Monday, December 20, 2021

Sweet Treats for Christmastime

I don't do a ton of baking for holidays, but I do have a few tried-and-true recipes that are always on our list. Below are five treats I make every year without fail.

1. Knock-Off Cranberry Bliss Bars

This is a Starbucks copycat recipe and always gets rave reviews from friends and neighbors. After misplacing my mom's recipe, I pulled together a variety of online versions and combined them to make my own favorite. I always make a double batch (two 9x13 pans) on St. Lucy's Day -- I frost one for our St. Lucy's tea, and put the other unfrosted pan in the freezer to pull out and frost for Christmas.


3/4 c. (1.5 sticks) butter, softened
1 1/4 c. light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 t. ground ginger
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 t. baking powder
3/4 c. chopped sweetened dried cranberries
6 oz. white chocolate chips


4 ounces softened cream cheese
1.5 c. powdered sugar
4 T. butter, softened
1 t. vanilla
1 T. orange juice
1 T. orange zest


1/4 c. chopped dried cranberries
1/3 c. white chocolate chips + 1 T. vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 350. Make cake by beating the butter and brown sugar together with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the eggs, ginger, vanilla, and salt, and beat well.  Gradually mix in the flour and baking powder until smooth. Mix the chopped dried cranberries and white chocolate into the batter by hand. Pour the batter into greased 9x13 pan (I line with foil also). It will be sticky, so spread the batter evenly across the pan with a wet spatula or hands. Bake 25-30 minutes, or until lightly browned on top.  Allow to cool completely.

Mix together frosting ingredients with electric mixer. Once cake is cooled, spread frosting evenly over cake.

Sprinkle on 1/4 c. chopped dried cranberries.

Melt 1/3 c. white chocolate chips with 1T. oil on low heat in microwave, stirring frequently, until smooth. Drizzle over top of bars.

Let cake chill in the fridge for a couple hours. Cut into squares; then cut each square in half to make triangles. Store in fridge and serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

2. Gingersnaps

This is my mom's recipe for not-too-sweet, gingery gingersnaps. I love that they stay a little soft in the middle but firm up around the edges. They freeze very well also.

2 c. flour
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. light molasses
1 egg, beaten
1 T. baking powder
1 t. ground cloves
1 t. ground cinnamon
1.5 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. (1.5 sticks) butter, room temperature
1/3 c. sugar, for rolling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift dry ingredients into bowl and set aside. Using mixer, cream butter with 1 c. sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in molasses and egg. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Cover and refrigerate dough at least one hour (can be done a day ahead). Using 1 T. per cookie, form dough into balls. Roll balls in 1/3 c. sugar. Arrange on ungreased cookie sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake until cookies are light browned around edges, about 12 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool completely; cookies will crisp as they cool.

3. Peppermint Chocolate Cookies

This is a recent addition that is now a family favorite. Unfortunately, my husband isn't a peppermint fan, so the kids and I have these all to ourselves. ;) They would make a great addition to a pretty cookie platter. Last year I dipped them in regular melted chocolate rather than white and used sprinkles rather than candy cane crumbs. Recipe here at Cooking Classy!

4. Sugar Cookies

This is our family's go-to sugar cookie recipe. We make them year round, but during Christmas, we add festive sprinkles. You could also frost them, but they are plenty sweet without. Recipe here at Life Love and Sugar. Just a couple notes: we make 1 T. balls and cook about 9 minutes, though be sure not to overbake! They do firm up when cooled. We also don't worry too much about overmixing -- we combine everything with the mixer and I can't notice any difference.

5. Last, a breakfast treat: Ina Garten's Easy Cheese Danishes

I have made these for Christmas and Easter brunch for at least a decade. Surprisingly easy and so tasty. I love sweet breakfast foods that pair well with coffee -- this is a winner! It's also simple enough that you could make it for brunch anytime, not just for the holidays. Recipe here at Food Network.


Before I go: are you looking for some gifts for the bakers in your life, or items to add to your own Christmas list? I love my ceramic 9x11 dishes and my silicone baking mats. I also could not do without my gigantic cookie sheet -- I measured my oven and bought the biggest one that could fit. I use it almost daily! It cleans up well and is thicker than other pans I have purchased.

As my children get older and more helpful in the kitchen, I find I'm branching more each year. What are your very favorite Christmas treat recipes?  Leave a recipe or link below and I'll let my girls sort through to find some new treats to try!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

{This and That} :: December 1st

Hello friends! Are you enjoying the start of December? With Thanksgiving past, Advent present, and Christmas to come, it's one of my favorite "seasons" of the year!

We enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving that I took literally zero photos of. How is that possible?! Thanksgiving Friday we were able to go to Mass and visit the graves of family members for All Souls' Day/month. It's always so striking to see children at a cemetery -- a good reminder of both the mortality of the body and the immortality of the soul.


