Did you know that Christmas cookies trace their lineage to medieval holiday rituals and Christmas cakes?  Christmas lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first “cookie” prepared for the holiday, and by the 1500s Christmas cookies had caught on all over Europe.  The Dutch brought them to the US in 1600, and nobody’s looked back since. 

This Christmas cookie history comes from Food Timeline right here on the Internet, along with lots more detail.  But history aside, how many of us have gifted or been gifted with Christmas cookies this holiday?  How many kinds have you sampled at parties?  How many packages have you bought at craft fairs or church bazaars or traded for at cookie exchanges?

This year I kept my extra baking light.  I made our traditional bishop’s cake for after-dinner snacking.  I baked a Snickers Brownie pie for a holiday party.  But there’s one more treat I’ll make to take to my son’s house on Christmas morning.  My terrific daughter-in-law has already given us a delicious assortment of Christmas cookies she made herself, but now I’ll return the favor with this holiday treat, traditional  in our household.   I’m sharing it here just in case you need a truly simple, quick and marvelously delicious Christmas cookie to round out your holiday fare.

Wherever you are, whatever you bake, whatever you eat, have a wonderful holiday.

Seven Layer Bars

1 stick margarine or butter
1 cup graham cracker crumbs–1 wrapped section crushed or whirled in food processor
1 cup flaked or shredded coconut
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk–don’t use nonfat
1 cup chopped walnuts

Melt butter in 9 x 13 inch pan

Sprinkle in order: crumbs, coconut, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips and walnuts. Drizzle condensed milk over top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Variations: You can substitute vanilla wafers for graham crackers and pecans or even salted peanuts for walnuts. You can double the amount of chips, too, although I prefer the amount above.  If you use vanilla wafers,  use 2/3rds cup of margarine.

Eat and enjoy.

While I’m out of town visiting family and waiting for the arrival of the new grandchild, I thought I’d share a blog I wrote for Fresh Fiction in June of 2009.  A search tells me it never appeared here, so enjoy now.  I’ll be back with new blogs next week.

Which comes first, the novel or the title?

There is no question that authors are odd. We hear voices in our heads. We stare blankly at walls for hours, leaving those around us to wonder if we have, without fanfare, passed away. We save things other people toss out or never possess in the first place. Real estate circulars. Missing children inserts. Photographs that show nothing except, perhaps, the curve of a cheek or the shape of an eye. We keep files. Oh yes, we keep lots and lots of files. Jotted notes of overheard conversations. Newspaper articles about mortgage fraud. Three word phrases that might vanish in the night.

Authors are almost always asked where our ideas come from. No matter how many times I’m asked, I’m not annoyed by this question. In fact I can relate. Myself, I wonder about architects, particularly those who design hotel lobbies and airports. Where did those ideas originate, and can we please extinguish the source? Or artists. Take Jackson Pollock. What possessed the man, other than an urge to pour lots of paint on lots of canvas? (more…)

October in Virginia is the last gasp for fresh vegetables at our local farmer’s market.  Having just mailed off my latest book, I took the morning to visit and stock up for a week of roasted veggies.  While the pickings were slimmer than they’d been a month before, I still returned home with armloads of goodies to roast.  The last of the fresh eggplant (I bought three of the paler, striped version, 6 to 8 inches long), three small, firm zucchini, shining onions, colorful peppers, and garlic. 

Instead of putting my lovely finds away to wither in my fridge, I immediately washed and chopped (all the epplant, zucchini, three peppers, along with one large onion and four cloves of garlic) into 3/4″ cubes, adding two cubed potatoes from my cupboard, some chopped chili peppers I’d grown myself, and a small bag of baby carrots, just as they were.  In a large bowl I tossed everything with several tablespoons of olive oil until they were lightly coated and glistened.  In went chopped herbs from my herb bed, Greek oregano, basil, rosemary, and Creole seasoning.  Trust me, if you’ve spent any time in Louisiana at all, a meal isn’t a meal without Tony Chachere’s or his buddies. 

Next I spread the veggies on two , lightly oiled cookie sheets and popped them into my oven at 450 degrees.  Fifteen minutes later I stirred and flipped, which I continued to do at five minute intervals until they were cooked through and beginning to caramelize, or turn a bit brown around the edges.  I like mine a bit more shriveled than my husband does, so we compromised at about 30 minutes. 

Once they cooled, I put my two quarts of roasted veggies in my fridge to use all week.  And wow, the possibilities are endless.  No sauteeing, boiling, baking this week.  The work was done. (more…)

Our TiVo died.  Not without fanfare, and certainly not without warning.  For the past four months, in the  most interesting part of any program, the picture was nearly guaranteed to break up, the progress of the story halted as we rooted for TiVo to heal itself and continue until we discovered who had killed whom.  Foolishly I hoped that TiVo’s lapses were signs of a passing illness, best addressed by watching some of the many shows we had saved and freeing the hard drive for a little R&R.  But not to be.  Even the good folks at telephone support agreed that TiVo, who had served us so well for so many years, had succumbed for all time.

