Friday, December 31, 2010

Kolaches - A Czech Tradition

The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight."
~ M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992)

Baking and cooking for my family and friends has to be on my top 10 list of favorite things to do (minus the dishes).  I can pretty much find a reason to celebrate any calendar event with food - no kidding, ask my kids.  This year they wanted to know what we were going to bake for Kwanzaa.  Ok, so we skipped that one....but the Advent and Christmas Seasons magically inspire a greater joy for baking.  They tend to instill a sense of sentiment and feelings of nostalgia.  We desire to renew and continue traditions of the past, and even begin our own traditions within our families.

The boys love to join me in the kitchen - especially if it involves something sweet.  I like to give them little "recipes" that they can handle on their own, such as white chocolate dipped pretzels.  As you can see the first three are diligently dipping, while #4 is strictly munching.

During Advent, our boys love reading the story of King Wenceslas, upon which the traditional hymn "Good King Wenceslas" is based.  This year, its recitation generated a lively discussion, which evolved into a full-fledged lesson on the history of the Czech Republic, Czech traditions, a map study and most importantly a further story-telling of my dad's family who immigrated here from what used to be known as Czechoslovakia.

Growing up near my grandparents farm outside Munden, Kansas meant frequent visits to their farm.  And, as many of you know, it's rare to visit anyone's farm without being offered something to eat....
This is a lovely picture of my grandma, Blanche.
Grandma was a very gentle, yet strong woman who represented so many wonderful talents to me.  She loved to garden and cared for the most beautiful peonies I've ever seen.  She talked to her chickens when we would go to fetch eggs, went for a walk every day, recycled everything (when it was more necessary frugality and not a religion), had an unmistakable giggle (especially when playing cards), and most of all she made the best Kolaches in Republic County.  We all like to think that she baked for us, her precious little grandkids, but it probably began with this handsome fella -
This is my grandpa George, my third son's namesake.  We know Grandma had him wrapped around her finger - how else could it be since the way to a man's heart is through his stomach???

So, back to baking, and what's a Kolache you say? It's a soft, slightly-sweet round bread with a filling, typically composed of fruit.  If you've never had one, I suggest you hop on Google and try to find the nearest bakery that has them on their menu, or better yet, plan a family trip to a Czech fest so you can try one, or two...  Now, they won't be as good as Blanche's, but you'll still love them, I promise!

Thus begins our Czech baking tradition.  The feast of St. Wenceslas falls on September 28th.  We could not wait until then to bake!  In the hymn, St. Wenceslas sets out on the feast of St. Stephen, typically celebrated the first day after Christmas, to bring gifts to the poor.  Perfect!

Baking Kolaches is an investment of time and love, and is more fun when made with family or friends. Though I decided to tackle my first batch alone, I am confident that my Grandma was coaching me from heaven, and I hope she knows that the gifts of love she gave to all of us are still being passed down through the generations.  Here are a few snippets of my baking endeavor:
Gathering up the ingredients for the dough....oh, the dough, soft, sweet, yummy - this part takes the most time.
 So far so good!  This mound of dough makes about 12 Kolaches.
If you are a fan of kitchen gadgets, but have zero intention of ever baking a kolache, you should have one of these cute dough presses if only for a culinary conversation piece.  They make the perfect indention in the dough for the filling.
Filling time.  Traditional recipes include cherry, pineapple, apricot, poppy seed and prune to name a few.  I decided to make cherry, poppy seed, lemon and apple.
The crumb topping is the final touch.  The Kolache is almost like 3 desserts in one - it's like a collision of sweet bread meets pie and finds a crisp.  Sigh....
 Delicious served warm out of the oven, but they can also be frozen and saved for later...
If you can wait!!

If you would like to try the recipe I used, please send me an e-mail, at  I would be happy to share!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Say Cheese!!!

Raise your hand if you like to take snapshots of your munchkins.  Raise your hand if you like to take pictures with a purpose (i.e. family Christmas photo.).  No hands??  Then you feel my pain, my anguish, my clenching of teeth.  Those of you whose kids have the ability to stand in line and smile on cue go away.  Now.

My hearts desire to send a portrait of my little lambs to friends and family comes to life every year around Thanksgiving.  Where should I take it?  What will they wear?  When is the perfect time to "schedule" (cram into craziness) the "event?"  I'm not much for posing...the more natural real-life shots, shots taken of the unaware are my favorite.  But, orchestrating the "natural" of all four boys around here would probably amount to photographing a post-wrestling dog-pile or a brotherhood "sprinkling" of the lawn event - neither of which feel Christmas appropriate.

