Girls’ Book Club: “The Last Holiday Concert”

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The girls’ book club met this week, and it was all about Christmas as we talked about Andrew Clements’ The Last Holiday Concert
It’s a great story about a boy who ends up in charge of his middle school’s holiday concert just as the music teacher is laid off.  We had a great discussion about the teacher’s reaction to the news, the way that the teacher motivates his students and is ultimately inspired by them, and then about ways to bring hope and joy to others, since that ended up being the message chosen by the students for their program.

The girls each made brainstormed ideas for things to spread those particular messages around town, and then we chose a few common themes to put into action right away.

Book Club

We started off with a foam kit for making snowmen.  We decided to turn them into Christmas cards, and the girls wrote messages of hope on them.  Some were handwritten on the back, while others had foam-sticker messages right on the snowmen’s tummies.

Book Club


My Big Helper and My Little Man are passing out these cards to people as we’re out and about this month.  Grocery store clerks, restaurant wait staff, fellow shoppers – anybody might get a ‘Merry Christmas!” and be handed a snowman.  Most people seem pleasantly surprised, and some quite happy, to be handed a card.

Book Club

The girls also rolled out some gingerbread I had made ahead.  They took turns cutting out cookies and ornaments both.

Book Club

Then they wrapped the bottoms of a few pizza boxes with Christmas paper, a project that turned out to be much harder than expected.

Book Club

After baking the cookies, they painted them with happy messages in a white icing and filled the trays.  We delivered one tray to our local fire department and the other to the library we visit.  Both were met with happy smiles.

The gingerbread ornaments were decorated with simple white paint and red ribbons.  These, like the snowmen ornaments, we’re passing out to people we meet.

While time didn’t allow for putting together their own concert or Christmas performance, the girls did a great job of choosing activities that would spread hope to the people we meet this season.  I wish that we could have passed out their creations together, but time didn’t allow for that, either.  Instead, I heard lots of giggles as they learned to roll out the gingerbread, attempted to paint icing only where they wanted it, and tried to get snowman arms to stick only to snowman bodies. 

Book Club

They are many activities that you could do with Andrew Clements’ The Last Holiday Concert, and these are only a few.  If you’re a fan of Clements’ and his creative takes on school activities, you’ll love The Last Holiday Concert.

Book Clubbing on the Orphan Train: “A Family Apart”

Disclosure Pic

This month’s girls’ book club selection was one I’ve had for years:  about twenty years, in fact.  We read A Family Apart by Joan Lowry Nixon, the first in the Orphan Train Adventure series.

The story opens in New York City with an Irish family whose father has died.  Ma is trying hard to keep everyone fed and clothed, but when one of the boys makes a poor choice, she gives them all to Reverend Brace-Loring, who sends them west on the Orphan Train for new homes and better lives.  A Family Apart is about the adventures of Frances, the oldest sister in the family, as she struggles to adjust to life on a Midwestern farm.

Book Club

Frances encounters an abundance of food not found in her New York tenement, and so we baked one of those dishes:  an apple pie.  We used Grandma’s recipe and made it just as she taught me – which is how her grandma taught her.  Counting back all those years, that puts this recipe originating at about the same time as when Frances enjoyed it!

None of the girls had ever peeled an apple before, so that was our first adventure.  It took some practice to get it right, but they soon conquered the piles of apples we needed.

After mixing up the crust, they took turns rolling it out and assembling the pies.

Book Club

Doesn’t it look yummy?

Book Club

Next we went outside to write letters to Frances’ Ma.  Throughout the book, Frances is angry with her mother for ending her west, and the theme of sacrifice is discussed from many angles.  The girls pretended to be Frances at the end of the story, when she has gained some understanding of this difficult concept, and wrote to Ma to explain.

Book Club

Frances had a lot going on in the story, though, and missing her mother didn’t top the list.  She had to learn how to live on the frontier, and for a city girl, that was difficult.  One of her new chores was to milk the family cow. 

Book Club

The girls practiced on these gloves.  They raced to see who could milk their ‘gloves’ fastest.

Book Club

Then, since one of the early chores was to then carry the milk, the girls grabbed the handles of their ‘pails’ and ran it around the yard, trying not to spill any of their milk.

Book Club

We also talked about the Pony Express and how it worked.  To simulate that, the girls donned messenger bags, straddled bamboo poles, and formed teams to compete in a relay race, Pony Express style.

