Christmas Is: Hot Chocolate!

Anyone who has read a post or two of mine may know of my life-long fascination with trains real and miniature. I have dreamed of living in the days when steam locomotives carried freight and passengers across the country. I was born just a few years too late.

Imagine my excitement when I discovered 1225, the Berkshire class Baldwin Steam Locomotive owned by the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan.

The beautiful locomotive was destined for the scrap pile many years ago when it was rescued by a group of dreamers who hoped to restore it to steam glory. Although the original rescuers did not see their hopes fulfilled, they were the first step in a long journey that ultimately gave the incredibly restored 1225 to the thousands of steam train fans waiting for a ride, including me. Little did those early dreamers know that one day this special locomotive would be used to provide the train sound track for the popular Christmas movie, “The Polar Express.”

I have enjoyed the incredible thrill of riding the “Polar Express” twice. The first time, our daughter and her two young sons and I took the trip. Several years ago my wife and I rode the train to the small Christmas Village in Ashley, Michigan. What a thrill to feel the power of the huge locomotive pulling us to our destination.

If you have seen The Polar Express, you are very familiar with the scene in the rail car with all the children in their pajamas as the dancing and singing waiters serve piping hot chocolate to all the kids. Christmas is hot chocolate!

Hot chocolate has been part of our family forever, and probably yours too. In the old days real hot chocolate was made by heating milk in a pan on the stove, and then adding chocolate syrup or Nestle’s Quik. My favorite was made by mixing Hershey’s Cocoa powder with sugar, stirring in a little warm milk and then adding it to the pan of steaming hot milk. Delicious!

I remember many Sunday nights after church my grandmother came home with us while our parents went out with friends. We always enjoyed hot chocolate and toast while watching Bonanza! For you young ones, Bonanza was a weekly television series about the Cartwright family, Ben (the father), Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe (played by Michael Landon of Little House on the Prairie fame.)

I am such a fan of hot chocolate, I even enjoy it from vending machines. Now that’s a hard-core hot chocolate lover. I hate to admit this, but I have even ordered hot chocolate at Starbucks! Don’t tell anyone. No one goes to Starbucks for hot chocolate, but I have.

Like all mochas from Starbucks, hot chocolate has to be enjoyed hot-hot. There is no such thing as good tepid hot chocolate. For a while, every time I stopped at Starbucks I ordered my mocha at 190 degrees. Literally! One time the barista handed me my cup and said, “Here’s your insanely hot mocha.” Now the “extra-hot” option is hot enough.

After thirty-one years in my previous career, I returned to university to acquire teacher certification which meant 1 1/2 years of classes including a year of student teaching at a middle school. Upon graduation I continued substitute teaching and returned to school again to complete a Master’s Degree in Educational and Professional Counseling. I had the incredible privilege of being a middle school counselor for five years before retiring for real. I told the principle who hired me I felt like I had been preparing for this position for the last forty years. My wife and I retired from the same school district, and both of us miss our family of colleagues at school.

One of the joys we experienced at school was serving the most amazing hot chocolate I have ever had. Each Christmas our lead secretary prepared for us what actually should be its own food group. This raised the term “hot chocolate” to a whole new level. The ingredients included a bag of dark chocolate chips, a can of sweetened condensed milk, a quart of whipping cream, and two gallons of whole milk. It was my privilege to serve each of our teachers a steaming cup of this tasty drink topped with peppermint marsh mellows. The crock-pot of hot chocolate was heating up in our back office, so it was my responsibility, obviously, to do a taste-check periodically since my office was just a few steps away.

Many years ago, my wife’s mother introduced us to home-made hot chocolate mix which we still use. It’s easy to make and we love it. I pour two packages of Carnation Powdered Milk in a large decorative jar. I then add a little more than half of a large jar of Coffee-Mate, then a bag of Ghirardelli Hot Chocolate mix. I shake it up in the jar until everything is mixed together. We keep a scoop in the jar. Boiling water added to one-third cup of mix (give or take according to taste) will give you a delicious cup of hot chocolate. Dropping a small candy-cane into the cup adds just the right amount of peppermint flavor.