Nevertheless, I must try....
"Gee whiz, Ben, I just don't know how she's gonna pull this one off."
"Listen, if I'm gonna smile it's gonna require some bribes, serious bribes."
"Golly, mom, I just passed potty training, now you want me to smile and behave for a picture? That's a lot of pressure for a three year old."
Husband Family Photo, Take 1...
Edits: Sun in eyes, finger up nose, rabbit ears, husband needing nap...
Try again....this time, without mom....
Edits:  Oldest son m.i.a., youngest son needing nap, third child in pine-needle fascination trance...
Try again....location change....
Edits:  Second son exhibiting strength, steadying swing for dad, eldest son looking impressed, youngest son demonstrating escape artist skills...
Try re-enters pic...
Edits:  Dad's asleep, third son waiting for bribes, dog is looking for full moon...
Try again....dare I???...
Ok, not too shabby here...
or here...
But dare I try again....another day??  Another angle?? Boys only??...
Oh so true to form...
But then, just before the count of three, just before they expect it....
Click!'s all my mushy, gushy love in a photo.  Mom wins! :)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Conversations with Henry

When Steve and I began our family 10 years ago, I knew....and I had known for a very long time....that my heart's desire was to stay at home with the kids, that that would be my "job" my "work" my "career," my privilege.
Yesterday afternoon, I took our youngest son, Henry outside to swing.  Just the two of us. The air was still and crisp everything felt still, for a moment "life" was on pause.  As he swaggered along ahead of me, I relished every moment, every movement.  I love how little ones, especially when in nature, take nothing for granted - everything deserves attention, notice, sharing.  They stop to pick up rocks, to feel the grass, to talk to and chase the cat, to laugh, to "be." It is wonderful.
Most of our conversations began with "Mom! Wook at dis!" or "Hey, Mom, did you see dat?" Just hearing Henry speak is entertainment. He has a unique draw that would convince anyone that there's Southern blood in our family somewhere. Gloves are "lubs", school is "skewel", holy is "hody" in "Hody Cow!"  And, "Are we going to Hody Mass today?"

I know that he will grow, and change so quickly....and he'll do it when I'm not looking, paying attention, recognizing - because so many "important" things are being attended to.
You may not know it now, Henry James Augustine, but I'm watching you....I see you sneak up on anything that moves with whatever make-shift weapon you have created in Davy Crockett get-up.  I know that you love your cowboy boots, doggy jammies, Menthos candy, story time, hide and seek and all things farm.  I hear your giggles throughout the day and have stored them in my memory forever.
Everything I have will someday be gone, and everything I've accomplished will soon be forgotten.  But, being a mother has eternal merit.  Helping lead five little souls to Heaven, be it through laundry, k.p. duty or any other mundane task may at times feel like a job....thanks be to God for your sweet little smiles....there to remind me that it is indeed a privilege.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stories of the Season

Ever since my first born was, well, born, I have been reading to him....and every single child since.  Books of all types, especially children's picture books, have always interested me.  That interest has only escalated since the inception of homeschooling in our family.  Not every children's book is a good book, and few are great books, so I have relied on a few solid sources and insightful recommendations from friends over the years to build our library.  There is something almost magical about the pursuit of books with insightful or entertaining text, beautiful or clever illustrations, predictable plots yet surprise endings.

I know that Christmas is only two weeks away, which doesn't leave a lot of time for reading....but don't forget, the Christmas season endures until Epiphany, which leaves plenty of time for cuddling up with the kiddos and a stack of great books.

This is one of my all time favorite stories to read during Advent.  The illustrations are magnificent (boys will especially appreciate the grandeur of the king and his knights), the text is of course the traditional hymn by the name of the title, and the richness of the tradition behind the carol is a superb teaching/catechetical tool.  If you have any Czech blood in your heritage, it is worth the time and effort to do a map study on the Czech Republic, look up pictures of Prague, and bake or buy some Kolaches (a traditional Czech pastry - yummy!!).

If you would like to read more about St. Wenceslas before enjoying the book with your family, here is a link:

In addition to the story, this You Tube clip features artwork of St. Wenceslas set to a lovely vocal of the traditional carol.

