Crafty Valentine’s Day

I love making handmade crafts with my kids especially holiday themed!  We spent one whole week before Valentine’s Day prepping valentines for Elizabeth’s class, which all had to be signed by her.  She picked the design on Pinterest and then I helped her with cutting the hearts out and she glued them together.  I wrote “Happy Valentine’s Day” and then she signed them.  We also made valentines for grandparents, aunts, uncles, daddy, and each other.  I also put together a cookie mix in jars for Elizabeth’s teachers.  I think it will be our family tradition to hand make valentines every year!

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Mardis Gras (Fat Tuesday) in Michigan

I walked in the grocery store a few days before Fat Tuesday and saw boxes stacked full of doughnuts. I just figured they were “normal” doughnut but they were not just any old doughnut. They were Pączkis. Wikipedia describes them as “deep-fried pieces of dough shaped into flattened spheres and filled with confiture or other sweet filling. Pączki are usually covered with powdered sugar, icing or bits of dried orange zest. A small amount of grain alcohol (traditionally, Spiritus) is added to the dough before cooking; as it evaporates, it prevents the absorption of oil deep into the dough. Although they look like German berliners, North American bismarcks or jelly doughnuts, pączki are made from especially rich dough containing eggs, fats, sugar, yeast and sometimes milk. They feature a variety of fruit and creme fillings and can be glazed, or covered with granulated or powdered sugar. Powidl (stewed plum jam) and wild rose hip jam are traditional fillings, but many others are used as well, including strawberry, Bavarian cream, blueberry, custard, raspberry, and apple.”


Elizabeth and I decorated masks and dressed up for our Mardis gras party at home. We put on some jazz music and danced!




We spent the month of January with lots of snow (around 30 inches total in Detroit).  I really wanted snow in December and I was disappointed to find out that we don’t get that much snow on this side of Michigan.  Apparently this year, we got all of our snow in a 2 month window.  The kids and I got outside and went sledding, made snow angels and drank hot chocolate.  I left my greenery and lights on my balcony so I could plug them in when it snowed.  My parents visited at the beginning of February and built a snowman with the kids.

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In other Russell news, Scott got a contract job at a company near Lake St. Claire.  He began working there the second full week of January.  I was thrilled to finally be putting some money back in our bank account and that we didn’t have to resort to him getting a job in another field just to pay the bills.

We also started gong to a new group called a missional community that stemmed out of our church this month.  Mike Breen has worked with missional churches in the UK and United States for 25 years.  He describes a missional community as “a group of 20 to 50 people who exist, in Christian community, to reach either a particular neighborhood or network of relationships. With a strong value on life together, the group has the expressed intention of seeing those they are in relationship with choose to start following Jesus through this more flexible and locally incarnated expression of the church. They exist to bring heaven to the particular slice of earth they believe God has given them to bless. The result is usually the growth and multiplication of more Missional Communities. These MCs are networked within a larger church community allowing for both a scattered and gathered church. These mid-sized communities, led by laity, are lightweight and low maintenance and most often meet 3-4 times a month in their missional context. Each MC attends to the three dimensions of life that Jesus himself attended to: Time with God (worship, prayer, scripture, teaching, giving thanks, etc), time with the body of believers building a vibrant and caring community, and time with those who don’t know Jesus yet.”  Our missional community is about 10-15 young married couples right now.  We were meeting in a house but we outgrew that location with the number of kids so we are meeting at the church right now.  We are enjoying getting to know a smaller group of people in our community near Royal Oak.

Christmas lights, cookie decorating and an edible nativity

We spent a lot of time as a family during the month of December!  Elizabeth and I made sugar cookies.  This was my first time to use all of my Wilton cookie cutters.  Elizabeth wanted to do one of each!  We took them with us to my mom’s house at the end of the month when we visited so that we could decorate them together.

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We didn’t have space or the money for a Christmas tree this year so we made our own on the wall.  I strung the lights up with masking tape and then Elizabeth and I made fruit loop garland and some homemade ornaments from school and church.

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We were supposed to meet some friends in Rochester for dinner and a tour of lights but they ended up not being able to make it.  The four of us enjoyed dinner at Panera Bread (Elizabeth’s favorite restaurant) and then we took a car tour of the city of Rochester’s lights.  Each business on main street uses strands of light to light up the fronts of their buildings.  What a great festive idea!


