Vanilla Extract Update and Hot Chocolate Mix

An update on the vanilla extract project.  Last month, I added 20 vanilla beans to a 750 ml bottle of plain vodka.

vanilla extract

After doing the math, and adding more people to the gift giving list,  I went back to the liquor store to buy more vodka and discovered vanilla vodka!  So, to this bottle, I added 10 vanilla beans, (because I didn’t think I would need as much) shook it well, and placed it in a cool, dark place.

Once a week, I shake each bottle (because the beans sink to the bottom),

vanilla extract

open them up and take a swig sniff and check on their progress.

Almost one month later, the vodkas have taken on a pretty amber color.

vanilla extract

vanilla vodka on the left, regular on the right

I could probably drink use it now, but I will practice my patience skills and leave it alone for a few more weeks.  As a diversion, I will concentrate on finding pretty containers for packaging.

Another gift that is super easy to make is homemade Hot Chocolate Mix.  This has been a long time favorite in our family.  I remember my mom making this for us years ago and, even though I’ve tweaked the recipe over the years, it’s still a winter time staple in my house.

To begin, you will need a very large bowl.  To this bowl,  add 3 cups confectioners sugar (I sift mine through a fine mesh strainer but you don’t have to do this)

hot chocolate mix

3 cups non-fat dry milk and 1 cup coffee creamer (I used French vanilla)

hot chocolate mix

Add 2 cups miniature marshmallows (optional)

hot chocolate mix

and 1 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder (once again, I sifted mine but you don’t have to)

hot chocolate mix

At this point, the mix is done.

hot chocolate mix

However, if you so desire, you may add any extras you want.  Mini chocolate chips are a good choice for an extra jolt of chocolate.  Do be forewarned that chocolate chips don’t totally dissolve when hot water is added.  Instead, it forms a fudgy sludge layer in the bottom of the cup.  Problem?  I think not.

Mix well.  Use 1/4 cup of mix per 6-8 oz. of hot water.  Makes about 8 cups of mix. Store in an air-tight container.

hot chocolate

my 30 year-old Tupperware container still does the trick

For gifts, a 2 cup container is a good size for this, but you can use anything as long as it’s an air-tight container.  I like to use mason jars because I always have these on hand, and they can be painted or wrapped in a variety of ways. Be sure and label your creation with directions (chalkboard labels would be fun) or make your own with stencils or scrapbook paper.  You might even save room inside the jar for extra marshmallows or chocolate chips. Oh, and don’t forget the scoop!






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Bread in a Jar

Let’s face it.  As much as I love cooking and eating around the holidays, it can become mighty overwhelming when there is food everywhere you look.  What if there were a way to make treats you could eat up to a year later?

There is!  Bread in a jar is the perfect way to enjoy your favorite quick bread after the food rush of the holidays.

First, you will need a good quick bread recipe.  I wanted to try this Pumpkin Gingerbread because it called for spelt flour and I just happen to have spelt flour I didn’t know what to do with.  (For more about spelt flour, check out this info.)  If you don’t have any spelt flour hanging around, I believe you can substitute all-purpose flour or wheat flour.  Just in case, you might want to use a different, more familiar recipe.

Pumpkin Gingerbread

3 cups sugar
½ cup canola oil
½ cup unsweetened applesauce
4 large eggs
2/3 cup water
1  (15 oz) can pumpkin (not canned pumpkin pie)
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 ½ cups spelt flour

pumpkin bread in a jar

or whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Grease, with shortening, however many wide mouth canning jars you would like to use.

pumpkin bread in a jar

make sure there are no chips or gouges along the rims

pumpkin bread in a jar

(I only did three because I wasn’t sure I would like the recipe)  If you used all of this recipe in jars, you would probably need about 10-12 jars.

In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar, oil, applesauce, and eggs;  beat until smooth.

pumpkin bread in a jar

Add water and beat until well blended.

pumpkin bread in a jar

Mix in pumpkin until combined.

In medium bowl, combine ginger, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, flours, baking soda, salt, and baking powder.

pumpkin bread in a jar

Add dry ingredients to pumpkin mixture and blend until all ingredients are mixed. The batter should have a thick consistency. Place jars on a shallow baking pan and fill about 1/2 way full.

pumpkin bread in a jar

Bake until a knife inserted comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes.    While the bread is baking, wash and heat the canning lids and caps.  Keep them simmering on the stove until you’re ready for them.

pumpkin bread in a jar

When the bread is done, take one jar at a time out of the oven.   Often times the bread will rise over the top of the jar.  If this happens, cut the bread even with the top of the jar.

pumpkin bread in a jar

And of course, eat any excess because that’s the number one kitchen rule.

