were so pretty piled up on top of pork chops. There were never any leftovers. I made a full batch for my husband and myself so there are a few left. They are calling me to warm them up and put them on top of pancakes or oatmeal this morning.

It would be rude to ignore them …


Fried Apples

5-6 medium size apples (these are Jonathan apples and my favorite for this recipe)
2 tablespoons of butter
1/3-1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt (if using unsalted butter)


Cut apples into quarters, remove core, and slice thin. Melt the butter in a shallow pan over medium-low heat and add apples (and pinch of salt, if needed). Fold apples into butter, cover with lid, and allow to gently steam for 15 minutes.


Remove lid, sprinkle with sugar, gently stir apples to coat, return lid to partially cover pan (allowing steam out) and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Stir only once or twice. Remove from heat and serve.


Looking at my pictures, these apples really deserved a much prettier presentation. I have a couple of my grandmother’s depression-glass bowls that would have been worthy. Of course, growing up we didn’t spend any time staging our table or our plates. We certainly didn’t take time to take pictures of our food (oh how I wish we had). We said our prayer and we dug in! I’m sure it was the appreciative sound of “mmmmm…” as we all took our first bites that pleased Mom the most.

After all … when cooking for others, that sound is all the applause that is ever needed.

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