Our homemade Christmas continued as we made Christmas cards for all of the immediate family from the kids.  William did hand print Christmas trees and Elizabeth made a Christmas tree, lights and wreaths out of fingerprints.


On Christmas Day, Scott and I try to teach the kids in different ways about Jesus’ birth and the reason that we celebrate Christmas.  This year, we attempted an edible nativity.  We wanted all of the foods to be things we were ok with the kids eating so we got little sausages, animal crackers, carrots and ranch dip, pretzel sticks, graham crackers and mini marshmallows.  Scott told them the story and when each part of the story ended, they got to eat the characters.  William especially liked eating the sheep (mini marshmallows).   DSC_0101

We visited our Indiana family the last week in December/first week of January.  We got to see all of the immediate family plus two of my aunts and an uncle.  I made the Christmas tree folded napkin below for one of our Christmas get-togethers.  I also got to spend two days kid free with my two best friends.  One was in town from Ohio and the other had flown in after Christmas from Denver, CO.  We enjoyed spending New Year’s Eve together.

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Our first whole turkey and our first Michigan snow

It has been so long since I posted. Now that the holidays are over, I will attempt to get back to at least monthly posts.

The week before Thanksgiving, we got out first real Michigan snow and it was a beautiful dusting!  I was glad that I had already shopped for the kids’ winter coats, boots and snow gear.  For the most part, it seems like our weather in this area in Michigan is very similar to Indiana’s weather!


Scott and I were given a turkey less than a week before we were leaving for our trip to Indianapolis to see our family. This was our first time to attempt to cook a whole turkey. We decided to break it down before cooking so we could make turkey manhattans with the turkey breasts and then we roasted the legs and thighs.  I am not a fan of working with meat, especially before it is broken down so Scott was in charge of the meat and gravy.  I made the mashed potatoes.  Turkey manhattans are pictured on the bottom right.  Scott is working on cooking the gravy in the bottom left picture.  We were both in love with how the turkey legs turned out the second day.  We both normally don’t eat a lot of turkey since it is normally either dry or not flavorful.  This was both juicy and flavorful.

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We spent a week visiting all of our immediate family members.  It was a great chance for the kids to spend individual time with aunts, uncles, and grandparents.  For Thanksgiving meal at my parent’s house, everyone made thankful turkeys with Elizabeth instructing them.  Elizabeth and I made our turkeys before we went to so we could decorate our table for our turkey meal.

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The Somerset Mall near us had some pretty fabulous decorations.  One one side of the mall (it crosses over a street), they decked the mall with fairies.  The other side was decorated in upside down Christmas trees and a castle where Santa resides.


Elizabeth was asked to bring a snack in the shape of a circle, triangle or square for preschool a certain day.  We made graham crackers together and cut them out with cookie cutters and some shapes by hand.  I was unable to find graham flour so we used wheat flour.  The activity was fun but the taste was not great so probably not a repeat recipe.  DSC_0020

I also made homemade caramel apple cider and it was amazing so I have listed the recipe below.