Book Club

By the time they had done all of that, the pies were out of the oven and ready to eat. 

Book Club

It didn’t last long, though – the girls devoured that pie!

Book Club

We had lots of fun celebrating A Family Apart.  There are many more threads to tug if you choose to read this book.  I’d love to hear what you choose to do!

How to Make a Volcanic Dinosaur Cake

Currently Our Little Man is a dino fanatic, and so of course he wanted a dinosaur cake for his birthday this year.
I like to make their cakes as 3-D as possible, so rather than having a flat cake shaped like a dinosaur, I was dreaming of ways to make a gigantic T-Rex head.  Parts of it seemed like fun – cut marshmallows for teeth, layered marshmallows and gumballs for eyes, cut fruit leather for stripes – but how to keep the head from falling over from the weight of the extended jaws?  That one had me stumped.
And so, since he also likes volcanoes, I went with a dinosaur scene.  This was MUCH simpler than scissor-like teeth would have been, and he was fascinated with the dinosaurs in different scenes throughout the cake.
The fact that the dinos were removeable and became playthings after eating the cake – well, after licking washing off the ganache didn’t hurt.


So here’s how to make your own Volcanic Dinosaur Cake:
  • You’ll need two cakes – one cake in a 9X13″ pan and another half cake in a small oven-safe bowl.  You’ll want the cake to come 2/3 of the way up the bowl and for the bowl to be slightly wider at the rim than at the base.  I used a Betty Crocker peanut butter cake recipe for the flat cake and divided my Goofy Cake recipe in half for the bowl.
  • Mix each cake as directed.  Line the bottom of the flat pan with a piece of waxed paper.  Spray or butter well the bowl.  
  • Bake the cakes as directed until the center is springy.  For the Goofy Cake, this will take between 40 – 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
  • Let the cakes rest on a wire rack until just cool enough to handle, then remove carefully from the pans.  Chill.
  • Invert the flat cake onto a jelly roll pan to create a flat surface to work with.
  • Spread a thin layer of peanut butter onto the top of the cake.  This helped prevent the ganache from soaking into the cake.  (If you chill both the cake and the ganache completely, you won’t have this problem, but I hurried a bit.  Ultimately, it ended up tasting like a Tasty Cake – yum!)
  • At the point where the bowl cake begins to dome – the part that baked on top – slice this dome off in one flat cut.
  • Mix one batch of cheesecake filling – recipe below – and one batch of thick chocolate ganache to use as glue for holding pieces together and for decorating the tops of the cakes.  Tint the cheesecake filling red for lava.
  • Put the cheesecake filling into a sandwich bag and cut off one corner about 1/3 of an inch from the end.  
  • Pipe some cheesecake filling onto one corner of the cake.  This will serve as glue to hold the “volcano” in place.
  • Put the bottom of the bowl cake upside down on top of the cheesecake filling.
  • Top with another squirt of cheesecake.
  • Top that with the piece you cut off.  This will give your volcano a higher, domed top.  Angle the sides, if necessary, to create the proper shape.  I also cut a small hole in the top of the dome to create the “hole” inside the volcano.
  • Pipe some cheesecake filling around the volcano’s mouth and in rivulets running down the sides.  Use a knife to create ‘flowing’ patterns in the lava.
  • Add interest to the landscape.  Use marshmallows or other candies in various sizes and shapes as “boulders” strategically placed across your landscape.  If you want to add fossils, this is the time!  I planned to use pretzel sticks to create a dino skeleton under the mud, but I found fossil toys at the Dollar Tree, so I used one of those, instead.  If you look closely, you can see it in the lower left-hand corner of the cake.  My son was particularly excited about this feature.
  • The ganache should be chilled and slightly thickened by now.  It will pour well but thicken more in the refrigerator, so keep in mind that it will firm up and not run after you finish.  Begin to ladle the ganache over the volcano and landscape, being careful to avoid the lava-covered areas.  Ladle the ganache-mud over anything that you want to be earth-colored.
  • Chill your cake until serving time.
  • Add your toy dinosaurs.  Use their feet to make extra tracks across the top of the cake.  Don’t forget to place some in fun places, like on the sides of the volcano and on your candy boulders!
  • Twisty candles make for explosive volcanoes!  Place a few in your cheesecake-lined “hole” and light for a fun, action-packed cake. 
Cheesecake Filling:
  • Mix 8 ounces of softened cream cheese with 1/4 c. of powdered sugar.  Tint as desired.
Chocolate “Mud” Ganache:
  • Put 1 c. of chocolate chips into a heat-safe bowl.
  • Heat 3/4 c. of heavy cream until hot – but not boiling – and then pour quickly over the chocolate.  
  • Whisk until smooth.
  • Let cool until room temperature – at least – before using on a cake.
**Both of these elements must be refrigerated!  If using these in a cake, be sure to plan how you will keep it chilled and safe.