This title is the most recent addition to our Christmas library.  I found a recommendation for it on the website "No Time for Flashcards."  The illustrations are hilarious, and it is simply fun to read.  My littlest one, Henry, asks me to read it about 100 times a day, and I cannot get enough of his little giggles!
If you want to make it educational, you could introduce the following:
Art: Let the kids identify the colors of the sprinkles, then talk about the color wheel.  They can paint a page of sprinkles using primary colors, then mix their own secondary. (Bingo dobbers would also be fun!)
Language Arts:  Teach the term alliteration.  Let the kids find patterns of alliteration throughout the text.  Also, you could have the older kids write a summary, putting the events of the story in order using the terms first, second, next, then, finally, etc.
Character Formation:  Teach the virtues of generosity, helpfulness, charity, industriousness, etc. Then, discuss how the Sprinkle Snitcher is the antitheses of these good behaviors.

The Gift of the Magi is a beautiful demonstration of the exemplary virtues of generosity, sacrifice, and self-gift lovingly enacted through two individuals during the Christmas season.  Though the text will be too advanced for little ones, if they are patient, the language can be simplified and explained as the story is read.  It is one of those books that I never tire of reading as an adult, and the richness of the illustrations give a unique life to the story.

Many of you probably have at least on Tomie dePaola book in your library.  He is a great storyteller and his books can often be recognized by the illustrations alone.  These are two that are nice for the may even be lucky enough to rescue one off of the bargain book rack!  The 50% off sticker adds such a nice touch, don't ya think?
One of the first Christmas books to enter our library, Why Christmas Trees Aren't Perfect is a simple yet wonderful story.  It encourages discussion on why Christ came into the world and how we can model His self-donating love to others.
A good friend of mine graciously recommended this fantastic trilogy to me several years ago, and the anticipation of their reading never ceases.  They follow the Advent calendar, and one chapter is read for each day, ending on Christmas day.  I love how they generate discussion of Jewish law and tradition, pre-Christ.  The chapters end with a brief but insightful reflection for practical life application.  The author does a wonderful job of weaving the characters together through adventures and exciting situations that will keep the kids on the edges of their seats.
Finally, although this is definitely a more secularized Christmas story, it is entirely too cute to pass up for the little ones in your home.  However, it is not exempt of meaning.  Kids will easily pick up on the themes of friendship, thoughtfulness, sharing, joy, sacrifice and encouragement.  It is also a nice introduction to naming animals most of us don't see every day such as a mole, a badger and a crow.  The illustrations of the bear rekindled my understanding of why teddy bears have been such a popular stuffed animal for children to own for generations.

I hope that you enjoy this short list of titles and are able to find most of them in your local library, discount book store or perhaps they will be gifted to you.  Most of all, I hope you savor the time you have to read to your little ones (and big ones - my older boys still love picture books!)

Please share any books that are meaningful to you with us.  We will be posting again next year, and would love to share your ideas with others!

You may have tangible wealth untold:
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be - 
I had a mother who read to me.
~ Strickland Gilllilan

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Baby Changes Everything

Oh how easy it is to get swept under by the tidal waves of shopping, cooking, parties and planning.  Somehow we have to seek out and rest in the quiet, the mystery, the sacred - the calm waters. Advent, my friends, is a time of preparation for Jesus, an anticipation, a longing for his coming.  All of our pre-holiday efforts can only sing of Jesus if indeed it is Jesus who has our hearts, our attention, and our intentions.  O come, O come, Emmanuel!!

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Thrill of the Hunt

Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment. Cares I knew not, and cared naught about them. ~John James Audubon 

Since the beginning of time, man's adventures, whether in work or play, have been driven by an innate desire to succeed, to provide for and to protect others, and to conquer. Without such desires, man would not and could not survive. One such aspect of survival is the hunting of animals. While it is not necessary for most of us today to hunt for our food, many people still enjoy the quests of hunting and fishing so as to enjoy the simple, yet rare pleasure, of dining on their rewards. And, although some consider the popularized notion that hunting is cruel to animals, I have only to ask those individuals where exactly their shiny new leather shoes and handbags have come from?? God has ordered creation for a reason, and he did not make man and animal least that's how my bible reads.

Teaching children not only about the order of creation, but also about the beauty of nature and how God has provided for His people since the beginning of time through nature is an important element in education. An element that can be vital in forming a child's vision of stewardship, respect and responsibility for creation, and dedication to the preservation of our beautiful world. As the boys are all gaining an interest in hunting, one of the tools we recently used to emphasize our instruction on respect for God's creation, was a clip from the great film, The Last of the Mohicans.  