Advent is such a holy time of the year. I love how the preparation we must do in our homes and for our families becomes a metaphor for spiritual preparation. And I love the time for reflection and the hope of a new year to come.

I realized that I only have two Advents left after this before my older children are in college or out living their lives! That humbling thought brought home the idea of preparation in a new way for me this year.

I am reading Houselander's Reed of God and thinking about L'Umile Pianta, or the humble plant, as we have been discussing over at the CMEC this fall. We have also been talking about the "habit of attention" as demonstrated by Our Lady. The "serenity of the Madonna" (as Mason calls it) is such a powerful posture for the mother-teacher. Fruitful connections between life and lessons for me to ponder this Advent!


Justin celebrated his sixth birthday this month! He got his own TBG Songbook, which he loves using for singing, recitation, and writing. And as you can see in the photo on the right, he lost his two front teeth in the last two weeks -- just in time for Christmas. ;)


I love this picture of him napping by the fire. So cozy, and so him! He loves to cuddle.


Some snaps from our exam celebration in October...


And now we are currently in the second half of our second term! (I divide each 10-week term into two 5-week sessions for my planning.) That means we're right at the halfway point in our school year, which is hard to believe.

Work from the past couple weeks...

kingfisher from Burgess Bird Book

Form 1 Bible narrations

grammar lessons with my Form 2B student

demonstrating the Pythagorean theorem

Kinderleben monograms

table work

chalk drawing lessons

clay modeling - snakes!

outdoor geography -- and enjoying the fall sunshine!

final projects for Plutarch and Beesly's Stories from the History of Rome

I have to admit, it was a bit hard to get back to things on Monday after the long Thanksgiving weekend and with Christmas break almost in sight -- which is why I am so grateful for our timetable! I just got up and did the "next right thing" and the day flew by.


My goal this year was to finish all the Christmas shopping I could before Thanksgiving, and I succeeded! I really just needed the mental space during Advent to focus on home things and spiritual things.

If you are looking for gift ideas, I am happy to share a few. (Just don't tell my kids! :))

:: These journals are lovely and seem very durable. They arrived in the mail but I put them aside, so we haven't tried writing on them yet. But they get great reviews and have so many pretty cover options.

:: These small jewelry boxes are going to be perfect for each of my girls to store her own jewelry. (I also grabbed some assorted studs for my oldest, who got her ears pierced just a month ago!)

:: One of my goals for this year was to encourage physical activity and time outdoors. My older boys have started running every morning and are getting running socks and gloves. I also have pots, seeds, tools, and gardening gloves on the way for them! And I grabbed scooters at a deep discount for a couple of my middle kids who have outgrown their smaller ones. We love these water bottles (totally leak-proof and easy to clean) and needed a couple more for our adventures, and the girls needed new warm socks of various kinds to wear with their rain boots.

:: Youngers are getting frisbees, socks, gripper socks, winter glovesonesies and soft-soled shoes.

:: A few books on their wish lists: The Living Wood and The Keeper of the Bees (olders), Enemy Brothers and The Last Crusader (older middles), Snow Treasure and Springtime with Geraldine Woolkins (younger middles), If You Lived Here and Where is Baby's Belly Button (littles).

And if you're looking for stocking stuffer ideas, I have lots of little things recommended here. This year, we're doing pajamas all around, peg doll craft kits, and the essentials -- chocolate and oranges, of course!

And might I recommend my daughter Gianna's novel, Four Red Banners, for kids who love a good story? :)

What are you gifting this year? I am hoping to get a head start on this year's birthdays during Christmas break and would love fresh ideas.

(Links above are affiliate links. Thanks for your support!)


I have a post about our family prayer routine coming soon -- hopefully some time in December. Until then, wishing you a fruitful Advent!

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Learning in Community :: Fall 2021

When I first began homeschooling, there were no Charlotte Mason groups in my area, so I decided to start one! I began with a nature club, and for the past ten years, we have been meeting almost every Friday for a walk/hike/meet-up in a wild space of some kind, with time for exploration, nature journaling, and play. A couple years later, we added on a monthly-ish Charlotte Mason study group for those interested. Together we have gone through Mason's volumes and many Parents' Review articles. Over the years, members have come and gone -- some have made different schooling choices, some have moved here and then moved away, and new moms contact me all the time. But the core group of current members are now dear friends. I am really grateful to be home educating alongside them.

This year, we decided to add in a co-op -- it seemed like the right time for many reasons. My kids are older and can really benefit from learning with peers, my husband works from home and is able to watch my littles, and post-Covid, I have seen the real value of community, despite the energy it can take.