Do you make your children’s birthday cakes?  Do you do shapes or 3-D varieties?

Whole Wheat Strawberry Shortcake

Whole Wheat Strwberry Shortcake

When I was a kid, I always dissected my shortcake.  I could never figure out why anyone would want to ruin perfectly good berries with cake – and vice versa.  Now, however, I love this combination!
This shortcake is easier than most, and it’s pretty healthy, too.  The texture is not quite as light as one made with white flour and white sugar, but the flavor is all there.  It works incredibly well with the sweetness of the strawberries.  Whipped cream or ice cream would make a great topping, but my family often ate this in a bowl and just poured milk over the whole thing.  My Big Helper is pretty fond of that version!
Whole Wheat Strawberry Shortcake
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3261 calories
519 g
636 g
110 g
61 g
65 g
1118 g
1485 g
224 g
4 g
36 g
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size
Amount Per Serving
Calories 3261
Calories from Fat 970
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 110g
Saturated Fat 65g
Trans Fat 4g
Polyunsaturated Fat 7g
Monounsaturated Fat 29g
Cholesterol 636mg
Sodium 1485mg
Total Carbohydrates 519g
Dietary Fiber 11g
Sugars 224g
Protein 61g
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
  1. 3/4 c. honey
  2. 1/2 t. salt
  3. 2 eggs
  4. 1 c. milk
  5. 1/2 c. melted butter
  6. 2 t. vanilla
  7. 3 c. white-wheat flour
  8. 4 t. baking powder
  1. Mix well.
  2. Pour into a greased 11 X 13" pan.
  3. Bake for 35 minutes at 375 degrees.
A Nest in the Rocks
How do you like to eat shortcake?

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies

I’m a cookie fanatic.  Really.  There’s something wonderful about a small, snackable dessert – and even more so about this one.  With whole wheat flour and healthy(er) oils, I feel better about making these for my family on a regular basis.  These cookies are rich and decadent in spite of that, though, and you’ll never miss all that processed stuff!

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yields 3
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Cook Time
12 min
Cook Time
12 min
1496 calories
186 g
218 g
73 g
29 g
34 g
341 g
1140 g
104 g
1 g
32 g
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size
Amount Per Serving
Calories 1496
Calories from Fat 635
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 73g
Saturated Fat 34g
Trans Fat 1g
Polyunsaturated Fat 9g
Monounsaturated Fat 23g
Cholesterol 218mg
Sodium 1140mg
Total Carbohydrates 186g
Dietary Fiber 8g
Sugars 104g
Protein 29g
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
  1. 1/2 c. butter
  2. 1/2 c. peanut butter
  3. 1 c. brown sugar
  4. 1/2 t. salt
  5. 1 t. baking soda
  6. 1 t. vanilla
  7. 2 eggs
  8. 2 1/4 c. whole wheat flour
  9. 1 c. chocolate chips or dark chocolate M&Ms
  1. Cream the peanut butter, butter, and brown sugar.
  2. Stir in salt, baking soda, and vanilla.
  3. Add eggs and beat until shiny.
  4. Stir in flour.
  5. Stir in chocolate.
  6. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
  7. Bake for about 12 minutes at 350.
  1. I usually double this recipe. One batch just isn't enough to have and to share!
A Nest in the Rocks
Are you a white or wheat flour person?