“Better than Starbucks” Caramel Apple Cider
Author: Tammy Blankenship (
Prep time: 5 mins
Cook time:5 mins
Total time: 10 mins
Yield: serves 4
  • 4 to 6 cups Simply Apple brand apple juice
  • ¼ cup caramel sauce (see recipe below)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 6 allspice berries
  • whipped cream (I personally don’t like this but make it your own)
  • caramel sauce to drizzle on top (optional)
  1. Put apple juice, caramel sauce and spices in a medium pan and simmer over medium-low heat for 5 minutes.
  2. Pour into cups/mugs and top with whipped cream and then caramel sauce if you’re feeling fancy.
THE BEST Caramel Sauce (Revisited): Classic Style
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon light corn syrup(optional, but helps prevent crystallization)
  • 1 cup heavy cream, at room temperature (or warmer)
  • 1 tablespoon butter, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Put the sugar, water and corn syrup into a medium saucepan. (If desired, stir together with a spoon just in order to distribute evenly, then toss spoon into sink. DO NOT REUSE OR STIR WHEN MIXTURE IS BOILING.)
  2. Cook over medium heat bringing mixture to a low boil, swirling the pan, but not stirring.
  3. If you get sugar crystals on the edge of your pan, use a pastry brush with water to wipe them off.
  4. Continue cooking and swirling until mixture turns amber in color.
  5. Lower the heat and carefully add cream and butter, standing away from pan to avoid splattering.
  6. When bubbling calms, stir sauce until smooth. (This might take a few minutes depending on the temperature of your cream. If the cooked sugar separates from the cream, just continue to stir over low heat until the mixture is smooth.)
  7. Add vanilla.
  8. Pour through mesh sieve into heatproof jar.
  9. Cool to warm or room temperature before serving.
For best results, use a “heavy metal” pan. (rock ‘n roll, baby!)
Let your nose be your guide. Be careful to not let the caramel get too dark or your sauce will taste burnt. If it smells burnt, it is.
Having the cream at least at room temperature or warmer will help prevent the mixture from seizing up when you add it. (If it does seize up, you can still stir it back together – see above in recipe.)
Change It Up:
If you are a beginner and intimidated by caramel making (like me), double the water. The water just evaporates off anyway. It will take a little longer to cook, but nothing significant. For me the hardest and most crucial step is getting everything to initially melt together without forming sugar crystals. This aids in that process tremendously. Also, I never stir it, not even at the first. I just kind of swirl gently for it to all melt together.
For a thicker sauce (a little more of a dip consistency), use ¾ cup cream.
My notes:  I thought I would ignore the beginner note and did not double the water.  I ended up getting sugar crystals but I was able to save it.  I just added more water and got it bubbling again.  The crystals disappeared and the water evaporated.


I’m a fudgie…are you?

Scott and I had planned a trip to Mackinac Island for our 9th anniversary.  We decided to go ahead with it despite Scott’s contract ending.  We decided we needed to take a short break from our kids and have some “Scott and Amanda time”.  We asked the Wagner grandparents to come stay with the kids and we made reservations at a lodge on the island.  We learned quite a bit about people that live in Michigan, as well as the people that live on the island.  Many people that live in the Southeast corner of Michigan flock north during the summer.  While researching about the island before making reservations, I discovered that the Grand Hotel on the island closes down for the winter the last weekend in October and they host an event that weekend.  The hotel pretty much controls when a lot of the other businesses close and open.  We didn’t want to be there when it is busy so we decided to go the weekend before.  The weather started out pretty dreary on our dark and rainy ferry ride over Friday night.  Luckily, we brought food with us for breakfast so we didn’t have to look for somewhere to eat in the rain.  The weather cleared up by lunch on Saturday.

We explored a little of the town and then headed out to the State Park.  We saw Arch Rock, Fort Holmes, and Sugar Loaf.


Scott and Amanda with view from Fort Holmes behind us


Sugar Loaf


Arch Rock


view from Arch Rock

A lot of the “trails” were paved for carriages and bikes on our way out to Arch Rock and then Fort Holmes.  We encountered more traditional trails going out to Sugar Loaf.  We came back to town in time for dinner and then we headed out to see the sunset behind the Mackinac Bridge just a couple of blocks from our hotel.  It was quite a scenic sunset!DSC_0179

That evening, we also did a wine tasting at Goodfellow’s.  We found a Michigan Riesling we loved so much we bought a bottle at the local grocery store and brought it home to have on our actual anniversary.


I awoke to a beautiful sunrise on Sunday which was surprising after the sunset the night before.    We had much better weather so we went to the local grocery store and got food for lunch on the trail.


This is Doud’s Market (open since 1884)…America’s Oldest Grocery Store.


Fort Mackinac

We headed out on a trail that followed the bluffs along the east side of the island.  The trail was definitely rugged by our Indiana standards.  We definitely enjoyed the challenge.  We ended up at the British Landing spot on the North west corner of the island and then worked our way back.  We also enjoyed touring Fort Mackinac on our way back to town. There was a lot to see and do including a rifle and cannon demonstration and a fun, interactive kids’ building.


Fort Mackinac rifle demonstration


Fort Mackinac cannon demonstration

We came back again for dinner in town at a “Mexican restaurant”.

Monday morning, I discovered a hidden coffee shop a few blocks from our hotel on one of the back streets.  They made me a wonderful Mint Mocha but it wasn’t nearly as good as the mocha the day before from JoAnn’s fudge.   We packed up, checked out of our hotel and headed back on the ferry to our car on the “mainland” in Mackinac City.