We have two televisions, an ancient big screen with the potential for high definition cable–once we figure out how to hook it up without TiVo as the mediator.  And a small (?) 27″ with minimal cable access.  Our evenings have changed drastically.  What, watch what’s actually ON?  I think not.  Or pull the big TV away from the wall and try to figure out how to get it working again?  Horrors!  (more…)

I remember the days before Facebook.  Yes, I’m that old.  I remember when I pondered questions of great importance and wished I had someone to turn to for answers.  No email, no Facebook, no Twitter.

Wish no more. 

Recently I received an email from an unhappy reader.   She had a discount coupon for Fortunate Harbor, but she couldn’t find it at her local booksellers.   Surprised, I decided to post about this on my Facebook page and see if anyone else had experienced a problem, because my own trip to Books-A-Million had turned up an interesting conundrum.  While they had one copy of both Happiness Key and Fortunate Harbor, the books were shelved differently, one in romance and one in fiction/literature.

Odd and interesting.  A reader would have to be well-informed, highly motivated, and willing to stand in line for help to find both books.  (more…)

Fireworks over Asheville, North Carolina last night, courtesy of photographer Galen McGee of Peak Definition and Two Rings Studio.  How absolutely glorious.

I’ll confess, much about promoting a book is simply exhausting.  Saying “no,” for instance, when I’m asked to speak–the exhausting part comes from deciding what I can manage each year and what’s just one thing too many.  Book signings can be exhausting, too.  Not the kind that should be, when a hundred readers are standing in front of you–most often when the books are free, of course–and they’re exhilarating.  The truly exhausting book signing is the one scheduled after lunch at a downtown mall when everyone is at work and those who aren’t are shopping in the suburbs.  Trying to look happy and busy when there’s nothing to do?  Exhausting.

What’s not exhausting?  For me, social media.  I love Facebook–as some of you have discovered.  I connect my chatty Facebook page to Twitter so I can do both simultaneously.  I love writing this blog.  And now, thanks to my buddy Pat Sloan, the quilt and fabric designer extraordinaire, I’m about to love talk radio.   Some of you know Pat as my co-designer for the Season of Grace Christmas stocking quilt, still available on both our sites.  Her quilts and fabrics are gorgeous.  Check them out. (more…)

I had such big plans.  Almost an entire month by myself at our “new” (1895) cottage just up the hill from Lake Chautauqua in Western NY.  Chautauqua Institution is a historic community, once a camp for Methodist Sunday School teachers and now a renowned cultural community with a nine week season of music, lectures, theater and much, much more.  We’ve been coming here for years to recharge for a week or two each summer, but this is the first time we’ve had the luxury of coming off season.  I planned to “open” the cottage, figure out what to keep and how to organize what was left, then write, write, write.  I thought with all this peace and quiet, I could manage perhaps as many as two rough draft chapters every three days.

In my weeks here I’ve written three chapters. 

Finding the time to write, every writers dilemma.  How can this be as difficult as I’m making it?  After all, you just sit down, turn on the computer or pull out the yellow legal pad and magic pen and away you go. 

Not.

Writing demands complete concentration.  For me, that comes at a price, usually hours at the computer before I can really sink into the book and detail what I see.  When I’m lucky enough to reach that stage, pages fly by.  If I’m interrupted during this warm-up, often I never quite reach that point where the writing flows.  I struggle over sentences, and while I usually have something to show for the effort, every word is hard won.

Sometimes, though, interruptions are more fun than the alternative.  A lot more fun.  In my weeks here I’ve watched our little house achieve some kind of order, and supervised needed repairs and changes.  I landscaped the front garden and found a helper to do some of the dirty work.  I accepted a plot in the community garden and today will finish planting my tomatoes.  I attended two concerts, met scores of wonderful people, most who generously invited me for meals or porch socializing.  I took walks and field trips, shopped at the incredible Wegman’s grocery store, and discovered that the local Dollar General has almost anything I could ever need. Who knew?

I discovered that dinner parties in my tiny kitchen will have to be planned carefully and executed in stages, and while I was at it I was reminded that friends don’t care, even when the chicken takes forever to cook.  I found that early June can be cold in Western NY, and that a warm dog in a lap is almost as good as a heater–but that doesn’t mean a few baseboard units wouldn’t be a welcome addition in the future.  Nemo and I took frequent walks each day, watching the community come alive and enjoying the sun sparkling on our gorgeous blue lake.  I said hello to a hundred strangers who all said hello in return.

Sometimes the best laid plans go astray.  Mine certainly did.  What does this mean exactly?  Well, in my case, it means I’ll have to write in August when I’d hoped not to.  But that’s a price easily paid for the fun I’ve had.  I’m looking forward to sinking back into my book and reuniting with my characters. 

I had great expectations for my time here, but the reality was even better.  Sometimes it’s important to let go of expectations, to see what transpires without them.  Some of  life’s finest gifts arrive that way.  My gift this past month was making new friends and learning to appreciate this remarkable community in a whole new way.   I just bet, in the long run, Tracy, Wanda, Janya and Alice will all be better off for it when I settle in, once again, to tell their story.