Springtime Strawberry Pie

We made a strawberry pie to take to church last week.  It’s super simple but full of fresh flavor, and it’s even pretty good for you.  Full of fresh flavor, this pie tastes like spring!  We had a total of 45 minutes to get our church potluck offerings ready, and in that time we made a pan of Pizza Casserole and this pie.
My Big Helper tried to talk me into letting her eat four pieces in the space of about twelve hours.  If anybody can eat that much pie, it must be good!
So here’s how to make your own Springtime Strawberry Pie.
  • 6 c. strawberries, divided
  • 3 T. cornstarch
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 1/2 c. honey
  • 1 pie shell, homemade baked or prepared graham cracker
  • 1 c. whipping cream
You can have this pie pulled together in minutes.  Here’s how:
  1. Whip the cream into whipping cream.  Even though my cream was cold, my KitchenAid had this whipped up in under five minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, wash and slice 2 cups of strawberries.  Put into your prepared pie shell and spread out evenly.
  3. Puree the other four cups of berries.  
  4. Add the cornstarch, water, and honey.  
  5. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil for two minutes or until color becomes more transparent.
  6. Slowly pour the strawberry mixture over the sliced berries in the pie shell.
  7. Chill.
  8. When the pie is completely cool, top with whipped cream.
What’s your favorite kind of pie?

Chocolate Whoopie Pies

Whoopie Pies

When I was a kid in Pennsylvania these were my favorite treat.  My mom used to make big batches, wrap them individually in waxed paper, and hide them in tins all over the house.  When she was at work, Dad and I would hunt for them.  I distinctly remember finding a tin of whoopie pies waaayyyy in the back of their closet – and another deep in the freezer.  Those we ate even before they thawed – just let them hang out beside the wood stove for a bit and then ate them frozen.  Yum!

While Mom didn’t make them nearly as often as I would’ve liked – I wouldn’t have, either, at the rate we went through them – whoopie pies can be found at every Amish stand, market, or store at home in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania (home of Belleville, the purest white top community in the world).  Some markets even have them in different flavors, but the basic chocolate remains my favorite.

Since my Big Helper’s book club is meeting this week to discuss Suzanne Woods Fisher’s Life with Lily, we decided to study Amish culture this month.  Today we made my great-grandmother’s Chocolate Whoopie Pies.

These whoopie pies are chocolatey and moist.  They don’t rise up super high, but they definitely grow in the oven, and that’s good – a tiny one just wouldn’t cut it.

I couldn’t get a picture of the actual mixing process – they were so excited that it flew by.  They were even happier to get their fingers into the icing, though!

Our finished product.
Chocolate Whoopie Pies
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8274 calories
1209 g
391 g
373 g
85 g
100 g
2196 g
4192 g
770 g
45 g
251 g
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size
Amount Per Serving
Calories 8274
Calories from Fat 3289
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 373g
Saturated Fat 100g
Trans Fat 45g
Polyunsaturated Fat 100g
Monounsaturated Fat 151g
Cholesterol 391mg
Sodium 4192mg
Total Carbohydrates 1209g
Dietary Fiber 42g
Sugars 770g
Protein 85g
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Cake Ingredients
  1. 2 c. sugar
  2. 1 c. shortening
  3. 2 egg yolks
  4. 4 c. flour
  5. 1 c. cocoa or a little less
  6. 1/2 t. salt
  7. 2 t. baking soda
  8. 1 t. baking powder
  9. 1 c. sour milk
  10. 3/4 c. hot water
Icing Ingredients
  1. 3 c. powdered sugar
  2. 2/3 c. shortening
  3. 2 t. vanilla
  4. pinch of salt
  5. 5 T. milk
  1. Cream sugar and shortening.
  2. Add egg yolks and beat well.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend slowly. (If you don't have any sour milk, you can put 1 T. of milk into a liquid measuring cup and then fill to the one-cup line with milk. Let it sit for 5 minutes, stir, and add.)
  4. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. Drop batter onto the parchment by the tablespoon. Leave 2 inches between each dollop - this batter will spread!
  6. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees F.
  7. Remove from tray onto a tea towel or cooling rack.
  8. When pies are completely cool, match them up with others their same size and shape.
  9. Fill each pair with icing. (To make the icing, cream all ingredients.) One batch of icing should be enough for one batch of whoopie pies.
  10. Store in an air-tight container.
  11. Try to keep some in that container. Go ahead- I dare you!
A Nest in the Rocks

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Brownies

My Little Man and I made these today, and there are only a few left!  We’ve been able to share some with friends, and some others with the people my husband works with, and we’ve eaten a few too many – we can’t seem to leave them alone!

Fortunately, these brownies are fairly healthy and jam-packed with flavor.  They taste like a rich pumpkin cake with chocolate thrown in.  YUM!