Last week our eldest son, Benedict, experienced for the first time the thrill capturing his first buck. Setting out on an early frosty morning, filled to the brim with waffles and hot chocolate, he walked along side his dad with determination and patience, hoping to scope and hunt a magnificent stag.  
It was an exhilarating experience for Ben on so many different levels.  From waking in the dark at 5:30 a.m., feasting on a huge breakfast, watching the sun come up over the frost covered fields and walking for hours with his dad, to eventually spotting the buck, taking aim and patiently waiting for the exact moment to pull the trigger, each layer played it's part in creating an unforgettable experience for him, and for his family as well.
Steve in an incredible teacher and mentor.  Whether in sports, school, faith life or the practical work life of the farm, he has a way of connecting with all of our sons, forming them and developing their interests and enthusiasm for future adventures.  I know that I am blessed to have a husband who is deeply interested in the lives and souls of our children!
With Andrew, George and Henry all planning their own big hunt with dad, I can see a future filled with father-son hunting trips.  God bless Sara Palin, but this Mama will not be tagging along!

I am happy now, to recall that I was not only his son but his companion, and whenever there was a hunting expedition or any other pleasure, I was always with him.  ~John Philip Sousa

For those who may be curious, we did give the "rewards" of the hunt to a neighboring family who was happy to receive our gift...of course Benedict asked for the antlers.  They'll look splendid mounted on the wall in the boys' Star Wars room.  So much for decorative control!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

If the Boot Fits...

This is our three year old son, Henry.

He's funny, sweet, ornery, and a bit like having twins, because when it comes to dismantling the house, he does the damage of two.

We have been incredibly entertained by Henry this past year.  His funny phrases, mannerisms, expressions are priceless.

Henry is "all boy," as we like to say. If dad is working under a tractor, he's right beside him with tools in hand.  In his sweet little mind, there is always something to be hunted, and nearly everything can be made into a gun - coat hangers, Legos, kitchen get the picture.

He's also hopelessly attached to his boots. "Bobby boots" in Henry terms.
 They are like an added appendage to his little body. Boots to Henry are like basic black to the fashion-conscious - they go with everything. Everything.

Dinosaur Long-Johns for instance.
He's clearly ready at a moments notice to answer the door should anyone happen to be visiting our remote farm at 7:00a.m.

Next up, undies (with a pajama top, of course).  I mean, why waste time putting on pants when we don't have neighbors, and it's an unfortunate 85 degree fall day??  Practicality must be recognized here.
 Caught ya - red handed!
So, you thought you could get away with wearing those boots to football practice, did ya?  Seriously, gym shorts and boots? Clearly I'm not connecting the dots here....
Then, there are days when the stars are in line, the sign of the moon is favorable, and the boots match the outfit. Even though the boots have managed to find a cow patty. Nice.
According to Henry's rule, one shoe fits all - outfits that is.  Henry, dear sweet Henry, if becoming a Monk is in your future, rest-assured surrendering worldly goods and embracing the virtue of simplicity will  not be a monumental feat  for long as the Abbot gives you the thumb's-up on wearing cowboy boots with your cassock!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

School - Spooky Style

Educating at home can display a variety of approaches unique to each family who chooses this "road less traveled."  For us, structure and schedule is important, but I love to mix it up with field trips, experiments, themed-lessons and hands on experiences.  Holidays and feast days always present perfect opportunities for  such creativity.  And, surprisingly, I think the boys learn the most on the "unschool" days.

Since moving to a farm 30 miles from the "local" homeschool network, opportunities to school with others are less frequent.  Last Friday the boys were delighted to have their cousins out of school, so they joined us for a Halloween themed morning of lessons.
It's always important to begin a lesson with at least 2 seriously qualified teachers.  Ahem.
Ghosts - a most appropriate theme.
Ghosts can be so yummy, especially when they are white-chocolate-covered banana ghosts!
Granny came over to lead story time.  She must have cast a spell on the hooligans to get them all to sit still and listen! Teach us your tricks, Granny!
Slimy science.  Green goo is so much fun! I love it when they don't realize they are learning!
There's a thoughtful one in every bunch.  Thank you George, for reducing my laundry load this week. (Actually, Mom, most days I just prefer to be half-naked.)
Halloween misfits 2010 - well educated misfits, that is. :)