Wipe the rim off with a damp towel to remove any baked bread that happened to spill over.  This is a very important step in canning!  If your rim has any food on it, there’s a good chance it won’t seal.

Place a lid and cap on the jar.  Tighten as much as you can.

Even though it’s best to seal one jar at a time, I took all three out at once and capped them quickly before the jars cooled off.  Hot jars and lids also ensures a good seal.

Place jars on a folded towel and wait for the popping sound that indicates the jar has sealed.  After a few hours, run your finger along the middle top of the jar.  If it’s solid and does not move, your jar has sealed.  If the middle of the lid can be pushed down, the jar did not seal and needs to be eaten.  If jars have sealed, let them sit for 24 hours.  Don’t forget to label the bread and decorate your jar if you so wish.

pumpkin bread in a jar

Since I only used 3 canning jars, I had quite a bit of batter left over.  I divided the remaining batter in 3 small loaves,

pumpkin bread in a jar

increased the temperature to 350*, and baked for about 50 minutes or until a toothpick came out clean.
Cool completely on a wire rack and store in an airtight container.

And now you’re done with yet another homemade gift that can be enjoyed anytime throughout the year.

p.s  this bread was awesome!!

Related posts:
Making your own vanilla extract


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Frost Flowers of Fall

There is a point during our fall season that borders on the winter side.

For the last week or so, NW Arkansas has been bombarded by freezing, cold air.  Before this cold snap, the weather had been pleasant and mild.

When these conditions happen,  frost flowers appear.

At first glance, these flowers look like little pieces of trash on the side of the road.  Upon closer examination, you will discover this.

frost flowers

Frost flowers form when the water in the ground has not frozen but the air temperature is below freezing.  As the water creeps up the stem, it freezes and bursts through the stem.  Between the outside cold air and more water freezing up through the stems, ice crystals form sometimes swirling around the plant like cotton candy.

frost flowers

This phenomenon only occurs on certain plants.   In our area,  dittany or false oregano (Cunila origanoides), yellow ironweed (Verbesina alternifolia),  and white crownbeard (Verbesina virginica) are the most common.

frost flowers

Once the ground has frozen or the stems of these plants have ruptured completely, the frost flower season will be over until next year.

frost flowers

Do you have frost flowers in your area?


p.s. I know this is not a “real” flower but I’m linking up today with May Dreams Garden for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.
p.s.s I am also linking up with the Chicken Chick for her weekly blog

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When the Past is Still Present

We are getting close to our peak fall color here in the Ozarks,

arkansas grand canyon fall color

and it was a gorgeous day for drive

arkansas grand canyon fall color

so Dad and I took a trip to Boxley Valley to visit my mom.

The old cemetery was beautiful as ever.

mossville cemetary in fall

The church, which was built is the late 1800′s, still holds services twice a month.

Mossville Baptist Church

The outhouse is still present and was being used (although I never used this one since it was the boys) until just a few years ago when indoor plumbing was installed in the church.

mossville outhouse

Down the road from the church, there is a distant relative that oversees the cemetery. Back when the community had a post office, he was also the postmaster.  The post office literally sits just a few feet from his front porch.

mossville post office

There was one person that delivered mail.  This was not his only job, though.  People in this area did not have cars.  The nearest “big town” was 25 miles away through rugged mountains and wilderness.  If folks needed something from town,  they would slip him a note,

mossville post office

and he would bring it back on his return trip.

Several miles from the church, tucked away from the highway, the Boxley Mill still stands.  Mills and general stores were a main hub of activity back in the day.  Not only did it grind corn and wheat, but also served as a day long gathering place for people coming from all over the mountain.

boxley mill

When my dad was younger, he said there were several mills in the area.  Even though he lived several miles from this one, he did not even know it existed until now.  The closer mill his family used also had a general store.    He recalled how excited he was to be able to take the horse ride to the mill every other week.   Not only did he get a piece of candy that day, he also got to watch the shooting match that was held.  Anyone could enter the match for a nickel and whoever won the match got all the money.  If his grandfather won, (which he often did), this meant they could have extra groceries and “live high on the hog” for an extra week.

dad and the boxley mill

boxley mill

How does a three-story building, with all of it’s machinery, stay on top of this?