First, stir together the dry ingredients:

2 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. brown sugar
2 t. baking powder
2 t. cocoa powder
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. allspice
1/2 t, salt

In a separate bowl, blend the wet ingredients:

1 c. pumpkin puree (not pie filling)
4 eggs
2 T. vegetable oil

Slowly add the wet to the dry, stirring as you go.  Add 1 c. of chocolate chips when all mixed together, and spread in a greased 15″x 10″ jelly roll pan.  Bake for 15 – 20 minutes at 350.


Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

This time of year, we want to share with everybody.  My kids want to take cookies to the firefighters and their favorite librarian and the mailman and every clerk at every store they meet.

While I like their giving attitude, that’s a lot of baking.  And while I love to bake, during December I also need to decorate and make presents and wrap presents and teach and … well, you know the drill.

So while we are going to bake and share cookies, sometimes we get the idea to share them faster than we can decorate them, and that’s where these cookie bars come in.  They’re homemade, taste great, and easy to mix up.  They even bake quickly, so soon you’ll be slicing and bagging them to take to your very favorite community helpers.

So, if you find yourself with more people to gift than time to make presents, try out these cookie bars.

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars
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4418 calories
577 g
693 g
204 g
68 g
124 g
1008 g
2910 g
335 g
4 g
63 g
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size
Amount Per Serving
Calories 4418
Calories from Fat 1815
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 204g
Saturated Fat 124g
Trans Fat 4g
Polyunsaturated Fat 11g
Monounsaturated Fat 52g
Cholesterol 693mg
Sodium 2910mg
Total Carbohydrates 577g
Dietary Fiber 19g
Sugars 335g
Protein 68g
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
  1. 1/2 c. butter
  2. 3/4 c. brown sugar
  3. 2 eggs
  4. 1 t. baking soda
  5. 1 t. vanilla
  6. 2 1/4 c. white-wheat flour
  7. 1/2 t. salt
  8. 2 c. chocolate chips
  1. Cream the butter, brown sugar, and vanilla.
  2. Add eggs and beat well.
  3. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.
  4. Gradually beat into the creamed mixture.
  5. Stir in the chocolate chips.
  6. Spread the batter in a greased 9X13" pan.
  7. Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes.
  1. These are even more festive with M&Ms instead of chocolate chips, too!
A Nest in the Rocks
What’s your favorite foodie gift?

Black Magic Cake

I think I’ve found a new favorite cake.

When I saw this recipe over at My Baking Addiction, I knew that I had to try it.  You can’t go wrong with Hershey’s!

Moist and chocolate-y, decadent and rich, this is not your average chocolate cake.  Made in several layers, it looks fancy enough for a party, yet it’s actually quite simple to make.  My Big Helper actually played a big part in the creation of our version!

Black Magic CakeTo make this yummy confection, you’ll need these ingredients:

Hershey’s Black Magic Cake Ingredients:

  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1 3/4 c. white-wheat flour               
  • 3/4 c. Hershey’s cocoa 
  • 2 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 c. buttermilk or sour milk
  • 1 cup hot chocolate                                       
  • 1/2 c. vegetable oil
  • 1 t. vanilla
Faux – Cheesecake Filling Ingredients:
  • 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 3/4 c. powdered sugar
Chocolate Ganache:
  • 1/2 c. heavy cream
  • 1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
Ready to pull this cake together?  It’s just this easy:
  1. Preheat your oven to 350 and line two round cake pans with waxed paper.
  2. Mix the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together.
  3. Add the eggs, milk, coffee or hot chocolate, oil, and vanilla to the dry ingredients and mix well.
  4. Pour evenly into the prepared pans and bake for 30-35 minutes.
  5. Cool cakes completely.
  6. While cakes are cooling, mix the softened cream cheese with the powdered sugar.
  7. When cakes are cool, remove from pans.  Spread cream cheese mixture on the bottom of one cake layer.
  8. Top with the second cake layer, right side up.
  9. Put the chocolate chips into a heat-safe bowl (I like to use a good batter bowl) and pour the cream into a small saucepan.  Heat the cream over medium heat until bubbles just begin to form – do not let it boil!  Pour hot cream immediately over chocolate chips and whisk until smooth.
  10. Let ganache cool for 10 minutes and then pour over the assembled cake.
  11. Store any leftover cake in the refrigerator.
Black Magic Cake @ A Nest in the Rocks
How much chocolate can you handle?