Christmas has a magical way of bringing us back to the simple things that matter. Hot chocolate is one of those things that, if you let it, will help you rekindle what makes Christmas Christmas.

Here’s to another cup of great hot chocolate!

Christmas Is: Baking

Last year I made a terrible horrible mistake. And it seemed like such a good idea. Who doesn’t like Oreo cookies? We don’t have them all the time but when we do they don’t last long. I remember when I was in middle school I had a friend whose name happened to be Dale. I stayed overnight at his house a few times and his mom always placed a bowl of Oreo cookies on the table during breakfast. Breakfast! A bowl of Oreo cookies on the table right next to the box of Cheerios. I couldn’t believe it!

Well, what could be better than Oreo cookies dipped in white chocolate? Let me tell you, I now realize there are lots and lots of things better than Oreos dipped in white chocolate. They were nasty.

In fact, a few days after Christmas, out of sheer boredom and the realization that only two of the thirty-six white chocolate dipped Oreos had been eaten, I stood over the wastebasket with a knife and scraped all the white chocolate off the Oreos. Several of them didn’t survive the surgery and had to be eaten immediately.

For any who are upset already because I called this post “Christmas Is: Baking” instead of something about the spiritual implications of the season, relax.

Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people, even the ones who despise the whole notion of decorating trees, hanging wreaths and lights, paying huge hangover credit card bills in January, and listening to endless renditions of Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer on the radio. Whatever. Christmas is baking.

Think about it. Are there goodies that are baked at your house that you may not have at any other time? Would Christmas be the same to you if they were missing?

When I was growing up my mother made delicious pecan pies I didn’t like. They looked so good and everyone raved about them. It wasn’t until we lived in Texas many years later I suddenly discovered the delicious wonder that is pecan pie. It was Christmas, so there was pecan pie.

Coffee cake is another one. Coffee cake is a tradition in our family that began about the time the Lamberts arrived in America from Germany in the 1800s. The Stocktons were already here and when the two met, coffee cake was born and has been with us ever since. My coffee cake is better than my mother used to make, and that’s saying a bunch. If there is no coffee cake, it isn’t Christmas.

Christmas cookies! Hours are spent in the kitchen mixing, shaping, cutting, baking, and decorating amazing Christmas cookies. Frustration rears its ugly head when the cookie cutters have sharp corners that refuse to release the cookie dough and instead tear the creation apart.

I don’t understand the whole fascination with ginger-bread houses. Ginger snaps aren’t a favorite, the taste reminds me of a remedy we were forced to ingest when we didn’t feel well which always lead to losing our cookies, if you know what I mean. Lots of people love to decorate ginger-bread houses which most often end up looking something like an underinflated innertube.

Fruit cake! Has there ever been a more misguided name given to anything that is supposed to be edible? Fruit cake is like the Chia-Pet and Clapper. On December 26th every trace is gone. It’s like what happens to round-the-clock Christmas songs on the radio. At midnight on Christmas all vestiges of the season are replaced with the station’s money maker music. Fruit cake is the boat anchor that has finally made it’s way out of the lake and onto the dessert table. Fruit cake is mystery. No one knows where it comes from, who makes it, what’s in it. But it’s not Christmas if there’s no fruitcake.

Really, Christmas is not pies, coffee cake, decorated cookies, ginger bread houses or fruitcake. Christmas is baking which means there is time in the kitchen with members of the family we might not be with at any other time of the year.

Christmas is baking because we reconnect with so many thoughts and feelings of special things as delicious aromas fill the air.

Christmas is baking. It’s such a simple thing but works wonders of togetherness.

A Week on Mackinac Island, a Boy’s Dream Come True

The closest he had ever been to the Island was the Mackinac Bridge. Twice during family trips to Marquette to visit friends. Twice on the way to Wawa, Ontario for fishing and hunting.