IMG_0006 IMG_0007 IMG_0008

Ax marks on all the beams show hours of work for someone.

IMG_0015 (2) IMG_0014 (2)

Part of the raceway is still present.

boxley mill

The mill-pond was also used for fishing.  Commonly called fish camp cabins, they were rented not only to fisherman but also people needing a place to sleep for the night.

fishing cabins at boxly mil

The old barn at the mill is still being used to this day as are many barns in the area.

barn at the boxley mill

Sometimes I think we all need a reality check when it comes to living the life we are accustomed to today. Little things meant so much years ago.  People had to work hard every day just to survive.  “Living high on the hog” didn’t mean having luxuries, it meant “we ate good this week”.

How times have changed.

mossville post office

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Signs of Fall

It wouldn’t be fall without astersaster aster oblongifolius

or beautyberrycallicarpa beauty berry

or dogwood berriesdogwood berry

or my late blooming okra.okra bloom

But one thing I’ve never seen before is this extra large praying mantis with wings and a colorful body.

praying mantis

praying mantis

Nature is amazing.



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Getting a Jump Start on Christmas Gifts

Normally, I am a wait ’til the last minute shopper for Christmas gifts but for some reason I thought about this.

Last year, I saw something about making your own vanilla extract.  My local Natural Food Store carries bulk vanilla beans, so I picked some up and decided to give this a try.

The original recipe calls for 3-5 vanilla beans per 6 oz. of vodka. I had some unused bourbon and rum in the cabinet, so this is what I used just guessing on the amount of alcohol.  It turned out great!

Here’s the step-by-step info.  It really doesn’t get much easier.

Start by cutting your vanilla beans into little pieces.

vanilla extract

If you press on the pieces, a little paste will come out.  You can do this or not.  I didn’t the first time I made it and it  had a very good vanilla flavor.  I did do it this time so we’ll see.

Place the pieces in the alcohol.  I used 20 vanilla beans for a 750 ml bottle of vodka.

vanilla extract

Tighten the lid and shake well.

vanilla extract

At this point, it will  look like a vanilla/vodka snow globe.

Place the bottle in the brown paper sack it came in and write the date on the bag.

vanilla extract

Place the bag in a nearby cool and dark place.  About once a week, give the bottle a good shake.  In about 2 months (which will be around Christmas), the extract will be ready to use.  At this time, you can strain the bean pieces out (or not-I didn’t) and place in a decorative, dark, glass bottle.  This is definitely a home-made gift they will use and enjoy.







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Little Zebra

As much as I love color in the garden, I also love the foliage of ornamental grasses.

Miscanthus sinesisLittle Zebra’ has been a great accent grass for the side of my garage.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Little Zebra'

This area was hard to mow from day one and always had that lonely, sad, make me pretty sort of look.

Now a bird feeder, toad house, and ‘Little Zebra’ has given this wall new life.

little zebra grass


Miscanthus sinesis is a perennial in zones 5-9.

zebra grass

It will get anywhere from 3-4′ tall and will spread 2-3′.  In mid summer and early fall, it sends up stalks about 2 ft. tall.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Little Zebra'

Miscanthus sinensis 'Little Zebra'

It is called zebra grass because the foliage has alternating light and dark green stripes on each blade.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Little Zebra'

In the winter, it will turn brown and make a soothing, rustling sound in a light breeze.

zebra grass

Around late February to early March, I cut back the brown leaves and the process starts again.

zebra grass

It does love a sunny spot in the garden but will tolerate part shade.  In my location (zone 7), it receives full sun until mid afternoon and then it is in full shade.

‘Little Zebra’ has been pretty low maintenance for me. This particular grass is happy in a variety of soils from sandy to heavy clay (I am more clay and rock) but the bed does slope some and keeps it well-drained.  I’ve also read it should be kept moist but I have found that after it is established, it can be very forgiving in dry soil.  This particular grass has not been invasive for me, but check about different species as they can become a nuisance.

Also, another big plus for ornamental grasses is they are usually not bothered by disease or pests which makes this a hands down winner in my book.


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