But the biggest push for me was that all of us are now using the CMEC. Not only does the CMEC offer a lot of support for community learning, but also we are all using the same programs this year, and we all have access to the same resources. This has made planning for cooperative learning super simple!

We decided to start small: every other Friday from 9-noon, instead of nature club, we would meet for our co-op. We committed to seven sessions for Fall Term (late August to mid-November). Currently we are on a break for Winter Term, and then we will have another seven sessions for Spring Term (late January to early April).

We have six families, including about twenty school-aged kids plus littles. We have a mix of subjects: some we do all together, and some we split into two groups for (Form 1 and Kinderleben go with one instructor, and Forms 2-5 go with another instructor). There are also a couple moms in charge of managing Littleleben (aka, the babies and toddlers!) while the students are working.

Here was our schedule for this fall:

On the off weeks, families did these same subjects on their own and we met for our regular nature outing on Friday morning. The only lesson that really required families to stay on track at home was Plutarch, since we only covered every other lesson together and we didn't want students to get behind or be confused during class. The rest were fairly flexible, and meeting only every other week allowed us a bit of freedom for each family to have their own school schedule. We used Slack, our communication platform, to share any necessary notes for parents.

Due to Covid restrictions, we met outside all term. Thanks to our nice weather here in California, that worked just fine. We were able to find a great spot at a local community park with plenty of shade, picnic tables, privacy, and not too many distractions. :)

During the optional sharing time at the end for the older kids, we chose a different category each week -- for example, one week they brought their current handicrafts, another they brought notebooks, another they brought board games to play together. On the last week, we had a "book club" discussion of the historical fiction assigned this term, Johnny Tremain.

Our seventh and final meeting was a fall celebration. The students performed their songs and folk dances, recited poems, played singing games, and showcased final projects for Plutarch and fairy tales. We finished with a potluck lunch and plenty of time to play.

In the spring, we are intentionally taking on a few different subjects so we have a chance to experience a variety of lessons in community. We have a meeting coming up this month to finalize our spring plans!

Our co-op went so smoothly this fall, partly thanks to the CMEC resources (it helped to have that flexible guidance to structure our studies, and we learned so much from Amy's experience at The Mason Academy that she shares through the Community Learning Support Group) and partly thanks to the cheerful willingness of the families involved. Everyone was eager to contribute and committed to understanding the methodology well. Plus we have a pretty wonderful group of kids!

Are you part of a co-op? What are your favorite subjects to do together? We are currently planning Shakespeare, scouting, drill, historical picture books, and a few more fun additions for next term's studies.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

{This and That} :: Happy October!

Happy to be popping in with an update on a very rainy, very delightful Sunday afternoon!

We begin exams tomorrow after a very full first term. This is the one of the smoothest first terms I have ever had, thanks mostly to lots of help from my husband as we transitioned to a fuller morning timetable. Whenever he is not in meetings, he has been keeping the three youngest with him to play in his office from 9-11am. On the days he is busy, I have a rotation of toys and Littleleben activities ready for them. I no longer have a morning break, but I have enjoyed finishing my school day earlier and am feeling less tired in the afternoon hours.

Home education is always a stretching experience -- there is no avoiding the challenges that each day brings in a family with so many different ages and personalities! But I am so grateful for a joyful fall term and excited for the weeks ahead.

Some recent highlights from our work together...

Form 1 pacing and mapmaking

singing with our TBG Songbooks

sloyd portfolios

Plutarch weekly painting!

Burgess Bird Book brush drawing

flat washes

raffia tassels

reading lessons - word-building practice

breakfast reading

chalk drawing - warm-up with spirals

object drawing in chalk - ellipses

weekly meetings

Form  5 commonplace

Plant Life in Field and Garden - male and female flowers

raffia fringe

European geography with playdoh

...and with the white board!

clay modeling from imagination

high school  chemistry

the littles playing restaurant :)

Trojan horse in the Book of Centuries


My trip to Philadelphia for the CMEC's Fall Mini-Retreat a couple weeks ago was a wonderful time. Amy and I were able to explore composition through the Forms, from copywork in Form 1 through high school writing.

We spent a morning walking in Valley Forge while we brainstormed our community offerings for the next year. The perfect place for perspective and inspiration!

And I had a window seat on my flight home on a beautifully clear day. (Can you tell which part of the country I was flying over in each one?)

I can always tell when I'm back home in California when I see its neat suburbs creeping up the golden hills that stretch for miles.


My three September birthday girls are looking so grown up...


What have you been reading lately? After lots of pre-reading this summer and early fall, I have taken the last month or so to pick up some more leisurely books...

On my flight to Philadelphia, I spent five thoroughly riveted hours reading Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock. This was actually a re-read for me, but it had been a few years and my high schoolers will be reading it this spring. I was reminded why it is one of my favorites of all time as I tried to hide my tears on the packed flight!