It was actually his father who did all the hunting and most of the fishing. The hunting wasn’t successful and the fishing wasn’t much better. To be honest, there were actually three trips to Wawa. One hunting, and two fishing. The second fishing trip lasted one day. His father, for reasons only a person with concrete for brains would understand, decided it would be a good idea to include the young boy’s mother and little sister on the trip he knew would include blood-sucking black flies and an outdoor toilet. What could go wrong? The family spent one night in the cabin, packed everything up and returned home the following day.

It was the summer of 1964. This time, instead of heading to a cabin in the middle of nowhere with only vampire flies to greet them, the family’s destination was Mackinac Island. The family had a friend who was a Michigan State Trooper, a man the young boy loved and admired. That summer, the Trooper was assigned by the Michigan State Police to be part of the law enforcement staff on Mackinac Island. Not only would the boy’s family be staying on the Island, their accommodations would actually be inside the big fort on top of the hill, Fort Mackinac!

For an entire week, the boy and his older brother were free to roam the Island, and roam they did! The Trooper arranged for the two boys to use bicycles from the police department. One belonged to the Chief of Police! Since the boys had never been to the Island before, everything was new and had to be explored.

Every day there was a different fudge shop to visit. The boys quickly discovered there were samples to be enjoyed. Horses, buggies, wagons, people and bicycles crowded the streets. The shops were endless, lots of great things to want. The boys wandered the Island and loved the long ride around it. At first, it seemed like the bike trip would never end, but just when it seemed like they couldn’t go any farther, they were back in town.

There was an odor in the air that was different, but not unpleasant. Not having been around horses much before, the boy soon discovered the source of the fragrance. The horses didn’t seem to mind, so why should he?

The boy never wanted to go home. There was so much to love about Mackinac Island it seemed to make perfect sense the family should stay forever. There were lots of people working, his father could get a job, maybe driving one of the wagons, or carrying suitcases on a bicycle up to the big hotel on the hill. He remembered seeing a school, so he could just go there.

The day the boy dreaded finally came. His mother packed his suitcase and the family left the fort for the last time. They walked down the long pier toward the waiting ferry. He felt like his heart would break. He couldn’t stand the thought of leaving.

During the trip back to Mackinaw City, the boy’s mother said, “What’s the matter? I can read you like a book.”

“I just hate to leave the Island,” the boy said.

“Don’t you know all good things must come to an end?” his mother asked.

Somehow that didn’t make him feel any better.

Life has a way of making good things come back. And Mackinac Island, one of the greatest experiences of the young boy’s life has returned. Many times. Even though he’s much older now, he still feels the same way about the Island. There must be some way he and his wife could live there. Maybe he could drive one of the wagons, or carry suitcases on a bicycle up to the big hotel on the hill. He’s too old to be a Michigan State Trooper now, even though he had a deep desire to be a Trooper that started back in 1964.

A week just isn’t long enough for someone who loves Mackinac Island as much as this boy does. It never gets old. From the very first time he stepped foot on the Island that seemed so much like a dream, the dream stays new. Each time he steps off the ferry again, he is young, excited, and can’t wait to sample the fudge again.

Mackinac Island. Just can’t get enough.

They have great coffee there, too.

Discover Prompts Day 15: The Scent of Lilacs

In my mind, there is nothing more rewarding, after a very long, cold, dreary, mind-numbing, blustery, bone-chilling, limb-freezing, lip-cracking, brainless, heartless, endless, blizzard-loving winter than the scent of lilacs. Lilacs are the gift of spring. Lilacs call to us with welcoming words, “I’ve been waiting for you! You’re finally here! This amazing fragrance is just for you!”

In our area, lilac buds begin to open around the third week of April. It’s a dangerous time for them because the night temperatures can easily dip below freezing and damage the young blossoms. I have tried placing plastic over the bushes to protect them but found the plastic did more damage than the cold. Now I just leave them and hope for the best.