Just as writing Happiness Key made me think extra hard about what makes me happy and why, writing Fortunate Harbor made me think about all the ways I’ve been fortunate in my life.  Taking a blessing inventory, if you will, is a thought-provoking discipline, and I’ve found the more I think about this, the more fortunate I feel.  In fact I have a new ritual I’m trying to incorporate in my life.   Every day I fill in this sentence:  “I am fortunate because. . .”  And even on a bad day–and don’t we all have them?–it’s surprisingly easy to do.   This is different from Pollyanna’s “glad” game.   I’m not necessarily trying to find the good in every bad situation.  I’m looking for the major themes in my life, and all the parts of it for which I can and should be grateful.

Life is filled with “lagniappe,” (a term used frequently in Louisiana)  that unexpected extra we don’t necessarily deserve, which arrives on our doorstep anyway.  Yesterday I was reminded of this, and not subtly.  I was hit over the head with it, a baseball bat moment, as you will.  Years ago, after the birth of two sons, I realized, as much as I adored them both, I also wanted and needed a daughter to help balance out the testosterone overload in our household.   After a year of discovering just how difficult it is to adopt a child of any age, gender or ethnicity, we learned of a six-year-old who was available to us, and after mountains of paperwork and a few scares along the way, our daughter arrived at midnight at the Pittsburgh airport to become our third child and the family peacemaker.

My daughter is, in every way, the child of my heart.  But both she and I have talked about how sad we are that we missed her baby years together.  What did she look like?  When did she walk, talk, giggle?  I was sorry I never had the fun of dressing a baby girl–okay, all those years of playing dolls was leading to that, right?–and that by the time she arrived, her instinctive fashion sense was so highly developed that pretty soon she was dressing “me.”   We missed the baby cuddling stage, the pattycake and eensy teensy spider.  Small things, yes, in the scheme of life.  We got so much, who could mourn too long?

Yesterday as I held my daughter’s daughter on my hip and watched the ultrasound that informed us that yes, yet another baby girl was on the way, I was reminded (baseball bat moment) how fortunate I am.  I have my wonderful daughter.  And now I have the baby girls I missed.  When my three-year-old granddaughter makes a face, I see her mother so clearly, and now I know what SHE looked like at three.   I held my granddaughter when she was an infant, cuddled her, dressed her, knitted sweaters for her, made her a quilt, played eensy teensy spider.  All those things I’d missed are mine now.  And soon will be a second time.

I am fortunate because. . .

Last year so many of you told me what made you happy, even, for some of you, in the midst of great difficulty.  This year I hope you’ll tell me the ways you feel fortunate.  Dig for them, if you will.  What have your received that you didn’t necessarily deserve or work for?  What blessings have simply appeared in your life?  How do you pass them on?

To help you along, I’ve printed post-it notes with the words” I Am Fortunate Because. . .” at the top.  These are perfect to use every day.  Fill in the blank, then stick the post-it where you’ll see it, and be reminded of your good fortune throughout the day.

The first twenty-five people who comment here and tell us the ways they’re fortunate, will receive a post-it note pack, along with a signed bookplate.  You’ll also be entered in my next big giveaway in July.  So stay tuned for those details.  You’ll only be entered once, so be certain you can receive email from me so we can communicate with the fortunate twenty-five to get mailing addresses.

I am fortunate because. . .   How about you?

And a Bald Eagle in a Dead Tree jpg.jpg

One of the things I love most about Sanibel Island is the diversity of wildlife.  The birds amaze me.  This morning a Great Egret performed a majestic stroll through our yard.  On the beach varieties of sandpipers, gulls, pelicans, ibis and snowy egrets entertain us each morning and evening.  Used to cardinals and sparrows in my yard this time of year, exotic birds are a new treat.  Of course nothing’s quite reached the excitement of spotting a bald eagle across the street this week, perched high in a dead tree looking for breakfast.  My first bald eagle.  A Christmas treasure to be savored.

This time of year we think so much about gifts.  With a laid back Christmas rolling out before me, I’ve had time to concentrate more on the gifts around me, and less on gifts that come from stores.  Being away from home has given me a new perspective on shopping.  Instead of buying themed food gifts for agent and editors this year, in their names I bought a bookshelf for a child development center in Sri Lanka through Child Fund International, in hopes that a new generation of children will learn to appreciate reading as much as all of us did.  For my children, simpler presents or help with airfare so they can come and visit us.  Not shopping as much, or baking in the iffy oven of our rental house, has freed up time to write cards designed by one of my sons to friends far and near, and to enjoy the experience.

I love all the Christmas trappings, but this year?  I confess it’s nice to have fewer and to concentrate more on enjoying the holiday and its message of hope.  Next year?  Who knows.  Maybe we won’t have to travel so far from home to have a simpler Christmas.  I’m not sure exactly what I’ll take away from this holiday on Sanibel.  But surely, I will always remember my bald eagle friend, posing for this photo, and be joyful.