My Form 1 students have been listening through the Little House series for their literature reading this term. After hearing bits and pieces here and there, I decided to re-read the series myself back-to-back last weekend. I have to say: it was a more emotional experience than I was expecting! It had probably been five years since the last time I read the novels, and wow -- it is a different series altogether when your oldest daughter is the same age as Laura when she gets her first teaching job away from home. It gave me a lot to think about.

Today I started The Song of the Scaffold, which I read years ago but don't remember that well. I'm thinking it might make a good addition to next year's study of the French Revolution.

So I suppose it is a season for re-reading? I am always looking for something familiar in the fall. Do your book choices vary by season?


After talking about restful Sundays at the CMEC Summer Gatherings this past July, I have been motivated to refresh my own Sunday routine. It's always nice to build in some special, small practices that help make it a day to look forward to. (Especially because football season means I have several free hours on Sundays while the kids watch with my husband!)

We go to an early Mass so my sons can serve, so we are home in time for breakfast. I always enjoy my leisurely Sunday coffee -- it is truly a highlight of my week.

A fun recent addition: I have been using my Dry Gloss kit from Bare Hands (a gift from a dear friend) to take care of my nails each week. The best thing about this kit is that it gives you neat, shiny nails with no polish -- I love it. While I'm doing my manicure, I listen to a podcast episode. My current favorite is from Optimal Work. Usually I really enjoy the quiet and I'm not generally a podcast person, but this has been a nice change of pace for me on Sundays.

I also work in my TBG Notebook. I don't usually have time to make an artist or composer study entry during our lesson because my Form 1 students need me to act as scribe for their narrations, so on Sundays I set aside time to sketch or write. I also occasionally pull out my Book of Centuries or nature journal if I have something I'd like to add. 

(As a side note, my kids are using the Riverbend Press TBG Notebooks this year and they just adore them. They take such good care of them because they feel so special, and the paper is a dream to work on. But I like a smaller format for myself right now; I'm using a Prat Flexbook for my TBG Notebook.)

Sundays always involve some spiritual reading for me as well. I mentioned this before over on Instagram, but I use Sundays as an opportunity to read the week's Bible lessons. A few weeks ago, I read ahead and completed the term's assignments, so lately I have been dipping into The Sermons from St. Alphonsus Ligouri for All Sundays of the Year (which my older kids are also reading weekly), Scale How Meditations, and others from my shelves. Often my spiritual reading helps me form an intention for the week that I write in my logbook as a daily prayer.

And I like to have a treat for Sundays. Right now I am well-stocked with options because my kids gifted me with some fun sweets for my birthday -- I'm enjoying some homemade lavender ice cream right now (!) and have several chocolate bars stashed in my desk drawer. But often my girls will bake something tasty to enjoy over Sunday. We then save the rest in the freezer to pull out for the next Friday's Weekly Meetings. As the weather gets colder, I have been sipping hot water with lemon through the afternoon as I sit and read. Fragrant and fresh!

My Sunday observance too varies with the seasons. Soon it will be time for cozy fires, baking, reading, and crafting. :) What ways have you been making Sunday special lately?


Like I mentioned, I recently celebrated a birthday and got so many fun little handmade gifts from my crew...

Aren't they so creative? I love to see how they take skills they have built during lessons over the years and weave them into thoughtful things.

And the large papercutting in the top center is by my kindergartener and is based on Turner's Dordrecht from the Kinderleben Artist Print Set. This is actually his second time reinterpreting the piece -- he also painted it a few weeks ago!


Before I sign off, a few logistical notes:

First, a few months ago, Blogger somehow switched my comments to moderated without notifying me. I noticed last week that I had dozens and dozens of comments awaiting moderation in my account. I went through all of them and commented back, so you may have recently heard from me about something you asked long, long ago. ;) Sorry about that!

Some of you have sent email requests recently to access documents I have shared here on the blog in the past. Google Drive made a security update that turned off sharing settings for old documents -- and since I have been posting here for over a decade, that affected a good number of my Drive links! I think I have resolved the issue, but if you encounter a problem, feel free to hit that "request access" button so I am aware of which documents still need to be tweaked.

Speaking of old documents, one this has always been popular is the All Souls' Day prayer cards I created years ago -- and November 2nd is just around the corner! You can find that free printable here.

Finally, you may have heard that Google's blog subscription service, Feedburner, was recently discontinued. I converted all existing email subscriptions to But if you used to get email notifications for new posts here on Joyous Lessons and are no longer doing so, you may need to re-request to follow. You'll find the subscription box over in the right sidebar. As always, thanks for following along. I really appreciate your readership.

Have a great week!