We have four young lilac bushes in our yard. We have taken lilacs with us when we moved in the past, as long as the plants weren’t too big. We were successful with most of them. At our last house we had a beautiful lavender color bush that produced gorgeous blossoms every year. We had moved it from our previous house, but it became so large we had to leave it when we moved again.

When lilacs are young they have to be watered often. It’s important for the small roots to stretch out thoroughly. Soon the plant will thrive and be able to gather enough moisture without constant care. The leaves are beautiful, but nothing matches the beauty and scent of the flowers.

The sad part about the lilac blossom is that they do not last very long. Once the clusters are fully open, the flowers will last about a week, maybe a little longer. We carefully cut some to enjoy indoors.

Our favorite flower colors are white and lavender. There are several different varieties of lilacs, and I can’t name them. I just know the ones we like best, not by the name, but by the appearance of the blossom. There is a variety with a deep lavender and white blossom that does not have the strong fragrance of the lighter lavender and the white. Even the white does not have the rich fragrance of the lavender, but it is still amazing.

Lilac bushes love to spread, and depending on the variety can grow quite tall. If you do not want the bush to spread out, you will want to clip or move the young plants that begin to appear in the ground around the main bush. You can dig out the young shoots and replant them. With plenty of water and good soil, they will develop roots and grow.

Of course, nothing goes better with the incredible scent of lilacs than a delicious cup of coffee. Coffee is the gift of every day like lilacs are the gift of spring.

Ruled by Coffee

So what is this obsession with coffee?  It’s actually my dear wife’s fault.  We started dating on March 5, 1971.  We’ve been together ever since.  It was Mary who helped me see the light, and gently led me to a life of coffee.

I actually had my first cup when I was five.  My mother was an obsessive coffee drinker, and she let me have a little antique cup filled mostly with milk, and a little coffee and sugar.  I was hooked, but it wasn’t until all of those years later that coffee finally took a permanent hold.  As school years progressed, I would come home and find the cups of cold coffee mom left all over the house, and I drank them, dust particles and all.

When Mary and I began dating, coffee became part of our companionship.  Everything went better with coffee.  Oh, I obviously liked it before, but having this new beautiful girl in my life just made coffee taste that much better.  It was just so special having a hot cup, with cream and sugar, with her.  No matter where we’ve been, coffee was part of the journey.

Now, so many years later, coffee is still a part of our home, and always will be.  Coffee answers so many important questions, it’s a wonder why there are actually people who not only don’t drink it, but can’t even stand the smell of it.  What questions?  Easy.  What should I do when I feel depressed?  Drink coffee.  When I’m happy?  Drink coffee.  When I’m bored?  Drink coffee.  When I’m confused?  Drink coffee.  Excited?  Coffee.  Broke? Coffee.  Sick?  Coffee.  Procrastinating? (Pay close attention here, this is a real important one.)  Yes.  Coffee.  Procrastinators, especially, understand the life-giving, redeeming, rescuing, obsolving qualities of coffee.

If you don’t believe me, just take a quick look at the multi-billion dollar coffee industry, just in the U.S. alone!  What are they selling?  It’s not just a drink, it is the coffee experience that no other beverage can provide.  Water sure doesn’t do it, soda can’t, fruit juices, nope, booze doesn’t even come close.  Coffee.  The coffee hounds realized that coffee mesmerizes, hypnotizes, solves, mends, heals, sedates, and fixes.

During the holiday season, it is coffee that makes the twinkling lights brighter, Christmas trees smell fresher, gift buying and present wrapping (ugh) fun!  Christmas would not be Christmas without coffee.  Forget the egg nog and champagne.  Forget the cases of soda.  Just go crank up the percolator, drip, press, osmosis, instant (what??!  No, never instant!) coffee.  Sit back, let the aroma lift you to new heights of joy.  Afterwards, there is only one thing left to say.

Can I have another cup?