The weather all weekend was too cool for either of us to want to ride bikes or ride in a carriage so we might have to save that for another time.


We did end up in 4 different fudge shops tasting fudge.  We bought fudge at two of them and this is why everyone from the island calls the rest of us “fudgies”.  We learned that in the winter, the locals wait to see if an ice bridge will form between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island.  During February, if the weather stays cold enough, the lake will freeze over and create a bridge.  Someone tests it and then they line the bridge with their old Christmas trees.  If you want to tour the grand hotel, you have to pay a fee even to walk on the grounds in front of the hotel so we also skipped that this trip.  Over all, we enjoyed our trip but there is not enough to do to make it an annual trip.


The Backpacking Compromise

I grew up camping at state parks in Indiana with two families who had pop-up campers, so we always were at electric sites.  My family had a two room tent for four people…just enough space for us and our stuff.  We slept on air mattresses snug inside sleeping bags. We would cook on a camp stove and store food in coolers.  We would build a campfire to stay warm and roast marshmallows and pudgy pies on.  The other kids, my brother and I would ride our bikes around the campground and play on the playground together. We hiked the trails with the adults, as well.  We had running water in bathhouse with showers and flushing toilets.  This was my experience of “roughing it”

Scott went backpacking with youth group in Kentucky when he was a teen, so his idea of camping was quite a bit more rustic.  If you had to go, you went in the woods. You carried all of the food and sleeping equipment you needed.  You didn’t need a pillow or cooler or an extra pair of pants.  You didn’t follow a trail, just hiked straight through the woods making your own way.

When Scott and I got married, we were given some camping gear and tried camping the way I grew up.  We got rained on almost every time we went.  We compromised sometimes and went to nonelectric sites.  I didn’t mind the outhouse or no electricity.  Our first tent got a large hole in it, so we purchased a truck bed tent.  It is easy setup and the rain water does not pool under it.  We have used it with Elizabeth but have not tried it with William yet.

Now for the point of this history…we attempted to backpack together a few years ago at Hoosier National Forest but the water table was so low we couldn’t find anywhere to refill our water bottles.  We ended up at Morgan Monroe State Forest at a primitive campsite.  Since we are living in Michigan, it seemed like the perfect area to try backpacking again.  We were ready to leave William for the first time overnight.  I picked up a book at the library titled, “Backpacking in Michigan”.  It listed backpacking trails and one of them was only an hour away and just one overnight.  In the lower part of Michigan, if you want to backpack, you have to reserve a walk-in campsite.  The nice part is that there is a water pump and outhouse at the end and start of your day…no need to go in the woods!

It stormed the night before, so we were worried about muddy trails, but we found out that the trail was quite sandy so no giant muddy areas to cross.  I carried a 23 pound pack, the equivalent of carrying William and Scott carried 40 pounds (more than Elizabeth).  We had a great experience with cool weather in the shade and only a few bug bites.  The first day, we hiked seven miles into the Blind Lake sites.  Our feet and backs were sore pretty quickly.  It was quite an adjustment for our out of shape bodies…lol.

The terrain was moderately hilly with a lot of lakes and ponds along the way.  The Pottawatomi (or Poto) trail is a loop, so hikers go counterclockwise and bikers clockwise.  We got used to listening for the hum of bike tires and the din of voices.  Most rode in pairs or small groups so they would warn their group of hikers ahead and then let us know how many in their group behind them.  This communication was helpful as we tried to get off the trail for them.  We snacked and drank water often.  I made homemade granola and we took dried apricots and apples.  We stopped for a lunch of honey peanut butter on english muffins.  Dinner at our campsite was minestrone (dry mix) made in our jet boil.  We went to bed early exhausted from a long day!

Breakfast the next day was oatmeal and raisins plus coffee for Scott and hot chocolate for me.  We packed up our tent and supplies and rolled out the opposite direction from which we came.  We felt much more limber the second day but still opted for a shortcut instead of a longer route.  We now knew our limits.  We encountered an old homestead from the 1800’s with only a fireplace and cellar left standing.  We also saw large mushrooms and a sand hill crane and we heard many more birds and wildlife.  We hope to do the longer Waterloo-Pinckney trail (4 days, 3 nights) next year.  Overall, I think staying where there was guaranteed water and an outhouse was a great compromise!